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Governance, growth and next generation leadership in the Indo-Pacific

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Is Conor McGregor Tony Abbott?

Sean Jacobs, Hip Hop Republican, 1 September 2016

Irish mixed martial artist Conor McGregor has returned to the high peaks of stardom and notoriety following his ‘rematch’ win over opponent Nate Diaz. While many don’t usually turn to McGregor as a source of insight on current affairs, it was his recent comment in the lead up to the fight that caught my eye:

I am just trying to do my job and fight here. I am paid to fight. I am not yet paid to promote. I have become lost in the game of promotion and forgot about the art of fighting. There comes a time when you need to stop handing out flyers and get back to the damn shop. 50 world tours, 200 press conferences, 1 million interviews, 2 million photo shoots, and at the end of it all I’m left looking down the barrel of a lens, staring defeat in the face, thinking of nothing but my incorrect fight preparation.

McGregor’s exaggerations – ‘millions’ of photo shoots and interviews – were clearly angered embellishments to the excessive promotional demands of his federation. Yet it’s his core complaint – hype at the expense of action – that has become a tired feature of many professional arenas, especially Western politics. The incessant demand for news and sensation is shaping and undermining not just the provincial concerns of fight preparation but modern governance itself.

In 2013 conservative Australian prime minister Tony Abbott came to government with a sound commitment to ‘get politics off the front page’, have ‘an adult conversation’ with the Australian people and fulfil an unwritten desire to move away from the demands of a restless news cycle. Abbott, like McGregor, sought space to practice his art. ‘I asked for some leeway,’ lamented McGregor. ‘I did not shut down all media requests. I simply wanted a slight adjustment.’

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The disciplines of leadership, democracy and revolution in the developing world

Sean Jacobs, Hip Hop Republican, 4 July 2016

In late 2010, as a young UN staffer in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, I witnessed the tail end of an ultimately fatal high-speed police chase. It was a late Friday afternoon and I was standing across the road from a busy outdoor marketplace, accompanied by men, women and children buzzing home for the weekend.

The gentle energy of the Friday afternoon, however, quickly dissolved from the screeching tyres of four land cruisers sliding through the market, accompanied by two loud gunshots. I’ll never forget the unplanned choreography of around 700 people, including myself, dropping and splintering apart at the thunder of gunfire. The chase then continued out of sight.

The belligerents, as Sunday’s newspaper revealed, were killed moments later in the neighbouring suburb and, as far as I could tell, all innocents escaped injury. As exhilarating as I found this touch of danger, however, it was the rapid return to normalcy that most intrigued me.

The market, within not even 90 seconds, had quickly resettled. Overturned tables were restored, sellers recommenced trading, buses started moving and the gentle afternoon buzz replenished to pre-shootout levels. Had I missed the entire event, by even a moment, no previous disturbance would’ve been apparent.

Resilience, after all, is critical in a country like PNG, where poverty and corruption are enough to crush the most modest of dreams. There are countless other places in the developing world, from Mumbai to Port of Spain, where people must draw upon similar faculties of resilience to simply get through life.

But this capacity to quickly reset, and the elasticity to endure bitter public conditions, has unintended pitfalls. The following year, when returning to Australia and reading more into corruption and leadership in the developing world, it became clear that having the ability to quickly ‘move on’ from seismic events and gross public injustice could gradually lead to a societal-wide lack of accountability. Over time this can morph into a crude form of public tolerance for poor leadership and widespread corruption.

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With frankness and clarity: Julius Chan reflects on Papua New Guinea

Julius Chan, Playing the Game: Life and Politics in Papua New Guinea, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Brisbane, 2016

Sean Jacobs, Pacific Instiute of Public Policy, 28 April 2016

With the United States presidential race heating up, and the ascension of candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, there’s an obvious buzz around frank and straight-talking leaders proposing remedies to their national challenges.

And it’s with a similar but slightly more polished candour that Sir Julius Chan – twice Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea (PNG) – reflects on PNG’s shaky four decades of independence from Australia.

Certainly, it has not been an easy ride for the fast-growing South Pacific nation of eight million. PNG has been pushed to the brink multiple times by a near coup attempt following a decade-long civil war in the Province of Bougainville (1988-1998), and cascading political and economic instability. ‘Whenever there has been a crisis in PNG,’ writes Chan, ‘it is just like the crest of a big, big wave that could destroy everything in its path. But somehow, like a wave, the crisis lands on the shore and recedes.’

Naturally, in the early 1970s as the idea of independence grew, cultural allegiances tugged at the concept of a united Papua and New Guinea (the two territories were jointly administered by Australia). ‘The Tolai people there felt they were superior to the rest of the country,’ writes Chan. The Papua Besena movement, and the Mataungan Association of East New Britain, proved the more vocal pull-away groups, as well as people of Bougainville who ‘identified geographically and ethnically, due to the colour of their skin, as more akin to the Solomon Islands, and had no real desire to continue to be part of Papua New Guinea.’ Even the Johnson Cult of New Hanover, Chan writes, ‘aligned itself with US President Lyndon Johnson and wanted to vote for him and completely break away.’

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Changing the Flag will blunt Australia’s future

Australia is at a period where good ideas matter. Changing the flag is not one of them.

Sean Jacobs, Online Opinion, 29 March 2016

Labor MP Tim Watts has recently emerged as Australia’s leading anti-flag spokesman. His thoughts echo those of a thin group of flag-changers occasionally emerging to propose amendments to Australia’s pinnacle national symbol.

The motivation is both predictable and simple – because Australia has changed we must change the flag. ‘In many ways,’ Watts recently wrote in an SBS opinion piece, ‘our flag reflects the country we once were, not the nation we have become today.’

To look at Australia this way, however, commits to poor thinking and vastly simplifies how Australia is seen within our region. It also fails to acknowledge the role of Indigenous Australia in our nation’s chief national symbol.

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Australia’s Two Futures

Clare O’Neil and Tim Watts, Two Futures: Australia at a Critical Moment, Text Publishing Co, Melbourne 2015

Sean Jacobs

Progressive young federal Labor politicians Clare O’Neil and Tim Watts recently released Two Futures: Australia at a Critical Moment, which defines disruptive technology, inequality, climate change and economic growth as the ‘forces that will reshape our nation in the next twenty-five years.’

O’Neil and Watts, however, do little to limit the concerns of those Australians wary of self-described ‘progressives’. Proposing, as they do, that the state has a clear role within these ‘defining issues’ is to skip and misunderstand not just Australian history but the expanding and untameable nature of modern government. The added tendency of both authors to rely upon study after study, and academic upon academic, with little reference to liberty, freedom and choice, or even private or public debt, shows an un-camouflaged desire for a future led by government, think-tanks and academia at the expense of the common sense held by everyday Australians.

In many ways what O’Neil and Watts describe as their ideal future is not ‘the future’ but has already been tried. Many Western governments, for example, have done their best at stoking innovation, premeditating climate change and redressing inequality with results that hardly inspire more intensified government effort.

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Australia: change when change is required

Greg Sheridan, When We Were Young And Foolish: A Memoir of My Misguided Youth with Tony Abbott, Bob Carr, Malcolm Turnbull, Kevin Rudd and Other Reprobates, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 2015

Sean Jacobs

It’s often said that many young Australians find public debate bitter and lacking in civility. Greg Sheridan’s When We Were Young And Foolish, however, gives some perspective on the political currents of past generations, which make today’s social landscape appear mild by comparison.

Although Sheridan looks at the political elites of Australian politics he actually devotes more time to exploring the political landscape where they cut their teeth: the Catholic-Protestant divide, Labor’s split over communism and the venom of student and union politics. These, thankfully, are cleavages no longer dividing Australian life.

‘For more than 150 years,’ Sheridan writes, ‘Catholic versus Protestant was the key divide of our nation.’ Some newspaper job advertisements, as late as the 1960s, even confronted Catholics that they needn’t apply. Marrying across the ‘divide’ was enough to split families, as Sheridan’s own experience as a young Sydney-sider attests, and professions could be divided along denominational lines. Despite talk of inequality, ‘ceilings’ and discrimination young Australians can be thankful that career and social life is no longer led by what type of Christianity they follow.

Communism is another seismic international and domestic force that young Australians will find hard to appreciate. ‘I didn’t want my government supporting a communist victory in Vietnam,’ reflects Sheridan on Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, ‘because everywhere the communists won in the twentieth century they brought re-education camps, gulags, dictatorship, oppression and economic misery.’

It’s puzzling why so many Australians not only cheered for a communist win in Vietnam but how such a depraved ideology achieved support among Australian political parties and unions. The Communist Party of Australia, writes Sheridan, ‘seldom took a position at odds with Moscow’ while the Socialist Party of Australia ‘slavishly followed the Soviet line on everything.’ Both parties, rather than being fringe political dwellers, possessed control of significant unions. Communist support within the Labor Party, in fact, contributed to the great 1955 Labor Split and the formation of the (anti-Communist) Democratic Labor Party.

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Standing up for conservatism in Queensland

Mark Bahnisch, Queensland: Everything you ever wanted to know, but were afraid to ask, Sydney, NewSouth Publishing, 2015

Sean Jacobs

It’s healthy, regardless of political complexion, to read well-written books threading history with current affairs. Mark Bahnisch’s Queensland: Everything you ever wanted to know, but were afraid to ask performs this task brilliantly.

Bahnisch shows that Queensland, known for its conservatism, actually lays claim in 1899 to the first Labour government in the world and, in addition to hosting the world’s first general strike in 1912, pioneered a “path to socialism through intervention in the economy.” It’s through this lens that Queensland’s contrasts take shape: the free trade without big business; shearers, miners and railway workers upon the northern frontiers with doctors, lawyers and professionals cresting the Tweed border; the Catholic versus Anglican-Presbyterian split in the legal profession; the rise of One Nation; and, of course, Queensland’s unicameral house.

Bahnisch, with a professed attachment to the Australian Labor Party (ALP), also lends an academic but accessible insight into the ALP split forming Vince Gair’s Queensland Labor Party in the 1950s, the Rudd-Goss-Swan troika of the late 1980s and a small mural of Peter Beattie painting him as “the best politician (at least at state level) Australia has seen in the last few decades.” Politics aside, it’s rare to be given such readable depth to the political, economic and social forces that have shaped Queensland.

Bahnisch’s political sympathies, however, expose a number of predictable points familiar to a conservative or centre-right audience – the inevitable ‘Joh bashing’, the mocking of strict public decency laws, the desire for more lawmakers, the mistaking of symbolism for progress and, perhaps most notable, the incapacity to understand the nuances to conservative positions on issues like race, immigration and economics.

I have written elsewhere about the strained and, in my view, unkind legacy of the late Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Having gone to university and high school in South East Queensland, long after his nineteen year reign as Premier, I recall the mere mention of his name would still draw howls of disapproval and laughter from lecturers, teachers and students. Criticisms of his deep religious faith would often emerge alongside charges that he was intensely corrupt and a mostly wicked man.

Less discussed, however, are Bjelke-Petersen’s overall political legacy, elevating him to one of the most successful politicians in Australian history, his hardscrabble beginnings and early commercial success, or the ‘open roads’ reforms that, with lower taxes, helped dismantle unions and push the state economy into high gear.

Instead Bahnisch, like so many others today, suggest gerrymandering and closed-mindedness as the reasons for his sustained success. Bahnisch, as a young student activist on 4ZZZ student radio, often enjoyed needling the “folksy but tongue-tied” Premier. “The premier’s home number was on speed dial,” Bahnisch reflects. “Joh would always answer, never too busy to have a spray at students, communists, the Labor Party, all his enemies, always the same enemies.”

Queensland’s public decency laws also present easy targets from the past. The Gaming, Vagrancy and Other Offences Act 1936, Bahnisch writes, “allowed anyone to be detained on almost any excuse at any time… Publicans could legally refuse service to anyone they considered a ‘pervert’, a measure largely targeted at gay men, but flexible enough to encompass anyone different. Books, movies and plays were censored, and it wasn’t unknown for cops to shut down gigs.”

While social attitudes and legislation have relaxed considerably since the 1960s and 1970s, Bahnisch rapidly moves past the link between lower public standards and social decline – a trend found not just in Queensland but common in other states and countries. A walk through Fortitude Valley or Brisbane’s CBD on a Saturday night, as many Queenslanders know, presents an unprecedented exposure to drunkenness and opportunities for assault. In New South Wales the social anxieties are the same. “The chances of receiving a rum and coke-fuelled headbutt,” observes the Menzies Research Centre’s Nick Cater, “are considerably greater since the offence of being drunk and disorderly was removed from the statute in 1979.”

In fact, by looking more widely at crime, we see the harmful consequences of trying to deal with ‘root causes’ such as inequality or injustice at the expense of applying the rule of the law. Indeed, the social unravelling experienced by most Western democracies over the past half-century has shown that increased leniency, paired with an expanding welfare state and feelings of entitlement, does little to reduce crime. “As the rates of imprisonment declined [in the 1960s],” reflects the American economist Thomas Sowell, “crime rates soared – whether in England, Australia, New Zealand or the United States.”

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Tony Abbott: Australia’s last good prime minister?

Sean Jacobs

It’s often said that Australia needs to become a republic because of our lagging reputation in Asia. Many believe, for example, that our institutional attachment to the British Monarchy puzzles the masses and implies an old-world attachment that tugs on our standing in the region.

Much less discussed, however, is how silly we must look changing leaders as often as our dirty clothes. Until recently the turbulence of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years was behind us. We weren’t suffering from closed-door union deals and the disruptive leadership of the Australian Labor Party. Abbott had stopped illegal boat arrivals to Australia, was fiercely paying down Rudd’s debt, ending silly government programs and restoring a relative lack of prestige to the executive arm of government.

Yet Australia’s modern media cycle won’t permit such stable conduct: it is, after all, boring. The constant scan for sensationalism means that minor issues like giving out awards (Abbott’s honour to Prince Phillip) and, most recently, harmless jokes about rising sea levels in the South Pacific choke out issues of substance and having a steady pair of hands on the nation’s wheel.

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Churchill 2.0: a man for all times

Boris Johnson, The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Riverhead Books, London, 2014

Sean Jacobs

At first I groaned when, browsing the bookstore shelves, my eyes first caught Boris Johnson’s biography of Winston Churchill.

Surely, I thought, the great man needs no more testaments. Millions of words written by Churchill himself, and prolific writers like Martin Gilbert and Roy Jenkins, have entombed his rightful and unmatched place in not just English speaking but global folklore.

I also fear that many now see Churchill not as ‘The Last Lion’ – the title of William Manchester’s thick trilogy of biographies – but ‘the exhausted lion’, struggling for relevance in the restless modern Western democracy.

Johnson’s mural of Churchill, however, is refreshing and current. He has commendably produced a queer-eye-for-the-straight guy makeover of Churchill for modern times. Snappy paragraphs, a good turn of phrase and solid depth combine delivering Churchill to the distracted, semi-interested or younger reader.

‘He is so obviously a character that should appeal to young people today,’ writes Johnson. ‘He was eccentric, over the top, camp, with his own special trademark clothes – and a thoroughgoing genius.’

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Will outlawing guns solve PNG’s crime problems?

Sean Jacobs, PNG Attitude, 10 August 2015

It’s often thought, in both developing and developed states, that stricter gun laws are a solution to reducing gun crimes and the broader problems of law and order. Tragic public shootings in the United States, for example, often provoke demands for tighter gun laws and stoke social outrage that everyday citizens are entitled to possess firearms.

In Papua New Guinea (PNG), a nation with an international reputation for lawlessness and violence, outlawing guns has recently emerged as a common sense way to reduce gun crime. “There’s no need to carry guns,” says the Governor of Enga Province Sir Peter Ipatas. “If we can have no guns it will go a long way towards maintaining law and order.”

But tougher laws, let alone a desirable objective of ‘no guns’, is a far from straightforward policy solution to law and order. Some countries, for example, have high rates of legal gun ownership but very low murder rates, as witnessed in Israel, New Zealand and Finland. By contrast, some countries — Russia, Brazil and Mexico for example — employ strict gun control laws but endure stubbornly high murder rates.

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