Thursday, November 30, 2006

Cuba Libre

Tipton is a small town in the Black Country. It was once part of Staffordshire but was swallowed up in the conurbation of the West Midlands and is now part of the metropolitan borough of Sandwell. Tipton was a mining town, top heavy with the industrialisation of the 19th century. The coal and iron that fuelled that economy are gone, and the factories have closed. It is now one of the poorest boroughs in England. Sandwell is a British National Party stronghold and the far-right group hold three local council seats. Racism is simmering against Tipton's large mostly-Asian migrant community. Shafiq Rasul, Ruhal Ahmed and Asif Iqbal were from this community. They were boyhood friends who were to become known as the “Tipton Three.” The three men spent two years in US custody in Guantanamo Bay. Filmmaker Michael Winterbottom has now told the astonishing story of the three men in a new film called “The Road to Guantanamo”. The film was released in Australian cinemas on 17 November.

The trio were ordinary young men of no political affiliations. They played for a Sunday league football team in Tipton. They were Muslims but not fundamentalist. But they were no angels either. Iqbal and Ahmed had criminal convictions for a gang assault on a 16-year-old. In September 2001 the trio men travelled to Pakistan. Iqbal travelled there because his parents had arranged for him to marry a woman from Faisalabad. Ahmed was to be best man; Rasul hoped to do a computer course after the wedding. When they got to Pakistan, the country was in an uproar of support for Bin Laden. The US had commenced its attack on Taliban Afghanistan. In a mosque in Karachi the men heard an imam saying they should help the Afghan people in whatever way they could. With time on their hands before the wedding, they hopped on a bus and headed for the border.

When they got to Afghanistan they travelled first to Kandahar and then onto Kabul. As the US bombing got closer, the boys made the decision to go back to Pakistan. They tried to escape in a taxi which merely took them further in to the danger zone. They made it to the Northern Afghan town of Kunduz, when they were stopped and arrested by General Dostum’s Northern Alliance forces on the outskirts of the city. They were among 35,000 prisoners taken to Sheberghan Prison, near Mazar-i-Sharif. But before going into prisoner, they were first crammed into suffocating containers for two days. Soldiers shot bullet holes into the containers which gave them air but also killed many of the victims inside.

On release from the container, they entered the prison itself. They were crammed into cells where they took 4-hour shifts to lie down and sleep. They were held there for a month in nauseating conditions. Only 4,000 of the original 35,000 were still alive. Then they were transferred to US Special Forces at their airbase in Kandahar. The Red Cross saw the men and promised to contact the British Embassy in Pakistan. But two days later they were handed over to the Americans. They were beaten, trussed and loaded on a plane which flew them to the US detention centre at Kandahar. The interrogations started. They were questioned on their knees, in chains, always at gunpoint. Often they were kicked or beaten.

In January 2002, the three men were sent to Guantanamo. The events of 9/11 allowed the Bush administration make a broad-scale attack on the Geneva conventions. The Cuban base was to be the gulag where they could interrogate the “unlawful combatants” beyond the glare of international law. The flight from Afghanistan took 22 hours. Prisoners were dressed in earmuffs, goggles and surgical masks. They were chained to the floor with no backrests and had to urinate and defecate where they stood.

They were sent to the new Camp X-Ray. Most of the men had no idea where they were. Rasul told the Guardian “All I knew was that I was somewhere with intense heat. An American voice shouted: "I am Sergeant so-and-so, US Marine Corps, you are arriving at your final destination.’" In the early days, the detention conditions were extreme. Detainees were forbidden to talk and fed tiny portions of food which they had to eat in ten minutes. Brutality was commonplace. The list of rules was long and difficult to follow. Infractions were punished by Guantanamo's riot squad, the Extreme Reaction Force. A soldier with a riot shield would slam the prisoner to the floor and pin him down while others beat him.

After a few weeks, things began to improve. Inmates got a copy of the Koran, a prayer mat, blankets and towels. Talking was still prohibited. In mid 2002 the prisoners were moved from the open cages at Camp X-ray to the pre-fabricated cellblocks of Camp Delta. The new favoured punishment was solitary confinement. Ahmed was given isolation for writing 'Have a nice day' on a polystyrene cup. The military deemed this 'malicious damage to US government property'. From the beginning of 2003, interviews with MI5, the FBI, the CIA and US military intelligence became increasingly frequent. The methods used were always the same. Prisoners were shown photographs of themselves with al-Qaeda membership forms or be told their passports were found in a raid on an Afghan cave. The Americans claimed they could see the three men in a video of a meeting between Bin Laden and Mohammed Atta.

Rasul said he was initially scared of the interrogations, but changed his mind after a young interrogator asked him: "If I wanted to get hold of surface-to-air missiles in Tipton, where would I go?" "Towards the end the questions just seemed stupid," he said. Meanwhile the trio’s families had engaged lawyers in Britain and America soon after learning of their whereabouts in February 2002. The men had one important alibi. The fact that they were in trouble with the police mean that they could prove they were in England when they were supposed to be at Al Qaeda camps.

Eventually the British government interceded on their behalf. Despite their release, the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw continued to cast doubt on their innocence. He said: "Because... the police and Crown Prosecution Service judged that there is insufficient evidence to mount a prosecution on evidence that is admissible in the British court, it doesn’t follow from there that therefore the original detention was unjustified.” They were released without charge in March 2004 after 25 months in captivity. Immediately prior to their release, the FBI tried to persuade the men to sign a form admitting links with terrorism. None of them did so.

Michael Winterbottom told the Independent why he made the film, “we'd heard about the Tipton Three, so we got in contact with their lawyer, to arrange a meeting. Luckily they were interested in telling us their story. What was fascinating about the way they described the experience was that two of them were teenagers when they left, and one of them was 21, and none of them were particularly religious or political before they left; even when they were talking about it with us, after the event. And when they described it, it was in a matter-of-fact way, like someone telling you about their holiday - the holiday from hell".

All three are now back in England but living in safehouses in the south. Tipton is too dangerous for them to return. Many people there still think they were guilty and racism is rife. Effigies of men in orange jump suits have been strung from lampposts. The pall of suspicion is not just confined to Tipton. Ruhal Ahmed was refused a visa when he tried to visit Australia in October to promote the film. The distributor, Palace Films, was bringing him to Australia for the launch. The Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, said he was aware the Immigration Department had refused a visa to a British national "following a prejudicial security assessment by ASIO". Ahmed was bemused by the decision. "If I'm not a threat to my own country then I'm definitely not a threat to another country,” he said.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A Correa change for Ecuador

The leftist democratic revolution continues in South America. The 43-year old Rafael Correa was pronounced winner of Sunday’s Ecuadorian run-off election. Correa held 57 % of the vote after 96 % of ballot boxes had been tallied. His rival, the banana magnate Alvaro Noboa has refused to accept defeat and has threatened to challenge the election result. However Correa’s victory was confirmed by one of Ecuador’s seven Supreme Electoral Tribunal judges Narciza Subia who said “Rafael Correa is the new president of Ecuador. The trend is not going to change.”

Correa celebrated in his home town by saying "the people have given us a clear mandate, with the second-largest margin in the last 30 years of democracy”. He will now push for reforms which include re-negotiating debt agreements, opposing a US free-trade pact and re-writing the constitution. Correa says the constitutional rewrite is needed to bypass a corrupt congress and curb political party influence in the courts. As it stands, opposition parties can appoint sympathetic judges to the electoral and supreme courts to stymie Correa. Political tumult is the norm in Ecuador and there have been 11 presidents in the last decade, three of whom were overthrown by politically-motivated lawmakers.

Correa, a trained economist describes himself as "left-wing - not from the Marxist left, but rather a Christian left". He was born in Ecuador’s largest city Guayaquil in 1963. He studied economics in Guayaquil Catholic University and gained his Masters' degrees in Belgium. By 2001, he gained a second masters and a doctorate in economics from the University of Illinois in the US. He is married with three children and is fluent in four languages: Spanish, English, French and Quechua. Quecha is the local indigenous language which Correa learned while doing volunteer work in his student days.

In 2005, Ecuador was plunged into a constitutional crisis after President Lucio Gutiérrez was driven from power by a 60-2 vote in Congress. He was replaced by Alfredo Palacio who appointed Correa as his finance and economy minister. However Correa only last four months in the job. During this time he tried to push through a program of poverty reduction and economic sovereignty. But he made powerful enemies when he defied IMF advice and publicly questioned the wisdom of a free trade agreement with the US. He thumbed his nose at the World Bank when he wound up a government debt reduction fund against their wishes as part of a program of measures to redistribute Ecuador's oil wealth more equitably. The Bank promptly cancelled a scheduled loan of US$100 million tied to maintenance of the fund. Correa turned to his friend Hugo Chavez for help. Palacio forced Correa to resign under intense pressure from the US. The official reason was due to his alleged failure to consult about the sale of US$300 million of sovereign debt to Venezuela. Correa claimed in his resignation letter that Palacio was aware of the sale. After quitting the ministry, he became economics professor at the San Francisco University of Quito. Meanwhile he founded his own party Alianza PAIS and prepared for this year’s presidential election.

In the first round of voting in October, Correa picked up 23% of the vote which left him second behind Noboa who picked up 27%. But Correa comfortably won the run-off due to his considerable personal appeal and enthusiastic campaign. He appeared at rallies brandishing a leather belt (correa is the Spanish word for belt) to show how he would deal with corruption. His campaign slogan was "dale correa" (give them a belting). Alianza PAIS did not run any other candidates in the election and Correa now plans to seek a referendum to rewrite the constitution and restructure Congress. He attacked Ecuador's Congress as a "sewer" of corruption and will rely on the support of the Ecuadorian Socialist Party to push his reforms through the parliament.

Oil is Ecuador’s major export and fifty percent of Ecuador's national budget is funded by petroleum earnings. Indigenous tribes of Ecuador are fighting for land rights, which have been jeopardised for over two decades years by Texaco and Ecuador's state-run company Petroecuador drilling in the Amazon rainforest Eastern part of the country. Correa said he would renegotiate contracts with foreign oil companies to raise the state’s share of crude oil volume. With the addition funds, Correa will prioritise social and infrastructure spending over paying off the country's $10 billion foreign debt.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

No Turkey thanksgiving for the Pope

Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Turkey today to start his first official visit to a Muslim country. The pope will travel to Turkey’s three biggest cities, Istanbul, Izmir and the capital Ankara, during his four-day stay. Although authorities will welcome him warmly, his arrival is not a matter of delight to thousands who protested against the visit of an ‘enemy of Islam’. 25,000 demonstrators lined the streets of Istanbul on Sunday chanting “no to the pope!” The protest was organized by the Saadet (Felicity) Islamist political party who see Benedict as a symbol of Western intolerance and injustices against Muslims.

Security forces are on full alert for the pope's visit. Nearly 4,000 police, including units in full riot guard, watched over the protest. According to Selcan Hacaoglu, a Turkish journalist with AP, Turkey has mobilised “an army of snipers, bomb disposal experts and riot police, as well as navy commandos to patrol the Bosporus Straits.” The pope will travel through the streets in a closed car, not in the glass-sided "popemobile" usually used on papal trips.

The pope's visit has two distinct objectives: firstly to assuage Muslim anger after his Regensburg comments and secondly to heal a thousand year rift between two branches of Christianity: the Vatican and Orthodox churches. Meanwhile Turkish officials hope to use the visit to promote their ambitions of joining the EU and showcase the country’s secular political system. Benedict’s first stop is Ankara where he will meet with political and Muslim religious leaders. Not among them is Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan who is in Latvia to attend a NATO meeting for the first two days and then has “some important meetings” in Turkey for the last two days. Benedict will however meet two senior Turkish officials, the president Ahmet Necdet Sezer and its Ali Bardakoglu, the Islamic cleric who oversees the country's religious affairs. Bardakoglu recently told Reuters “the Pope is head of the Catholic world and maintaining good ties between the Islamic world and the Catholic world is in everybody's interests”.

After meeting the politicians in the capital, the pope then heads to Istanbul for the second half of his mission. There he will meet the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. Of Turkey's 70 million population, some 65,000 are Armenian Orthodox Christians, and 20,000 are Roman Catholic. Despite the low number of adherents, Istanbul remains the spiritual home of the Orthodox Church. Then known as Constantinople, it was the Christian Byzantine capital for over a thousand years until it fell to Muslim forces in 1453 and became the seat of the Ottoman Empire.

Benedict XVI, spiritual leader of 1.1 billion Catholics worldwide, has been on the defensive in the Muslim world for the last three months. On 12 September, he addressed an academic audience at the University of Regensburg in Germany which aroused Islamic indignation worldwide. In the speech Benedict mentions a conversation between an obscure 14th c. Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam. The pope quotes Paleologus as saying “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

The speech caused a hail of negative reactions across the Muslim world still smarting from the Danish cartoons controversy. In Somalia, a gunman shot dead an Italian nun, thousands protested at rallies in Iran, Pakistan and India, and in the Palestinian Occupied Territories angry mobs attacked Christian churches. Benedict apologised a few days later saying “these in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought”. In Turkey, protesters took to the streets but religious leader Ali Bardakoglu welcomed the Pope's apology, and described his respect for Islam as a "civilised position".

But Prime Minister Erdogan has not been so accommodating. Both sides have been playing down his decision not to meet with the pope. A Turkish official told Reuters that "if there was a possibility for a meeting, the prime minister would have met him". The Vatican says it was always aware a meeting between the two was unlikely. But Italian and Turkish media are treating it as a calculated snub. La Stampa accused Erdogan of "bad manners" while Turkey's morning daily Sabah claimed Erdogan was "escaping the pope." Erdogan’s Islamist party is based in Turkey’s rural community and many of his supporters are openly hostile to the papal presence. Erdogan is having it both ways by avoiding angering to his electoral base while also having an official excuse to avoid causing offence to the Vatican.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Fiji on verge of another coup

It’s almost coup o’clock in Fiji. The leader of Fiji’s armed forces, Commodore Frank Bainimarama called up a thousand army reservists on the weekend. He also warned Australia against intervention and called for Australian Andrew Hughes to be sacked as Fiji's police commissioner. Bainimarama has form as the organiser of the counter-coup that ousted George Speight in 2000. Fiji has had three coups in the last two decades.

The Australian government will now host an emergency summit of Pacific Island foreign ministers on Friday 1 December to discuss the risk of another military coup in Fiji. The meeting was called under the forum's Biketawa Declaration under which member nations can request assistance to deal with threats to security. Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer said he is very concerned that Bainimarama will undertake a coup when he returns from New Zealand, where he is attending a granddaughter's christening.

In May 2000 a gang led by George Speight stormed the parliamentary buildings and kidnapped then Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and other senior members of the government. The aim was to depose the first ethnic Indian prime minister in favour of indigenous Fijians. Fiji's ethnic Indians make up around 40% of the 900,000 population. Speight anointed himself as Prime Minister but never succeeded in wresting control outside the building. Bainimarama led the army negotiators and hammered out an agreement to release Chaudhry. But as soon as he was released, Bainimarama repudiated the deal, stormed the building and arrested Speight and his co-conspirators.

Voreqe Bainimarama, more popularly known as Frank, moved to impose martial law after days of chaos in 2000 following the racially-motivated coup by businessman George Speight. Speight is now serving life for treason. A former naval commander, Bainimarama was appointed head of an interim military government for three months until a new president was appointed. He was also instrumental in bringing in current Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase - a move he says he has since come to regret.

Bainimarama has been the power behind the scenes ever since. He has repeatedly entered the political arena to criticise government policy especially its leniency towards those responsible for the coup. He was a strong critic of the Reconciliation and Unity Commission to depose the first ethnic Indian prime minister in favour of indigenous Fijians. Fiji's ethnic Indians make up around 40% of the 900,000 population but have been oppressed since the events of 2000. The Reconciliation and Unity Commission wasset up in 2004 and planned to compensate victims but also give amnesties to coup plotters.

The Commission is the brainchild of incumbent Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase. Like the coup plotters, Qarase strongly favours a pro-Indigenous Fijian policy. The proposal generated a storm of protests from opposition politicians, many of whom were victims of the coup. Bainimarama joined the Indian opposition in condemning the commission. He issued a statement in July 2005 warning the government was heading towards the same anarchy as 2000. He also said the military would act against “destabilisers” issuing a warning, “the military will dish out the same fate we dealt George Speight and his group to anyone whom we think deserves this treatment."

Australian Andrew Hughes was initially an ally of Bainimarama but has now fallen foul of him. Hughes was appointed police commissioner in the wake of the 2000 coup succeeding local-born Isikia Savua who was implicated in the coup. The Fijian constitution allows for a foreigner to lead the police force and Hughes was recruited from the Australian Federal Police as an impartial figure to lead the post-coup investigations. However Hughes’s vigorous pursuit of suspects saw him clash with government ministers especially Home Affairs minister Josefa Vosanibola over the coup amnesty plans. Vosanibola has also clashed with Bainimarama and declared him a threat to Fiji’s stability.

Hughes meanwhile has claimed Bainimarama was a front for a highly organised group trying to undermine the Government. He told the ABC on Friday “they operate in the shadows, under anonymity, manipulate and so on, and then they get off, scot-free”. Hughes’s term is due to expire in 2007 and he has the support of Qarase to continue. The prime minister said “looking at our recent past it may be best for Fiji to continue with an expatriate Police Commissioner." It remains to be seen whether Qarase will retain the power to make the decision.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


It's not influenza, though that has Spanished and SARSed its way across the deathscape. It is not AIDS, though that is proving a moral panic and an arms race against a virus. It is not cancer, whether it be of lung, skin, bowel, throat or breast. In fact it is nothing in our external dimension that has conquered our ability to conquer the planet. It is an internal realisation. It is marketing.

It is the freedom to choose between things that are not important. The problem is, even if the market itself is inherently good, the way the market pushes its wares, eventually lays the seeds for its own destruction. Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss’s book Affluenza explores the malaise that is at the heart of behaviour in Australia. The book is the product of the leftwing thinktank called the Australia Institute, and it commits a lot of time and statistics to fight issues that impact the core constituency of the Howard Regime.

The portmanteau word affluenza was formed from affluence and influenza by a KCTS/Seattle and Oregon Public Broadcasting System documentary of that name in 1997. One of the producers of that program John De Graaf wrote a book called “Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic" which was published by Berrett-Koehler, 2001. His description, the all consuming epidemic described a single threat.

However, the Australian authors offer three definitions for Affluenza. This three-pronged definition, the authors make no bones, is an Australian condition. It is firstly the unfulfilled feeling gotten from the effort of chasing away the socio-economic inferiorness known as keeping up with the Jones. Secondly it is an epidemic of stress and overwork caused by the pursuit of the Australian Dream and thirdly it is an addiction, and an unsustainable one in economic growth. Economics is all about the management of scarcity. But Hamilton and Dennis explore the situation where scarcity is itself scarce. In short, Australia is a society going nowhere. The cure is downshifting.

Today, the real drama is in the distribution of power in the 90% of those in Australia who do not go hungry every day. Politics in the twentieth century was all about a reaction to the means of production. That really has changed much in the 21st century except that information is now the means of production. And as McLuhan predicted, the means is the message. It matters less who was the source or the destination of the message but more the message itself and the fact it took place at all. Our society sends out a lot of messages.

Affluenza follows on from a similar book from Hamilton “Growth fetish” which compared our economic system to a cargo cult. We are all Pacific Islands who believe in the imminence of a new age of blessing which will be heralded and fulfilled by the arrival of special cargo sent to them by supernatural powers. We work hard developing the economic condition that makes us want to work harder and get more of it. The book Affluenza mostly steers of the environmental impact rather than the personal health affects of Western lifestyle. Thus it covers cars, children, debt, drugs, happiness, money and politics. But primary it covers advertisements.

The highest-end advertising is that of the brand. It is perception about the brand that advertisers work hardest on. Hamilton and Denniss describe these people as Australia’s best-paid psychologists. They are devoted to ways of increasing insecurity, vulnerability and obsession in consumers. In pure economic terms, ads add value because they provide information about the product. The problem with brands is that all the information is leached out of them. Nike is the simple victory of a Jordanian swoosh. Coke is the real thing and ipods are bus stops.

Ads also favour competition. In Australia however, competition in business is frowned upon because it is too small a market to cut many throats. Instead, they promote loyalty through brands. Modern corporations don’t like fickle customers. Instead they promote the image that buying the brand is a form of self-love. Loyalty means we abandon critical faculties and buy regardless of real need. We define ourselves by the things we buy. As well fixing our dependence on the brand, the cure to affluenza also impacts the places we live. Continued consumption results in great waste and pollution. The authors’ solution is simple but devastating to the economy: resist consumption. Growth is the dominant framework and this message is not yet popular. As of yesterday, Green parties still hovered under 10% of the vote in Australia’s most liberal state – Victoria. Their 9.7% garnered no seats in parliament's lower house, although the Nationals with only 5.4% grabbed 8 seats. But their lack of power should not convince those in power to be immune to the threat: the fight is on between two world views.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Dutch lurch a little to the left

Incumbent Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, the Christian Democrat (CDA) prime minister, has claimed a narrow win in the Dutch general election. The election was held on Wednesday and the centre-right wing CDA has claimed victory despite only claiming 41 of the available 150 seats. Though this represents a loss of three seats from the last election in 2003, this makes them the biggest party in the new parliament and they expect to rule in coalition with minor parties.

Balkenende acknowledged it will not be easy to form a new government. Under the Dutch system of proportional representation, it is practically impossible for one party to get an absolute majority. He told Dutch reporters “It will take time,” said Balkenende. “All parties will have to analyse how we can rule the country together. How can we give an answer to the questions of the Dutch electorate,” he asked. Balkenende’s coalition ran on an anti-immigration and pro-business platform and it may take weeks or months of haggling to form a workable government. Even then, it is likely to be too unstable to last the four year course.

Gerrit Zalm of coalition partner People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) acknowledged the uncertainty of the result “It’s chaos. It is extremely difficult to distil a government out of these results,” Zalm was finance minister in the last administration. The chaos saw voters turn to more extreme parties. Many people turned to the fringes to put the brakes on what they saw as frightening change. All centrist parties including the CDA and VVD lost votes in this election and the Opposition Labour party did even worse shedding 10 seats to end on 32. The far-left Socialist Party made the biggest inroads by tripling its vote on the promise to shield the Netherlands from the excesses of economic liberalism.

The Socialist Party (SP) is by led by a former communist, the charismatic Jan Marijnissen. Marijnissen has argued that the Dutch tendency to cry poor for the EU in comparison to the US is inaccurate despite the better US growth rate in the last ten years. Marijnissen claims it is due to the rapid population growth in the US and that if the measure is income per head, the EU comes up just short of the US and would be level if not for Germany. The real reason for the exaggerated pessimism, Marijnissen claims, is to create the conditions under which it can carry out a programme of drastic cuts in social provision. His words resonated with voters and the SP’s share of seats has increased from 8 to 25. Many Muslims also voted for the party in protest at the hardline stance on immigration adopted by the main parties.

Balkenende is unlikely to include the SP in his coalition but nonetheless will need to work with some left leaning parties or else risk an unworkable and unpredictable coalition of multiple ‘rats and mice’ parties. As many as 12 parties could win seats in parliament including the Party for Animals, which is on course to capture two seats. The hard right Party of Freedom also did well gathering 8 seats. Its leader Geert Wilders told the Guardian that "Islam is a violent religion".

There were 24 parties in all contesting the election. Faced with this dizzying choice, many voters turned to Internet sites that offered to draw up their political profiles and match voter and party. Sites such as Vote Matcher and Voting Compass offered multiple-choice questions before suggesting the best party to vote for or giving the respondent an idea where they fitted on the political pendulum. These two sites received three million hits in a month in a country with 17 million people. Opinion polls confirmed the importance of the sites by suggesting that up to one third of voters had not made up their mind on who to vote in the week prior to the election.

Despite the help of the internet, Dutch politics is no clearer as a result.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Brethren Rapture excludes the Greens

With the Victorian state election due tomorrow, the Exclusive Brethren have intervened to buy newspaper advertisements to warn against parties with "radical and extreme policies". Brethren member Ernest Morren authorised ads this week in Melbourne’s two main newspapers, The Age and the Herald Sun headed "Warning: the future of Victoria is at stake on Saturday". The ads do not explicitly name any party but they warn “persons promoting radical and extreme policies” could gain control of Victoria’s upper house. The radical policies that Morren is worried about include drug laws, gay marriage and opposition to new dams. The Greens, expected to poll well this weekend, fit the description to a tee.

Despite their exhortation to voters, the Exclusive Brethren will not be able to lead the fight. Brethren do not vote as voting interferes with God's right to ordain who rules. As their name would suggest, they are extremely exclusive. As well as avoiding polling booths, they also shun contact with technology, books, TV, radio and non-Brethren. However they appear to be taking a new direction under their leader, the Elect Vessel, whom mere mortals know as Sydney businessman Bruce Hales. He is behind the current activism that seems at odds with their beliefs.

Victoria is not the first election where they have taken direct action having come to prominence in the 2004 federal election. Then in March 2006, Tasmania went to the polls. In the week prior to the election, two members of the Exclusive Brethren placed newspaper ads urging Tasmanians not to vote for the Greens. Two half-page advertisements attacked Greens policies on same-sex marriages and transgender rights. Liberal Party members admitted to meeting the Exclusive Brethren before the election campaign. State director Damien Mantach refused to admit what was discussed but said there was nothing untoward in the meetings.

The Brethren also campaigned against the New Zealand Greens in their 2005 election. The Brethren followed their Australian federal election tactics and released identical pamphlets headlined "Beware!" and "The Green Delusion" in a well-funded half million dollar campaign. Opposition leader Don Brash initially denied knowing who was behind the pamphlets but later reveal4d he was told about the campaign during a meeting with Brethren representatives a month from the election.

Brash lost despite the support of the Brethren. And this week he announced his resignation as party leader when the caucus meets on Monday. It comes after months of speculation over his future and ahead of the release of a book that documented links between his National Party and the Exclusive Brethren. Author Nicky Hagen’s new book The Hollow Man is out today after a court injunction against it was lifted. The book said the two parties met at a National Campaign Strategy Meeting. The Exclusive Brethren launched a major pamphlet campaign against the Labour government's defence and anti-nuclear policies. Hager claims Brash supported the campaign despite misgivings from his own party members. The Brethren, as usual, are making no comments on the allegations.

Bruce Hales took over leadership of the 42,000 strong worldwide Brethren after his father John died in 2002. Hales Jnr managed the political awakening of the organisation. He told members in 2004 if George W. Bush and Australian PM John Howard were not re-elected that year, "the rapture", or end of the world, would be near. Hales has met Howard and he (Hales) is a very powerful man, possibly a billionaire. Green Senator Christine Milne said, “Hales already seems to have ultimate authority in possibly hundreds, and maybe even thousands, of Exclusive Brethren companies, charities, trusts and enterprises on a worldwide basis.”

The Brethren were founded in the late 1820s in Dublin. Its founders were a group of men (John Nelson Darby, Anthony Norris Groves, John Bellet, Edward Cronin and Francis Hutchinson) who felt that the established Protestant Church had become too involved with the secular state and abandoned many tenets of Christianity. The first assembly in England was established at Plymouth in 1831 and Brethren are often called Plymouth Brethren to this day. In the 1840s they split in to Open and Exclusive branches. The former Church of Ireland minister John Nelson Darby led the Exclusive branch into an extreme removal from the secular world.

Exclusive Brethren members cut themselves off from outsiders to the extent of refusing to eat with them. They function as a cross between the masons and the Mansons, supporting and employing each other but ruthlessly ostracising any family members who stray from the flock. They are not allowed to use broadcast media because the Book of Revelation tells them that the devil is "the prince with the power of the air". But Hales seems to be at home with the power of print and is taking the brotherhood into a new and not-so-exclusive direction. They will be a force to be reckoned with at the Australian next federal election in 2007.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Wadeye in the storm

The ALP’s spokesman on Indigenous affairs, Senator Chris Evans, has criticised a failure of governance to deliver services to an Aboriginal township. In a speech to the National Press Club, Senator Evans said the trial in Wadeye in the NT has cost three years' worth of wasted resources. The trial model of administration was an initiative of the Council of Australian Government (COAG) which has replaced ATSIC (Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Commission) which was abolished by the Howard government in 2005.

A senate estimates committee heard on 2 November that the COAG trial had exactly the opposite affect as was intended and where as previously Wadeye had to deal with 60 government agencies for funding, it now must deal with 90. The damning conclusion that the trial was failing was reached by Bill Gray who did an independent evaluation. His report has not yet been officially released but has been leaked to prominent politicians including Senator Evans and the Government Senator Bill Heffernan.

Wadeye, a town of 2,200 people, suffered major riots between rival gangs earlier this year and Senator Heffernan has blamed the riots on the facts that the youths of Wadeye were “bored shitless”. Heffernan concluded that the agreement between the three parties involved (the federal government, the NT government and the local Thamarrurr council) had failed to deliver the services it promised. Heffernan In April and May this year, the Wadeye community suffered through weeks of tension and violence in which 53 people were arrested and more police were stationed in the area. Heffernan believes more police are required but also points the finger at education.

The only school in Wadeye is a Catholic school, the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. There are 600 primary school age children in Wadeye but only room for 300 at the school. There is no secondary school in the town at all. Average Attendance rate at school is under 50 % and only 13% of those aged 12 attend. Only 2% of the adult population have attained year 12. The school co-principal Tobias Ngambe met with Sydney Cardinal George Pell in the last few days to seek additional funding for the disadvantaged school. Pell does not have responsibility for the NT, which is under the jurisdiction of Darwin Bishop Ted Collins, but he gave the delegation a sympathetic hearing.

Wadeye is almost completely cut-off except by air during the wet season. The road into town is impassable for about six months of each year. The town is approximately 420 kilometres south-west of Darwin, at the mouth of the Fitzmaurice River, near the coast of the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf. It is the sixth largest town, by population, in the Northern Territory with the largest Aboriginal community. There are seven different language groupings of which the most common language is Murrin Patha, although this may be the second or third language of many residents. English is not widely spoken.

Wadeye (pronounced wad-air or wad-ay-yah) was home to an Aboriginal population for thousands of years prior to European settlement. Locals traded sea slugs with Macassans from the Sulawesi (Celebes) island of Indonesia. In 1935, the local government invited a Western Australian priest, Father Richard Docherty from the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, to establish a mission in Port Keats. In 1941 some nuns arrived to start the school. Although Father Docherty eventually retired to Perth, when he died in 1979 he was buried in Wadeye.

The area was governed by the Kardu Numida Council which collapsed in 1994. The new council was renamed Thamarrurr in 2003. The word described a regional forum that pre-dated European incursion whereby senior people of the clan groups in the region would meet periodically to preside over issues of ceremony, use of natural resources, economic transactions and minor law and justice matters. As well as the education crisis, the council has to deal with serious shortfalls in housing, employment and health. Aboriginal death rates in Wadeye are 4 times higher than for non-Aboriginals in the NT. The median age at death is between 45 and 54 years, compared to 78 years for non-Aboriginal people in Australia.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Lebanon's dance of blood

A Lebanese government minister was assassinated yesterday near Beirut. The Christian cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel was shot dead as his convoy drove through a Christian neighbourhood. Gunmen opened fire on his car, riddling it with bullets. The 34 year old Gemayel was rushed to hospital but died later of multiple gunshot wounds. The death of this strongly anti-Syrian minister will further inflame political tensions in this tinderbox country. Parliamentary majority leader Saad al-Hariri, son of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, blamed Damascus for the killing saying, "we believe the hand of Syria is all over the place,” he said.

Gemayel comes from a Christian Maronite family steeped in Lebanese politics. He was named for his grandfather Pierre Gemayel who founded Christian Kataeb (Phalange) Party, initially as a youth movement, in 1936. Gemayel the Younger’s father was former president Amin Gemayel. His uncle Bashir Gemayel was also elected president but was killed in 1982 after Israel's invasion of Lebanon. Pierre was also a member of the Phalangists and industry minister in the current administration. He is the third anti-Syrian political figure to be assassinated since Al-Hariri's killing in February 2005.

The pro-Damascus opposition is led by Hezbollah, which is determined to topple what it sees as a pro-US government. Hezbollah and its allies are preparing for street demonstrations to topple the government of Lebanon's Prime Minister Fouad Siniora which they accuse of being US allies. They also arguing that it has lost its legitimacy since Shi'ite Muslims are no longer represented. Six pro-Syrian ministers (two of which are Hezbollah appointees) have resigned in the last two weeks after the cabinet approved a UN statute for a tribunal to investigate the death of Rafik al-Hariri. Al-Hariri died in a suicide truck bombing in 2005 and the UN implicated senior Lebanese and Syrian security officials in the incident. Hezbollah have now released a statement denouncing the murder of Gemayel. They also called for calm, warning the population not to jump to conclusions.

Ultimately however, this is most likely the latest step in a Syrian effort to derail the international tribunal. It started with the mass resignations from the government. Hezbollah leader Sayyed Nasrallah called on his followers to take to the streets to precipitate the fall of the government. The ultimate aim is to demand enough ministerial portfolios to be able to hold a collective veto against cabinet decisions they don’t agree with. Michael Young, writing in The Washington Post believes Syrian President Assad is behind the Gemayel killing in order to undermine the complex tribunal set-up process. And in the complicated web of Lebanese politics, the killing may also undermine the Christian politician Michel Aoun who has attempted to seek Muslim support with his advocacy of secular politics. Lebanon’s fragile peace is dependent on a sectarian governmental structure, where the President is a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies a Shi'a Muslim.

That balance was disturbed when Aoun’s party, the Free Patriotic Movement, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Shi’te Hezbollah in February this year. The MOU had a 10-point plan that called for dialogue, consensual democracy, modern electoral law, combating corruption, uncovering the fate of those missing in action in Lebanon’s wars, returning Lebanese citizens from Israel, security reforms, sound relations with Syria, asserting the independence of Palestine, and the protection of Lebanon’s sovereignty. Although Aoun was feted by the Bush administration when he visited Washington last year, the MOU with Hezbollah has raised serious concerns in the US and Israel. The agreement was one reason why Israel attacked Lebanese Christian targets during the six-week incursion earlier this year. Aoun has also officially denounced the Gemayel killing.

Lebanese Sunni Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani also denounced the assassination of Gemayel. He is the spiritual leader of over 600,000 Lebanese which is 15-20% of the total population (this is an estimate as Lebanon has had no official census since 1932, due to the country’s extraordinary religious sensitivity). The majority of Sunnis are urban based and are less focussed on their religion as a political identifier. The main Sunni party Al-Murabitun (“the Sentinels”) is seen as pro-Syrian. However Qabbani denounced the killing saying, "the assassination of Pierre Gemayel amid circumstances of tension and defiance currently being observed in the country was a severe blow to all those who wished that the situations could not reach to this extent."

The other group represented in the Lebanese political hegemony are the Druze. The Druze are a small and secretive religious offshoot from Ismaili Islam that was started in the 10th century. They are also influenced by Greek philosophy and Christianity. Though they regard themselves to be part of Islam, this view is not shared by other Muslims as Druze do not follow the Five Pillars of Islam. The Druze are represented politically by the Progressive Socialist Party led by Walid Jumblatt. The BBC described Jumblatt as Lebanon’s weathervane. He has constantly switched allegiances but has always ended up on the winning side. Since 2000 he has campaigned for Syria to relinquish control. Many suspect even the weathervane may be another target for Syrian-controlled assassins. Despite the threat, Jumblatt went to the hospital where Gemayel was taken after he was gunned down and called 'for calm and respect the memory of the martyr.' He also shot a warning across Syria’s bows: 'the international court is coming without a doubt.'

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Mauritania gets a taste of democracy

Over two decades of authoritarian rule ended overnight in Mauritania. The Saharan nation saw lengthy queues at polling stations for the first election since the overthrow of Maaouya Ould Taya. Taya was president of Mauritania from 1984 until overthrown 21 years later. A military junta has ruled since then and Mauritanian citizens are now finally enjoying the chance to choose their own government. The vote ended on Sunday with full results available on Tuesday. Military junta leader Colonel Ely Ould Mohammad Vall told Al Jazeera that the upcoming vote represented a chance to change the country's political reality and should not be wasted. The ruling junta promised transparent elections after toppling long-term President Taya in a bloodless coup in August 2005 and are finally delivering.

Democracy is still slowly coming to this parched Islamic country. About a million people are eligible to vote out of a total population of over three million. Those who have the vote flooded the two thousand polling booths. With just 20 minutes to go before voting was due to end, long queues were still forming outside polling stations in the capital Nouakchott. They are voting for a 95 member parliament and 216 councils.

The election is being closely watched by at least 500 observers from the EU, AU, Arab League and the OIF (Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie) as well as a number of NGOs. So far they have found no irregularities. French Green Party MP Marianne Isler Beguin said the process has been satisfactory apart from some heavy-duty campaigning in front of polling booths. But it wasn’t all hard sell; due to Mauritania’s high illiteracy rate helpers were there to guide those unfamiliar with voting procedure.

Although there were no exit polls, a 14-party opposition alliance is expected to do well. More than 25 political parties representing a wide spectrum of views as well as numerous independent candidates were contesting the elections. Islamist parties although popular on the ground, are banned from taking part and the vote is likely to be split on ethnic grounds between African and Arab candidates.

Mauritanian society has a history of being mostly nomadic with original negroid peoples being overrun by Berbers who themselves were subdued by Arab invaders. Mauritania’s misfortune was to have a large Atlantic coastline which attracted the European powers. Until the beginning of the 18th century, Brandenburgers, Dutchmen, French and the British competed over coastal trade, the most important trade product being gum rubber. Then the competition withered. The Brandenburgers sold their assets to the Dutch. Later the Dutch themselves had enough. Finally the British signed an agreement in 1857 to leave the coast to France. By 1903, France was in a position to claim all of Mauritania. France ruled the large but sparse nation mostly through intermediaries until after World War II. In 1957 they created a new capital Nouakchott and the country celebrated independence in 1960. Over the next forty years, Nouakchott was transformed from a quiet fishing port of 15,000 to the largest city in the Sahara Desert with a population of 881,000.

The newly elected leader Makthar Ould Daddah quickly proclaimed a one-party state. The 1970s was dominated by drought and war. The Sahel Drought devastated the country’s livestock and the country was plunged into further crisis when Spain withdrew from Western Sahara. Mauritania and Morocco gobbled up the old country but were fiercely resisted by the Polisario liberation front aided by Algeria. Polisario retaliated by bombing Nouakchott. Daddah was ousted in 1978 and Mauritania withdrew from Western Sahara a year later recognising the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as the legitimate government. Further coups brought Maaouiya Ould Taya to power in 1984. He claimed to introduce multi-party democracy but was comfortably re-elected in 1993 and 1997. He held another election in 2001 but arrested the opposition leader a day before the election. As well as arrests, press censorship and cronyism was rife under Taya’s watch. Ironically it was his decision to recognise the state of Israel that was the final straw. A Military Council for Justice and Democracy led by Col. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall finally deposed the long-time leader in 2005.

But while the African Union condemned the coup, the people celebrated on the streets. Those same people will be busy voting for a while yet. There will be a second round of voting in two weeks, then a vote for the senate will take place in January, and the democratisation process will be wrapped up by presidential elections in March 2007. The parliament and municipal councils will have at least 20 per cent of female members. Political parties had to give women prominent places on their lists or risk not being able to participate in the elections. The 20 per cent quota was 'a rare initiative in an Arab-Muslim country,' female lawyer Jemina Mint Ichidou said. Mauritania’s hope for the future lies in its oil reserves.

Mauritania's economic future is tied in with oil. It is one of Africa's upcoming producers and an Australian-led consortium started extracting this year. Woodside Petroleum leads the offshore drilling project investing US$ 600 million to deliver 150,000 barrels a day by 2008 in a country whose reserves are estimated at 600 million barrels.

Monday, November 20, 2006

G20 hindsight

This weekend’s G20 summit of world economic leaders in Melbourne was disrupted by violent protests on Saturday. A 3,000 strong march walked to the Grand Hyatt hotel in central Melbourne where they were met by a strong police cordon. About 100 of the demonstrators dressed in boiler suits and masks attempted to scale the police barricade and began hurling bins and other missiles. Eventually they were repelled by a line of baton-wielding police. There were 11 arrests and ten police officers were injured.

The predicted violence detracted attention both away from the objectives of the protesters and also of the meeting itself. Australia's AID/WATCH group said a 2006 review of global aid found that of $30 billion in new aid since the war on terror began, $10 billion had gone to Iraq and Afghanistan. The group released a statement that said "Aid is now centred on good governance, law and order and military assistance, and geared to Australian strategic interests rather than to regional development priorities." High profile opponents of the summit included Pearl Jam and Bono who led 14,000 fans at a free "Make Poverty History” Concert at the Myer Music Bowl not far from the economic forum venue. Tim Costello, co-chairman of the Make Poverty History coalition, told the crowd that the war on terror was soaking up too much global aid. “We cannot win the war on terror unless we win the war on poverty” he said.

That view may or may not have been shared by his brother, Australian federal Treasurer Peter Costello. But he couldn't be as forthright as his brother. Peter was the G20 economic meeting’s chair and co-host alongside Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens. Costello (Peter) condemned the violence as an attempt to trash Australia's reputation, saying: "We won't stand for that." However he hailed the meeting itself as a success as it saw "wide-ranging discussions on substantive issues in the global economy under the overarching issues of building and sustaining prosperity.” The meeting theme was building and sustaining prosperity. The key agenda issues were global energy, minerals markets, and reform of both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and population growth in developing countries.

The G20 is a forum for finance ministers and central bank governors. The Group of 20 was set up in 1999 as an informal gathering of the world's major economies. Its members represent two-thirds of the planet’s population and 85 per cent of global economic growth. The G20 was set up to prevent a repeat of the world financial crisis which swept through Asia, Russia, and Latin America in 1997-98. According to its own website, it is an “informal forum which promotes an open and constructive dialogue between finance ministers and central bank governors from systemically significant industrial and emerging market economies.” Its members include the G8 nations - the US, Germany, Japan, France, Italy, Britain, Canada and Russia - as well as the European Union, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea and Turkey. Senior IMF and World Bank officials, including Paul Wolfowitz, also attended the meeting.

The communiqué released at the end of the meeting was optimistic that the global economic outlook remained positive. It reaffirmed the belief that growth depended on open trade, and called for an early resumption of the stalled Doha Round to secure further growth and alleviate poverty. The G20 reaffirmed its 2004 Accord for Sustained Growth to direct domestic policies towards investment and enhancing competitiveness. It acknowledged peak oil (under the guise of “long-term resource security) and climate change as key global challenges. The meeting also called for reform of the two Bretton-Woods institutions, the IMF and the World Bank. The group advocated modernisation of the European-based IMF and collaboration between the two institutions.

The G20 also acknowledged that support for international aid must increase. All G20 members pledged support for the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness (PDAE). The PDAE was signed by a hundred ministers last year and committed their countries to increase harmonisation and management of aid. It called for a practical, action-orientated roadmap to improve the quality of aid and its impact on development and it has targets and indicators of effectiveness backed up by a strong mechanism of accountability. The OECD ranked Australia 15 out of 22 donor nations with a pitiful 0.28% of gross national income (GNI) in international aid compared to the average of 0.42%. Australia has a long way to go to the target of 0.7%.

The annual G20 meeting has been a continual target for anti-globalisation protests since the first meeting in Berlin in 1999. This year, the protest was co-ordinated by a group called G20 convergence whose peaceful goal was to challenge policies that “push corporate-led globalisation, neoliberalism and capitalism onto the world's people and ecosystems, and to present alternatives”. South Africa faces the challenge to keep the peace next year. The country’s Finance Minister Trevor Manuel will chair the meeting near Cape Town. Manuel said he would use South Africa’s presidency of the G20 to work with other African countries to see how aid can be more effectively implemented.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Lomborg Phenomenon

Bjorn Lomborg has emerged once again as the world’s favourite global warming sceptic in the wash-up of the Stern Report. Lomborg wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal that was re-printed in the Australian on 6 November. In the article he attacks the report as flawed and scaremongering. Lomborg accepts that climate change is a problem but argues that the Stern report is error-ridden, too focussed on carbon emissions, selective and imbalanced. Lomborg thinks it naïve that the world will flawlessly implement the expensive century-long proposal and believes that China and India will not have enough incentive to participate.

Lomborg’s key position is that we are focussed on climate change to the exclusion of other important issues and this is not the best use of finite resources. Lomborg’s article has been praised as “informed debate” by the conservative commentator Christopher Pearson in today’s Australian. But not everyone is convinced that Lomborg has the credentials in the field to be taken seriously.

Bjorn Lomborg was born in 1965 in Denmark and educated at the University of Aarhus where he graduated with a Master’s degree in political science. He gained his doctorate at the University of Copenhagen three years later. He lectured in the University of Aarhus until 2005 and now works for the Copenhagen Business School. He shot to fame in 2001 with the publication of his peer reviewed book “The Sceptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the Environment”. This work immediately polarised the scientific community.

Critics pointed out his lack of credentials in the areas of environmental sciences and economics. But his supporters said his critics didn’t have those credentials either and also defended his research as an appropriate application of his expertise in cost-benefit analysis. Lomborg said he was an environmentalist and the book was a result of his personal convictions. It started out life as a counter argument what he saw as anti-ecological arguments in a 1997 Wired magazine article about university professor Julian L. Simon. The article on Simon called “The Doomslayer” claimed that Malthusian population explosion was a myth, food production in third world countries was improving, urban sprawl is decreasing and species loss was exaggerated. Simon’s optimistic view allied to a mountain of data forced Lomborg to rethink his thesis.

The Sceptical Environmentalist covered a wide range of issues, including environmental economics and science, and listed a comprehensive set of conclusions and suggestions. It challenged the status of environmentalist concerns by assembling and interpreting wide range of data. Most controversially the book suggested that environmentalists presented false claims which cause scarce resources to be diverted to environmental issues, which could be better spent elsewhere.

The book had 2,900 individual references. The book’s main argument is that problems such as pollution, water shortages, deforestation, population growth and species loss are highly correlated with poverty. Lomborg accepted the reality of man-made global warming but argued the Kyoto protocol was an insufficient response. He claimed the economic cost of the restrictions to slow down or reverse global warming is impractically high compared to the alternative of coordinating the adjustment to global warming.

Lomborg was accused of scientific misconduct and environmental scientists brought three complaints against him to the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD). The charges claimed the book contained deliberately misleading data and flawed conclusions. In 2003 the DCSD decided the book was scientifically dishonest, but found Lomborg not guilty because of lack of expertise in the fields in question. Lomborg appealed against the decision and the overseeing Danish ministry found that the DCSD had made a number of procedural errors in its decision. In 2004 the case was dropped on the basis that “renewed scrutiny would, in all likelihood, result in the same conclusion”.

Lomborg formed the Copenhagen Consensus Centre in wake of the book’s massive reaction. The centre aimed to establish priorities for advancing global welfare using methodologies based on the theory of welfare economics. Lomborg claimed that the best way to help was not to spend money protecting biodiversity but instead provide clean water and childhood education to developing countries. Critics argued that the centre was stacked with right-leaning anti-Kyoto scientists.

Lomborg is now the world's foremost anti-climate change expert. He is wheeled out to contradict the global warming message with every new event. As well as condemning the Stern Report, he denounced Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth as a “film is full of emotion and provocative images, (but) it is short on rational arguments”. Instead, Lomborg argues, we should be concentrating on preventable diseases like HIV, diarrhoea, and malaria which kill 15 million people a year. Malnutrition, lack of education and no access to clean drinking water are also bigger problems, he contends. Lomborg does not deny global warming but he remains an inconvenient but cogent voice of dissent that suggests the way forward to solve the problems are not clear-cut. Whether he is right or wrong, his polarising influence is likely to grow as the climate change sceptics marshal their diminishing forces in the wake of growing support for worldwide action.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Greek riots relive the terror of the Generals

At least 10 people were injured in Athens on Friday as police and protesters clashed during a rally marking the anniversary of a 1973 student uprising. There were two flashpoint locations; the Prime Minister’s official residence and the US embassy. Rioters threw flares and rocks at police who responded with tear gas. Some 15,000 demonstrators participated in a march marshalled by 7,500 police. The match was timed for the 33rd anniversary of the student uprising against then-ruling military junta. Many were killed in those riots which eventually led to the overthrowing of the government a year later. In recent years the march has been organised by anarchist groups and police were ordered to take a tougher line. There was also trouble in Greece’s second city Thessaloniki where protesters damaged a sports museum by throwing stones and smoke bombs.

The course of Greece’s modern political history dates back to the Second World War. Greece was occupied by Nazi Germany after it successfully resisted an Italian advance in 1940. The Germans were eventually forced to withdraw in 1944 and the country descended into civil war between communist-led Democratic Army and Hellenic Army. This war lasted until 1949, when the communists were defeated in the battle of Grammos-Vitsi. The Greek national army was well-equipped with US and British weaponry and ammunition and surrounded the exhausted Communist forces at Mt Grammos. To avoid total defeat the Communists fled into neighbouring Albania and the civil war was over. Greece joined NATO in 1952 and the country experienced a gradual and consistent economic growth, aided by significant grants from the Marshall Plan.

The peace lasted until the mid sixties. In 1963 Greece elected a liberal Prime Minister George Papandreou. The King openly opposed Papandreou's government and there were frequent ultra-rightist plots in the Army which destabilised the government. Eventually the army, supported by NATO worried about Greece’s new leftist leanings, launched a coup d’etat against the elected government in the early hours of April 21, 1967. The colonels were able to quickly seize power by using surprise and confusion. All the leading politicians were arrested. The Regime of the Colonels would last for the next seven years. Although supported by the US, the regime was deeply unpopular within Greece after it abolished civil rights, dissolved political parties and arrested and exiled most politicians.

The focus for opposition was the universities. The junta had banned student elections and drafted leftist students for the armed forces. In February 1973 law students went on strike and barricaded themselves inside the university of Athens demanding the cancelling of the law that imposed forceful drafting of "subversive youths". The strike was brutally broken up by police. In November students at the Athens Polytechnic commenced their own protest, built a barricade and launched a radio station. In the early hours of 17 November, the junta leader George Papadopoulos sent the army in to crush the demonstration. With the city in total darkness, a tank crashed through the gates and crushed the barricade. Though no-one inside were killed, at least 24 people died in fighting in the streets outside the campus.

A junta hardliner Taxiarkhos Ioannides used the uprising as a pretext to re-establish public order and staged a counter-coup that overthrew Papadopoulos one week later. He reinstated strict military law. Ioannides ruled precariously until June 1974 when he botched a coup attempt on Cypriot leader Archbishop Makarios. Turkey used this excuse to invade Northern Cyprus and the Greek regime imploded under the political pressure. The Greek public feared all out war with Turkey and emptied supermarkets in the panic and indecision that followed. Ioannides was booted out and a government of national unity was established. Constantine Karamanlis (Greek leader from 1955-1963) was recalled from exile in Paris to lead the government. Upon news of his impending arrival Athenian crowds took to the street cheering and chanting his name. Karamanlis quickly defused the tension with Turkey and presiding over the move to democracy. He legalised the KKE (the Greek Communist Party) and freed all political prisoners. He called elections for November 1974.

Karamanlis won a massive majority for his new conservative party New Democracy in the election. The monarchy was abolished and replaced by a presidency and a new constitution was agreed in 1975. Karamanlis won another election in 1977 and ruled for another three years. The socialist PASOK party under George Papandreou’s son Andreas finally won power in 1981. It was the first socialist government in Greece’s history. That same year, the move to democracy was firmly entrenched when Greece was accepted as the 10th member of the European Community (now Union). Ever since, Greece has experienced remarkable and sustained economic growth based on tourism and shipping. The highlight was the return of the Olympic Games to its spiritual home for the 100th anniversary of the modern games in 2004. The wheels of politics turned again and Kostas Karamanlis (nephew of Constantine) won back power for New Democracy a few months prior to the Olympics marking his party's first electoral victory in nearly 11 years.

However, the anarchist movement remains relatively strong in Greece, especially in Athens and Thessaloniki. The movement developed in the 1970s strongly influenced by German and Italian groups such as Baader-Meinhof and the Red Brigade. The movement was shaped by the 1973 insurrection against the colonels. And 17 November every year is the movement's finest hour as it attempts to relive the glory days of fighting against tanks and repressive governments. Unfortunately for them, democratic Greece has moved on a long way since the 1970s and the movement's support remains confined to poverty-stricken ghettos and the last vestige of radical students.

Friday, November 17, 2006

roger, copy

Copyright protects property. Media practitioners encounter copyright every day either by using other people’s published work or when others want to publish their works. It is an area of law subject to rapid change. Constant improvements in technology and the growing impact of international legislation have left the law of the land struggling to keep up. This essay will discuss the impact of intellectual property laws, the level of creativity required to qualify for copyright, and the impact to journalists using copyright material. The essay will conclude with a brief discussion of amendments to Australian copyright law in 2000.

Copyright is a form of personal property. Intellectual property (IP) is an important subset of copyright. It describes a range of legal rights in relation to information that results from some form of human intellectual activity. Australia is a founder member of the world IP governing body, the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) established by the Stockholm Convention of 1967. The democratic nature of WIPO meant that the US with its one vote could always expect to be defeated on any reform move by developing countries. This frustrated large US companies keen to protect their IP portfolios from piracy. They created a lobby group called the Advisory Committee for Trade Negotiations (ACTN) to provide input into US trade policy. The US succeeded in putting IP on the agenda of the GATT Uruguay Round in 1994. The resulting agreement is called the trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPS). TRIPS is now is a global enforcement of IP rights that includes software algorithms, genetic information and chemical compounds.

In Australia, copyright law is embodied at a federal level in the Copyright Act 1968 (Pearson 2004, p.282). The law does not address what degree of creativity is required for a work to gain copyright as an original. That question was considered by the US Supreme Court in Feist Publications Inc v Rural Telephone Service (1991). The landmark ruling of Feist was that in addition to being of independent origin, a work must be sufficiently creative to merit copyright. A telephone directory failed the second test. Databases may also fail this originality criterion and may lack copyright protection.

This test impacts journalists whose work may be stored in electronic databases and online newspapers. Journalists have long relied on the freedom of ideas to do their work. In De Garis v Neville Jeffress Pidler, the court ruled that employed journalists retain the right to distribute photocopies their articles not newspaper proprietors. Proprietors retain the right to reproduce articles in other media such as electronic databases or the internet. The 1993 Report on Journalists’ Copyright recommended the abolition of the special rule applying to print journalists. Reporters should seek the permission of copyright holders when reporting or else work within the defence of fair dealing. But The Panel case (2000) held that fair dealing defence failed if the object is sheer entertainment value rather than reporting of news for criticism or review.

There were two important amendments to Australian copyright law in 2000. The Copyright Amendment Act (Digital Agenda) was introduced to address copyright law deficiencies related to the internet. The main thrust of the law is to provide a right of communication to the public that is not limited to specific technologies (ibid, p.2). In the same year, the Copyright Amendment (Moral Rights) Act also provided two new “moral rights” for individual creators. The Australian Copyright Council defined moral rights in copyright law to mean right’s relating to a creator’s reputations in connection with his or her work. The two new rights are the right of attribution of authorship and the right of integrity of authorship. Creators can take legal action if they are not attributed or their work is falsely attributed or treated in a derogatory way. Unlike economic rights, moral rights are not transferable and last only for the lifetime of the creator.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Taiwan in dangerous straits

China has confirmed it arrested two Taiwanese citizens last week on charges of espionage. China's Taiwan Affairs Office confirmed a Taiwan media report that two Taipei businessmen have been arrested for spying. The Office deals with Taiwanese affairs in the absence of official ties between the countries. Last week Taiwan's United Daily News said the two had been arrested in southern China for providing military secrets to Taiwan. It is the latest in a long round of tit-for-tat spying allegations in both countries.

In April China executed Tong Daning, a director of the National Social Security Fund, on charges of spying for Taiwan. Employees of Chinese universities, radio and television stations have been forced to watch a video titled "Tong Daning's Spying Case" in the weeks following the execution. The video was meant to "strengthen employees' concept of protecting secrets," according to a Chinese web site.

In 2004 Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that the State Security Department had smashed a Taiwanese spy ring arresting 24 Taiwanese and 19 mainlanders. The report did not identify those detained or say what sort of spying they conducted except to say the group had "conducted activities in violation of the law” and had confessed. According to the HK newspaper, Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian blew their cover when he listed the locations of almost 500 missiles he said the mainland had pointed at Taiwan.

The welfare of Taiwanese spies in China was also seriously compromised by the 2002 revelations of a secret US$100m slush fund to pay for covert diplomatic operations. The story was leaked by Colonel Liu Kuan-chun, a former chief cashier at Taiwan's National Security Bureau who fled Taiwan in September 2000 amid allegations he embezzled US$5.5m from the fund. It is a major issue for the island because Taiwan has so few official diplomatic ties with other countries and it relies on personal contacts with its allies to conduct foreign relations.

Currently only 24 nations of the world recognise Taiwan as the sole Republic of China. These are mostly poor nations in Africa, Central America and some Pacific islands whose support has been bought through generous loans and grants. China continues to launch a diplomatic offensive to isolate the island nation. Taiwan is a relic of the Chinese civil war. After the mainland fell to the Communists in 1949, Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang government fled to Taiwan where it was still universally recognised as the official Chinese government.

The Republic of China was a founder member of the UN and held China’s seat at the UN and the security council until 1971. In that year the UN conceded that the Kuomintang's claim to all of China was unrealistic and they adopted General Assembly Resolution 2758 which replaced the Republic of China with the mainland People’s Republic of China as the country’s sole representative. Taiwan has called for an amendment of this resolution to allow it be represented as a state in the UN. However China has blocked all attempts to change its status. It also refuses to have diplomatic relations with any nation that recognises the Republic of China, and requires all nations that it has diplomatic relations with to recognise its claims to Taiwan.

The US officially switched allegiances under the Carter administration in 1979. But the seeds for the switch were sown by Henry Kissinger seven years earlier when he issued the Shanghai Communique. This stated that all Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait agreed there was only one China and that the United States recognised this position. It deliberately avoided stating which China was the one China. When Carter normalised the Chinese relationship, he did so without consulting Congress who had just voted that no relations were to be established with China at the expense of Taiwan. Congress retaliated by passing the Taiwan Relations Act which obliges the US to supply Taiwan with defensive weapons to maintain a balance of power with China.

The Act also authorised the created the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). The AIT is officially the vehicle of “commercial, cultural and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan”. But in reality it is the de facto US embassy in Taipei. Taiwan set up a counterpart called the Taipei Economic & Cultural Representative Office in the US (TECRO) which is its Washington embassy. The US official position remains the support of a peaceful transition to a One China.

America is not alone in having a policy of deliberate ambiguity towards Taiwan. The country competes in the Olympics and FIFA World cup events under the name of Chinese Taipei. The UN refers to the island as “Taiwan, Province of China”. But for the World Trade Organisation it goes under the unwieldy moniker of the “Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu”. The status quo is accepted because it does not define the legal status or future status of Taiwan, leaving each vested interest to interpret the situation in whatever way it prefers.

But there is now growing support in Taiwan change the status quo. Many centrist and left wing parties such as the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) now favour complete independence while the old guard dominated by the Kuomintang remain pro-unification. The irony is that although Beijing sees the republic of China as an illegitimate entity, it has stated that any effort by Taiwan to formally abolish the republic or renounce its claim over the China would be viewed unfavourably as an act of independence. The continual arresting of “spies” may just be China’s way of showing its displeasure.