June 17th 2000

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: Australia’s Pacific role

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Why “sorry” avoids the real Aboriginal issues

ECONOMICS: Foreign debt hits $255 billion

COVER STORY: Wrong way on drugs: new book

Straws in the Wind

ECONOMICS: From bad to worse: the future of world trade

PRIVATISATION: Telstra under fire

Australia and the world


REGIONAL AFFAIRS: West Papua: Jakarta takes the strain

MEDIA: “Australia Week”, junkets and the GST

MEDICINE: Trust me, I’m a bureaucrat!

ASIA: New era for Taiwan

Books promotion page

Straws in the Wind

by Max Teichmann

News Weekly, June 17, 2000
To whose tune?

We seem to be in for a long March season, (pardon the pun), possibly up til the next election, seeing that Labor is showing so few signs of producing a coherent or plausible policy mix, and that the Democrats are really two parties, and the Greens are .... the Greens. And the media are turning out one beat-up fiasco after another. (Did anyone see George Speight wipe the floor with Richard Carleton the other night?). So a big incomprehensible issue has to be produced.

Here, nostalgia got the better of the spin doctors, so it’s back to the sixties - a lot of Old Left banners and pre-loved chants, mantra and slogans from earlier happier times were given yet another airing in Sydney. While shouting everyone down in order to prevent yourself thinking seemed the name of the exercise.

Imre Salusinsky, in his Australian Financial Review column, described it as an anti-Howard march; essentially a Labor Party gathering, led by those who don’t like elections, or liberal democracy. And, as he said, another fifteen million or so Australians who have no particular feelings towards Mr Howard, or even don’t mind him, declined to take part.

The Reconciliation bandwagon is in big trouble at present, with the young Turks attempting to hijack the cause, as they did the March, and the old Guard, which includes the white supporters, being quite unhappy. One group wants four guaranteed seats for Aborigines in Federal Parliament — as they have in NZ, (oh lucky, lucky Kiwis). Another crowd insists that Howard, and us, saying Sorry, is the main goal; while the third group has revived a treaty. We haven’t yet encountered the independent Aboriginal State — but we shall. A tropical Kosovo coming up?

So in a way Howard was right in saying that the march was a gesture which everyone supported because it was advocating Reconciliation.

Of course the kind of verbiage and the body language on show — and this included some of the media — should have dispelled all assumptions that the exercise was about Reconciliation. Quite the reverse. Genuine supporters should beware of the company they will be keeping. Terms like, “Little Johnny”, “Human roofing nail”, “Mr MacGoo,” “a disgusting fascist douche-bag” .... all reported by Salusinsky, might indicate what is really afoot.

I suspect a treaty may end as the favourite goal, for Beazley can obfuscate on that one forever; say Labor will look at it when elected (he’s already started up saying this), so we can have a protest movement with a jelly-like agenda, no time frame, no modus operandi — at least such as to secure general agreement. But lots of anti-Howard marches, and associated social life, and trips for television news helicopter crews.

On alternate weeks, the same kind of people — even the same people — will be calling for the destruction (I think that was the word) of Peter Reith and succor for the oppressed Building, Maritime and Public Sector unions. Ruritanian newspapers please note: this is called obtaining a mandate, and, ideally, should replace elections and referenda.

Black and white mischief

Anyone who read Geoffrey Barker’s article on “thugocracies” and the Pacific’s future (AFR, June 5) would, even if he had read nothing else, be more or less prepared for what has just happened in the Solomons. He might understand Fiji better, and be prepared for similar occurrences throughout the region.

Barker ascribes most of the corruption and criminalisation of the various Pacific island countries to transnational gangs who bribe local politicians (ideally the leaders), the army, the police and judiciary. The prizes are the islands’ resources: timber, minerals, overseas aid, sent by trusting outsiders; money laundering facilities — thus the Russian mafia in the Solomons — the right to operate tax havens, and protected staging points for the passage of drugs, weapons, and illegal immigrants. Secure hiding places for wanted criminals, and the provision of new passports and accreditation.

Barker talks throughout of overseas crime rings, only mentioning, three lines from the end, local criminals. But he neglects our locals — for such Australians have had a very powerful role in the spreading of crime and corruption in these places, and in any case, the division between local and international — whether it concerns drugs, people smuggling, tax evasion, arms trafficking — is more and more specious. But we are the base — the moated aerodrome, for this area; for the new criminal colonialism underway.

The fragile, even amateurish character of the island institutions is of course no match for European and Australian predators.(We’ll leave out Middle Eastern or Asian for simplicity’s sake).

But there is a pattern of language and ethnic group loyalties in this region which defeats Western-style political theory and practice. It makes attempts to impose Western democratic norms appear a Quixotic exercise, and further attempts by military intervention, self-defeating blood-letting. Yet it seems as though this is what Labor wants the Government to do, pretending as they proceed, to be ignorant of the factors Geoffrey Barker enumerates.

As to dealing with the local and international criminal networks, this is not on either party’s agenda in a realistic way, nor on the UN’s. The plight of the island peoples has been substantially weakened by the economic rationalist measures imposed by Australia at the behest of the IMF and the World Bank, resulting, as Barker says, in increased unemployment, immiseration of the poor, and low paid work, while increasing social instability and fanning ethnic rivalries and religious confrontations.

But then, these are the results in many places, are they not?

Thus Jakarta’s government debt has reached $US134 billion, i.e. 83 per cent of GDP, up from $US53 billion, before the Deluge, the World Bank announced last Saturday. Even the Bob and Paul Show, or the John and Joan act in Victoria, couldn’t replicate that one. It needs Wall Street or the IMF.

We cannot ease the ethnic, religious or cultural differences holding sway in the Pacific or anywhere else. Nor should we try. Neither should we try and impose or sell our political or economic nostrums — leave that to America. Nor should we be the umpire in civil wars. We finish up as the meat in the sandwich. What we could do is to try to clean out the foreign crims and our own — and call on the international community to help.

For us, this would be a worthwhile educational exercise ... for they won’t. Or UN peace keepers? In this area, the UN, as Charles Krauthammer writes “is more farce than force” and that would be worth relearning. In fact, we should keep our Trust in God and our powder dry. There are far more dramatic threats and challenges just down the line — far more interesting things than saying “Sorry” to one another, like a never ending paint advertisement.

A pre-emptive strike

Victoria’s Bracks Government, with a flush Treasury and a dishevelled Opposition — the Liberals still disorganised and still trying to hammer out agreed positions, and the National survivors just starting to realise that Tim Fischer and Pat MacNamara have probably inflicted terminal damage upon rural conservatism — is having an easy passage.

So Mr Bracks, knowing at first hand how fickle public opinion now is, was at least half serious in warning his colleagues against over-confidence. However, he himself, is now picking a fight with the Victorian public which he could lose, and which could alienate many voters. And that concerns the installation of heroin injecting rooms, as part of Labor’s long-standing preference for “Harm Minimisation” as against “Harm Prevention” policies — and Professor Penington’s dream of full legalisation of all drugs.

Irrespective of what arguments and “polls” Professor Penington’s people are injecting into the public demesne — and I must observe, that much of what he is saying or “demonstrating” is being widely challenged as to its veracity — and irrespective of all this government-engendered haste to settle the dispute quickly — a “Brack-lash” is well and truly underway.

Most of the municipalities selected for the trial injecting rooms, are expressing their strong opposition — extending even to local Labor councillors — and public protest meetings are springing up everywhere.

Normally, you would judge that this is a complex, hotly-disputed area, crying out for debate, consultation, with a view to Reconciliation. But no, the Victorian public has to face the facts, says the Premier. We have to face Reality - now! Whose facts? Either Professor Penington’s, purveyed by Bracks, but being energetically confuted — or the fact that there are large numbers of people dying of drug overdoses.

This we know. But the suggested remedy, shooting galleries, is being urged upon us on the ground that anything is worth trying. And this is an “anything”.

But we can all have our own anythings, e.g. hang all drug pushers, as some countries have done ... with striking results. Barbaric, you say? Isn’t selling drugs to minors? Or sack all the teachers of schools where drugs are regularly sold. Or allow parents the right to sue the teachers.

The transparent attempt to rush the issue and abort a public discussion, just as it is getting under way, leaves one with a peculiar feeling, why the hurry? Much time has been lost, true, but due to a blanket propaganda campaign advocating shooting galleries, supported by quite insufficient reasoning, relying on repetition and orchestrated media melodrama, and the blotting out of all criticism and refutations. This situation was at its worst under Kennett. Only now that he has gone, have our conservatives been emboldened to speak.

It is now the turn of Labor dissenters to remain silent, or else ... Why the political intolerance, the threats, and the spectacle of Bracks acting wholly out of his carefully constructed character? For he had sworn not to be like Kennett, to ignore the electorate, run roughshod over grassroots opinion. And yet he seems prepared to do just this.

There appears a strange urgency to want to set the decriminalisation of drugs in concrete, in Victoria, before anyone can properly oppose him.

As I said, all rather peculiar — and non-participatory.

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