Monday Message Board

It’s time for the Monday Message Board, where readers are invited to post their thoughts on any topic (civilised discussion and no coarse language, please). There will be plenty of posts from me on the election, and plenty of room for discussion, so I’d encourage Message Board comments on other issues.

12 thoughts on “Monday Message Board

  1. It’s interesting to see Howard putting in a pre-emptive defence of practices in the labour hire industry. This figured in Senator Coonan’s IT policy too, on 19 Sep 2004. Both advanced the dubious proposition that they were “protecting” independent contractors from dastardly unions. The labour hire industry and their lobbyists must be extremely concerned over the possibility of being investigated, this has not really been a visible feature of the campaign. They’ve obviously been active behind the scenes.

    The labour hire industry had previously been running a scare campaign over South Australian initiatives to stop labour hire exploitation, and NSW Labor Council moves aimed at giving casual workers fair rights.

    It is blatantly dishonest for Howard and the labour hire industry to represent casual workers as “independent contractors,” when they often have no independence at all. The labour hire and IT recruiting industry are crying out for proper investigation, just like the real estate scams that also thrived under Howard.

    That is the problem with Howard, and the reason honest businessmen should evaluate their support for him. The business activity that thrived under Howard has been non-productive, dumb activity involving exploiting others, such as labour hire and real estate.

  2. I thought I’d just let people know that Margo K posted a piece I did on Immanuel Wallerstein a while ago. It went up last Thursday and there are about 20 very interesting comments.

    Wallerstein is a distinguished sociologist who writes mostly, it seems, about economics. But his focus is about as broad as it can be. The strength of his World Systems Theory is possibly that it focusses on the structure of capitalism in relation to the political structure of states, with particular emphasis as to how power is articulated.

    I’d be particularly interested in how economists view his ideas.

    Margo K accepts longer essays from non-academics like myself who take the opportunity to write at something below publication standard in terms of research and referencing, but hopefully can bring some interesting ideas into the discourse within the ‘sphere. Anyway for better or worse it’s there now and I thought I’d let you know.

  3. The following is a New York Times article entitled Saddam, the Bomb and Me

    At one stage, Obeidi was director of projects for the country’s entire military-industrial complex. While the information in the article can be used to argue both sides of the debate over intervention, in my opinion it clearly supports the case for intervention in that it illustrates just how dangerous this regime was. That is, in addition to the case for intervention on human rights grounds (the need to send a strong message to dictators)which many so-called progressives seem happy to ignore in their desire to indulge in rather infantile anti-Americanism.


    While the final report from Charles A. Duelfer, the top American inspector of Iraq’s covert weapons programs, won’t be released for a few weeks, the portions that have already been made public touch on many of the experiences I had while working as the head of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear centrifuge program. Now that I am living in the United States, I hope to answer some of the most important questions that remain.

    What was really going in Iraq before the American invasion last year? Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was on the threshold of success before the 1991 invasion of Kuwait – there is no doubt in my mind that we could have produced dozens of nuclear weapons within a few years – but was stopped in its tracks by United Nations weapons inspectors after the Persian Gulf war and was never restarted. During the 1990’s, the inspectors discovered all of the laboratories, machines and materials we had used in the nuclear program, and all were destroyed or otherwise incapacitated.

    By 1998, when Saddam Hussein evicted the weapons inspectors from Iraq, all that was left was the dangerous knowledge of hundreds of scientists and the blueprints and prototype parts for the centrifuge, which I had buried under a tree in my garden.

    In addition to the inspections, the sanctions that were put in place by the United Nations after the gulf war made reconstituting the program impossible. During the 1980’s, we had relied heavily on the international black market for equipment and technology; the sanctions closed that avenue.

    Another factor in the mothballing of the program was that Saddam Hussein was profiting handsomely from the United Nations oil-for-food program, building palaces around the country with the money he skimmed. I think he didn’t want to risk losing this revenue stream by trying to restart a secret weapons program.

    Over the course of the 1990’s, most of the scientists from the nuclear program switched to working on civilian projects or in conventional-weapons production, and the idea of building a nuclear bomb became a vague dream from another era.

    So, how could the West have made such a mistaken assessment of the nuclear program before the invasion last year? Even to those of us who knew better, it’s fairly easy to see how observers got the wrong impression. First, there was Saddam Hussein’s history. He had demonstrated his desire for nuclear weapons since the late 1970’s, when Iraqi scientists began making progress on a nuclear reactor. He had used chemical weapons against his own people and against Iran during the 1980’s. After the 1991 war, he had tried to hide his programs in weapons of mass destruction for as long as possible (he even kept my identity secret from weapons inspectors until 1995). It would have been hard not to suspect him of trying to develop such weapons again.

    The Western intelligence services and policy makers, however, overlooked some obvious clues. One was the defection and death of Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, who was in charge of the unconventional weapons programs in the 1980’s.

    As my boss, Mr. Kamel was a brutal taskmaster who forced us to work under impossible deadlines and was the motivating force for our nuclear effort. The drive for nuclear weapons began in earnest when he rose to a position of power in 1987. He placed a detail of 20 fearsome security men on the premises of our centrifuge lab, and my staff and I worked wonders just to stay out of his dungeons. But after he defected to Jordan in 1995, and then returned months later only to be assassinated by his father-in-law’s henchmen, the nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs lost their top promoter.

    In addition, the West never understood the delusional nature of Saddam Hussein’s mind. By 2002, when the United States and Britain were threatening war, he had lost touch with the reality of his diminished military might. By that time I had been promoted to director of projects for the country’s entire military-industrial complex, and I witnessed firsthand the fantasy world in which he was living. He backed mythic but hopeless projects like one for a long-range missile that was completely unrealistic considering the constraints of international sanctions. The director of another struggling missile project, when called upon to give a progress report, recited a poem in the dictator’s honor instead. Not only did he not go to prison, Saddam Hussein applauded him.

    By 2003, as the American invasion loomed, the tyrant was alternately working on his next trashy novel and giving lunatic orders like burning oil around Baghdad to “hide” the city from bombing attacks. Unbelievably, one of my final assignments was to prepare a 10-year plan for military-industrial works, even as tens of thousands of troops were gathering for invasion.

    To the end, Saddam Hussein kept alive the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission, staffed by junior scientists involved in research completely unrelated to nuclear weapons, just so he could maintain the illusion in his mind that he had a nuclear program. Sort of like the emperor with no clothes, he fooled himself into believing he was armed and dangerous. But unlike that fairy-tale ruler, Saddam Hussein fooled the rest of the world as well.

    Was Iraq a potential threat to the United States and the world? Threat is always a matter of perception, but our nuclear program could have been reinstituted at the snap of Saddam Hussein’s fingers. The sanctions and the lucrative oil-for-food program had served as powerful deterrents, but world events – like Iran’s current efforts to step up its nuclear ambitions – might well have changed the situation.

    Iraqi scientists had the knowledge and the designs needed to jumpstart the program if necessary. And there is no question that we could have done so very quickly. In the late 1980’s, we put together the most efficient covert nuclear program the world has ever seen. In about three years, we gained the ability to enrich uranium and nearly become a nuclear threat; we built an effective centrifuge from scratch, even though we started with no knowledge of centrifuge technology. Had Saddam Hussein ordered it and the world looked the other way, we might have shaved months if not years off our previous efforts.

    So what now? The dictator may be gone, but that doesn’t mean the nuclear problem is behind us. Even under the watchful eyes of Saddam Hussein’s security services, there were worries that our scientists might escape to other countries or sell their knowledge to the highest bidder. This expertise is even more valuable today, with nuclear technology ever more available on the black market and a proliferation of peaceful energy programs around the globe that use equipment easily converted to military use.

    Hundreds of my former staff members and fellow scientists possess knowledge that could be useful to a rogue nation eager for a covert nuclear weapons program. The vast majority are technicians who, like the rest of us, care first about their families and their livelihoods. It is vital that the United States ensure they get good and constructive jobs in postwar Iraq. The most accomplished of my former colleagues could be brought, at least temporarily, to the West and placed at universities, research labs and private companies.

    The United States invaded Iraq in part to end what it saw as a nuclear danger. It is now vital to reduce the chance of Iraq’s dangerous knowledge spilling outside of its borders. The nuclear dangers facing the world are growing, not decreasing. My hope is that the Iraqi example can help people understand how best to deal with this threat.

  4. Luis, I’m looking into the picture problem

    Michael, please post links with extracts if needed, not entire articles.

  5. I noticed in The Age today that Howard is offering $1 billion in tax relief to small business owners with turnovers of $75k or less. I was interested in this, because I am one. The catch? You have to be paying company tax. How many micro business owners in this country are in that position? My wife and I run our business through a trust, and pay personal, not company tax. Surely this is the more usual method. Even if it weren’t how unfair is it to benefit one group of people rather than another based only on the way they choose to structure their affairs?

  6. Michael:

    If the British Government wanted to deter brutal dictators, they should have held on to Pinochet while they had him. This would have been roughly equal to the invasion of Iraq in its probable efficacy, and about 10,000 cheaper in lives.

  7. Michael Burgess:
    Mr. Obeidi’s article makes a strong case for sanctions. Before the sanctions, when Hussein was much stronger, Israel used its intelligence and military to detect and eliminate Iraq’s nuclear capability. Sanctions made Israel’s task much easier, begging the question, why the urgency for a massive military intervention? I would argue that Hussein’s weakness led military planners to confidently predict a quick victory. Yet perceived weakness is precisely what drew the Americans into Vietnam, the Russians into Afganistan, the French into Algiers, etc. etc.

    The unfolding quagmire in Iraq leads to another question. What is it about an American occupation that brings out the suicide bombers? Where were they when Hussein was practicing genocide at home?

  8. Tony, I think Howard’s rantings about Independent Contractors are a scare based on a lie. I don’t see anything in the ALP’s IR policy about contractors or Labour Hire arrangements, merely a promise to protect clothing outworkers. I’ve just tonight finished an analysis of the federal policy, so I’ve had a fairly careful read. One assumes that Howard’s premise is that because Emerson has said that the federal IR policy is based on the Qld and NSW regimes, then provisions relating to contractors in the state systems in question would automatically become federal Labor policy. Which doesn’t follow, obviously. In Qld, the Industrial Relations Commission has been given the power to make a determination that an employer has replaced employees with “contractors” in order to avoid paying wages stipulated by an industrial instrument (ie an award or certified agreement). In other words, if you want a contractor for flexibility, fine. If you want a contractor to pay lower wages and avoid oncosts, forget about it. Howard’s rhetoric seemed to also involve a scare as he implied that Labor would bring subbies, tradespeople etc. into the evil net of “union power”. There is nothing in Labor’s policy which would remotely give any credence to this argument – Howard is disgracefully using semantics to confuse and scare. No great surprise there, but the level of absurdity in the rhetoric about the IR policy must set some sort of record, even for the Coalition. Kevin Andrews has a press release out called “The Horror of Latham’s IR Plan”. Whatever!

  9. Mark, yes, I agree that Howard has gone overboard with the semantics. His reference to “subbies” reveals he knows very little about this battle and is just relying on lobbyists from the labour hire industry. The type of casual workers affected by labour hire do not call themselves subbies, and nor are they that type of worker.

    The initiatives that scare the labour hire industry, especially in IT, are state ones, but they seem to think it’s best to attack Federal Labor too. They seem scared of Emerson, which must be a good sign. The South Australian and NSW moves are mainly aimed at letting casual workers choose to become staffers if their employment lasts more than six months. It’s pretty reasonable, and follows practice that’s common in Europe.

    The problem for the labour hire industry is that it can’t argue openly for it has no arguments. Early in 2004 it tried a scare campaign alleging the South Australian changes would destroy the IT industry. They also had the ear of Daryl Williams when he was briefly IT Minister, and now Senator Coonan is also spouting their rhetoric. It would be nice if she tried to understand the issues.

  10. Back on Sept. 9, in a comment on Prof.Quiggin’s post “Another Good Piece by Gittins”, I suggested that the idea of a labour hire middleman might not in itself be such a bad thing. I suggested the possiblilty that separating the employer function from the entrepreneur function may lead to them both being done better. Particularly in an economy increasingly composed of small firms, being an employer can consume excessive amounts of time. Employers have a lot to do: recruit, train, insure, comply with awards and regulations, pay super, discipline, terminate. Lots of small employers don’t want to do all that; it’s not where they make any money. A labour hire middleman can do most of it for them as part of an employment “package”. This can be good for everybody.

    I don’t deny that abuse can and does occur. This probably reflects loopholes in industrial law. But this doesn’t mean that a properly regulated labour hire industry might not have some benefits to both employers and employees.

  11. Gordon, you’ve put your finger on the issue – properly regulated. There are large amounts of money involved in labour hire, and it involves transactions between sophisticated sales people and innocent consumers (workers.) In all other areas where this occurs, such as real estate, car sales and the like, there are fair laws. In labour hire there are none, and the sharks currently in that industry are desperate to keep it that way. They refer to workers as uninvolved third parties.

    Regulation would allow honest recruiters to operate and provide a good service.

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