Tuesday, 23 September 2014

A parliamentary speech that actually says something

I am old enough to remember the times when speeches in parliament actually meant something. I even learned shorthand so I could write down and then report what MPs said back in those days because there were no transcripts issued in advance. Reporting what was said was an indication of what was meant, what a member actually believed. Alas, no more. Parliamentary speeches these days are a repetition of prepared and sanitised arguments. Why bother to report such a boring parliamentary debate?
So what a delight it was to an old fellow yesterday when the Labor MP for Fremantle, Melissa Parke, actually had the courage to break the shackles of party orthodoxy on the question of military intervention in the Middle East and combating terrorsim at home.
Ms PARKE (Fremantle) (18:24): Last week on Twitter a person called for my execution for treason because I had questioned the government’s rapid escalation of our new involvement in Iraq from a purely humanitarian mission to one where we appear to be joining the US in an open-ended fight against IS. A call for my execution may be extreme, but it demonstrates how the beating of the drums of war and the hysteria this generates inevitably prevent the kind of calm, serious and rational discussion that is called for when decisions are being made to commit Australians overseas to kill and potentially to be killed. It is natural for us to respond instinctively to confronting images. The graphic and brutal murders of Westerners David Haines, Steven Sotloff and James Foley—people who only sought to do good in the world—have offended our sense of humanity and stoked our desire for justice in a way that countless other atrocities in Iraq and Syria—as well as in Gaza, Afghanistan, Pakistan and many countries in Africa—seem not to have. But given the disastrous consequences of previous military interventions, as well as the continually evolving and incredibly complex situation in the Middle East, it has perhaps never been more important to curb that natural instinct for retaliation and the use of hard power and consider the root causes. In this it may be helpful to reflect on what an elderly woman in Northern Ireland said to one of the former heads of our national counterterrorism organisation before the peace talks: ‘If you’ve got nothing to live for, you’ve got everything to die for.’
The challenges in Iraq—some caused and others exacerbated by the ill-judged coalition of the willing in 2003 —arise from deep ethnic communal, cultural and religious issues. As the Ottoman Turks discovered, and as has become even clearer ever since, these issues are never going to be resolved by outsiders, especially not outsiders with guns and bombs, and not by approaching this as a crusade against a death cult. Fundamentally, this is an issue of human security. And does anyone believe you can ensure the security of humans by bombing humans? At the centre of any credible national security policy is human security—individual wellbeing and community harmony that allows people everywhere to go about their business without fear, without constraints on their freedoms as enshrined in law and without the constant worry that someone wants to take their possessions and enslave their children. That, of course, is the essential meaning of the term ‘security': without worry—sine cura, for the classicists.
The authoritative and internationally respected commentator Rachel Shabi made the following observations just this week:
It should be obvious by now that if such bombing campaigns have an effect, it is to make things much worse. What western leaders portray as valiant efforts to rid the world of evil forces such as ISIL just don’t play the same way in the region. In Iraq, for instance, western military intervention is viewed as support for the authoritarian,sectarian and West-approved leadership, whose persecution and air strikes are so bad that many Sunnis are prepared to put up with ISIL, for now, as preferable. Western military intervention thus gives ISIL its recruitment fuel of choice: A war with a self-interested external enemy around which to galvanise support.
Meanwhile, arming supposed “moderates” in Syria is equally delusional: Even self-declared moderates have on the ground, allied with the currently dominant ISIL in the fight against dictator Bashar al-Assad, and even these so-called moderates have carried out beheadings and other brutalities. A cursory glance around the region shows exactly what happens when the West arms groups that somehow fit the “moderate” descriptive; as one writer  most succinctly puts it: “The terrorists fighting us now? We just finished training them.”
As with the situation between Russia and Ukraine, Australia has no strategic stake or status in Iraq and Syria, except as a compassionate and engaged member of the international community. One has to ask why on earth the UN was not our first port of call, especially at a time when we occupy a valuable seat on the UN Security Council, where we can examine with other countries who are more familiar with the situation in the region than we are the potential for political and diplomatic solutions. That means considering the use of smart rather than hard power.
It has been a matter of great surprise and disappointment to me that the government has not engaged with the UN before committing special forces and equipment to the so-called coalition of the concerned. In my view we should be endeavouring to ensure that there is a broadbased international partnership engaging moderate Islamic states such as Indonesia and Malaysia as well as neighbouring Middle Eastern states such as Jordan and Turkey, under the auspices of the UN, to address the very real humanitarian and human security issues that are at the heart of the current problem.
In my earlier speech on the Iraq conflict, on 4 September, I called for a formal debate in the Australian parliament. While this would be unlikely to change the result, it would represent an open and proper process for the Australian government in relation to its involvement in a conflict that will be costly and will inevitably have serious and uncertain geopolitical consequences. At this point it is very poorly defined, in terms of timescale, objectives, cost, rationale, international legal basis and underlying international agreement.
Such a debate would have the effect of airing the many issues and questions that remain unanswered. For instance, how does the use of armed force, in the manner that the US, Australia and other participants in the current coalition intend to apply it, actually serve the humanitarian and political objectives that should be at the centre of the international community’s response to events in Northern Iraq and Syria?
Airstrikes in Northern Iraq may deplete IS but also are likely to displace some IS members to other parts of Iraq and Syria. After the billions spent by the coalition of the willing on training and equipping the Iraqi army, it still seems as though its capacity to deal with such threats remains limited. Does this then mean a second attempt to train and equip the Iraqis? Why would this be any more successful than the first time? Does it mean a return to boots on the ground in Iraq and, if so, by which countries? What will happen in Syria where Bashar al-Assad’s forces have committed atrocities against civilians on a grander scale than IS and where various countries have provided funds and weapons, to either side, to continue that conflict by proxy?
If the proposal is to arm only moderate, Free Syrian Army fighters—as opposed to, say, an al-Qaeda linked group like al-Nusra—what would make such fighters stop fighting Assad and start fighting ISIL? Are we going to start arming Hezbollah or the Syrian army itself against ISIL? Is it possible to guarantee that weapons will not be used against civilians? How will the coalition deal with the participation of countries, such as Saudi Arabia, that have been involved in supporting Sunni jihadist groups, like IS?
Let us remember that Saudi Arabia is a country in which beheadings by the government regime are commonplace, including for the offence of sorcery. How will the coalition treat its partner Egypt, where hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters have been sentenced to death and where journalists, including Peter Greste, have been sentenced to long jail terms after sham trials? How will our government treat Australians citizens who have travelled abroad to fight with moderate groups against Assad and/or IS? Will they be the recipients of our weapons and assistance in Iraq or Syria, only to be prosecuted when they try to come home?
There is an enormous danger in moving so quickly that these questions are not examined and when the possible consequences are not thought through, anticipated and planned for. I am not suggesting that we should not be involved in protecting civilians from atrocities or that we should not endeavour to bring perpetrators of these crimes to justice. Our actions should be based on humanitarian objectives and in accordance with the international rule of law.
I am concerned too about the increased security risk to Australians everywhere as a result of our involvement infurther action in Iraq. I was working for the UN in the Middle East when Australia joined the so-called coalitionof the willing, in 2003. I was advised by security officers of the heightened risk I faced as a result of Australia’snvolvement in that the debacle. In some places, such as Egypt, I was even advised not to disclose the fact thatI was Australian.
We Australians like to think of ourselves as universally loved but this is not always the case, particularly as aresult of our involvement in Iraq in 2003 and the public positions taken from time to time by Australian politicalleaders in support of Israel’s actions against the Palestinians, even where these are plainly contrary to internationallaw. These issues matter to a great many people in the world and we are foolish if we fail to think through theconsequences of our words and actions. One of these consequences is the fertile ground such issues provide forthe recruitment of new members to the extremist cause.
Finally, I note that with the present focus on national security it is extraordinary that the Prime Minister is not attending the global summit on climate change. In this year’s quadrennial defence review, the US defence department describes the threat of climate change as a very serious national security vulnerability. Australia’s current national security strategy with climate change, along with the threat of the resurgence of violent political groups, has a broad global challenge with national security implications. National security is not all about jet fighters and special-action forces or even the numbers and powers of the Australian police. If the Prime Minister really wants Australians to insouciantly go about their business, he needs to re-examine his climate change policy—or lack thereof—which many Australians, as demonstrated in yesterday’s climate-action rallies, regard as regressive, ignorant, destructive and politically self-indulgent.
No-one will argue against steps to genuinely improve the security of Australians, but the core issue here is whether the steps this government is taking at home and abroad are being properly considered and calibrated to meet the reality rather than the hype, to achieve properly defined outcomes rather than draw us into yet another counter-productive military engagement. That judgement cannot be made when there is no meaningful debate in the national parliament. (Time expired)

Polar sea ice trends continue in different directions and other news and views for Tuesday 23 September

2014-09-23_dailyseaice
  • Scientists debate polar sea-ice opposites – “Arctic sea ice has passed its minimum summer extent, say polar experts meeting in London. The cover on 17 September dipped to 5.01 million sq km, and has risen slightly since then, suggesting the autumn re-freeze has now taken hold. This year’s minimum is fractionally smaller than last year (5.10 million sq km), making summer 2014 the sixth lowest in the modern satellite record. The Antarctic, in contrast, continues its winter growth. It is still a few weeks away from reaching its maximum, which will continue the record-setting trend of recent years. Ice extent surrounding the White Continent has just topped 20 million sq km. The marine cover at both poles is the subject of discussion at a major UK Royal Society conference taking place this week.
  • The fight of their lives – The White House wants the Kurds to help save Iraq from ISIS. The Kurds may be more interested in breaking away.
  • The Limits to Fighting the Islamic State – Gareth Evans writes – “… as the US-led mission is currently conceived and described, it is not clear whether its objectives are achievable at acceptable costs in terms of time, money, and lives.”
2014-09-23_aflandalcohol
  • The drinking habits of AFL supporters – “Considering that 14 of the 18 AFL teams are sponsored by an alcohol brand or retailer, it seems an apt time to take a look at the booze preferences of AFL fans. In the year to June 2014, supporters of most AFL teams (with the exception of Greater Western Sydney, Western Bulldogs and Port Adelaide) were more likely than the average Australian adult to have drunk alcohol in an average four weeks.
  • Who’s made Australia’s most sexist comments? Check out the shortlist – “Tonight, more than 350 women will come together to judge the 22nd annual ‘Ernie Awards for Sexist Remarks. Through a technical voting system of ‘booing’ while the short-listed offenders are read out during the gala dinner, the honourable award winners will be determined.”
  • Giving Chickens Bacteria … To Keep Them Antibiotic-Free
  • Short-Term Benefits of Climate Change Policy – “If the case for reducing the use of carbon-based energy can be made right now, in terms of immediate health benefits, then that seems a useful starting point for discussion. “

The glaringly obvious guide to the next crash and other news and views for Monday 22 September

  • The glaringly obvious guide to the next crash – What sell signals will future generations wonder at our ability to ignore, asks James Mackintosh
  • Fukushima cleanup going painfully slow – “Three and a half years after Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power station spewed massive amounts of radioactive materials into the air and water, decontamination work in Fukushima Prefecture has yet to draw to an end. The government initially hoped to complete the decontamination by the end of last March, but the process continues to lag far behind, prompting the government to push back the goal by three years to 2017.”
  • The dangerous revival of nationalism – Separatist movements have a pull for voters even in a borderless world of bits and bytes
23-09-2014 lionking
  • Broadway’s ‘The Lion King’ Becomes Top Grossing Title of All Time – “Disney’s “The Lion King” has claimed a new crown: Top box office title in any medium. The Associated Press did the math and discovered the 17-year-old stage musical, which on Broadwayhas undergone an extraordinary spurt of B.O. growth in recent years, has logged worldwide sales of more than $6.2 billion, taking the lead from another Broadway longrunner, “The Phantom of the Opera,” which has pulled in $6 billion. That tally makes “Lion King” more successful than any single movie in history. The top film earner of all time is “Avatar,” weighing in at $2.8 billion.”
  • Largest Climate-Change March in History Unlikely to Convince Idiots
23-09-2014 xkcdloop

Monday, 22 September 2014

No El Niño but getting close to a record hot year for the planet anyhow

Of the world’s five warmest years on record – 2010, 2005, 1998, 2003, and 2013 – all but 2013 began during a mature El Niño event. Hence the interest always paid to this measure reflecting ocean water temperatures in the Pacific and to the speculation that 2014 might be another record high temperature one when the climate model makers earlier in the year were putting the chances of an El Niño at 80%. That probability has now retreated a little with the Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s latest El Niño watch being in the neutral range.
Somewhat surprisingly the warm temperatures have kept coming without an El Niño influence. According tothe latest report of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):
  • The combined average temperature across global land and ocean surfaces for August 2014 was record high for the month, at 0.75°C (1.35°F) above the 20th century average of 15.6°C (60.1°F), topping the previous record set in 1998.
  • The global land surface temperature was 0.99°C (1.78°F) above the 20th century average of 13.8°C (56.9°F), the second highest on record for August, behind 1998.
  • For the ocean, the August global sea surface temperature was 0.65°C (1.17°F) above the 20th century average of 16.4°C (61.4°F). This record high departure from average not only beats the previous August record set in 2005 by 0.08°C (0.14°F), but also beats the previous all-time record set just two months ago in June 2014 by 0.03°C (0.05°F).
  • The combined average global land and ocean surface temperature for the June–August period was also record high for this period, at 0.71°C (1.28°F) above the 20th century average of 16.4°C (61.5°F), beating the previous record set in 1998.
  • The June–August worldwide land surface temperature was 0.91°C (1.64°F) above the 20th century average, the fifth highest on record for this period. The global ocean surface temperature for the same period was 0.63°C (1.13°F) above the 20th century average, the highest on record for June–August. This beats the previous record set in 2009 by 0.04°C (0.07°F).
  • The combined average global land and ocean surface temperature for January–August (year-to-date) was 0.68°C (1.22°F) above the 20th century average of 14.0°C (57.3°F), the third highest for this eight-month period on record.
Now I know there is something magical about calendar year records but I have used NASA’s data to plot average monthly temperature anomalies for the 12 months to August and it too shows 2014 as the third highest on record
22-09-2014 averageaugustanomaly
The NOAA has catered for the calendar year followers with graphics comparing the year-to-date temperature anomalies for 2014 (black line) to what were ultimately the five warmest years on record: 2010, 2005, 1998, 2003, and 2013. Each month along each trace represents the year-to-date average temperature. In other words, the January value is the January average temperature, the February value is the average of both January and February, and so on.
The first graphic shows the basic year-to-date comparison. The second graphic zooms even further to what were ultimately the five warmest years on record, and shows several end-of-year results based on the following scenarios:
22-09-2014 scenario
The years 2013 and 2014 are the only years on this list not to begin during a mature El Niño event. The years 1998 and 2010, each of which became the warmest year on record at the time, ended the year in a strong La Niña event, as evidenced by the relative fading of global average temperature later in the year.
The anomalies themselves represent departures from the 20th century average temperature. The graph zooms into the warmest part of the entire history.
22-09-2014 yeartodatetemperatures
22-09-2014 globaltemperaturescenarios

Sunday, 21 September 2014

The problems of backing rebels – the US experience

  • When The U.S. Backs Rebels, It Doesn’t Often Go As Planned – “As the U.S. steps up arms and training, Syria’s “moderate” rebels are joining a long line of resistance movements the Americans have backed over the decades, from Angola to Afghanistan. … U.S. support has consistently given rebels a boost in the short term, sometimes leading to outright victory. But battlefield success is never the end of the story. Unanticipated consequences often play out years later, casting the mission in a very different light.”
  • The invasion of corporate news – “The lines between journalism and PR are rapidly becoming blurred as business interests bypass traditional media to get their message across.”
21-09-2014 dogoptimism
  • Dogs can be pessimists too – “Dogs generally seem to be cheerful, happy-go-lucky characters, so you might expect that most would have an optimistic outlook on life.In fact some dogs are distinctly more pessimistic than others, research from the University of Sydney shows.”
  • Hell in the Hot Zone – “As the Ebola epidemic rages, two questions have emerged: How did the deadly virus escape detection for three months? And why has a massive international effort failed to contain it? Traveling to Meliandou, a remote Guinean village and the likely home of Patient Zero, Jeffrey E. Stern tracks the virus’s path—and the psychological contagion that is still feeding the worst Ebola outbreak in history.”
  • Domestic violence likely more frequent for same-sex couples – “Domestic violence occurs at least as frequently, and likely even more so, between same-sex couples compared to opposite-sex couples, according to a review of literature by Northwestern Medicine® scientists.”

The dangers of sacking ministerial Senators

The Parliament House gossip for weeks now has had Australian Minister for Defence, Senator the Honourable David Johnston, head of the short-list of Cabinet ministers ready for sacking. As someone who avoids the big house on the hill like the plague I can shed no guidance as to the inspiration for the stories but the but the campaign against the Senator certainly got a kick along this morning.
Retired Major-General Jim Molan, who was asked to act as the Minister’s adviser on next year’s Defence White Paper, after he helped devise the Government’s border protection policy,  told Channel 10 he quit because he realised it would not be feasible to continue in the role.
“The reason for this being not feasible had nothing to do with the professionalism of the Department of Defence, of the [Australian Defence Force], of the chief of the Defence Force or the secretary of the Department,” he said. When it was suggested Mr Molan was narrowing his criticism down to Mr Johnston, he said: “Well, that’s a conclusion you can come to and that’s something that I would discuss in private with others.”
That’s as close as an old soldier can go to dropping a bucket on his boss and will increase the volume of the gossip and the pressure that some people are tying to put on the Prime Minister to make a change.
Unfortunately for Tony Abbott there are dangers in making a replacement. Principal among them is that Defence Minister Johnston is a Senator in a Senate where the Abbott government has difficulties enough already in getting the numbers. The last thing the Abbott government needs is another loose cannon from his own minority team to deal with.
The Queenslander Ian Macdonald is doing enough damage already as he uses his unwanted freedom of the backbench to remind the PM of the danger that comes from sacking one of his front benchers.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Strong measures to limit carbon emissions might actually lead to faster growth

  • Could Fighting Global Warming Be Cheap and Free? – Paul Krugman writes: “I’ve just been reading two new reports on the economics of fighting climate change: a big study by a blue-ribbon international group, the New Climate Economy Project, and a working paper from the International Monetary Fund. Both claim that strong measures to limit carbon emissions would have hardly any negative effect on economic growth, and might actually lead to faster growth. This may sound too good to be true, but it isn’t. These are serious, careful analyses.”
  • Forget the national debt. The new budget threat is climate change – “Shaun Donovan gave his first speech as White House budget director Friday, and he didn’t even mention that Washington obsession of recent years, the $17.8 trillion national debt.No, in the run-up to next week’s United Nations climate summit in New York, the Obama administration is focused like a laser on a different threat to federal finances and the U.S. economy: the consequences of global warming.”
  • Listen up, fellow DORCs, I have a bridge to sell you – “The whole idea of basing user charges on the imaginary current replacement cost of an asset that already exists is ideological claptrap. It says that you tell your kids that they can’t afford to drive the old Volvo in the yard because a new one would cost $ 100,000.”
  • Tax cuts can do more harm than good – “Tax cuts are the one guaranteed path to prosperity. Or so politicians have told Americans for so long that the claim has become a secular dogma. But tax cuts can do more harm than good, a new report shows. It draws on decades of empirical evidence analyzed with standard economic principles used in business, academia and government. What ultimately matters is the way a tax cut is structured and how it affects behavior.”
  • Russia is our most dangerous neighbour  – Russia is both a tragedy and a menace writes Martin Wolf. “In the Financial Times this week Sergey Karaganov offered an arresting insight into the blend of self-pity and braggadocio currently at work in Moscow. It is as depressing as it is disturbing. Western policy makers seem to believe the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (known as Isis) is the greater danger. But Russia is the nuclear-armed rump of a former superpower and, ruled by an amoral autocrat, it frightens me even more. For Europe and, I believe, the US, there is no greater foreign policy question than how to deal with today’s Russia.”
  • How To Inoculate Angry Teens Against Islamic Extremism – Maajid Nawaz used to be a recruiter for an extreme Islamist group in the United Kingdom. NPR’s Scott Simon speaks with Nawaz about how the recruiting process works, and how it can be thwarted.