Friday, 30 November 2012

My beef with former MI5 chief

I keep hearing Stella Rimington - spy novel writer and former MI5 supremo - lashing out at WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. This troubles me. Anyone who's read Rimington's memoir about her time in the spy business knows what kind of obstructions she had to fight in order to attain the lofty position she reached during her time in the agency. And she worked to open up the agency to the public. Witness the recent publication of the enormous history of MI5 which was written by an Oxbridge don. In Australia, ASIO is set to follow suit with a history to come out next year. In her memoir, Rimington applauds the statutes enacted in the mid-90s for both MI5 and its overseas cousin, MI6 (of which the British government had refused to even admit of the existence until that time!). And she worked internally to moderate the suppressive force operating within the organisation that prevents information from getting out. But when it comes to WikiLeaks, she totally caves, saying that this new type of organisation makes spying more difficult, if not impossible.

Protecting the identity of sources is essential, we're told, in the spy business. And this holds for eternity. Even a document that I got hold of through the National Library that dates from the 1950s in Australia, prepared by ASIO, contains redactions so that the names of sources are not made public. If source names are publicised, the logic goes, then in future it would be impossible to convince people to cooperate with a spy agency. Without people's cooperation, further, the spy business is impossible. Under this logic, WikiLeaks is an existential threat to spy organisations, even more dangerous, it would seem, than the terrorists or subversives it is supposed to be against.

So Rimington throws her lot in with the authorities globally who are trying to shut down WikiLeaks. For a liberal like me this is problematic. I admire Rimington's books because they're more interesting than most other spy novels. I also admire what Rimington achieved in her professional life, and condemn the forces that obstructed her rise through the ranks at MI5. But I equally admire Assange and his organisation, WikiLeaks, because I believe that there is too much secrecy in both government and governmental administration (the two must be considered separately). Of course there's less secrecy in government itself because we have laws that force publicity upon politicians, and anyway politicians are always eager to get their messages out into the space where the electorate can consume them. Spy agencies are not part of government per se, however. Secrecy in governmental administration is the journalist's bane, and I would say in the majority of cases where journalists have been denied access to individuals in the public service or to documents produced by the public service, the public interest is being ignored.

We need more oppenness. We also need equality for women and a high lever of professionalism in the public service. We need both. I applaud Rimington for bringing her talents to bear in order to achieve two of these goals, but I condemn her for condemning WikiLeaks, which is a new type of organisation that channels unauthorised document releases into the public sphere. If that happens, government has only itself to blame. The public's appetite for concealed information - like the plethora of (mostly) trashy books written about spies - is testament to the unsatisfied curiosity of this enormous and important demographic. You cannot run government for the benefit of politicians or of government departments. Government is always - and only - to be undertaken for the benefit of all the people.

Leveson report: It's early days yet

The report by the UK's Lord Justice Leveson into the conduct of that country's press is making headlines but, as usual, his recommendations are not being explained adequately. It's a 2000-page document and it recommends "that a statutory body such as Ofcom should take responsibility for monitoring an overhauled Press Complaints Commission", according to the Guardian. Over at the Sydney Morning Herald it's reported that the Leveson report recommends that "An independent watchdog should be established by law to regulate newspapers", and in another story on the same website, we find:
He proposed expanding British regulator Ofcom's legal remit so it became a "verification" body, able to recognise an independent regulator that had "credible" rules and powers to enforce them - such as huge fines.

Publications would not be obliged to sign up to the new body but would be subject to harsher punishment if the courts found they libelled people or breached civil law.
It appears that the Leveson report contains a lot of detail that even the New York Times, which also reports on the publication, has been unable to cover adequately, although it does a better job than most:
In the current system of self-regulation by a body called the Press Complaints Commission, newspapers effectively regulate themselves. The report urged the creation of a new independent regulatory body with powers to fine offending newspapers up to $1.6 million, made up of people who are not serving editors and should not be either lawmakers or figures from the government.
What these stories now mainly come down to are statements of position from prominent politicians for or against Leveson's recommendations. This kind of politicisation of the issue is really not helpful, and newspapers should be putting more effort into explaining exactly what the almost-2000-page report contains. Just getting party leaders to make a pitch is not enough, and the media is failing its readers if that's all they can manage to offer us.

For example, it appears that one thing Leveson is recommending is something like a First Amendment in the UK to guarantee press freedom. This would obviously be a good thing - it's certainly something Australia's pussy-footed pollies have long resisted doing, for fear of actually increasing press access to government information (imagine that!) - but this part of the report has been overlooked by most media outlets who have, of course, a vested interest in seeing Rupert Murdoch's corporate interests publicly attacked.

There's little doubt that the "anything goes" attitude at swashbuckling Murdoch tabloids in the UK led to the abuses that incite Leveson's most trenchant comments. And it's no wonder that the UK's prime minister, David Cameron, a Conservative, should want to do as little as possible to encourage statutory measures such as Leveson suggests implementing. A free market, for a Tory, is better than government regulation - the nanny state, Leftie bothersomeness and all that - for someone like Cameron. We get the same thing in Australia with the Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, backing Murdoch against Labor's Stephen Conroy, the communications minister, who is also due sometime soon to put forward a law for the media for debate in Parliament.

But what it comes down to is that bravery, initiative and striking headlines, attached as they are to increased circulation and hence higher advertising rates, and therefore increased income, were the real culprits at the now-defunct Murdoch tabloid News of the World. Murdoch is an independent spirit, to be sure, and has been successful in his chosen field by taking new avenues. It's no wonder that his employees are rewarded for the same kind of entrepreneurial spirit. But Leveson points out that this kind of corporate culture led to a breakdown in corporate governance at Murdoch vehicles.

If private corporations are not able to effectively ensure that they do not abuse the power that they carry then it is incumbent on government to step in. The same lesson arose in the wake of the GFC, where we saw rampant abuses by private corporations intent on maximising income with the result that millions of people globally have suffered significant material hardship. It is incumbent on governments to take legislative measures where corporations signally fail to protect individuals from abuse.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Credit to Egypt's Morsi for brokering peace

Credit where credit's due. In a short six months, Egypt's Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, has emerged as a statesman of international significance, most recently helping to broker a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel following a week of aerial hostilities during which there were deaths on both sides. Morsi was declared the winner of Egypt's first presidential elections in mid-June. His decision to act as a man of peace must be widely welcomed and Morsi must be credit given for doing so. The ceasefire involved many regional actors, as well as the United States, and serves to curtail aggression that threatened to spiral out of control leading to a reenactment of the three-week Gaza War of 2008-09.

Hostilities between Hamas and Israel poison the relations between countries internationally.

When the current hostilities opened I felt disgust and regret, and promised myself that I would pay no attention. If the Israelis think that it's OK to perform extra-judicial killings using US-sourced technology, I said to myself, then they deserve everything they get. And if the Palestinians think it's fine to commit suicide by sending rockets over the border from Gaza into Israel, I thought, then they deserve whatever the Israelis throw at them. In these situations the innocent suffer and on both sides the traumatised young again are left to grow up full of hate.

There are so many people involved and the mutual distrust and hatred runs so deep. When I think of the web of interactions that work on relations between the Palestinians and the Israelis I think of a huge machine. It's as if there is a machine that is operating globally but that brings its force to play in one, small corner of the world, along the borders between Palestinian territories and Israel. As in any functioning machine there is also a feedback mechanism that relays outcomes of events at those pressure points to the farthest reaches of the globe. The message from the world must be that killing is not the solution, and in regional actors like Mohamed Morsi we at last have a credible peacemaker willing to put his reputation on the line to further the message of compassion. In men like Morsi we see a reliable conduit for the wishes of the virtuous of the world.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

New ideas drive investment in remote ag project

Northern WA farmer Christian Bloecker.
The long-term risk associated with large agricultural projects is not, it seems, everyone's cup of tea, but WA's Christian Bloecker, whose immigrant parents Wilhelm and Gabi came to Kununurra to farm in 1982, sees plenty of potential in northern Australia. Bloecker was just one of several people the Australian's Sue Neales spoke with to write a story on the recently-announced Chinese investment in the Ord land stage 2 expansion project (paywalled) being sponsored by both state and federal governments. The development involves native title owners the Miriuwung Gajerrong people, who have cooperated with the governments to progress it, and who are already seeing new employment opportunities stemming from it. The newspaper has form in promoting private investment in Australia's outback because of the capacity of such projects to improve the lives of indigenous people living there.

Bloecker is something of a poster boy for smart ag. His alma mater, the University of Western Australia did a long piece on him in 2009 when he graduated with his double degree (Bachelor of Science in Agriculture and Bachelor of Economics), and it's a story element Neales highlights too. No doubt many farmers will prefer this kind of image for Australian farmers compared to the bog-standard "bogan" image that has been used recently to promote dairy products here. Indeed, Bloecker's attitude is nothing short of inspirational. In the movie that can also be found on the news web page, Bloecker doesn't just talk about how the Ord stage 2 project can create economic opportunities for farmers and local jobs for indigenous Australians, he also talks passionately about how the arrival of more farmers in the area can lead to the development of new ideas.

As Neales' story shows, new ideas were at the bottom of the decision by Chinese corporation Shanghai Zhongfu to go for ag in the remote region.
The company is a private, family-based firm founded by chairman Wu Pui-ngai, who is a permanent resident of Australia, as are the rest of his family. Mr Wu is from Shanghai but has connections with Taiwan.
The firm's core activity is land development - not only construction but also, for instance, obtaining sites and landscaping them for private cemeteries, a particularly successful venture. It also has a science and research arm.
The company started visiting Western Australia about 18 months ago with a view to diversifying, as have many other Chinese land developers - in Zhongfu's case, originally into iron ore. The principals alerted the state government to their interest in investing, and were invited to the Ord region, where they saw a prime opportunity and shifted their attention from the crowded iron ore field.
It was an economic reason that drew the company away from investing in iron ore, a field where returns have dropped due to lower demand from Chinese manufacturers and also a possible glut of capacity as a number of new projects in Australia have reached the production stage, to investing in agriculture. As I pointed out in an earlier post, foreign firms often see potential in large-scale agriculture projects where local firms do not. It's not just the Ord stage 2 project that has Chinese and Singaporean firms interested in ag in Australia. It's their long-term view of how their capital will be used, rather than a demand for immediate high short-term returns. And it's also no doubt also because these companies are able to bring into play efficient marketing arms that can create business opportunities in the developing markets where the end product is destined to be sold.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Welcome to His Xiness, Top Dog of All The Things

Xi Jinping, top dog of ... um ... all the things.
China's leadership transition has taken place and the new leader of ... um ... all the things is ... Xi Jinping! (But no surprises, we knew this since 2007.) Unlike Hu Jintao, his predecessor in the position of top dog, Xi apparently also takes control of the military during this transition, which makes him ... um ... more biggerer than Hu. His Serene Xiness (see picture, right) sort of coasted into place like a duck at a shooting gallery, except with the complete absence of public debate, politicking, and a combative press corps, there's noone holding the gun. Instead, His Xiness and the other six Standing Committee members, the guys who call the shots for the next 10 years, or five years, or something, appeared, unruffled and perfect, ideal leaders in this ideal and perfect nation as it forges ahead on its ideal and perfect way into an ideal and perfect future.

And we get pissed off because Fox News says things we don't like, or whichever media outlet you tend to disagree with. Live with it, baby, because the alternative is pretty scary. His Xiness would never tolerate the kind of verbal sledging that goes on day-in-day-out in the public sphere in a country with such a flawed and contested political system as the US or Australia. Want to ruffle my feathers, you bastard? Go to jail.

So reading the coverage of China's leadership transition in the New York Times is interesting, but not very illuminating. The top dogs are all died-in-the-wool conservatives, good ol' boys who have mouthed the Party line for the past 40 years, firm in their support of a system that they will no doubt proceed to exploit, now they are top dogs, so that they can feather their own nests with a bit of the ready stuff, just like all the others who came before them. But it's not really important. What's important is that future leaders can also cruise into place in unruffled sereneness, unencumbered by any embarrassing need to solicit votes (how undignified!) from a fractious electorate. Serenity, a Buddha-like smile on your face, is the main prerequisite for these top doggies, going forward.

His Xiness had a few words to say, however, and some pundits aver that the man will have to try to find ways to make sure the economy continues to grow. This might, we're told, require some political liberalisation. But who the fuck knows? The tea-leaf readers in the Beijing press gallery might have some inkling, but they're not in any hurry to inform the plebs. What we get instead are a few choice quotes from China-watchers placed in foreign institutions - universities and the like - who spend a good deal of their time, presumably, checking to see which way His Xiness combed his hair this morning and whether that is going to be a factor in the likelihood of economic liberalisation, establishment of the rule of law, or whatever MAJOR ISSUE appears likely to be addressed. Byzantine does not adequately describe the operations of the Chinese Communisty Party.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Calling child sexual abuse "evil" is counterproductive

17th Century English woodcut.
Expect a lot of this kind of useless language over the coming days, weeks and months, especially from politicians hoping to make political mileage out of the suffering of the innocent. Child sexual abuse is not "evil". The concept of evil is ancient, the stuff of fairy tales and old stories told by the fireside to amuse and terrify. It's a concept that the major perpetrators in the current scandal, the established churches, have a lot invested in. But how useful can it be if the very people who use that word to arrogate to themselves the privileges of authority are so apt to abuse the power thus conferred? Clearly, the concept of evil has failed its remit. It's time for a rethink. What child sexual abuse is, in brass tacks terms, is abuse of power.

In human historical terms the 17th Century woodcut that accompanies this piece was not made that long ago. But the churches have for the past decade been braying their frustration at the diminishment of religious observance, blaming it on the rise of "materialism", a concept that means, in this context, the vacuous pursuit of things in place of their preferred object of the "eternal" and the divine. But what materialism really is is to agree that there is no divine influence in the universe, and that there is a physical explanation for everything. Such a view clearly sets out to reject such notions as evil. Instead of relying on old wives' tales to explain why people act the way they do, it falls back in a rather cumbersome fashion on far more difficult sets of ideas contained, for example, within the realms of postmodern discourse theory, psychology and brain science. But because these things are far more difficult to easily explain, we continue to publicly use terms such as "evil" to talk about behaviours that go counter to our best intentions, such as child sexual abuse. They fit into headlines far more easily than some of the abstruse terms that can better explain why people do some of the terrible things they do. Nevertheless, the abuse of power can surely be better explained with reference to exact sciences, than it can by whipping out such an old saw as the Devil, Lucifer. Watch out, Dr Faustus!

It's a matter, for people such as Julia Gillard, of "othering". Calling child sexual abuse "evil" is her way of bringing the majority - who do not sexually abuse children - onto her side of the debate. But how useful is it really when she exploits terminology preferred by the very institutions that her royal commission will seek to unmask? Abuse of power when it refers to children and sex acts is surely abhorrent, as well as illegal. But abuse of power is not something that is foreign to everyone. Far from it. If we want to effectively address the root causes of this problem then it will be necessary to start talking about the issues in more appropriate terms. Othering the minority, making them outcasts, is counterproductive because it ignores the potential for further abuse in other contexts and by other parts of the community. It is surely easier to take this line than it is to fully understand the motivation for child sexual abuse, but in the long term the latter will be more useful because it can help us to really understand, as a community, where this kind of behaviour has its roots, and how we can make the kinds of changes that are needed in order to ensure that it never happens again.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Righteous address by a young tyro at a community consultation session involving the secret services

I don't really know why we love those scenes in movies where counsel addresses a jury passionately, employing all of the rhetorical resources he or she possesses in an attempt to divert the course of justice in favour of his or her client. There's something essentially theatrical about a court room. It has drama. Things are at stake. There is an audience - because justice must be seen to be done - in the public gallery. Anyway, what follows is a righteous tirade from a young student at a community consultation involving the secret services. It is purely imaginary.

I beg your pardon, sir, but democracy is not pie-in-the-sky. Elections are not unfortunate formalities that must be tolerated every few years so that organisations such as yours can continue to operate unmolested by the political apparatus. Elections are the end goal, inasmuch as they enable regular, law-abiding people to enjoy their privacy in peace. Those laws were made by the representatives of the people, chosen by the people, in order to preserve the right of the people to their property, their dignity and their privacy. And in order to effectively choose who represents them in the nation's legislatures the people have a right to information about the operation of the state. In this way, your organisation comes second to the media in the national respectability stakes, I'm sorry to say. The media stands between the state and the people it serves, and informs the people about the workings of the state. Without this mechanism democracy is simply not possible. So your organisation has an obligation to be as transparent as possible, and to inform the media of your activities in as complete a manner as is humanly practicable.

Indeed, your organisation is absolutely the glaring aberration in a just democracy. The state has an obligation to operate transparently, otherwise it cannot be judged by those it serves, who are the people. Every woman and man aged 18 years and over has a right to the national franchise and in order to effectively exercise that right he or she has an equal right to information about the state's operation. As far as is possible, your organisation should work toward a reality where it ceases to exist because your organisation does not rightly meet the criteria for the just functioning of the state. As soon as it can be managed your organisation should make itself redundant so that the proper balance of transparency and justice can exist in the nation. For this reason, your organisation must content itself with always coming among the last, and not among the first. It must be happy with accepting whatever the people choose to give it, and must never engage in bureaucratic empire building with an eye to furthering its own, anomalous interests.

Because the people are not allowed to possess any information about the operations of your organisation, your staff have a moral obligation to act ethically. This obligation places a superhuman burden on your employees, and those who are not content with both accepting this burden and with always coming among the last should pack their bags and find employment elsewhere. Noone is forcing them to work in your organisation and they can leave at any time. The ethical burden that weighs upon each and every employee in your organisation is a professional matter, and your organisation should constantly work to ensure that its employees are able to function effectively under such constraints. The people tolerate your organisation's existence because their representatives judge it to be a necessary evil. Do not make the mistake of believing that your organisation or any employee inside it is above the law. Do not imagine for an instant that there is any priority of greater moment than the citizen's peaceful enjoyment of his or her privacy. To do so would be to pervert the very structure of society, and to forever damage the standing or your organisation and of the politicians who support it.

In fact, it is largely too late for such warnings because the people even now barely tolerate you. Their justified curiosity, acting via the media, is not something that you should consider to be an unnecessary intrusion into your privacy, because you should be entitled to none. In a just democracy, the right of the people to know essentially outweighs any consideration that your organisation might deem proper to arrogate to itself. It is, as it should be, that you exist on borrowed time. Use it wisely.

Men in packs not the best way to find adventure

Anything could happen.
I've been reading Stella Rimington's memoir, Open Secret, which chronicles her years working for MI5 beginning in the 1960s. Rimington would go on to become head of the organisation but in the early days it was a place with clearly demarcated roles for men and women. Women were considered unfit for the "tougher" aspects of the work, such as agent running, and were relegated to clerical and support work. The organisation was also dyfunctional, with a lengthy cohort of ex-Foreign Office employees who liked to take long lunches and who often did little actual work. It was a cosy arrangement for the blokes at MI5 until the efforts of people like Rimington to achieve more equality paid off and the service began to professionalise. Merit, rather than just your gender or your friends, became the rule by which promotion was awarded.

Dysfunction in male-only institutions is evident everywhere, not just in the rarified haunts of British spooks, however. Year after year, month after month and day after day the news is filled with stories - often only surfacing decades after the fact - of abuse, violence, bastardisation and sex crimes. In the Catholic Church, in exclusive university colleges, in the military. The story is the same, even though the locale may change. If you put men together within a hierarchy and exclude women anything can happen, and probably will. The dynamic is different if women are present. The tone changes. Things get better.

I grew up in all-male institutions, from my primary school through secondary school to a year spent living at an all-male university college. I had some great friends, often foreigners like the talented sportsmen Pipi and David, and the well-read and articulate Anthony who introduced me to the Beatles. I gravitated to the unusual, often the exceptional. There were wonderful teachers and fabulous friends. When I went to university I started to change how I related to the world, and the school tie was exchanged for a blue glass bead in the Greek fashion, to ward off the evil eye. Given the enhanced access to knowledge that university naturally afforded it was hard to sustain the fiction that an all-male institution could supply what I actually needed to develop and after a year at St Paul's I left to go and live in a studio apartment in Glebe. Thus began a fruitful period, a time characterised by the sound dictum of Virginia Woolf, that the creative soul requires for its fulfilment a room of its own.

I had never participated in the long, sodden drinking sessions that the men at St Paul's used to create the bonds that they wished for, so I did not miss that part of college life. In fact, there was not much about the college that I missed once I went off on my own to live the bohemian life. Outside the college I got involved with a small publishing venture for poetry written by young people. I also met new people, such as Tony and Michael, Neil and Paul. There were girls, too, of course. Why not? But the important thing for me is that things started to happen at university that could not have happened elsewhere. Things remote from the ritual hazing of freshers and the prolongued consumption of strong alcoholic beverages. Things that brought me into contact with interesting people who had radically different views of the world from those of my parents, or of my teachers and classmates at high school. This was intoxicating stuff in its own, unique way. All those hours spent rummaging through the shelves of Fisher Library looking for the unusual, the odd, the curious. And those visits to the bookshops which resulted in finding things that you could actually buy and take home to keep, that were made in the USA, in Europe, in the UK. Famous names made more so by one's fond regard. Bukowski and Miller, Michaux and Faure.

I lived in an all-male household of one surrounded by my mates who spoke to me through the written word. Names grew off the back of names. Titles spawned yet more titles as I read my way through the 20th Century pantheon of the amusing, the intelligent, the wise, and the just plain different. Solitary communion with other minds from other times did not stop me from graduating and it did not even stop me from going out after study was finished, to find paid employment. Sticking with the pack is not the only way to get the most out of university, in fact it may just be the least interesting way. There are other voices and, for me, when they called, I answered.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Persistance gives a win to Aust net freedom supporters

In a major industry development, Australia's communications minister, Stephen Conroy, has announced that a long-debated move to use a secret list to filter the internet in the country, has been scrapped. It's an interesting back-down, which Conroy spins as a "successful outcome", presumably coming at the end of lengthy discussions with industry organisations, his Labor Party's partner, the Greens, and possibly others. It seems to me, from reading the story, that this decision to scrap the contentious secret list was made following discussions but the story does not say whether that is the case and, if it was, who the key discussions were held with.

Instead of a secret list of proscribed sites that would block access to material online ("The government argued that laws governing material on the internet should be no different to those that applied to printed content") the government will pass requests to ISPs via the police so that only child exploitation material will be blocked from access by Australian web users. There is pretty much universal agreement in the community that access to such material should be impossible. Not only is the material abhorrent due to the fact that, in order to make it, children are being abused around the world. It is also undesirable for such material to be accessible to Australian web users due to the fact that it is illegal to view it here, and has been since 2005. The new regulation removes the ability from the majority of Australians to view such material, and thus also distances web users in the country from the risk of accidentally stumbling upon it. It is easy to find such material without deliberately looking for it, so the government's shift removes a potentially life-changing risk from people's lives. This must be welcomed.

The secret proscribed list debate dates back to when the previous Labor Party leader, Kevin Rudd, reached the prime minister's office in 2007. One other thing that has long characterised the debate has been an almost-universal rejection of mandatory internet filtering by the IT industry, and by serious infotech users. Those close to the industry have aggressively campaigned against mandatory filtering for years and years, making the issue potentially toxic for the government, which has now gingerly moved away from its original plan. The plan to issue requests to ISPs to block child abuse material is a compromise, there is no doubt about it, and as the Fairfax story linked to above shows, some of the organisations involved in the debate, specifically those aligned with the Christian lobby, have expressed regret at the government's new stance.

So what this episode shows is how prolongued resistance from both the IT industry and the vocal, informal IT lobby that is active online, can cause governments to alter even the most solidly-backed legislative plans. People who work with infotech or who admit to a keen interest in it have consistently expressed a deep distrust of a government-held secret list of proscribed sites. There were even leaks showing that sites containing completely innocuous content had been included in the list, which further eroded the government's credibility in the matter. I think that this whole episode shows that, in Australia as in the US, there is a deep-seated suspicion of government intervention in the workings of the internet. Serious web users are committed to ensuring a free web and are very aware of international rankings on net freedom that appear from time to time. The resistance of such people to the government's planned secret list has certainly been a factor contributing to Conroy's announcement today.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Obama's win reflects US electorate's confidence in him

So now it's rainbows and unicorns for many people who cared who got to be US president. If you don't agree with the result then please cut us progressives a bit of slack because a lot of people woke up today as after a nightmare due to imagining what the alternative could have looked like. In fact, we needn't have worried because the result wasn't even that close. In the closest state - Florida, where counting apparently continues - Obama leads by 47,000 votes. To include that state in Obama's electoral college total, he won by 332 to 206 which is a pretty significant lead by any reckoning. The final result was declared within a matter of hours after the polling stations closed on the west coast. It was not really a close-run thing.

Romney totally failed to gain the trust of the electorate and his concession speech included indicators as to why. The main points of Romney's speech were his emphasis on religion as the basis for American values and on his reliance on the "principles of the nation's founders" as a guide to the running of the country. (The backdrop on the stage where Romney appeared even included a picture of a square-rigged sailing ship, presumably like those which brought the Pilgrim Fathers to the shores of colonial America.) The scary stuff started over a year ago, with people like Michele Bachman promising to institute a Christian Caliphate (my post, 28 Aug 2011) and Rick Santorum spewing out his homophobic hate across the airwaves during the Republican primaries (my post, 5 Jan 2012). Instead of this garbage, yesterday's poll gave us two more US states legislating for gay marriage (Maine, Maryland) and Colorado opting to legalise marijuana. So US voters decided they didn't like the nutty taste of Tea Cakes and rejected the whole gamut of them, including those Republican congressmen who think that women who are raped should not have access to abortion.

But noone knows how the wind will blow on polling day, which is why the sense of universal relief among liberals. It's been over a year to wait, after all, and that has made for some jangly nerves.

In pure financial terms, the result looks to have been wise. On the Australian stock market, the bellweather index called the All Ordinaries jumped sharply as soon as the networks began to declare for Obama. Romney's promised fiscal discipline would likely have caused share markets globally to drop as he cut spending and government jobs. We've seen the same thing happen in Queensland, where the premier, elected in March, has made good on his promise to cut 14,000 government jobs. As a result, the unemployment rate in this state is well above the national average. A busy wag recently defaced Campbell Newman's electoral office by painting its front with the word "Tyrant".

For Obama, of course, it's not all about roses and rainbows. He's still got the reality of a hostile House (the Senate remains majority Democrat) to contend with, so pushing through reforms and budgets will continue to be problematic. Then there's the issue of climate change, which Hurricane Sandy brought home to east coast voters in such a violent way just days before the election was held. I listened to much of Obama's victory speech and it felt good to hear the word "Hope" uttered once again but, for me, the word which most readily comes to mind when contemplating Obama's win is "Confidence". The Tea Party flared bright and briefly but America was unswayed by its baroque promises and chose, instead, to go with a man they trust to both run the economy and to set the tone for progress across the spectrum of portfolios for the next four years.