Greek ‘gambler’ out. Abe minces words. Rebuilding Nepal. Jokowi’s death row. By Hamish McDonald.

UK Labour Party stands clear of Murdoch

German International Search and Rescue workers use dogs to help scour the rubble in Kathmandu, Nepal.
German International Search and Rescue workers use dogs to help scour the rubble in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Credit: Reuters

It’s going to be a tense week for Europe. On Thursday the British vote in a general election in which, to the alarm of Rupert Murdoch, Labour Party leader “Red Ed” Miliband could emerge ascendant.

Miliband’s offence is not so much his party’s alleged socialism as the fact that he has openly made a virtue of not seeking Murdoch’s endorsement, or at least neutrality, as incumbent David Cameron and a conga line of Tory and Labour predecessors have done. It remains to be seen whether the vicious coverage by the press baron’s tabloids will have much effect on the election.

Neocons such as Murdoch don’t have much time for Cameron and his Liberal Democrat coalition partners. Their fiscal toughness has not been matched by muscularity in foreign policy and defence. But Cameron has been notoriously close to Murdoch executives, notably Rebekah Brooks, making him a better bet for media industry manoeuvres by News Corp and Fox.

The European Union has been a regular target for the red tops, too, so Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum on Britain’s continuing membership of the EU will go down well. He is no doubt hoping this gamble, to placate his Tory anti-Europeans and steal air from Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party, will pay off in a vote against change, as in last year’s referendum on Scottish independence. But the Scots may have the last laugh if predictions come true and the left-leaning Scottish National Party sweeps electorates north of the border and emerges kingmaker in a hung parliament.

1 . Greek ‘gambler’ out

On Friday, Greece was due to hand over €200 million in interest payments to the International Monetary Fund. A bigger payment of €750 million due on May 12 looks impossible unless Athens can tie up a new European Central Bank loan beforehand. The country hovers on the brink of default and exit from the euro currency zone.

It seems that some 11 years of teaching economics at Sydney University did not attune the Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, to negotiating softer terms for the ECB bailout. After only three months at the task for the new left-wing Syriza party government, he was sidelined from Greece’s negotiating team on Monday by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

Varoufakis has been variously accused of raising his middle finger at Berlin and coming close to fisticuffs with the Dutch president of the European council of finance ministers, Jeroen Dijsselbloem. Things got to a head at a meeting of the ministers in Riga on April 24 when the 18 others rounded on Varoufakis, accusing him, among other things, of being a “gambler”. He didn’t attend their dinner and tweeted a remark made by Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 while putting through New Deal measures to lift America out of recession: “FDR, 1936: They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred. A quotation close to my heart (& reality) these days.”

He’s been replaced by another economist in the Greek government, Euclid Tsakalotos. His task is to persuade the Europeans and IMF to release the next €7.2 billion tranche of the ongoing €240 billion rescue for the indebted country. Sometimes described as an Oxford Marxist, Tsakalotos may have to swallow some of his previous opinions, which argue that Europe as a whole should wind back the market-based restructuring of the 1980s and 1990s. His PM is ready to make concessions to get the bailout, including partly privatising Piraeus port and leasing 14 regional airports. The Chinese are waiting eagerly to turn Piraeus into a new access hub. Not quite two centuries after ousting the Turks, the Greeks may be in for another measure of oriental slavery.

2 . Abe minces words

Japan’s Shinzō Abe went to Washington this week and gave the Americans what they want on defence, but remains vague on the bigger prize needed by US President Barack Obama to really round off his strategic “pivot” to Asia: concessions on market access that will allow the contentious Trans-Pacific Partnership trade and services negotiations to move quickly to agreement before Obama steps down.

New guidelines on military co-operation allow Japanese forces to assist American forces anywhere in the world, instead of being restricted to operations directly related to the defence of Japan, as under the previous guidelines set in 1997. The kind of operations envisaged could be combining their missile-defence ships to shield a region, or Japan intercepting a North Korean missile heading for the US. A joint statement said the guidelines “enable Japan to expand its contributions to regional and global security”.

All this would be more reassuring for Asian neighbours if Abe didn’t continue to play around with words about wartime abuses, deleting references to “comfort women” in school textbooks, and encouraging the hounding of journalists and newspapers that insist on raking up atrocities. As the Australian National University’s Tess Morris-Suzuki points out on the ANU’s East Asia Forum website, Abe uses a word that his officials translate as “remorse” while to Chinese and Koreans the characters come out as “reflection” or “reconsideration”.

3 . Rebuilding Nepal

It’s been a sombre week otherwise. The death toll from the earthquake in Nepal reached many thousands, and the country’s income from adventure tourism will be greatly diminished for a long time to come.

The big question is whether densely populated cities such as Kathmandu can ever be made safe from such disasters. Foreign Policy magazine’s website gives a perspective by Brian Tucker, a California-based seismologist with GeoHazards International, a non-profit group devoted to reducing earthquake risk. The typical problem is that city administrations are barely coping anyway, and are unwilling to invest in protection against something that might not strike for decades.

An approach GeoHazards found successful in Quito, Ecuador, might apply in Kathmandu. The group produced a report for the mayor on about a dozen of Quito’s schools, accompanied by pictures and plans for designs that could make them safer. “We figured it would be a politically advantageous move for him,” Tucker said. “Much more than strengthening a road or a bridge… We had to make it really attractive to the mayor.” The schools were retrofitted the next year. A similar process has been at work in Istanbul, which sits close to a major fault line. Over the past 15 years, the Turkish city has, with World Bank funding, carried out a massive retrofitting of schools, hospitals and other buildings.

4 . Jokowi’s death row

Vale Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan. Events leading up to their execution at 3.35am on Wednesday showed some of the worst aspects of contemporary Indonesia: judicial inconsistency and corruptibility, a vindictive bureaucracy that held up family members for extra form-filling ahead of their last visit, and an excessive show of force.

The recall of Australian ambassador Paul Grigson for “consultations” about where to go from here makes a change from Indonesia recalling its ambassador. No doubt relations will get back to normal within weeks or months. Rather than thinking of any extra retribution, we should look to work with the more enlightened side of Indonesia that also showed itself to try to get the men spared.

Indonesia has done itself damage anyway. Investor trust in its legal system and bureaucracy must have been lowered. The president, Joko Widodo, looks overawed by his party leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, with her suspect police general favourite creeping back into the picture as deputy national police chief, and the dubious arrest warrant for suspended chief of the respected anti-corruption agency, Abraham Samad. Widodo still has more than 30 foreign drug convicts on his execution list this year.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 2, 2015 as "Labour Party stands clear of Murdoch".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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