Today’s Commentary is partly a catch-up after my Easter break but also highlights some developments, mostly worsening, confronting us.
Is the US still supporting the traditional democratic and economic philosophy inherent in Western society?
Undoubtedly, the No.1 worsening problem is the state of the US politic. The article below by Greg Sheridan expands on his recent analysis suggesting an increasingly worrying US Presidency and the virtual disappearance of the US as a world leader supporting democratic governments. Under Obama nobody now knows what the US might do when confronted by potential even actual external threats to “allies”, and even to the US itself. Nor can there be any confidence that the US Congress, now with a Republican majority, has the capacity to prevent a further deterioration in US foreign and defence policies. Unlike Australia, there is no practical mechanism for a “spill” to replace Obama and the policies he is pursuing will make it difficult for his successor to effect reversals. Nor can any reliance be put on Europe to intervene externally when the US fails to do so.
The central problem facing western countries is how to handle Islamic extremist groups, the leaders of which have recognised that under Obama any US intervention is likely to be limited and that threats to intervene can largely be ignored. Hence, even if there is finalisation by 30 June of the in-principle agreement to restrict Iran’s capacity to develop nuclear weaponry, Iran is widely seen as then being able to cheat without being punished and without experiencing a restoration of economic sanctions (see attached article by former State Secretaries Kissinger and Shultz, which notes that Iran has been acting in defiance of UN resolutions). Needless to say, there are major adverse implications in the Middle East (including a race to acquire nuclear weaponry) if such a situation develops.
As an example of likely defiance to the US, Iran has been told by Kerry that its current support of friendly forces in Yemen is not acceptable. But the take-over of Yemen by such Islamic forces, as supported by Iran and involving what was a US-supported regime, is continuing and is unlikely to be prevented by Saudi forces.
Leaving aside the limited US intervention against extremist activity in Iraq/Syria, a recent example of the failure to respond to such activity includes the attack by IS on a “camp” sheltering a large number of Palestinian refugees. This led UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to state publicly “What is unfolding in Yarmouk is unacceptable… We simply cannot stand by and watch a massacre unfold.” He may as well have been talking to himself. The only response was a promise from European sources to provide financial assistance.
Similarly, while the slaughter of about 140 Kenyan students by the Somalian Islamist al-Shabab group concentrated on Christians (“if you were a Christian you were shot”), the best Obama could do was to say that “innocent men and women were brazenly and brutally massacred”. He couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge who had been shot by whom and vowed only to stand with the Kenyan government and people “in their efforts to bring communities together”.
The foregoing does not cover all the areas where Obama might have been more supportive of “allies”, such as in the Ukrainian dispute with Russia, or where he appears to be developing friendly relations with dictatorial and terrorist-run governments, such as Cuba (reportedly making the totally irrelevant statement that “the cold war is over”). Nor does it cover the situation in North Korea, which appears to have acquired nuclear weaponry and thumbed its nose at the US.
Christians in the Middle East
Rather belatedly, the Pope has now stated publicly that “the situation of Christians of the Middle East is most precarious and distressing” and has expressed the view that a failure to criticise Islamic beheadings etc of Christians implies complicit acceptance. It is encouraging that the Catholic church has taken a lead here but worrying that other segments of Christianity appear to have shied away from similar statements outside their own congregations.
There has been welcome bipartisan support in Australia for a tightening of security against terrorist activity, for our involvement in air strikes against IS in Iraq and for the allocation of special forces to help the training of Iraqi forces. Abbott himself has also publicly criticized the “death culture” inherent in extremist activity. But there has been no major statement explaining the rationale of the Islamic extremists and why they must be opposed, nor responses to some outlandish statements by at least one of the extremist groups operating in Australia.
A major statement is needed explaining why some Muslims interpret their religion as necessarily involving jihadist activity, why this interpretation of their religion is not acceptable here and why action is being taken to stop violence emanating from it. Properly drafted and explained, this would add to the status of the Abbott government and would create a situation that Labor would find difficult to avoid supporting. Such a statement could also express the need for other countries to strengthen their attitudes against Islamic extremism and support for Christian values.
Further, as noted in this article by Andrew Bolt, a significant proportion of Australian media is more inclined to criticize Christianity than Islamism. Critics of the latter are mistakenly presented as racists and opponents of multiculturalism per se. Of course, a public statement by the government would not stop critics at the ABC and Fairfax press. But it would provide an important counter perspective and limit the development of protest groups such as the one describing itself as “Reclaim Australia”. That group has held rallies around Australia expressing opposition to, inter alia, proponents of sharia law. Unless the government better explains why cultures which include support for violent action against other cultures are not acceptable, such public protests may increase.
While the Coalition’s latest Newspoll TPP rating has improved to 49/51, this remains well below its election result of 53.5/46.5 and Abbott remains well below Shorten as preferred PM. Also, the state by state Newspoll ratings for February/March now show TPPs favouring Labor in each state except Queensland, where the two major parties are level on 50. However, while the NSW election resulted in a swing of 8-9 per cent to Labor (with 54 seats still to Baird and only 34 to Foley), an exit poll on reasons for voting suggests that Federal politics had little influence and it appears that the swing mainly reflected a return to “normal” after Labor’s very large loss in the previous NSW election.
The improvement in the Coalition’s rating is being attributed by some to a shift in policy involving a less aggressive approach to reducing spending and an indication that some new spending will be in the May budget, including on the already well-provided child care. It seems doubtful that such action will restore ratings and that a major improvement in strategies in areas such as climate change, industrial relations and Islamism is needed.
Threats to Economic Development from Greens
It is reported that the Indian government is considering action against Greenpeace because it is involved in “anti-development” activities in India (where it has 7 offices), such as campaigning against power projects, mining and genetically modified food (see this article). One of the Indians claiming to be adversely affected has received approval in Australia for a large project to develop coal mining in Queensland.
Action along the lines being considered by India would not be feasible in Australia. But a portrayal by the government of greens here as anti-development and anti-increased living standards, with examples, would help reduce their image and influence. It is also encouraging that three Coalition MPS have instigated an inquiry into the tax deductibility provided to environmental groups. Indeed, it is remarkable that the ABC 7.30 report ran a program (not chaired by Leigh Sales) which was sympathetic to the MPs and acknowledged that some environmental groups “are overtly political, intent on using their environmental activism to stop development” (see transcript of the program).
It is reported that the government will be issuing a document in June on its approach to the meeting of the IPCC in Paris in December. There is a strong case for a better explanation by the government of its reservations about climate change, including the adverse economic effects. One hopes that under its new head the Treasury will make a better job of the pathetic effort under the previous head.