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The Australian Sickness

I happened to be in Canberra last Friday, speaking to a room full of journalists at the National Press Club, when the news came in, halfway through lunch, that Australia had a new prime minister. The moderator pointed out that the year is already two-thirds gone and it is “only three prime ministers till Christmas” – and the China Daily’s headline read “Australia changes its prime minister again, again, again, again, again.”

The new prime minister, Scott Morrison, is the third leader of the governing Liberal (i.e. conservative) Party since 2015. In the five years before that, there were three prime ministers from the Labor Party. Only twice were those prime ministers chosen by the voters; in the other four cases, the changes were driven by intra-party coups – “spills”, in the Australian political vernacular.

Mockery is appropriate, and it was not in short supply when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was overthrown by his own party last week. “In the future everyone will be Australian prime minister for fifteen minutes,” tweeted ‘Not Andy Warhol’. Another online commentator pointed out that “Game of Thrones is not an instructional manual.”

But it is, in Australia. Back-stabbing is old hat; the new fashion in both major Australian political parties is “front-stabbing”. Yet there are no great issues at stake, no national crisis that must be overcome. Australia is still the ‘lucky country’: 25 million people with a healthy economy (they didn’t even have a recession after 2008), no enemies, and a whole continent to play with.

What drove the latest spill was a challenge to the sitting prime minister by Peter Dutton, an MP (member of parliament) from his own party. Dutton is on the Liberal Party’s right wing and didn’t like Turnbull’s relatively enlightened climate change policies – but even when Turnbull dropped his new emission control proposals the revolt continued.

And in the end, although Turnbull went down, Dutton did not take his place. Scott Morrison, a man much more in Turnbull’s mould, did. To outsiders it seemed utterly pointless, a not very large tempest in a teapot, but it transfixed the Australian media and paralysed the government for several weeks.

So what is causing this weird behaviour in an otherwise fairly sensible country? Is it just a passing lunacy like the ‘dancing mania’ of the late Middle Ages in Europe (which was never adequately explained) or the hula-hoop craze in America in the late 1950s? And, more importantly, is it a communicable disease?

Australian politics wasn’t always like this: between 1983 and 2007 Australia had just three prime ministers. Elections (in which everyone must vote or pay a $20 fine) happen every three years or less, which is clearly too often, but the political system was the same back when Australian politics was far more stable.

The fact that Australian politicians are never more than three years away from the next election certainly encourages a short-term perspective, but it doesn’t explain why they are always changing horses. Maybe you have to add to the mix constant opinion polling and a 24-hour media cycle that demands some new political news every day.

The opinion polls are read as a judgement on the party leader’s ability to win the next election. When Malcolm Turnbull ousted former Liberal prime minister Tony Abbott in 2015, he said “We have lost 30 Newspolls in a row. It is clear that the people have made up their mind about Mr Abbott’s leadership.” And out Abbott went.

So when Turnbull lost in 30 consecutive opinion polls (they come out about every two weeks), he too became vulnerable – and the Australian news media, always looking for the next big story, began stirring the brew. The Liberal Party’s MPs panicked (again), and since the most obvious way they could try to change the predicted outcome was to change their leader, that’s what they did.

But other countries have opinion polls and hyperactive media too, and their parliaments don’t act like that. They may benefit from the fact that their elections are less frequent (every five years for parliamentary elections in Canada, Britain and France), but they don’t act like that even in the last year before an election.

The conclusion is unavoidable: this is an essentially random and purely local case of ‘monkey see, monkey do’, like ‘dancing mania’ and hula hoops. Julia Gillard organised a revolt against the Labour Party leader and sitting prime minister Kevin Rudd in 2010, he returned the favour and overthrew her just before the next election, and the game was on.

Rudd lost the 2013 election and the last three prime ministers have been Liberal, not Labour, so the infection can clearly cross party boundaries. Since there is an election due next year, which the polls predict that Labour will win, there will probably soon be yet another Australian prime minister. But there is no sign, as yet, that the madness can cross the oceans.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 13. (“What…weeks”; and “Indeed…anyway”)

Universal Health Care

Nothing is perfect, and that definitely includes health care. On the 70th anniversary of the first full-coverage national health care system that is ‘free at the point of delivery’, Britain’s National Health Service, English people have been marching in the streets demanding better funding for the NHS, and Donald Trump naturally got the wrong end of the stick again.

Back in February, as part of his war against Barack Obama’s attempt to improve the coverage of the rudimentary US health care system (‘Obamacare’), Trump claimed that the marchers were protesting because the British system is “going broke and not working.”

It’s tough trying to defend the existing US system when every other developed country provides universal health coverage for its citizens, but Trump battled bravely onwards, later tweeting that the Democrats in the United States “want to greatly raise taxes for really bad and non-personal medical care.” Like the British allegedly suffer under the NHS.

In fact, the English National Health Service (Scotland and Northern Ireland have separate but similar systems) is, in former Conservative cabinet member Nigel Lawson’s words, “the closest thing the English have to a religion.” It is almost universally loved, and the protests were about government under-funding of the NHS.

Even the Conservative government that has strictly limited funding increases for the NHS over the past seven years, despite rising demand due to an ageing population, has now been forced to yield to popular demands. Prime Minister Theresa May announced last week that the NHS would get a funding increase of 3.4% per year over the next four years, giving it an extra $27 billion annually by 2023.

But are the English right to love their health-care system – and are the French and Germans and Russians and Japanese and the people of almost every other developed country right to revere their own similar systems? The United States may be the odd country out, but it does spend far more on health care than anybody else.

The United States spends 16% of its entire Gross Domestic Product on health care, almost twice as much as the average (8.2% for Japan, 8.4% for the UK, 8.5% for Australia, 10.4% for Germany). In theory, that ought to mean that Americans are healthier than everybody else and live longer. In practice, it’s just the opposite.

The United States is the only developed country where the average life-span is less than 80. In fact, it’s barely 78 years in the US, whereas everywhere else it’s in 80-82 range. The US also has the highest ‘preventable death’ rate of any developed country, and the highest infant mortality rate by a very wide margin. Americans spend more on health, and get less back, than anybody else.

They also spend far more of their time worrying about health care. The principal cause of personal bankruptcies in the United States is ‘catastrophic’ health emergencies, and all but the very rich have to devote much time to finding affordable medical insurance. Elsewhere in the developed world, nobody really thinks about that. The care will be there when you need it, and nobody goes bankrupt.

The model that was pioneered by Britain’s NHS on July 5, 1948 has been so successful that it is now spreading into many developing countries as well. India is still a poor country, but its National Health Policy 2017 goals include a commitment to “progressively achieve Universal Health Coverage.” China is working to provide affordable basic healthcare to all residents by 2020. And so on.

Attitudes change over time. In the 1930s nobody thought that there was some sort of basic human right to health care. The well-off paid for their own, and the rest depended on charity (which wasn’t very dependable). What changed that attitude was the Second World War, a time of great national solidarity and sacrifice in every country.

It was the worst war in history, but it produced a generation who believed that the people who had shared in the sacrifice (in both the countries that won and those that lost) must not be left behind in the peace that followed. The will was there to do new and great things, and they did them.

It is no coincidence that the same year of 1948 saw the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which said (among other things) that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”

The world had turned, and what had been a privilege became a right. One that is still widely abused or neglected, of course, but it has nevertheless spread across the entire planet in the past 70 years. Why did the United States miss out?

The answer is probably a free-market ideology so strong that it enabled the insurance companies and the medical profession (which opposed the idea of a national health system in every country, at least initially) to win the political battle in the US and strangle the idea in its cradle. It keeps coming back even there, but for the moment Americans must go on paying the costs of their ideology.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9. (“Even…2023”; and “They…bankrupt”)

Qatar Quarantine

Public-spirited businessman Moutaz al-Hayat is flying 4,000 cows into Qatar from the United States and Australia to boost milk supply in his country, which is being blockaded by most of its Arab neighbours in the Gulf. It will take sixty flights, and is definitely not cost-effective. But that may not be his biggest problem.

Ninety-nine percent of Qatar is open desert, and most of the very limited grazing areas for cattle are already fully occupied. Is al-Hayyat also going to airlift in the fodder for his 4,000 cows? There are many ridiculous aspects to the current crisis over Qatar – but it does have a serious side too.

Compared to the real wars (Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya) currently raging in the Arab world, Qatar’s crisis is a bit like a tempest in a teapot. The country is tiny but rich, and nobody is getting killed there yet. Yet there is a blockade, and refugees, and troop movements, and it is not inconceivable that the gas-rich Gulf state might get invaded and its government overthrown.

On 5 June all of Qatar’s Arab neighbours in the Gulf withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, Qatar’s gleaming capital. They also cut all land, sea and air communications with the country. Roads were blocked and flights were banned, which is pretty serious for a country of 2.7 million people (only a quarter-million of them actual Arab citizens of Qatar) that produces almost nothing except abundant natural gas.

Qatari citizens visiting or living in Saudi Arabia, Bahrein, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt were ordered to leave within fourteen days. Qatar Airways lost its landing and overflight rights in those countries, necessitating extensive detours, and the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera television service was blocked.

It is a real blockade because 40 percent of Qatar’s food comes in across its one land border, with Saudi Arabia, and that is now closed. The “refugees” are better dressed and educated than the normal ones, but the ban on Qataris living in the hostile countries and citizens of those countries living in Qatar is already uprooting people and breaking up families.

As for military movements, there have been no reports of Saudi Arabian troops moving towards the Qatari border, like they did before they rolled across the causeway into Bahrein in 2011, but speculation is rife that they might.

The Saudis would love to replace the current Qatari ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, with some member of the royal family who would toe the Saudi line. And since intra-family coups have become a bit of a tradition in Qatar, the Sheikh couldn’t complain if other family members decided that he had become a liability and opted for a Saudi-backed coup.

This is a pretty low-key crisis at the moment, but it could turn much nastier – and there are two further complicating factors. One is that Qatar hosts the biggest US military base in the Middle East: there are 10,000 American troops in the country. The other is that there is also a Turkish military base in Qatar.

The Turkish-Qatari agreement was signed two years ago and there are only about a hundred Turkish soldiers on the base yet, but it will accommodate 5,000 eventually. Turkey could fly the rest in very quickly if it chose to, and it just might do that if the crisis worsens. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has backed Qatar from the start.

Does this mean that Turkey could end up fighting Saudi Arabia in defence of Qatar? It sounds very far-fetched, but things have got so violent and complex in the region that people and countries no longer just stab each other in the back. They are also stabbing each other in the front, the sides, and the unmentionables.

Turkey and Qatar are both close US allies, but they support the same Sunni extremists in the Syrian civil war, and have lavished money and arms on some groups that both the United States and Saudi Arabia see as terrorists (ISIS, the Nusra Front, etc.).

Saudi Arabia, like most of the Sunni-ruled Gulf states, used to support the same extremists. Now it doesn’t any more – or not all of them, anyway – and says it is blockading Qatar because that country does still give money to the “terrorists”.

Whether that is true is debatable, but the Saudi Arabians managed to convince President Donald Trump that it was true during his recent visit to Riyadh, so Trump encouraged this blockade. Indeed, he takes the credit for it.

“During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of radical ideology,” he said. “They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to horror of terrorism!”

And they have just founded a “World Center for Countering Extremist Thought” in Riyadh. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“Qatari…blocked”; and “The Saudis…coup”)

Making China Great Again

“Passing the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) is as important to me as another aircraft carrier,” said former US defence secretary Ashton Carter two years ago, as the negotiations on the huge new free trade organisation were nearing completion.

Given that the United States already has twice as many aircraft carriers as all the rest of the world put together, that comment could be taken several ways, but Carter actually did mean that the TPP was strategically important in his eyes. As it was for ex-president Barack Obama, who saw the TPP as America’s main tool for containing China’s growing influence in Asia.

China, deliberately excluded from the 12-member club, saw it that way too. The official Hsinhua news agency regularly referred to the TPP as “the economic arm of the Obama administration’s geopolitical strategy to make sure that Washington rules supreme in the region.”

But the Obama administration is gone, and Donald Trump has just cut off that arm. “A great thing for the American worker, we just did,” Trump said after signing a document withdrawing US support for the TPP on Tuesday.

In fact, quitting the TPP is unlikely to do American workers much good economically, but it may not do them much harm either. Most analyses have concluded that the deal wouldn’t have had much effect either way on US wages and jobs – but leaving the TPP will certainly have a big impact on US power and influence in the world.

Xinhua was right: for Obama, the TPP was always more about the strategic rivalry with China than it was about economics. It still is, but Donald Trump’s electoral strategy has obliged him to declare war on free trade.

The voters that Trump targeted most heavily were working-class Americans who felt betrayed and abandoned as the well-paying jobs in manufacturing disappeared. However, there was no point in telling them that automation was destroying their jobs (which it is), because he could not plausibly promise to stop automation.

But if he claimed that the real problem was free trade, which allowed the Chinese and Mexicans and other sneaky foreigners to steal American jobs…well, he could certainly promise to stop that. He would build walls, cancel free-trade deals, even launch trade wars. It all sounded pretty credible, if you didn’t know that the vast majority of the lost jobs were really being stolen by robots.

So once he was in office, Trump was obliged to “unsign” the TPP deal, even though its main purpose, from Washington’s point of view, had been to perpetuate American economic and strategic dominance in Asia and freeze China out. In the eyes of Trump’s supporters (and maybe even in his own), he was slaying a dragon.

It looks different through the eyes of America’s erstwhile partners. As Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in August, eleven other countries had to make big and politically painful concessions in return for access to the huge US market. “If at the end, waiting at the altar, the bride doesn’t arrive, I think that people are going to be very hurt.” And hurt feelings do matter, even in diplomatic circles.

The biggest cost to the United States is the fact that America’s defection from the TPP doesn’t automatically kill the notion of an Asian free-trade bloc. Australia is already talking about keeping the TPP going without the United States, but the likelier outcome is that the Asian members start trying to link up with China, Indonesia and even India in China’s proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

In that case, the United States could end up excluded from a free-trading bloc that includes half of the world economy. The dominant economy in that bloc would be China’s, so the main practical effect of Trump’s action would be to give a major boost to China’s power and influence in the world.

This pattern is likely to be duplicated in other areas where Trump is pledged to abandon long-standing US diplomatic commitments. It is already happening in the domain of climate change, where Trump’s decision to “unsign” the 2015 Paris treaty to curb global warming has opened the door to a leadership role for China instead.

At the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos earlier this month, China’s President Xi Jinping said that “all signatories must stick to” the Paris deal: “walking away” from the pact would endanger future generations. And while Trump is slashing US spending on climate change, Xi has pledged to invest $360 billion in renewable energy in the next four years to reduce China’s greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s easy to look good in the eyes of the rest of the world when the standard of comparison is Donald Trump’s administration. He is making China great again, even if that is not quite what he intended.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 10. (“It looks…circles”)