Sunday, August 31, 2008

New figures show Australia will fail to meet Kyoto target

New data from the US Department of Energy’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre (CDIAC) shows Australia is likely to fail to meet its Kyoto target. Figures from CDIAC shows Australian CO2 emissions increased 8.5 percent between 2004 and 2005. In 2005 Australia produced 101 metric tonnes of carbon with coal consumption accounting for 58 percent of the total. Australia is the world's fourth largest coal producer and by far the world's largest exporter of coal. The data shows that Australian emissions have grown steadily since World War II and have gone exponential since the 1960s. Emissions grew every year until 1998 before declining slightly. However, the data shows emissions rising again as of 2005.

The data ranks Australia ranked as one of the world' top 10 polluters on per capita use of fossil fuels. The data also shows carbon emissions are growing more than four times faster than figures quoted by the Federal Government, placing Australia's Kyoto target at risk. The Federal Government claims that national fossil fuel emissions rose by only 2 per cent over the same period. Australia has committed to meeting a target of 108 per cent of its 1990 emissions levels (which were 80,000 million tonnes) annually by 2012. But the CDIAC figures of a 130 percent increase as at 2005 suggests this cannot be achieved.

University of Adelaide's Professor Barry Brook agrees with this finding and says the Government are doing nothing to stem the emissions. Brook is the head of the university’s climate change research institute and he condemned the rhetoric about Australia being on track to meet its Kyoto target as merely greenwash. "In terms of fuel use, [emissions are] spirally upwards at an alarming rate," he said. “Even a conservative projection based on the US centre's data suggested that by 2012, Australia fossil fuel emissions could be 37 per cent above 1990 levels.”

Brook also noted the “worrying discrepancy” between CDIAC’s data and Australia’s newly branded Department of Climate Change. Unlike CDIAC, the government’s data (pdf) tracks all greenhouse emissions (not just fossil fuels). Australia’s Kyoto target is based on 108 percent of the 1990 figure of 555 million tonnes. The government’s 2007 tracking document believes the 108 percent figure is possible despite huge increases in energy and industrial use due to significant savings in land use clearance. But as Brook points out, those gains may be illusory - land clearance in Queensland was phased out over the period 2003-2006.

So where does that leave Australia and its Kyoto commitment? According to Clive Hamilton, the Kyoto Protocol is not merely symbolic; it is a very substantial agreement that lays down the framework to begin to deal with global warming. He says the scale of the task should never have been underestimated especially with the Rudd government inheriting a huge greenhouse debt from the previous administration. When world met at Kyoto in 1997 to hammer out the deal, John Howard’s team negotiated a last minute clause into the protocol. The clause was Article 3.7 of the Kyoto Protocol which immediately became infamously known as the “Australia clause”.

The “Australia clause” allowed countries with net emissions from land use change and forestry in 1990 to include them in their 1990 baseline. “Land use change” is a euphemism for land clearing – the removal of vegetation for purposes other than forestry. Because of good agricultural conditions of the times, the late eighties and early nineties were bumper years for land clearing, particularly in Queensland. This artificially raised Australia’s emissions in the Kyoto base year of 1990 by around 30 per cent, masking extraordinary growth in fossil emissions and made the 108 per cent target far cheaper and easier to achieve.

But as Brook pointed out with the Queensland data, Australia has now already played its get-out-of-jail-free card. Any further cuts must now come from coal, oil and gas. These cuts are a legacy of 11 years of profligate Coalition rule. As former shadow environment minister Duncan Kerr put it, the Howard Government’s refusal to introduce abatement measures has turned the target from “a three-inch putt into a six foot one”.

The CDIAC data suggests the ball may actually be stuck in a bunker. Clive Hamilton believes drastic measures must be taken now. He says it is imperative federal Climate Change Minister Penny Wong blocks state governments from approving new coal-fired plants. Both Victoria and NSW have been in an obscene rush to get plants off the ground before the Carbon Trading regime is installed in 2010. Last month, Victorian energy minister Peter Bachelor announced the approval of a $750 million Latrobe Valley power station expected to be operational by 2012.

While Victoria seems to be locked into a huge flow of emission for another 40 years, the NSW power industry is in disarray after Premier Iemma’s failure to privatise the industry. Iemma warned the cancellation of the original sale plan won't spare the state from having to invest in upgrading and fitting coal-fired power plants with equipment to reduce pollution, with taxpayers having to meet these costs. But one of the reasons the sale plans fell through is that investors won’t commit until NSW indemnifies them against all future carbon liabilities.

It is not just the power industry that is jockeying for position ahead of the Carbon Trading Scheme. Last week, the Business Council of Australia (representing the 100 largest companies in the country) responded to the Government’s already weak climate green paper by threatening to take industries off-shore if the carbon price was high. It claimed that if the European price of $40 a tonne was brought in, it would force the closing of half the exporting plants in the cement, sugar, paper, electricity, gas and other industries. It demanded polluting industries pay as little as possible for permits, the scheme start later than 2010 and the modest targets be reduced further. As Olga Galacho points out in the Melbourne Herald Sun, the BCA came up with a laundry list of "full compensation for trade exposed, emissions intensive industries and welfare for coal generators.”

As well as pandering to business, Labor will also be sensitive to any voter backlash from the trading scheme. But Hamilton says the scheme must pass seven tests to be successful. It must 1) be illegal to emit greenhouse gases without a permit 2) it must include all fossil emissions, including petrol 3) give no incentives or loopholes to avoid obligations 4) avoid vested interests in the allocation of permits 5) be compatible with overseas schemes 6) avoid putting a price cap on the price of permits and 7) include the flexibility to set more stringent targets as the science changes. The CDIAC data would suggest the time for more stringent targets is already upon us.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The 300 days war rumbles on: McCain chooses moose mate

When I heard it on the radio news this morning, I thought John McCain had selected Michael Palin as his running mate. When I heard the female voice it was clear I was wrong (though I think the Yorkshire man would be a useful addition to any ticket). No, it wasn’t a stiff upper lipped Limey, instead it was the little-known Governor of Alaska and “mom of five” Sarah Palin that was now a good shot for the Vice Presidency. Andy Borowitz explained best McCain’s reasoning in his imagination of the senator’s own in-no-way defamatory words. "Let's say a constituent calls you and says that a caribou has wandered onto his front lawn," he said. "My friends, Barack Obama wouldn't know what to do."

But Sarah Palin would indeed know what to do. She’d shoot it. The 44 year old cleanskin and winner of the Miss Wasilla pageant must be a very formidable woman to get to be governor of a wildcat alpha male state like Alaska. Nevertheless, Palin is a long shot; but interestingly now, the Republican package is a good mirror image of the Democrats one as this long electoral war of attrition nears its end.

The war is taking its toll on all the players. Obama has lost his near impregnable lead over the last few months and is hoping the Clinton fairie dust works its magic after the Democratic Convention. The elephants are slowly clawing their way into the contest as John McCain seems most intent on provided nothing more exciting than an error-free campaign. Perhaps the biggest error is the name at the top of the ticket. McCain is barely tolerated in the Republicans and may not even be the best candidate in his family. The UK Independent asks why isn’t Cindy McCain’s name the one on the ticket?

Of course, the rest of the media ran with glee the offering about the McCain’s inability to remember how many houses they have (ten, apparently), the donkeys hee-hawed in Denver. This was an important moment. The fourth anniversary of Obama’s coming out speech at the 2004 convention. This time round, he set a TV record as 38 million people watched what he had to say. That was more than watched the Olympics or American Idol. And well more than ten million up on either Bush or Kerry in 2004.

The four-night Democrat convention ranks as the most-watched convention of either party since ratings began watching Kennedy and Nixon in 1960. The party had rejoiced in the But while American were happy to watch the asses in action last week, the elephants outside the room were being ignored. The Grand Old Party’s convention begins Monday in Minneapolis Saint Paul (Actually its in the state capital Saint Paul, but its Minnesota twin city Minneapolis, like the elephants, must always be mentioned in dispatches).

There is talk that the start may be delayed if Hurricane Gustav strikes New Orleans. Apart from the potentially embarrassing memories of Katrina, profit-driven media units are full stretch to cover two major stories in the same timeframe. The Republicans are worried that their precious news time will be stolen by all those great pictures of heavy seas and rooves coming clean off. Hence the move to announce Palin early. The sheer novelty value alone will eat bandwidth, broadcasting spectrum and column inches for the whole weekend until the storm hits, as well as killing off the buzz created by Obama’s own convention speech.

Nonetheless it is important to consider what this black-and-white scion Barack Obama had to say. He began by reminding his audience of the speech he made four years earlier. This was the story about “the brief union between a young man from Kenya and a young woman from Kansas who weren't well-off or well-known.” The product of that union described the promise that set the US apart. Apart from what, he didn’t say. But the promise involved “individual dreams (that) still come together as one American family”.

Obama claimed we were in a defining moment – “a moment when our nation is at war, our economy is in turmoil, and the American promise has been threatened once more.” He claimed to speak for the unemployed, suffering home owners, those with credit card bills, and the poorly educated. While Obama said Bush was not to blame for all these people’s predicament, he said their lack of decency, generosity and compassion mean that America had to show it was “better than these last eight years”.

Many wonder whether Obama has the capability to match the fervour of his words. His extraordinary ratings numbers alone suggest this is a phenomenon that will be rewarded with victory in November. His voting record as a federal and an Illinois legislator shows him comfortably in the Democratic mainstream of sympathy for lower-income people. He has voted against Arctic and Gulf drilling and also against Bush’s choice for Chief Justice John Roberts. Obama was sceptical about Roberts’s deepest values and his “broader perspectives on how the world works” and his empathy. Why? “He has far more often used his formidable skills on behalf of the strong in opposition to the weak,” said Obama. Come November we will finally see who Obama’s own formidable skills will be used for.

Friday, August 29, 2008

John Mitchel

On Monday, Dave Beckerman’s wonderfully evocative “Black and White Photography blog” featured a memorial bust of John Purroy Mitchel, New York’s youngest ever mayor. Mitchel was mayor from 1914 to 1917 and was just 34 when he got the job and with it the title of “The Boy Mayor of New York”. The boy mayor died bizarrely just a year after losing office when as an World War I Army Air service cadet, he forgot to fasten his airplane seatbelt and plummeted 150 meters to the ground. Mitchel Field air base in Long Island was named in his honour adding to his family’s illustrious legend.

John Purroy Mitchel’s grandfather was John Mitchel, a complex and hugely influential Irish patriot known also for his time in Australia and the US. Mitchel was an Ulster Presbyterian, a lawyer, and a fiery and passionate journalist, who wrote about the artificial famine that was devastating Ireland in the late 1840s. Mitchel laid the blame squarely on British economic policies.

In the nationalist newspaper The Nation, Mitchel wrote that the famine was not a natural disaster but a deliberate attempt to exterminate the Irish peasantry. In his view, British politicians were using famine to clear Ireland's 'surplus population' from the land in order to use it to feed Britain's growing industrial population. Britain was, he said, obsessed by the pursuit of profit and the callous doctrines of political economy, and blind to the sufferings of the Irish people.

His radical writing caused immense debate even among Mitchel’s own fellow Young Irelanders. The Nation’s editor Charles Gavan Duffy censored his writing and Mitchel left to found his own paper “The United Irishman”. Free to write whatever he wanted, Mitchel did not mince his words. He announced the purpose of the paper was to wage “Holy War to sweep this Island clear of the English name and nation.” The violent revolutionary tone caused a sensation. The British authorities immediately saw it as seditious and Mitchel was a marked man.

Mitchel got away with producing 16 incendiary issues in a similar vein. But on 22 April 1848, Westminster passed a bill specifically with Mitchel in mind. And so barely a month later he was arrested under the newly minted Treason Felony Act (an act which remains in force today) and sent to Dublin’s Newgate prison. The authorities deliberately packed a jury against him and found him guilty. The judge sentenced him to fourteen years transportation. Mitchel's dignified bearing and the severity of the sentence won him considerable sympathy from nationalists, and contributed to the Young Irelanders' decision to mount an unsuccessful "cabbage patch" rebellion in July 1848.

But Mitchel himself had already left the cabbage patch by then. He set sail from Cobh and spent the first year of his exile on the prison hulk Dromedary off the coast of Bermuda. Mitchel noted with sardonic delight the name of the British Bermudan base: Ireland Island. But the island’s humidity was unlike Ireland's and it played havoc with Mitchel’s asthma. He was sent on to Cape Town on board the Neptune in 1849. There he enjoyed the discomfit of his British captors who were not allowed to land their convict stock on South African soil. After several months, the Neptune set sail for Tasmania.

Mitchel documented his time in Bermuda, South Africa and Australia in his most famous work, the “Jail Journal”. On 6 April 1850, the long journey across the roaring forties neared its end as a delighted Mitchel could see the “mountainous southern coast of Van Diemen’s Land. They docked at Hobart a day later. Mitchel was treated as a VIP prisoner and was allowed a “ticket of leave” to live at Bothwell with his old school friend who had also been transported a year earlier. Through Martin, he met other transported dissident Young Irelanders including Thomas Francis Meagher and William Smith O'Brien who all congregated around Lake Sorell.

Mitchel was joined by his wife and family at Nant Cottage in Bothwell. There they ran sheep and reminisced the old times in Ireland. But Mitchel had too revolutionary a mind to settle for being a Tasmanian gentleman. In 1853 he donned a series of disguises and smuggled himself on board the Emma, a passenger-brig bound for Sydney. After an agonising week in hiding in Sydney, he boarded the Orkney Lass for the trip to Honolulu. After three weeks at sea, they landed at Tahiti. There he transferred to the US ship Julia Ann where his wife and family were already aboard. Finally on board an American vessel, Mitchel was able to drop his disguise. At 7pm on the 13th September 1853, he wrote “my Jail Journal ends, and my out-of-jail Journal begins”.

He arrived in New York to a hero’s welcome and lost little time in getting back to journalism. In the weekly Citizen, he serialised his Jail Journal. He dabbled in intrigue with the Russian ambassador during the Crimean War asking him to aid the Irish independence cause. But his blind spot would prove to be his racism. Mitchel believed blacks were racially inferior and were better off as plantation slaves than living in barbarism in Africa.

As the 1850s progressed, he grew to detest the abolitionist cause. He moved to Tennessee and bought a farm while supplementing his income with lecture tours. In 1859 he set sail for France and was there when war broke out in the States. His two sons joined the Confederate Army and Mitchel returned to be with them. Mitchel himself served with an ambulance corps and became editor of the Richmond Daily Enquirer. But as the war went badly, he became increasingly disillusioned with the confederate president, Jefferson Davis.

After the war, Mitchel went back to New York and then France where he tried to rouse another army to invade Ireland. When that failed, Mitchel turned back to journalism in New York as well as writing Irish history. In 1875 he finally returned to Ireland as an old and ill man to contest a by-election in Tipperary. Although easily elected, Parliament declared him ineligible as an undischarged felon. Mitchel stood again and won convincingly. But Mitchel spared Britain a constitutional crisis. He died, aged 59, on 20 March 1875 and was buried in his parents' grave in the Unitarian cemetery in Newry, Co Down. His New York fire marshal son James fathered John Purroy Mitchel which takes us back to where we started. The Mitchel flame lived on in the boy mayor. Shame about the seatbelt, though.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Indicting Gaddafy: Lebanon raises the stakes on Musa Sadr disappearance

Lebanon has indicted Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafy over the disappearance of a prominent Shia cleric 30 years ago. Sheik Musa Sadr disappeared in 1978 when he visited Libya though Tripoli claimed he left the country on a plane bound for Rome - a claim denied by Italy. Lebanon has charged Gaddafy and six other Libyan officials with conspiring to kidnap and false imprisonment which carry a maximum death penalty. However, Gaddafy and the others are highly unlikely to ever face trial in Lebanon.

The person assassinated, Imam Musa Sadr, was a major influence in Lebanon’s 1970s sectarian politics. He was born in Iran and got a law degree from Tehran University. His family was Lebanese and in 1960 he accepted an invitation to be the Shia religious leader in the Southern Lebanese city of Tyre. An intellectual, he spoke several languages and was equally conversant in Western thought as he was in Shia philosophy. Similar to South American liberation theologian priests, Sadr was a charismatic speaker and a tireless worker who gave his downtrodden community a voice and provided them with identity and power in Lebanese politics.

Growing tensions in the south near the Israeli border spurred a mass Shia exodus to the slums of southern Beirut. Sadr was religious head of the Shia community and he organised the fragmented slums of southern Lebanon and the western Beqaa Valley into a new political movement. Sadr called the movement Harakat al-Mahrumin (movement of the deprived) and it quickly became the voice of Lebanese Shia.

When Lebanon’s civil war began in 1975 the Harakat divided into political and military wings. The political party Amal (Hope) became an international organisation and the party of choice for diaspora Shia businessmen as far away as Freetown, Accra, Kinshasa and Detroit. These communities provided the financial muscle for the new party. Sadr used his Amal militia to run social services but his pleas for help in the Shia slums fell on deaf ears in Beirut.

Slowly but surely he began to undermine the pan-Arab unity of Sunni hegemony. Sadr was the figurehead of a growing Shia awakening. In the 1970s Amal camps trained Shia activists from Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. As the civil war raged, Sadr’s Shia-centric actions and Persian accent brought about great distrust in the Lebanese Sunni community. Many accused him of treason and saw him as a threat to the Palestinian establishment and by extension to the larger Arab world.

His assassination was well-planned and well-known in advance. Before he left for Libya in 1978, the feared head of Syrian security Rifaat al-Assad (younger brother of then President Hafiz al-Assad and uncle of current leader Bashar al-Assad) summoned the Shah’s ambassador to Damascus to warn him of Libya’s plan. Sadr still held an Iranian passport and Assad did not want to damage relations with Tehran. But Sadr and two assistants left as planned to visit Gaddafy and none of them were never heard from again.

To his supporters Sadr became known as the “vanished Imam”. Despite his disappearance Amal remained a major force in Lebanese politics. He welcomed the 1982 Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon as a liberation and flexed his power in the refugee camps after Israel expelled the PLO. They remained the leading Shia group until they were overshadowed by Hezbollah backed by the new theocratic Iranian government. Hezbollah won respect in Sunni communities after it took on the IDF and forced it to retreat from southern Lebanon.

The issue of Sadr’s disappearance dragged on to become the subject of a major dispute between Libya and Lebanon. Gaddafy refused to attend an 2002 Arab summit in Beirut after Shia groups threatened him. Libya closed its Beirut embassy claiming it was insulted by Lebanese pressure to reveal Sadr’s fate. In 2004, Sadr’s son filed a suit against Gaddafy and 17 members of his government. Lebanon claimed to have new information about the disappearance and the country’s chief prosecutor said former Libyan Prime Minister Abdel Salam Jalloud and a former Libyan ambassador to Lebanon should also be summoned.

But the Libyan leader never responded to the summons. Gaddafy has not been back to Lebanon since Sadr disappeared. The arrest warrant against him allows magistrates to take such measures against suspects who fail to respond to an official summons. Lebanon knows its current arrest warrant is highly symbolic, but is unwilling to let the matter lie. Their Shia have emerged as a major political force and remain determined to get to the bottom of the fate of their “vanished imam”.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Blood letting at Fairfax begins: Age editor sacked

Andrew Jaspan, the editor of The Age, appears to be the first victim of the 550 job cuts announced by Fairfax yesterday. The company’s Victorian chief Don Churchill announced Jaspan’s departure to shocked staff of the Melbourne broadsheet this morning. In the staff memo, Churchill said Jaspan had “delivered great papers and has done a magnificent job in reinvigorating The Age”. However he said Fairfax had decided that for “this next critical stage of The Age we would have fresh editorial and executive leadership.” Jaspan’s departure follows that of The Age’s marketing manager Antony Catalano who Churchill also sacked yesterday.

While Jaspan didn’t endear himself to Age journalists over his decisions to allow commercial partnerships to compromise editorial independence, his departure is a concern as it does not appear to be made for journalistic or editorial reasons. Newspaper quality is certain to suffer as journalists follow Jaspan out the door. Fairfax CEO David Kirk hopes to save $50 million with the cuts and the redundancies amount to five percent of the company’s total staff. Crikey editor Jonathan Green believes the two departures confirm the impression that the future business plan for the newspaper is about controlling costs rather than going for growth.

The redundancies news was delivered by the company’s senior brass, CEO David Kirk and deputy CEO Brian McCarthy. Kirk and McCarthy painted the move as a “major restructure of corporate and group services” designed to improve productivity and performance. The job losses were spread across many areas of the business with three in ten redundancies affecting editorial staff in Australia and New Zealand. Fairfax will outsource production of the sections and special reports that are inserted into its papers. The two Sydney newspapers, the Morning Herald and The Sun-Herald, will be merged under a seven-day roster while Melbourne would suffer a “deferral of wage reviews for senior management, a review of our marketing spend, reduction of discretionary spending and a review of our distribution framework.”

Caroline Overington
at Murdoch’s The Australian quotes Sydney reporters who say Fairfax is abandoning quality journalism at its flagship newspapers. She said Sydney staff passed a motion after they heard the news saying they had "lost confidence in the Fairfax board and its ability to manage the company through these challenging financial times when its only strategy is to cut editorial staff again and again". Sydney Morning Herald journalist Gerard Noonan called management "gutless" and said they were using "the worst of the Work Choices legislation" to make deep cuts to journalism. "This is a panicked response," he said. "Management is clearly struggling to deal with how to handle the complex demands of high-end, quality journalism."

Another Murdoch media analyst, Mark Day, says the announcement has deputy CEO Brian McCarthy’s fingerprints “all over it”. McCarthy was the former head of John B. Fairfax’s Rural Press, which merged with Fairfax Media 15 months ago in a $9 billion deal. McCarthy’s model at Rural Press was based on small editorial and sales teams using centralised printing facilities to produce more than 100 mastheads. He was notorious for cost-cutting and hated by journalists who claimed reporting capacity was sacrificed for profits. But Day says the model won’t work for the city broadsheets. “The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age need to be agenda-setting and relevant to consumer interests to have an influential role in modern societies,” he said. “This cannot be achieved by filling the gap between the ads with the kind of cheap-as-chips copy-sharing and PR-supplied bumf that McCarthy’s regional weeklies have been able to get away with."

Chris Warren from the Journalists’ union MEAA (Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance) believes the sackings show the newspaper industry is in crisis. He was unimpressed by Kirk and McCarthy’s mantra that "media companies fit for the modern media world need to be lean and agile". Warren told the ABC PM program yesterday he had “absolutely no idea” what the company actually meant by that statement. “You can't produce this sort of quality product that are so essential in this day and age by cutting costs,” he said. Professor of Journalism Wendy Bacon agrees with Warren and she told the same program that quality impact was inevitable. “Now, I know of no research that's accurately measured this, but certainly anecdotally, already errors have been cropping up where you wouldn't have previously seen them,” she said.

These errors are sure to increase given that 120 journalists are among the jobs slashed. More worrying is the likelihood that the cuts will see further erosion in the commitment to quality journalism. While quality is a difficult characteristic to determine, journalism academics such as David Conley have used the measure of at least one journalist per one thousand circulation. The Fairfax broadsheets fall well short on this measure. And with salaries and expenses frozen and no new cadets to be taken on this year, it is unlikely we will be seeing too many investigative scoops or damning exposes of dubious doings of those in high office. A further “dumbing down” of news is the most likely outcome.

Only the markets were happy with Fairfax’s slash and burn exercise. The share price closed last night at $2.98 up 14c and a rise of five percent for the day. ABN Amro media analyst Fraser McLeish saw the cuts as positive because “they’re aligning the costs with the revenues, which is what you want to see.” While McLeish sympathised with those working for Fairfax, he said it was in line what was happening to the newspaper business elsewhere. “You just have to look overseas to what's happening there,” he said. “Five per cent of the workforce is a lot less than what some of the big US newspapers are announcing."

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

ICANN loosens the strings of Internet control

The online world is slowly digesting the consequences of the Internet naming agency’s new plan to sell domain names to the highest bidder. The California-based International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) appears to have sanctioned a free-for-all online auctioning of disputed internet domain addresses that could cost companies millions. Andrew Watson, managing director of Scottish-based network firm Quorum said the scheme would be a nightmare for brand owners. "It raises a whole host of issues around brands and trademarks and if a company can actually legitimately own a name,” he said.

The news comes hot on the heels of another contentious ICANN decision. After years of careful rationing out top level domain names, ICANN announced in June there would be an effective free-for-all in naming standards. Previously there were only a handful such as dot-com, dot-edu and dot-net. Some are now claiming this freeing up of domain names reduces the need for an authority such as ICANN at all. But as the Irish Times points out, the new freedom doesn’t mean ICANN has forgone the power to meddle with naming conventions whenever they or the US government wants. “It just means that ICANN has fewer critics among the domain name registrars,” said the Times.

The root authority is the closest thing to a global authority on the Internet. Ownership of this asset is therefore greatly prized. In the early days of the Internet it was ad admin task for a young Stanford computer scientist named Jon Postel. It was Postel’s idea to propose the top-level domain system. While he wasn’t busy sorting this out, he co-wrote an application called “Simple Mail Transfer Protocol” which became better known as e-mail.

Postel had assumed the nickname of “Protocol Czar” by the time the modern accepted domain name system was fully operational in the 1980s. His authority in this area was uncontested. But in 1990 Stanford lost the defence contract to administer the root to a small unknown company called Network Solutions Inc (NSI). A system of power sharing began, where NSI registered new domain names but Postel retained policy authority to determine the number and content of top-level domains.

This partnership worked reasonably well until money reared its ugly head. In 1995. NSI won the right to charge applicants for domain names. At $50 a year per domain, it wasn’t long before NSI was making mega-bucks as the Internet exploded. By 1999 they were collecting $200m a year. Some of the Internet’s early gurus took exception to the way this system was being monetised. Co-designer of the TCP/IP network protocol, Vinton Cerf, was a close friend of Postel and shared his vision about Internet governance. In 1991 Cerf founded the Internet Society (ISOC) in attempt to provide a source of governance funding independent of the US Defence Department.

The goal of ISOC was complete its authority over the internet by taking on NSI’s domain-naming contract when it expired in 1998. They created a new panel called the International Ad Hoc Committee (IAHC) with trademark owners that would set up a structure for the future of naming and numbering authority. The plan called for the elimination of NSI and independence from the US government. In 1997 they signed an agreement in Geneva with major telecommunications and computer firms in anticipation of gaining full authority.

But the US government was not about to give up with a fight. Bill Clinton assigned his friend and Internet policy Czar Ira Magaziner to ensure the US retained ultimate authority over Net security and structure. Magaziner cultivated opposition to the IAHC. He met Cerf and Postel and delivered a clear message that only the US would decide the future of Internet naming and numbering. When an angry Postel went ahead and changed root authority in 1998, Magaziner confronted him. Postel claimed they were merely “conducting a test”. Magaziner threatened Postel’s job and Stamford with bankruptcy and Postel relented. The day after, the US released a Green Paper making it clear that tampering with root authority was a criminal offence. The incident took its toll on Postel who died nine months later.

But having exerted control, the US government was loath to use it. Magaziner created a new organisation called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). It was based on a frame devised by Postel but remained under contract to the US Commerce Department. US control angered the EU but they were mollified when it gave the primary role in resolving domain name trademark disputes to the European-based World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO).

Despite occasional criticism for lack of transparency, ICANN has successfully decentralised the sale and distribution of domain names. This resulted in a dramatic drop in the price of registration. It established an effective mechanism for resolving trademark disputes and diminished the problem of “cybersquatting” (a problem, many say will now return with the 'highest bidder' changes). Most importantly it has retained confidence in its ability provide a stable naming and numbering system. Cerf became the quintessential poacher-turned-gamekeeper and assumed the chair of ICANN. But even with the idealists at the helm, the US government has always retained rigid control over root naming rights, and with it, Internet governance.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Malcolm in the middle: Liberal sprinklings of Turnbull

With the Australian parliament set to resume tomorrow, ABC’s Four Corners set the scene nicely with an enjoyable review of the “brilliant career” of Opposition Treasury Spokesman Malcolm Turnbull. The review is timely. With Liberal leader Brendan Nelson about to fall on his own sword and Peter Costello too busy selling his book, Turnbull is about to complete a meteoric rise to party leadership after just four years in parliament. And apart from serving up the occasional doozy such as the “the winter in Malcolm’s tent”, the ABC provided an enlightening coverage of most of the Turnbull bases in their unauthorised review. Turnbull refused to co-operate with the ABC despite initial agreement. But several key Liberal powerbrokers were prepared to go on camera. Tony Abbott, himself with longer-term leadership aspirations, said “Malcolm is one of those people who is destined for great things” and called him a determined and focussed human being.

As Abbott well knew with the question ABC asked him, these features are conspicuously absent in Peter Costello. But like Costello, the biggest prize of all may yet elude him. Turnbull is the richest man in parliament but money can’t buy him what he most wants: the Prime Ministership. Even as Liberal leader, he is likely to lose the next election. Will he hang around until 2013 to find out if he can get the top job? Or is it time for another audacious move and suggest a national government with Labor? After all, his views on climate change and the economy are not substantially different from Rudd’s. It seems even left-wing Phillip Adams thinks the “Bollinger Bolshevik” is the best man for the job.

Turnbull, as Adams says, has always been a winner. Malcolm Turnbull was a Rhodes Scholar who paid for his law and arts degree by working as a political journalist. After being appointed to the bar, Kerry Packer appointed him legal counsel when he was just 28 years old. He defended Packer in the 1984 Costigan royal commission. Confidential case summaries were leaked to the National Times which revealed a prominent businessman codenamed “Goanna” was accused of allegations of drug trafficking and maybe murder. It was Turnbull’s strategy for Packer to identify himself as the “Goanna” and turn public sympathy in his favour.

But it was the Spycatcher trial which made him a star. Fellow legal eagle and party front bencher Julie Bishop told Four Corners “we marvelled at a young Australian barrister taking on the British Government". Turnbull revelled in the “larrikin” role, brash and more aggressive than anything ever seen in an Australian court. Margaret Thatcher dispatched top civil servant Sir Robert Armstrong to give evidence. Turnbull tied him in knots and made him admit the British government were “economical with the truth”. The subsequent victory won Turnbull notoriety and professional esteem in equal measure.

Flush with success, Turnbull left the law and moved to high finance. He established investment banking firm Whitlam Turnbull and co with Nick Whitlam (Labor giant Gough’s son) and long-term NSW Premier Neville Wran. The company was funded with $25m from Packer and another $25m from fixer Larry Adler. It was hugely successful and involved in most of the major media deals in the 1990s. The company was heavily associated with Packer’s bid to take over Fairfax in 1991 in an attempt to gain access to their “rivers of gold” - the Melbourne and Sydney classified ads. But the bid proved extremely acrimonious. Turnbull fell out with Packer and fellow consortium member Conrad Black. Turnbull then became an active player in the bid by representing US bond holders who held $450m of potential worthless junk bonds in Fairfax. When MPs from all parties signed petitions criticising the bid, the Hawke Government was forced to hold a parliamentary enquiry. Packer was called to give evidence and was not happy. “I appear here this afternoon reluctantly” he said. He called the enquiry’s bluff. “You’re either going to have to believe me or call me a liar". The enquiry backed off. But Packer was lying; there was “an arrangement” for him to take over. Packer had lined up his offsider Trevor Kennedy to become Fairfax CEO.

Turnbull got revenge for Packer freezing him out of the bid by snitching on him. Turnbull secretly gave Trevor Kennedy’s private notes of his Packer dealings to the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal enquiry chairman Peter Westaway. Sydney University media academic Rod Tiffen says Turnbull feared for his life if anyone found out. But no one made the connection, and the ammunition killed Packer. Two days later Packer withdrew from the Fairfax bid. The leaked notes had showed Packer was lying to parliament. Tiffen said what Turnbull did helped Australian democracy though “whether he did it for that reason we’ll never know”. He certainly helped his bond holders who got their money back and also helped Conrad Black, who briefly won Fairfax. Black is now in jail after his financial shady dealings were exposed. He wrote to Four Corners from his prison in Florida. “I remember Four Corners with some amusement,” he began, “I knew (Turnbull) as an aggressive and opportunity lawyer. Kerry though he was talented and energetic but impetuous and unpredictable… Fifteen years ago there may be have been some questions about his judgement but that may not be the case any more”.

Black may be being disingenuous. Because Turnbull’s judgement does remain in question. Tony Abbott called him “determined and focussed, at best remarkably genial and charming companion” but at worst “a bit of a volcano”. Those who worked with Turnbull in the Australian Republican campaign saw all these sides of his character. Tim Costello, who wanted a different republican model, says Turnbull “bought the franchise.” And Turnbull had put a lot of his money and time into the exercise - $2m of his own money. But despite the idea of an Australian Republic have overwhelming support in 1998, it failed in a referendum a year later. Another pro-Republic opponent Phil Cleary said Turnbull “pranced around like a character of an Oscar Wilde play.” The divisions played into the hands of the monarchist Prime Minister John Howard and the public voted Turnbull’s model down. Greg Barns says Turnbull was misjudged and called him the “intellectual powerhouse” of the campaign.

But the powerhouse was deeply embittered and called Howard “the PM who broke people’s hearts”. Yet when he launched his own political career four years later, John Howard helped him do it. Howard supported Turnbull for a branch stack preselection in his home exclusive Sydney seat of Wentworth. According to Alexander Downer (who like Tony Abbott, did not support the move) “we felt sorry for his predecessor (Peter King) but he hadn’t made impact, [and] wasn’t a strong performer.” Howard forgave Turnbull the republican tongue-lashing and overruled his lieutenants to elect a star recruit, and a man who was most definitely, a strong performer.

But since winning election in 2004 Turnbull has had to learn the basic skills of politics, including the art of humility. For his maiden speech he bussed hundreds of supporters in to listen to him re-invent his image. "I grew up living in flats—mostly rented—and, in the style of the times, with small rooms running off a long, dark corridor,” he said. “I did not feel deprived of anything—apart, perhaps, from a dog. I was rarely inside. The best things in Wentworth—the waves at Bondi, the ducks at Centennial Park or even the brisk nor'easter whipping down the harbour on a summer's day—take no account of your bank balance.”

But others were taking account of his bank balance. While the HIH royal commission had no adverse finding against Turnbull, allegations persist he played a role in Australia’s biggest corporate collapse. The HIH liquidator is now suing Turnbull and Goldman Sachs Australia (GSA) for part of $529m lost in HIH collapse. The case against him rests on whether he knew FAI was worth less than the books showed and whether he endorsed his friend Rodney Adler’s takeover of the company. Adler had hired Turnbull and GSA on the proposed takeover of FAI for a $1.5m success fee. The liquidators now argue in the NSW Supreme Court that the parties knew the company was overvalued. Turnbull says the claim is defective and has no basis in fact. But if there is no settlement, it is possible he could appear as a defendant in court in the run-up to the next major election.

What position Turnbull will be in that next election is likely to be decided in the next month. Nelson’s bad hair days will end soon. But who will succeed him? As the ABC says, Turnbull is currently crisscrossing the country in a virtual campaign while Costello continues spruiking his book in his Hamlet “to be or not to be” moment. The born-to-rule Fortinbras of Wentworth is waiting in the wings for the nor'easter whipping down the harbour in the next act.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Doing Obama’s Biden: Delaware Senator is VP choice

Barack Obama formally announced Delaware Senator Joe Biden as his running mate at a rally in Springfield, Illinois yesterday. The news had first been released in the form of emails and text messages sent to millions of supporters earlier in the day with Obama hailing Biden as a “distinguished leader”. The 65 year old six-term senator offers an obvious differentiating factor to Obama with Democrats calling out his vast political experience especially in the field of foreign affairs.

The McCain campaign immediately went on the offensive calling the choice of Biden an admission that Obama was not ready to be president. While John McCain called Biden “a wise selection”, his spokesman Ben Porritt was less conciliatory saying Biden was a harsh critic of Obama. "Biden has denounced Barack Obama's poor foreign policy judgment and has strongly argued in his own words what Americans are quickly realising - that Barack Obama is not ready to be president,” he said. The McCain camp followed this up with an attack ad of footage of Biden criticising Obama.

Nevertheless, Biden is a carefully considered choice. With just three electoral college seats in a north-east state that were likely to go to the Democrats anyway, Delaware was not an obvious match for the Illinois presidential candidate. However Biden’s has three crucial aces in his pack that made him the stand-out choice to support Obama. Firstly his tenure as chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee gives him international gravitas sorely lacking in the younger man. Secondly his appeal to working-class Americans may see him pick up votes for the team that went to Hillary Clinton in the primary campaign. Thirdly is the fact that Biden is a native of Pennsylvania, one of the crucial swing states in the election.

Biden himself has run for President twice, firstly in 1988 and again this year. In 1988 his campaign was sensationally cut short when it was discovered one of his speeches was plagiarising British Labour leader Neil Kinnock. Just days later the New York Times reported Biden had also plagiarised a law review article in his first year university law course. When Biden compounded the problem by claiming his degree was better than it was, he was forced to withdraw from the campaign blaming “the exaggerated shadow” of his mistakes.

Biden came out of the shadows twenty years later and announced he would run again for president in early 2007. This brought him directly into contention against Barack Obama who, like Biden, was then seen as an outside chance compared to Hillary Clinton. Biden had just spearheaded the Democratic pushback against President Bush’s plan to increase troop levels in Iraq and was keen to establish his credentials in this area against the other candidates. In February 2007 he told the New York Observer that Obama was “articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy” but doubted whether American voters are going to elect “a one-term, a guy who has served for four years in the Senate.”

But Biden’s own presidential campaign never got off the ground. Biden was a solid enough performer and avoided the mistakes of 1988. He probably had the best quip of the campaign when he said of Rudy Giuliani “there’s only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun, a verb and 9-11.” He was also contemptuous of the neo-con agenda and called Bush “brain dead”. However he was forced to withdraw from the race after picking up just one percent of the Iowa caucus delegates.

Now it will be Biden’s job to sell Obama despite the inexperience problem he himself had diagnosed a year earlier. Plenty has changed since then including Biden’s own views. In June he told NBC’s Meet the Press he was interested in the Vice Presidential position. "If the presidential nominee thought I could help him win — am I going to say to the first African-American candidate about to make history in the world that, 'No, I will not help you out like you want me to'?” he said. “Of course...I'll say yes."

It will be Biden’s job now to heal the faultlines the primary campaign exposed in the Democrats. Obama drew on overwhelming support from blacks and his strengths are among well-educated and middle class voters. Primary exit polls also showed mass support among the under 30 year old voters. Biden can help with the white, ageing underclass that Hillary Clinton won and that might be otherwise tempted to sway to McCain. He will be an effective attack dog without being “all that exciting”. With the media parsing every utterance from the candidates from here to November, a safe and steady run-in is precisely what the Obama campaign needs now.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Iraqi end games: Shia Government says US troops out by 2011

Though it is hazardous exercise setting a military withdrawal timetable three months before a US presidential election, Iraq says it has signed a deal that could see all US troops out of the country by 2011. As well as the doubts on the US side, Chief negotiator Mohammed al-Haj Hammoud and Iraq’s Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs also has to sell the so-called “27 point deal” to his own parliament but it may be the best chance to lock the US into a timetable for withdrawal. Hammoud said Baghdad and Washington had agreed to "withdraw the US troops from Iraq by end of 2011." The US is refusing to confirm the deal is finalised, but it is there for negotiation even if no-one is mentioning the agenda of where Iraq’s oil goes.

But if the US troops leave, the contest will go on in Baghdad and Basra as the consequences of the genie Saddam’s removal from power continue to be felt. The clash of whether Sunnis or Shias inherit his kingdom is a battle the US can no longer manage. During his long regime Saddam was a political opportunist who was quick to bend in what favourable wind was blowing. But he was also a Sunni and when US tanks rolled into Baghdad in April 2003, the long Sunni reign in Mesopotamia was over. According to Vali Nasr’s theory in “The Shia Revival”, Iraq is now the vanguard of a new Shia power, subtly different from the more theocratical version next door in Iran.

Hussein was deeply hostile of Iraqi Shias whom he believed were in secret allegiance with their co-religionists in Iran. Shia were also a majority in his own country. But they were concentrated in the south around Basra. Hussein’s clan was from the Sunni north where power was concentrated. When the British left the “mandate” of Iraq they handed over power to the Sunni. Senior diplomat Gertrude Bell, the “uncrowned queen of Iraq” and “daughter of the desert”, harboured suspicions of the prickly Shia mullahs and ayatollahs whom she believed were behind the revolt against the British at the end of World War I. The Shia uluma reciprocated and watched in bitterness as Bell handed power to the Sunnis.

The subsequent Sunni 80 year reign was only briefly punctuated by the 1958 coup in which Colonel Qasim overthrew and murdered Iraq’s last king Faisal II. Qasim was nominally Sunni but his mother was Shia and he had close ties to Iraq’s Communist Party which was also Shia. But Qasim lasted only five years before he was himself was deposed. The subsequent rise of Arab nationalism and Ba’thism kept the Shia further out of the picture.

When Saddam came to power, he ruthlessly suppressed any hint of Shia revolt against his regime. According to Vali Nasr, he systematically neglected the cities of the south and starved them of services. He caused the environmental catastrophe of the draining of riparian wetlands so they could no longer shelter anti-Saddam rebels. One million poverty-stricken Shia were forced to seek homes in the slums that surround Baghdad and Basra. As well, Saddam banned public Shia festivals such as Ashoura and murdered popular religious leaders. He also discouraged pilgrimages to shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala, the two holiest places of Shia orthodoxy.

Despite a litany of oppression, the Shia remained generally mute and mostly loyal. It was not until George Bush Snr’s false call to rebellion in 1991, that they lashed out. A riot in Basra rapidly spread north to Karbala and Najaf boosted by Bush 41's call for Iraqis to overthrow Saddam. But when a horrified Saudi Arabia saw the extent of the Shia uprising, they influenced the US to stay out of the resulting conflict. US forces in the Euphrates Valley merely watched on as Saddam crushed the revolt with the tanks of his praetorian division he had kept out of the war – the dreaded Republican Guard.

And while the Americans fiddled, Shia towns burned and the shrines at Karbala and Najaf were shelled. No one lifted a finger to help as tens of thousands of Shias died. One Iraqi general told the New Yorker he had captured many people whom he divided into three groups; those whom he knew were involved in the rebellion, those he wasn’t sure about, and those he knew had no involvement. He telephone High Command to ask what to do with them. “They said we should kill them all,” said the general, “and that’s what we did.”

Many mass graves would not be found until after the fall of Saddam. And it wasn’t until 30 January 2005 when Iraqis went to the polls that Sunni dominance would finally end. The hugely influential Ayatollah Sistani brokered a truce between Shia factions to present a united face. Only after Shia majority rule had been won, argued Sistani, could the Shia quibble about who precisely rules and under what system. The Shia House took 48 percent of the vote and almost half the seats in the new parliament. They did better again in the December elections that year and won 46 percent of all the seats, more than the Sunni and Kurdish blocks put together.

But the Shia alliance is an artificial one and remains fraught with hazard. There are three big power blocks. Firstly there is Sistani himself allied with the other grand ayatollahs of Najaf. Unlike their Iranian counterparts they have not been inclined to turn Iraq into an Islamic Republic. But they remain hugely influential. The second power block is the slum rebellion in Baghdad, Basra and Kirkuk led by Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr is the scion of a prominent Shia family who inherited a huge flock of urban poor from his cleric father who was murdered by Saddam. He is now trying to turn his Mahdi Army into a political machine.

The third element in Iraqi Shia politics is the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC). SIIC and its military wing, the Badr Brigade, straddle the boundary between Sistani and Sadr. Founded as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) by the Hakim Brothers, their father was a Najaf Ayatollah. The Hakims fled to Qom in Iran in the 1980s and their Badr Brigade fought in the war against Saddam. When Sunni extremists killed one brother in 2003, the other, Abdul-Aziz Hakim became SIIC’s leader.

The current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is from none of these three factions. He represents the nonclerical Islamic Da’wa Party but as the name would suggest it too has Islamists roots, dating back to a Saddam-era party dedicated to the establishment of an Islamic state in Iraq. Dawa and Maliki now depend on a coalition of Sadr and SIIC to rule. Sadr will not be happy with the timescale of the US withdrawal nor the vague conditions of “security” that might delay it. SIIC will proceed cautiously but Hakim is proving to be a surprisingly gifted operator and far from being an Iranian stooge.

Hakim’s political front the “United Arab Alliance” is the largest single party in parliament. In 2006 he met George W Bush at the Oval Office where he claimed the Iraqi situation has been “subjected to a great deal of defamation”. Hakim said US, Iraqi, and regional interests were are all linked. But he made it clear Iraq was going to go its own way. “We believe that the Iraqi issue should be solved by the Iraqis with the help of friends everywhere,” he told Bush 43. “But we reject any attempts to have a regional or international role in solving the Iraqi issue.” With an 2011 agenda now in place, McCain or Obama will have to take this man on his own merits.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Picasso and his collection at Brisbane’s GOMA

Police in Sao Paulo have recovered a Picasso painting stolen two months ago by armed robbers. The 1933 painting "Minotaur, Drinker and Women" was found wrapped in paper in a woods by the side of a highway near Brazil’s largest city. Police say it was abandoned there by thieves who stole another Picasso and two other paintings from the city’s Pinacoteca Museum. All four paintings, with an estimated value of $630,000, have now been recovered.

Nothing quite so dramatic in Brisbane’s art show dedicated to Picasso, but an enjoyable exhibition here nonetheless, at the city’s stunning Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA). “Picasso and his Collection” is an exhibition of his personal art collection showing at the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) from 9 June to 14 September. GoMA is the first venue outside Europe to host the collection. The exhibition features 80 of the artist's own works interspersed with over 100 works from other artists in his extraordinary private collection.

Pablo Picasso is probably one of the greatest painters of the 20th century and certainly one of the most inventive. From the time he moved to Paris in 1900, aged 19 to his death 73 long years later, he explored every imaginable style from realistic to abstract. He worked in many mediums including paintings, drawings, sculptures in stone, bronze, wood, and printmaking. He invented the collage technique, co-founded Cubism and was one of the pioneers of Surrealism.

He was born 1881 in Malaga with the improbable name of Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Martyr Patricio Clito Ruíz y Picasso. Ruiz was his father’s name; Picasso his mother’s. The other names honoured various family members and saints in traditional Spanish fashion. His father José Ruiz y Blasco was a well known painter in his own right and an art teacher who instilled a love of classic art in his son. After studying art in Barcelona, the young Pablo went to Paris, where he was befriended by the poet Max Jacob. The pair shared a tiny apartment, Jacob slept in the single bed by night and Picasso slept by day.

Gradually, Paris transformed Picasso and his painting. Through Jacob he got to know most the great cultural figures of the city and through exhibitions at the salon des independents he got to know most of its art. Picasso would prove to be a great collector of art too and he inherited his father’s love of the old masters, in particular the 19th century realist paintings of Louis Le Nain, Jean-Baptiste Chardin and Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot.

Picasso loved their primitiveness and called their works “pure painting”. He painted “Returning from the Christening (after Le Nain)” in pointillist style in Le Nain’s honour. He acquired Gustave Courbet’s “Head of a Chamois” which turned its subject matter into a minotaur and then recreated the moment in his own visceral 1952 painting “Goats Skull, bottle and candle”. Picasso was also deeply affected by the realist paintings of Henri Rousseau which in turn inspired many in Picasso’s own set. Juan Miro said “it was at Picasso’s place I first saw a Rousseau”.

As well as the realist masters, Picasso loved the works of Gauguin, Degas, Cezanne and Renoir. He saw all their works as they were displayed in Paris. Once again, it was the primitivism of Gauguin that captured Picasso’s imagination. He was also deeply influenced by Gauguin's Tahitian diary Noa Noa. Picasso was no great fan of the impressionists but when Gauguin, Degas and others disassociated themselves from the movement, they were seen as providing the origins of the modernist movement.

This movement was all around Picasso. His poet friend Guillaume Apollinaire decried impressionism and said it was time “for an art that is nobler, bettered ordered and more cultivated”. Picasso himself also admired Cezanne and Renoir as “dissidents of impressionism” and he called himself “the grandson of Cezanne”. Meanwhile Renoir’s fleshy nudes were art in a classical vein free of any dry formalism. These paintings inspired Picasso’s 1920s “large bathers” series.

Picasso first collaborated with George Braque in 1907. Picasso had by then become intrigued by African and Polynesian art forms and was starting to build up his own collection of masks, drums and totems. As well, Cezanne’s later work began to break up the painted surface into small multifaceted areas of paint. Together, Picasso and Braque began to paint objects in broken-up and abstract forms flattened into geometric forms viewed from different angles showing “all sides at once”. Cubism was born. The pair worked on each others paintings and were fascinated by the idea of anonymous art. When Picasso designed the costumes, masks and sets for the 1920 Stravinsky ballet Pulcinella, the masks were modelled on the Mukuyi masks from Gabon in his personal collection.

It was Apollinaire again who coined the term surrealism in 1917 to describe Jean Cocteau's ballet Parade and his own play The Mammaries of Tiresias. Picasso quickly became enamoured of the new word and its possibilities. “I’m interested in a deeper level of resemblance, more real than reality, which reaches the level of surreal,” he said. Picasso participated in the surrealist painters’ first exhibition at the Galerie Pierre in 1925 alongside Max Ernst, Giorgio de Chirico, Joan Miró, Hans Arp and Paul Klee. However he refused to affiliate himself with the movement, always preferring to be, as Victor Brauner put it in 1953, "a great initiator".

Throughout his artistic life, Picasso had a great friendship and rivalry with Henri Matisse. Their meeting in 1906 marked the beginning of a relationship based on reciprocal admiration and a creative rivalry. Gertrude Stein said they both showed “great enthusiasm for the other, without actually liking each other much”. Both men were inspired on to further greatness by the works of the other but neither deigned to copy. As Picasso said “a painter’s studio must be a laboratory. It is not about aping but about invention. Painting is done in the mind”. The GoMA exhibition ends with Picasso’s Le Vieil homme assis (the seated old man) 1970–71, a disguised self-portrait of which the brilliant colours speak in memory of Matisse. As he neared his own death he could confidently state “No-one has ever looked at Matisse’s painting as closely as I have”.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Brave Niue World: Pacific Islands Forum opens

The Honourable Toke Tufukia Talagi MP, Prime Minister of Niue, formally opened the 39th Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders on Tuesday. Talagi takes on the chair of the forum for the next four years taking over from Tongan Prime Minister Feleti Sevele. The Niuean PM named climate change as the most pressing concern for the forum. “The challenges for the region is no longer a matter for research or scientific theory and modelling,” he said. “The evidence is quite clear that climate change is already wreaking havoc here.”

Talagi was referring to 2004’s Cyclone Heta which devastated the capital Alofi. Although one person died, he said if that cyclone had struck one of the lower-lying islands in the Pacific, “a human disaster might surely have eventuated”. Talagi said the PIF shouldn't wait until a worse human catastrophe occurs before acting. He said the current international attention on climate change presents an opportunity for the region “to negotiate and secure tangible assistance for people already affected by climate change."

15 of the PIFs heads of government attended the summit. Fijian dictator Frank Bainimarama was the odd man out. He announced two days ago he was boycotting the forum to concentrate on “political issues at home”. The PIF expressed concern at Fiji’s absence and condemned Bainimarama’s recent statement delaying free elections beyond 2010. Australian PM and regional Big Brother Kevin Rudd believes Bainimarama has made a “grave error” by not attending. “If there is a mood across this Pacific Island Forum,” he said, “it's that Bainimarama has gone not just one step too far but many steps to far.

The forum is a rare moment in the spotlight for the small coral island 2,400 km north-east of New Zealand and 350km west of Tonga. Niue (pronounced “neeooway,” with a strong accent on the “way.”) means “behold the coconut”. It has a population of just over 1,000 which has been in decline for over 40 years. Polynesians lived on the island for many centuries before Captain Cook sailed by in 1774 denoting it “Savage Island” for its unfriendly welcome. British missionaries first arrived in the 1830s and in 1887 King Fata-a-iki bowed to the inevitable and ceded control of the island to London.

New Zealand then gained the island as a reward for its contribution to the Boer War. Since 1974 Niue has been independent "in free association" with Wellington. This means it has its own government but New Zealand is responsible for its foreign affairs. All Niuean are entitled to NZ citizenship and the “country” is reliant on NZ aid to survive. The PIF was a first hand opportunity for NZ prime minister Helen Clark to see how Niue is using a $20 million aid package to help the island recover from the 2004 cyclone.

Such oversight is necessary as Niue has a shady reputation for finance appropriation. In 2000 the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) named the island as one of 35 tax havens three days after the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) placed Niue on a money laundering blacklist. In 2002, FATF took Niue off the blacklist after the administration made “significant progress made by the jurisdiction in improving its anti-money laundering systems”.

But the continued financial due diligence may be beyond the diminished resources of this tiny island. The island's isolation and lack of industry makes it heavily dependent on New Zealand aid. The official population of 1,400 may go down further if the island holds firm on its promise to become the world’s first smoke-free jurisdiction. The island’s 250 smokers are likely to join the 20,000 Niueans already in New Zealand. With so little human capital left, Niue relies on the generosity of Wellington to survive.

Hope for future success depends on the new economy and Niue’s top level domain name “.nu”. Just as Tuvalu cashed in on its media friendly “.tv” name, Niue is relying on the fact that “nu” means “now” in Dutch and the Scandinavian languages. The island receives just 25 percent of the profits from its domain registry. But even there, Niue claims it has been cheated out of the .nu revenues by an American carpetbagger with whom they shared the rights. Talagi’s predecessor as Premier, Young Vivian, complained bitterly about the deal. "The key issue is that reasonable benefits should come to Niue," he says. "That is the goal of any leader."

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Gori story: Russian troops stall in Stalin’s birthplace

Russian troops remain stationed in the eastern Georgian city of Gori despite agreeing to a ceasefire on the weekend. Russia seems in no hurry to carry out its part of the bargain and leave. Gori is not Ossetian territory, it is Georgian. Nevertheless the Russians don’t appear to be in a hurry to leave the town of 60,000 people. Russia is ignoring the protests of NATO as “biased” saying they won’t withdraw, at least back to Ossetia, until Georgia fulfils its commitments in the ceasefire plan.

But with the ceasefire terms favouring Russia, Georgia will baulk at fulfilling its commitments first, ensuring a continuation of this game of ‘chicken’. The short term six-point plan brokered by French President Sarkozy involves Russia ending its military operations, returning behind the line where the war started and not using force again in Georgia. In return, Georgia would return its armed forces to their permanent locations. The plan doesn’t address the longer-term issue of Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. But it is unlikely that Ossetia will be part of Georgia in any longer-term plan.

Gori should be safely Georgian under such a plan though it doesn’t seem that way at the moment. Situated just 75km upstream of the capital Tblisi on the Mtkvari River, Gori is Georgian heartland. It is also the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. The town is home to one of the few remaining extant monuments to the 20th century Soviet dictator. The number of visitors to its Stalin museum was recently on the rise, though the museum gave a carefully edited account of his life omitting such events as the Great Terror that killed millions. The museum is closed at the moment as a new terror of sorts surrounds Gori.

Journalists from the British newspaper The Independent reached the city on Monday by taking back roads. They say Russian soldiers gathered outside the front of the badly damaged Stalin museum and took cell phone pictures of each other. Underneath Stalin’s statue in the town square was where Georgian troops mustered before attacking the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali. Now the Georgian troops have fled, leaving only Russians and the world’s media to freely roam the streets.

Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher is also in Gori at the moment. Like the team from the Independent, Fisher sees little sign of a Russian withdrawal in the wings. On the contrary, he says more men and machines are heading further into Georgia than those coming out and sees Gori as a Russian base for further action. He says the Russians are laying out defensive positions to the road to Tbilisi. Fisher quotes Alexander Lomaia, a Georgian national security adviser who has been in the town since the Russians arrive. “Last night the Russian general promised that they will start pulling out at 10 this morning,” said Lomaia. “But I've just seen him again [and] he said that the pullout is not a major issue he is dealing [with], right now".

But while journalists flock to the danger zone, locals have fled. Four out of every five people in Gori fled the city when it came under Russian land and air attack. Some have drifted back but food is scarce. The town is physically dominated by the medieval fortress of Goris-Tsikhe, which was greatly damaged in a 1920 earthquake. But it has not, to my knowledge, been further damaged in this conflict.

Some say it likely the Russians may now stay in Gori until at least 26 August. On that date, the Russian parliament is set to meet to discuss the South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence recognition requests. Some analysts think that the emboldened Russians may simply ignore these requests and annex the two states, though it is possible that could create a rod for their own back. However Radio Netherlands has also reported Russian puppet President Dmitry Medvedev saying all Russian soldiers will have left Georgia by Friday at the latest. How true that statement will turn out, depends on whether it has been cleared by the real Russian power: Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Private war: the media lines up against the lawyers over Privacy Laws

According to the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC), eighty percent of what they recommend becomes in time, Australian law. That makes them, by any reckoning, a powerful organisation and one that needs to be treated seriously when they come up new recommendations. As noted by Media Watch last night, they are currently engaged in a curious battle with a media coalition over the digital power that goes by the name of Privacy. Last week, the ARLC published its final 2,700 page report (pdf) on its exhaustive review of privacy laws in Australia. On their record, it is likely that over 2,000 of its pages will be actioned. The Government has promised to respond in the next “twelve to eighteen months”.

So what is changing? Australia already has some privacy laws. And privacy is well enough understand in the analogue sense even if the boundaries are not carefully patrolled. But it is in its digital meaning, where the real battle for legality lies. The debate is caught up in other competing concepts of freedom of information, defamation and copyright. Media organisations are on the warpath even though one seasoned media observer, Mark Day, says “the report proposes merely would make legally unacceptable what the great majority of the media today considers is unacceptable.”

The proposed new laws have seven major components. They are 1) obligations to report breaches 2) uniform principles across government and business 3) requirements for cross-border data flows 4) consistency across the states and territories to avoid forum shopping 5) remove exemptions 6) introduce the tort of privacy and 7) increase penalties. The media has couched their arguments against the sixth element in an attempt to avoid the seventh.

Privacy is already a common law offence but ARLC’s sixth element introduces a statutory cause of action for serious invasion of privacy. To succeed in a prosecution on these grounds, there would need to be a reasonable expectation of privacy and the act must be deemed highly offensive “to a reasonable person”. The plaintiff would also need to show proof of invasion, and perhaps most difficult to determine, must also show the individual’s privacy trumps the other matters of public interest.

The media claims the tort will hinder the free flow of Information. Richard Ackland worries how we will catch “scoundrels”. As in the existing tort of defamation, the offence will have a “chilling effect” on reporting the doings of important and famous people as only they will have the wherewithal to take their grievances to court. This claim is spurious as the ability is already there in common law. Ackland should rest easily knowing that just as few “scoundrels” will be caught with the new laws as that are currently exposed with the existing supposed more favourable laws to the media.

The fact is the mainstream Australian media do not deserve special treatment. Treatment of celebrities as news has seriously distorted news judgement in this country to a point that is far from hallowed notions of freedom of speech. Trivial items are constantly aired when journalists become besotted by the subject and no longer ask themselves whether the event they are covering has any intrinsic merit. In any case, many public figures actively court a media profile which can make for difficult ethical questions as what parts of their lives, and their families lives, can de deemed public property. While the test should be whether the private matter under scrutiny adversely affects the person’s ability to do the job the public has entrusted to them, many in the media believe they have a right to publish whatever they want about public figures.

Journalists prefer to see a free flow of information on the argument that it helps society to function more efficiently and because it enhances their ability to perform the surveillance function of the fourth estate. But their own code of ethics says they must also respect private grief and personal privacy. Crucially that point in the code goes on to say “journalists have the right to resist compulsion to intrude.” This right is aimed at the owners and managers of media who order their people to intrude “so they can get the story”.

There are three sometimes conflicting obligations when considering privacy. They are getting the news out, showing compassion, and educating society. The first is the obligation they owe their employer, the second is the obligation they owe their sources and the third is the function of the fourth estate. But while they may have a legitimate desire to expose unfair, illegal or corrupt use of data, they must also respect the privacy of individuals. They must also be alert to new dangers involved in data matching. Data matching means finding new uses and correlations from the combination of seemingly unrelated data.

Astute journalists may be able to use such digital forms as Computer Assisted Reporting to make remarkably cogent conclusions from diverse data sources. The government’s own media release for the proposed new laws is deliberately aimed at the “information age”. It said the existing Privacy Act has worked well enough to date, but it now needs a makeover “to help us navigate the Information Superhighway”. Report author Professor David Weisbrot, said that although the old federal act is only 20 years old, “it was introduced before the advent of supercomputers, the Internet, mobile phones, digital cameras, e-commerce, sophisticated surveillance devices and social networking websites, all of which challenge our capacity to safeguard our sensitive personal information.”

If the language of “information superhighway” seems curiously dated, it should perhaps be compared to a 1994 report about the problems and the promise of the digital universe. In that year the Grateful Dead’s drummer wrote the most passionate defence yet for the freedom of ideas. But John Perry Barlow also noted how digital technology detached information from the physical plane, where property law has always found definition. But even digital hippie Barlow conceded “serious privacy issues would arise if everyone's computer were packed with digital spies”.

This is not dreamland. New technology has already made invasions of privacy relatively simple. Illicit listening devices, normally the province of real spies have been found outside the Sydney home of Nicole Kidman. This is hardly surprising given the lucrative coin for the minutiae of Ms Kidman’s life. But what is changing is that the ease of digital transfer has made so much private information very portable. How the law deals with Barlow’s digital spies will define the success of the new tort of privacy.