Here Comes Santa Claus (for the 1%)

Check out John Lawrence’s take down of the newly passed tax legislation, or as he describes it a “sick joke”.


Well, well, here comes the tax bill, all tied up in a nice red bow for Christmas. That’s “red” for the deficits its authors admit it will create (not to mention the much larger ones every other economist predicts it will generate). Also “red” as in “red-faced” for the duplicitous behavior of those behind this irresponsible law.

Not that the outcome was ever in doubt. As I have written before, tax cuts – especially for the wealthy and corporations – are the sine qua non of Republican governance: the essential reason the circus that is the Trump-McConnell-Ryan Express rolled into town. Unlike efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the “affected industry” in this case was gung-ho for passage, a sentiment shared by something around 25% of the rest of the country.

There is a certain absurdist quality to the intensity and obsessiveness surrounding passage of the tax bill. After…

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Plan Now, Gain Later – Is Australia’s foreign policy machinery ready for uncertainty?


Alan Tidwell

Australia’s White Paper forecasts future threats, but falls short of addressing how to effectively manage them. Alan Tidwell takes a look at how Australia can better address its unknown future.

The 2017 foreign policy White Paper anticipates a range of changes and threats that will shape Australia’s international environment in the next 10 to 15 years. Most immediately of concern are the changes in power underway throughout the Indo-Pacific region, and chiefly the seemingly inexorable rise of China. Accompanying these changes are the threats to the international rules-based order – an order that very much works to small and middle powers’ advantage.

Globalisation, once thought of as an unstoppable force, has come under fire. Free trade is no longer so warmly welcomed in many western states. Nationalism, along with the chronic sickness of terrorism, is partly to blame for the attacks on globalisation. Trump’s catchcry of America First, the poster-child for these anti-globalisation forces, has left the hegemon’s capital in disarray.

The dynamism of world politics makes strategic planning difficult in the best of times, and the authors of White Papers cannot easily foresee the future. It is instructive to revisit Australia’s previous foreign policy White Paper in 2003 and consider the threat environment envisioned then.

“…[R]elations between the major powers are now more stable than they have been for many years. But the security of Australia and many other countries is threatened by other international developments, notably terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, regional disorder and transnational crimes such as people smuggling.”

Some threats persist, like terrorism, whereas other threats morphed into something quite different. In 2003 globalisation had its opponents and sometimes came with unanticipated consequences (like terrorism), but nativism was not considered a significant threat.

Other threats, like those emerging out of the Arab Spring (for example, the Syrian civil war) were for the most part unanticipated. Hindsight makes them seem predictable, but from the vantage point of 2003, the Arab Spring and the collapse of Syria were nothing more than theoretical musings at best.

All of this suggests that white papers, like most strategic planning documents, are middling at best in preparing for the future. Australia’s White Paper does an adequate job of forecasting the threat environment, but falls short of envisioning how to effectively manage those unforeseen threats. How can Australia better address its unknown future?

Writing in The Guardian, Hugh White warns against complacency in his analysis of the rise of China and its consequences for Australia’s security. For White, the problem is one of political will. He argues that for a long time leaders in Canberra have refused to “… to admit …that a great strategic contest is underway between our major ally and our major trading partner.”

White’s analysis is sharp and alluring, and he is joined in his views by other academics and retired public servants. Yet even if White and others are correct regarding the rise of China and its consequences for the management of Australia’s security, questions still remain: Is Australian leadership in denial? Or is there genuine disagreement about the consequences of the rise of China?

Or, is it simply that Australia’s policy planning process is inadequate to the task at hand?

If ever were a time for a clever country, this would be it.

Since the mid-1940s Australia has been aboard the American bandwagon. That has served Australia well. White and others now question the wisdom of riding the American bandwagon. His proposal of an alternative balance of power, bringing together a concert of states guaranteeing the security of Asia, is debateable. It is unclear whether this would serve Australian interests any better than the current arrangements.

What is clear, however, is that the current institutional capacity to analyse what is needed for Australia’s future is lacking. For an Australia that seems to want to stay in America’s orbit, the strategic concepts and modes of interaction between Australia and the US are inadequate.

For example, most Australia-US interactions are ad hoc, with the exception of the brief Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AusMin). There is no secretariat in Canberra responsible for developing US doctrine, nor is there one in Washington for Australia. Equally, if Australia is to reimagine its future without an alliance, there is precious little institutional thought given to the complexity of managing such a concert arrangement.

Beyond the particular challenges of managing Australia’s immediate security are the broader questions: who is tasked with thinking deeply about future challenges to the nation? And who is responsible for aligning organisational and financial resources in order to address them?

The Policy Planning branch of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is neither sufficiently resourced nor sufficiently enabled to work across the whole of government to consider the future needs of Australian foreign policy.

Perhaps responsibility for thinking about the overall direction of Australia’s foreign policy may not be best seated within DFAT itself, but instead may be better situated outside the department. Anticipating future trends and conducting plausible futures analysis is best conducted away from the demands of short-term policy-making and situational response.

Delivering greater capacity for Australia’s management of future threats and challenges requires political will. Maintaining the Australia-US alliance against the backdrop of a rising China requires leaders to not only make the case for the alliance, but also take the steps required to support and fund that choice.

Equally, for Australia to embrace an alternate future and forge its own path without the United States will require political will and an abundance of organisational infrastructure.

Only by properly resourcing the machinery of foreign policy can Australia claim to be truly prepared for the uncertainty of the next few decades.

This piece was first published at Policy Forum, Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis and opinion. Read the original here:

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Initial Reactions to Australia’s New Foreign Policy White Paper

3109788657_f8acd73be7_qCheck my comments on Australia’s new foreign policy white paper,

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Duterte and the death of democracy

War and martial law come to Mindanao – again.

Alan Tidwell

Does martial law in Mindanao spell the end of democracy in the Philippines? Alan Tidwell takes a look at the state of democracy in the Southeast Asian nation.

Today one might well ask, does President Rodrigo Duterte’s declaration of martial law in Mindanao spell the end of democracy in the Philippines?  The simple answer is ‘no’.  The cadaver of democracy already rests on the steps of Malacañang Palace and in the funerary plots of the 7000 killed thus far in Duterte’s war on drugs. It is a little late to worry about the niceties of things like habeas corpus.

Rather, the declaration of martial law ought to be seen as just one more nail in democracy’s coffin in the Southeast Asian nation. So, where did this nail come from?

Duterte declared martial law on 23 May 2017, suspending habeas corpus for the whole of Mindanao, and the islands of Basilan, Tawi-Tawi and Sulu.

The putative cause of the declaration stemmed from an outbreak of violence in Marawi City, on the shores of Lake Lanao. The Maute group, founded by brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute, has aligned itself with ISIS since mid-2015. Trouble erupted when the Philippine military launched a mission against elements of the Maute and Abu–Sayyaf groups (Abu-Sayyaf is a small terrorist group operating in Mindanao and Sulu).

More on this:

Duterte and Donald’s ctrl-alt-delete

Duterte had signalled the possibility of martial law well before the 23 May attack. The Philippine Sun Star reported on 16 May 2017 that Duterte had been considering declaring martial law in Sulu. A week before the Marawi attack Duterte said: “Do not force my hand to declare martial law because if I do, I will solve everything, not only about rebellion. I will solve everything that ails Mindanao. If I declare martial law, there’s no way of telling how long would it take us to restore order, or we might not really be able to succeed.”

Clearly, Duterte had been looking for an opportunity to make martial law a reality.  The attack on Marawi City gave him the excuse he was looking for.

Mindanao is no stranger to violence. It is the site of at least two conflicts pitting insurgents against the government. The New Peoples Army (NPA) is a communist inspired insurrection in Mindanao in the south and Luzon in the north. Duterte has made efforts to engage with the NPA to end the conflict. Thus far, however, the talks have foundered.

On the western side of Mindanao, several Muslim groups fight against the state. The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) signed a peace deal with the government in 1996. The Moro Islamic Liberation group (MILF) splintered from the MNLF and has been fighting ever since. They too have signed agreements with the government, but as yet no final peace deal has been negotiated. The Abu-Sayyaf group is a much smaller group known mostly for kidnapping and beheading their captives.

More on this:

Duterte and the return of the authoritarians

Like Mindanao, Duterte himself is no stranger to violence either. The former mayor of Davao, in eastern Mindanao, has several times claimed involvement in homicides.  He claimed in December 2016: “In Davao, I used to do it personally. Just to show to the guys (police) that if I can do it why can’t you? And I’d go around in Davao with a motorcycle, with a big bike around, and I would just patrol the streets, looking for trouble also. I was really looking for a confrontation so I could kill.”

Martial law has a long history in the Philippines, and most notoriously under Ferdinand Marcos. Under Marcos it was clear he had no real intention to return to democracy, with martial law in place from 1972 to 1981, and he was only removed from power by the People Power Revolution.

Martial law returned briefly in Maguindanao from 4-13 December 2009 when President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo sought to disarm a local militia.

Which sort of martial law will Duterte pick – the shorter Arroyo version or the multi-year Marcos kind? Given his already apparent disdain for the rule of law and earlier mentions of martial law, it seems most likely Duterte will opt for the multi-year version of martial law, one heavy on order and light on law. I am betting on the longer version.

Violence in Mindanao gives Duterte cover to launch martial law. It allows him to complete the transformation of the Philippine state from a weak democracy into a more authoritarian state. How it plays out in the future and what the implications are of this transition for the Philippine people and the wider region remains to be seen. One thing is certain – Rodrigo Duterte has brought an end to democracy in the Philippines.

This piece was first published at Policy Forum, Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis and opinion. Read the original here:

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By inviting the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte to the White House, Donald Trump emboldens a killer

duterte2e-1-webCheck out my editorial on Duterte’s visit to the Trump White House.

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The tag is cut: how will the Trump-Turnbull spat damage the alliance?

3718071086_59a816c2d7_mWhen former prime minister Paul Keating said last year it was time to “cut the tag” and loosen the bonds of the Australia’s alliance with the US, who would have thought the man wielding the knife would be Donald Trump?

The public disagreement between the Trump White House and the Turnbull government over the deal to send asylum seekers languishing on Manus Island and Nauru to the US is unprecedented. At no previous time in the history of the Australia-US alliance have things seemed so dire – and got there so quickly.

Past tensions kept quiet

Australian and American leaders over the years have, from time to time, disagreed or said things to cause embarrassment. But for the most part, such disagreements have been kept out of the limelight.

John Howard and Bill Clinton did not like one another. Their discomfort did not, however, seriously affect the alliance. But sometimes discomfort breaks into something stronger.

Blanche D’Alpuget, Bob Hawke’s then-biographer (and later his wife), recounts that Australia’s former foreign minister, Bill Hayden, and US Secretary of State George Shultz loathed one another. Hayden referred to Shultz as “the German pork butcher”, while Shultz called Hayden “stupid” to his face.

But, unlike the current saga, the Hayden-Shultz spat did not become public until after D’Alpuget published her Hawke biography.

In 2008, the content of another phone conversation between Australian and US leaders became pubic. A brief row broke out when reports emerged of a leaked conversation between Kevin Rudd and George Bush.

As the 2008 financial crisis erupted, Rudd had suggested using the G20 as a way of handling things to Bush in a phone conversation. Bush allegedly replied:

What’s the G20?

The White House angrily rejected the public version of events.

Time to think differently

Members of the US Congress have made a rare intervention in the latest spat in an attempt to counter Trump’s amateurish handling of the issue. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said:

Australia is a very important and central ally and it’s going to continue to be.

Republican senator Lindsey Graham admonished Trump, suggesting the president “sleep more and tweet less”. Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said:

Before the president shows such disrespect again, he should consider this: there is only one nation that has stood with us in every war of the last century, from the fields of France and Belgium to the mountains of Afghanistan – Australia.

Trump has handled this situation very badly. In a very short space of time he has undone decades of work in building trans-Pacific security ties between Australia and the US. Other American allies – Japan and South Korea in particular – must look on, aghast at what has transpired.

But the Australia-US alliance was already under pressure before the phone call between Trump and Malcolm Turnbull went awry. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a vital element in the Obama pivot to Asia, was headed for the dustbin even before the US election. Within hours of being sworn in, Trump cancelled US involvement in the trade deal.

More ominously, other US security partnerships in the region exhibit severe strain. In an eerie and intemperate foreshadowing of Trump’s outburst, Philippine President Duterte in 2016 called Barack Obama a “son of a whore” and then denounced his country’s security alliance with the US and embraced the Chinese.

While many aspects of the US-Philippine relationship are still in place, it is nonetheless showing signs of strain.

In 2016 the Chinese refused to comply with the decision handed down by tribunal convened under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The tribunal found the Chinese had violated the UN convention in asserting its claim to disputes islands in the South China Sea.

The Australia-US relationship has suffered numerous knocks over the past year. The greatest threat to it has not come from China, the Philippines or Australia, but from the US. Trump’s misguided handling of the refugee issue and his withdrawal from the TPP has combined with external events to place real pressure on the alliance.

Trump has cut the tag. Now Australia must think differently about its relationship with the US.

creative-commons-logo-4cd655489c196c20a2416b8b696f5c31e9fec70dc21b5fdbf99306454f22f766 An earlier version was published in The Conversation

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Australia’s foreign affairs song remains the same


Kookaburras, circa 1900, Powerhouse Museum

Australia’s last foreign affairs white paper, Advancing the National Interest, hit the streets in 2003.  Since then a lot has happened – wars waged, governments overthrown, and economies collapsed, just to mention the high points. Amid all of this change, however, is the feeling that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Coalition government has announced it is about to get to work on the next foreign affairs white paper. What can we expect?

Back in 2003 the authors of that white paper identified several challenges — terrorism, the future of the European Union, the ANZUS alliance, engaging with Asia, and assisting Pacific Island countries. In the ensuing 13 years the challenges have shifted somewhat, although some have a familiar ring – terrorism is still a problem, the need to deepen ties with the EU remains, but now without the UK, the requirement to engage with Asia is perennial as is maintaining ANZUS, and the Pacific Islands still need help.

What has changed? China is increasingly assertive. Australia’s largest trade partner has ruffled regional feathers by building bases in the South China Sea and thumbed its nose at the UN. Russia has re-emerged in troubling ways as a global force. Asymmetric campaigns against its opponents in Ukraine and elsewhere create problems leaving Western countries unsure of how to reply. The Arab Spring has collapsed into the oozing sore that is Syria. Since 2003 a refugee crisis has unfolded across northern Africa and the Middle East testing Europe’s will. Elsewhere migration flows enflame nativist sentiments. Declining rates of growth in economies around the globe today stifle and complicate government decisions from Washington to Beijing to Brussels. As if all of that were not enough cybersecurity has also erupted as an issue of concern for governments and businesses alike. The trial of climate change deepens this global complexity.

Replying to these challenges would have been hard enough for the finest political masters. Over the course of the past 13 years political leadership, however, has hardly been up to the task. Like most things, the quality of political leadership is not a constant but varies over time. In recent years it has been woeful around the globe. This is not to say that every political decision has been bad, or that some have not been excellent. It is to say that on balance political decision-making has not been of a high calibre.

Some of the more striking low quality political decisions made range from President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, followed by President Obama’s ill-conceived disengagement, to subsequent Australian prime ministers’ handling of asylum seekers, including the Rudd government’s decision to end the Pacific Solution and the Gillard/Abbott embrace of the son of Pacific Solution and Turnbull’s inability to manage the next steps. President Xi’s embrace of nationalism and an associated decision to build island bases in the South China Sea, Vladimir Putin’s decision to annex Crimea and the West’s virtual acquiescence, and David Cameron’s encouragement for a vote on the UK’s position in the European Union also fall into this category. President Rodrigo Duterte’s advocacy of extrajudicial killing of drug dealers in the Philippines ranks similarly low down on the scale of quality political decisions, as does the half-hearted way in which leaders from around the globe address climate change.

It would be easy to explain away such poor decisions. Their cause might be bad analysis, craven pandering to popular opinion and/or a lack of gumption.

The examples of Iraq, asylum seekers, climate change and UK membership of the EU are explained by domestic political division, the midwife to many of these ill-conceived ideas. Political leaders have been held hostage by a rump within their party. In order to placate these internal agitators, political leaders give in with hopes of securing their leadership. Of course, having capitulated to the cabal’s demands political leaders hurt their own effectiveness and restrict their room to manoeuvre.  Xi, Putin, and Duterte, much like Trump in the US, build their political base on a call to make their country great again. The romance of nostalgia calls to the public and those that stand in the way are swept aside.

The new white paper will focus attention on the myriad challenges, both new and old. Australia’s diplomats are dedicated professionals. To a person, they will do the bidding of their political masters, and their utmost for Australia. The new white paper will be their map forward.

It’s too bad that the white paper will tell only part of the story. Left unsaid will be a call for better informed and considered decisions from political leaders.

See original post at Policy Forum

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