Paul Kelly, John Howard and East Timor:

Tony Kevin writes: Re. “Howard and Kelly rewrite history on East Timor” (yesterday, item 9). I was disturbed by John Howard’s mendacious spin (via Paul Kelly) of the Timor history, and so I went back to a few good sources at the time: Laurie Oakes’ classic Bulletin cover story, “The Massacre We Had To Have”, (dated 21 September 1999, but published a few days before that) and the late Senator Peter Cook’s insightful speech as Opposition Leader in the Senate on 21 September 1999 (page 8493, Senate Hansard).

Cook quoted not only Oakes, but also Brian Toohey, and Robert Garran, Greg Sheridan, Louise Dodson and Peter Hartcher writing in that climactic fortnight between the vote result and the entry of the UN force. All paint a picture of a carelessly insouciant Australian government haplessly swept along by the events of 1999: and until very late in the story just not caring about the bloodshed on the way, because it was Timorese and not Australian lives that were being lost, and hoping in the end that “we might just be able to wing it” (a quote from an unnamed DFAT senior official) towards an independent East Timor without too much damage to Indonesian-Australian relations.

It was a bumbling, inconsistent and heartless diplomacy authorised by a gutless Prime Minister and conducted by a buffoonish Foreign Minister, who lied and prevaricated throughout 1999. To argue that Howard and Downer had a clever independence plan of their own all along, a plan which they concealed from the heads of the Departments of Defence and Foreign Affairs and the whole Canberra political and national security community, is to give way too much credit to these weakly drifting men — and is, frankly, just incredible to anyone who knows how information moves around Canberra.

Howard and Downer had no real plan: they were little corks bobbing along in the tide of history. They were finally forced into the UN intervention by Australian public outrage at the renewed post-election killings and destruction. DFAT, Defence and the ADF then worked at high speed to try to save something for the Timorese people, and for Australia’s honour, from the wreckage that was East Timor.

How could Kelly have fallen so uncritically for Howard’s self-justifying spiel now, when all his Press Gallery colleagues would know the truth from their own journalistic work at the time?

It seems that air-brushing the history of the Howard years is the fashion these days.

Lobbyists:

Tim Grau writes: Re. “Four to one: our lobbyist to MP ratio” (yesterday, item 1). Bernard Keane’s piece on lobbying in yesterday’s Crikey makes the point I have been making for some time.

As I noted in my submission to the Senate Inquiry. The Federal Government Lobbying Code and Register is a significant advancement in transparency and improving integrity in the public policy process. However, there are a number of important additional reforms that should be incorporated to better achieve the desired outcome of enhanced transparency, public confidence and integrity.

These include:

  • The need give the Code of Conduct legislative force;
  • Expansion of its application to cover all Members of Parliament, not just the Executive branch;
  • Changes to definitions relating to lobbyists and lobbying activities to include company in-house lobbyist, industry associations, accounting and law firms; and
  • Expansion of the reporting requirements to require lobbyists and companies to provide more information on the specific issues on which they have been lobbying. All lobbyists should be required to regularly provide a list of specific issues upon which they undertook lobbying activities for each client or entity. This should include to the maximum extent practical, a list of Bills, Acts, policies, programs, contracts, grants, regulations or appointments about which lobbying has occurred.

Sadly, neither the Government nor the Senate has seen fit to adopt these suggestions. Anna Bligh’s proposed reforms don’t go this far either as yet. In fact, a further reform that should now be considered given all State Governments now have their own Codes and Registers is a move to a national register. At the very least it will reduce the paperwork and red tape third-party lobbying firms now have to complete every quarter for 7 jurisdictions.

More importantly, it could enhance the onerous of disclosure too, by making the companies also required to report their activity rather than just lobbyists declaring their activity. In this way, it would then be more like the political donations regime where both the political party AND the donor must disclose their donation.

As I told the Senate inquiry the amount of lobby that is captured by the current arrangements is probably less than 10% by excluding in-house lobbyists. Even these reforms would still require less information to be provided than is currently provided under the US lobbying laws.

Here’s the link to the US Senate lobbying site. It is very detailed with the ability to search online who is lobbying about what. The irony is that it is easier to find out and get more detail about the lobbying that Australian companies, like Macquarie Bank, are doing in the US than you can get under the current Australian or any State regime.

Glen Frost writes: Your statistics miss one crucial point; you don’t need a lobbyist in England; you can hire the MP or Lord directly.

Fielding:

Stephen Lambert writes: Re. “Fielding, spelt h.o.p.e.l.e.s.s.” (yesterday, item 12). The only thing funnier than the audio that accompanied Bernard Keane’s story on the hopeless Senator Fielding was his own mangling of the opening sentence: “Steve Fielding has, he claims, a learning disability, once which apparently causes him to involuntarily mangle the English language.” Surely it has occurred more than once!

Chris Graham writes: Steve Fielding is living, breathing (but not necessarily thinking) proof that ATSIC did not have a monopoly on elected dysfunction (and let’s not forget Wilson Tuckey, Tony Abbott, Troy Buswell… The list goes on.)

David Gothard writes: Yesterday morning on ABC Radio, Fielding used the word “fiscal” and to make it clear spelt it out as F I S K A L! Elementary my dear Watson?

The Productivity Commission:

Michael Nolan writes: Re. “Productivity Commission owes nothing to anyone — that’s why we need it” (yesterday, item 11). Greg Barns lauds the successes of the Productivity Commission (née the Industry Commission, née the Industries Assistance Commission) to defend it against criticism from MUP’s Louise Adler. But comparison of its earlier reforms to the recommended changes in publishing and book retail isn’t helpful. With parallel importation restrictions, no one’s being rorted, as per the smash repairers and their insurers, and taxpayers’ money isn’t being used wastefully, as per drought assistance. So to whose rescue is the Commission riding this time?

This review is advocated by a select group of major retailers — Dymocks, Big W and Target — which claims to be acting out of a desire to bring book prices down. This simply isn’t credible — if lower prices result in higher sales, which in turn delivers greater annual profit, they’re free to slash prices now (as they’ve done annually with every Harry Potter blockbuster). The confected outrage that books are cheaper overseas is a diversionary tactic and is not a solid basis for the proposed changes. Who seriously argues that goods and services should (or can) cost the same worldwide, regardless of factors such as the size of the market?

Online sales models, too, are notoriously volatile — there is no guarantee that a company such as leading discounter Book Depository will survive as a business, or that it will indefinitely continue to deliver worldwide for free. eCommerce offers many examples of companies using free services to gain market share, and then later introduce charges. Is it prudent to alter a nation’s trade and copyright regulations on the basis of a single internet business’s current practice, subject to change at any time? And how does it benefit Australia to deregulate in areas our trade partners do not?

Further, the publishing industry already faces the likelihood of significant change to all its present models with the unstoppable advance of digital publishing. It’s not clear what the impact will be, but it will surely require a re-think on territorial copyright, for example. Large-scale changes will no doubt be required to the regulatory regimes. Is there any sense in bringing in changes now that will become irrelevant in a short while? Surely it is more prudent to first see how publishers and retailers negotiate the digital revolution.

No one can guarantee the Commission’s recommendations will deliver savings to consumers or maintain the breadth of choice currently available. So who might benefit from the Commission’s unflinching opposition to “protectionist self-interest”? Three major retail chains?

James McDonald writes: Greg Barns is right to defend the Productivity Commission from the glib slurs of “neo-liberals and economic fundamentalists” that pass for damning insults in the new Kevin Rudd orthodoxy.

Has anyone ever actually met a “neo-liberal” or an “economic fundamentalist”? The essence of liberal philosophy is to restrict the liberties of the individual just enough to protect the liberties of others. This leads to instruments like the competition-protection laws in the Trade Practices Act. “Neo-liberals” are the new reds-under-the-bed: imaginary.

The Productivity Commission is a pretty liberal organisation. That doesn’t stop it promoting a bit of welfare for the disadvantaged. Their First Home Ownership report of 2004 made recommendations like reworking the first home owners grant to favour low-priced homes for the poor, and focussing policy on the housing needs of Aboriginals.

No surprise that speaking out against taxpayer support for the property bubble, or suggesting that Australian publishing protection is more of a rip-off racket than a bastion of Australian culture, inflames a whole lot of reactionaries who then froth at the mouth with all sorts of ideological invective. This, and the pattern of government aversion to most of their recommendations, just highlight how much we need the PC.

Anyway, in the case of the Home Ownership report, the critics needn’t have worried. Peter Costello used the recommendations as a list of what not to do if you want to keep property bulls happy, rejecting every suggestion except those directed at state or local governments. And the Rudd government has followed suit. So who’s the “neo-liberal” now?

Guy Rundle writes: Greg Barns is entitled to his touchingly naive belief that a body called the Productivity Commission is free of ideological bias. But his description of the vibrant “liberal” economies compared to the subsidised European ones, way off. Compared to the Nordic countries (yes, this will be on the exam) we underperform on almost every measure of both productivity, equality of opportunity, and provision of social welfare. Nor does the term “subsidised” accurately describe these economies.

Social investment would be a better description, one that not only yields a better return in terms of productivity, but also allows the market to operate — thus Sweden was the only country not to practice large scale bailouts (of Saab for example) in the recent financial crisis, because its industrial sector was healthy enough to let individual firms fail.

What we have is not a vibrant economy but a pile of resources shared among a miniscule population. We break bits of it off, and sell it to buy imports — which nevertheless outpace exports — and disguise from ourselves the third rate nature of our social and material infrastructure.

And our social performance is also shocking – the fifth most unequal economy in the OECD. The lucky country indeed — with ideologues like Barns spruiking second rate policies looks like our luck is set to continue.

Food writing:

Michael Dowe writes: Re. “SMH’s Good Food Guide launch goes stale” (yesterday, item 4). As a former public stomach (I was in Simon Thomsen’s shoes for an equal term), I can’t quite get the reference to Helen Greenwood’s age. I was there from the mid 80s to 93 and beat a path to many Asian restaurants. I went there because that was where our readers were going. Yum Cha on Mothers’ Day would see up to 3000 diners going through the biggest restaurant in China Town.

School teachers were taking classes into the China Town food halls. And restaurateurs started producing bare-it-all menus rather than the toned down western specials. Last Saturday, Helen Greenwood was doing ramen in a food hall. At $10 a head. A cursory glance over her reviews will clearly show that she is not writing for the big end of town (Marques do not appear on her beat) and that she is passionate about the food of 60% of the worlds’ population.

What is the real problem with Helen Greenwood’s column? What are the ageist issues?

Clive James:

Angus Sharpe writes: Re. “Clive James gets it wrong on feminists, Muslims, Australians, you name it” (yesterday, item 5). When did “haters” become a noun? Anyway, it seems fashionable at the moment (at least on Crikey) to bash Clive James.

Yes, his poetry is bad. It always has been. It’s taken you 20+ years to notice? And yes, his work, formally insightful and beautiful, now tends towards the depressing (and sometimes frankly tedious). Did you read Cultural Amnesia (2007)? Did anyone? I got about 3/4 of the way through. Does it get good at the end?

Clive refused to order its sections, but if he had, he could have split the book into:

  • Part 1 – People who were killed by Hitler; and
  • Part 2 – Everyone else.

Although Part 2 would be short to the point of unbalancing the whole book. But I digress. Shakira Hussein says that Pamela Bone, who is a feminist that Shakira apparently disagreed with, interviewed Shakira “over a long session of coffee and pastries in Lygon Street”. I’m not making that up.

And is offended by Clive James’ article “on several different levels — as a feminist, as a Muslim, as a supporter of multiculturalism, as an Australian … and … [although she] wouldn’t describe … [her]self as a member of the “intelligentsia”, … James probably would, if only because of … [her] entirely suspect political opinions, so … [she is] offended on that level as well.”

Not quite sure why she is offended though (or why we should care whether or not Shakira is offended). Something about overstating the impact of the First Stone? I think she is saying: How dare he talk about women being mistreated?! About rape?! About equality?! Only we, the select club of women, can do that! Yes, over coffee and cake on Lygon street!

Yes, we do not seem self-involved! Yes, our outrage at Clive does not seem far far far removed from the women who are actually … you know … being raped and killed! Yes, it’s very important to waste time berating Clive James rather than, like he suggests, spending time … you know … publicly and loudly condemning the horrific practices against these women! I’m outraged! Outraged!

And this, my friends, is why we despair.

Kate Olivieri writes: Just wanted to say — good one Shakira Hussein — excellent clarification of the issues surrounding The First Stone and Western/Muslim/Western, Muslim feminists who most certainly do know and care about women’s issues outside the Western world.

For the record, I am a white Australian feminist, currently volunteering in East Timor on gender issues. I work with a number of other gender advisers: one Portuguese, two other white Australian, one Canadian, one French (all female), and one Ugandan (male). Hope that sets your mind at ease, Clive.

McGurk:

Niall Clugston writes: I agree with Peter Lloyd (yesterday, comments) about the McGurk case: “This determination of some journalists to reduce important issues to a question of ‘how will this affect the polls?’ sickens me, and many others.” But I think there’s a more serious journalistic problem: what if this doesn’t turn out to be “one of Australia’s worst-ever corruption scandals”?

What if, as is likely, Michael McGurk’s murder was not linked to NSW Labor? What if all this hearsay on bribery is just hearsay? We have had ministers resign over minor scandals: will leading journalists resign if this monumental scandal turns out to be a paper tiger? I don’t think so.

They will hide behind their “objectivity”, their “duty” to report allegations which they believe to be false!

Rudd at the footy:

Maurie Farrell writes: Re. “Richard Farmer’s political bite-sized meaty chunks” (yesterday, item 13). I suspect Richard Farmer has mistaken the “perplexed” look on AFL Chief Commissioner Mike Fitzpatrick’s face as the PM jubilantly celebrated Brissy’s comeback.

Fitzpatrick is a former Carlton great who was more likely writhing in misery as his boys were ingloriously hammered. I suspect he was harbouring thoughts of better things to do with that Lions’ scarf the PM was so enthusiastically waving!

Question Time Bingo:

Alan Kennedy writes: Re. “First Dog on the Moon” (Monday, item 5). Two days into Question Time Bingo and already I am concerned about the potential to pervert the game. Who are the stewards? How do we know the speaker hasn’t been got at? He has open slather and can skew the game anyway he likes. I will be keeping a close eye on him over the coming weeks And certain members on the opposition benches are only too happy to jump up and get “named” thus triggering a bingo score. Having serial clowns like Wilson, Joe and Bronwyn on the squares is just too easy.

How about a square referring to that kiddy who chews gum all the time. She sits right behind Ruddy. She asked a question yesterday that would have been a game changer. Or a square with Julia wearing same suit with purple piping she wore two weeks ago. Ruddy wearing same suit he wore every day for the past 10 years. Christopher Pyne called a poodle. Lift your game First Dog and I reiterate stewards must be named and we have to monitor Centrebet.

There is a scandal waiting in the wings unless you bring this under control.