Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Last True Thatcherite

The Australian-turned American Rupert Murdoch greeted Australian Prime Minister John Howard on his recent trip to America and Canada, with a cheery, “time for you to think about retiring, mate. Quit while you’re on top form.”

Howard was probably too gracious to reply, and, indeed, after ten years in office, he shows no inclination of wanting to step down. But it is hard to deny that he certainly seems to be at top of his form.

He is already the second-longest serving prime minister in Australia’s history, second only to Sir Robert Menzies, and he is arguably the most successful. He’s won three general elections for his Liberal-National coalition and survived three opposition leaders.

It is puzzling that Howard doesn’t have a higher global reputation. Perhaps it is because he looks like a branch bank manager from Waga Waga. Maybe because during his frequent trips to Washington he seems so deferential, almost as if he relishes Australia’s role as a junior partner to the U.S.

Howard came into office promising to be the most conservative prime minister in Australian history. He is probably the last true Thatcherite holding public office anywhere today. (President George W. Bush has been called many things, but never a Thatcherite).

He came into office espousing many of issues that the former British leader championed, including privatization of state-owned corporations, cuts in the income tax, confronting the unions and fiscal responsibility. He has managed to accomplish many of those.

As an American, I’m agnostic as to whether I would prefer to live in a country ruled by the Australian Labor Party or Howard’s Liberal (actually conservative)-National Coalition government. But from a distance it is hard not to admire sheer competence, especially as it seems sorely lacking at home.

Conservatives in the US are pretty dispirited these days. Their leader’s approval ratings are in the pits. The party’s split over immigration. Traditional conservative feel betrayed by Bush’s loose fiscal policies. They might get some encouragement from a conservative government that actually works – and maybe learn a few things from Down Under.

Fiscal Responsibility and economic growth. For eight of Howard’s ten years in office, the government has enjoyed budget surpluses. That has allowed the government to cut taxes for the past three years without creating budget deficits.

It is true that Australia’s personal income taxes are higher than in the U.S. The top rate is 47%, although it is due to come down to 45% in June. Few doubt that taxes will go lower without Australia mortgaging its future in exchange for tax breaks for the well-off.

The Australian economy is growing at roughly the same rate as the U.S., but it is creating new jobs two, three, four times faster than the U.S. For example, the Australian Treasurer reported that 39,000 new jobs were created in March. Corrected for differences in population (with nearly 300 million people, the US is 15 times larger than Australia, with 20 million) that’s the equivalent of the US creating 585,000 jobs.

Of course, the US comes nowhere near creating that many jobs. Supporters of President Bush think his path should be strewn with garlands if the economy manages to exceed 200,000 new jobs a month.

Immigration. As in the US today, immigration and the “border protection” were red hot in Australia a few years back. An avowedly nativist and racist national political movement called the One Nation Party was winning votes and even – as a spoiler – toppling state governments in Queensland and Western Australia.

The Howard government destroyed One Nation with a ruthlessness that even Karl Rove would probably shy away from (for all its excesses, the Bush administration has not put a prominent political opposition leader in prison, as happened to One Nation founder Paulene Hanson).

First it stole One Nation’s issues, then it set about to systematically hound the party’s leaders through the courts. One Nation’s sole senator was expelled from parliament because she had dual British-Australian citizenship (this in a country where people are supposedly “subjects” of the Queen)

Howard refused entry to a ship, the MV Tampa, carrying Afghan refugees. That action brought down international condemnation but cemented Howard’s image as being strong on border protection. “We need to decide who comes into the country and the circumstances in which they come.” Howard declared.

Foreign Policy. Nowhere was Howard more adroit than in the handling of Australia’s commitments in Iraq. Of course, the cornerstone of Australia’s foreign policy for the past 60 years has been to support the U.S. in its foreign policy in expectation that the U.S. will defend Australia if she is attacked.

Australia was one of only three countries that attacked Iraq in March 2003. Canberra dispatched about 3,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen, many of them from the vaunted Special Air Service. They are said to have done valuable though still secret commando work in the desert.

But Howard withdrew most of these troops (who had suffered no casualties) shortly after the fall of Baghdad and he immediately serviced notice to Washington not to expect much more help. In a speech to parliament in May, 2003, Howard, said “The government has made clear all along that Australia would not be in a position to provide peace-keeping forces in Iraq.”

But having been with the Americans at the very beginning, Australia effectively immunized itself from having to pony up additional troops to suppress the growing insurgency. Not for them the thankless task of garrisoning and patrolling the dusty, dangerous towns of south Iraq. These tasks are left to the Poles, Italians and British.

In fact, Australia did supply a post-invasion contingent of about 850 troops, recently augmented by another 450, though many are serving on naval vessels or with air force detachments on the periphery of Iraq. Australia is the only major coalition partner that has not yet suffered a single battlefield casualty (its first Iraq death was through an accidental self-inflicted wound.)

The Iraq War and Australia’s participation in it are unpopular in Australia. The leader of the Labor Party, Mark Lathan, promised in the 2004 campaign to bring the troops home by Christmas. But it is hard for the issue to gain much traction when the cost has been so low.

No battlefield casualties in Iraq, the equivalent of half a million new jobs a month, tax cuts with budget surpluses. Is Australia the Lucky Country, or is Howard just ten times smarter than George Bush?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Battle of the Bishops

In China there is only one Catholic Church, and everyone wants to be led by the Pope.

Thus thundered the Bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, in a growing dispute over the appointment of Roman Catholic bishops in China. What is unusual about this latest brouhaha is that it has broken out into the public.

That occurred earlier this month when Pope Benedict XVI publicly condemned Beijing for moving ahead with the consecration of two new bishops in the “official” church, known as the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, without Papal approval.

The issue of appointing bishops is one of the main obstacles to normalization and reconciliation of the two churches. Until the latest dispute broke out, the two sides had made considerable progress toward a working agreement whereby the Vatican appointed bishops, subject to confirmation by the Chinese government.

Despite what Cardinal Zen says, two Catholic churches have existed on the Chinese mainland since the Communist Party took power – the Patriotic Association, whose members are allowed to practice their faith openly and an “underground” church of Catholics loyal to Rome.

The former exists in a spiritual twilight zone, cut off from normal intercourse with the Holy See and the worldwide Catholic community. Its priests and bishops are “self-appointed” and “self consecrated”, and lacking the blessing of God’s anointed representative on Earth.

The “underground church” exists in an official twilight zone, technically illegal, though usually tolerated, its priests and bishops running the risk of arrest for practicing Mass in public. As recently as a year ago, Beijing send some elderly priests and bishops to prison.

So in some ways, the dispute was a revelation of just how far the two churches have moved toward each other in recent years. The Pope took grave exception to the appointment of the two new bishops, because, for the past several years, Rome has been appointing bishops of the official church, subject to confirmation by Beijing.

It is similar to the practice in some other countries with Catholic populations that are run by the Communist Party, such as Vietnam and Cuba, and is a key element, along with the Vatican’s official ties with Taiwan, to the reconciliation and merger of the two churches.

Beginning in the late 1970s, when China began to open up to the rest of the world, many bishops of the Patriotic Association quietly sought the blessing and forgiveness of the Pope, which was usually granted.

The government did not allow the official church to make the Pope’s approval public, but word spread, allowing the priests and bishops and lay people to live in peace with their faith while still part of the government-controlled church.

Several years ago the two sides evidently came to an understanding that allowed the Vatican to choose bishops of the official as well as the underground church. In 2005 the Bishops of Shanghai and Xian, two important Chinese cities, were chosen by the Holy See and then “confirmed” by the Chinese Council of Bishops.

The Vatican apparently had reservations about the appointment of Ma Yinglin as the Bishop of Kunming. Ma, the secretary-general of the Council of Bishops, was a clerical bureaucrat, with little pastoral experience and no particular affinity for his new diocese in southern China.

The official church hierarchy apparently lost patience with the Vatican’s foot-dragging in this case and went ahead with the consecration Ma and of the new Bishop of Wuhu, who was also appointed without the Pope’s approval.

Liu Bainan, Secretary General of the Patriotic Association, was defiant in the face of the Pope’s criticism. The official church, he said, “had been selecting and consecrating bishops for more than 50 years without anyone’s interference.”

That brought a strong retort from Cardinal Zen, who never minces words, especially about the Chinese leadership. He called on both parties to suspend negotiations because Beijing had “destroyed trust.” “First they engage in dialogue, and then they deal in “fait accomplice”

Why did this confrontation flare up at a time when it looked like the two churches were making progress in resolving their differences and moving toward reconciliation? After all, it was widely believed that reunification of the Chinese churches was a priority of the new Pope.

His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, visited 129 countries during his long papacy, but he never set foot in China. But Pope John Paul carried too much baggage , stemming from his role in helping to end Communist Party rule in his native Poland.

The communist rulers in Beijing don’t have to look to Poland to see some of their worst fears realized. The Bishop of Hong Kong is probably exactly the kind of politically active cleric that the Chinese communists fear will emerge in China proper if they loosen control over church affairs on the mainland.

Cardinal Zen has been a leader of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and has helped to promote and organize large demonstrations against the Hong Kong government. He has even marched in those parades.

Meanwhile, China installed another new bishop last Sunday without the Pope’s approval, adding further fuel to the fire. And more such appointments are on the way. Some 40 bishoprics of the 90 or so official dioceses in China are said to be vacant since many of the original elderly bishops have passed on. The need to fill them, says, Liu Bainan, is “urgent.”

Monday, May 08, 2006

A Chinese Double-Cross?

Are the Chinese playing a double game on the issue of North Korean nuclear disarmament? Syndicated columnist Tom Plate evidently thinks so. In his latest column he suggests darkly a “secret pro-nuclear understanding between Beijing and Pyongyang.”

In other words Beijing tells the world and Washington that it favors a Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons, while quietly telling the North Koreans to resist any overtures from the other participants in the Six-Party Talks to dismantle its nuclear program.

The column is filled with heavy loaded words, such as “Big Lie,” “two-faced” “Machiavellian,” “bad faith,” “secret double dealer” and so on, but it is light on specifics. He cites a “nasty rumor” in the aftermath of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s recent visit to Washington and a sense that Hu’s response on the matter of a nuclear-free Korea was “far less emphatic than Bush’s”.

I have always had a lot of respect for Tom Plate’s work, and he is certainly no knee-jerk China basher, so you have to wonder just what set him off? Surely it couldn’t have been pronouncements of the summit. How can anyone take seriously anything that came out of that misbegotten meeting?

If people think that China is playing a double game, it may be because they have set themselves up for disillusionment by becoming victims of their own rhetoric about how important China is to reaching a resolution of the issue.

It has often been said that China could bring Pyongyang around to an agreement anytime it chose to do so by simply withdrawing aid and trade. This is undoubtedly true, but in fact Beijing has said more than once, openly and upfront, that it will not do this. Nothing two-faced about it.

The Chinese are not particularly worried whether North Korea has an atomic bomb. They don’t believe Pyongyang would be stupid enough to drop one on them. Historically, China has not been concerned about nuclear non-proliferation. Indeed it is a recovering proliferator herself.

The North Korean nuclear program concerns China because it concerns the US. The Chinese worry that it might trigger an American attack on North Korea, something they obviously don’t want, even as the threat of it actually happening recedes.

China’s main interest in hosting the Six-Party talks is to be a good world citizen, reap the prestige that comes in helping broker any diplomatic breakthroughs and garner any rewards that might come its way. Beyond that it is indifferent to whether North Korea has a bomb.

The South Koreans, too, are not overly worried about a North Korean bomb. Deep down they don’t believe that their Korean brothers would ever drop one on them. Seoul is currently obsessed with reconciliation with Pyongyang and will not countenance anything that impedes that goal.

This posture might change if the conservative opposition wins the presidency in late 2007, but I doubt that a new president would do much to alter the situation except to possibly put more emphasis on human rights. The “sunshine” policy initiated by Kim Dae Jung is, I think, too popular to be abandoned no matter who is president..

One might think that of the six parties to the negotiations, Japan would take the strongest stand, having the most to fear. After all, the North Koreans have fired ballistic missiles in their direction in the past.

But I was in Japan a year ago in February when the North formally declared itself to be a nuclear weapons state, and the reaction in Japan was underwhelming, to say the least. The headline in the Japan Times read: “Announcement Might Complicate Abduction Issue,” which pretty much shows where Tokyo’s priorities lie – an accounting for its nationals abducted by the North.

Of course, the reaction might have been entirely different if the North Koreans had proved their assertion beyond a doubt by actually exploding an atomic bomb. There is a school of thought that believes – or wishes to believe - that the North does not have a bomb because it has not mastered all of the elements of producing a workable weapon. Plutonium bombs are tricky.

Supposedly the US is the one participant most committed to ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. But the ink was no sooner dry on the “breakthrough” Sept 19 agreement than Washington raised the extraneous issue of Pyongyang counterfeiting US currency.

This may be a legitimate beef on the part of Washington, but how can a few million fake $100 notes weigh against the prospect of a mushroom cloud somewhere in America?

One has to wonder what kind of game Washington is playing. If this is some kind of gambit in the complicated game to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table it is too Machiavellian – to use Tom Plate’s words – for me to understand.

In this long, weary story, the US has dragged out delivery of the aid and recognition it promised when North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear weapons program in 1994. For its part, Pyongyang violated the spirit by experimenting with uranium enrichment. You don’t have to look to China alone to find plenty of bad faith.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Letter from Thailand (2)

HUA HIN – Talk about election fatigue. I’ve only been here a month, and we’ve already had four parliamentary elections in my town. Of course, I don’t vote, but I know when an election is scheduled because the waitress at the restaurant where I eat politely tells me that I can’t order a beer with my dinner.

In Thailand they stop serving alcohol and close the bars 24 hours before the vote. I guess they want everybody sober for the polls. There has been a whole lot of temperance in Thailand this month.

April opened with the general election called by embattled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. That election was ostensibly won by his party, which goes by the colorful name of Thais Love Thais, or Thai Rak Thai (TRT).

He took it as a defeat, however, turned the office over to a caretaker and left the country on a vacation (in which he met and presumably “explained” the Thai situation to the British PM and the French president) from which he has just now returned.

In Thailand, it is possible to vote for “none of the above” . I’m not sure the exact wording in Thai but it amounts to a “no” vote. Thaksin’s party won about 16 million votes, while the “Nos” garnered about 10 million.

Now the strategy of the main opposition parties in boycotting the election begins to make more sense. In doing so they set up a situation where the TRT candidates would be running not against a party but against “No.”

Especially in Bangkok, seat of most of the opposition to the PM, the elections results were like this in district after district:

TRT 25,000
“No” 35,000

It seems to have had the desired result in shaming Thaksin into stepping down as premier. It is one thing to lose to a person or a party. But to lose to “no” is pretty direct and personal. It must have been a tremendous loss of face.

It reminded me of the New Hampshire primary in 1968. Lyndon Johnson actually won the primary, but the “Nos” in the person of Gene McCarthy scored so well that Johnson decided not to run for reelection.

However, the “No” votes don’t actually count. So, most of the TRT candidates running unopposed were certified as winners. I say most, because the Thai Constitution states that a candidate running unopposed must garner at least 20 per cent of the eligible votes to take his seat.

In the first election in early April, 38 candidates failed to meet that minimum thresh hold, setting up the present situation of by-elections.

Hua Hin, the coastal town where I live, seems to be an anti-Thaksin stronghold, and the poor TRT candidate here has run twice without gaining enough votes to win the seat, though running unopposed. It would seem that he could go on forever without garnering the required percentage.

The Thai constitution seems to establish extraordinarily strict requirement for forming a quorum. All 500 members need to be present for parliament to meet. Even the legitimacy of the 100 TRT members elected through proportional voting is in question since one of the candidates decided to become a monk instead of entering parliament.

The King, who up to now had resisted persistent calls by the anti-Thaksin coalition to appoint an interim, nonparty premier as being undemocratic, finally intervened. He called on the heads of the three highest courts to fix the “mess.”

Their first decision was to order a halt to the unending stream of by-elections. The betting is that they will find some technical glitch which would allow them to annul the April 2 election and start over.

That would set up situation for another general election, in which opposition parties, presumably would participate. So in election-weary Thailand may have to go to the polls again. Another election, another dry day in Thailand.