I haven’t yet laid my hands on a copy of Salman Rushdie’s new book, but it is an anticipated pleasure. “Joseph Anton: A Memoir” tells his own story of being forced underground with armed surveillance after Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against him over The Satanic Verses. Anton was the name Rushdie used while incognito when he was most in danger. The fatwa remains current, as the only man who can lift it – Khomeini – inconveniently died a few months after the pronouncement. Rushdie is rebuilding his life 24 years after the publication of that fateful book.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott is not interested in economics and doesn’t like reading press releases so he may not have read the minutes of the last Reserve Bank meeting. What Abbott would remember from that August 7 meeting was the headline of interest rates kept on hold at 3.50 per cent. The Board said world conditions had declined since February, commodity prices were down and global growth was unspectacular. Australia’s terms of trade (the relative prices of Australia’s exports and imports) peaked nearly a year ago, the Bank said, “though they remain historically high”.
The Board offered its judgement on the world and Australia’s place in it. China was steady, US growth is modest, Asia was recovering from natural disasters. Europe remains the sick man of the world as policymakers juggle sovereign and bank debt with the need for future growth. The share market was volatile, risk aversion was high while interest rates were historically low. Yet the board noted Australian banks have had no difficulty accessing funding, even on an unsecured basis. This was because Australia was a “highly rated sovereign”. Inflation and unemployment are low and not even the carbon price will change it that much.
This is an extraordinary result given Board Governor Glenn Stevens’ statement to the politicians yesterday, we were “not in anything like normal times”. Stevens was speaking at the House of Representatives standing committee on economics and repeated the good news about the local economy. Resource investment might be declining but the export shipments will pick up. The dampening effect of a high dollar was beginning to wane, so other sectors such as construction and tourism may also bounce back.
Liberal member of the committee Steve Ciobo asked if Australia was merely just lucky to near Asia’s boom and far from the toxicity of Europe. Stevens avoided the political connotations of the question but admitted Australia’s geography and resource-rich land was a “blessing”. However he noted there were cultural issues. “We are in the real economy exposed to the strong bit, and our financial economy and our psychology is still quite connected as well to the pessimism from the North Atlantic,” Stevens said.
The Opposition has tapped into this pessimism with great effect since the last election and has taken every opportunity to link bad economic news to the minority government. After two years, Tony Abbott is no longer pretending Australia is in dire straits but still marked Tuesday’s second anniversary of that election with a hope “the Australian people can vote for a better way.” Abbott sought refuge in the past for his promise of renewed hope and a stronger economy. “Sixteen members of my Shadow Cabinet were ministers in the Howard Government,” he said. “We delivered an era of reform and prosperity before, and we are determined to do it again.”
Abbott’s presser makes no mention of the change in global conditions since Howard lost the November 2007 election. This week, he repeated unsubstantiated claims the carbon and mining taxes were responsible for economic uncertainty in a shambolic performance on ABC’s 7.30. They were among many egregious errors, including the suggestion Marius Kloppers may have mislead investors if he failed to mention the carbon tax as a reason for BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam postponement.
It wasn’t just Leigh Sales toughening up on Abbott this week. Many in the media have started to ramp up scrutiny. Michelle Grattan said his credibility was as big a problem as Prime Minister Gillard’s trust. Grattan noted Abbott’s biggest strength, his absolutism, could become his biggest problem when the facts don’t fit his strategy. He is also in danger of losing the advantage over the Government as more people recognise his “one trick tony” behaviour.
Laurie Oakes openly called out Abbott as a liar in his weekly article for News Ltd today. While most people would not find it surprising a politician is less than scrupulously honest, it is a problem for Abbott because, says Oakes, “the central message from Abbott supporters is that the Prime Minister is the liar – Ju-liar.”
With a year to go before the next election, the advantage remains with the Opposition. But recent polling has seen a narrowing and even in Queensland where Labor was battered at the last Federal and State election there is improvement. On figures released this week, Poll Bludger reckons only the marginal seat of Moreton might fall and there is still another year of Campbell Newman government cutbacks to factor in.
While leadership tensions in Labor are not totally behind them (and won’t while Kevin Rudd remains in parliament), Gillard seems almost certain now to last until the next election. But there is no guarantee she will face Tony Abbott. Opposition members not rusted on to Abbott’s take-no-prisoners style (and there are many in the party, as the leadership ballot in 2009 showed), may get increasingly nervous if Labor continues to chip away at their lead, while their own leader goes missing in action.
Timbuktu has long been a perfect metaphor for the mythological exotic other. In 1510 Moorish author Leo Africanus described Timbuktu’s fabulous wealth during the height of the Songhai Empire – one of the largest Islamic kingdoms in history. In The History and Description of Africa, Africanus described the ritual in the court in Timbuktu as “exact and magnificent”. Its wealth came from its position as the southern terminus of a key trans-Saharan trade route. Merchants sold slaves and bought gold and the city was far enough away from everywhere to maintain autonomy and power. Some 333 Sufi saints are said to be buried in tombs and mausoleums across the city.
On Thursday, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade published their answer to a Fairfax two-fold Freedom of Information request on Julian Assange. The first part was for briefings to Foreign Minister Bob Carr about Wikileaks, Assange and Bradley Manning. The second was cable traffic (the kind made available by Wikileaks) between the embassy in Washington and the department on Wikileaks, Assange and Manning from February to April this year. The FOI’s aim was not to release Assange but to embarrass the government by proving Bob Carr a liar. Fairfax claimed DFAT’s long-held concern Assange would be extradited to the US was “at odds with Carr’s repeated dismissal of such a prospect.” DFAT’s heavily redacted response gives insight into Australian concerns about Assange.
LONDON is currently hosting the last Olympics of the twentieth century as well as the first of the 21st. It is the last of the 20th century because it is the last to be dominated by the century’s most important technology: Television. London is also the first 21st century Olympics as it is the first one where the audience has talked back to the organisers and their broadcaster partner proxies. The Rio 2016 Olympics is likely be a very different spectator sport thanks to social media, the power of the Internet and a global movement for more audience power.
Image via Nick Trask