Thank God it’s Friday: Parliament’s up for the year

ImageNOTES ON THE NEWS: This was the penultimate week of the AIIA’s 2012 program, with two first-class events, as well as a full diary of other activities.

For me, Monday was a 5:30 am start with an early flight to Canberra for a briefing with Foreign Minister Bob Carr and a program of meetings organized by the excellent Heidi Gmur, President of the Foreign Correspondents Association. People who represent overseas media were given the opportunity to observe some of the goings-on in our capital city, which in 2013 celebrates its 100th year.

Politics apart, Canberra will be a wonderful place to be next year, with a fabulous international program of almost daily activities all year in the arts, sport, culture, and literature.  But we found its public transport is as bad as ever, though, with a poor bus service and overpriced taxis.

The centenary’s creative director, Robyn Archer, said she was sure the city would build a light rail system, but could not say when, and it remains a fact that for all the many worthy attributes of the ‘city of trees’ it was designed for the automobile and is carbon unfriendly. You would like to think that a good centenary project would be a light rail system linking the airport, the commercial and university area, and Parliament and the major ministries, but the politicians love their limos and don’t have to worry about how they get around on the limited number of  days they are there.

We were introduced to a new mode of transport in the shape of the Segway, a green, battery driven scooter with two large wheels. You stand on it, and it works entirely by balance – lean forward slightly and you move forward at jogging speed, lean back a bit, and it stops. Stand up straight and it stays still. This is the product of American technology, and Segways are in extensive use in the United States and Europe. In Australia it is illegal to use them on roads and cycle tracks in New South Wales (in contrast to more enlightened places like London, Stockholm and Prague), and in the ACT they are restricted to a few paths near Lake Burley Griffin.  Hence they are both an advert for green technology and for Canberra’s backward thinking.

The introduction to Canberra for foreign correspondents also took in the excellent National Portrait Gallery, a lecture by a young Aboriginal woman at the ANU, and then a visit to Eros, a sex museum presently located in smart Yarralumla but soon being moved to Melbourne because its owner said the “sex industry here is not what it used to be ”, which is perhaps a mercy.

Finally to Parliament House , where it was good to see so many people visiting the epicenter of our democracy, even if what takes place there is sometimes less than edifying.  There were several briefings, including one with Senator Carr, which was cut short because the foreign minister was in and out of meetings related to the UN vote on Palestine. He eventually was able to persuade the prime minister to drop her insistence that Australia vote with the United States against the upgrading of Palestine, and instead go with Britain and others in abstaining.

I asked Bob Carr, in the light of China’s Xi Jinpeng’s pledge to crack down on corruption, what he was doing about the unfortunate Australian cardiac surgeon,  who has been locked up for two years for what seems no good reason, a story revealed last week by John Garnaut. Senator Carr said that Du Zuying, whose incarceration only became public after the herald scoop, had received 12 consular visits, but warned that anyone doing business in China is subject to the legal system of that country, with a risk of being trapped in criminal disputes.

This, I fear, is good reason for anyone with a family to think twice before relocating until China radically changes some of its business practices.

There was then an opportunity to sit through Tuesday’s Question Time, but I could not face another brawl between Julia Gillard and the Opposition, and in any case I had to get back to the Glover Cottages to welcome the South Korean ambassador.

Tuesday evening, Nov 27

Ambassador Taeyong Cho lived up to his reputation as being one of the most eloquent and informative members of the foreign diplomatic corps, as he discussed the prospects for the upcoming elections, the issues related to North Korea, and relations with Australia.  You can watch his speech here. For 30 years a Korean diplomat, Mr Cho was deputy chief negotiator in the six party talks on the future of the Korean peninsular. He says both sides in the election campaign favour reunification. But this does not mean it will happen quickly. Watch for a visit soon to China by North Korea’s Kim Jung–un, Nearly 90% of North Korea’s trade is now with China so Beijing will likely dictate what happens.

Wednesday Nov 28.

First thing I had to get my head round the failure of European Union leaders (again) to come to an agreement on the European budget – as the topic for this week’s contribution to CNBC Asia’s Squawk Box. CNBC Asia is essentially a business/financial channel for serious investors, but it also prides itself on its coverage of important geopolitical issues, such as the leadership transition in China, upcoming elections in South Korea and Japan, and the decline of Europe.

Like a 12th year student who has flunked his exams, Europe’s leaders have gone off to their Christmas parties and pledged to come back to the seemingly intractable problem of fixing the 27-nation European Union budget early in the New year, which probably means February. There’s a 30 billion euros gap between the German-led countries of the north and those of the south, which now appears to include France. As Lithuania’s president put it in bizarre terms, “The atmosphere was surprisingly good because the divergence of opinions was so great there was nothing to argue about”.

But argue they will, in an atmosphere or rising nationalism, and with growing problems in some countries, particularly France, which needs to make structural reforms, particularly in the labor market.  This will inevitably lead to industrial unrest and strikes next year.  Adriano Bosini, Stratfor’s European analyst summarized it well in a video interview on Thursday.

Thursday Nov 29

Highlight today was the visit to the AIIA NSW by Sidney Jones, who heads the Asian office of the International Crisis Group based in Jakarta. The ICG spots impending conflicts and political troubles or pending revolutions, and provides reports to opinion formers and decision makers with the goal of avoiding crises.

The theme of Sidney’s comprehensive talk was that although democracy was working very well in Indonesia, militant Islamic groups were taking advantage of the new freedoms and using it to pursue some of their extremist aims. If you were not able to come to this well-attended lecture, I recommend you watch it here.

Discussing Indonesia with Sidney later over dinner, we felt that this should be the next destination for an AIIA NSW study tour in the autumn. The council will work out the details and be in touch with you all after Christmas.

Friday Nov 30

The week ended with the US Studies Centre conference on the Dynamics of 21st Century Trade and Investment in the Asia Pacific region. Like most events organised by this Sydney University-based centre, this was a worthwhile occasion, with the focus perhaps more on trade than investment.

It was good to catch up with old friends there, such as former Treasury secretary John Stone, as well as key participants like John Denton, whose many qualifications, including being on the APEC Business Advisory Council and one of the two originators of B20, ANZ’s Warwick Smith, Anna Buduls – a member of the FIRB and of many boards –and Professor Geoff Garrett, who is leaving the USSC to become dean of the University of Sydney Business School.

Mr Denton in particular made some powerful points – in particular that the young demographics of the United States, particularly Hispanics in the 18-35 age group would fuel US economic revival (he rejected completely the notion of America in decline) and that Australia had no need to make a choice between the US and China, as some have suggested.

There was much inconclusive discussion on the merits or otherwise of a Trans Pacific Partnership. Space does not permit me to go into detail, but there is full coverage on the USSC website, if not in our inadequate press.

On Friday evening I was delighted to see that my friend Peter Cave, who has just retired from the position of ABC’s foreign editor, won a premier Walkley award for an  “outstanding contribution to journalism”. Peter has been a brave and resourceful frequent visitor to many of the world’s most dangerous trouble spots, and thoroughly deserves this recognition.

What a pity that neither of Sydney’s major newspapers, The Australian, nor the Sydney Morning Herald reported Peter’s award in their coverage of the Walkleys.  Mean-mindedness is just one of their many inadequacies.

Colin Chapman is the President of the AIIA (NSW).

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