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Reflections on a dismal year


ADELAIDE - As 2020 staggers towards its dismal end, the trail of upheaval and disasters left in its wake will continue to reverberate around the world for many years to come.

When historians of the future are considering the impact of Covid-19 on the world, they will be presented with a smorgasbord of issues to contemplate.

In the USA they will be struggling to understand how the world’s largest and most successful republic became so seriously and corrosively divided along so many fracture lines.

So divided, in fact, that its very existence as a viable democracy has been called into question.

Our future historians will especially be trying to figure out how an obvious narcissistic sociopath, a person conspicuously lacking in any sort of moral or ethical compass, could only be so narrowly defeated in a presidential election.

How could 70 million Americans possibly think that Donald Trump and his Republican Party enablers actually represented their interests in the face of all evidence to the contrary?

Similarly, events in the UK and Europe will call into question the underlying competence of various national governments, most of which have conspicuously failed to effectively manage the response to the pandemic, with an ensuing massive loss of life and a severe economic recession.

Meanwhile, the apparent success of the Chinese government in suppressing the disease and minimising its economic impact may lead some historians to wonder if an authoritarian model of government may be preferable to democracy when it comes to dealing with national crisis.

Certainly, there are more than a few contemporary thinkers openly contemplating this question.

Some of them regard the events of 2020 as clear evidence that democracy is no longer about achieving the greatest good for the greatest number but more about preserving the wealth and interests of the richest and most powerful segment of the population.

Historians will study events in countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Australia in an effort to understand why and how they succeeded in managing the pandemic and its economic consequences so much better than most of the rest of the democratic world. What did they know or do that the others did not?

From a contemporary viewpoint, the simple answer seems to be that the governments of these countries, notwithstanding significant cultural differences, followed the advice of the medical, scientific and economic experts and their respective populations had sufficient self discipline to comply with that advice.

In an Australian context, it seems we collectively are more willing to put our trust in governments at a time of crisis than people in, say, the USA or UK or France. This is despite our supposedly ingrained anti-authoritarianism and ‘she’ll be right’ attitude.

2020 marape maskFor Papua New Guinea, it is hard to fathom just what the government thought that it could or should do to protect the people from the impact of the pandemic.

It seems it eventually opted to do nothing and rely upon blind luck to avoid disaster. Future historians may be hampered by the lack of data upon which the PNG government based its conclusions.

It seems to me that this absence of coherent policy is further evidence, if any was needed, that PNG politics is less about governing and more about the struggle between different loosely affiliated groups of mostly self-interested individuals to acquire wealth, power and influence.

So governing in the public interest has become a subsidiary activity which is routinely disrupted or ignored due to the interminable political machinations of the type vividly on display in the last few weeks of 2020.

The evidence of history is that pandemics have impacts that are felt for a very long time after the disease has vanished or otherwise ceased to be a major problem.

An extreme example of this was first outbreak of the Black Plague (1347–50) which ushered in the end of medieval feudalism in Britain and much of Europe and simultaneously created the circumstances in which a wealthy mercantile class could rise to prominence.

This, in turn, eventually spawned the economic revolution which largely created our modern world.

Less extreme examples include the Plague of Justinian (541-549), which brought to an end the last attempts to restore the Roman Empire and so ushered in the so-called Dark Ages.

History might have taken a very different course, in Europe at least, if Justinian had succeeded in restoring the empire to its former glory.

In each of these cases, the long term effects of the pandemic were impossible to predict. This seems likely to be the case for the current pandemic, even assuming that the roll-out of vaccines is able to bring it under control.

The human and economic toll of 77 million cases and a reported 1.7 million deaths has already been significant for the world.

The geo-political impacts are also substantial, notably the emergence of China as a major power with an appetite for political and economic dominance in its self defined sphere of influence.

The weakened and divided democratic world has, so far at least, looked on in helpless impotence.

Under the malignant influence of Donald Trump and his enablers, the USA has chosen to effectively abandon its international leadership role and so far no power or group of powers has shown an ability or will to step into that role.

A Biden administration will find it very hard work to restore the confidence and trust that once allowed the USA to speak for the democratic world.

Re-creating badly fractured relations, especially with Europe, is likely to be a labour of years, not months.

2020 china pngFor Papua New Guinea, as a small and essentially powerless country, the next few years look destined to be very difficult indeed.

PNG will find itself between the proverbial rock and a hard place as China seeks to increase influence and democratic countries like Australia seek to prevent it from doing so.

With deft diplomacy PNG may even succeed in benefiting from this competition, but it is going to take a level of judgement and sophistication in international affairs so far not much in evidence, at least at a political level.

PNG also will have to confront significant internal problems, notably Bougainville’s expressed desire for independence.

To refuse Bougainville’s demands seems likely to provoke serious unrest if not the resumption of civil war. To acquiesce may well stimulate similar demands for autonomy from other disgruntled provinces.

Whoever is in power, there is no easy answer to this problem. The preferred policy until now has been prevarication, obfuscation and delay.

It seems that the new Bougainville president, Ishmael Toroama, is determined to push the issue harder than his predecessor John Momis.

Eventually a decision may be forced by circumstances beyond political control. This is usually the way things work with intractable political problems.

So, as we all bid adieu to a dismal 2020, the future seems more likely than not to be fraught with further difficulties even as Covid-19 fades (we hope) into the background as just another infectious disease.


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Bernard Corden

A recent article from Thomas Klikauer and Nadine Campbell at Counterpunch provides further discussion covering The New Corporation:

There are also some more recent clips from Juice Media:

Chips Mackellar

I agree Phil, and Chris you mentioned that PNG could face problems from China's expanding influence.

These problems will be miniscule compared to the problems Australia will face from Chinese expanded influence in PNG.

Remember the item on the Chinese fishing project for Daru published here in Attitude on 28 November this year?

Next to Daru is Bristow Island, three times the size of Daru but uninhabited because it is an island of mud and mangroves. But what's the betting that China will want to lease Bristow to establish its fishing base there?

No problem to reclaim Bristow just as China has reclaimed and built airstrips and bases on the Spratley Islands in the South China Sea.

Then considering the confused sea boundaries between Australia and PNG what's the possibility that the Chinese fishing boats won't overfish the PNG quota or encroach into Australian waters?

A nice sort of confrontation with China that would be. And considering the chronic health problems in the Western Province, how about a friendly visit from the Chinese Navy Hospital Ship "Peace Ark" which is no stranger to PNG waters.

Imagine if she 'strayed by mistake' into Australian waters, would the RAN shoot up an unarmed hospital ship? Not likely.

What if the ship were to extend its 'good will' and hospital services to the Australian islands of the Torres Strait? Would the RAN shoot then? Don't think so.

So what we would be stuck with would be an encroaching Chinese influence into Australia which we could never contain. Nice thought for the future.

Philip Fitzpatrick

As 2020 draws to a close confusion and trepidation seem to be the major emotions people the world over are feeling.

The confusion stems from the uncertainty about how to interpret what appear to be existential threats going into 2021 and beyond.

They include the coronavirus pandemic, which appears to be mutating and becoming more contagious and which may not be as susceptible to the various vaccines so far developed as originally thought.

The stealth and cunning with which it seems to be progressing will also ensure that it remains a deadly spectre throughout 2021 at least.

Also on people’s minds is climate change, which appears to be rapidly accelerating and creating unforeseen and unpleasant consequences.

The US president-elect has vowed to tackle it head on as a matter of urgency but it’s going to be an uphill battle for quite a while. In contrast the federal government in Australia still refuses to take the matter seriously.

Added to these are the economic and geopolitical threats posed by a newly assertive China that could end in very unpleasant global confrontations.

The China situation confuses everyone because nobody knows where it is going, it is an inscrutable problem.

All of these potentially catastrophic developments are likely to ensue during a time when our leaders are either in denial or muddling along ineffectively or without a real clue about what to do.

At best we are going to stumble into 2021 looking like people caught in the glare of an oncoming train.

Any sense of optimism will be extremely difficult to sustain if real steps are not taken to tackle these and other threats that confront us.

Pessimism and the feelings of despair that usually accompany such situations can be extremely detrimental and a significant drag to positive progress.

Despite all of the statistics, good and bad, people make judgements based on their lived experience, sometimes known as the ‘felt economy’.

Consider, for instance, the 70 million plus confused and ill-informed people in the USA who recently voted for the narcissistic and chaotic Donald Trump.

If they continue to live in ignorance and despair their numbers are likely to swell rather than diminish and they could elect another or even worse president in four years’ time.

A similar thing could happen in Australia if the rednecks in central and northern Queensland cannot be convinced that their future lies elsewhere than fossil fuels.

They need to be able to see the viable alternatives and know that the government is backing them in the transition.

Our current opportunistic and populist prime minister unfortunately seems to be enamoured of the conservative redneck view and this doesn’t inspire confidence in any meaningful change occurring.

With his opposite number seemingly paddling in his wake the signs do not bode well for Australia in 2021.

Apart from the issues related to the corona virus and climate change the danger for Papua New Guinea is becoming a pawn in the spat between Australia and China.

This is particularly pertinent because of Prime Minister James Marape’s stated desire to control resource development in his country.

China now requires its trade partners to ‘respect’ the way it does business. Australia thinks this translates as obsequiousness and is kicking back.

China may very well think that moving into Papua New Guinea, right on Australia’s doorstep, could be a means of further goading Australia.

Papua New Guinea may find itself being offered enhanced assistance from China with a sting in the tail for Australia.

Such offers will have to be carefully considered, particularly as they may impact on the relationship with Australia as their biggest aid donor.

Perhaps one of the most significant things 2020 has taught us is that neo-capitalism is incompatible with the welfare of the people and democracy in general.

It is most disconcerting to see how the virus has revealed how cheaply life is considered by many in positions of power.

The speed with which the Australian and other sensible governments temporarily abandoned its free market ideology as the corona virus hit was salutary and ample evidence that their belief in its efficacy was false except insofar as it benefitted their wealthy friends and donors.

Elsewhere, particularly in the USA, corporations used the pandemic to increase their profits, some of them to obscene levels. Since the start of the pandemic 651 American billionaires have gained a stunning trillion dollars’ worth of new wealth.

The signs are already there that the Australian government plans to revert back to type. Whether it can survive on that basis will be interesting to see.

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