The first shot of WWIII

I walked out of my hotel room this morning, past a newspaper stand and saw the shocking images of a flaming Russian warplane, shot down by Turkey no less. History tells us that it is the incidental – but strategic – assassination that causes war. I can only be grateful for Putin’s measured comments that it was a “stab in the back” and not “an act of war”.

Turkey is NATO, and so this is serious.

The truth is, I believe we have been engaged in a World War since 9/11. The events that have transpired in the Middle East since that fateful day have involved dozens of nations. The difference has been that the target was “terrorists”, powerful but stateless organisations, mostly the detritus of decades of geopolitical shenanigans. In my opinion the most recent Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns were mostly still about national interests and, to some extent, attempting to put the “hydra” back in the box.

Syria is very different.

In my (wholly non-expert) opinion, Syria is significant because it presses the boundary conditions between major powers that, until now, have approximately behaved like children trying to carve out their own corner of a messy and complex sandpit. What Syria – and ISIS – has done, is create extreme polarity between forces and when something like this most recent Russia-Turkey incident happens, it can be cataclysmic.

I am hoping good sense will prevail. I am hoping that this is more about a lack of judgment than a signal that the boundaries of power sharing and regional cooperation have been irrevocably drawn.

This would be a good time to say “sorry”.

Why I am not going to “Francophile” my Facebook status…

Over the past 24 hours or so I have watched the world “Francophile” itself in support and recognition of the awful events in Paris. Monuments have been illuminated in red-white-blue and Facebook profiles now consist of once familiar friends peering out between ribbons of colour.

Story Bridge in Brisbane, illuminated in solidarity.

The Story Bridge in Brisbane tonight, illuminated in solidarity.

I am very fond of France. I have many French friends, wonderful memories and few could argue against Paris being truly one of the iconic cities of the World. Indeed, Paris is one of those incredibly special cities that simply cannot belong to just France, it really belongs to people everywhere. Thus, when such unthinkable acts of terror are committed, they are committed against us all.

The problem is that to give credence to ISIS, to call the Paris atrocity an “act of war”, is to do nothing more than further entrench the notion of ISIS’ caliphate (statehood). Only one sovereign entity’s act of aggression against another can establish an “act of war”. By determining those innocent lives lost to be an “act of war”, we simply give ISIS what they want : legitimacy, and implied sovereignty.

Moreover, despite the awful events in Paris, there was no less tragic loss of life in Lebanon, in Kenya. But we did not stop and mourn for those lives because they did not fit within our mental “Champs- Élysées”, the perfect and idyllic boulevards of our western minds. We did not paint our faces those colours. We have not owned the fact that the turmoil and instability in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, is the direct result of decades of self-interested meddling, artificial borders drawn across tribal boundaries and covertly-financed (and not so covert) bipartisanship. We probably didn’t create it, but we made it worse. A lot worse. Those innocent people in Paris didn’t deserve to die – but it can also not be said that there is never a consequence to our actions. For example, it cannot be said that when our own youth flock to Syria to join the ranks of ISIS, that we were not responsible for youth disengagement, for unemployment, for lack of opportunity in our own countries.

We should be defiant, be we should also take responsibility.

This even extends to the idea that we would somehow attempt to “demean” our oppressors by calling them “Daesh“, like taunting a bully in the playground. It is a dangerous game. It is one thing to stoically go on with life and refuse to alter our daily lives in response to terrorism (correctly so), but it is another to mock one’s enemy.

The purpose of this commentary is not to attribute recognition to ISIS. Although, in my opinion, to pretend that it is an artifice is a huge mistake. Similarly, to reduce ISIS to merely a violent hybrid of religious fundamentalism and terrorism is also a mistake, a gross simplification. In the 21st century, we are being forced to reconsider what statehood means and how we respond to “acts of war”. It started with 9/11 and it is – tragically – far from over with Paris (#2).

This is why I will not change my Facebook profile to “tricolour”. Defiance and mourning for our freedom should be muted, and devoid of banners. Only terrorists wave banners, and I personally cannot bear to change the hue of my face again tomorrow.


 

The (now) iconic feature image by Jean Jullien…

 

One Hundred Hours of Islam

The last month has been an absolute blur of activity, between travel, getting a couple of new business ventures off the ground and the anticipated arrival of kid#2. After much negotiation with my wife and the establishment of an agreed cut-off date by which I was to be home and “at service”, I decided a few weeks ago to do a last “tour” to try and tie up some loose ends around my business activities. The usual sort of “10 countries in 9 days” trip. I spent 3 nights in a hotel room and the rest sleeping on planes.

Fun fun fun.

One of the things that frustrates me about this kind of business travel is that you never spend enough time in a country to really get to know it. Yet on this last trip, I had a very unique experience that I think could only have come from such a fleeting and condensed journey. The middle portion of my manic trip was a series of meetings in Geneva/Lausanne, Berlin, Beirut and Kuala Lumpur. A slightly eclectic selection of cities but then my business activities are somewhat eclectic too. I had meetings in all locations roughly within a period of 100 hours (including travel) which left me with a very blurred but interesting juxtaposition of perceptions about how the world is changing.

Starting in Switzerland – I think it is fair to say that although Geneva prides itself on being “multicultural” it is still quintessentially European. If Geneva is “Europe” then Lausanne is “Swiss” – quaint, clean, controlled and somewhat monocultural. About the most exotic thing you will find in Lausanne is the Turkish or Lebanese guy managing the Doner kebab stand at the train station. I’m not saying that Switzerland fundamentally has a diversity issue (or that Lausanne isn’t incredibly pretty) – I’m just saying that the Swiss would rather keep it – er… Swiss.

Nothing but Alpenhorns and Muesli here....

Nothing but Alpenhorns and Muesli here….

Moving ahead to Berlin, a few hours in the centre of the city provided a few insights into what the German government is currently dealing with in terms of refugee crisis. I saw a lot of Muslim families on the streets, a lot of begging and a lot of people that looked pretty “fresh” off the train from Eastern Europe. I’ve been to Berlin many times over the years and the change was palpable, including the articulation of concern by residents. I think it’s fair to say that Germany proved its international citizenship with a truly disproportionate intake from the Syrian crisis, but integration is going to be a challenging process if makeshift camps in central Berlin are anything to go by.

A Minaret, Berliner-style?

A Minaret, Berliner-style?

Then moving on to Lebanon. Driving through Hezbollah-controlled districts around Beirut Airport provided a stark reminder that this is a country with incredibly fractured rule and not a lot of stability. Motoring through military checkpoints representing different political “factions” makes you realise that it doesn’t take much to trigger unrest, indeed much of the city centre was cordoned off due to large-scale protests and riots. Although the newly rebuilt centre of Beirut was relatively peaceful, there was still an atmosphere of tension. A lot of military presence and deserted cafes. In Beirut, 1/3 of the population is a refugee from somewhere. Syrians continue to flood over the border.

Plenty of reminders that this is a city on the edge of a war zone, from a military checkpoints, to freshly bombed buildings stopping traffic. Beirut is a city with plenty of scars, and plenty of different occupiers.

Plenty of reminders that this is a city on the edge of a war zone, from a military checkpoints, to freshly bombed buildings stopping traffic. Beirut is a city with plenty of scars, and plenty of different occupiers.

Finally – on to Kuala Lumpur, where the Islamic world meets capitalism. KL is fast-moving and prosperous, notwithstanding a recent (significant) currency devaluation and a fair amount of economic turbulence. Although far from the Mediterranean outskirts of Europe, KL seemed oblivious to the plight of their Syrian brethern, with Muslim Malaysians seemingly willing to die for the glory of the Hajj but perhaps lacking the true embrace of Islamic brotherhood. It was not without international provocation that countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia took responsibility for their role in the refugee crisis but even as recently as last week, Malaysia has only committed to a mere 3,000 refugees over three years.

Of course Australia’s response was hardly stellar either … but compared to this…

Nothing but refugee-free prosperity here, folks... (well, except a bit of afternoon rain)

Nothing but refugee-free prosperity here, folks… (well, except a bit of afternoon rain)

CNN has started referring to some refugees as “economic migrants“, reflective of the serious Syrian “brain drain”, something that will no doubt hamper the ability for the country to rebuild itself anytime in the near future. But whether an economic migrant or a true refugee fleeing unimaginable violence, the truth is that people are taking huge risks to get to a better place, and they aren’t turning to the rest of the Islamic world for that future. Syrians see a future in the west – in Canada, USA, Germany, Australia – not UAE, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia or even beautiful Malaysia. Indeed, other than throw cash at the problem, Saudi/UAE have done shamefully little.

My “100 hours of Islam” reinforced this perception. Sunni-Shi’a tension not only poisons the political tension in Syria, it also underpins the migration pattern of refugees – political or economic. The big question is whether “we” can meaningfully integrate Syria’s diaspora in a way that offers peace and stability, or whether a generation from now we will just have one more failed, isolated and angry sub-culture.

Malcolm Turnbull : Right Man, Wrong Process

In the last election, it was with a heavy heart that I voted Liberal.

It’s not that I am fundamentally incompatible with an Australian “conservative” agenda, after all liberal is supposed to be pro-business (and I am pro-business) but I also didn’t see the appropriate level of commitment to major issues like climate change and the environment, same-sex marriage and immigration. Anyhow, my general attitude towards the role of government in business is “stay off the pitch” and Australia is a country that is remarkably successful despite decades of mediocre policy around key business drivers like taxation and economic diversification.

As such, a “pro-business” party is a bit of an oxymoron in this country, anyhow…

I never cared much for Abbott. Although not a lightweight by any stretch of the imagination, he just doesn’t epitomise what a modern Australia needs to be vibrant, successful and competitive. But he was a hell of an improvement over the K-Rudd infighting and Labor party shenanigans, and his steady, resolute demeanour at least implied the potential of a period of government stability, free of intra-party political wrangling. Of course, we don’t vote for the “man”, we vote for a government, but I think leadership truly matters. To be clear (in case you forgot) as a country we didn’t vote for the ALP because we felt that Kevin Rudd had established a toxic culture in his party. Therefore to offhandedly dismiss “leadership” and “personality” as disconnected is naïve and frankly incorrect.

I admire Malcolm Turnbull. He’s smart, he’s accomplished. He has a trait that very few senior figures in politics have these days, namely a stellar track record of doing anything other than politics (Mrs. Turnbull is no slouch either). Just about any advanced economy these days suffers from the pervasive mediocrity of the career politician, individuals that have accomplished little of note since they first took office in a student politics club at university. Well, other than perhaps foster their sense of self-importance and entitlement to rule. The formula of a modern politician is that of a nanny bureaucrat, incapable of even remotely envisaging the concept of “nation building” because he/she has never created, built, innovated or produced anything, let alone a vision of how to make a country great.

This is not Turnbull. Not by a mile.

The problem is that in carrying out the latest palace coup, the only possible message the Australian Liberal Party can send to the populace is “we are no better than Labor”. In fact, it is worse than this because it also suggests a particular contempt for voter perception of party political infighting given what we went through during the last election. This latest development just highlights a true lack of recognition in Australian politics that a government is elected to serve the Australian people, not expend its energy on petty political infighting.

So, instead of focusing on the critical issues that face our country, we will have yet another week dominated by intrigue, media attention and one-upmanship. It was always going to be a quiet week in Parliament but with such enormous issues facing our economy and the urgent need to consider Australia’s role in key international issues, this leadership change only illustrates – to Australians and the world – how insular, irrelevant and undemocratic we really are. It also means that instead of directing our resources toward things that matter, we will undoubtedly spend billions more in political machinations that add zero value.

Right man for the job. Wrong process of getting there.

Rethinking Citizenship

Two concurrent events have recently had me thinking a great deal about what citizenship really means. The first has been the horrifying events surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis, most notably the tragic loss of life on the shores of Turkey, and heart-breaking footage of children washed up on desolate beaches. Those images have profoundly affected me and I find it difficult to look at my three year-old son and not superimpose the mental image of a similarly aged boy lying face down on the beach, almost as if asleep, but never again to awake.

The second has been an incredibly disappointing and “un-Canadian” turn events with the recent amendments to the Citizenship Act (Bill C-24), enabling citizens (notably, dual-nationals) to be “stripped” of their Canadian citizenship if implicated in acts against the state, including acts of terrorism. The language of the act opens a serious crack in the door of the ‘robust’ notion of citizenship and gives government considerable discretion over how it chooses to repeal the grant of citizenship.

I’m a Canadian-Australian dual national. I was born in Calgary and have maintained close ties to Canada all my life. I return to Canada regularly to be with friends and family. I own property in Canada. I take interest in Canadian political and national affairs. I identify with Canada’s multicultural and international reputation for fairness, freedom and institutional integrity. Yet, this change in Canada’s stance on what it means to be “Canadian” is truly shocking, especially at a time when sovereign identity and the role of the international community needs to be balanced with the basic human needs and rights of the displaced.

There are four fundamental flaws with the Canadian Government’s changed notion of citizenship. The first is that is destroys the true sanctity of the definition of citizenship, and what it means to achieve it. The vast majority of people that become a Canadian citizen do so through hard work, commitment and an often difficult journey to become part of something great. In creating the potential for the discretionary revocation of citizenship, with fairly wide purview, the absolute meaning and aspiration of citizenship is diluted. For example, how could we ever allow Syrian refugees to become Canadian “conditionally” after everything they have been through (don’t get me started on Canada’s political and military intervention – or lack thereof – to begin with).

The second tragedy of this law is that it effectively creates a second class “citizenship”. It establishes a class of citizens that remain vulnerable to the discretion of government. Governments make mistakes, governments over-reach their authority, and this law opens the door for all kinds of abuse and corruption that has the potential to permanently threaten vulnerable segments of the populace. Canada’s institutions may be more robust than that of many other countries, but no executive branch of government is flawless.

Thirdly – and somewhat related to the second point – is the disappointing side-effect that it is no longer acceptable to be Canadian and “something else” as well. I always thought that one of the great things about being Canadian was that it was ok to be a Canadian-Pakistani, or a Canadian-Afghan. Unlike the USA, where I would argue cultural identity is constantly pressured and subjugated to the “ideal” of America (you are, first and foremost, American goddammit), with considerable racial tensions that result, Canada always seemed to more peacefully allow multiple identities to co-exist. This legislation will threaten Canada’s multi-cultural tolerance.

However the worst – and most ironic – thing about this legislation, is that it will effectively make Canada less lawful on the international stage. The upstanding moral compass, the “decency”, Canada’s hard-earned international reputation for fairness, integrity and freedom is threatened by this legislation. Why? Because in stripping individuals of their Canadian citizenship, they are no longer subject to Canada’s extraterritorial laws. Let’s take a hypothetical example – you have a Russian-Canadian dual national that decides to go and fight for ISIS, and Canadian citizenship is repealed. Instead of being able to subject that individual to Canada’s terrorism laws, the government effectively wipes their hands and leaves them to the jurisdiction of the “other” nationality. If that other country has a weaker legal system, then less control and less recourse is able to be exerted.

For example, Australia has extra-territorial laws regarding pedophilia. If an Australian goes abroad Thailand on vacation and has sex (consensual or otherwise) with a minor (by definition of Australian law) they are subject to prosecution in Australia upon their return. It doesn’t matter that the offense was committed offshore, it is an illegal act of citizenship. In my opinion “statutory rape” is just another kind of terrorism, no different than the barbarian acts of ISIS – often committed against women and children.

Instead of stripping Canadians of their citizenship, the government should be holding them ABSOLUTELY to the standards of Canadian citizenship at home and abroad. That would not only strengthen and define what it means to be Canadian, but it would serve to project the power and integrity of Canada around the world.

The Music of Science

Over the past few months, a collaboration has progressed to a degree of substance that I am excited to start talking about it. For a long time I have been thinking about a creative way to make a contribution to STEM education, as someone who is passionate about education, but also science and engineering. There are plenty of people thinking about better content, more dynamic education strategies and more robust curriculum development. I have wanted to find a way to deliver a supportive but often elusive element, namely inspiration. I want young people who are imagining their future, to be as intrigued and amazed about science as I am… and I have always imagined doing this through the power of music.

But first I needed to be inspired myself, and that happened through a chance meeting about 18 months ago with Prof. Mary Finsterer, who – at the time – was also a Professorial Fellow at Monash University. She is now the Chamber Music Australia Chair of Composition, Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music, Monash University. I’ve always liked “musos” but I particularly liked Mary’s brilliant and unconventional style of thinking and communication. Slowly, over time, a collaboration began to take shape in the form of Scientifica.

Scientifica is a modern symphonic arrangement with four movements, composed by Mary. Each movement is framed around a “sound of science”, designed to capture and communicate the magic of those sounds. Three of those movements have been based on some really exciting sounds and have been developed as far as composition “samples” that you can actually hear performed on the Scientifica website. The first movement is inspired by the ethereal oscillations of stars – expanding the mind out beyond our planet through wonderful robotic instruments that are telling us all kinds of new things about the universe. The second movement brings us back to the Earth’s atmosphere with the eerie and fragile sounds of solar radiation striking our planet’s protective atmosphere, an extraordinary defense system that we can only detect with special electronic equipment. The final composition is based on the percussive beats of an MRI scanner, representing mankind’s inquiry and control of the biological world.

The fourth movement of Scientifica, as well as the exact order of the movements, has yet to be finalised. This is because we plan to open it up as a competition in early July. We want scientists, engineers, mathematicians, physicians and researchers everywhere to send us the audible incarnations of science that move, mesmerise and inspire them. We then plan to select the best sound – and story – and build the fourth movement around it. We hope that the final product will be a performing arts experience that will weave Mary’s stunning composition with an audiovisual presentation of the actual science itself. Uniquely, our vision is that during this performance, the scientists creating these sounds will join their musical colleagues as an actual performer, hopefully projecting the creativity and passion that is an often poorly understood but fundamental part of scientific progress.

Please visit the project website for Scientifica to learn more. Be sure to listen to Mary’s incredible work.