Weekend reflections

Weekend Reflections is on again. Please comment on any topic of interest (civilised discussion and no coarse language, please). Feel free to put in contributions more lengthy than for the Monday Message Board or standard comments.

AWB Overboard

I’ve always thought that the Oil-For-Food scandal and the parallel scandal (promoted mainly on the left of the blogosphere) about corruption in Iraq’s postwar reconstruction were overblown. Under the circumstances, corruption was inevitable in both cases.If you supported feeding Iraqi children or attempting to repair the damage caused by the war, you had to expect, as part of the overhead, that those with power in Iraq would seek to skim money off the top, and that they would find willing accomplices in this task. Having said all that, corruption shouldn’t be passively accepted. It’s a crime and, wherever they can be caught, those guilty of it should be punished.

By far the biggest fish to be caught in the net so far is Australia’s monopoly wheat exporter, AWB, which was, until 1999, the government-owned Australian Wheat Board. It has become evident that AWB paid hundreds of millions of dollars to Saddam’s regime, and it has now been stated in evidence that the deals in question were discussed with Australia’s foreign minister, Alexander Downer.

Based on past experience, particularly the Children Overboard case, we can be pretty confident of the following

* Both Downer and Howard knew that the AWB was paying kickbacks to the Iraqi regime

* This information was transmitted in a way that preserves deniability, so no conclusive proof will emerge

* No government minister will resign

* Endless hair-splitting defences of the government’s actions in this matter will emerge from those who have previously made a loud noise about Oil for Food.

On the point of resignation, I’d note that the information that had come out before today, showing the AWB up to its neck in corruption, would have been enough, under any previous government to require ministerial resignations, on the basis of the doctrine of ministerial responsibility. But that doctrine is now obsolete in Australia. If anything short of a criminal conviction is considered sufficient to justify an enforced resignation under present conditions, I’m not aware of it.

“Gandhi” has a bit more

Subeditors at work ?

The NYT reports the victory of Socialist Michelle Bachelet (briefly a refugee in Australia) in the Chilean presidential election under the headline “What Is Missing in This Woman’s Victory? Coattails?”

I would take this to mean that there were also Parliamentary/Congressional elections at the same time, and that Ms Bachelet’s party had lost, but the body of the report implies the opposite saying her win “assured another four years in power for the [centre-left] coalition, which has governed Chile without interruption since Gen. Augusto Pinochet was forced to step down in 1990. “Has anyone got any idea what the NYT sub-editor who chose this headline was thinking? As pointed out in the CT comments thread, this is a reference to the point made about halfway through that other female elected presidents in the region have been the widows of political leaders.

In other news from the Chilean campaign, the much-vaunted privatised pension scheme introduced under Pinochet is in serious trouble. Even conservative candidate Sebastián Piñera, brother of José Pinera who introduced the scheme, described it as being in crisis.

The success of the Chilean scheme was always illusory. It was introduced not long after Pinochet’s mismanagement of the exchange rate had generated an economic crisis and stockmarket crash. So early investors got the benefits of above-average returns as the market recovered. These were enough to hide the high administrative costs (between a quarter and a third of contributions) and poor design of the scheme. Once returns fell back to normal the problems became apparent. The government is still footing a huge ‘transitional’ bill, and coverage is patchy at best.

What I've been reading

Johnno by David Malouf. The main interest for me was the setting, the Brisbane of the 40s and 50s, starting out as a combination of overgrown country town and sleazy wartime garrison town, then gradually metamorphosing into the repressed provincial city that I remember from visits in the 70s and 80s. Malouf mentions the closure of the brothels (where the protagonist creates some havoc) as an instance of this.

Of course, brothels and gambling dens continued to operate with the protection of corrupt police. This ultimately led to the collapse of the seemingly invulnerable Bjelke-Petersen government following the Fitzgerald Commission.

Read More »


Martin Ferguson’s comments in support of the Howard government’s bogus climate forum[1] remind me of why I dislike the hereditary principle in politics. Australian politics and the Parliamentary Labor party in particular is full of people who are there only because their fathers (or, more rarely, mothers) were politicians themselves.This wasn’t true, or not to anything like the same extent, thirty years ago.

A few of these hereditary princelings have made a reasonable contribution, but on the whole, they’re a dead weight, and Ferguson is a prime example of the latter category. If he’s done anything to justify the positions he’s held, I’m not aware of it.

The core of the problem is that the membership of the major parties has collapsed to the point where an extended family and its retainers can form the basis of an effective sub-faction, capable of winning preselections. Short of radical changes in both politics and society, it’s hard to see this changing.

One possible response would be to move to a primary system for preselections, on the US model. This hasn’t, of course, stopped the operation of the hereditary principle there, but I think that there is less of a cult of political celebrity here – I can’t imagine that names like Downer or Ferguson command many votes among the Australian public.

fn1. The derisory contribution offered by the US Administration (a budget request for $52 million, equal to about 0.0005 per cent of US GDP, which will probably not be delivered anyway) is an indication of the seriousness with which the US took the meeting, as is the fact that (as far as I can tell) it wasn’t even reported in the US press. The same is true, from what I can see of the other participants. The whole thing is, in essence, window-dressing to cover the Howard government’s failure to ratify Kyoto.