Monthly Archives: September 2002

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The evidence 

President Bush has just finished his address to the General Assembly of the UN. A friend had wondered today whether Bush would produce Stevenson-like photos of the WMD development. Instead, a dossier detailing how Saddam has violated UN resolutions was produced. There are a lot of sceptics on this side of the Atlantic who will want more evidence than that.

I take some encouragement from the fact that Bush is seeking the endorsement of the UN, and that he seemed to suggest that Saddam has one last chance to comply with UN resolutions (even though, as Richard Butler has pointed out below, compliance is highly unlikely on Saddam’s past history).

What puzzles me, however, is that I see no sign of a great debate brewing in the US over what could be the most significant military commitment since Vietnam. Whether you are pro or con military involvement in Iraq, surely a great democracy needs to air the issues?

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Make noise 

Simon Schama rails against silence and secrecy: “The fight is between power based on revelation (and thus not open to argument), and power based on persuasion, and thus conditional on argument; militant theocracy against the tolerant Enlightenment. Since the United States, notwithstanding the Pilgrims and the Great Awakening, was very much the child of the Enlightenment, one might have expected this case for tolerant, secular pluralism to be made in the most adamant and unapologetic fashion by the country’s leadership. But the shroud of mass reverence which enveloped everyone and everything after 9/11, and which once again is blanketing the anniversary, has succeeded in making secular debate about liberty into an act of indecency, disrespectful of the dead and disloyal to the flag.”

Back from down under 

It only took me 28 hours to get back from Australia, thanks to better connections on the return. Boy it’s a long way. I was silent after Friday because my modem packed up, and when you’re on an island near the Great Barrier Reef, there aren’t many options for repair.

It’s a pity I couldn’t connect because there was some good food for thought at the Hayman leadership retreat. I liked New South Wales premier Bob Carr’s one sentence summation of human history: “The explosion of population and the transmigration of tribes.”

And it was particularly interesting to hear ambassador Richard Butler, former chairman of the UN special commission to dismantle Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Butler, thrown out of Iraq in 1999, reckons “even if Saddam accepts the requirements for arms control, he won’t fulfil them”. He’s convinced of the need for regime change, but believes it has to happen through a resolution of the Security Council. “If the US proceeds unilaterally, it would be the end of the Security Council as an effective instrument of peace and security.”

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40,000 years 

The leadership retreat was movingly opened tonight by Renata Pryor, from the Ngaro tribe, the traditional owners of the Whitsunday Islands. She said her people have lived on these islands for at least 40,000 years. Fortunately, she is a great-grandmother so the long, generational chain still has a good way to run.

Laying into Lessig 

I know I should remain focused on things Antipodean, but I couldn’t resist browsing through some of my usual hotspots. D-squared Digest rips into so-called cyberlaw guru Larry Lessig here and here. Fun and accurate.

Perspective from the bottom 

It isn’t just the night sky, with the Southern Cross looking brilliant, that’s different from down under. To some extent, the whole world looks different.

People here are concerned with many of the same issues as the people I speak to in London. Everyone is talking about Iraq and Bush, about the shortcomings of the Johannesburg summit, about the moribund nature of the global economy.

But you feel a long way away from the centre of things. For me, on a visit, that’s nice. I’m struck, however, by how many Australians go all wistful when I say I’m from London. Despite modern communications and the ease (time excepted) of air travel, they feel cut off too.

The seemingly obvious answer is for Australia to yoke itself to Asia, which is comparatively on its doorstep. In the mid-90s, both Australian government and business tried to reposition themselves as players in Asia. (The Asia crisis of 1997 put the brakes on these aspirations, mistakenly, I think.) It didn’t really work in two directions. Although there are a lot of Australians from east Asia now, the country remains Anglo-Saxon in culture and attitudes. And from the Asian perspective, Australia neither looks Asian nor feels geographically linked. My flight the other day, for example, from Kuala Lumpur to Brisbane, took eight hours. Most of east Asia is a long way away from the centres of population and business in Australia.

And as a friend here pointed out, the rhetoric of joining Asia wasn’t really followed by much useful action. “Look,” he said, “at the boards of any big Australian company. How many Asians are there?” The answer is generally none. So there’s still a mountain to climb. But this magnificent country, with a fairly small population, distant from just about everywhere, needs to find more effective ways of tying itself into the rest of the world.

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I arrived in my room to find this message: “We are experiencing problems at the moment with cockatoos entering guest rooms via open balcony doors, clawing and chewing their way through pieces of room furniture and guest’s personal effects.”

Sure. But five minutes later an enormous white cockatoo with a yellow plume on its head came onto my balcony. I’ll keep that door closed.


As we were sitting waiting for the boat to take us to Hayman, I saw a giant splash in the water, not too far away. I looked more closely. “Whales!” I exclaimed. That makes the 31 hours of travelling worthwhile.

There are apparently 600 humpback whales currently in the Whitsunday Islands, calving before they begin their journey back to Antarctic waters. We saw a mother and calf. According to the skipper, the calf was less than two days old (apparently their colouration changes after 48 hours). Calves weigh 1.5 tonnes at birth and the mother is feeding it with 600 litres of milk a day. When the calf reaches 3 tonnes, it will be big enough to survive in the cold Antarctic seas.

I’m just mimicking what the captain said. One of my fellow travellers said I sounded like an expert. “I’ve read Moby Dick,” I replied.

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Heading off 

There will be a couple of quiet days on Davos Newbies because I’m heading to the other side of the world for a conference.

It takes a long time to get to Hayman Island. I leave at 22.00 tonight and arrive there at lunchtime on Thursday, Australia time. The conference is a leadership retreat for the Australia Davos Connection, a group of Australian World Economic Forum members. Although nothing compares with Davos, I think there’s a great future for more intimate, personal events like the Hayman Island retreat. I’ll post some thoughts once I get there.

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A cuppa 

Andrew Tobias has a great idea for a book: “I would like to see someone write book called, quite simply, A Cup of Coffee. It would have a chapter on each element that’s involved — or at least as many as could fit (decaffeination? color printing on the sides of coffee cans?).” And I don’t even like coffee.

Give me liberty 

When I read Will Hutton on economics, my blood pressure begins to rise. But his latest column looks at the devaluation of the concept of liberty and it’s right on the mark.

“The great idea of liberty has become polluted by two great conservative deformations. The first is the argument that freedom in essence is about freedom from any action from the state which is defined a priori as coercive and bad. Indeed, because the state can do nothing that is not at core about the exercise of state power, even its attempts to do good are dangerous and menacing to freedom. Thus the less state in any guise, the more liberty. The second deformation follows from the first. No action should be taken against those who want to enjoy their property and wealth; any limitation in the name of redistribution, equality or fairness is again coercive. Once these two conceptions are allowed to define liberty, so pornography, hunting foxes, using imperial measures and disputing all forms of taxation become fundamental issues of freedom.”

I can’t say that ending hunting with dogs is a major issue for me (although if pushed, I’m against it), but Hutton takes the current furore over hunting to make an important point.