I visited Australia for three weeks across the end of May and early June. The reason was the EITI biannual conference in Sydney. This went very well and we improved the rules to try to ensure that the standard encourages better accountability and more informed public debate about how to manage extractive industries for the benefit of the people of each country.
From Sydney I went on to Melbourne to meet up with an old friend and her daughter. Whilst there I read an important book, The Biggest Estate on Earth – How Aborigines Made Australia, by Bill Gammage. He is a well-known Australian historian who has written books about Australia’s contribution to the first World War. The book shows that the claim that Australia was in a state of nature before the arrival of Europeans in 1788, is completely false. In fact the aborigines managed the land, plants and animals very carefully. They used burning in a very skilful and controlled way as part of that process. Since returning, I have read a novel by an aboriginal Australian, That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott, which reflects how the original inhabitants welcomed the Europeans and helped them but were then misused and dispossessed by them.
From Melbourne we flew to Perth and visited the wonderful botanical gardens, and I came to appreciate how nature had created completely distinct plans in order to survive this desert-type land with few nutrients. We then went north to camp near the Ningaloo reef. I went drift-snorkelling beside the reef and saw beautiful fish and corals, and most magnificent of all an enormous turtle peacefully swimming beneath me. And then from a boat we went snorkelling to look at whale sharks, they can be as long as 19 m but they live on plankton. We saw three of these beautiful creatures close-up, they are enormous and entirely peaceful and it was a deeply moving experience that somehow underlined how arrogant we humans are and how we fail to appreciate the beauty and wonder of the rest of nature and our dependence upon it.
All people of good will were inspired by the Arab Spring and the peaceful uprising of the people of Egypt against the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. Now events in Egypt are far more troubling. It is not surprising that there is a counter-revolution, most revolutions in history have experienced this, but what is surprising is that we have the liberal and secular forces that led the revolution, supporting an army coup against the elected president. There is no doubt that President Morsi and the Muslim brotherhood ruled in an undemocratic spirit, but surely the right demand for their critics is to hold elections for Parliament and possibly even a rerun of presidential elections and to reconsider the constitution rather than support and cheer an army coup. Many have quoted the dangers of the precedent of Algeria and Gaza where successful Islamist parties won elections and were then rejected.
The implication of this was that an Islamist movement would conclude that they could only gain power through violence and the experience of the civil war in Algeria and the siege of Gaza caused terrible suffering. More recently I have read that the Islamist Algerians are advising the Brotherhood to learn from their bitter experience and to agree to participate in future elections. Let us hope that wisdom will prevail and the secularists will insist that criminal persecution of the Brotherhood ceases, and the Brotherhood will agree to participate in elections, otherwise the future could be very bleak for the people of Egypt.
Labour and the Unions
As I write, the Tory party and the media are in full cry attacking the Labour Party’s links with the trade unions. This is an old story that resurfaces from time to time. In fact all social democratic parties across the world, that led the great reforms after the Second World War that gave us full employment and the welfare state, had a strong link with the trade unions. As Ed Miliband and various trade union leaders have said, the link to working people, rather than a political elite hovering around Westminster and Wapping and funded by multi-millionaires, is a good thing for politics. I know nothing of what went wrong in the parliamentary selection in Falkirk, but there have been contentious parliamentary selections in all parties, with people stuffing membership numbers to try to control the outcome, over very many years. The problem with the union link to the Labour Party is that it started off with a plurality of small unions, the Fabian Society, the Cooperative Party and constituency party members all having a say in Labour Party decisions. Since then, trade-union membership numbers have declined and unions have merged, leaving the voting power in the hands of the small number of leaders. I think the answer is to re-pluralise the links and have local trade union branches affiliating to local parties and providing some funding the campaigning if they choose to do so.
Novel on slavery in the Caribbean
I have just read Andrea Levy’s The Long Song, I strongly recommend it.
- The US War on Terror: New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, after noting that “since 9/11, the United States has built new intelligence complexes equivalent in office space to 22 United States Capitol buildings” and “has spent $8 trillion on the military and homeland security”, sets forth some simple but significant realities:
The imbalance in our priorities is particularly striking because since 2006 terrorism has taken an average of 23 American lives annually, mostly overseas – and the number has been falling. More Americans die of falling televisions and other appliances than from terrorism. Twice as many American die of bee or wasp stings annually. And 15 times as many die by falling off ladders… Most striking, more than 30,000 people die annually from firearms injuries, including suicides, murders and accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. American children are 13 times as likely to be killed by guns as in other industrialized countries… Doesn’t it seem odd that we’re willing to spend trillions of dollars, and intercept metadata from just about every phone call in the country, to deal with a threat that, for now, kills but a few Americans annually – while we’re too paralyzed to introduce a rudimentary step like universal background checks to reduce gun violence that kills tens of thousands?
- Quantitative Easing: John Kay, the distinguished academic and FT columnist concluded in an FT article on July 10th:
Why has so much attention been given to these monetary policies with no clear explanation of how they might be expected to work and little evidence of effectiveness? The very phrase “quantitative easing” seems designed to discourage non-technical discussion. But the real answer, I fear, is all too familiar: these policies may not benefit a non-financial economy much, but they are helpful to the financial services sector and those who work in it.
- Inequality in the UK: over the past 30 years, the share of national income going to the lower half of the learners has fallen by 25% whilst the slice going to the top 1% has increased by 50% (John Nickson FT July 8th)
- Inequality in the US: the US stock market has risen by more than 50% since the crisis while median earnings have declined (Edward Luce FT July 8th)
- Is China buying up the World? Between 1990 and 2012, the global stock of outward FDI soared from $2.1 trillion to $23.6 trillion. High income countries still accounted for 79% of this in the latter year. In 2012, the outward stock of US investment was $5.2 trillion, while that of the UK was $1.8 trillion, against $509 billion from China (Martin Wolf FT July 10)