News from the front desk: No 324 – on a strange new world

Next Wednesday more than 600 people plan to gather at the University of Sydney to hear renowned climate scientist Michael Mann who is visiting from Pennsylvania State University.

Mann is the mathematician who turned to climate science and came up with the hockey stick idea to illustrate what we’re in for with global warming, and who’s had death threats as a result.

Nevertheless, Mann promises a lighthearted look at the challenges and has even teamed up with Washington Post cartoonist Thomas Toles for some of his work to prove that’s possible.

On Tuesday, a workshop comprising Mann and a range of Australian academics and activists will try to fashion some positive ways to respond to this new political landscape that hour by hour seems to shift and rip apart like an earthquake that emanates in Washington and Moscow and is spreading all the way to Canberra and the beds we lie in at night. The Fifth Estate will chair this session and we can’t wait.

Even since our first meeting a few weeks ago with Usyd’s Professor Christopher Wright and Michelle St Anne to discuss proceedings, there have been massive changes in what we know about the order of the world and what we might expect. The world before Donald Trump was bad enough, but in retrospect it increasingly looks like a naïve 18th century pastoral .

If you think we are exaggerating, read this piece from a man who is a “distinguished engineer on privacy at Google” in his day job and writes piercing analysis of current affairs at other times.

Here’s a summary from Yonatan Zunger‘s highly sourced analysis of White House proceedings since Trump took power – and this is before he outraged Australia with treatment of our PM over a deal to take 1250 refugees:

  • The omission of Jews from the statement for Holocaust Remembrance Day was deliberate and is not regretted
  • Department of Homeland Security lawyers objected to the order on green card holders, as illegal, but were personally overruled by Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller
  • Career DHS staff, up to and including the head of Customs & Border Patrol, were kept entirely out of the loop until the order was signed
  • The Guardian is reporting (heavily sourced) that the “mass resignations” of nearly all senior staff at the State Department on Thursday were not, in fact, resignations, but a purge ordered by the White House. The diagram shows this leaves almost nobody in the entire senior staff of the State Department at this point.

 

 

  • Trump’s immediate circle of Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn, son-in-law Jared Kushner and Reince Priebus are making their own calls
  • On Inauguration Day, Trump apparently filed his candidacy for 2020.  (So he can start raking in funds for his coffers under guise of campaign funds immediately. Highly unusual.)
  • “On Wednesday, Reuters reported (in great detail) how 19.5 per cent of Rosneft, Russia’s state oil company, has been sold to parties unknown. This was done through a dizzying array of shell companies, so that the most that can be said with certainty now is that the money “paying” for it was originally loaned out to the shell layers by VTB (the government’s official bank), even though it’s highly unclear who, if anyone, would be paying that loan back; and the recipients have been traced as far as some Cayman Islands shell companies.
  •  “Why is this interesting? Because the much-maligned Steele Dossier … in July said that Putin had offered Trump 19 per cent of Rosneft if he became president and removed sanctions. And because 19.5 per cent sounds an awful lot like “19 per cent plus a brokerage commission.”
  • .The green card chaos was designed to draw out opposition and to create “resistance fatigue” and there is not any sort of backing down on the part of the regime.
  • Court orders have been ignored and the DHS made it fairly clear that they did not feel bound to obey any court orders.

(Now this is even more alarming.)

The article goes on to cite Trump’s personal private security guards and the lining up of outfits like the DHS and FBI on his side (instead of the courts of law).

Vladislav Surkov with Vlad the Lad

Why all this is relevant and why we mentioned Russia is that over in Moscow is a man who has led the development of the fake news phenomenon and fanned the chaos of political confusion in his own country, now going viral globally.

The BBC’s Adam Curtis says Vladislav Surkov a long time advisor to Russian president Vladimir Putin has come from the avant-garde art world and imported ideas from conceptual art “into the very heart of politics”.

The aim is to undermine peoples’ perceptions of the world, so they never know what is really happening, Curtis says.

“Surkov turned Russian politics into a bewildering, constantly changing piece of theater. He sponsored all kinds of groups, from neo-Nazi skinheads to liberal human rights groups. He even backed parties that were opposed to President Putin.

“But the key thing was, that Surkov then let it be known that this was what he was doing, which meant that no one was sure what was real or fake. As one journalist put it: ‘It is a strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused.’

“It is exactly what Surkov is alleged to have done in the Ukraine this year. In typical fashion, as the war began, Surkov published a short story about something he called non-linear war. A war where you never know what the enemy are really up to, or even who they are. The underlying aim, Surkov says, is not to win the war, but to use the conflict to create a constant state of destabilised perception, in order to manage and control.

Curtis says something similar is going on in Britain.

“Aging disk jockeys are prosecuted for crimes they committed decades ago, while practically no one in the City of London is prosecuted for the endless financial crimes that have been revealed there.

“In Syria, we are told that President Assad is the evil enemy, but then his enemies turn out to be even more evil than him, so we bomb them, and by doing that, we help keep Assad in power. “

In the economy we’ve got Quantitative Easing.

“The government is insisting on taking billions of pounds out of the economy through its austerity program, yet at the very same time it is pumping billion of pounds into the economy through Quantitative Easing, the equivalent of 24,000 pounds for every family in Britain.

“But it gets even more confusing, because the Bank of England has admitted that those billions of pounds are not going where they are supposed to. A vast majority of that money has actually found its way into the hands of the wealthiest five per cent in Britain. It has been described as the biggest transfer of wealth to the rich in recent documented history. “

And so it is with climate change.

We now have a multi-coloured landscape that is our world now. Except it’s not a patchwork of green fields and happy dales, it’s a pixelated vision manufactured by some very clever manipulators who know that if they tell enough bald-faced lies we’ll first get confused and then stop caring.

Where’s the old Malcolm?

Those who are wondering what happened to Malcolm Turnbull, the man who crossed the floor on principle to support an emissions trading scheme a lifetime ago, will know what we mean.

That Malcolm Turnbull was in another world, one that looks increasingly like a utopian fantasy when the world very nearly united under a common purpose to save itself and all that was beautiful and worthwhile.

We know what happened. Turnbull, along with then PM Kevin Rudd, both walked into the pixels and lost themselves. Empty air between each viewable micro-dot of mirage.

Early this week we saw the new revised Turnbull in action. He told us we could build new “clean” coal fired power stations and that the Clean Energy Finance Corporation could pay for it, (like the Mexicans should pay for “the wall”?) at a cost we know would be double that of renewables. Well the CEFC wouldn’t be able to do that under current rules because as we understand them its charter is to make a profit and renewable energy is the only energy that can do that.

But what the hell, we have pixels now and Malcolm can tell us straight to our faces that renewables are some Labor Party furphy to deny us cheap power.

Say what?

He won’t last, we are not America yet – our vision is blurring but we can still see solid ground between the dots.

Plus we have compulsory voting.

Mostly that’s good. Not always.

In WA right now we will be carefully watching One Nation that is fielding 40 candidates and now looks like it could use its preferences to derail expectations and help return the Barnett government to power. Barnett it needs to be pointed out is an oil and gas man, like Mal.

One Nation voters, however, along with unionists and farmers have also banded together in a coalition to stop fracking.

NSW new premier off to a shaky start

Which now brings us to NSW, another state whose premier, the recently retired Mike Baird, started off well enough but soon succumbed to the dark forces of whoever is managing the pixel machine.

New premier Gladys Berejiklian barely a week into the job was already taking strange side steps, shuffles and back flips. We’re not fooled nor entertained by this flexi-gymnast routine.

First there was the cabinet reshuffle, a triumph of factional deals over talent.

Out went Rob Stokes, probably the most respected planning minister we’ve had, right in the midst of big mess that is the NSW planning system. So we had the most qualified planning minister possibly in NSW history shafted into education, knocking out what was possibly the most respected education minister Adrian Piccoli.

Health minister Jillian Skinner was also out, and in came Brad Hazzard, who as minister for family and community services and minister for social housing had the respect of the sector. That can’t be said about the returning Pru Goward, who in 2014 announced the sale of all public housing in Millers Point and the Rocks – including the brutalist Sirius building – sparking outrage at a government-driven gentrification of the inner city, where only the rich were welcome.

Into planning now comes conservative Anthony Roberts, who, as far as we can tell, doesn’t have much experience in an area that demands leadership and the ability to bring hard heads together for a common vision. A tale of a three-year battle with a neighbour over a fence we discovered from 2005 does not inspire much confidence. Let’s hope he’s gained some better conflict resolution skills since then.

Greens planning spokesman David Shoebridge was miffed by the reshuffle. When we spoke to him on Tuesday he said it sounded like a game of factional musical chairs, and when the music stopped the only place left for Roberts was planning.

Another strange move was Gabrielle Upton, coming down from attorney-general to environment and heritage minister, and picking up local government along the way.

It was strange at the time because Upton had been a big critic of forced council amalgamations in her area. Now it’s starting to all make sense with news leaked that the Berejiklian government is backflipping big time on amalgamations, and is expected to halt legal proceedings on those councils that have resisted the amalgamation directive, and offering plebiscites to residents of those councils already amalgamated.

These mooted plebiscites, aside from adding huge cost to an already expensive amalgamation process, will with no doubt lead to deamalgamation.

Confused yet? If not, don’t worry, they’ll try harder.

Amalgamation might have some industry support, but it has had virtually no support from the community. Baird inspired anger when pushed forward his agenda, and while many conservatives have tried to tie growing discontent with the government to the greyhound ban, and many progressives have tried to tie it to the lock out laws or wanton destruction of trees, it was amalgamation that truly united the community in its outrage. A very sharp picture there.

With by-elections coming up in Manly and the North Shore, perhaps Berejiklian is trying to nip this anger in the bud. NSW opposition leader Luke Foley thinks so, but he’s accused Nationals Leader and deputy Premier John Barilaro of leaking the changes to win support in the regions.

So now the bulldozer-style amalgamation process seems to have been all for nought, though it will costs much more than that – estimated at $590 million over two years, close to a third of the $2 billion estimated to be saved over 20 years of amalgamation. It seems like a very expensive backflip, with the $2 billion in savings lost but much of the costs already sustained – and potentially more through the process of deamalgamation.

Those in the development sector are already lobbying for government to retain some of the efficiencies that would have been gained through amalgamation.

Urban Taskforce’s Chris Johnson on Thursday said the government needed to progress shared service models that reflected the six districts of the Greater Sydney Commission.

“Council planners could be merged into six ‘centres of excellence’ across metropolitan Sydney to undertake strategic planning and development assessment of large projects,” he said. “This would align the council planning system with the six districts established by the Greater Sydney Commission. There would also be a more efficient pooling of expertise and increased career opportunities in this model.”

With the amalgamation and greyhound backflip, it seems the NSW government is only beholden to political expediency, rather than a policy vision. So we can only hope WestConnex is next, though it is unlikely with it now having its own ministry (is this the first time a road has had its own minister?).

And speaking of deserved backflips, how about dropping the sale of the land titles registry? NSW Treasury documents released this week show it’s making $130 million a year. With speculation the government is looking for $2 billion for the right to run the registry for 35 years, it seems highly undervalued. The sale has also outraged the Law Council of Australia, which said there were more adverse consequences than benefits, and there’s no support from the property industry either, concerned about higher costs and fraud risks.

With a insipid start on housing affordability too, it seems premier Berejiklian may lack the spine to take NSW where it needs to go.

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