Wanted: politicians who inspire and creative public policy

I watched Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake again recently. Again, I cried. A sick bloke with talent and decency ends up dead before he can argue his case to be treated not as a client, customer, service user or national insurance number but as a citizen, no more no less. Surely our citizens can expect more from governments and public servants than mindless process and indifference. In the age of automation ought not compassion be precious? In the age of big data, shouldn’t it be easier to tailor public services to the individuals who pay, or have paid, taxes?

Worrying about this reminded me of an exchange I had with Donald Horne in 1996. Our letters were prompted by an allegation in Brisbane’s Courier-Mail that the historian Manning Clark had acted as a covert ‘agent of influence’ on behalf of the Soviet Union. There was no evidence to back the claims: fake news is not new. It was also the time of the first rise of Hansonism. I was angry that the Howard government was not standing up against ignorant racism and intolerance. Horne wrote back:

I keep having this fear that Australia (well – not Australia, but some bits of its public culture) will suddenly go mad, as the hidden rises to the surface – without the appropriate denunciations from the guardians.

Today, Horne might have concluded that the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

What has caused the malaise in our polity and how we might do things differently is the subject of a two-part essay published in Pearls and Irritations.

Why we have diplomatic language

For many years I have introduced new entrants to the diplomatic service to the archaic language of third person notes or notes verbales. Some are enchanted by the trappings of their new profession; others scornful of the use of phrases like:

‘avails itself of this opportunity to renew the assurances of its highest consideration’.

I explain this usage as part of the toolbox of diplomacy which, along with protocol, can serve to contain heated emotion and temper hostilities. These have been the tasks of diplomats before and since the French coined such elaborate phrases centuries ago.

Now, when the talk is of a new Cold War, Australia’s Foreign Minister – some people call her our chief diplomat – prefers the TV cameras to the conventions devised to maintain lines of communication even during times of heightened tension. On 28 March she gave the Russian Ambassador what the media calls her ‘death stare’. Logvinov seemed to take this in his stride. He has even appeared to relish his on-screen performances.

This tit for tat isn’t over. Russia’s Foreign Minister had already reacted to the expulsions by Western governments of Russian diplomats by saying that Moscow will not tolerate Western countries’ crassness. ‘Rest assured, we will respond’, Lavrov told the Russian news agency, TASS. ‘The reason is that no one would like to tolerate such obnoxiousness and we won’t either.’

These slanging matches are bad for international relations. If we start to call people out before we have the facts* and prefer to conduct the business of foreign policy in the public glare, we abandon the professional foundations from which to prosecute for peace not war. That’s serious stuff.

*For more on what we do or don’t yet know about the Skripal attack, see http://johnmenadue.com/scott-burchill-on-the-russian-gas-attack/

and

https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/unlikely-that-vladimir-putin-behind-skripal-poisoning-1.3425736 

Image: the Russian ambassador, Grigory Logvinov, with the foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop Photograph: Mike Bowers for the Guardian

What do we mean by Australia Day?

All the talk about Australia Day – what it symbolises, for whom and when we should celebrate – prompted me to delve into the history of the date, which has long been contentious. The Conversation website has run a series.  And Honest History has published various articles.  My post for the Professional Historians Association of NSW and ACT argues that, before we lock in the date, we need to decide what we want our national day to commemorate: the arrival of the British, invasion, sovereignty, citizenship, summer? Here it is:

What the history of Australia Day can tell us about the date

Fact check: turn to the dictionary

Merriam-Webster, the oldest dictionary publisher in America, has had no qualms about entering cyberspace. Its Twitter feed now responds to the weird use of language in political debate.

After Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway coined the term ‘alternative facts’ to explain the dispute about crowd numbers at the presidential inauguration, Webster tweeted:

A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality.

Merriam-Webster lexicographer (noun: dictionary editor) Kory Stamper told CNN at the time:

We’re not going to change the meaning of the word ‘fact’ just because of the way one person uses it…We’re trained to pull words out of a jar and just tell the truth about what they mean. So we’ll keep doing what we do.

Stamper’s book, Word by Word, The Secret Life of Dictionaries, was published by Penguin Random House in March 2017. The blurb tell us that ‘Stamper cracks open the complex, obsessive world of lexicography, from the agonizing decisions about what to define and how to do it, to the knotty questions of usage in an ever-changing language’.

Australian readers take note: it’s the Macquarie Dictionary (the seventh edition was published in March 2017) that holds sway down under. It too has a website, blog and podcast, and readers can vote for the Word of the Year. In 2016, the word (well phrase) was halal snack pack with an honourable mention going to, yes, fake news.

Terrorism and words: a reality-check on Isis

 

injuries-from-furniture-tip-over-accidentsIf truth is the first casualty of war, common sense is the first victim of terrorism.

There are no better examples than the hyper-ventilated assertions which followed the recent bombings in Brussels. France’s President Hollande declared that ‘all of Europe has been hit’. UK Prime Minister David Cameron warned that his country faced ‘a very real threat’. Here, Malcolm Turnbull ticked off the Europeans for their sloppy security. Prominent journalist Greg Sheridan, channelling Donald Trump’s absurdity that ‘Belgium and France are literally disintegrating’, wrote that the attacks represented a ‘damn [sic] burst’ which left the ‘structures of the world … trembling’.

If we didn’t know better we might easily mistake messrs Hollande, Cameron, Turnbull and Sheridan and regrettably many others as Isis recruiting agents. Their comments are a dream for the organisation’s propagandists. Worse, they paint a picture of the threat from Isis that is not borne out by the reality.

Isis terror threatens individual safety. Does it really threaten the security of European or Western states more broadly? There is a vital difference between the two ‘s’ words. Isis is a truly appalling outfit which commits heinous deeds. It has around 30,000 fighters and controls large tracts in Iraq and Syria. But without a navy, without an air force, how exactly does that translate into threat potent enough to make ‘the world’ tremble?

Fortunately, there is still wise counsel to be had. President Obama’s 2016 State-of-the-Union address should be required reading for all those prone to excitability:

… over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands. Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger to civilians and must be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence. That’s the story ISIL wants to tell; that’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit.

Some of the best commentary on Brussels came from The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins. The political and media over-reaction, he wrote, ‘converted a squalid psychopathological act into a warrior-evoking, population-terrifying, policy-changing event’. It also illuminated an appalling double-standard given that the ‘atrocities in Brussels happen almost daily on the streets of Baghdad, Aleppo and Damascus’.

For Americans, and quite possibly many others in the ‘trembling’ West, household furniture poses at least as great a danger as terrorism. Micah Zenko  from the reputable Council on Foreign Relations has written that in the decade after 9/11 an average of 29 Americans were killed each year in terrorist attacks. Figures compiled by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission showed that about the same number were crushed to death each year by unstable television sets and furniture.

Unwelcome news for the hyper-ventilators; important perspective for everyone else.

Shirt fronting

putin and abbottDiplomacy relies heavily on finding the right words. We advise our clients to be very careful with colloquialisms. You just can’t be sure your interlocutors will realise you want them to get to the point if you tell them ‘don’t come the raw prawn with me’. It looks like Pravda got the gist of what Tony Abbott meant by shirt-fronting the Russian President, referring to the PM’s former life as a pugilist. But what about Australians? Not being a football fan, I didn’t really know what the PM intended to do until I read this explanation of the variations in meaning between AFL and rugby. Thank goodness, Abbott’s code (rugby) is, in this instance, slightly more genteel. Overall, though, I hope he’s decided to eat his words.