Perspectives (Each Way)

The Australian election was not kind to the Coalition. After nearly a decade in power any government would have struggled to win. Morrison, albeit an improvement over Turnbull, has not been much of a leader. There has been a lot of drift, there have been many half-decisions made that haven’t exactly endeared the Coalition to working class suburban and provincial voters. The Coalition survived the last election in no small part thanks to Queensland mining seats swinging heavily in their favour. Now, they’ve lost 22 seat on a swing of -6pc.

Labour, the winning party, managed to win eight seats giving them a narrow majority at Canberra. Yet… Labour also did worse in 2022 than they did in 2019, facing a swing of -.9%. Their negative swing was simply not as significant as the Coalition’s. The biggest winners were the “teal independents”, largely concentrated in the suburbs who gained six seats. The Greens won seats in inner Melbourne and inner Brisbane. Mark McGowan’s strength in Western Australia helped Labour secure a number of marginal seats in greater Perth.

These results are reminiscent of the 2019 Canadian federal election. The Canadian Tories won more votes than the Canadian Liberals. The Liberals were able to hold onto power only because their share of the vote in the Greater Toronto Area held up and they were able to hold onto that vote-rich area even if they were swept out of entire provinces. Of course, Albanese won an outright majority — something that Trudeau the Lesser did not. What does, however, seem likely is that Labour will make the most of their hand. They do not have a true mandate for change. Their share of the vote declined. A collapse in confidence in the Coalition was the reason for their majority. Yet… Albo understands power more than the hapless No Mates ScoMo ever could.

Perspective

Much has been said this week about the British local elections, the Stormont election in Ulster, etc. The usual culprits have, as always, missed the point. After 12 years leading government, the Tories have taken a hit. London was a nightmare, but that was to be expected. London has been trending heavily in Labour’s direction for some time. The West Country broke heavily for the Liberal Democrats. In other regions, the Tories gained seats. Minor parties also had a good night, especially in the Midlands and North. Boris has managed to make a dog’s breakfast of his tenure, but Starmer hasn’t convinced all that many that he’d be the better PM.

Ulster is trickier. Stormont does not have a first-past-the-post system. Nor does any party “rule” the province. Rather, there is an obligatory power-sharing system. Unionists did lose ground, but Nationalists lost even more ground. The neutral Alliance Party did best.

Islands

I flew back to Hawai’i after many years. The Hawai’ian Airlines flight left Sacramento at the same time as it did then. The aeroplane, an Airbus A330, was the same model as I flew back then. After a multi-billion dollar renovation, Honolulu Daniel K Inouye International Airport looks much the same as it did then. The experience of seeing the Hawai’ian Islands below felt much the same as it did back then. After thousands of miles of empty ocean, the high, mountainous islands provide a striking contrast, a contrast like the waters that surround them: deep blue turning into aquamarine, aquamarine turning into a green-tinged steel. Distant Diamond Head is as iconic as it was back then. Honolulu has grown since then, there are more skyscrapers, a few more hotels, but…

I didn’t linger in Honolulu. I had no desire to. It’s actually an interesting city. It can be rough in places. Like so many other things over past few years, places that were frayed around the edges have become truly dodgy. Honolulu’s Chinatown is fascinating, but for all its historical interest and distinctive architecture it’s… Well, it has a long history of looking the other way, of turning a blind eye. In its beginnings, it was a home of sorts for down-and-out Chinese men. Over the generations, many have made it home, learning to look away and ignore the inconvenient. This has given many desperate people comfort and security, but it’s also turned into a fulcrum for many social problems. No… Honolulu, with all its brilliant museums, historic sites and cultural depth is too busy for this ageing piece of human driftwood. The gathering place it might be, but I’d rather have my quiet.

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Differences

In the last month millions of Ukrainians have fled, seeking refuge where they can. As of the 22nd of March, Krakow is housing 100,000 and Warsaw is housing 300,000. Other cities in Poland are housing over a million more between them. Denmark has agreed to take 10,ooo and many others have gone to Hungary, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Czechia and Germany. This has been a historic feat for Europe.

Some less charitable sorts have noted that countries that are usually less-than-welcoming to those seeking asylum have opened their arms to Ukrainians. Naturally, race and “Islamophobia” are listed as the reasons by the likes of the Guardian and others. The same culprits have also noted that European countries are waving Ukrainians through but refusing admission to visa holders from third countries.

In such situations it’s best to ignore the regular culprits and analyse the situation dispassionately. When looking at Ukrainian refugees, the first thing to note is that they’re actually Ukrainian. They identify themselves using either their Ukrainian passports or their Ukrainian national ID cards. Both are valid for travel in Europe. Ukrainians do not need a visa to travel in the Schengen zone. Already, we can see a major difference. Beyond that, the demographics of those Ukrainians are very different to past waves. Ukrainians entering European countries seeking refuge are women, children and the elderly. None are young, fighting-age adult men.

As you can see, there are profound differences in the nature and character of this wave of humanity as compared to previous ones. Perhaps yet another variable should be pointed out. Due to the speed with which Ukrainian refugees have had to flee, finding housing has been an issue. They have been housed in defunct schools, hotels and resorts. Sometimes they have been housed in cities, sometimes in the countryside. Many have been housed be friends and relatives living elsewhere in Europe. My Russian teacher is currently living with an old friend in Germany. She might stay with another friend who owns a small flat in Sweden if this drags on too long. My therapist who lives in Lombardy told me that many Ukrainians who have been living in northern Italy have welcomed Ukrainian refugees into their homes. Something you don’t hear from them is complaints. There is none of the “What? What do you mean I have to live in a cabin in Norrland? I want to live in Stockholm and I want to know when my new Volvo will arrive”. There is none of the “Hey, this old school in Saxony is drafty and isolated. I want to live in Berlin and why do I have to take the bus? Why can’t I have a Mercedes”? that many in previous waves thought was their due.

They are not asking for handouts and they’re not shopping for countries that give them better benefits. To this point, many have gone to work and have made themselves useful. Those staying near farms often help on the farm to keep their hands and minds occupied. In Denmark, many are signing up to work in care homes to fill critical shortages — especially in the provinces. Although some, especially in Poland which has absorbed two million on its have noted that it has been a challenge. Many have health problems — physical and mental stemming from the conflict. What they’re not complaining about is the people themselves. Well, very few at any rate and Poles are adept at the art of having a moan.

As for those citizens of third countries being turned away at the borders… That tensions were brewing and that a conflict was potentially imminent has been known for some time. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs, the United States Department of State and the Nigerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs have all warned their citizens in Ukraine to prepare to evacuate if not to evacuate. It is, ultimately, the responsibility of their own countries to ensure their safe evacuation. Ukrainians are in their own country and they are fleeing because they have little choice. Third country citizens are in Ukraine on their own volition and they have another country to return to. As I explained to my landlady (a good-natured, cheerful and warm-hearted American woman — they do exist), if the United States fell into civil war, she could seek refuge in Canada but I’d have no choice but to head to Europe as I hold a BRD-issued passport and I am ultimately their responsibility.

What a Web We Weave

I did not imagine that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would unfold the way it has. In fact, I was not sure that there would be a full-scale invasion of Ukraine at all. Russia has a recent track-record of invasions. In 2007, it invaded Georgia but largely limited its military ambitions to Abkhazia and South Ossetia — regions that had long been de facto autonomous from the rest of Georgia. When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, it largely limited its ambitions to Crimea. Unofficially, it has been an active participant in Luhansk and Donetsk. An invasion of sorts had long been expected. NATO and Ukraine had tacitly accepted it as unwanted, but seemingly inevitable. China had signed off on it with a few provisos. One was that Russia would wait until after the Beijing Scamlympics. The second was that Russia would act with restraint and limit its ambitions as it had in the past.

The extent of Russia’s invasion took everyone by surprise. It has also put China in an awkward position. China had intended to use this as a test case. If a surgical Russian occupation of two de facto independent Ukrainian oblasts went off smoothly and international responses were tepid, China would ramp up pressure on Taiwan with an all-out invasion on the cards. A test-invasion of Kinmen would be a near-certainty. Kinmen is a region comprising a few small islands administered by Taiwan in Xiamen Harbour, about six miles from the Fujian coast — or 116 miles from the Taiwanese coast. By breaking with its precedents, Russia confirmed another: the decadent, degenerate and divided West is still capable of uniting and causing serious damage. The United States might no longer be the undisputed global leader it was in 1992, the United States might have a president whose reign of error puts him into the same disastrous category as Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, but the United States is still able to cobble together a coherent and cohesive coalition. In this way, Putin and Xi underestimated the West in the same way that Hitler and Mussolini underestimated the West, in the same way that Kaiser Wilhelm II underestimated the United Kingdom and France.

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No Ordinary Games

The 2022 Beijing Olympics will start shortly. It’s a world removed from the glitz, glamour and forced cheer of the 2008 Summer Games. Back in 2008, the Summer Games were Chinese debut in the same way that the 1964 Tokyo Games were Japan’s or the 1988 Seoul Games were South Korea’s. Of course, China in 2008 was not Japan in 1964 nor was it South Korea in 1988.

By 1964 Japan (with American oversight) had developed into something resembling a liberal democracy. In 1988, South Korea had made significant progress towards becoming a prosperous, liberal democracy. The Seoul Games put South Korea under the global magnifying glass and the country’s authoritarian leaders were not in any position to alienate and antagonise anyone. Beijing 2008 was China showing that it was a major global power. Heads of state from most major and many minor countries came to celebrate together. On the ground, it was not the most pleasant of games. Athletes and observers noted that for all its technical brilliance, the 2008 Beijing Games were tightly scripted and Chinese authorities ensured that nothing potentially embarrassing happened. Sydney 2000 was good-natured, cheeky and filled with lots of banter and larrikinism. The 2012 London games were brilliantly quirky, fun and cheerful. The 2008 games were overwhelming and full of subtle creepiness.

Of course, life went on. London was London, Sochi was, well… Russian?, Rio was… Brazilian? Pyeongchang was a success — South Korea had come a long way from 1988 and there was much hope. North Korea and South Korea met, North Korean and South Korean athletes played joint matches. The Japanese male figure skaters shut the insufferable American talking heads up and won gold and silver.

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Whither Ukraine?

If you believe the news, never a good idea, you’d believe that Russia was acting with unpredictable aggression towards Ukraine. Of course, you’d also be incorrect. Russia is certainly acting with aggression, but it’s entirely predictable and entirely logical. Much has been said about Vladimir Putin’s argument that the collapse of the USSR was a geopolitical catastrophe. Many people in Russia agree with him. Far fewer in countries such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary or Ukraine would agree with him. The truth is, of course, that it was for the best for some countries, for the worse for others and, on the global scale, a calamity. The absence of an alternate power centre meant that the US was able to do as it wished on the global scale. Under Clinton, the US had a largely responsible foreign policy. Under Bush Jr. and Obama, the US behaved with reckless disregard. American intervention in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia led to chaos and misery.

I do not wish to defend Russian aggression per se. I also do not wish to be seen as an apologist for socialism or the USSR. If Russia had all that much to offer, then countries that were once part of the Russian Empire and the USSR wouldn’t have been so keen to get out from under Russia’s shadow. Even in Ukraine, one of the more troubled post-Soviet European states, the benefits of independence have far outweighed any negative consequences. Europe is not, however, the entire world.

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The Fall of Merkel

I had intended to write this sooner, but real life proved to be less than amenable.

Merkel is gone. The person who was the global face of Germany for 16 years is out of power and out of the Bundestag. The most noticeable thing is that there is nothing of note. Life carries on and her legacy, to use that awful term, has evaporated within days. That seems to be the norm; now more than ever. A prime minister like Cameron, a president like Obama, a Kanzler like Merkel can hold office for years, dominate discussion and public focus and then disappear as if they had never existed at all. If a legacy does exist, more often than not it’s toxic. Tony Blair left the UK worse for the wear, far worse. Turnbull left little of value, but planted a toxic crop that still hunts the Liberal Party. He’s not so much “the Ghost” as he is “the Fart”. Macron is creating a climate so toxic that even if he is forced out of power in April, the French state has become so heavy-handed and brutal that already strained relations between the people and the government will take years to heal if the French state makes few major mistakes.

So Merkel is gone. Her party is in tatters, rudderless, leaderless and in desperate need to find itself. Is it a centre-right, Christian Democratic party, the legacy of Adenauer? Is it a centrist party a la Merkel, reliant on Bavaria’s CSU to hold the line? After all, the only reason why it didn’t collapse entirely is that Bavaria, albeit by a reduced margin, once again supported the CSU. Without it, the theoretic centre-right would have been reduced to a rump opposition in the way that they were in Western Australia or the Northern Territories.

Germany has a new government. It is a complicated piece of political machinery. The Social Democrats stand at the centre of a three-party coalition that includes the Greens and the Free Democrats. The old party of labour, the party of activists and student union demagogues and the party of the polite middle class now need to hold together for four years. Is it possible? Quite probably so. The SPD haven’t led a government since 2005 and this is their chance to prove that they are still capable of that. For the Greens, it’s their first taste of power since 2005. For the FDP, it’s their first time in power since 2013 and their first time in a coalition with a party other than the CDU/CSU since Helmut Schmidt, some 40 years ago. It’s not that one can expect much from them, but being in power is its own aphrodisiac and it’s doubtful any of the three are keen to risk losing it (and electoral credibility).

Farewell, Hong Kong.

Hong Kong was always going to be China’s acid test. Thatcher, Britain’s last conviction PM, was never keen on returning it to China. She never trusted Beijing to abide by its commitments further than to interpret the Anglo-Chinese Joint Declaration whichever way suited it best. Originally inclined to hold onto the colony, she relented only because the Chinese were prepared and able to starve and dehydrate Hong Kong into submission.

Hong Kongers knew what they could expect. Some, such as Carrie Lam and Jackie Chan, sold their souls to the Party. Both have done well out of it. Carrie Lam, for all her uselessness and incompetence, was appointed Chief Executive of the territory. Jackie Chan is the CCP’s poster boy. He is the model that Beijing wants all Hong Kongers to emulate. Speak Cantonese if you wish, be a Hong Konger if you must, but never forget that Xi Dada is your lord and master and that you must bow to Beijing’s whims without complaint or question.

Of course, much of Hong Kong’s business elite have taken this position. So, frankly, has the greater portion of Hong Kong-based criminal syndicates. When there were protests, frequently heated, a singular, obvious fact was pointed out by many advocates of a liberal Hong Kong. The vast majority of thugs and troublemakers could not speak or understand Cantonese. They were Mandarin-speaking. That is, they were brought in from the Mainland to do the Triads’ and Chief Executive’s dirty work for them. The odds of someone recognising a Hong Konger would be too great.

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