Netanyahu plans to visit Australia; IMF damns PNG; Jakarta test in gubernatorial elections By Hamish McDonald.

‘Beautiful new planes’ for US armed forces

Betsy DeVos is sworn in as US education secretary by Vice-President Mike Pence this week.
Betsy DeVos is sworn in as US education secretary by Vice-President Mike Pence this week.
Credit: ALEX WONG / Getty Images

The Trumps spent last weekend at Donald’s Florida mansion Mar-a-Lago, now the “Winter White House”, where the attached club is open to new members for a $US200,000 down payment and $14,000-a-year fee, or $2000 a night for blow-ins.

Before heading back to DC on Monday President Trump called in at the Tampa military base that directs operations in the Middle East and Africa. He promised the troops “beautiful new planes and beautiful new equipment” and suggested the military was personally loyal to him. “We had a wonderful election, didn’t we? And I saw those numbers – and you like me and I like you.”

He had already ordered the Pentagon to prepare a supplementary budget for this year, adding up to $40 billion to the $600 billion in Barack Obama’s last budget for the military, which is already more than the combined defence budgets of the next seven biggest spenders.

As well as trying to politicise the military, Trump has attacked a “so-called judge” in the Seattle federal court who blocked his executive order halting entry to citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries. The administration went to a federal appeals court, with Trump tweeting the judicial proceedings were “disgraceful” and the courts “so political”. Either way, the case will likely go to the Supreme Court. Even Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court vacancy, Judge Neil Gorsuch, found Trump’s remarks “demoralising”.

In the US senate, Vice-President Mike Pence had to use his casting vote when approval of Trump’s nominee for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, deadlocked. Her espousal of a voucher system that would allow parents to transfer funding between public and private schools, and her okay for guns in schools, were too much for two Republican senators, who voted with Democrats to oppose her. A vice-presidential intervention in a nomination was unprecedented.

1 . Netanyahu to visit?

Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu was heading to meet Trump in Washington, after a less than satisfactory meeting with Britain’s Theresa May in London where she had reiterated support for the two-state solution with the Palestinians and amid worries France’s outgoing president François Hollande might, as a last beau geste, recognise Palestine.

Even Trump’s administration thinks Netanyahu has been rushing things with Jewish settlements in the West Bank, with an anonymous White House official urging “all parties to refrain from taking unilateral actions that could undermine our ability to make progress, including settlement announcements”. That message was undercut later when White House press secretary Sean Spicer seemed to up-end decades of US policy that confiscation of conquered territory was illegal. “We don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace,” he said.

The latter is the message being read in the Knesset, where supporters of Netanyahu’s government helped pass a law allowing the state to retroactively expropriate the private Palestinian land on which Israeli settlements have been built, the first time in nearly 50 years of occupation since the 1967 attack by Arab states that Israeli law has been extended to the West Bank. However, the law could be struck down by Israel’s High Court. Trump could sympathise with that.

According to Israeli newspapers, Netanyahu may extend his travels to Australia later this month, following an invitation delivered by Julie Bishop last year, making him the first sitting Israeli prime minister to visit.

2 . IMF damns PNG

Papua New Guinea is heading to the polls midyear, continuing a near unbeaten record for a developing country in holding regular elections since independence. Combined with a functioning judiciary that regularly corrects and occasionally deposes government leaders, that makes it far from a failed state – whatever its many failures of governance.

But Prime Minister Peter O’Neill’s management of Port Moresby’s finances is a juggling act to behold. After holding it back for weeks, his central bank has released the International Monetary Fund’s 2016 report on the PNG economy. It reveals that O’Neill’s government greatly overstated PNG’s growth rate for 2014 and 2015, meaning that its debt-to-GDP ratio is 33.5 per cent, above the 30 per cent limit set in the Fiscal Responsibility Act.

The economy was slammed by the collapse in global oil prices at the end of 2014, just as the ExxonMobil liquefied natural gas project in the South Highlands was coming onstream, but O’Neill’s dubious foreign borrowings to fund state equity in the project have exacerbated things. It’s one reason the Bank of PNG is keeping the kina overvalued, reducing earning power for villagers relying on sales of coffee and other commodities for their cash. In the highlands, they’ve had a severe drought over the past year as well, causing food shortages. The crisis is papered over in O’Neill’s latest budget, with the IMF and other economists saying the revenue figures look unrealistic.

Last year there was more reliance on police heavy-handedness by O’Neill, including a shooting of protesting students in which 20 were wounded. He’s now trying to raise the election nomination fee from 1000 kina ($400) to 10,000 kina, which benefits incumbents – each MP has control over about $4 million in funding for constituency development projects, in many cases used as a slush fund to help re-election.

3 . Jakarta test

On Wednesday, the election for a city governor in Jakarta will be watched closely to see how Indonesia’s reputation for religious tolerance passes a rigorous stress test.

Incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama is, as his nickname Ahok suggests, of Chinese extraction. He is also Christian in a city that is overwhelmingly Muslim, and somewhat kasar – crude – in his bluntness of speech. But up until last September things seemed to be going swimmingly for Ahok. Formerly deputy at city hall to Joko Widodo, now president, he pushed ahead with a long-delayed metro rail network and tackled flood control.

Then he unwisely suggested critics were misusing a verse from the Koran to suggest Muslims could not be governed by a non-Muslim. This gave the hook for a thuggish but minor group of Muslim fanatics called the Islamic Defenders Front – FPI from its Indonesian initials – to marshal support for two mass demonstrations against Ahok’s “blasphemy” and resulting in the governor’s prosecution. It will be holding another mass protest today.

Ahok’s trial for blasphemy continues. Two opportunistic candidates, Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono (oldest son of the former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) and Anies Baswedan, recently sacked as Widodo’s education minister, are taking advantage. The younger Yudhoyono, a former army major, would project himself as secular and Baswedan has long exemplified “moderate” Islam. But if either wins, they would be benefiting from what can truly be called “Islamofascism”.

As for the FPI’s leader, Rizieq Shihab − a Jakarta imam of part Yemeni descent whose followers get around in Arab-style gear as they harass liberal groups, religious minorities and women deemed immodest − he’s up on charges, too. These relate to a 2011 sermon in which he declared that founding president Sukarno’s 1945 formulation of the five-point state ideology Pancasila was distorted. The original Pancasila, he said (wrongly), “puts the belief in one god on its head. Sukarno’s Pancasila puts the belief in one god in its arse”. Rizieq is also embarrassed by the surfacing of what seem to be saucy social media exchanges with a lady named Firza Husein, who’s been arrested in a separate treason case.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 11, 2017 as "‘Beautiful new planes’ for US armed forces".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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