Saturday, September 09, 2006

Mark Steyn on John Howard

Steyn says that the Australian government is much less influenced by political correctness than are the U.S. and U.K. governments. He may not be aware that Australians are in general more blunt and less "proper" than most other nationalities

John Howard was quoted approvingly on a US radio show last week. Big deal, you say. He's a prime minister; what does he care if some rinky-dink talk-jockey recycles a couple of sound bites? Well, the radio host in question was Rush Limbaugh, and Rush has more listeners than there are Australians. That's to say, about 25 million or so listeners, which is more than the number of Australians in Australia and Lebanon combined.

Why would gazillions of American radio listeners appreciate a line from Howard? Because he says things that none of their own leaders ever quite say. Last week it was the stuff about Muslim immigrants needing to learn English and making sure they're cool with this equal-rights-for-women business.

The soi-disant arrogant Texas cowboy rarely shoots from the lip like that. Instead, he says things such as: "Freedom is the desire of every human heart." Look, I'm a supporter of the Bush doctrine to spread liberty throughout the Muslim world, but I support it on hard-headed grounds of national security. You only have to watch a couple of minutes of the lads in Gaza and southern Lebanon on the telly every night to realise freedom comes pretty low down on the list of their hearts' desires. So, when the US President insists on reprising the line week in week out, he begins to sound utopian, if not utterly deluded. American conservatives would appreciate a rationale less hermetically sealed from reality.

By contrast, the Prime Minister's rhetoric meets what the law used to regard as the "reasonable man" test. When Howard refers to blokes "raving on about jihad" and the way that those so inclined are "utterly antagonistic" to a free society, he's merely stating the obvious in a way that other Western leaders can't quite bring themselves to do. His words align with reality, and one can't underestimate the value of that.

The other day, on a flight from Malaga to Manchester, a bunch of holidaying Brits mutinied and demanded the removal of two suspicious "Asian" passengers in "heavy clothes" and "checking their watches". The evicted passengers appear to be blameless, but the other travellers had spent the days since the Heathrow arrests listening to British government ministers trotting out the usual hooey about how the improved security procedures would be impeccably non-discriminatory and they seem to have concluded, reasonably enough, that although the new rules may prevent your toothpaste, Diet Coke and gel-filled bra (to name three now prohibited items) from boarding, they were unlikely to stop the mad bombers getting on. In other words, the more the gulf widens between the Government's multiculti PC pap and the obvious truth, the more the state risks de-legitimising itself in the eyes of the citizenry. Tony Blair has a good pitch when he's surveying the distant horizon and the big picture and doing his Tone of Arabia routine, but he hasn't yet managed to find a line on the homegrown jihad that resonates with his electorate.

If I ran the speechwriting departments in the White House and Downing Street, Howard's bloke's-eye view would be the working template. As someone who's been citing Canberra's finest across the US long before Limbaugh and the other Aussie-come-latelys jumped in, I like to think of myself as a kind of honorary cultural attache, like Dame Edna's friend Sir Les Patterson, but with less stained trousers. I'm aware, after my trip to Australia last month, that various local lefties think I'm as nutty in this respect as Steve Irwin when he hailed Howard as "the greatest leader in the world". Perhaps it takes a croc hunter to appreciate a crock hunter: a politician with a keen eye for fashionable baloney and a willingness to wrestle it to the ground.

Still, I do think it's worth considering why, of the three doughty warriors of the Anglosphere, Howard has managed to avoid the traps that have ensnared George W. Bush and Blair. For example, while Australia has some of the sweetest republicans in the Commonwealth, the Prime Minister's cultural conservatism strikes me as well grounded: in a time of rapid international and economic change, you have to prioritise, you can't put everything up for grabs, unto the flag and the crown.

The day after the London bombings, Blair said that the terrorists would not be allowed to "change our country or our way of life". Of course not. That's his job, from accelerating European integration to his "reform" of the House of Lords. The British Prime Minister has turned the upper chamber into a house of cronies, the Islamists would like to make it a house of imams. But once you accept the idea of tearing up a thousand years of history, the rest is largely a difference of degree. After a decade of modish vandalism, Blair has abandoned a lot of his sillier novelties because he's belatedly understood the dangers that arise when your citizens start to feel unmoored from their past. Howard didn't need to learn that on the job.

One should be cautious about comparisons between any nation and even its closest allies. Australia, it was pointed out to me on my recent foray, has compulsory voting, unlike the US, where turnout is 50 per cent, give or take, and much of the experts' energy is expended in trying to figure out ways to make sure the opposition's voters stay home. In theory, Australia's system, by requiring parties to attract the votes of the allegedly less partisan centre, ought to tend towards a more moderate politics. Yet, among the governments of the main English-speaking nations, the Howard ministry is the least wishy-washily centrist: on jihad, on education, on immigration.

In the US, Republicans are meant to be the daddy party but Bush's riffs on Islam ("religion of peace") and illegal immigration ("family values don't stop at the Rio Grande") are almost all mommy talk and despised as intellectually dishonest by many conservatives.

So how does Howard, with a 100 per cent turnout and all those supposed moderates to woo, get away with the daddy talk? Australians are not ostentatiously right-wing or even terribly conservative. But it seems that when you toss the entire electorate into the voting booth, there's a big market among the not especially partisan for a party that disdains political correctness. Alexander Downer's contempt for "lowest common denominator multilateralism" isn't especially right-wing or left-wing: outside the ABC studios and universities and assorted ethnic grievance-mongers, it's an unexceptional observation.

So Australia has, if not quite publicly, suspended the absurd deference to postmodern sovereignty that characterises the UN era. By comparison with Washington, it's honest about and comfortable with a modest, qualified neo-imperialism throughout the Pacific's "arc of instability". The Americans could learn a lot from the policy as well as from the Aussies' ease with it. Obviously Australia is, in one sense, a small, distant nation and thus has a freer hand on Iraq than the US and on the wider jihad than Britain, which is in danger of turning into Somalia with chip shops. And, if I'm honest, there are certain aspects of Australian life that I find problematic, from gun laws to a still over-regulated economic environment.

But, granted those and a few other caveats, Australia's is the only Western government on top of the three big challenges facing the developed world: not just the jihad but the more basic issue of civilisational confidence (hence the history summit) and the structural weaknesses of ageing Western democracies: Peter Costello's call for "one for mum, one for dad, one for Australia" is better put than any British minister would dare (though the fecund Blair certainly leads by example).

Just as the advantage of federalism is the local experimentation it allows, so on everything from basic post-9/11 temperament to regional military interventions the present Aussie Government is a kind of useful pilot scheme for the rest of the Anglosphere. I only wish the ghastly, intellectually barren British Conservatives would learn a thing or two from it. As for my own nation, I've left Canada out of this discussion but I'm modestly encouraged by small signs of Australianisation. Our new Prime Minister was in London recently and a couple of local Tories told me how impressed they were: "Splendid chap, this new man of yours, Stephen Howard." Close enough. When a Canadian PM gets mistaken for John Howard's cousin, that's higher praise than we've had in decades.


Greenie puritans

To the women of Miss Kitka's it was their regular act - a striptease down to vintage underwear, and a few balloons popped for added spice. But to some of the attendees of the Canberra Climate Change forum it was all too much. Red-faced organisers of the 17th annual forum have apologised for their "inappropriate" choice of entertainment during the forum dinner. But that did not stop two government departments from withdrawing their $8000 sponsorship for the annual event.

The House of Burlesque show involved stripping one woman of red balloons with a pin, but forum organisers said it was intended to be "lighthearted entertainment". Miss Kitka, better known as Australian National University student Rebecca Gale, said you would see more nudity on a beach and that members of the audience had overreacted to the "tongue-in-cheek" act. "It is very unfortunate and upsetting," she said. "We are being portrayed as strippers and while there is an element of striptease, the least anyone stripped down to was vintage underwear."

However, when Miss Kitka came out clad in red balloons and offered pins to anyone who wanted to help her pop them, the temperature increased more rapidly than any predictions for climate change. While that was going on, another troupe member stripped off a coat, hat, gloves and dress.

In a statement delivered this afternoon, the ANU organisers apologised for their "misjudged" choice of entertainment. "The ANZ Climate Forum organising committee apologises for any offence taken at the forum dinner," the organisers said in a statement read out at the close of the forum. "The intent was lighthearted entertainment. "In retrospect the choice of entertainment was inappropriate for the occasion. "We understand if the sponsors wish to withdraw."

An ANU spokeswoman said there was no nudity involved in the event. "The Department of the Environment and Heritage's Australian Greenhouse Office considers the nature of the 'entertainment' at this event to be highly inappropriate," said the department's deputy secretary, Howard Bamsey. "Our representative was among those who walked out ... (and) we are withdrawing our sponsorship of this event." Environment Minister Ian Campbell has withdrawn $3000, saying the Government "could not be associated with such inappropriate activity". The Bureau of Rural Sciences, part of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, has withdrawn $5000 in funding.


Public hospital bureaucracy fails mothers

Six years of lazy bureaucrats sitting on their hands

Ten birthing tubs in the Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital's main maternity unit that were meant to provide the option of soothing warm water baths for labouring women continue to lie empty and unused after six years. The tubs were installed in the unit's birthing suites during the multimillion-dollar refurbishment of Queensland's flagship medical facility. But a spokeswoman for the hospital said yesterday there were still no plans to trial use of the tubs "until they were deemed safe". "An ergonomic assessment of the tubs has revealed (they) are not safe for use," the spokeswoman said. "RBWH is reviewing various options to improve their safety."

Two years ago, Queensland Health's RBWH district manager, Professor Richard Olley, said the tubs would not be used until a "multi-centre randomised control trial" was held to assess the safety of the tubs being used for immersion during labour. That decision ignored the 2003 findings of an in-house hospital committee which found the use of water in labour and birth in the hospital's separate birth centre - available only to a few women - had achieved "good outcomes for both mothers and babies".

The tubs' on-going closure as a result of workplace health and safety issues or medical safety issues means about 4230 women annually who give birth in the hospital's main maternity unit are denied the option of a warm bath for pain relief during labour. Maternity Coalition Queensland vice-president, Melissa Fox, said access to a bath for labouring mothers was a standard option in many other maternity services around Queensland, Australia and the world. "It should be for Brisbane women too," she said. The lack of access had been an ongoing disappointment to mothers.

"A range of reasons have been proposed for this and it's about time the problems were clarified and dealt with so women can have a access to a reasonable range of choices," Ms Fox said. "Many women, including myself, find a warm bath soothing and relaxing, easing the pain of the contractions so you are less likely to feel the need for pharmacological pain relief."

About 620 women each year apply through a ballot system to give birth in the hospital's birthing centre. In the birthing centre about 50 per cent of the women use that facility's birthing pools for pain relief during labour. Ten women each month in the birthing centre have water births.


Quantum leap for physics grads

Physics students will be in high demand "for the foreseeable future" because of an employee shortfall, according to a leader in the field. Australian Institute of Physics president David Jamieson said prospects were excellent for good graduates and starting salaries reflected this. "The rise of technology shows no sign of ending," said Professor Jamieson, director of the Microanalytical Research Centre at the University of Melbourne. "The number of very big science projects, including the Australian Synchrotron and the new nuclear reactor in Sydney, means that trend will keep on escalating."

Professor Jamieson said demand from universities, industry and government meant there was also a shortage of physics-qualified high school teachers. Starting salaries ranged from about $35,000 in teaching to about $60,000 in research. "But most people aren't in it for the money," he said. "Secondary teaching can be a very rewarding career that has a flexibility that you may not have in research."

Physics graduates commonly completed a BSc, followed by an honours year and a PhD, a process that took 7 1/2 years. s it worth it in the end? "Absolutely," Professor Jamieson said, citing "the excitement of looking at nature at its most fundamental". Physics specialisations came in "different flavours", including nanotechnology, physical chemistry, climate modelling, quantum physics, electromagnetism, thermal physics and astrophysics. "An important point is the diversity of fields where graduates end up," he said.

This year, demand for science professionals increased by 10,139, according to the Department of Education, Science and Training. The department predicts a total demand growth of 55,198 to 2013. AIP Victorian branch secretary Dan O'Keeffe said about 12per cent of Victorian 18-year-olds studied physics in 2005. Participation in the subject peaked in 1992 at about 16per cent, but had fallen steadily since then. In that year, about 22 per cent of male senior secondary students studied physics. Figures for NSW showed a similar profile.


Crooked judge in trouble

Fraud squad police have seized a computer belonging to beleaguered former judge Marcus Einfeld, after raiding his Sydney home early this morning. The Daily Telegraph can reveal a search warrant was executed in a bid to gather evidence for their perjury investigation. Four detectives and a uniformed officer emerged from his Woollahra home shortly after 11am carrying a computer hard drive. Another three undercover police officers left the house earlier in the morning carrying two black backpacks.

Strike Force Chanter was set up last month to investigate Mr Einfeld's evidence to the Downing Centre Local Court that a visiting US professor was driving his silver Lexus on January 8 this year when it was clocked speeding in Mosman. He said she had since died and the case was dismissed by the magistrate because it could not be proven. But The Daily Telegraph discovered Professor Brennan had in fact died three years ago. When Mr Einfeld was confronted with the fact that Teresa Brennan had been dead for three years, he said it was another academic, named Therese or Terese Brenan. She had also died on her return to the US, he said.

Since then The Daily Telegraph has uncovered Mr Einfeld also avoided speeding and traffic signal violations in 1999 and 2000 while he was a Federal Court judge earning more than $200,000 a year. In two statutory declarations, then Justice Einfeld named an Australian woman based in America as the driver of his taxpayer-funded car. When The Daily Telegraph phoned the woman in the US, she said: "I have no idea what you're talking about.''


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