The assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh

Without doubt, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith was acting in Australia’s national interest when he decided to expel an Israeli representative from the Mossad from Australia. He was, of course, acting on the outcomes of Australian intelligence service investigations into the use of Australian passports in the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. The expulsion is hardly, in itself, an earth-shattering action. Australia can not be seen to simply allow foreign administrations to openly corrupt the integrity of the Australian passport as an internationally reliable identity document. Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor has already played down the action, which can only reasonably be regarded as level-headed and just.

Whilst Israel itself is playing down the action, of course, local representatives from the Israel lobby are mercilessly playing it up. It is as if Stephen Smith announced he was putting a price on the head of Benjamin Netanyahu. Federal Labor’s member for Melbourne Ports, Michael Danby, announced today that he personally condemned his government’s action. Greg Sheridan pronounced the action “very poor” and “very feeble”, labelling it a “bad mistake” and “an overreaction”. John-Michael Howson, a Melbourne entertainment identity who extreme and unbalanced attitude towards Islam has already been highlighted by Media Watch, was quick to announce his disgust with the action. Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop put her foot in it this afternoon by employing the diplomatically ingenious argument that everyone forges passports anyway, including the Australian Government. Bishop was forced to embarrassedly walk away from her comments this evening.

Fundamentally, this is really very, very simple. What is at stake is the integrity of the document that is used to represent Australian citizens to the world. Australia can not be seen to tolerate the manipulation of the document and its use for dubious ends.

If the folks mentioned above checked their biases at the door when considering this issue, I am certain they would reach the same conclusion. How would Danby, Howson, Sheridan and Bishop react if, say, it was reasonably believed by ASIO that the Iranian Government had used and manipulated Australian passports in a hit on a Zionist leader? Would they have a different opinion?

Or do they not care about what foreign governments do with our passports?

The bold and the belligerent

Q and A’s new Monday night timeslot (9:30PM) on the ABC does not really suit me, hence I regularly miss the program. Fortunately, the ABC provides both transcripts of previous programs and the full freely downloadable programs, which means I can catch-up very easily.At the moment I’m about a week behind. I haven’t seen this week’s episode yet (featuring Miranda Devine, Catherine Deveny, Waleed Ali, Bill Shorten, and Peter Dutton), but I have managed to retrospectively watch last week’s episode, which featured Richard Dawkins, Patrick McGorry, Rabbi Jackie Nino, Steve Fielding, Julie Bishop and Tony Burke. Predictably, the discussion focused on topics amenable to the international visitor, the renowned author, scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins. The majority of questions were indeed directed at Dawkins, and undoubtedly the producers of the show derived great enjoyment from seating their international guest next to Family First’s paleolithic christian Steve Fielding.

Of course, I am an atheist. I’ve read The God Delusion, and I thought it was a pretty compelling book. I think the gist of what Dawkins says is correct. On Q and A, however, I think he came across as being quite belligerent; this seems to be his style. He is not interested in finding common ground with religious followers and trying to advance the cause of atheism – in actual fact, it seems that he delights in being blunt to the point of being belittling.

I suppose it is arguable that the cause of atheism needs people like Dawkins – people who are not afraid to call it as they see it and do not attempt to hide the fact that they think people who believe in religion are stupid. Dawkins is certainly right that the peculiarly special level of “respect” that society believes needs to be granted to people’s religious beliefs is anachronistic when compared to other facets of mainstream public debate. My view on education policy, for example, no matter how strongly felt, is somehow not in the same class as Joe’s belief in God, because it is not religious. Dawkins seems to be keen to represent himself to the world as a living, breathing personification of this mode of criticism.

When it comes down to it though, I don’t believe that Richard Dawkins is really doing the cause of atheism a great deal of good by slagging off the religious. The publicity he brings to the cause is impressive, but being abusive to people who at their core, are often fundamentally decent people, strikes me as counter-productive.

Consider for example, the transcript excerpt from over the fold. I agree with the point Dawkins tries to make, but the means by which he conveys it just serves to make Julie Bishop and Tony Burke’s counterpoints seem more reasoned, rational and considered. This is an odd and unhelpful look, when Dawkins is purportedly the super-rational one waving the torch for cold, hard science.

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Talking the financial crisis up and down

There can be no denying that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Treasurer Wayne Swan, in particular, have brought a concerted air of solemnity to their communications regarding the global financial crisis. It has become almost cliched for our leaders and media commentators to assert that these are “tough times that we are living in”, or to compare the recent machinations in our financial markets to Black Monday, the oil shocks of the 1970’s, or even the mother of them all, the Great Depression. The national mood is a heady brew of overstated pessimism and introspection, and few have the confidence to predict exactly how events will unfold in the future.

The importance of confidence for consumers and the world’s remarkably flaky financial markets can’t really be overestimated at this stage. This creates a bit of a conundrum for government; on the one hand, the situation should probably be talked up, in order to send positive signals out there to those willing to listen. On the other hand, the government needs to keep its mood in touch with that of the Australian people. The last thing the Rudd Government wants to do is engage in rank triumphalism over Australia’s position in relation to the financial crisis when a lot of people out there are hurting as a result of it.

It would seem that the Liberal Party is happy to send positive signals with respect to the financial crisis, and to wear on its sleeve any criticisms arising from it being out of touch (some would suggest this is its natural disposition). Shadow Treasurer Julie Bishop appeared on Channel Nine this morning suggesting that Rudd needs to be more positive in relation to the crisis, offering this hyperbolic vignette to support her case:

Ms Bishop said shopkeepers in an Adelaide shopping centre had sent her a clear message.

“A number of shopkeepers … said to me that every time the Prime Minister goes on the nightly news and says ‘it’s going to be tough and ugly and hard’, they know that sales will be flat the next day.”

Former Prime Minister John Howard sent the Rudd Government a similar message on Fox News yesterday, urging the government to steer clear of comparisons of today’s crisis with the Great Depression. He is not without a point, but clearly the line upon which the government needs to walk here is fraught. Federal Labor is getting hit by the Opposition and some punters for talking the crisis up. If it talks the crisis down while the problems related with the crisis remain, it will also get hit by Opposition and the punters.

Rudd and Swan, knowing that this truly is a global financial crisis and that for the most part it is beyond Australia’s control, are erring to the negative side at the moment. Although we could perhaps do without some of the “Great Depression” hyperbole, I am not sure this is necessarily a bad thing given the reality of the situation that Australia faces. When the United States sneezes, we need to do what we can and hope for the best, because we simply don’t have the economic equivalent of an influenza vaccine on hand.

More interest rates gubbish in the media

With an interest rate cut all but announced for tomorrow, I have been bemused to observe the public debate on interest rates once again focus on a red herring. Treasurer Wayne Swan has taken the brave and perhaps politically unusual step of declining to demand that Australia’s banks pass on the hypothetical interest rate cut to consumers. Shadow Treasurer Julie Bishop has taken precisely the opposite tack, criticising the government for not demanding that the banks pass on the cuts:

Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens has reportedly told Prime Minister Kevin Rudd that squeezing the banks too hard could make it unprofitable for them to lend and push the Australian economy into recession.However, opposition treasury spokeswoman Julie Bishop said passing on the full RBA cut would help keep people in jobs and the Australian banking sector stay strong.

“One of the most important ways to keep our financial sector strong is to ensure that Australians keep their jobs so that they can pay off their mortgages … their bank loans,” she told reporters in Perth.”

And that is why if there is an interest rate cut tomorrow it should be passed on in full so that people can keep their jobs and keep paying off their financial obligations.”

This debate raises some interesting questions about what Commonwealth Treasurers should and shouldn’t do, or perhaps more interestingly, what they realistically have the influence to do. Should Wayne Swan really be getting on the blower, as Julie Bishop seems to be suggesting, to the chiefs of the big five tomorrow and demanding that they immediately pass on the hypothetical cut to consumers? Does Julie Bishop, a so-called economic rationalist, have so little faith in the market that she feels the Treasurer needs to instruct individual private organisations on how they run their business? Put simply, it is an absurdity.

There are three points worth making here in rebuttal to Bishop’s foolishly populist demands:

1) It is not the Commonwealth Treasurer’s role to attempt to run the business of Australia’s big five banks by demanding that certain monetary policy actions be taken;

2) The Treasurer’s views are probably the least of the concerns of Australia’s big five. They are businesses answering to their customers and shareholders, not the fiefdoms of the Treasurer. here Any views that Treasurer Swan attempted to impose upon them would almost certainly be ignored;

3) It is almost a certainty that one of the big five will elect (if not immediately, than in the relatively short-term) to cut rates and seek to make their offerings more attractive to consumers. When this happens, there is a pretty good likelihood that the others will follow suit in due course.

This is not a good start from Bishop. One wonders whether the Turnbull Opposition is going to suffer for not having someone who can reliably score the odd point (e.g. the Opposition Leader!) against Swan opposing him in the Shadow Treasury.