ON MACRON’S ELECTION POLICY LAUNCH

Fascinating, no? Given the fast approach of the federal election in Australia. Considering the impact French President Emmanuel Macron, standing for re-election himself in three weeks, has had on Australian politics in the past six months.

Seldom does foreign affairs have much bearing on domestic politics. Unless there’s been some kind of major embarrassment or breakdown. When Macron said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison lied to him over the dumped $90 billion contract to build submarines with the French — which the PM denied — Australian politics shifted in a stroke, from the argy-bargy of the parliamentary bear pit, to deeper issues of ethics, reputation and character.

But there was further Australian resonance watching Macron, 44, roll out his policy program last week. Like Morrison, Macron must convince voters to re-elect him — why? To do what? Like Opposition leader Anthony Albanese, Macron is of the party political left originally and needs to attract the conservative electorate to win. (Macron was a Socialist Party Finance Minister before setting up his centrist En Marche party in 2016.)

Macron’s policy launch went for almost four hours, the President using very few notes or talking points in front of 320 media. Some 90 minutes of exposé was followed by two-and-a-half hours of rigorous Q&A with reporters. “There must be substance,” he said at one point, the room beginning to flag. “We’re talking about the next five years.”

According to opinion-polling, a second five-year term is highly likely. Macron’s de facto European leadership since Russia invaded Ukraine, at the head of the only real European nuclear and military power, has made him a clear favourite to win after two rounds of voting on April 10 and 24. At 30% of voting intentions currently, he’s 12-15% ahead of his nearest rival, Far Right stalwart, Marine Le Pen.

Macron won in 2017 pitching himself as “Neither of the Left or Right”, turning on the rhetorical line: “At the same time”. It’s still essentially his pitch in 2022.  To fight inequality “at the root”, at the same time as embracing economic liberalism. To raise the retirement age to 65, alongside a 50% hike in child support for single mothers. To combat discrimination in companies via a system of “testing” for firms with 5000 employees or more. To strengthen France’s independence, notably in defence and in energy, by rebooting France’s reliance on nuclear power. At the same time as boosting renewables.

For critics, Macron’s would-be to-ing and fro-ing makes him an illegible knit of contradictions. And a soulless, globalist polyglot, to boot. He was born and raised until the age of 16 in Amiens, the principal city of ‘Australian France’, about a half-hour’s drive from Villers-Bretonneux in the Somme. But he’s not considered anchored there, has no established political base there or made any real attempt to ‘localise’ his image.

Of the policy launch, right-wing Le Figaro newspaper was impressed by the minutiae, by Macron’s phenomenal grasp of detail. But his method in fact reflected the kind of advice often given to foreign negotiators when they work with the French: make the big picture your emphasis.

“In France, preparation means, above all, having command of a coherent argument founded on faultless logic,” according to German management consultant, Sergey Frank. “Avoid the hard-sell and any marketing gimmicks. Instead, your presentation should be sober, well-founded and rigorous”.

One wonders at the rigour of Macron’s nuclear program, however, based on the construction of six nuclear reactors with a further eight under study, even though the first of the EPR next generation concrete cathedrals, is ten years over schedule and a staggering 10 billion euros over budget.

One wonders, too, at the twists and turns that led Macron to say Morrison lied to him over the subs, and the suitability of the Prime Minister’s subsequent approach: “I’m not going to cop sledging,” the PM retorted.

But the French president may not, in fact, have been much offended. Beyond the idea that Morrison was not happy, Macron may well have asked himself — or advisers — about the meaning of such a vernacular Australian phrase as, ‘copping a sledging’. One translation motor suggests, “not to go sledding”. Perplexing for Macron, perhaps, given that he’s known to enjoy winter holiday skiing on the slopes.

ON ‘MOVING ON’ FROM THE SUBS

Even the French have “moved on” from the subs, according to Australia’s Defence Minister Peter Dutton, speaking on the ABC’s 7.30 program recently. Except that there’s nothing much to suggest that the French actually have.

France’s leading Sunday newspaper reported on 20 February that, “relations between France and Australia have not improved since the conclusion of the famous (AUKUS) pact last year”. Quoted, a French presidential spokesperson said: “In substance, we are still waiting for details on the partnership that the Australians want to maintain with us.”

Five months after the Morrison government scrapped the $90 billion French submarine deal in favour of American nuclear-powered boats, “no serious proposal from them (the Australian government) has been made,” the Elysée spokesperson told Le Journal du Dimanche.

Publication of the article has coincided with Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s visit to Paris today for an Indo-Pacific Ministerial forum involving more than 30 European and Indo-Pacific Foreign Ministers. At the time of writing, no meeting between Minister Payne and her French counterpart, Jean Yves Le Drian, had been scheduled.

It is not, in fact, as Dutton suggested, the Franco-Australian but the Franco-American relationship that has ‘moved on’ — that has, “found its feet again”, to quote a Le Monde editorial about French president Emmanuel Macron’s contact with US president Joe Biden over Ukraine in recent weeks.

And if the US and France have ‘moved on’, it’s at least in part because the Americans have adopted a resolutely conciliatory approach. In a live interview on prime-time French television shortly after the AUKUS announcement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged (speaking in French) an error of appreciation.  “We could have, and we should have,” he said, “done better in terms of communication.” President Biden struck a similar tone seated with Macron in the margins of the last G20 meeting. “Clumsy”, was the treatment meted out to France, he said, with “not … a lot of grace”.

So, unlike the Prime Minister of Australia, the de facto leader of the Western world, sought to make honourable amends by publicly regretting a patent lack of consultation with the French.

But not only not the words, not the actions, either.  Alongside ‘no serious Australian proposal’, the US has compromised by at least recognising that a strong European defence posture need not be a threat to US dominance — may even complement it — and by pledging to look at new ways of acting in a more co-ordinated manner in the Indo-Pacific.

On that last point, a more ambitious and creative Australia, might have sought to play a brokering role in a new era of Indo-Pacific co-ordination, an alliance of democracies in the face of autocracy. A beachhead of US support, Australia has a special knowledge of the Indo-Pacific, as do the Europeans for varying reasons of history and culture: the Dutch of Indonesia; the French of Laos and Cambodia; the British of Malaysia and so on.

Instead, we’ve done our bit to disaggregate the Western alliance, creating confusion among allies while working as if seeking to cast ourselves to the geopolitical sidelines in our own region.

Two major French dailies (including Le Monde) have recently drawn on the US formula in 2003, when France, Germany and Russia refused to back the American invasion of Iraq. Accredited to former US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, the maxim was that the US would, “Punish France, ignore Germany and pardon Russia.” Macron in the face of the the subs fracas and AUKUS would: “Punish the UK, pardon the US and ignore Australia”.

Macron, who said Morrison lied to him about the subs deal — which the Prime Minister flatly denied — is favourite to win the French presidential election in April. If he doesn’t, the leading opposition candidates come from either a more obviously nationalist mainstream right, or what might be called, a hard-line Trumpian populist-nationalist right. Their indignity about both subs and AUKUS runs at least as deep as Macron’s.

We’re still a long way off “moving on” from the subs.

On Australia and coal

Coal is the energy source that generates by far the most CO2, about 30% of global carbon dioxide emissions, with coal-fired power plants the premier culprit. We all basically know this, because climate scientists have been saying it for decades.

And yet rich, coal-fired Australia — coal accounts for about 75% of Australia’s electricity generation — has refused at the COP26 environment summit in Glasgow to sign an agreement with 40 countries to phase out the dirtiest fuel.

And just as international interest in that decision was beginning to fade, with COP26 and attendant media stomping off to consider other environmental issues, Australia’s Resources Minister Keith Pitt told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that Australia was prepared to keep selling its coal to whomever would buy. And to hell, he seemed to say, with the environmental consequences.

“We have said very clearly we are not closing coal mines and we are not closing coal-fired power stations,” the Minister said.  “We will continue to have markets for decades into the future. And if they’re buying … well, we are selling”.

The German national broadcaster, French daily Le Monde and numerous other world media carried the story within hours.

It bears repeating: the truth about coal — the coal truth, to borrow the title of David Ritter’s book a few years ago — is that it’s shockingly bad for the environment and human health and almost 90% of it according to a recent study in Nature, ought to just stay in the ground.

For Australia, the world’s sunniest continent and one of the windiest, there’s no earthly reason why the straight-forward replacement technologies of solar and wind can’t be more rigorously adopted through large-scale investment, especially when considerable momentum already exists. An energising bright spot on the generally gloomy climate change horizon, is that the cost of these job-creating technologies has plummeted in even the past five to 10 years.

The International Energy Agency’s tome-like World Energy Outlook – or “WEO”, a sectoral reference – reported last year that solar power has become, “the cheapest electricity in history”.

And yet, just days after Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced his do-little “Australian Way” to net zero emissions by 2050, using unspecified “technology breakthroughs” — with nothing new mapped out for the critical years to 2030 — the British Prime Minister, European Commission and the United Nations all said that coal must rapidly exit the energy system if the world is to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Out with coal, says the COP26 agreement: for rich countries by the 2030s; for developing countries by the 2040s.

Meantime, Morrison’s cursory COP26 speech turned on an erroneous tale-teller’s gloat about Australia cutting CO2 emissions, when its total per capita greenhouse gas emissions are one of the highest in the world and some three times the international average.

According to Berlin-based Climate Analytics, Australia’s per capita carbon footprint, including exports, was recently nine times higher than China’s and 37 times that of India. It is also about four times higher than that of the United States (all three countries did not sign the COP26 text to phase out coal).

So, the hue of Australia’s position on climate change and coal in particular becomes clearer. Not only is Australia a major per capita contributor to climate change, and extremely exposed to climate change — as per the devastating mega-fires of 2019-20 — it also has fewer geographical and physical constraints than most countries to actually dealing with climate change. Australia ought to be ardently pro, both strong national and international actions intent on enacting solutions.

And yet the ‘coal truth’ is that Australian tax-payers subsidised the coal industry to the tune of a staggering $10.3 billion in the financial year to June 30, vastly more than the GDP of many of Australia’s ostensibly venerated regional friends, like Fiji and Vanuatu, facing existential threat from climate change.

The ‘coal truth’ is that the health impacts of coal, ranging from lung cancer and heart disease to premature death, cost Australian taxpayers an estimated $2.6 billion a year.  The ‘coal truth’ is that burning the stuff emits toxic and carcinogenic substances into the air, water and land.

A fascinating essay by former political adviser Guy Pearse described the significant role mining has played in the Australian story. But he pointed out that the “rush that never ended”, as historian Geoffrey Blainey described it, has in fact been a history of boom and bust.

Today, the ‘coal truth’ is that Australia’s mining industry employs fewer Australians than McDonald’s and that Australia’s mining companies and energy producers are majority foreign-owned, so most of the profits go offshore.

If there’s no, or little action to phase out coal, the planetary bell that tolls may be for an ecological endgame at the bleakest end of what statisticians call, a “probability distribution of outcomes”. Climate Economics and Policy Centre director professor Frank Jotzo said last week, that a “cascading effect of climatic impacts” could mean, say, locking in El Niño, eventually making great tracts of south-eastern Australia virtually uninhabitable. The story then would be one of an Australian, not to say planetary nightmare, with no easy escape.

On Australia’s Covid faux-pas

The phrase ‘everything is relative’ has perhaps never meant more than in the Time of Corona. But watching from Europe, one wonders how Australia — an island continent with an excellent health and hospital system — got itself into such paroxysm over coronavirus.

You’d think our unique circumstances would make us both more aware of those circumstances, and due to them, better able to deal with the versions of the problems the rest of the world faces when finally they arrive Down Under. Alas, no.

It’s not been all bad. Australia’s controversial no-Covid strategy may look ill-adapted now but for a long time it appeared, from Germany at least, coherent and consequential. The virus could be extinguished in the Australian context, it seemed, so why not seek to extinguish it?

A paper by a group of German specialists via the IFO think-tank in Munich, applauded Melbourne’s short, sharp lockdowns for their “mobilising objective” of date-based time-frames. As much of Europe staggered through a seemingly endless swirl of floating lockdowns with no dates attached, the Australian strategy was envied for what it achieved, and for the fact that it could be tried. It could not be tried in Germany, sharing borders with nine other countries, or say, France or little Austria, sharing borders with eight.

But border control is one area where Australian policy has come to look highly culpable. Why do we make such a meal of it (when it comes to boat people, too), despite sharing borders with no other country? (Or perversely, is that the reason?) With Covid, as with illegal immigration, the ‘tyranny of distance’ ought to make controlling borders easier because harder to get to and cross. Alas, no.

Instead of reasoning and innovating, given those natural advantages, our tendency is to shut the place down, treating people like, well, sheep, even when fully vaccinated or recovered. The authorities believe, not entirely erroneously, they’ll be blamed whatever happens, so better to take the easy option of boarding up the economy and putting the stoppers on the tens of thousands of Australians trying to come home — many no doubt double-jabbed. It’s the policy equal of clamping your eyes shut and blocking your ears.

Based in Munich but traveling regularly to France, my Franco-German wife and Paris-born children, 14 and 12, are fully vaccinated, the kids getting a second shot on August 22. My wife and I have the “European Union Digital Vaccination Certificate” in our phones. Depending on our activities, we may also require an antigen test within 48 hours of departing Germany, conducted in an orderly fashion at a Munich pharmacy. If we’re asked for proof of vaccination by a train conductor or at hotel reception in France, we simply show the digital pass on our phones.

The approach, and the logic behind the approach, doesn’t feel like Big Brother — or ‘invasive’ or ‘penal’ or ‘military’. ‘Administrative’ might be a better word. Social distancing and mask-wearing also remain de rigeur,
FFP2 surgical masks only in Munich.

But perhaps France is the best European example when it comes to the vaccination or “health pass”. When President Emmanuel Macron announced the latter in mid-July, French citizens made 1.7 million vaccination appointments in less than a day. Almost 800,000 people showed up for a jab in the same 24 hours. The fourth wave of the virus was thus broken, the economic recovery, à priori, saved.

In Australia, the rhetorical not to say physical violence at the margins over lockdown, is hard to fathom. Lockdowns stop us from living normal lives, but for the reasons we know.

If I’m right and I’ll be charitable, the discontent in Australia is over curbs on freedom when there is so little Covid circulating in the Australian air. Yet to churn the air is to spread the virus that’s there, running it with ever-greater efficiency into the lungs of one’s cohorts on the front-line. Protests about curbs on freedoms ultimately serve to put further curbs on those freedoms, the more limited restrictions on which, one was protesting in the first place.

The professional protesters and “plandemic” conspirators notwithstanding, the admittedly fragile European experience seems to suggest that it’s better to deal with anti-vaxxers by arguing health care and security, the prevention of risk to colleagues, friends and family, than stigmatise people who are fearful or otherwise reticent about getting the jab.

In France and Germany, the predominant concern has moved to the possibility of new variants emerging in areas where vaccination rates are low or preventive measures like masking and social distancing are not, or no longer, applied.

The cast of pronouncements by leaders and specialists has become the necessity of adapting and anticipating. Which presupposes taking hands off eyes and ears, to see, listen and learn, wherever possible, from what has happened elsewhere.

COVID-19: Principled Europe’s Vaccine Rollout Flawed but Instructive

An excess of caution? The dead weight of bureaucracy? The purported straitjacket of ‘solidarity’? A rash of fairly spiteful claims have been levelled against the Old Continent on why it has done such a laggardly job of vaccinating its population against coronavirus.

On Germany, coronavirus and the vaccination “debacle”

What’s gone so awry in Germany? After emerging relatively unscathed from the coronavirus first wave, Europe’s heavy-weight centrist democracy has been devastated by the crush of the second. Amid what some sections of the national media have dubbed a vaccination “debacle”, chancellor Angela Merkel says that the third wave of the virus has begun.

The sense of unease is palpable, the political class on tenterhooks in the midst of a regional electoral cycle before national polls in six months. Measures to slowly open the economy after more than three months of hard lockdown, were forestalled this week, because the figures have started to rise dramatically again.

For the second year running, Easter church services will be virtual. Holiday gatherings will be a maximum of two families and no more than five people in total. Plans to resume outdoor restaurant dining, theatres and sporting venues in regions with low infections rates have been shelved.

Schools are an anxiety-generating mish-mash of stop-start open and closed.

By certain measures Germany continues to fare better than its neighbours — placing 40th on a list of 46 countries by case numbers per 100,000 population, for example. But the base line reality, not to say public perception here, is that a significant early advantage in the fight against the pandemic has been squandered.

German start-up BioNTech devised the world’s first coronavirus vaccine, but Germany couldn’t use it while waiting, like a prisoner to solidarity, for European Union approval. Then there were doubts about the effectiveness of the British-Swedish AstraZeneca jab for recipients 65-years and older. Today, 55% of new coronavirus cases in Germany are the faster spreading British variant — the main reason behind Merkel’s alarming ‘third wave’ pronouncement.

Less than 7% of Germans have received a first Covid-19 vaccine shot (in the UK, the figure is 33%), with a strict, overly complex roll-out based on priority groupings getting the blame. People are reporting long telephone waiting times to make appointments at special vaccine centres. And General Practitioners, to their chagrin and rising anger, are not yet allowed to vaccinate against Covid-19.

“We are ready,” said German Medical Association president, Ulrich Weigeldt. “We vaccinate 25 million people against influenza every year. We have the expertise to administer all three licensed vaccines in our practices. And not … when the bureaucracy has finally faced up to reality, but immediately, on a large scale and across the country.”

Things began to unravel in Germany in late September. Deftly juggling statistics, Merkel warned that the daily case load would triple to 19,200 by Christmas, only to be howled down by the state premiers of Saxony and Thuringia, among other dissident voices, for causing unnecessary worry, “hysteria” even, in local populations.

‘Lockdown light’ was the result, until mid-December when, amid spiralling numbers, a hard lockdown was called. By then the system of track-and-trace, which worked so successfully through local authorities in the first wave, had been overwhelmed.  “It was she who was right, and I who was wrong”, said far-left Thuringia premier, Bodo Ramelow. But by then it was too late. In December, a staggering 16,000 Germans died of coronavirus, more than for the whole period March to November.

There were other problems. In the “Summer of Carelessness”, to quote Georg Mascolo writing in Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, “there was not enough support given to nursing and old people’s homes”; a coronavirus app “did not become the moon landing the chancellor’s office promised,” and the far-right Alternative for Deutschland, decrying Merkel’s “coronavirus dictatorship”, put a block (eventually lifted) on legislation designed to free her hand. The result? “In the biggest crisis of her career, Merkel could not do as she wanted”.

At the DIW think tank in Berlin, Holger Schäfer has said that German authorities “rested on their laurels a little” in the (northern) Summer. “We did not prepare for the second wave that came in the autumn. (We did not) develop a concept that would hold — on re-opening schools, on testing, on vaccination. We thought that we would do well again, and found ourselves rather powerless when the second wave struck”.

Beyond the shocking loss of life — as if that weren’t enough — it matters that Germany has faltered in the face of the crisis, despite or perhaps because of, its moderate federalist compromise culture. Democracy in Europe is under pressure.

Increasingly illiberal governments in Hungary and Poland have undermined the primacy of elections; compromised the system of justice and unleashed an exultant brand of nationalism.

In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, before gambling — thus far successfully, thankfully, on an all-out vaccine solution — underestimated the danger of Covid-19 and resolutely sponsored a policy of herd immunity, that may have cost lives. The UK’s vaccine record looks less impressive, however, when the percentages describe not just one but two doses, or “full vaccination”: Germany, 3.2%; UK 1.9% of the total population.

Germans still have higher levels of confidence in their government and institutions than the French, British and Italians, according to a recent survey by the OpinionWay pollster in Paris. But in the political, economic and psychological drama of the pandemic (and eventual aftermath), a total of six regional polls before 26 September national elections — without Merkel, stepping down after 16 years as chancellor — look decidedly risky.

If the ruling CDU-CSU can’t fix the vaccine “debacle”, as an editorial in leading newsweekly Der Spiegel described it, whoever her successor finally is may well be drawn and quartered at the ballot box.

The broader canvas was highlighted in a world democratic score card published by The Economist Intelligence Unit last month. There are just 23 bona fide democracies still standing on the planet, while authoritarian and pseudo-democratic hybrid regimes now govern more than half of humanity. Just over 8 percent of the world’s population still live in democracy, the EIU concluded, and democratic freedoms are being eroded, including in Europe.

On Coronavirus demos, Trump, and hyenas in Lockdown

A dip into the doldrums, followed by hysterical laughing, like a hyena, with friends on a Party App — or with the kids. So it goes, or swings, in the time of coronavirus. When not meeting the social media “invasion of imbeciles”, to use Umberto Eco’s memorable phrase, I’m watching too much television news.

Fancy the clunk-headedness of protesting the Angela Merkel Lockdown Light that’s enabled Germany to avoid the worst of the coronavirus pandemic so far. Unlike, in say, Paris or London, Munich’s major parks have never closed. Consider that Saturday protests in Stuttgart, Munich and other German cities, are against a Lockdown — as it’s lifting — that made the demos possible in the first place.

Anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists and rabble-rousers of both the far right and left, are railing against restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, as they’re assembling to freely express.

But Germany’s protests pale alongside the moral carnage we’ve seen in the US. At least Trump popping pills against medical advice — his mind on the Javel under the sink? — has made clear, if further clarity were needed, that electing him to the White House was a mightily chancy undertaking.

The pandemic has reminded us that governing is a deeply serious business, and reaffirming Trump cum November, looks more than ever like the Great Non-Solution, except for those of us still angry when better-educated, smarter, harder working and more adaptable people than us, get higher grades and better jobs, even when of the wrong sex and colour.

Observers who initially credited the US President with one or two good ideas, if not his own, must now surely be seeing those selfsame ideas as the occasional eruption of a kind of wildcat mental grasping, blissfully free of strategy or follow-up. Shock tactics, whatever the dangers, at least prevent one from talking inaudibly. And while injecting bleach was not actually Trump’s idea, he quickly became its tacit advocate once the glorious thought of it lodged like a sand worm in his ear.

Strangely re-humanising as Lockdown comes to an end, is the return to more prosaic, daily concerns — like hair-cuts for the kids. My 13 year-old’s adolescent attitude means she’s refusing to get hers lopped, though long like Rapunzel’s. Resisting my offer of a ‘bowl haircut’ — cutting around a rimmed dish normally reserved for scrambling eggs — my 11 year-old, unknowingly impersonating Johnny Ramone, accepted that his mother cut his free-form with the kitchen scissors. But the result is much the same. He now looks like a small Friar Tuck.

These days my German is good enough to venture out to a hair salon or barber. I know in advance I’ll choose the barber, at €11.50, and not the upmarket hairdresser just downstairs. Like any good liberal, I seek to integrate: in Germany, I won’t spend the money I’ve got; in France for many years, I’d readily spend the money I didn’t have — a kind of metaphor for the way government and administration work in both countries.

Well, if one is thickening at the gills, hair getting long and carpet-like in a stretch at the back, one can look in profile like the top of a ham, thigh with a face on it, or hyena. Initially I was oblivious, because a second mirror is needed to see oneself from the side and my son, when still a Ramone, shattered it performing shrilly in the back bathroom. In fact, he loves opera, sings with the kids’ choir of the subsidised Volksoper here. Would never have heard of the Ramones — though, as if by coincidence, is quasi-obsessed with hyenas.

The obsession began with the marauding spotted furry ones in the cartoon version of The Lion King. But his sympathy for cretinous characters, coercive politicians notwithstanding, started with the expectorating Gaston, his feet up on the table in Beauty and the Beast; then haggard Cruella in 101 Dalmations, and Cinderella’s ugly sisters (who else knows their names in three languages?) — who by the way, like hyenas, are an intensely matriarchal society.

Anyway, the hyena interest has broadened. Friends who visit can be asked to watch hyena documentaries on You Tube (decline, and he goes into a silent funk). Or perhaps now to join a planned first post-Lockdown trip an hour’s drive from here to Augsburg, where he has discovered (oh no!), that the zoo has hyenas.

If I don’t get my hair cut before then, they may greet me as a shoulderless one of their own.

Rain has come to Australia. But we must remember the fires

After the apocalyptic scenes of bushfires in Australia – more evidence, according to one historian, we’ve entered the Pyrocene, the “Age of Fire” – flash flooding has come to parts of the country’s east and west coasts. Byron Bay, a popular holiday destination about 750 kilometres north of Sydney, got almost 300 millimetres of rain in 24 hours.