GOP faithful falling; Modi dealt a blow in Bihar poll; Netanyahu visits Washington; writings land Iranian poets lengthy jail terms. By Hamish McDonald.

Globe-trotting PM Malcolm Turnbull faces detention ire

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar (left) greets Indian actor turned BJP MP Shatrughan Sinha this week.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar (left) greets Indian actor turned BJP MP Shatrughan Sinha this week.

Malcolm Turnbull set off on Thursday on his first big foreign excursion as prime minister, and will be criss-crossing the globe over the next month between a post-Tony Abbott fence-mending stop in Jakarta, a G20 meeting in Turkey, the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation talkfest in Manila and the East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur.

A toxic legacy still hangs over our optimistic PM, however. The two days of rioting at the Christmas Island detention centre, where Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has thrown in dozens of ex-convicts awaiting deportation alongside its asylum seekers, coincided awkwardly with the United Nations Human Rights Council hearing in Geneva on Australia’s record.

Australia got a hammering from the countries it usually likes to stand alongside, as well as from the usual hypocrites. Sweden said Australia was the only country using offshore processing and mandatory detention of asylum seekers. Many others urged the closure of the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island, or at least the removal of women and children from them. 

And so it went all day: Britain, Turkey, Fiji, Switzerland, Canada, France, Germany, Spain, Brazil, Rwanda and, of course, North Korea and Iran… Even the United States, whose president, Barack Obama, is preparing to finally remove the beam from his own eye by closing down the Guantanamo Bay detention centre for terror suspects and moving the remaining inmates to US prisons. Its delegate urged Australia to “ensure humane treatment and respect for the human rights of asylum seekers, including those processed offshore”. Australia’s feeble response was that it saved “countless” lives from drowning at sea. 

The stigma is unlikely to deter the PM from spreading his Panglossian message about the exciting times we live in. A core message he’s likely to put to the world, especially the US and Japan, that the newly agreed (if not yet ratified) Trans-Pacific Partnership must keep its doors open for China and Asia’s other big economies not yet included. 

1 . GOP faithful falling

As Hillary Clinton coasts towards a third consecutive Democrat Party term in the White House, a disturbing backstory has emerged that might help explain why the Republican Party base has gone so feral and backs unwinnable candidates.

The new Nobel laureate in economics, Angus Deaton, and his economist wife, Anne Case, have just published a study of US mortality rates that shows middle-aged white Americans are killing themselves in increasing numbers − by suicide, excessive use of over-the-counter painkillers, and from alcohol − to the point of declining life expectancy among less-educated whites in the Bible Belt states. 

The two economists found that if the white mortality rate for those aged 45 to 54 stayed at its 1998 level, 96,000 deaths would have been avoided from 1999-2013. If it had kept declining at the rate over the 20 years before 1999, half a million deaths would have been avoided from 1999-2013, a similar figure to American lives taken by the HIV/AIDS epidemic so far.

Diseases resulting from obesity and smoking aren’t a factor, as deaths from diabetes, heart attacks and cancer are stable or declining. It’s a kind of collective depression, reminiscent of the despair that drove many Russians to the vodka bottle as the Soviet Union collapsed. “An anthropologist friend here says that [white, middle-aged Americans] have lost the narrative of their lives – meaning something like a loss of hope, a loss of expectations of progress,” Deaton told the Vox website. No wonder they turn to Donald Trump and Ben Carson.

2 . Modi’s BJP dealt a blow in Bihar poll

Bihar, the sprawling Hindi-belt state that always seems the vortex of India’s problems, gave Prime Minister Narendra Modi a rebuke in elections for its legislature conducted during October. And deservedly so.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party won only 58 seats of 243, while an alliance led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and veteran lower-caste champion Lalu Prasad Yadav with support from the Congress Party won 178 seats. Unwisely, the BJP had portrayed the Bihar election as a referendum on Modi’s 17 months in power, and projected him as the star of its campaign. 

Advised by his party president Amit Shah, Modi had kicked the religious can, accusing Kumar of staying silent on beef consumption and allocating jobs to Muslims, while Shah declared that if the BJP were defeated, “crackers will go off in Pakistan”. At one point the electoral commission stepped in to block a series of BJP campaign ads it said seemed likely to stir communal unrest. Not a good look for a prime minister still overshadowed by the anti-Muslim pogrom that happened under his nose as chief minister of Gujarat state in 2002.

 The setback will increase opposition to economic reforms including a new goods and services tax and easier land transfers that Modi is trying to get through the upper house of the central parliament, in which the BJP lacks a majority. “The Modi wave has waned,” says veteran political analyst S. Nihal Singh.

3 . Agreeable Bibi visits Washington

A rather more accommodating Benjamin Netanyahu went to Washington to meet President Obama on Monday than the one who broke away from his re-election campaign in March to whip up opposition at a joint sitting of congress to the Iran nuclear agreement that Obama’s administration was then in the process of clinching.

The Israeli prime minister agreed with his host it was time to move on from their disagreements and work on getting Iran to stick to its commitments. A sweetener for Israel is that the US is preparing to raise its annual military aid to $US5 billion from the present $US3 billion, including access to the Osprey tiltrotor transports that would enable longer-range commando raids, and more F-35 stealth aircraft. 

Close to the 20th anniversary of the assassination of the peacemaking prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish fanatic in 1995, Netanyahu also reaffirmed his commitment to the two-state solution with the Palestinians that Rabin was pursuing, albeit with the twist that the Palestinians must recognise Israel as a Jewish state and adjust to a lot of recent settlements in what they thought would be their territory. 

Analysts think Obama has put the issue into the too-hard basket for the remainder of his term. Secretary of State John Kerry is concentrating on ending the spate of random attacks by Palestinian individuals that have threatened to spiral into a third intifada, or general uprising. Since the beginning of October, 12 Israelis and 72 Palestinians have been killed.

4 . Writings land poets lengthy jail terms

Back to Iran, taking the high moral ground at Geneva. Last month, one of its courts sentenced poets Fateme Ekhtesari, 31, and Mehdi Mousavi, 41, to 99 lashes each for shaking hands with the opposite sex. 

In addition Ms Ekhtesari got 11-and-a-half years in jail and Mr Mousavi nine years on charges of “insulting the sacred” in their poems, publishing unauthorised content and spreading anti-state propaganda.

The damning evidence appears to have included Ekhtesari’s poem “A Feminist Discussion Before Boiling the Potatoes”, which Shahin Najafi, an Iranian musician based in Germany, later turned into a protest song. He was declared three years ago in Iran to be an apostate. The flogging was earned by the two poets’ appearance at a poetry festival in Sweden, where they shook hands with men and women alike. Iran courts claim universal jurisdiction, it seems.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 14, 2015 as "Globe-trotting PM faces detention ire".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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