Opinion | They Call Us Enemies of the Cuban People

HAVANA — I have been on the news on Cuban television twice in my life. The first time, I was a happy 10-year-old boy, shaking hands with Fidel Castro. The second time was just a few days ago, when television reports described me as someone who is “openly hostile toward Cuba” — an enemy of my country.

It is likely that many of the people who once shook hands with Fidel Castro were later branded as “traitors,” deleted from photos and cut from film reels. In Cuba, dissent has long been a direct route to oblivion, to civil death.

I had recently flown to Cuba from New York to report on the San Isidro movement, made up of artists and activists pushing the government to expand political and artistic freedom and democracy. The group, which arose in 2018, has been a frequent target of repression.

Last month, Denis Solís, a rapper who is a member, was arrested and quickly sentenced to eight months in prison for “contempt.” In response, protesters gathered outside the movement’s headquarters in Havana and several of its members embarked on a hunger strike, alarming the authorities.

Police officers broke up the protest on Nov. 26, a day after the fourth anniversary of Castro’s death, as if to demonstrate that his legacy of repression lives on. Their pretext was preventing the spread of the coronavirus. (As in many other countries, the pandemic has become an excuse for increased surveillance and control of the population.) Those at the headquarters, including me, were detained and interrogated; when we were released, police officers were stationed in front of our homes.

The incident prompted my triumphant return to television. I watched, bewildered, as a cropped, edited image of me moved like a marionette through the propaganda tableau. There were parts of the video in which I was talking, but while those watching could see my lips move, they couldn’t hear the cadence of my speech, how I always struggle for a few seconds to articulate an idea — those little nuances that are unique to me were erased. I was simply a cartoon villain.

A college classmate of mine, Lázaro Manuel Alonso, was the host of one of the television programs on which the San Isidro movement and I were vilified. Mr. Alonso’s betrayal is characteristic of totalitarian cultures. The task of conscientiously lying is perhaps the most unpleasant role to play in Cuban ideological theater.

But to maintain Cubans’ silence at all costs is a luxury that a regime like ours can no longer afford during an economic crisis deepened by the pandemic. The few shops with stocked shelves are the new government-run dollar stores, and Cubans must pay in a currency that they can obtain only through remittances at a time when renewed United States sanctions are cutting off those remittances.

Watching myself be defamed on television made me think back to my childhood. Like all Cubans, I was once a “pioneer,” as patriotic children are called, and my neighbors looked upon me proudly because Castro had greeted me. Now the regime, acting as stage director, had assigned me the role of enemy of Cuba.

The next time I visit my hometown, Cárdenas, some people may look at me the way they would an outcast or criminal. Others may greet me halfheartedly — perhaps to convince themselves that they’re not afraid to do so.

In a way, what the government did on the newscast was a mere formality. It’s not personal, but a means to an end. Life in this country is like always having a pebble in your shoe, or as if you were wearing glasses that were the wrong prescription and smudged. At 30 years old, I am always annoyed.

Anger rather than fear is the widespread sentiment among Cubans — a constant, built-in discomfort. We’re fed up with blind, doctrinaire zeal. Navigating Communism is like trying to cross a cobblestone road in high heels, trying not to fall, feigning normalcy. Some of us end up twisting our ankles.

What the San Isidro movement epitomizes is the cry of a wounded country. The movement has become the most representative group of national civil society, bringing together Cubans of different social classes, races, ideological beliefs and generations, both from the exile community and on the island.

The group’s resistance has lasted for several years, and no one has been able to silence its members. Nor does it seem that the group endured this most recent repression in vain. The day after we were removed from the headquarters, hundreds of young people and artists gathered outside the Ministry of Culture to demand full recognition of independent cultural spaces and an end to ideological censorship in art.

After hours of waiting, 30 artists presented the demands of the protesters gathered there to officials. What happened next was predictable: Those in power refused to comply with the main points of the verbal agreement they had just reached.

Harassment has intensified, as has the continued discrediting of members of the movement in the press and the belligerent language of officials like Bruno Rodríguez, the foreign minister. Some prominent artists who were present at the meeting, like the performance and installation artist Tania Bruguera, have been detained.

Still, the Cuban regime no longer seems so impervious to criticism. Although we shouldn’t expect anything from the government in the short term — officials have refused to continue the dialogue — there are positive signs. Namely, some young people were treated as citizens for a few hours, and a ministry opened its doors to some of the same artists the government had defamed and persecuted for years.

These steps, albeit small, should lead to a national conversation, and not just with a supporting actor like a minister. We must demand a conversation directly with Cuba’s president, Miguel Díaz-Canel.

My moment on national television will pass, but something must result from our struggle.

Carlos Manuel Álvarez is the author of “La Tribu,” a collection of chronicles on Cuba after Fidel Castro, and the novel “The Fallen.” This essay was translated by Erin Goodman from the Spanish.

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Xi Jinping’s Coercive China Strategy Is Creating More Enemies Than Friends

What is China trying to achieve by its sudden lurch to a bullying, ‘wolf warrior’ global stance? For all the billions of dollars of intelligence hardware and software pointed at Beijing right now, the reality is that Xi Jinping’s strategic thinking is a black box.

The leadership intent of the Chinese Communist Party must be glimpsed through opaque speeches, the coded signals of coercive behaviour and the increasingly unhinged statements of China’s diplomats and party-controlled media.

Whatever Xi thinks he’s doing, the outcome is, on the face of it, disastrous for China’s long-term strategic interests. China has never had many, or indeed any, close friends internationally, but in less than a year the wolf warriors have irretrievably trashed whatever trust Beijing may have had as a trading, investment and research partner around the world.

This is a remarkable achievement. In a divided America, opposition to China is the one policy uniting Republicans and Democrats. Beijing’s bad behaviour has produced a consensus in the European Union and Britain to push back, has given ASEAN a stronger common purpose and has ignited in Australia a determination to ‘step up’ in the Pacific and spend more on defence.

Here’s one measure of how quickly and dramatically things have changed: on 20 January this year, John Howard chaired the ‘sixth annual Australia–China High Level Dialogue’ sponsored by the Foreign Affairs Department, whose press release claimed that ‘the Dialogue will help strengthen partnerships and friendships, maintain trust, and develop deeper understanding between Australia and China’.

Eight months later, not one word of that sentence could be applied to our relationship with China. Even China’s rusted-on Australian cheer squad is losing vigour in claiming that it’s Canberra’s lack of pragmatic wordsmithing that is causing the rift.

Had China continued down the Deng Xiaoping–mandated path of ‘Hide your capacities, bide your time’, I’m no longer sure that Australia would have been able to muster the collective willpower to prevent the wholesale compromising of our economy, political system, critical infrastructure, universities and business community—such was the attraction of Chinese money.

In reality, Covid-19 and wolf-warrior coercion were the wake-up call we needed, but that still leaves the essential puzzle about why it is that Beijing abandoned a strategy that was delivering its objectives and replaced it with an approach that is damaging its position.

I suggest that three broad factors are shaping Xi’s strategic thinking. Understanding these factors will help us define our policy responses and anticipate what happens next.

The first factor is that CCP policymaking is increasingly centred on one person—Xi Jinping. Through regular purges of the party and the People’s Liberation Army since 2012, Xi has removed political opponents, made himself the commander-in-chief of the military and the central driver of policy in every area from the South China Sea to the Belt and Road Initiative to the pandemic response.

If there is a centre of coordinated opposition to Xi’s policy inside the party, it is not readily visible. What is known as the ‘recentralisation’ of authority within the CCP is turning into a cult of personality around Xi.

There are clear dangers in such an approach. What senior party figure would or could approach Xi to tell him that the wolf-warrior tactic is damaging the party’s global interests? The most likely result would be that an internal critic would be purged from any position of influence.

Xi’s political instincts have been honed by his own experience of seeing his father, Xi Zhongxun, a heroic figure in the early history of the CCP, persecuted and jailed during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Xi was himself exiled to a rural province at that time.

It is tempting to think that Xi’s authoritarian style is partly motivated by a determination not to be purged like his father. His leadership is also informed by deep ideological schooling in Marxist–Leninist ideology—a reality too easily dismissed in the West.

Xi has, in effect, brought Leninist authoritarianism into the 21st-century world of artificial intelligence and all-seeing surveillance. Having embarked on a path to consolidate all power to himself, it is difficult to see how Xi can break from his current course of action. In effect, that means China’s more assertive and uncompromising approach in the world will be here for as long as Xi remains in power.

The second factor shaping Xi’s approach is that, overwhelmingly, what matters to him is strengthening the position of the CCP inside China. How the wider world reacts to Beijing’s actions is vastly less important.

This helps to explain why China really has no interest in negative international responses to the militarisation and de facto annexation of the South China Sea; the trashing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong; or the egregious human rights violations in Xinjiang, Tibet and elsewhere.

What matters most to the party is how its actions are perceived by the Chinese people. Asserting control over these areas plays well to a highly nationalistic domestic audience.

Beijing’s increasingly inflammatory rhetoric about defeating ‘separatism’ in Taiwan, by use of military force if necessary, may be seen by the wider world to be destabilising Asian security, but inside China it rallies popular support around the party.

At a time when the CCP is being criticised domestically for its mismanagement of the early stages of Covid-19 and is failing to deliver economic growth to achieve better living standards, stoking nationalist sentiment helps consolidate party control.

To China’s leaders, a second-order player like Australia should, ideally, just shut up. As foreign minister Yang Jiechi dismissively told his Singaporean counterpart in 2010: ‘China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.’

This combination of an overwhelming priority on domestic affairs and a barely disguised contempt for the opinions of ‘small countries’ leaves Beijing angry and frustrated at the audacity of other nations wanting to pursue their own interests.

One example of this mindset in operation is Beijing’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ claim that Australia engaged in ‘blatant obstruction and interference in China’s normal law enforcement’, by bringing journalists Bill Birtles and Mike Smith home last week.

Let’s be clear: Birtles and Smith weren’t smuggled out of the country; they left on a commercial flight after being questioned by local police. But how dare a small country question the CCP’s right to snatch people off the streets, hold them indefinitely without charge and put them before a legal system thoroughly beholden to party priorities.

The point for Australia is simply that, short of complete capitulation of our interests and values, there is nothing Canberra can do or say that will avoid China’s criticism.

This needs to be understood by elements of the Australian business and university sectors that persist in thinking Beijing’s behaviour is somehow the result of our actions—like the claim by one commentator in The Australian last week that China is ‘ruthlessly exploited’ because we are forcing them ‘to pay exorbitant prices for iron ore’. Seriously? So much for supply and demand.

There is one exception to the claim that no external power is more important to China than Beijing’s domestic priorities and that is, of course, the United States. What America does matters profoundly to China, not least because for perhaps the next five to 10 years the US retains the military balance of power.

Much of China’s international behaviour is shaped by judgements of how America will react. In the case of the South China Sea, once it became clear to Beijing that the Obama administration wasn’t going to actively oppose its island building, the opposition of Southeast Asia, Australia and other countries was immaterial.

In that context, the most important potential flashpoint to watch in coming months is Taiwan, and specifically whether Washington has any appetite to prevent China’s efforts to isolate and predate Taipei.

The third factor shaping China’s switch to the wolf-warrior approach is that Xi has concluded that coercion works. Research published by ASPI last week identified 152 cases of Chinese coercive diplomacy over the past decade applied to 27 countries and many businesses.

The actions China was seeking to punish or deter included engaging with Taiwan in ways not approved by Beijing, holding meetings with the Dalai Lama, blocking Huawei’s 5G technology and seeking investigations into the Chinese origins of Covid-19.

In many cases, and particularly in instances when Beijing was threatening businesses, the reality is that the coercion worked.

The lesson for Beijing is that access to its economy is a powerful lever for countries and businesses alike and threats to constrain access to the Chinese market can indeed force changes to behaviour that benefit China.

The lesson for Australia and all democracies is that making concessions to Beijing’s wolf-warrior behaviours will only encourage more coercion.

In my assessment, this undermines the argument that Australia should somehow try to plot a ‘middle course’ between the US and China. Beijing’s current approach doesn’t leave room for the possibility that countries can shape a course that is in any way different from China’s definition of what the right behaviour should be.

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From The Soviet Union To ISIS: The B-1 Lancer Is Ready To Kill All U.S. Enemies

Here’s What You Need To Remember: Ironically, the B-1s is basically good at the same things the B-52 remains useful for: carrying lots of bombs and missiles over long distances and launching them at adversaries that can’t shoot back. The Bone is faster than the B-52, can carry heavier payloads, has more modern avionics, and is less conspicuous on radar. However, these advantages only marginally improve its survivability versus modern SAMs and fighters.

Huge yet surprisingly sleek and agile, the U.S. Air Force’s B-1 Lancer strategic bombers—popularly dubbed “Bones” for B-ONE—circles over battlefields in Syria and Afghanistan like angels of death dispensing GPS-guided bombs from on high. Yet the B-1 started out as an over-priced nuclear bomber that was arguably obsolete by the time it entered service. Thus, a bomber designed to dodge Soviet surface-to-air missiles and interceptors found its niche battling Taliban and ISIS insurgents.

During the 1940s and 1950s, the U.S. military sought to push its bombers to ever higher altitudes and faster speeds to protect them from flak guns and fighter planes—pushing new performance envelopes with the pressurized B-29, and later the B-47 and B-52 Stratofortress strategic jet bombers.

But by the early 1960s, the shootdown of high-flying U-2 spy planes over China and Russia by surface-to-air missiles made it clear that altitude no longer offered dependable protection. The Air Force tried developing the huge XB-70 Valkyrie bomber to sustain speeds over three times the speed of sound, but the Soviets countered with the Mach 3-capable MiG-25 Foxbat interceptor. The Pentagon gave up on the Valkyrie in 1962 and began investing more in ground and submarine-launched ballistic missiles to provide nuclear deterrence.

This didn’t sit well with the Air Force, which proposed a new low-altitude penetration doctrine in which supersonic bombers skimmed close to the ground at high speed using new-fangled Terrain Following Systems, making them very difficult to track with radar due to intervening terrain faced by ground-based radars, and the ‘ground clutter’ experienced by airborne radars scanning low-flying aircraft.

The Air Force at first adopted the supersonic F-111 Aardvark to perform this mission, but wanted a larger, longer-range workhorse. The Nixon administration authorized development of a Northrop Rockwell B-1 design which saw its first flight in 1974.

The costly new bomber featured swing wings which could sweep forward to a 15-degree angle to maximize lift during takeoff or landing, allowing the 44.5-meter long plane to operate from shorter forward airbases. To minimize drag for supersonic flight, the wings could tuck inwards to a 67.5 degree angle. At high altitude the four B-1A prototypes could achieve up to 2.2 times the speed of sound-assisted by two flexible vanes situated under the nose that help stabilize airflow.

However, by the mid-1970s the Pentagon was aware of the Soviet Union’s development of new MiG-31 Foxhound interceptors equipped with Zaslon Doppler radars that could sift out ground clutter—making low altitude penetration highly risky. Meanwhile, U.S. B-52s were receiving nuclear-tipped AGM-86 air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) that could be launched from well beyond the range of Soviet air defenses.

Advised that the ALCMs were adequate and that the B-1’s concept was outdated, President Jimmy Carter canceled the expensive B-1 in 1977—believing it more sensible to invest in the top-secret B-2 stealth bomber instead. Four years later, a newly-elected Reagan, who had blasted Carter for canceling the B-1, revived the Bones with an order for one hundred aircraft.

This time, the Air Force sought a cheaper, revised B-1B model which could fly further (6,000 miles!) with heavier payloads but at a reduced high-altitude speed of Mach 1.2 (830 miles per hour) or Mach .95 at low altitude. This was because the aircraft’s four F101 afterburning turbofans nestled into the wing roots were no longer designed to swing back with the wings. There was no longer any pretense that the B-1 would outrun fighters and air defense missiles.

Instead, the B-1B’s aluminum and titanium skin surfaces were reshaped and coated with radar-absorbent materials to reduce radar cross-section to just 2.5 meter, roughly that of a small F-16 fighter. Though far from being a “stealth” plane, the B-1 would not be susceptible to detection and targeting at very long range like a B-52 would be.

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The crew of four included a pilot, copilot, weapons officer and a defensive systems officer who operated a suite including powerful radar jammers and oversized flares for decoying heat-seeking missiles. An APQ-164 passive electronically scanned array multi-mode radar designed for low-probability of intercept could snoop out the positions of enemy fighters and radars as well as scan the ground for specific targets.

The B-1B had three internal bomb bays allowing it to carry up to twenty-four B61 or 1.2-megaton B83 nuclear gravity bombs between them—each many times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. Alternately, the B-1 could lug up to eighty-four Mark 82 five-hundred-pound gravity bombs, or the equivalent weight in larger bombs. A theoretical maximum bomb load of 125,000 pounds was never implemented operationally.

The first of one hundred B-1Bs built were rushed service in 1987 at the eyewatering price of $250 million each. However, the Lancer suffered a string of early mishaps, ranging from engine fires to the defensive countermeasures jamming the B-1’s own radar. These kept the bomber out of action during the 1991 Gulf War. When the Soviet Union collapsed the same year, the nuclear bomber’s raison d’etre seemed to go with it.

However, the Air Force upgraded the Bones with GPS and the ability to use JDAM precision-guided bombs, and tow ALE-50 decoys to divert hostile radar-guided missiles. Today, the B-1 can also mount up to twenty-four JSOW glide bombs or JASSM stealth cruise missiles with ranges measured in the dozens and hundreds of miles respectively. Meanwhile, the B-1’s nuclear-delivery capabilities were removed entirely in 2011 due to the New START treaty.

The B-1 remains well-liked by pilots for its unusual maneuverability and responsiveness for an aircraft of its size, as you can see in this video. In the early 2000s, Boeing even floated a concept for Mach 2-capable B-1R model using the F-119 turbofans of the F-22 Raptor and armed with air-to-air missiles.

The Bones finally saw action striking targets in Iraq in 1998, then flew out of England to hit Serbian targets during the Kosovo War—delivering one-fifth of all bombs dropped despite flying only two percent of the missions. The B-1’s towed decoys also proved effective, ‘catching’ two deadly 2K12 Kub missiles.

However, the Bones fully came into its own during the U.S. campaign to overthrow the Afghan Taliban in 2001. Afghanistan was simply too far for the Pentagon’s land-based fighters to fly without lots of aerial refueling—but B-1s based in the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia could fly over Afghan airspace and loiter overhead for hours at a time.

The Bones brought to the table their huge payload—and their ability to pickle dozens of inexpensive GPS=guided two-thousand-pound JDAM bombs precisely onto targets designated by ground forces. The B-1 thus became a form of flying artillery orbiting overhead, on-call as ground troops ferreted out enemy positions and marked them for destruction. In 2008 B-1s were outfitted with Sniper-XR targeting pods under their noses so they too could designate their own targets.

Bones went on to deliver huge bomb loads in conflicts in Iraq, Libya and Syria. For example, B-1s played an instrumental role in preventing the fall of the besieged Kurdish enclave in Kobane, Syria in 2014, dropping 660 bombs that killed an estimated thousand ISIS fighters. Four years later, Lancers were used to launch nineteen JASSM cruise missiles as part of a punitive strike against Bashar al-Assad.

As of 2017, sixty-two B-1s remain in service with the 7th and 28th Bombardment Wings based in Texas and South Dakota respectively, though aircraft are often operationally deployed to Diego Garcia and Al Udeid air base in Qatar.

Ironically, the B-1s is basically good at the same things the B-52 remains useful for: carrying lots of bombs and missiles over long distances and launching them at adversaries that can’t shoot back. The Bone is faster than the B-52, can carry heavier payloads, has more modern avionics, and is less conspicuous on radar. However, these advantages only marginally improve its survivability versus modern SAMs and fighters. Practically, the Air Force planners want to keep B-1s as far away from these threats as possibly.

The Air Force plans on retiring the B-1 bomber by 2036, while the B-52 is slated to remain active well into the 2040s and possibly beyond. While the B-1 is slightly cheaper to operate at $63,000 per flight hour, the B-1 reportedly is more difficult to maintain (seventy-four man hours of maintenance for every flight hour!) and thus suffers from lower readiness rates of 50 percent. The B-52 comes out to sixty-two hours and 80 percent in these metrics.

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House Speaker Pelosi calls President Trump, congressional GOP ‘enemies of the state’

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020. The House is set for a rare Saturday session to pass legislation to halt changes in the Postal Service and provide $25 billion in emergency funds. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

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UPDATED 7:05 AM PT – Tuesday, August 25, 2020

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is under fire for labeling President Trump and congressional Republicans as “domestic enemies” of the state.

“The domestic enemies to our voting system and honoring our Constitution are right at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with their allies in the Congress of the U.S.,” she stated during an interview.

During that same interview, Pelosi accused Republicans of suppressing the vote due to their attempts to ensure the election is free of voter fraud. The House speaker reiterated calls for increased U.S. Postal Service funding and universal mail-in voting.

“Let’s just get out there and mobilize, organize and not let the President deter anybody from voting, and again support the postal system which is election central,” said the House speaker. “Diminish the role of the postal system and all of this, it’s really actually shameful…enemies of the state.”

In response to Pelosi’s comments, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy took to Twitter to tell his constituents to never forget that Democrats despise GOP voters.

RELATED: House Speaker Pelosi cuts vote on unemployment relief this weekend

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It hasn’t taken Scott Morrison long to start playing friends and enemies

The government will fund an extra 39,000 places by 2023 – an increase of about 6 per cent – as the recession prompts more school leavers to stay on in education (and avoid taking a gap year), but will compensate for this by cutting the amount of its funding per student.

According to calculations by Professor David Peetz, of Griffith University (whose former job as a senior federal bureaucrat helps him find where the bodies are buried), the government will cut its funding by an annual $1883 per student, with the average increase in tuition fees of $675 per student reducing the net loss to universities to $1208 per student. (The fee changes won’t apply to existing students, however.)

Illustration: Simon LetchCredit:

That is, the unis are being asked to do more with less. It’s a safe bet their main response will be to further increase their ratio of students to staff. Unis will become even more of a sausage factory – which will be really great for the nation’s investment in “human capital”.

My guess is that the changes to the structure of tuition fees – with a hodgepodge of big cuts, small cuts, small increases, big increases and no changes – are intended to give the appearance of doing something to increase employment, to gratify the parliamentary Liberal Party’s antipathy towards the universities (hotbeds of leftie activists who think Black Lives Matter and have kids who wag school because the silly-billies are worried about climate change) and to divert attention from the way the unis have been short-changed.

With the fee for humanities degrees up by a mere 113 per cent, it’s quite a diversion. I’ll be diverted only to the extent of quoting from a speech by a Business Council official in 2016: business needed the skills of “critical thinking, synthesis, judgment and an understanding of ethical constructs”. The humanities produced people who can “ask the right questions, think for themselves, explain what they think, and turn those ideas into actions”.

Ah, maybe that’s what the backbench doesn’t fancy.

Illustration: Andrew Dyson

Illustration: Andrew DysonCredit:

Professor Andrew Norton, of the Australian National University, a recognised expert, doubts that the fee changes will do much to change students’ preferences away from courses they think they’d like. And Peetz points out that it’s the unis, not the government, that will be bearing the cost of the fee reductions for those courses the government prefers.

Which brings us to Professor Ian Jacobs, boss of UNSW, who points to the perverse incentives the changes will create (assuming the Senate is mad enough to pass them). Unis will be tempted to offer most places in those courses with the widest gap between the high government-set tuition fee and the cost of running the course. They’ll be pushing BAs harder than ever.

This, of course, is exactly the way you’d expect the vice-chancellors to behave when you’ve taken government-owned and regulated agencies, spent 30 years pursuing a bipartisan policy of cutting their federal funding (from 86 per cent to 28 per cent of total receipts, in the case of Sydney University) and pretending they’ve been privatised.


Then, after they’ve turned to getting about a quarter of their funding from overseas students, but the coronavirus obliges you to ban foreign travellers, you hang them out to dry, refusing them access to the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme because they should never have allowed themselves to become so dependent on a single source of revenue.

For a while I thought the crisis had got Scott Morrison governing for all Australians. It hasn’t taken him long to revert to playing friends and enemies.

Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.

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Scott Morrison has thrown out the industrial relations rulebook, but can old enemies work together?

Locking people indoors together. Forcing them to deal with others they might not normally choose to — for months on end.

It’s not hard to discern how the mind of Scott Morrison ticks these days: if mandated consensus roughly worked out OK for many household relations over the past three months, then why not give it a go on industrial relations, seems to be his figuring.

“I think everybody’s got to put their weapons down on this,” Morrison has declared, adding that Australians “will take a very dim view of anyone, or any group, or any organisation, that isn’t prepared to come and sit down at this table and give it a go at the Prime Minister’s … invitation”.

Technically, the Prime Minister isn’t ordering business groups or trade unions to agree to anything, only to see if they are in a mood to try.

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Scott Morrison says industrial relations system is broken

Issuing the invitation and demanding a modicum of goodwill is about as much leading from the front as this Prime Minister’s going to get on any industrial relations adventure, until it becomes clear that a mood for change is emerging at the negotiating table.

Remember, Morrison entered Parliament in 2007 — the year the Coalition got thumped over the WorkChoices package — close enough to the electoral carnage, that Morrison has never since made any reputation for himself among those Liberals eager to take up the IR cudgels again.

On the contrary, many of the Coalition pragmatists who were scorched by the WorkChoices experience had long since convinced themselves there’s little to gain and an awful lot to lose by ever-defining an ambitious industrial agenda for themselves.

Outgoing Prime Minister John Howard waves farewell
John Howard lost the 2007 election after a backlash to his WorkChoices package.(Dean Lewins: AAP Image)

Consequences of a broken regime

Aside from the Rudd-Gillard reconstruction of workplace laws, risk aversion has meant little of substance has happened since, leaving neither the “worker” nor the “boss” sides of the equation satisfied.

In fact, disillusionment and battle fatigue on both sides offer the best conditions for compromise in at least the past 13 years, perhaps even 30-plus years, since the original Hawke and Keating Accord agreements.

Because the rules that govern the way we work and what we get paid (if you’ve got a job) aren’t working to anyone’s obvious satisfaction.

Job insecurity’s high, wage growth is low, confidence is shaky, spending tepid and thousands of business owners are wracked with doubt about what lies ahead as the economy crawls out of “hibernation”.

With an effective unemployment rate nudging 9 per cent, the consequences of a broken workplace regime run in all directions: workers who may feel vulnerable or cheated if they have a job, employers who may feel reluctant to hire, and a million Australians without jobs despairing over their opportunities to regain one.

Recent history doesn’t help us

What happens in a room full of post-tribal industrial relations warriors is as difficult to predict as, say, a meeting between a US President and a North Korean dictator — in other words, recent history is not much of a guide.

But in the depths of the coronavirus crisis, senior ministers in the Morrison Government, especially Attorney-General Christian Porter, have seen enough of ACTU Secretary Sally McManus and the leadership of the various business lobby groups to gauge that if ever there was a time to achieve some consensus then now must be it.

Abandoning the heavy-handed “Ensuring Integrity” bill, which would mete out heavy penalties against wayward union officials has bought the Government some goodwill at the outset.

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Labor doubts Liberal-led industrial relations reform

Even though employers and unions will be told to leave their industrial “shopping lists” with their weapons at the door, the five key areas up for negotiation appear to include grievances drawn from the lists of both sides — simplification of awards, enterprise agreements, casuals and fixed-term employment, compliance with workplace laws and “greenfield” agreements (for new businesses) — which is a reasonable place to start.

The negotiators — including those from small businesses, the regions, women’s groups and multicultural communities — have only four months to complete their work, with Porter playing the role of moderator.

A walk-out in disgust in the first rounds of talks would confirm a system beyond anyone’s will to repair, but as with all such exercises, the longer these old enemies sit around the campfire, the more likely they’ll be making headway towards some consensus.

Parliament finishes what chat group starts

If this process achieves what Scott Morrison, the ACTU and business groups all say they want to achieve — a profitable and job-creating economy for all — then its success will throw up all sorts of questions for politics.

Why outsource decision-making to unelected “stakeholders”, no matter how critical their role?

Aren’t governments elected to consult, make decisions and argue their policies?

On what other intractable policy area could this approach be extended?

Are some policy problems simply insoluble for Parliaments?

And where on earth does it leave the Anthony Albanese and the ALP? 

Mid shot of Albanese looking stern, blurry background.
Where does Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese stand?(ABC News: Matt Roberts)

Has Albanese been sidelined?

To be sure, any substantial changes from the talks over the next few months would have to come to the Parliament to be legislated, but consensus-building in the community is confounding for the partisan politics that industrial relations has always been enmeshed in.

Labor, perhaps the Greens and even Pauline Hanson would be hard-pressed to quibble with any package endorsed by a broad coalition of business, unions, rural Australians and ethnic communities.

Depending how the talks go, the design behind this process has the potential to cast the next two years of Anthony Albanese’s leadership into a very dark shadow.

Already relegated behind the rise of the National Cabinet during COVID-19 events, the Opposition Leader is now being sidelined from this national conversation on industrial relations while Scott Morrison gives the leader of Labor’s industrial wing, Sally McManus, pride of place in the inner-sanctum.

Its predicament was demonstrated within hours of the Prime Minister’s announcement, when union leaders enthusiastically applauded the process as Labor frontbenchers publicly oscillated between “it’s always good to talk” and “we don’t know enough about what they’ll be talking about.”

Of course, if the entire exercise is a flop, having nothing to do with it could be a more comfortable place to be.

Make the boat go faster

The only certainty so far is that the coronavirus has given the Morrison Government an economic agenda it might never have grasped onto without a crisis.

Its ambition and application to the task isn’t yet known but its breadth is enormous; industrial relations first, then later; taxation, the Federation, energy and more besides.

Expect to hear a lot more from Scott Morrison about “Job Making”, not only in the lead-up to the October Budget but in every month that follows to the next election.

Maybe a bit more about “making the boat go faster” too, a rather quirky economic growth metaphor that seems to have stuck with the now-PM from a time more than 20 years ago when as a young marketing tyro he dropped in on Team New Zealand’s America’s Cup sailing outfit led by the late Peter Blake.

Morrison was impressed by the sharp focus of all involved in the Kiwis’ defence of the Cup in 2000, building on Sir Peter’s success five years earlier when New Zealand won it.

They told him they didn’t care about tatty chairs and buildings, all that mattered to the campaign was what it took “to make the boat go faster”.

Lost a little in the Prime Minister’s re-telling is the other lesson of America’s Cup racing in that era.

Sir Peter’s original success had come in 1995 when Australia’s entry, OneAustralia, fast though it was, humiliatingly broke and sank in a crumpled wreck at the bottom of the ocean.

The lesson?

In naval architecture, as in economic management, speed is important, but don’t forget strength and durability.

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