Just a matter of weeks after the Newtown massacre in which twenty young children and six members of the Sandy Hook Elementary School staff were shot dead, the President of the United States of America has now announced a number of measures that his administration will pursue. Some will require legislative approval and a number […]
Category Archives: International Politics
The 2013 general election in Malaysia has come to an end. The poll was much-anticipated, with the promise that it appeared to offer the opposition, Pakatan Rakyat (PR). Pundits in Malaysia and around the world were of the belief that the 2013 election would be the closest in the country’s history and that the opposition, led by Anwar Ibrahim, might have even been able to prevail on Sunday the 5th of May. But it was not be for Anwar Ibrahim and the coalition of parties behind his bid to be the first of Malaysia’s Prime Ministers not to come from UMNO which has ruled the country since its independence in 1957.
The 56-year rule of the governing coalition is set to continue after Barisan Nasional (BN) took 133 of the parliament’s 222 seats, a simple majority, with PR snaring 89 seats in the assembly.
Not much has changed since the 2008 poll. Prime Minister Najib Razak was hoping to recapture the supermajority lost by Barisan Nasional in the election five years ago and Anwar was widely expected to do much better than the results indicate.
Where there is hope for Pakatan Rakyat is in the popular vote tally. PR won that contest, but of course, successful gerrymandering of electorates helped to offset the good showing in the popular vote which needed to be more uniform across the country for the opposition coalition of parties to be delivered government.
Prior to and throughout polling day and into the night, as the votes were counted and the election called, claims were aired about vote rigging and other unsavoury, undemocratic practices. There was indelible ink too, which turned out to be quite easily removed. And there were claims of foreign workers brought in to vote using Malaysian ID cards.
There appears to have been a significant amount of contestable incidents during the general election on Sunday and the Opposition Leader will not accept the result. Anwar Ibrahim has called for a peaceful rally and the wearing of black on Wednesday as the country and the world continues to digest the result.
There is almost no doubt that there were significant irregularities, but even the most hopeful of analysts readily admit that there was probably not enough examples of undemocratic behaviour by political actors on the day to overturn the result. It is arguable however, that gerrymandering alone could have prevented or at least aided in blocking a win for the opposition.
Then there is the simple matter of the electoral commission being under the purview of the Prime Minister. There is little chance that there will be even a shred of a meaningful examination of the claims and more than likely none at all. In fact Prime Minister Razak has already urged the opposition coalition to accept the result.
It appears then that there will be a period of, at best a calm unease and at worst, small-scale riots perpetrated by fringe elements of opposition supporters. The rally on Wednesday will provide a test to see if cool heads prevail. But it should be used, for the most part, as a rallying cry for the next election in five years’ time.
The situation going forward, beyond this election result, is a complex mix of factors, not least of which is Anwar’s future in politics and the future of the opposition movement and how they organise. Then there is what needs to change in terms of government, governance and democracy in the country more broadly.
Before the election, the Opposition Leader had announced that this would be his last campaign. The former Deputy Prime Minister had signalled a desire to quit politics should he fail in his dream to be PM. This will without a doubt leave a large hole in the opposition which will prove almost impossible to fill, at least in the short-term.
Should Anwar Ibrahim hold to his pledge to quit politics, the real, the popular face of the movement for change will disappear. Politics in countries around the world is growing increasingly presidential in nature and that means that the hopes of political parties will increasingly rest on the popularity of party leaders. And Anwar Ibrahim was an immensely popular opposition figure.
The only other PR figure with such a high-profile is Anwar’s daughter, Nurul Izzah Anwar. The opposition would have to seriously consider turning to her to continue the momentum brought by her father.
Another significant figure that Pakatan Rakyat should seriously consider trying to lure into a parliamentary career is the face of the Bersih protest movement, Ambiga Sreenevasan. This will prove difficult however, and is, at best, an option in the medium-term future rather than in the short-term.
We know what must happen in terms of democratic change in Malaysia. Elections need to be more free and fair and that will only come to pass with a strong and vocal opposition movement, up against a powerful state with the traditional media all in its corner. The gerrymandering has to stop and the electoral commission must be made an independent body, certainly not located anywhere near the reach of the Prime Minister.
Sadly, this part of the recipe will prove to be the hardest ingredient to combine in the mix for a move to a more open and democratic Malaysian society. Seemingly. the only way this will change will be if the ruling party of 56 years is thrown out of office in five years from now. A more vibrant and creative civil society will play a significant hand in this, even though they will be pursued all the way by the cautious, paranoid and power-hungry regime.
What happens next is crucially important.
US President Barack Obama has delivered his fifth State of the Union address on Capitol Hill. As is custom, nay, the whole point of the speech – the President talked of the current state of affairs in the United States of America, focusing mainly on the economic position of the nation. There was a brief glance at America’s role in foreign affairs and diplomacy, in terms of Afghanistan, North Korea and Iran. And then Mr Obama laid out the plans and aspirations he has for his second and final term as President of the United States. The hour-long speech was replete with promises, some within reach and many others not even close to attainable.
The speech was much along the lines of that which he delivered in his second innauguration address on the hill. Again his words were based on hope and optimism, but the themes was far less muted than they were a little over four years ago before he became President. Aside from some specifics on the economy, gun control and climate change were key issues which Obama focused on. Again same-sex marriage rated a mention, albeit a not overly explicit one.
On the ABC24′s flagship current affairs program, The Drum there was a discussion and dissection of the speech, what it meant, what was in it and what parts of its’ contents will prove achievable for a President with nothing to lose. Most of that discussion had the realities of the situation in mind. It was abundantly clear to all panellists how difficult it would be for Obama to achieve much of the agenda set out today.
Jonathan Green, one of the guests on the show, described Obama’s list of policy goals as a “shopping list”. This is both an ill-fitting metaphor and an apt one for the policy agenda outlined by President Obama in the State of the Union address.
A shopping list is usually a list of things that you will buy and that are readily available on any given day. You go to the shops and they are there and you can usually afford them. They are within reach of everyone. Most of the items on Obama’s shopping list will simply prove to be well and truly out of reach.
There has been some reform on gun control in the form of executive orders, but more significant reform which requires legislative approval will likely prove impossible. Meaningful action on climate change and same-sex marriage will likely suffer the same fate. It is however a positive step that the conversation on both issues has recommenced after being neglected during the election campaign of 2012.
In a sense, the issues outlined by Barack Obama do constitute a metaphorical shopping list. Some of the prescriptions raised by Obama are entirely necessary, like staples on a shopping list. There needs to be action on climate change and gun control and immigration law changes to name but a few topics raised.
Many of the items on Obama’s shopping list were what you would term ‘luxury items’. This is true in a metaphorical sense anyway. They are such because they will prove unobtainable. These are items that are of course desirable – ones which you really want, but which are, for some reason, almost unobtainable.
How many items can President Obama tick off the list? In reality he faces a tough battle with Republicans on the hill in just about every major policy area.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard spent some time with our friends across the Tasman over the weekend. The Prime Minister met with her New Zealand counterpart John Key in Queenstown for the annual Australia-New Zealand Leaders’ meeting. Among other things, the meeting triggered a warning to phone companies to bring down roaming charges or face regulations and also a $3 million pledge to try to develop a vaccine for rheumatic fever.
But it is the asylum seeker and refugee conundrum which will always garner the most attention in the media and tend to dominate talks with other nations in our region. And of course this trip was no exception.
Both the Australian and New Zealand Prime Ministers’ managed to reach a new deal with regard to refugees. It was agreed between the two leaders that New Zealand will accept and resettle 150 refugees from Australia. The agreement, commencing in January 2014 will see the transfer of genuine refugees from the Australian mainland and also the offshore immigration facilities on Nauru and Manus Island.
On the face of it, the deal looks pretty ordinary, but at least like an attempt to deal with the movement of asylum seekers in the region. But it is not even close to a deal that understands the policy problem facing governments in the Asia-Pacific.
The deal fails in two key areas. First, it is an attempt to appear to be trying to do something in terms of the domestic policy situation surrounding refugee policy which is a fraught area for government. Second, it appears to be an attempt to deal with the regional nature of the asylum seeker equation which is a traditionally much more difficult part of the “solution” to reach agreement on.
Australia agreeing to send 150 refugees to New Zealand gives the appearance of acting on the domestic implications of irregular people movements. But in reality the deal will do nothing of the sort. It will not cut down the overcrowding of detention centres in Australia and our offshore facilities. The number, 150, is simply too low for that aim to ever be achieved.
Voters will know that it is the performance of a political illusion. It is an attempt to appeal to the irrational fear of outsiders that a number of our politicians seem all too willing to gently prompt with their often deliberate choice of language when describing maritime arrivals. Politicians care far too much about the votes in being tough on asylum seekers. In fact they should not be tough at all – there is no crime involved, so no punishment is required.
The pact reached at the weekend also fails the regional test. The deal, involving the transfer of genuine refugees from Australia to New Zealand is given the veneer of a regional solution, but it is nothing of the sort. In fact, the only thing remotely regional about the policy is that it involves more than one country in our region.
With the deal there will be no increase in the number of genuine refugees that New Zealand takes in on an annual basis. The 150 refugees that New Zealand will accept from 2014 will be a part of their annual intake of 750. That adds nothing to the regional quota and will still see a large number of boats arriving in Australia.
A significant addition to the refugee intake in the region is what is needed. And with a number of countries in Asia not signatories to the Refugee Convention, it is discussion to get those countries onboard, and a deal with New Zealand on a quota increase which is required to do anything significant about people movement in the region. Of course Australia has recently decided to increase its humanitarian quota, but the election result will likely see it return to the previous number.
But the regional part of the policy discussion is not the only important and meaningful part of the puzzle. Even those politicians with a keen interest in the regional dynamics of the discussion are missing the point. Far too often the regional options are discussed at the expense of the international. Refugee policy is an international problem because conflict is an international problem across all regions of the world.
The agreement contains two false attempts at pursuing refugee policy in a meaningful way, both domestically and regionally. Couple that with an international failure to acknowledge and deal with the movement of people in the early stages and you can be sure we will continue to see large numbers of asylum seekers making the dangerous journey to Australia by sea.
The asylum seeker issue is never far from the headlines. And that has proven to be the case so early in the new year. Parliament has not even returned, and the full complement of political players have not resumed regular hostilities, yet refugee policy has again been raised in the media. On Friday we had Malcolm Fraser chastising both the government and the opposition over their treatment and demonisation of asylum seekers in an interview. And today we learned that the political opposition in Papua New Guinea launched a legal challenge on Friday to the immigration detention facility recently re-opened by the Australian Government on Manus Island.
There have been multiple challenges to elements of asylum seeker policy and practice over the last few years in Australia. But this is the first challenge launched overseas. The appeal was launched by Opposition Leader Belden Namah in the National Court and seeks to have the Australian immigration facility overturned on the grounds that it is unconstitutional.
In bringing this case, Mr Namah wants the imprisonment of asylum seekers on the island to permanently cease. While the case is being heard the leader of the opposition has also sought a temporary cessation of the transfer of asylum seekers to the Manus Island detention centre.
The PNG Opposition Leader has spoken out about the immigration facility before. He has made the point that asylum seekers have not broken any laws and as such, should not be imprisoned in the Manus Island complex. And so it follows that Mr Namah has brought this challenge because he believes the processing centre deprives asylum seekers of their personal liberties.
On this point, regardless of the legal outcome in the context of the legal system in Papua New Guinea, he is absolutely correct. Being detained and imprisoned for something that is not a criminal offence does deprive asylum seekers of their liberty. Such an act of unwarranted cruelty is in no way justifiable, especially when used as a political weapon by government.
Whether or not the challenge in a legal sense is successful is a completely different story and frankly irrelevant. Asylum seekers have been sent to Manus Island before, under the former Howard Government. This was not subject to a legal challenge from anyone in PNG so there is nothing to compare the present situation to.
And opinions on the merits of the case appear divided, though it must be noted that the probability of success appears more than even, with the Constitution of Papua New Guinea having a list of rights enshrined within it.
The government of Papua New Guinea has however said that the centre is being run within the laws of the country and that of international treaties. The former might be correct in terms of the asylum seeker issue and it may not be, but the latter most certainly is not.
But we know of course that the debate over the detention of asylum seekers involves more than just the deprivation of liberty and the breach of international law.
Detaining asylum seekers can both exacerbate pre-existing mental illnesses and create new ones. Why would we want to be known to endorse a practice which results in diminishing the welfare of already vulnerable people?
Unfortunately there is an answer to that question and it is a disgraceful one: fear. For some reason there is an underlying fear of difference for which some trace the genesis back to the White Australia Policy. With the right checks and balances undertaken in a sensible manner by authorities, we have nothing to fear from people trying to seek asylum in Australia.
There simply is no valid reason for Australia to continue to embark upon such a barbaric course of action in trying to tackle a policy concern which, despite that barbarity, is still and will continue to be an issue.
A date has not yet been set for the hearing of this case. But we do not need a court case to tell us what we already know, and that is that people being held in immigration detention are being deprived of their liberty, whatever the courts may say.
The National Rifle Association, more commonly referred to as the NRA, has finally broken its silence over the massacre which took the lives of mostly school children in Newtown Connecticut. In a statement posted on its website and their Facebook page, the powerful gun rights lobby group said:
“The NRA is made up of four million moms and dads, sons and daughters – and we were shocked, saddened and heartbroken by the news of the horrific and senseless murders in Newtown. Out of respect for the families, and as a matter of common decency, we have given time for mourning, prayer and a full investigation of the facts before commenting. The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.”
The statement, though short, provides for interesting reading.
The political atmosphere in the United States of America appears to be vastly different after the Newtown slaying. The recent Aurora shooting and others this year shocked America and further fomented the gun control debate worldwide. But those displays of violence, though tragic and disturbing, had little impact on the domestic debate in the United States of America.
Now, quite possibly because so many young children were taken prematurely, both Democrats and Republicans, however few, are coming out in support of a change to gun laws.
Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein plans to introduce a bill which will again ban assault weapons, 100 of them by name at least, which have removable clips. And the President has now announced that he supports the Feinstein bill, a similar legislative move to the ban on assault weapons which was brought into force during the Clinton administration but allowed to lapse.
But back to the NRA statement. What does it potentially reveal? And what could the mixed messaging in the two sentence statement actually point to in terms of action?
The first part of the first sentence is replete with NRA chest-beating. It seeks to remind Americans that they have 4 million members in the United States of America. The sentence also points out that the NRA membership is made up of people who have sons and daughters and that are sons and daughters, just like the majority of those killed last week.
Of course too, there was the obligatory expression of sympathy in the second part of the first sentence.
And then the first part of the next sentence attempts to explain the delay in the response from the lobby group. The trouble with this is that regardless of the facts of the case, the expression of sadness has been unnecessarily delayed. It is abundantly clear that the public had been expecting to hear from the organisation much sooner than today.
But it is the very last part of the statement, the last sentence, which has provoked the most interest. And why wouldn’t it? The last of the sentences says that the NRA, “is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.”
Exactly what the “meaningful contributions” are remains unclear to the US and to the world, until at least Friday American time, when the group makes a public statement in front of the cameras.
What must be said too is that the National Rifle Association’s definition of “meaningful contributions” to the debate, probably differs quite dramatically to what those on the gun control side of the debate have in mind.
For any NRA contribution to the debate to actually be even remotely meaningful it must include, at the very least, public support for the Feinstein bill on assault weapons.
And for any action on guns in the USA to be truly meaningful, the response would have to go much further. More than 100 plus assault weapons named in Feinstein’s bill would need to be made illegal for any real impact to be made on the US gun problem. All semi-automatic weapons should be banned.
There are other sensible moves too, which the NRA should support and which will not in any meaningful way impact on the 2nd Amendment rights of US citizens.
There needs to be a more stringent and nationally coordinated gun licensing framework than the mish-mash of different regulations across the states at present.
And, as the President has backed, there needs to be a closure of the loophole which has seen unlicensed dealers able to trade in weapons privately and made access to firearms all too easy.
There is surely almost no chance of the them supporting the Feinstein bill and probably no chance of the NRA supporting a ban on all semi-automatic weapons beyond those named by the Feinstein bill. A better, more aligned licencing regime has more of a chance of being supported by the group of shooters. And a closure of the “gun show loophole” would likely be vehemently opposed. But maybe, just maybe, a much more stringent approach to the sale of weapons at gun shows might be endorsed.
It will almost certainly be a case of the NRA and the government, as well as the people, having different definitions of “meaningful contributions” in the fight against gun violence. And once again the NRA will be left behind in an alternative universe where reality has long been a victim of warped worldviews.
The Gillard Government has today confirmed their intention to shift hundreds of millions of dollars from the overseas aid budget to the immigration budget. A total of $375 million in foreign aid will now be redirected to paying for onshore processing of asylum seeker applications. Not surprisingly there has been a significant amount of anger directed at the government from overseas aid providers in the charity sector.
The refocused budget allocations will help pay for the living costs of asylum seekers, 400 of whom have been released into the community, while their refugee claims are being processed.
The move comes weeks after the end of the parliamentary year. The contentious decision has arrived at a time when the government’s budget surplus is looking an even more impossible and unbelievable prospect than when Treasurer Wayne Swan announced that there would be four successive budget surpluses during his May fiscal statement.
Governments have a habit of making bad decisions, ones that will cause a political storm, when they think few are watching. And few likely are paying as much attention to the political debate, not just because of the toxic year in politics, but because we are coming ever closer to Christmas and there is always much less attention at this time of year.
And this latest decision about the aid budget comes after an announcement by the ALP Government that, in search of the elusive surplus, they would delay increasing the aid budget to 0.5% of gross national income by a year.
With the Australian Government moving to temporarily decrease our contribution to foreign aid, the question must be asked: What will be gained by our decision in terms of our domestic political environment?
The answer is, absolutely nothing. The chances of our budget returning to surplus are non-existent unless much more dramatic cuts are made. Returning the budget to surplus is not even seen, according to some polls, as a political necessity to help curb the poll woes facing the Labor Government.
If the Labor Party is so desperate to return to surplus, perhaps they could have considered cutting unnecessary subsidies and government programs which offer assistance to people and businesses that do not require government help.
What makes this decision harder to contemplate, even more baffling, is, as Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop has pointed out, that it comes just two months after Australia won a seat on the UN Security Council. And what did we do to help our chances of winning a temporary spot on the Security Council? Why, we played around with our aid budget, offering significant financial incentives to developing nations.
But far more important than the terrible look this has in terms of our recently won UN campaign, is the human cost of such a short-sighted decision, from a government desperate to at least appear as if they have a shred of credibility when it comes to balancing the federal budget.
Of course foreign aid can always be better targeted and is most efficiently allocated when it is focused completely on our sphere of influence.
But development aid should never be cut . This is especially the case when such funds will not be replaced by payments from other nations, when our ultimate aim is to increase foreign aid and especially not when the domestic political situation is part of the equation and will not be changed by such a decision.
This is exactly what has occurred and in the shadow of Christmas.
Gun reform is again being talked about in the United States of America after a terrible year for mass shootings in that country. There was the shooting in the cinema complex in Aurora, the Sikh temple rampage and now, most recently, the tragic slaying of mostly young children in Newtown, Connecticut. But unlike those needless acts of gun violence before it, the Newtown incident has created a much larger noise about gun control.
Some of the increased support for gun control is coming from within the US, most notably with the President hinting at the possibility of some form of action. Barack Obama however is not giving any hints as to the nature of the action. There is as yet no substance, just calming rhetoric.
What has been interesting though has been the growing interest from across the globe in America reforming its gun laws. It has been an attention, a focus with its roots appearing to go deeper than after any of the massacres this year.
Of course that will ultimately come to nothing. What matters is what Americans think about the issue and the pressure they are able to exert on their leaders. The most important factor, however, is what their leaders are both willing and able to do under legislative circumstances which are fairly unique to their country.
There is talk of a possible return to the Clinton era ban on assault rifles and this would be a sensible move. But it would only be a band-aid solution, not to mention that it would almost certainly be reversed or allowed to expire by an incoming Republican administration.
There is however a way forward which has been offered and has been given almost as much worldwide attention as the need for the gun law reform itself. And this pathway comes in the form of laws brought in by former Australian Prime Minister John Howard which have enjoyed remarkable success since being introduced in 1996.
These laws instituted a ban on automatic and semi-automatic weapons and were put in place after our own Newtown, the Port Arthur massacre, where 35 people were gunned down. And these laws worked in Australia.
Of course, it is probably not within the realms of imagination to believe that the US would even consider remotely similar laws to those we have for guns in Australia.
In theory, similar nationwide laws could work in America. There would certainly be a marked decrease in gun violence across the nation. However the prospects of the same level of success that we had in Australia with the same laws in the USA are not good.
For a start, if, in the extremely unlikely event, the US and her composite states were able to agree on similar national gun control laws, the logistical task would be a massive challenge in itself. The sheer population of the US, at over 300 million, provides the biggest barrier to widespread success of the laws.
There would need to be a heavy reliance on honesty and the self-sacrifice of weapons as there was under the gun control laws in Australia. And of course US laws would also require the same combination of the financial incentives of a compulsory buy-back mixed with heavy criminal penalties for disobeying the law.
Policing the same kind of regime in the US would be a much more challenging effort. And any positive effects of the same type of laws would be more gradual and not as abiding as the Australian experience has proved to be.
But the change itself could be attempted if the political realities of the intersection between government and the gun lobby were not as they are, with the NRA holding so much sway and a gun culture being so deeply ingrained in the national laws and psyche.
The reality however, is that for America, the gun control laws which Australia pursued provide the best and only way to seriously curb the number of gun related deaths.
The best part for a country of people worried about losing their right to bear arms is that Americans will not lose that right. Gun owners and many others will however think they are and that is part of the reason why a legislative change on the same scale as Australia will probably never happen.
The state of Washington in the United States of America has become the first state in the country to legalise marijuana. The move comes a month after the US election which saw the proposition to make the drug legal receive the votes needed for it to pass into law. Recreational drug users took to the streets to light up in celebration.
And there is another US state which will see similar laws come into force in the coming weeks. Colorado also voted during the national election on a proposition to legalise marijuana.
Under the new laws in Washington state, recreational smokers over the age of 21 will be able to possess up to 28 grams of cannabis or up to 450 grams of baked goods containing marijuana. Having in your possession, up to 720 ounces of the drug in liquid form is also legal under the law which came into force in Washington on Thursday.
There are however some conditions attached to the new law.
Selling, cultivating and giving away marijuana for free, even among pot-smoking buddies will continue to be illegal. And despite the public pot party overnight, toking on marijuana in public will still be verboten.
This begs the question: what has actually changed at present?
The answer is that not much has changed so far. The only differences for now are that you may possess the aforementioned quantities of the once illicit substance and smoke or ingest those products in private.
However, you will have come by the drug in an illegal manner and universities and workplaces will have the ability to ban it on their premises.
State authorities, under the law, will have until December next year to establish legal cannabis trading houses which will be taxed and licensed in much the same manner as liquor-selling businesses currently are.
There is some major uncertainty about the future of the laws in Washington state and Colorado.
The drug is still illegal under federal law and the federal government may well decide to override the two states’ laws, though this has not yet been confirmed.
It is true though, that the Justice Department did not move to override the Washington law before it came into effect and so perhaps this points to the possibility of letting the law in Washington stand as well as the path to legalised cannabis in Colorado being allowed to continue.
The US Government intervening and overturning the two state-based laws would however, actually be quite a good thing.
Cannabis and indeed all drugs, are substances which are harmful to the health of all users, especially long-term recreational drug-takers.
The drug Cannabis is responsible for bringing on mental illnesses which can have devastating consequences in the lives of those experiencing such problems and result in similar negative consequences for the community around users.
Legalising drugs, including marijuana, will not suddenly make them less harmful to the public. They will still cause mental illness in people taking such substances and those effects will continue to harm both the drug-taker and potentially members of the public around them.
And legalising drugs will not cut down on their use either. Legalising drugs would likely mean that more people, some of whom had perhaps wanted to engage in drug-use but did not partake because it was illegal, would take up the habit and this would not be good for both healthcare and crime budgets. When you legalise drugs, you remove the stigma which is behind stopping some people using them.
It is important to acknowledge that the so-called ‘war on drugs’ is a battle that governments around the world are losing and will continue to lose in varying degrees across the globe.
But legalising drugs is no answer.
Even the most tightly regulated drug-use schemes will have their problems unless scientists discover a way to remove the harmful compounds from the drugs, or they discover some kind of way to shield the brain from the potentially very dangerous effects of such chemicals.
Whichever path governments choose, they are going to face costs. But trying to stop harm to consumers of drugs and those around them should be the highest priority.