Thursday, March 30, 2006

Kim Jong Il and other mad lefties

For those of you playing at home, I'm back in print and pixels:

The April edition of the Institute of Public Affair Review magazine has published a piece I wrote on fledgeling capitalism in North Korea, as well as the difficulties that will be faced as part of Korean reunification. They may be right-wing headkickers at the IPA, but they've got a lot to say that's worth listening to. Read my piece here.

OnlineOpinion, a great source of interesting ideas and opinions, has published my piece on the destructive role of career politicians and hacks in Labor's current woes. Read it here, and join in the lively debate.

Orrighty. Nuff 'bout me for now.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Georgiou, Frydenberg and the Senate option

Frydenberg vs Georgiou for Kooyong is an exciting battle to watch. Both are fine intellects, both would make good ministers if given the chance, and both are representatives of very different strands of the Liberal tradition. It's also a battle of talent that the ALP should be salivating over.

I have a personal connection to both Josh and Petro. Josh Frydenberg and I are both alumni of Bialik College, and have come across each other where Judaism intersects with politics. We were on a panel together last year for a discussion on that very topic. Josh is one of those tremendously talented young people who inspires admiration and jealousy in equal quantities. There's no doubt, though, that he would make a fine member of parliament. Now, or maybe later.

The incumbent is Petro Georgiou, the posterchild of moderate liberalism (well, Liberalism, really). In 2001 I ran as the Democrat candidate against Georgiou and came to admire and respect him. Whilst not a particularly vigourous campaigner, Petro was a man who cared about his electorate and had respect for people he came into contact with. There's more of my gushing admiration here.

Though some might attack Georgiou and Frydenberg, really this contest is an embarrasment of riches. The fact the Frydenberg can attract endorsements from so many movers and shakers despite spending most of his life as a ministerial staffer is a testament to his talent.

Ultimately, it seems likely that Georgiou will win the battle. With the notable exception of Turnbull in Wentworth, Liberals are generally highly reluctant to back challengers to incumbents. Georgiou also deserves his place in the parliamentary team - he adds vigour and depth and is one of few Liberal voices who is not a Howard sycophant.

Watch out for Frydenberg in the near future. From what I've seen, he is not one who readily embraces grass roots campaigning. Like Georgiou, he's highly intelligent, a little aloof and not terribly suited to the pressing of flesh. The Senate would be an ideal place for him, where he can influence policy and be a potential minister without the drudgery of holding down a seat.

Liberal Senate preselections won't be happening for a little while yet, but things look promising. Up for election are Senator Mitch Fifield (a stayer), Senator Kay Patterson (retirement already announced) and Senator Rod Kemp (on the way out). So there'll be two juicy Senate spots available, and surely if Kooyong doesn't work out, Frydenberg would be in the box seat to claim one of them.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Show 'em where to stick it

For those of you with an interest in one of the world's most vibrant democracies, have a look at this selection of bumper stickers from Israel ahead of Tuesday's general election.

Tafnit: Enough of ignoring corruption,
with (L-R) Peretz, Olmert and Netanyahu

I won't be saying much on the substance of the election beyond what I said a few months back. If these polls are any indication, it looks like voters in Israel feel the same way I do about the importance of keeping Kadima in power.

Fans of Israeli politics with extremely long memories might remember that I wrote about the phenomenon of bumper sticker democracy when I was 'reporting' from Israel during the last elections in 2003. Nothing much changes.

UPDATE 24/3, 11:58pm: With Sharon as Prime Minister and Olmert as Acting Prime Minister, with poth of them representing the Kadima party, I'll stand by my assertion that their success will be 'keeping Kadima in power'.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Harry Potter comes to town

STOP PRESS!! (Or it's electronic alternative):

Kevin Rudd, my personal favourite as next deputy leader of the ALP - behind Gillard - is speaking at Melbourne Uni on Wednesday evening. Okay, so it's sponsored by the old-style lefties at the Fabian Society, but it should be interesting nonetheless.

This is an Australian Fabians event.

Event date: Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - Wednesday, March 22, 2006
Location: Laby Theatre, Physics Building
Melbourne University
Time: 6.00 pm - 8.00 pm

A Very Special AFS (Victorian Branch)Campus Liaison Committee Presentation:
KEVIN RUDD MP, ALP Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs will deliver

More info.

UPDATE, 22/3 11:58pm:

It was an excellent performance by Rudd tonight, albeit in front of a crowd of true believers. Rather than addressing the advertised topic, Rudd focussed exclusively on Iraq and delivered a savage critique of what he described as the seven policy failures of the Howard Government on the issue of Iraq:

1. Breaching of sanctions (ie AWB)
2. Lack of WMD (self-explanatory)
3. No reduction of terrorist threat to Australia
4. Lack of stability in Iraq
5. Emboldening Iran
6. Lack of Mission Statement for the ADF
7. Sychophantic (my word, not his) support for US in leadup to war

Rudd has some good lines on Iraq that seem to cut through the dross: the AWB scandal has succinctly become the "$300 million wheat-for-weapons scandal"; Saddam Hussein in the lead up to war must have been saying "Curious people, these Australians, they want to bankroll me one day, and bomb me the next"; and the Prime Minister is 'able to remember what Don Bradman scored at the Second Test at Lords in 1947 but can't recall seeing a memo alerting him to the brewing AWB scandal'. Cute.

Inside the insurgency

A few weeks back I interviewed Lebanese journalist Zaki Chehab, who is one of the few journalists in the world to have spent some time with the insurgents in Iraq. I wasn't a big fan of his politics, but I admire his tenacity as a journalist. The piece is now online at Vibewire, and a similar version is also in the latest version of Farrago:

Iraq Ablaze - An Interview With Zaki Chehab

Contributed by Ari Sharp
21 Mar 06

On the back cover of Zaki Chehab’s new book is a single photo. In it the Lebanese author and journalist is sitting in close confines with two Iraqi men, their heads encased in red and white headscarves. Only the tiniest glimpse of their faces is available though a small slit at eye level. Both are heavily armed, one with the long barrel of a gun sitting over his left shoulder, the other with his weapon pointing nonchalantly just a little off to the side. On the wall is some ageing pink floral wallpaper.

Unlike so many who have faced this scene involuntarily – many of them not living to tell the tale – Chehab is a willing participant in the situation. The two headscarved figures are members of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq , a group of angry young men who are wreaking havoc in their country. Mostly their message takes the form of the blunt instrument of suicide bombers, the shrapnel and dynamite of their human bombs communicating with the world. This time, though, they’re speaking with a journalist who wants to hear their story and retell it to the outside world. “This was the first images of the Iraqi insurgency in the world,” Chehab explained. “Nobody had published footage or pictures of the insurgency before.”

Read the rest at Vibewire.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Just what would happen if we became a republic?

You guys are a creative bunch. Who's got some ideas for my friend Sarp here:

Hi Ari,
My name is Sarp, Im currently studying media and screenwriting at RMIT university and I'm trying to write a screenplay for a feature film about what would change in Australia if we become a republic. The actual story is a love story but the main caracter is an ex Australian bureaucrat who's being held as a prisoner in London and the story revolves around the political and legal intrigue around him. He's being a scapegoat between two countires silent political friction and the woman of his life is far from the Queen.

Anyways, the reason im writing you this email is because I'v came across your website and i thought perhaps you could help me with my lack of information about this whole situation in your spare time. I know the basics about the scenario like changing the head of states etc, but i was just wordering if you could give me some ideas with the unlikely but possible outcomes might come later in the future :)

Thank you for your time

Leave your ideas in the comments section, or email me and I'll forward the email to Sarp.

How about the possibility that a monarchy desperate to cling on to Australia (I know, at the moment it seems the other way around) agrees to pardon Australians in prison in the UK only if Australia votes to keep the monarchy? Or perhaps the Australian in prison abroad could be charged with treason if his countryfolk decide the vote for a republic? Now there's an idea.... that'll never work.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Whinging fools

The State owes me a job.

With good pay.

And a guarantee that the job is mine to keep, no matter how bad my performance might be.

And if I don't get one, the The State owes me generous welfare benefits.

And if I don't get it, then I'll march in protests, burn cars and attack police.

And if it means that my country and its economy sink slowly toward the third world, then so be it.

Fiery protests puts fear into French leaders
By Molly Moore

ABOUT 250,000 students have taken to the streets of Paris and major cities across France, escalating a political rebellion by the younger generation against a new labour law.
Due to come into effect next month, it will make it easier to hire and fire young people at a time when the youth unemployment rate averages 23 per cent.

The protesters' anger focuses on provisions that will allow companies to fire employees under 26 at any time during their first two years of work, without cause.

"They're offering us nothing but slavery," said Maud Pottier, 17, a student at Jules Verne High School in Sartrouville, north of Paris.
Business leaders complain that existing French labour laws make it virtually impossible to dismiss incompetent employees without giving them prohibitively costly severance packages.

As a result, the leaders say, many companies are either relying increasingly on temporary workers or not hiring at all.

Many economists blame the strict laws for the country's lifeless economy.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Leaves plenty of time for riding the tram

Three cheers for Kate Louise Howard, Wales's finest under 48kg female weightlighter. From my quick assessment, Kate was athlete who managed to be the first eliminated from the Commonwealth Games whilst achieving the least. Kate came last in her one and only event today, and managed to successfully lift the weight in just one of her six attempts, snatching a moderate 58kg into the air.

Still, she managed to achieve more and last longer that Ian Thorpe, Grant Hackett and Ari Sharp combined.

Well done, Kate.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

What do you ask a comedian?

Any suggestions for questions to ask John from the Scared Weird Little Guys or Akmal Saleh in interviews I have coming up on Friday? Beat have got me on the beat.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Let the Games Begin, and other cliched headlines

My Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony started at a prominant Chapel Street tavern.

Ari on the Web: So will you be showing the opening ceremony?
Chapel Street Tavern Bartender: The what?
AOTW: The opening ceremony, you know, for the Games?
CSTB: The Games?
AOTW: The Commonwealth Games... you know, big event... happening tonight... up the road... at the MCG.
CSTB: Oh, yeah, um, maybe, hang on, I think so.

As 8:30 came around, the Opening Ceremony was underway, but the only sound to be heard above the din at the aforementioned Tavern was the dulcet tones of Jamiroquai. With a crowd of just four of us gathered for the Games, and considerably more singing along to Cosmic Girl, it was clear that the Opening Ceremony was better off enjoyed at home.

Given the build up before the event - and the $50 million dedicated to it (along with the Closing Ceremony) - the event felt surprisingly flat.

A few observations:

- I'm no fan of Leunig, and certainly no bigger fan having seen his self-indulgent duck-related nonsense.

- There seemed to be the lack of a clear narrative to give the story meaning and substance. A few generic scenes with little to unite them demonstrates an overcommitment to whiz-bangery and an undercommitment to crisp and concise writing.

- The parade of nations was surpisingly pacey, although the bloated size of the teams was hard to miss. Dot-on-a-map countries seemed to contribute remarkably large support staff given the tiny number of athletes who compete. At a glance, a ratio of three to one seemed common.

- The mawkish Happy Birthday tribute to Her Maj, leading into a few bars of God Save the Queen, was cringeworthy and pathetic and surely pleased no one. Poor old Dame Kiri had to keep a straight face throughout.

- Michael Fennel, Jamaica's representative on the Commonwealth gravy train seemed like he was appearing in a Monty Python Sketch. A twee turn of phrase, a voice pitch likely to endanger nearby tall buildings and an unseemly devotion to Her Maj was hard to take seriously.

- Where the fuck is Turks and Caicos?

- Or Niue?

It's Karak!
Anyone excited by this guy?

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Another take on Labor's woes

Here is my take on Labor's woes, as ignored by Op-ed editors from The Age, The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald:

A glance at the Labor caucus reveals a depressing site. Amongst its ranks are a chorus of those in the 'political class', whose professional lives have been spent mostly or entirely within the Labor party or the labour movement. Whilst their political opponents might boast of lawyers, entrepreneurs and a variety of other white collar professionals, the same cannot be said of the Labor Party. According to a Parliamentary Library research note (no. 24 2005-2006), 34% of Labor parliamentarians had as their previous occupation ‘party and union administrators and officials', whilst just 7% worked in the law and 11% as business managers. Amongst the coalition, only 2% were in this first category.

We have long passed the point in Labor history when representing the party in parliament was a reward for achievements in the outside world. Instead it is merely a logical continuation of work within the labour bureaucracy.

The starting point for this "career", from want of a better word, are our university campuses. On campuses across the country, young, talented left-leaning students are sucked into the world of political machinations. For some this means playing the game of student politics, whilst for others it involves a plumb appointment as a staff member of a state or federal member of parliament. The idea of seeking to achieve things outside of the Labor machine is frowned upon.

Plenty has been said about the total lack of perspective held by many inside student politics. To its participants, student politics is a life or death struggle for power where every possible advantage is sought over one's opponent. To those watching from the outside, though, it's a remarkably silly battle of little consequence. Regardless of which perception is closer to the truth, the bearpit of student politics is considered a training ground for the real thing.

It's doubtful, though, that it's teaching the skills that are worth learning. Rarely does student politics involve serious policy discussion or a nuanced understanding of different points of view. Rarely does it involve the art of persuasion. Rarely does it involve the tricky business of reasoning and rational argument. Instead, it's a bombastic power struggle. Participants are encouraged to count numbers and stack their way to success whilst intimidation and deception are commonplace. Student politics involves the worst elements of the real thing, and that's just why it's such an unfortunate training ground, but one that lives on nonetheless.

It's also worth remembering that in student politics, the battle is rarely between Liberal and Labor. More often, it is between different factions of the Labor Party, who operate completely independently and consider each other to be their arch political enemies. The animousity between the left faction (Australian Labor Students and National Organisation of Labor
Students) and the right faction (Student Unity) is the stuff of legends. In must be quite jarring for these junior pollies to leave university and find themselves shoulder to shoulder with fellow Labor members that they previously despised. There's little wonder, then, that the factional divide lives on.

All this is not to say, of course, that Liberal-minded students aren't engaged in the same shenanigans. To some extent they are, although the lack of a political gravy train of student political and union jobs prevents Liberal students from venturing further down this path. (Perhaps, ironically, the introduction of Voluntary Student Unionism will help the Labor Party by reducing the number of cosy political positions within the student union movement.) There's also a clear realisation amongst aspiring young liberals that their path to Parliament House must invariably go via another profession. This realisation is part of the reason why the Liberals have managed to avoid the same malaise the Labor Party currently finds itself in.

There's no suggestion that factional warfare in the Labor Party is the result of factionalism in junior politics. The problem, though, is that the shallow gene pool of participants in junior politics seem to be the major source of future parliamentarians in the Labor Party. This depressing situation will continue so long as the caucus is filled with career politicians who spend their younger days wallowing in the pettiness of student politics and then make no attempt to learn skills or establish their credentials elsewhere. This trend is not unstoppable. The preselection of entrepreneur (and, incidentally, former student politician) Evan Thornley to a state Labor seat in Victoria and the preselection of lawyer Mark Dreyfus in the federal seat of Isaacs are steps in the right direction. What is necessary is that these preselections be the rule rather than the exception, in order to send a message out to aspiring young hacks and hackettes that they must broaden their skill base if they are to be successful in politics.

If Labor is to make a serious attempt at entering government, it will need to work hard to change the composition of its party room. Rewarding talent ahead of loyal service would be a good start. These hackneyed Labor groupies are surely not the basis of the next Labor Government.

Ari Sharp is a Commerce/Arts student at the University of Melbourne.

Farewell, Slobodan: Up close and personal

No great tragedy in itself, although it does deprive the world of one of the most interesting and worthwhile experiments in justice. The criminal trial at The Hague was not without its problems. Milosevic was clearly contemptuous of the process which saw him answer for his actions and used it, and the rolling coverage, to play to his home political constinency. The sheer length of the trial was also problematic, since a significant test of justice is the swiftness of its application.

Still, the trial made the point that no tyrant can escape the reaches of global justice. If only Milosevic was around for the verdict, the contents of which will no doubt remain the subject of endless speculation.

In May 2003 I was in The Hague and spent an afternoon watching the trial. Though I can't offer any great legal insights, I can tell you what I saw. The site of the court itself is heavily secured (with a delightful Indian-Australian from Templestowe on the door the day I visited) with the usual security features to which we have all become accustomed. Inside, the courtroom was encased in a thick sheet of glass, with the three judges sitting as a panel and a phlanx of lawyers supporting both the court and the prosecution. The late Sir Richard May was the presiding judge.

The trial was taking place trilingually - with some speaking French, others English, and Milosevic speaking in Serbian - whilst a tireless team of interpreters worked in boothes on the side of the court. All in the court, including in the viewing gallery, had an earpiece to hear the translation.

Much of the day that I saw was taken up with examination and cross-examination of a member of the Serbian military who was a witness to the siege of Dubrovnik in 1992. The witness was appearing via satellite from Yugoslavia. The questions were dry and formulaic and seemed to focus on the nature of the instructions recieved by the soldier. Milosevic, conducting his own defence, was cantankerous and mildly perturbed by the witness's evidence, but kept his anger to a dull rage which required only occasional chiding from the judges.

Whilst not quite friendly, the nature of the procedings was workmanlike and a rapport had clearly been built between Milosevic and the other members of the court. It was soon obvious why the trial was taking as long as it was - Milosevic chose to contest every fact that arose, relentlessly cross-examining witnesses. When this was combined with the necessarily rigourous attention to fine detail, simple events became increasingly complex.

Though the trial never reached its climax, it still served a purpose. It helped many of the participants in the Yugoslav wars achieve the cliched-but-necessary sense of closure. It also sent the message to other tyrants and potential-tyrants that they are not immune from the rule of law. For that, we should be thankful.

I don't get it either.

Monday, March 06, 2006

How high does Pong Su go?

Getting to the truth behind the North Korean ship Pong Su is a tricky thing. Keith Moor had an excellent story in today's Herald Sun about the likely link between the North Korean government and the activities of the ship:

THE jury that acquitted four Pong Su crew members yesterday never got to hear evidence about the North Korean Government's alleged role.

Two eminent US experts on North Korea, Balbina Hwang and Joe Bermudez, gave written and verbal evidence during the Pong Su trial.

But Supreme Court judge Murray Kellam ruled the jury was not allowed to hear it.

Both experts said they had no doubt the North Korean Government was involved in the heroin run.

They revealed the North Korean Government created a secretive department, known as Bureau 39, to control and increase the flow of foreign exchange through legal and illegal imports.

"Its officials are involved in heroin and amphetamine trafficking that generates as much as $500 million annually," Ms Hwang said.

Without knowing much about the specifics of the Pong So, I have been aware of various illicit pies in which the DPRK government sticks its chubby fingers.

One Korea-watcher I've spoken to explained that the North Korean foreign embassies abroad (with the likely exception of Moscow and Beijing) are not funded from Pyongyang, and so need to be self-supporting. Given that diplomatic visas rule out working at the Yarralumla McDonald's for these twelve who constitute the Australian diplomatic presence, they must rely on illicit sources of income. Which brings us to Pong Su.

Taken for a ride

A Radical Idea

This was the headline on the front page of The Sunday Age yesterday. The idea? Free public transport. Obviously they'd already ruled out the headline A Fucken Stupid Idea (though clearly not on the basis of bad taste.)

Perhaps next week in The Sunday Age we'll find this on the front page:

A Radical Idea: Print more money to beat recession

or maybe
A Radical Idea: End crime by locking up lots of criminals

The idea of improving public transport patronage by making it free has superficial appeal, and over a beer or seven at a pub might sound like a decent idea. It's not the sort of thing that deserves serious consideration, though, and it's certainly not the direction that the debate over public transport should head.

The fundamental problem with the idea is that price is not the major impediment to more people using public transport: the real problem is access. Most commuters are happy to pay a reasonable fare provided they are getting a decent service. For commuters in the outer suburbs, no amount of fare reduction is going to make any difference if services are so poor as to be useless. Particularly given the recent spike in petrol prices, the price of public transport tickets compares very favourably already with the private vehicle, a story The Age itself reported.

The Age estimates that the fare abolition of fares would cost about $340 million a year. Rather than spending this money on reducing fares, it would be far more productively spent on infrastructure and services for the outer 'burbs: extention of the train line to South Morang, development of the Rowville train line, evening and weekend bus services. This would do plenty to improve patronage, principly because it actually addresses the genuine barriers potential commuters face rather than a simplistic quick fix.

Rather than moving away from a user-pays approach, we should be moving toward it: for motorists, that is. A congestion tax in the Melbourne CBD is a just and achievable mechanism for shifting motorists out of their cars and onto public transport. It would also shift the burden of maintaining road infrastructure away from the taxpayer and toward the individual motorists who experience the benefits. By increasing the marginal cost of each additional trip a motorist makes, the private vehicle becomes less attractive in the traveller's choice of mode of transport. I did some thinking about this very question for an economics subject last year, and I will share the petrolly fruits of my labour shortly.

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Who wants to play "Guess the Intersection"? Maybe Bert will host it.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Books: The Shackled Continent

Just occasionally you come across an argument that is so cogent, so clever and so thoroughly convincing that it's a great disappointment to return to the real world and find that the argument is ignored by policy makers. For me, that argument was put by Robert Guest in his treatise on Africa, The Shackled Continent.

Guest is the Africa correspondent for The Economist, and sadly that publication's bizarre aversion to using bylines has meant that Guest is not nearly as well known as he ought to be. Guest injects new ideas and a new perspective on the problems that afflict Africa, and by extention most of the developing world.

The discussion thus far has been a rather simplistic one, with a chorus of bleeding hearts in the first world wringing their hands at simplistic representations of the wealth disparity between the first and third worlds whilst simultaneously chiding western governments for lot offering even more aid than is presently on offer.

Finally, in The Shackled Continent, we get a very different perspective. Rather than taking the 'I'm poor because you're rich' approach, Guest explains that much of the poverty is caused by internal factors in the governance of Africa, and consequently can be altered internally. Whilst Guest argues that there is some place for aid in correcting Africa's woes, much more can be achieved through less costly but more significant reforms.

There are a few examples worth hearing. Take property rights. The first world takes property rights for granted, and has done so for so long that we no longer recognise it for the achievement that it is. Easily verified, non-contested, uniquely held ownership of a property is a significant part of economic growth, and yet in most of Africa it is largely non-existant. Once clear title over property is established, there is an immediate incentive to improve that property. There is the potential for transfer through generations. And best of all, the owned property can be used as collateral in obtaining loans to start and grow businesses. An institutional change like this can do an incredible amount to improve the wealth-creating capacity of the continent.

Another example is the relationship between government and business. Governments in the developed world have recognised (mostly) that their own interests and the interests of the business sector are in harmony rather than conflict. Business grows, therefore the economy grows, therefore employment grows and ultimately living standards improve. In Africa, governments exist in a permanent state of suspicion, and so surround businesses in red tape, restrictions and disincentives. Young entrepreneurs in Africa are confronted with such negativity that they are likely to either seek their fortunes overseas or simply not bother. Either way, the continent is much the poorer. Governments with the vision to overcome tribalism and ingrained suspicion and corruption will do more than aid dollars ever will.

One of the biggest barriers for Africa is its health problems, and this is where the west can help. Many western government and companies are in a position to provide low cost drugs for diseases such as AIDS and malaria and ought to do so. There are, however, public education and awareness campaigns that can do plenty to combat these diseases. A safe-sex campaign is so much more effective than expensive HIV drugs at combatting AIDS.

It's greatly depressing that Guest's arguments have so little traction on policy-makers. Many African leaders have made an artform of blaming the west, and in particular colonialism, for their ills. It is sad but noteworthy that living standards in most of Africa have declines since the exit of the colonising power. Even if the anti-colonial argument is accepted, its hard to believe that the solution lies in western philanthropy rather than interal change. As to the approach of western governments, many are locked into a mindset that measures its achievements exclusively in terms of the number of aid dollars spent and face a significant outcry whenever they attempt to cut aid or impose conditions on its spending. Look at the well-meaning but ultimately misguided efforts last year by the Live 8 movement, which didn't address democratic reforms, improvements in bureaucracy or changes in the law, but instead sought yet more aid.

Read Guests's book - it'll anger and frustrate you, but ultimately it's a book of hope. If only anyone would listen.

The Shackled Continent