Breivik case shows ‘fine line between bad and mad’

By Arlie Loughnan, University of Sydney

One of the most high profile court decisions on “madness” and crime has concluded.

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In a unanimous decision, the Oslo District Court in Norway has convicted Anders Behring Breivik of the murder of 77 people in the streets of central Oslo and on the island of Utoya in July 2011.

As is well-known, Breivik faced trial for multiple counts of murder, following gun and bomb attacks resulting in mass killing of adults and children. Since his apprehension, Breivik has admitted planning and carrying out the killings, and is on record as saying that they were necessary to start a revolution aimed at preventing Norway from accepting further numbers of immigrants.

Breivik’s conviction was based on a finding that he was sane at the time of the killings. In a strange twist, the court’s verdict is a victory for the defence; they had been instructed by their client Breivik to argue that he was sane. The prosecution had argued that Breivik was insane.

The finding that Breivik was sane and the conviction means that he can be punished and he has been sentenced to 21 years in prison. It is possible that Breivik will be detained beyond that period, under a regime of preventative detention. This means Breivik may never be released. The seriousness of Breivik’s offences and the enormous harm they have caused seems to indicate that Breivik’s conviction and sentence will be well-received in Norway.

The issue in Breivik’s trial was whether he was criminally responsible for the killings. If he was insane at the time of killings, he was not criminally responsible. Criminal responsibility concerns the capacities of the accused. If an accused lacks the necessary capacities, he or she cannot be called to account for his or her actions in the context of a criminal trial.

The question of criminal responsibility goes beyond the issue of liability for an offence: it addresses the issue of whether the accused is someone to whom the criminal law speaks. Criminal responsibility lies at the heart of our criminal justice system.

It prompts us to where the line between “madness” and “badness” lies and to think about how to respond to offenders whose criminal responsibility is at issue.

Media reports indicate that Brievik has been examined by a total of 18 medical experts. Some of these experts concluded that he met the legal test of insanity, which, in Norway, requires that he acted under the influence of psychosis at the time of the crime. But Breivik himself disputed this diagnosis, claiming it is part of an attempt to silence him and stymie his message about “saving” Norway. Other medical assessments concluded Breivik was sane at the time of the offences, his actions motivated by extremist ideology not mental illness. The judges reached the same conclusion.

This difference of opinion among expert should not surprise us. Not only is the process of diagnosing a mental disorder complex, determining whether a disorder had a relevant effect on an individual at a specific point in time, is notoriously difficult. At what point, if any, does ideologically-driven fanaticism become “madness”?

It is tempting to think that Breivik’s crimes were so extreme that he had to be “mad”. How could he think he was performing a “duty” to his country, that such violence was “necessary”? According to this logic, the criminal acts tell us everything we need to know. And criminal responsibility appears to be a trade off between the severity of someone’s mental incapacity and the magnitude of harm resulting from their offence.

But, as a matter of law, in our system, responsibility and harm are separate matters. If an individual is not criminally responsible, the issue of the harm that their actions have caused must be dealt with by means other than punishment. Indeed, treatment for the relevant mental condition may be the most appropriate response when an individual is not criminally responsible.

If this seems too lenient, we must recall that it represents the flipside of a criminal justice system that works on the assumption that everyone is an independent agent, and, in a liberal democratic system, this assumption protects us from excessive paternalism on the part of the state. Our system requires that each individual accused of crime be respected as an autonomous subject of the law.

We must also recall that, even if an individual is not criminally responsible, legal options remain open. If Breivik had been found to be insane at the time of the killings, and not convicted of the offences with which he was charged, he could have been made the subject of a court order, which, in his case, would have seen him detained in a secure psychiatric unit inside a prison. This form of detention could have been just as long as any prison term.

If he had been tried here, and found not to be criminally responsible, Breivik could have been subject to detention – perhaps even indefinitely. But, in that case, our legal system’s response is not so much a moral condemnation of blameworthy conduct, but more forward-looking action aimed at avoiding further harm – to the individual and others – in the future.

The crucial difference with this response is that it is not based on the responsible subject otherwise at the heart of criminal law and process.

Arlie Loughnan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.


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Nuclear power ‘major issue’ in Japan poll

The future of nuclear power is shaping up as the major issue on voters’ minds ahead of national elections in Japan this week.

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It’s been just over 18 months since the tsunami and earthquake that killed thousands of people and triggered the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

But even though nuclear power production is something many want stopped, the party on track to win the poll this Sunday is in favour of keeping the reactors.

Every Friday in front of the Japanese Prime Minister’s residence and Parliament, anti-nuclear protesters turn up to make their voices heard.

Some want whoever wins this Sunday’s election to close down the nuclear power plants immediately – others are worried about the economy.

“They say it’s not something that you can stop quickly. So while they say that you can’t stop it quickly, if you don’t plan on stopping it immediately then it just keeps getting put off. So I plan on supporting a party that says they will stop them immediately.”// “The economy is cooling down a bit. So on top of that if you then go and stop all the nuclear reactors then the economy will get even worse, so there’s the worry that it’s hard to stop all of a sudden.”

COMPLEX POLITICAL LANDSCAPE

This election will see around 1,500 candidates fielded by 12 parties or standing as independents campaign for the 480 seats in the lower house of parliament.

The two main parties are the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, the DPJ, and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party or LDP.

Opinion polls have suggested the LDP is on course to return to government as the biggest party, but not with an outright majority.

Its leader, Shinzo Abe, has been Prime Minister before – for one year between 2006 and 2007.

On the sensitive issue of nuclear power, Shinzo Abe told a recent debate audience it’s not as simple as shutting down the plants.

“Assume that places like China continue with nuclear power, and only Japan stops. Then at that point if there’s an accident would Japan really be all right? Or for instance how to deal with spent nuclear fuel, this is a world-wide issue. In order for us to contribute to those issues, it’s necessary to preserve those with knowledge in Japan as well”.

Rikki Kersten is a former Australian diplomat in Japan and now a Professor of Modern Japanese Politics at the Australian National University.

She says the current ruling party, the DPJ, and the minor parties such as the Japan Future Party and Japan Restoration Party are all talking about phasing out nuclear energy.

But not the LDP.

“Only the LDP talks about consulting the experts before deciding what to do. But the electorate is unequivocally in favour of eliminating nuclear energy from Japan’s energy mix. I think what we’re going to see in this election is that parties are going to recognise the popular appeal of this platform, but that does not mean that after the election we are going to see a realisation of that policy.”

One prominent anti-nuclear voice is former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who was leader of the DPJ at the time of the Fukushima disaster.

“If the Liberal Democratic Party does indeed manage to get a majority again and looks to really start restarting reactors again and make things as they were then that’s indeed something that I’d want to look to prevent or stop.”

Sophia University Associate Professor of political science Koiichi Nakano says the pro-nuclear camp – including the LDP, business groups and power companies – don’t want to debate the issue.

“They don’t particularly want to have a debate about that. They rather want to shelve the issue, pretend nothing much happened. And they won’t come out saying we are pro-nuclear, let’s continue. But instead they’ll say something like let’s wait for three year.”

Elsewhere on the campaign trail, the long-running dispute between China and Japan over a group of islands in the East China Sea has also featured in the debate.

Earlier this month, four Chinese government ships sailed into the territorial waters of disputed islands, known as Senkaku in Japan, and Diayu in China.

Japan is maintaining its claim to the islands.

The current Prime Minister is the DPJ’s Yoshihiko Noda.

“In order to peacefully and safely control them over the long term, we nationalised them. However unfortunately China is reacting emotionally to this. We plan on maintaining a strong stance towards this”.

Meanwhile, a senior government minister has come under fire for saying North Korea should “waste no time” in holding its planned rocket launch so he can get on with campaigning.

North Korea’s government announced last week that it would launch a rocket before the 22nd of December.

On a visit to his constituency in Osaka, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said government duties were limiting his time to campaign.

Asked by reporters when he would come home again to put his campaign in full swing, he replied that it would depend on when the North Korean missile goes up.

He went on to say, “It will be great if they waste no time and (just) send it up (soon).”

Opposition parties have taken advantage of his apparent gaffe to step up their attack on the DPJ, demanding Mr Fujimura’s resignation.

Rikki Kersten from the ANU says sensitive issues like this make the final election result impossible to predict.

“There’s a lot going on that causes the electorate to be perplexed. I think that things like the firing of the missile by the DPRK (North Korea), any developments over the Senkaku islands with China. These sorts of things at the last minute could swing the electorate in a particular direction”.


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Central African rebels near on capital

The rebels, who already have control of four other regional capitals in the centre and north of the country, faced no resistance as they entered the town of Sibut around 150 kilometres (95 miles) from Bangui, a military official told AFP.

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The streets of Bangui were deserted on Saturday night, according to an AFP journalist, after a curfew was imposed from 7:00 pm to 5:00 am (1800 GMT to 0400 GMT).

Many shops were being guarded by men armed with machetes. “The bosses fear looting so they are paying guards,” said one guard.

Officials on both sides said the rebels of the so-called Seleka coalition had also repelled army soldiers trying to recapture Bambari, a former military stronghold in the landlocked country, one of the world’s poorest despite vast mineral wealth.

A military official described “extremely violent” fighting over the town, with detonations and heavy weapons fire audible to witnesses some 60 kilometres away.

The rebel advance on Sibut, also a base for Chadian soldiers stationed in the country, forced government forces and their allies to retreat to Damara, 75 kilometres from Bangui and the last major town on the road to the southwestern capital.

“The rebels entered Sibut. There was no fighting, the Central African Armed Forces (FACA) stationed there and the Chadian troops left the town last night (Friday) for Damara,” the military official told AFP.

Djouma Narkoya, a Seleka leader, claimed that the army suffered “losses” in the fighting for Bambari, while the rebel side had “one killed and three injured” in the fighting.

“We are continuing to progress,” he added.

Sibut residents arriving in Bangui said they saw around 60 Chadian and Central African army vehicles converging on Damara late Friday.

One of the towns under the control of the rebels, who launched their offensive in early December, is the garrison town and key diamond mining hub of Biraosince.

Former colonial power France, meanwhile, boosted its military presence to 400 on Friday with the deployment of 150 paratroopers to Bangui airport, and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) announced reinforcements.

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault stressed again on Friday that French troops were there only to protect French and European nationals, not fight the rebels.

Regional efforts to mediate a peaceful solution in the landlocked equatorial country were at a standstill.

A day after announcing that the rebels and the government had agreed to hold unconditional peace talks and that more regional troops would head to the country, ECCAS said no dates had been set for either move.

The bloc’s foreign ministers will meet again next Thursday “and that is when they will announce a date for the meeting in (the Gabonese capital) Libreville,” ECCAS’s communications director Placide Ibouanga told AFP, referring to talks between rebels and the government.

The coalition of three rebel movements known as Seleka — or the “alliance” in the Sango language — says the government has not fulfilled the terms of peace pacts signed in 2007 and 2001, providing for disarmament and social reintegration for insurgents, including pay.

Central African President Francois Bozize, who took power in a 2003 coup, has twice been elected into office.

Bozize’s appeals for help from France and from the United States to fight the rebels have fallen on deaf ears.

Neighbouring Chad, which has helped Bozize with rebellions in 2010, earlier sent a contingent to the country, however.

In Bangui, food prices have soared, further spiking tensions and uncertainty.

“I’m afraid of the rebels coming,” said vegetable vendor Euphrasie Ngotanga in the city’s huge Sambo market. “We’re not going to sell our produce if there’s no peace. And then how we will feed our children?”

“We don’t eat properly any more,” said another vendor, Angele Bodero, with her baskets full of condiments before her. “Cassava has become more expensive, everything costs more,” she said, referring to the country’s staple food.

A bag of cassava has risen nearly 50 percent from 13,000 CFA francs to 18,000 FCFA (19.80 to 27.40 euros, $26 to $32).


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Emotional Magnussen wins 100m world title

Australian James Magnussen put a year of pain behind him as he defended his world 100m freestyle title with an emotional victory in Barcelona.

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A year on from his heartbreaking defeat in the London Olympic final, Magnussen reasserted himself as the world’s fastest man as he clocked 47.71 seconds to win Thursday’s thrilling final.

After turning for home in fifth, the 22-year-old powered home in the late stages to beat Americans James Feigen (47.82) and Nathan Adrian (47.84), the man who beat him by one one-hundredth of a second in the Olympic final.

In a surprise result, Australian teenager Cameron McEvoy (47.88) was fourth after producing a huge PB.

Magnussen revealed he was almost too drained to celebrate after what had been a humbling year.

“It was really emotional,” Magnussen said.

“That last 15 metres, I really used the last 12 months of experiences that I’ve gone through.

“I was really aggressive towards the wall and I’m just stoked that I got there.

“I’ve put the last 12 months behind me now and I consider that race the start of my preparations for Rio.”

Magnussen said he was overwhelmed with the emotion of adding a second individual title to his 2011 triumph in Shanghai.

“The last 12 months has sort of kicked me down to the kerb,” Magnussen said.

“But I’ve worked so hard and my support team’s worked so hard.

“I think it’s a great reward for all my friends and family and support team who have stuck by me through what’s been a pretty terrible twelve months.”

McEvoy, 19, was thrilled after finishing ahead of title contenders including Russian Vladamir Morozov (48.01) and Frenchman Fabien Gilot (48.33).

“That was pretty unreal, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like that before,” McEvoy said.


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Fijian play celebrates cross-cultural love

The story of love between two cultures is not an unfamiliar one.

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But ground-breaking a New Zealand theatre company blends traditional Fijian culture and the magic of theatre in a bold new way.

Masi is an extraordinary show that has captivated audiences in New Zealand and Fiji, where it was the first professional theatre show to tour there.

Now it’s in Australia for the first time.

It’s a dance of two cultures. He, a Fijian high chief from the island of Kadavu; she, the daughter of Cambridge school masters.

“It’s a piece that explores loss and memory,” Nina Nawalowalo said, the show’s artistic director and actor.

“[It’s] what represents [the] identity of who we are.”

Nawalowalo, who also appears in the play, tries to recreate her parents’ love story, based on their meeting at a chess club in Wellington in the 1950s.

The story is told without words, using the magic of theatre.

The magic, coming from Harry Potter special effects designer, British illusionist Paul Kieve, who worked on the production.

The show also includes traditional Fijian male dancing, continuing the cultural heritage of Nina’s father in a new, contemporary light.

“You know, when you are another generation and then you are not born in that country and how you connect back to something that is not so familiar,” Nawalowalo said.

“But it may be familiar in your house.”

The dancers enjoy the opportunity to share their culture in a new setting.

“We’ve never come this far with traditional dancing, I mean as far as stage show is concerned,” Master Lai said, lead choreographer for the show and Fiji’s Kabu ni Vanua Dance group.

“It’s always been done in a traditional context. But it’s a great pleasure to see it step up into theatre co-production and now it’s opened up a lot of windows and doors. So, the sky’s the limit.”

The play takes its name from the traditional cloth of the South Pacific Islands, the geometric patterns reflecting the convergence of personal lives, and narratives.

Professional masi maker Ro Miriama is from an outer village in Fiji and is now a story-teller on stage.

“I’m proud to be a masi maker,” Miriama said. “I think its a very good experience for me to show masi to the audience because this come from my village.”

“I believe that it’s a universal story because we all hold onto things when we lose people, objects, things that are close to us,” Nawalowalo said.

“And Masi is something that was in our house when we grew up, we got gifted. And so it was a natural doorway and something when I lost my Dad that connects me to Fiji.”

While her parents died without seeing the play, their story of cross-cultural love lives on, bringing new life and possibilities to Fijian culture and story-telling.


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Clint Eastwood’s Republican convention surprise

Hollywood tough guy Clint Eastwood made a bizarre cameo at the Republican convention, veering into a surreal conversation with an imaginary President Barack Obama represented by an empty chair.

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His off-color and at times rambling performance spawned an immediate debate on the Twittersphere between Republicans, who broadly loved it, and Democrats who said the 82-year-old multiple Oscar winner had clearly lost his marbles.

A raucous roar went up from the thousands of delegates as Eastwood, looking frailer than the gunslinging cowboys he portrayed in his spaghetti Western heyday, stood onstage and grilled the imaginary Obama for failing to revive a flagging economy.

“I think possibly now it may be time for somebody else to come along and solve the problem,” Eastwood said during an address in which he taunted Vice President Joe Biden and talked about the detention center at Guantanamo.

The Oscar-winning director of “Million-Dollar Baby” and star of Spaghetti Westerns like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” looked down several times at the empty chair, as if he was listening to Obama criticize Republican presidential nominee Romney, whom Eastwood has endorsed.

“He can’t do that to himself. You’re absolutely crazy!” the actor/director responded.

“You’re getting as bad as Biden. Biden is the intellect in the Democratic Party. It’s just kind of a grin with a body behind it.”

“And I thought, well closing Gitmo, why close that, we spent so much money on it. But, I thought maybe as an excuse — what do you mean shut up?” he said to laughter from the crowd.

Eastwood spoke about how he had been moved by Obama’s message of hope and change in 2008, but then grew disillusioned by failed policies and Obama’s inability to reduce the unemployment rate below eight percent.

“I think it may be time for, what do you think, maybe a businessman,” said Eastwood, referring to Romney, who became fabulously wealthy as a successful private equity investor.

“When somebody does not do the job, you’ve gotta let them go,” he said of Obama, as he then drew a finger sharply across his throat.

The awkwardness of Eastwood’s rant seemed magnified given that he was taking up a prime spot on the climactic day of the convention that nominated Romney as the challenger against Obama in the November 6 election.

But the Romney campaign insisted there was no harm, no foul.

“Judging an American icon like Clint Eastwood through a typical political lens doesn’t work,” a spokesperson for the campaign said in a statement.

“His ad-libbing was a break from all the political speeches, and the crowd enjoyed it.”

Clint’s 12-minute appearance exploded Twitter and other social media, where the fad suddenly slapped with the hashtag #Eastwooding” — in which people post photos of empty chairs — spread like wildfire.

Obama himself got into the act, tweeting “This seat’s taken” to his 19 million followers and attaching a link to a fundraising web page.

The social media commentary grew so fast, with tweets from celebrities and unknowns alike, that several websites compiled best-of lists of Eastwood remarks.

“I still like Clint Eastwood,” tweeted writer and comedian Frank Conniff (@FrankConniff).

“A crazy Republican talking to a chair is the least harm a crazy Republican has done in ages.”


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Syrian PM ‘defects to opposition’

Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab is joining the rebels in protest at the “genocide” President Bashar al-Assad is carrying out against his own people, his spokesman said, while state television reports Mr Hijab was sacked.

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“I announce my defection today (Monday) from the regime of killing and terror, and I join the ranks of the revolt,” he said in statement read by his spokesman Mohammed al-Otri on Al-Jazeera news channel from Amman.

He said his defection comes at a time “when Syria is passing through the most difficult war crimes, genocide, and barbaric killings and massacres against unarmed citizens.”

Otri said the premier was in a “safe haven” with his family.

State television reported that Deputy Prime Minister and Local Government Minister Omar Ghalawanji had been appointed caretaker premier.

“Prime Minister Riad Hijab has been dismissed,” it said in a terse report.

According to the state-owned Tishrin newspaper, Hijab presided over two meetings at the local government ministry on Sunday to discuss “measures to redevelop areas that have been cleansed of armed terrorists.”

If confirmed, Hijab’s defection would be the highest-ranking of the 17-month uprising, and a new blow to President Bashar al-Assad, who has already seen no fewer than 31 of his generals cross the border into Turkey to join the rebellion and a growing number of his ambassadors break ranks.

Hijab was a leading Sunni Muslim in Assad’s minority Alawite-dominated government. His home province of Deir Ezzor in the northeast has been one of the key battlegrounds of the conflict and seen a mounting death toll from operations by the army in recent weeks.

The 46-year-old was only appointed on June 6 following a widely boycotted May 7 parliamentary election that was hailed as a centrepiece of reform by the Assad regime but dismissed as a farce by Arab and Western governments.

An agricultural engineer by training, Mr Hijab was agriculture minister under his predecessor government Adel Safar who was appointed in April 2011, shortly after the outbreak of the uprising.

“Riad Hijab has defected from the regime,” the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman, told AFP.

Abdel Rahman said there were conflicting reports on Hijab’s current whereabouts.

“Some sources say he has arrived in Jordan, others say he was arrested before making his escape,” said Abdel Rahman.

Reports of his defection emerged as the army readied a major ground assault against rebels in commercial capital Aleppo, who say they control half of the city of some 2.7 million people.

They also came as a bomb blast rocked Syrian state television headquarters in the heart of Damascus wounding several people just two days after the army said it had seized the last rebel-held area of the capital.

The morning bombing struck management offices on the third floor of the television building in the heavily protected Omayyad district of the capital.

“It is clear that the blast was caused by an explosive device,” said Information Minister Omran al-Zoabi. “Several of our colleagues were injured, but there were no serious injuries, and no dead.”

Pro-government television channel Al-Ikhbariya, which was itself the target of a deadly attack claimed by the rebel Free Syrian Army in June, broadcast footage of Zoabi inspecting the building’s third floor.

The walls were visibly damaged, water pipes broken, and electric cables hung down from the ceiling. Blood could also be seen on some of the furniture. The broadcaster showed volunteers evacuating a wounded man.

“Syria’s television is being targeted because of its bravery,” Zoabi said. “But nothing will stop the voice of Syria.”

On June 27, gunmen armed with explosives attacked the Al-Ikhbariya offices outside Damascus killing three journalists and four security guards.

On Saturday, rebel fighters attacked the state television building in Syria’s second city, Aleppo.

The same day, the Syrian Observatory reported that state television presenter Mohammed al-Saeed had been executed following an abduction claimed by the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front.

Posted on a forum featuring the Al-Qaeda flag, Al-Nusra’s statement showed a photograph of Saeed looking frightened with his back against a wall in an unknown location.

“May this be a lesson to all those who support the regime,” it said.

In Aleppo, the army bombarded a string of rebel neighbourhoods after government security officials said that troops had completed their build-up and that a 20,000-strong force was poised for a ground assault.

A rebel commander was killed in the Salaheddin district in the southwest, and troops shelled the Palace of Justice, as well as the Marjeh and Shaar districts, the Syrian Observatory said.

A total of nine people were killed in Aleppo early on Monday, among them eight civilians, the watchdog.

A senior security official said on Sunday that the army had completed its deployment of reinforcements to Aleppo, ready for a decisive showdown.

“All the reinforcements have arrived and they are surrounding the city,” the official said. “The army is ready to launch its offensive, but is awaiting orders.”

Elsewhere in Syria, the Observatory reported another 19 deaths early Monday — 13 civilians and six rebels.


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How will we remember this election in 100 years’ time?

By Timothy Lynch, University of Melbourne

President Obama addresses a rally in Concord, New Hampshire.

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With just days to the election he looks likely to win a second term. EPA/CJ Gunther

I recommend David Malet’s excellent breakdown of what to expect on Tuesday (either side of noon on Wednesday, Australian time). I agree that it looks like Obama. He has more routes to the 270 electoral college votes than does Romney. “Mittmentum” slowed after the presidential debates. His performance in the first one remade the Governor’s campaign but did not decisively shift the maths in his direction. President Obama has an 83 per cent chance of winning, Romney only 16. These numbers have never been less than 60:40. Those holding a candle for a Romney have a very small, flickering flame.

On the basis that I have never met a poor bookie, and barring some remarkable event in the final 48 hours (including most pollsters being in error), Obama will become a two-term president. Republican-leaning editorials – which delighted in Romney’s rise in middle-October – are now written more in hope than expectation. For an example of going out on a limb see Michael Barone’s swing-state-by-swing-state estimate of a Romney victory and Janet Daley’s claim that there are Republicans out there who have been systematically hiding their voting intentions from pollsters – possible but very, very unlikely. Believing that the election is close only makes us “stupider”, said Paul Krugman.

Instead of predicting the winner and his margin – which is increasingly the preserve of a polling technocracy – we might consider how far the result matters at all. Are we reaching the end of one of the most or least important campaigns in American history? Obama’s victory four years ago was supposed to begin a transformation of US and global politics. That has not happened – at least not along the lines Obama contended. We will not remember his election as the Revolution of 2008. If anything, we are now seeing the Reality of 2012.

In the last four years the pattern of the preceding forty continued. At home and abroad, President Obama has been subject to enduring structures and realities; he has not been a key agent of their demise. For sure, his personal credentials – history, family, race, and style – altered some of the optics of the US government. It remains testament to his nation’s desire for and embrace of transformation – if not its actual capacity to so do – that within eight years of 9/11, a majority gave the presidency to the son of a Kenyan Muslim with two Arab names. “I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” He has yet to make a speech to match the power of the one from which this central claim is drawn.

But did his presidency really transcend politics as usual? I think the answer is a clear “no”. These arguments are by now well-rehearsed. Lacking executive experience (okay, except running the Harvard Law Review), Obama struggled to tame the office. His initial appointments – Rahm Emanuel for example – tried to create the illusion of toughness to cover the fact that Obama just wasn’t tough. He was/is no Lyndon Johnson. He twisted not a single Republican arm to secure passage of Obamacare. Of course, GOP intransigence played some role in this. But candidate Obama promised to restore bipartisanship if not create a “post-partisan” politics. Instead, his governing style and especially his campaigning rhetoric has become boilerplate Democratic.

If continued political competition at home was not ameliorated by the force of Obama’s story how about abroad? Was he the un-Bush of leftist (and not a few conservative) hopes? Hardly. He’s given us a competent and cheaper version of the Bush Doctrine. It is one which ends wars (in Iraq), keeps Guantanamo Bay open (because it serves a national security purpose) and kills the real bad guys (Osama bin Laden most gratifyingly).

The rogue opponents he inherited from Bush (which Bush inherited from Clinton) remain. Count them. Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela. Russia and China did not amend their national interests to reflect Obama’s experiment in soft power. They remain strategic competitors. His unilateral multilateralism – offering open hands without the requirement that fists unclench first – was no more successful than Bush’s cowboy unilateralism (and that was at best a caricature). Indeed, Obama’s Muslim war (in Libya) was waged in a smaller coalition than Bush’s (in Iraq).

A President Romney was (is) likely to be subject to similar domestic and foreign constraints. His track record in Massachusetts (essentially a one-party Democratic state) does suggest, however, a greater capacity to get things done on a bi-partisan basis. Abroad, Romney wanted a tougher version of Obama’s approach (itself, a Bush Doctrine in sepia). During the last presidential debate on foreign policy they were on the same page, differing stylistically not substantively.

So if this election does matter and will count in history it is for something other than foreign policy, national security and counter-terrorism. Where might its historical salience reside? 2012 will not stand alone. Rather, in 100 years’ time academics may well recall it as one in a series of contests – perhaps the last – that pitted against each other two contrasting notions of America’s future, though they are often misunderstood.

The first accepts that national power should be increased in proportion to the demands of fairness and equality. The second accepts the utility of such power, will extend it, but has a conscience about doing so. Ever since the 1960s redefined the relationship between citizen and state, presidents of both parties have used the federal government to realise “progress”. In the 1970s, Richard Nixon gave America the Environmental Protection Agency and institutionalised affirmative action. In the following decade, Ronald Reagan, claiming government was the problem, nevertheless increased its spending on welfare (from $106.1 billion in 1980 to $173 billion in 1988) and defence (from $325.1 billion to $456.5 billion).

The last two-term Republican, George W. Bush, spent prodigiously (on foreign wars and national education reform) all while increasing spending on welfare. It was the Democrat Bill Clinton who initiated welfare reform and balanced the budget.

So 2012 is not a battle between big and small government candidates (as Charles Krauthammer argues), between Obama’s European welfare state and Romney’s rugged individualism. Instead, it would be more accurate to see the election as another, and perhaps the last, contest between those who openly embrace the beneficence of big, expansive government and those that have a conscience about that expansion (big government conservatives) – but commit to it nonetheless.

The debt crisis facing the United States may well render 2012 the last year in which candidates could pretend that the spending patterns and expansion of government of the last forty years could continue. 2012 will presage a reality we can believe in.

Timothy Lynch does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.


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Suu Kyi to boycott Burma’s parliament

The Nobel Peace Prize winner, who spent much of the past two decades locked up by the former junta, had been set to make her debut in parliament on Monday after her party’s decisive win in by-elections earlier this month.

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But her party’s newly elected members are refusing to take the swearing-in oath that requires them to uphold the constitution, which was drawn up by the country’s former military rulers, a party spokesman said Friday.

It is the first sign of serious discord between Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and the reformist regime since April 1 by-elections that gave the former political prisoner her first-ever seat in parliament.

The authorities have rejected the NLD’s appeal to change the wording of the swearing-in oath from “safeguard” to “respect” the constitution.

The party will write to the presidential office to ask the authorities to reconsider, but a resolution to the row is unlikely in time for the opening of parliament on Monday, said party spokesman Nyan Win.

“As today is the 20th, I don’t see any possibility to go in time,” he told reporters at the party headquarters.

President Thein Sein is on a visit to Japan, where he is set to hold talks with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who is reportedly set to announce that Japan will forgive Burma’s $3.7 billion debt and resume financial assistance.

During the five day trip, which began on Friday, Thein Sein is to meet business leaders and visit power plants, as well as attend a summit of Japan and five Mekong Delta nations — Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam.

Burma, which languished for decades under a repressive junta, has announced a series of reforms since a controversial 2010 election brought a civilian government to power — albeit one with close links to the military.

The regime has freed hundreds of political prisoners, welcomed Suu Kyi’s party back into mainstream politics and signed tentative peace deals with a number of rebel groups, although fighting still rages in the far north.

Observers say the regime needs Suu Kyi in parliament to bolster the legitimacy of its political system and spur an easing of Western sanctions.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner has said one of her priorities will be to push for an amendment of the 2008 constitution, under which one quarter of the seats in parliament are reserved for unelected military officials.

The NLD secured 43 of the 44 seats it contested in this month’s elections, becoming the main opposition force in a national parliament that remains dominated by the military and its political allies.

The vote was largely praised as a step towards democracy by the international community, and Western nations are beginning to lift or suspend sanctions on Burma to encourage reforms.

European Union diplomats told AFP Thursday that the 27-nation bloc had reached an agreement in principle to suspend all sanctions against the country formerly known as Burma, except for an arms embargo, for a year.

The announcement came days after Suu Kyi and British Prime Minister David Cameron issued a joint call for the suspension of the measures after landmark talks in Yangon.

On Wednesday the NLD said Suu Kyi planned to visit Britain and Norway as part of her first trip outside Burma in 24 years.

sym/dr/emb

DATELINE:YANGON, April 20, 2012 (AFP) –


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Tonight’s Dateline: America Votes

Tonight at 9.

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30 on SBS ONE, as American voters wake up and head for the polls, Mark Davis and Yalda Hakim host a live edition of Dateline from the United States with insight and opinion from both experts and voters.

Nowhere demonstrates the close-run race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney more than Ohio… whoever wins there is expected to secure the keys to the White House. Mark Davis goes off the beaten track to talk to grassroots voters on both sides of the political divide about who they’re voting for and why.

Mark also presents the program from Washington DC, where he leads a feisty panel discussion with commentators and insiders locking horns over the key election issues for the Democrats and Republicans.

Yalda Hakim hosts from Obama’s home city of Chicago, where she visits some of the toughest neighbourhoods to find out what happened to the President’s promise to change America. Have their lives improved over his four year term?

And Aaron Lewis reports from Pennsylvania… another key state in the race. Four years ago, Dateline spoke to customers in a typical American diner as Barack Obama and John McCain faced the polls. Now we return to hear about the issues affecting their lives and to see who gets their support this time.

Throughout Tuesday’s program, Mark will also be getting more insight from the outspoken Arnie Arnesen, political commentator and a regular face in Dateline’s coverage of US elections. What does she make of it all?

See this in-depth preview of the hotly anticipated election tonight at 9.30pm on SBS ONE, and read more now on the Dateline website.


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