Strange game, politics. Almost as soon as he came to office, Kevin Rudd was under attack by the Coalition and accused of being a China lover who was ignoring Australia’s old and good friend, Japan, because of his personal obsession with the totalitarian Chinese communist regime. How terrible it was that the Prime Minister should visit Beijing before Tokyo.

Before many months had passed, the Opposition sniping expanded into an attempt to suggest there was something distinctly unhealthy about the good and close contacts many others in the Labor party had with Chinese men and — heaven forbid — in one case with a mysterious and potentially Mata Hari-like Chinese woman. Visits to China were counted and the donations to Labor Party funds added up. The Defence Minister was eventually run out of office as the Rudd Government became concerned that some of this pro-China mud nonsense might eventually stick to its Mandarin-speaking leader.

Complicating matters for Prime Minister Rudd and his frequent China travelling Treasurer, Wayne Swan, was the attempt by the mining giant Rio Tinto to save itself from having paid too much for the Canadian aluminium company Alcan by getting the Chinese Government to bail it out with a multi-billion dollar capital investment that would have made it a substantial minority shareholder. Given all the Australian Opposition claims of Labor’s pro-China sympathies, and all the talk among economists at the time of how vital China had become to Australia escaping the ravages of recession, it would have been reasonable for the Chinese to expect that Treasurer Swan would have approved the deal.

That assumption was not put to the test when Rio Tinto showed that capitalists can be every bit as untrustworthy as communists by reneging on their deal when a better offer materialised. Messrs Rudd and Swan seemed to breathe a sigh of relief as they are cautious men who were not relishing having to make a hard decision. Both knew that their Coalition opponents had tapped into an underlying fear of China that has existed in Australia since the gold rush of 150 years ago.

Toss in a defence White Paper that suggested China was a potential long-term threat to this country and it is quite understandable that there be some confusion in China about how good a friend Labor actually was. The doubts would have increased after the arrest of four Rio Tinto employees for bribery and commercial spying when the Australian Government quickly caved in to pressure from the Opposition and abandoned its initial position that this was not an area where public comment — and certainly not public criticism — was helpful. Labor did nothing but feed the view pushed vigorously by Malcolm Turnbull that an evil Chinese regime was wrongly dealing with an innocent Australian citizen and his three equally innocent employees.

In the long term scheme of things, little of this probably matters. In the end it is the economic self interest of both countries that will dominate the relationship. The $50 billion Chinese purchase of liquefied natural gas is of far more significance than the diplomatic dissatisfaction shown by the cancellation of a visit to Canberra by Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei.

Politically at home the Opposition is not going to benefit from any Labor embarrassment. Any electoral advantage for Turnbull was coming from painting Rudd as the friend of China not, as he is currently doing, by suggesting that he is the Prime Minister who is ruining good Australia-China relations.

A strange country that USA. It is very strange to be an Australian looking at what passes for a health debate in the United States. It is just impossible to work out what all the passion is about. President Barack Obama’s proposals seem so sensible and moderate from the distance of Canberra, yet they are being treated by Republicans throughout America as if they would put an end to a free society. At least I can understand where the furious opposition to a government-owned health insurer of last resort being allowed into the market. The last thing the existing privately-owned-for-profit health insurers want is a competitor operating outside their comfortable club. The existing US health insurance system has none of the checks and balances we have in Australia where the Health Minister must approve premium increases and Obama has not proposed that the system be changed. Hence the importance put by many on the left of the Democratic Party — men and women who would fit quite comfortably in with the NSW Labor Party right wing — on the competitor being a vital component of the reform process.

The Japanese election action begins. The Japanese election campaign is now officially under way after 1374 candidates nominated for the two sections of the House of Representatives. Altogether there are 1139 candidates for single-seat electoral districts and 235 seeking one of the proportional representation seats, with that figure not including a few who are candidates in both sections. Altogether, 229 women — 17 per cent of the total — are standing as candidates, the highest number in the country’s history and a major increase from the 1347 women candidates at the last election in 2005.

The general expectation of newspaper commentators is that the Liberal Democratic Party, which has governed for all but 10 months of the past 55 years, is facing defeat. The Japan Times describes the LDP as facing one of its biggest-ever tests, while the Mainichi Daily News writes of the dramatic changes that would follow from a victory by the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. “If the DPJ takes over the reins of government and puts its campaign pledges into practice,” the Mainichi Daily‘s political editor Hiroto Kosuge wrote this week, “it would dramatically restructure the governing system in a bid to transform bureaucrat-dominated politics into one led by legislators. Specifically, the party plans to set up a national strategy bureau that would compile state budgets under the direct control of the prime minister, and abolish meetings of administrative vice-ministers. Moreover, the DPJ pledges to eliminate the waste of taxpayers’ money by realigning the budget, and review the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s mission in the Indian Ocean to refuel US and other military vessels engaged in the war against terror.”

The opinion polls are certainly pointing towards a change of government. The Asahi Shimbun poll shows the DPJ maintaining the comfortable lead it has now had for several months.

The assessment of the Crikey Election Indicator, based on some quite thin prediction markets, has the DPJ a 57% chance of providing the Prime Minister to the LDPs 43%.

Following the leader might not be easy In the cosy oligopoly that is Australian supermarket retailing it is where one of the big boys goes the others normally follow. Hence when Woolworths recently announced its decision to phase out the sale of cage produced eggs I expected that Coles and IGA would not be far behind in striking their own blows for animal liberation. So far that has not been the case which led me to do some internet reading into the way the chains have handled the move towards barn and free range laid eggs in other countries and I reckon I have discovered that Woolies has once again outsmarted its opposistion.

In the United States where the move towards cage-free eggs is a couple of years more advanced than here the retailers were caught out by the speed with which consumers made the change. The result, said a New York Times report back in August 2007, was big buyers found there were not enough alternative supplies to go around. Presumably Woolworths, before making its announcement, ensured that would not happen to them while it is exactly the predicament the other chains now find themselves in.

Looking haggard and grey. The strain on politicians from their hectic lifestyle is horrid to behold. Malcolm Turnbull is looking quite haggard and grey after less than a year in the firing line as Leader of the Opposition.

Boomers still puffing away. Maybe those baby boomers celebrating the 40 year anniversary of their Woodstock still have drug addled brains. Research out this week from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration shows increases in past year illicit drug use among persons aged 50 to 59 between 2002 and 2007 have been driven primarily by the aging of the baby boom cohort, which has a much higher lifetime illicit drug use rate than earlier cohorts, representing an increasing proportion of persons aged 50 to 59. Translated from the officialese that means more boomers are still getting stoned than any preceding generation.

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Peter Fray

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