Wednesday, February 28, 2007

See Emily Play

The inspiration for the influential women’s lobby group EMILY’s list died earlier this month. Her name was Harriet Woods. Woods narrowly missed out on becoming the US first female Democrat senator when she came from nowhere to narrowly lose a Missouri senate race in 1982 to incumbent Republican Senator John Danforth. Woods died of leukaemia aged 79 on 9 February.

Woods was the only Democratic woman in the nation running for the Senate in 1982. She won the 1982 Democratic primary without party support. Despite this, she was running neck-and-neck with odds-on favourite Danforth in the final weeks of the race when she was forced to cancel TV ads because she ran out of money. Her senate defeat, although heartbreaking for her supporters, proved to be a catalyst for a new movement. Ellen Malcolm, a Washington public service activist was exasperated by Woods' eventual loss. "Out of that, I brought a group together and said: 'This is crazy. How do we elect a woman to the Senate?” she said.

The obvious answer was money. Malcolm decided to answer the question herself and founded a new organisation in 1985. She called it EMILY’s List. EMILY is an acronym not the name of a woman. It stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast because that’s what “makes the dough rise”. Malcolm’s goal was to elect more pro-abortion rights women to state and federal offices. Initial results were mixed. With Emily’s financial backing, they helped Woods run again for Missouri in 1986. Although Woods lost again, EMILY’s second candidate Barbara Mikulski was successfully elected to the Senate in Maryland.

EMILY’s List quickly grew into a powerful campaign organisation. It now has 100,000 members and describes itself as the “nation's largest grassroots political network…dedicated to building a progressive America by electing pro-choice Democratic women to federal, state, and local office”.

EMILY’s List celebrated its 20th birthday in October 2005. There was a lot to celebrate. In 1986, there were just 12 women in the House of Representatives with no female Senators or Governors. By 2006, the number of Democrat House members rose to 43, there were nine Senators and six Governors. The group which started in Malcolm's basement is now housed in headquarters with 70 full-time staff members. The group ended 2004 as the largest single source of donations to candidates in the country; through its members, the group directed nearly $11 million to pro-abortion rights female candidates.

EMILY’s List is now a major player in the US political scene. According to the Centre for Responsive Politics, a non-profit group in Washington that tracks money in congressional elections, EMILY’s List spent $24 million in the 2004-2006 election cycle, more than any other independent political action committee in the US. This figure does not include funds political action committees associated with national party committees have given out to congressional candidates. The List’s executive director Ellen Moran said her group's track record "speaks for itself”.

The situation improved again after the November 2006 midterm elections. With the Democrat taking control of the Senate for the first time in 12 years, Nancy Pelosi became the first female majority leader of the House. Pelosi credited EMILY’s List for her successful candidacy in California in 1987. Earlier this month, Ellen Moran, executive director announced EMILY's List will be helping Hillary Clinton campaign and raise funds for her presidential campaign.

Others are now trying to replicate this success internationally. In 1996, EMILY’s List was set up in Australia. It has provided financial, training and mentoring support to candidates in State and Federal election campaigns. It endorses candidates who support “principles of equity, diversity, pro-choice, and the provision of equal pay and childcare”. It claims the success of 101 new women MPs into Australian parliaments in the last ten years. Although not affiliated with the ALP, current party deputy-leader Julia Gillard played a role in the foundation of the Australian branch. Gillard remains a public advocate for the organisation.

Harriet Woods, who started the ball rolling, did eventually gain political office; serving as Missouri’s lieutenant governor before being elected president of the non-partisan National Women's Political Caucus. Woods eventually taught at various universities and published "Stepping Up to Power: The Political Journey of American Women" in 2002. Her most famous saying was “You can stand tall without standing on someone. You can be a victor without having victims”.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

incumbent claims victory in Senegal

President Abdoulaye Wade has claimed victory in Senegal’s closely fought presidential election which took place on Sunday. Wade needs 50% of the vote to avoid a run-off election in mid-March. Official results are not expected until Monday, and it was not clear whether Wade was on track for outright victory. If confirmed, it will be Wade’s second term in office in a country, which uniquely for West Africa has suffered no coups in the 45 years since independence. Only three men have led the country in that time.

The French educated Wade turned 80 in May last year but his leadership of Africa’s most stable country shows no sign of flagging. But Senegal’s much vaunted stability has come at a cost. The country has suffered economically, unable to diversify its economy beyond a near total dependency on peanut exports. Over half its 11 million people live below the poverty line and if the country keeps growing at its current 2.6 percent rate, the economy will have to grow at a 7.5 percent rate over a decade to cut poverty rates in half. It also suffers from an independence movement in the south of the country.

The French arrived in the 1850s and ruled Senegal for the next hundred years. Senegal gained its independence in 1959 and for a short while formed a federation with French Sudan before the latter broke off to form the new country of Mali. Senegal was also united with The Gambia for much of the 1980s. Casamance, the area to the south of The Gambia has been the site of a sporadic separatist movement called the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MDFC). The MDFC are Jola people who claim they have suffered discrimination at the hands of Senegal’s majority tribe, the Wolof.

Leopold Sedar Senghor was an educator and poet who served as the country’s president for its first 21 years. Senghor was educated in Paris and stayed on to teach at university. He joined the French army at the outbreak of World War II and spent two years in a Nazi POW camp. He returned to Senegal after the war and joined the colonial government. In 1948 he founded a political party, the Bloc democratique senegalais. Senghor was a strong supporter of federalism for newly independent African states. And because Senegal was the intellectual centre of French West Africa, Senghor was elected president of the Federal Assembly of the newly minted French Commonwealth states until its failure in 1960. Then he became Senegal’s first president. Bolstered by a strong French military force, Senghor served five terms as leader before resigning in 1980.

His replacement was fellow Socialist party member Abdou Diouf. Diouf would go on to lead Senegal for the last two decades of the 20th century. He was progressive and institutionalised democracy, decentralisation and allowed a progressive liberalisation of the economy. In the presidential election of 2000, opposition leader Abdoulaye Wade defeated Diouf in an election deemed free and fair by international observers. Wade took 60% of the vote.

It was Wade’s fifth attempt at the presidency and ended the 40 year rule of the Socialist Party. Wade leads the liberalist Senegalese Democratic Party . Wade won the 2000 election in a coalition that saw the third place finisher Moustapha Niasse installed as Prime Minister. Wade oversaw the completion of a new constitution which reduced the presidential term from seven to five years. Wade’s most significant challenger in the 2007 election was former Prime Minister Idrissa Seck.

Seck was Prime Minister from 2002 to 2004 but was then controversially removed and jailed on allegations of corruption and threatening state security. He was released last year for lack of evidence. Seck was favourite to force Wade into a run-off ballot and opposition supporters have not yet accepted Wade’s outright victory. Critics say Wade has not done enough to combat rural poverty, weak infrastructure, rising prices and a lack of jobs. Seck said only electoral fraud would make it possible for him to win in the first round. Meanwhile a spokesman for Socialist Party candidate Ousmane Tanor Dieng dismissed Wade’s early victory announcement as a "fantasy".

Senegal will find out on Monday whether Wade’s fantasy has come true.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Maxine to hasten Howards end?

The fight for John Howard’s marginal Sydney seat of Bennelong took a new twist with the overnight announcement of ex-ABC journalist Maxine McKew as Labor’s candidate in the next election. Prime Minister Howard defends his seat with a slender 4% margin and recent redistributions have made Bennelong even more precarious. A Roy Morgan poll indicated Howard would have lost the seat if an election had been held last week.

In 2004 Howard won the seat with 49.8% of the vote, down 3% on his 2001 result. Then ALP candidate Nicole Campbell took 28% and the Greens’ high profile Andrew Wilkie came third with an impressive 16%. Wilkie was a former soldier and intelligence analyst who spilled the beans on the faulty intelligence the Australian Government used to justify the invasion of Iraq. Even with Wilkie's impressive showing, Howard ended up with 54% on a Two Party Preferred vote.

The 53 year old McKew is a former ABC journalist who joined the Labor Party earlier this month as an advisor to opposition leader Kevin Rudd. She left the ABC after a distinguished 30 year career in October last year. McKew won a Walkley award in 1998 in the category of broadcast journalist interviews for her work on the ABC program Lateline. McKew is married to Bob Hogg, the former national secretary of the ALP.

According to former Labor leader Mark Latham, McKew could have been a Labor MP six years ago. Then MP Julia Irwin held the safe seat of Fowler in NSW. Labor heavyweights planned to move Irwin to the upper house and offer the seat to McKew in the 2001 election. According to Latham, Labor’s then NSW assistant general secretary, Mark Arbib told him “[McKew] backed out, said she couldn’t stand living in Cabramatta or Liverpool”. Wealthier inner-west Bennelong may be more her liking. Online Crikey the real purpose of the McKew’s Bennelong bid is “to irritate and annoy the Prime Minister to help Labor beat his government throughout Australia rather than to actually defeat him in his own seat”.

Even if McKew loses, there is a strong probability Bennelong will offer up a second chance by-election sometime in the next 18 months when Howard finally calls it a day. However a McKew victory first time up is very plausible. The Morgan poll of 21 February has the Liberal number crunchers worried. It identified 7.4% of voters who elected Howard in 2004 will vote Labor this time round. The poll identified what issues were hurting Howard. 64% of Bennelong’s voters want Australia’s Iraq forces brought home compared to 29% who say they should continue fighting in Iraq. 63% say he was wrong to attack Barack Obama and 59% disagree with his Industrial relations reforms.

If Howard does lose, he will be the first Prime Minister to suffer the indignity of losing his seat since Stanley Melbourne Bruce in 1929. A war hero from World War I, Bruce led the country for six years. In perhaps a warning for Howard, Bruce lost his seat in Flinders, Victoria due to his uncompromising stand on industrial relations. Bruce's Nationalist Party (the forerunner to UAP which eventually led to the Liberals) also lost government to Labor in the 1929 election.

Election analyst Antony Green says recent polls and the redistributions over the past decade suggest Bennelong is a seat that will be one to watch in the next federal election. "We'll have to wait and see, but the polls we saw last week and also the changing demographics does suggest this is a seat that's really going to be one to watch," he said. "And it's about the point on the pendulum where there would be a change of government."

The election must take place by 19 January 2008. Labor needs to win 16 seats to ensure that change of government.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Germany bans red man's revenge again

Germany is latest country to introduce anti-smoking laws. Its 16 federal states have agreed to outlaw smoking in public buildings but stopped short of a blanket ban in pubs and restaurants as introduced in a number of other European countries. The state premiers must still approve the ban. While the move is unlikely to meet the approval of Germany’s 25 million smokers (almost one third of the population), it does has the backing of Angela Merkel’s government. Federal Consumer Affairs Minister Horst Seehofer hailed what he called a long overdue move saying “there is no substance in a room more poisonous to health than smoke”.

But Germany has a strong post-war sense of freedom of expression that will find this law an infringement of basic rights. Germans may also object for historical reasons. This is not the first time the nation has tried to implement a smoking ban. Germany had the world's strongest anti smoking movement in the 1930s and early 1940s under Hitler. The Nazis had surprisingly enlightened ideas about cigarettes such as banning smoking in public spaces, no tobacco advertising, and restricted tobacco rations for women (though not for men, presumably the boys needed a puff after a hard day’s work with the Wehrmacht). Nazi German scientists had a highly refined science called epidemiology which studies the factors that affect the health of populations. They were particularly strong on the effects of tobacco. Nazi scientists were the first to establish there was a link between tobacco and lung cancer.

Many Nazi leaders like Himmler were vocal opponents of smoking. But Hitler was the most adamant, characterising tobacco as revenge: "the wrath of the Red Man against the White Man for having been given hard liquor." But then Hitler spoke with the typical anti-tobacco zeal of an ex-smoker . Nevertheless despite official disapproval the industry thrived. In the 1940s German anti-tobacco activists struggled to point out that whereas Hitler was now a non-smoker as were fellow fascist leaders Mussolini and Franco, the three allied heads Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt were all fond of tobacco. It is unlikely this campaign met with any success.

Not many of today’s world leaders will openly admit to a fondness for nicotine products. Fidel Castro was renowned for his love of cigars but even he kicked the habit in 1986 for health reasons. And while he continues to struggle for life in hospital, Cuba banned smoking on public transport, in shops and other closed spaces last month. More than half of Cuban adults are thought to smoke, and 30% of preventable cancer deaths are linked to smoking. The commerce ministry announced the move saying it was "taking into account the damage to human health caused by the consumption of cigarettes and cigars, with the objective of contributing to a change in the attitudes of our population." It is a big step for a country with a $200 million cigar export industry.

Ninety miles to the north, the US also has political problems with tobacco. Although Nazi scientists were quick to chide Roosevelt’s habit, no US president since him has smoked. It’s possible that Barack Obama’s high profile presidential campaign could be more likely derailed by his well-publicised battles with nicotine addiction as any issues related to his background or his views on Iraq. He is one of a quarter of the American adult population (almost 50 million) who smokes cigarettes. Obama doesn’t puff publicly but stories of his 'dirty little secret' in political circles could prove poisonous in an era when smokers are looked down upon in America.

But the US is also home to two of the world’s biggest tobacco companies; Altria Group (formerly Philip Morris) and RJ Reynolds (the third biggest British American Tobacco is based in London). They have vast political influence that has kept uniform smoking laws off the Washington agenda. But individual jurisdictions are taking action. California has some of the toughest and most extensive anti-smoking legislation anywhere in the world. Smoking is banned in public buildings, restaurants, bars and enclosed workplaces and also on its famous beaches.

The recent court defeats have also left the tobacco companies looking overseas for easier pickings. Germany has been one of Philip Morris’s happy hunting grounds and one of the countries that share the manufacturer’s views. In 2002, Germany argued to weaken the draft of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) on the issue of advertising, promotion and sponsorship. Using arguments often promoted by transnational tobacco corporations, Germany made the case that tobacco advertising is protected as freedom of expression. Its position on the issue of tobacco advertising was in part attributed to expressed concerns over constitutional conflicts. The new laws would appear to have overcome these conflicts.

The German decision follows the lead of a number of European countries. England is to implement a smoking ban in workplaces and enclosed public spaces follow similar decisions by Italy, France and Spain. Ireland led the way in the EU by imposing tough anti-smoking legislation in March 2004 which banned smoking in pubs, restaurants and other enclosed workplaces. While the Irish laws were blamed for plummeting bar sales, the laws have been generally welcomed, especially by pub employees. According to a 2005 study, the new law has proven popular, even with smokers: 83% of Irish smokers say the law was a "good" or "very good" thing. Berlin café owner Cynthia Barcomi is impatient for similar laws in Germany. "I think it's really cowardly," she said. "How much more information do they need about the dangers of passive smoking? Does the rest of the world have to ban smoking before Germany does it?"

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Rastaman political vibration

Rastafarians in the Bahamas having broken the habit of a lifetime by registering to vote in an upcoming election. For many years, apolitical Rastas chose not to vote, particularly because voters are required to mark an X on ballot sheets. A Bahaman Rasta spokesman, Ethelbert Harris, explained X signified something wrong or negative. “We don’t have to mark an X because we know X is always wrong, so we come to mark a tick if possible, but we want all the Rastas to come out and exercise their right to vote," he said.

Rithmond McKinney, a Rastafarian priest, also encouraged Rastas throughout the country to register to vote. He believes the thousands of Rasta votes will make a significant difference in the May election. McKinney said the community have been denied basic rights over the years. “We have been discriminated in the workplace and we feel the oppression”, he said. The push to enrol comes almost a year after the Bahamas Ras Tafarl National Gathering which sought to “chart the course of our destiny as sons and daughters of Rastafari here in The Commonwealth of The Bahamas Islands”.

The name Rastafari comes from Ras (Head or Duke or Chief) Tafari Makonnen, the pre-coronation name of Haile Selassie I, the former Ethiopian emperor. Rastas accepts Haile Selassie as “Jah”, the God of their religion. The concept of Jah comes from the Christian Bible and was used as a contraction of Jehovah or Yahweh. It is also in the word “hallelujah” (praise Jah). Rastas were attracted to Selassie as was the only black leader in the world for much of the early 20th century. There was also the fortuitous omen that his titles “King of Kings, Lord of Lords and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah” matched the description of the Messiah in the Biblical Book of Revelations. The Rasta movement also adopted the Ethiopian colours of green, gold and red.

The movement first emerged in Jamaica in the 1930s. The man responsible for Rastafarianism was Leonard P Howell. Howell was a Jamaican who left the country as a young man to travel the world. He returned to his native land in 1933 and began to preach the new word. His message was “the messiah Ras Tafari has returned to earth". His vision of a Black God here on Earth struck a chord with desperately poor parts of the island. But the nervous British administration didn’t like his pro-black message. They arrested Howell for sedition and sent him to prison for three years. After that, he went back to his community where authorities harassed him for the remainder of his days.

Nevertheless his message stuck. Around the same time, fellow Jamaican Marcus Garvey was spreading his Black Nationalist message in the US and elsewhere. In the 1920s Garvey created a black movement called the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) with over a million members. He encouraged those of African descent to return to their homelands. Back in Garvey’s own homeland, Jamaica, his philosophy fitted in with the Ethiopian visions of Lowell and although he never endorsed the deification of Selassie, Garvey was quickly accepted as a prophet of Rasta.

The religion remained a low-key Jamaican affair until the emergence of Bob Marley. Marley was a mixed race Jamaican who picked up Rastafarianism in his teens from his musical mentor Joe Higgs. Higgs was hugely influential. As well as teaching Marley religion, he was also the inspiration for a 1960s musical movement which evolved from Jamaican ska mixed with American rhythm and blues and calypso music. This new creation was called reggae. In his own reggae music, Higg's protege Marley merged a crusade for his adopted religion with themes of political oppression. He had his first international hit in 1975 and his album “Rastaman Vibration” reached the American top ten a year later.

Marley's message of peace, love, unity and brotherhood of all mankind proved popular worldwide and the religion quickly grew outside its Jamaican base. Because of its loosely-organized structure and because many adherents are nominal members of larger religious groups, precise size estimates of Rastafarians worldwide are difficult. The best estimate has a current global population of somewhere between 600,000 and a million adherents, of which there are 11,000 in the US.

Despite Marley’s own activism, Rastafarian culture does not encourage political involvement and most don’t vote. Yet Howell’s original vision for Rastafarianism was inherently political and played important role in the building of the black consciousness movement among the ex-slave population. But he was ruthlessly crushed by authority as was Ras Sam Brown who tried to create a Rasta party in Jamaica in 1961. Rastas heeded these warnings and have studiously steered clear of politics – until recent times. Perhaps inspire by the ghost of Marley, there are signs of Rastas now tentatively returning to Jamaican politics. Similarly the events in the Bahamas, are showing a new political awareness and a determination to stamp Rasta culture on the landscape. New Zealand may be far from the Caribbean but it does have its own Rastafarian MP Nándor Tánczos.

Expect to see more Rasta politics on the landscape in the years to come… as long as they get over their problem with “X”.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Rendition made ordinary

Last week, the European parliament released a report which blasted its own members for its involvement in the CIA extraordinary rendition program. The report said 14 European governments in Europe turned a blind eye to over a thousand CIA flights through their airspace between 2001 and 2005, some of which were used to illegally abduct terrorist suspects for questioning. The report, emerged from a year-long investigation by a special European Parliament committee and named Germany, Britain, Ireland and Portugal as the worst offenders permitting the most number of covert flights.

Italian Socialist MEP Giovanni Claudio Fava, who drafted the report’s final conclusions, told reporters that "involvement in detainment amounts to a certain extent to involvement in torture." Although the parliament cannot impose sanctions on its member states, the release is a serious embarrassment to the EU. The report goes to a vote of the full parliament next month.

In US law, rendition means the surrender of persons or property from one jurisdiction to another. However it does not have any validity in the canon of international law. The US describes it as an “extra-legal process”. The history of extraordinary rendition dates back to the Clinton administration. The CIA began an intelligence-gathering program that involved the transfer of foreign nationals suspected of involvement in terrorism to detention and interrogation in countries where they thought federal and international legal safeguards would not apply.

The process remained a small-time CIA operation until 9/11. From then on, the program expanded dramatically. Non US-nationals suspected of terrorism were transported to interrogation facilities in Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Diego Garcia, Afghanistan, Guantánamo and elsewhere. CIA agent Robert Baer described a pecking order of detention centres: "If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear -- never to see them again -- you send them to Egypt, “ he said.

It is difficult to get a feel for how many people have been victims of these secret renditions. The EU report named 1,245 flights through Europe alone. But the report’s release may be a sign that the tide is turning against rendition. On 16 February, an Italian judge gave approval for a trial in absentia of 25 CIA operatives on charges of kidnapping a radical Muslim cleric four years ago. Meanwhile victims who have escaped the rendition hellholes are also seeking redress in the courts. The two most famous cases known so far are Maher Arar and Khalid El-Masri.

Maher Arar is a Syrian-born Canadian wireless technology consultant. On 26 September 2002, Arar was in transit in New York’s JFK airport when returning to Canada from a vacation in Tunisia. Likely acting on false information from Canadian police, US officials detained and interrogated him about alleged links to al-Qaeda. Twelve days later, he was chained, shackled and flown to Syria. Syrian military intelligence held him in a tiny “grave-like” cell for ten months before they moved him to a better prison. He was beaten, tortured and forced to make a false confession. He was released after a year. A 2006 Canadian enquiry totally exonerated Arar of any involvement in terrorism. The US did not co-operate with the enquiry and Arar remains on a US watchlist because of "his personal associations and travel history”.

Khalid El-Masri has also suffered brutally in the name of rendition. El-Masri was born in Lebanon and moved to Germany to escape the civil war. There he married a Lebanese and gained German citizenship. In 2003, he travelled from his home in the city of Ulm to Skopje, Macedonia. On arrival at the Macedonian border, he was detained by police who thought his passport was fake. El-Masri’s misfortune was to have a similar name to Khalid Al-Masri who was wanted in connection for his involvement in the Al Qaeda Hamburg cell which carried out the 9/11 attacks. Macedonian police held El-Masri for three weeks before releasing him. They also informed the CIA.

The CIA sent a snatch team to Macedonia and kidnapped El-Masri. They assaulted and drugged him, then flew him out of the country to the infamous “Salt Pit” prison near Kabul in Afghanistan where he was frequent tortured and injected with drugs. After two months US officials concede his passport was genuine and El-Masri was not a terrorist. El-Masri was finally taken to Albania where he was deposited on a desolate road at night with no apology and no money. Suspicious Albanian authorities initially arrested him on suspicion of terrorism. In May 2005, he finally made it home to Germany only to find his wife had gone back to Lebanon, thinking he had left her. One year later a Washington Federal District Judge dismissed a lawsuit El-Masri filed against the CIA explaining that a public trial would "present a grave risk of injury to national security”.

The full truth of extraordinary rendition may never be known.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

power to the people, profits to the plc

Energy competition is coming to Queensland. Energy is a big business in Queensland, a $13 billion industry with 1.8 million customers. Up to now the Queensland government owned much of this business. Soon private companies like Origin Energy, AGL and Australian Pipeline Trust will be taking a much bigger slice of the pie.

The process has already started. Any day now, half a million customers in the South-East of the State will be getting polite welcome notices in the mail from their new suppliers of gas and electricity. Then as of 1 July 2007, this multi-billion dollar business will be open to full competition.

From this onward date the Queensland energy market moves to what is called Full Retail Contestability (FRC). FRC is effectively open slather. It will allow residential customers to ditch their current arrangements and choose their own electricity and gas suppliers. The Queensland State Government is very happy about the new arrangements which have netted them three billion dollars. But questions remains over several aspects of the process including the need for privatisation, the anti-competitive takeover deals between the new owners, what will happen in the rural sector, and what will it cost?

There is plenty of Australian experience Queensland can use to make it work. Victoria was the first state to introduce FRC in 2001 and NSW followed six months later. South Australia and Western Australia are now also FRC compliant. However, due to economies of scale, FRC only works in large urban areas, effectively the markets in and around the capital cities.

In April 2006, the Queensland Government announced it too would move its South East corridor gas and electricity systems to FRC. Speaking to a parliamentary estimates committee three months later, Deputy State Premier Ms Anna Bligh said “as a government we felt it was our obligation in the interests of protecting taxpayer assets to sell these retail businesses”.

The Government passed an Energy Assets (restructuring and disposal) bill in October. The aim of this bill was to develop a speedy process to deal with the licensing of the energy retailers. State Premier Peter Beattie pushed through the privatisation bill despite opposition from Queensland Labor’s union-controlled factions.

As a compromise to the factions’ anti-privatisation position, the Government decided not to sell the energy infrastructure. Beattie justified the decision not to sell the infrastructure by telling the ABC, “it’s just that it is not in the state’s interest to sell the poles and wires and it is not in the state’s interest to sell all our generation, and we won’t do it”.

In any case, this is not the first privatisation of energy in the state. In 1998 the Queensland electricity market was opened up to enable large power users, mainly heavy industry, to choose the retailer that supplied them. Since that time, in four steps the contestable market has progressively been opened to smaller consumers of electricity, but still firmly in the commercial sector. Now retail too is up for grabs.

The Queensland Government moved quickly after the Energy Assets Act was passed. The target was the south-eastern retailer Energex. In scope for sale was their electricity and gas systems. Over the last few months these systems have been sold off to the highest bidders in four deals that have netted billions to state coffers.

But Energex was not purely a retail organisation; it is a mix of two radically different organisations. Its distribution arm is a monopoly network business worth around $4 billion. It provides maintenance of engineering assets and has about 3,000 mainly trade-based staff. Meanwhile the retail arm has a few hundred white-collar workers skilled in marketing and managing the financial risks around the highly volatile wholesale price of electricity. And while the retail arm is being hived off, the distribution arm of Energex Ltd will remain Government owned after the sale. It will continue to be responsible for the operation of the electricity supply network – the poles, wires, substations and cables in the area from Gympie South to the New South Wales border.

But Energex has now lost its lucrative south-East Queensland residential market. In April 2006, the Queensland Government estimated that the sale of Energex’s retail arm would bring in about a billion dollars. That was a spectacular under-estimation. Earlier this week, the sale of the fourth and final part of the retail arm brought in $1.2 billion alone and revenues for the total four parts is in excess of $3 billion.

The move to FRC is being overseen by VENcorp (the Victorian Energy Network Corporation). Queensland Energy Minister John Mickel said VENCorp's expertise in managing contestability was critical to cost-effective implementation of full retail competition, for both industry and consumers. While it is practical to use a Victorian company experienced in the ways of privatisation, it is also important for the Government to be seen as having a hands-off approach.

They have been scarred by Energex in the past. In 2004 an independent report found the Beattie’s government had stripped so much money from Energex (95 per cent of their profit), that power services to Brisbane started to fail because there was no money left for proper maintenance.

Now VENcorp will deal directly with the three new players in the Queensland energy market. The companies that now own expensive assets are: Origin Energy, Australian Gas Light (AGL) and Australian Pipeline Trust (APT). Why did these energy companies pay three times over the expected odds to win the business? The answer is a matter of numbers. Queensland’s energy consumption is forecast to grow at 3.5 per cent per annum over the next decade while the population is expected to increase by 43 per cent over the next 20 years.

The new owners have taken different slices of the pie. The Sun Retail (formerly known as Energex Retail) business sells electricity to 1.2 million customers in south-east Queensland. The State Government decided that in order to “boost competition” it would sell Sun Retail’s electricity customer base in two parts. In the first tranche in December, 800,000 of its 1.2 million customers was sold to Origin Energy for $1,202 million. Sun Retail’s LPG business and its 53,000 customers were also sold in this tranche.

Now the rest of Sun Retail also has a new owner. On Monday this week, AGL announced it paid $1,200 million for the final tranche of the retail sale: Powerdirect Australia. The acquisition delivers AGL an additional 480,000 accounts. AGL's purchase equates to about $1300 per customer, well above Origin Energy's acquisition of Sun Retail which equated to a price of about $1100 per customer. This is AGL’s second investment in the asset sale. Late last year they also bought Queensland’s Sun Gas business and its 400,000 customers. AGL paid $75 million for this transaction.

The final part up for sale was Energex’s natural gas retail business (known as Allgas). The gas transmission company APT picked up Allgas for $521 million. As well as the regulated gas network distribution business, the Allgas deal also includes the unregulated Moura coal seam methane pipeline and rights related to the proposed Gatton to Gympie pipeline.

In total, the energy sales process has grossed more than $3.1 billion for the Government. This nest-egg goes into the Queensland Future Growth Fund once stamp duty, related sales costs and adjustments, and any relevant debt repayments are taken off.

However if customers in FRC areas believe that competition between new providers will drive down the cost of their bills they may need to think again. There are intricate links between all of the new energy providers with the Western Australian gas infrastructure giant Alinta behind the scenes with interests in all the new providers.

Alinta, a Western Australian gas infrastructure giant spent much of 2006 bidding against AGL with takeover and counter-takeover offers of each other. In August, the two companies reached a compromise to scrap their rival bids. Instead the companies merged and then demerged into separate infrastructure and energy companies via schemes of arrangement. Alinta acquired AGL's infrastructure assets and AGL acquired Alinta's energy assets.

This included a stake in APT as AGL already owns 30 per cent of APT. Alinta then acquired another 10 per cent of APT despite reservations from the market watchdog the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

Origin had stayed at arms length to these inter-company manoeuvres – until now. Matters took a new turn earlier this month when Origin announced it had entered discussions with AGL to launch a $14 billion merger of the two companies. Despite approving the Powerdirect sale to AGL, this latest merger plan has the Queensland Government worried. Deputy Premier Anna Bligh has asked ACCC chairman Graeme Samuel to "take an active interest" in the merger talks. AGL chief executive Paul Anthony has brushed off her concerns by suggesting Powerdirect could easily be spun off into a stand- alone electricity company with other AGL assets.

But while the urban sector may have to deal with potential price collusion, the rural sector remains firmly in Government hands. The state-owned company Ergon currently holds the energy accounts in the Queensland rural sector. Because it is not as profitable as the urban sector, it is out of scope for July FRC.

Deputy Premier Anna Bligh told parliament last year Townsville may come in scope for FRC depending on what happens with the proposed $5 billion gas pipeline from Papua New Guinea. Led by Exxon-Mobil (with a 10 per cent stake owned by AGL), that ambitious multi-national project remains at draft stage with no firm timeline for implementation.

In the mean time, the State Government acknowledged that energy bills would remain higher in Ergon regions due to the higher costs of providing electricity into remote regions. The 600,000 Ergon customers will remain subject to the tariff set by the minister. Currently customers are on ‘fixed price tariffs’ which protects them from changes to prices in the forward market or the spot market due to factors such as drought. The uniform tariff comes at a very significant community service obligation which was nearly $400 million for 2005-06 financial year.

Rural customers will be hoping that the state will continue to subsidise their energy bills with the largesse of the future fund. Urban customers will be hoping they won’t outlast their welcome messages now in the post.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

objectivity and journalism: an essay

Objectivity is the dominant ethos of modern journalism. It underscores notions of fairness, accuracy and lack of bias in the media. But although central to journalist behaviour, objectivity is a troubled idea. Is objectivity merely a code for journalists to go through the motions and avoid tackling the hard issues? Does a lack of bias prevent journalism from performing its watchdog function? Or is objectivity the core item that underscores all that good about journalism “describing society to itself”? This essay will examine what objectivity is, how it came to be a central tenet of journalism, how it is now challenged and look at ways it may be treated in the future.

According to the dictionary, the word “objectivity” means concentration on matters independent of the mind, or, a presentation of an external world that is observable or verifiable, especially by scientific method. In the less scientific world of journalism, Philips concluded objectivity was a set of canons based on notions of balance, fairness, lack of bias, accuracy and neutrality. For the media, objectivity is all about reporting the news in a fair and balanced manner. It is also related to professionalism in journalism. Gerald Stone described it as “the ability of the journalist to recognise his personal leanings and his ability to control them”. Journalists are duty-bound to report the truth. Yet that may not be straightforward in a situation of ‘multiple realities’ – a situation where no one ‘reality’ is more valid that another. But to understand the complex state of objectivity in today’s journalism, it is first necessary to look at its evolution.

The first journalists had more urgent matters to attend to than the pursuit of objectivity. Defamation was a common law offence from the 16th century. Meanwhile most European countries licensed printing presses and printers were subject to prior censorship. Penalties were harsh and early journalists such as Daniel Defoe and Benjamin Harris suffered the indignities of jail and the pillory for their writings. But Harris was imprisoned not because he printed libels but “because he printed the truth as he saw it”. The first signs of change came with Franklin’s inclusion of the “freedom of the press” in the US bill of rights.

Despite Franklin’s own policy of editorial impartiality, news was mostly reported in partisan fashion until the 19th century and the arrival of Reuters. When they and other mass wire services wanted to make money by selling news to newspapers of multiple political views, they decided they needed to stick to facts and left the judgement to the newspapers. Newspapers themselves began to adopt this practice as their own audiences became more diverse. The influx of college graduates in some American newspapers began to shape new ideas about how to conduct work. One of these ideas was that news had to be factual. By the 1920s, newspapers attempted to attract educated middle class readers by stressing their dedication to ideals of objectivity as what Dunlevy called “consensually validated facts about the world”.

But consensual validation didn’t last long. The rise of wartime propaganda and the post-war development of public relations meant that trust in objective facts began to wane. To counter this, Walter Lippman (who experienced propaganda at first hand during the First World War) began to characterise objectivity as a method. His ideas were well-received. Today, journalists in Australia, Britain and the US enthusiastically embrace objectivity as a method rather than a measure of content.

But objectivity, whether measured by method or content, has a major difficulty. It involves an assumption there is one true external reality which is ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered. Today, this assumption is undermined by technologies which have the ability to dissolve the difference between the fiction and the real world. The assumption is also undone by a proposition in the definition of objectivity itself; that is “the link between language and ideology and the infinite number of perceptions about any one event”. Mary Beasley, then South Australian ombudsman, was keenly aware of these links and the multiplicity of reality when she told a 1985 conference that objectivity was a myth. In her words, discrimination was a fundamental part of nature. John Pilger goes further still and sees objectivity as an inhibition for journalists. He describes it as a process of “not rocking the boat, [and] presenting the Establishment point of view”.

But what is this establishment point of view? In Australia, as well as the US and Britain, there is a dominant two-party political system that represents the establishment. Under this system, the media strive to be value-neutral in order not to not to greatly offend either party. It makes political sense for journalists to get both sides of a story and it also allows journalists to claim they are acting ethically by abiding to the first clause of their MEAA code of ethics which says “do your utmost to give a fair opportunity to reply”. The issue with this type of reportage is that both sides may be wrong or indeed there may be other competing views which are not reported on at all. According to Tuchman, merely presenting conflicting claims to the truth is not the same as presenting verified facts.

The news may well consists of objective and balanced reports. But it may still be biased if it is framed in terms of conflicts between elites and allows no voices other than those who speak for powerful institutions. Objective reporting is often little more than reporting the statements of politicians and lobby groups in knee-jerk style without focussing or mediating the debate. Furthermore, the detachment of objectivity is restrictive and constrains a journalist’s ability to confidently judge right from wrong.

Few doubt the agenda-setting powers of the media. But it is also true that television and newspapers determine “what we think about more than what we think”. This is often done by omission. Hurst argues that real power is keeping items off the agenda. Existing power structures are legitimised by the media because facts about the powerful require more verification than facts about the powerless and therefore tend to be excluded. Also, Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model shows how news filters such as ownership, advertisers, use of primary sources, and negative reaction operate to marginalise dissidents. The authors agree that news people are objective and operate with professional news values but only under the constraints of the news filters.

But how else should the news be selected for its audience? There are two factors: firstly the “interests” of the audience and secondly the “importance” of the news to the audience. Hurst argues that audiences are best served when both of these factors are taken into account. Newer internet media with their tools of “intelligent synthesis” may be able to handle this dual responsibility better than their more rigid traditional counterparts.

But journalism should be the same in whatever medium it is practiced. One view of journalism is that it is a neutral, objective, and restrained profession that monitors social processes and transmits accurate accounts of them without sensationalism or bias. But although these accounts may be accurate, they may not be fair. Hall theorised how, in the name of objectivity, the “rules of journalism” promote the practice of ensuring that media statements are usually grounded in authoritative statements from accredited sources. These sources (eg Government, police, employer groups, trade unions etc.) become the primary definers of topics and set the terms of reference within which all further coverage and debate takes place. Other critics have attacked journalism for its ideological effects and role in reproducing the capitalist order. That is not to say sources should not be used but they should not merely be mouthpieces of their role. Expert testimony should be objective but also fair-minded. This means sources should strive to base their interpretative comments on extensive knowledge or research into the issues under discussion. Without this underlying knowledge, news remains manufactured and objectivity is merely a ritual to defend journalists.

But not all journalists believe objectivity is a cardinal value. There are many interpretative writers who make highly subjective judgements, deciding not only what facts to include but also how to prioritise them and what emphasis to give them. Even the most objective reporters make one important personal decision when building a typical inverted pyramid story: they must choose what they think to be the most important item in the report as the story lead. And journalists make other decisions in their reports that affect objectivity such as the presentation of conflicting possibilities, including supplementary evidence and the use of quotation marks. Van Dijk showed how putting words or phrases into quotes is a way of distancing the journalist from the sentiment expressed. Rather than being objective, this is a discrediting device and a means of introducing the reporter’s opinion.

Interpretation ought not distort the facts. Though establishing what the facts are may not always be easy. A 1980s study by Lanson and Stephens cautioned that interpretation was going too far. They warned against overuse of flimsy evidence and unnamed sources in what they labelled “trust me” journalism. The use of connotative language can also be a hidden way of introducing author opinion and lends itself to misinterpretation. Connotative words are dangerous because they are value-laden and often pejorative. Interpretation is different across different audiences too. Morley’s 1983 study of the BBC’s Nationwide television current affairs show demonstrated how different socio-economic groups produced oppositional readings of perspectives offered by the same program. Studies like this show there is no one possible version of the truth that will be accepted by an entire audience.

Whatever the truth may be, journalists themselves are participants in the news. The watchdog function of the media means that journalists must impose their own points of view in events and provide interpretation to give these events meaning. But a study by Gans found that most journalists enter the profession not because they want to change society but because they want to write about current events. Objectivity and neutrality are important issues for them. Australian journalists have voted numerous times to keep their professional association out of the Australian Council of Trade Unions under the mantra of “journalism ain’t join-alism”.

While journalists strive to keep unionism at arm’s length, the fact remains that nearly all journalists work for large corporations. Most media are private businesses whose most basic function is to make a profit. Unless they can do that, they will be unable to do any other important functions. Schudson says objectivity is a peculiar demand to make of organisations dedicated to economic survival. On the one hand, market theory calls for bias on that stories that affect the organisation, its advertisers, and investors in order to protect their assets; on the other hand journalism theory demands there be no bias to the news. It is a serious conflict of interest. Nevertheless, objectivity does provides a framework for defining work practices and values even if the traditional argument is that media will always show a political bias in favour of their owners.

So-called objectivity may simply be lazy journalism and a strategy to meet deadlines and avoid defamation. Worse still, objectivity becomes routine and news becomes little more than reporting selected opinions about events. Schudson argues that on this level objectivity is reduced to a set of conventions that reduce journalists’ responsibilities for their own words. As the American journalist I. F. Stone said “most of the time, objectivity is just the rationale for regurgitating the conventional wisdom of the day”.

News media actively create needs and wants for audiences, partly by promotion of their products and partly by agenda setting. But news organisations are capable of misreading their audiences. Sometimes decisions about what is of interest to the public are based on assumptions, guesswork and misinterpretation. Audiences tend to be more accepting of TV news coverage than their print counterparts. Its higher level of credibility is because of its pictures, which people accept as the truth despite the sophisticated editing process that goes on behind the scenes.

The television business is driven by ratings and advertisers generally support those media outlets whose target audiences have the power to buy their products. Because the interests of the majority of the audience are paramount concern to the media, it is likely significant parts of the population who may belong to minorities or who have unconventional tastes will be denied access to mainstream media.

News organisations have duties to the public which include providing information, education and enlightenment as well as occasionally advocating social and political change. There is an argument that the media should play an educational role rather than merely reflect interests, opinions and tastes. In this paradigm, the media becomes an instrument for social and political change. The media has an obligation not only to serve the needs of its audience but also to conduct systematic and ongoing inquiries about the nature of those needs. It is this watchdog function that most relies on objectivity and professional to support its stance. But it has also disrupted journalism’s traditional links with the public. The watchdog role sets up an adversary framework, pitting journalists against the judiciary, the executive, the parliament, and ultimately the public. The public become students to be educated by the media rather than participants in self-government.

But as argued elsewhere in this essay, the cosy relationship between journalists and their primary sources leaves the public out of the discourse. Meadows gives the example of the Australian Native Title Act of 1998 where journalists focussed entirely on Prime Minister Howard’s political machinations to get the act through parliament while totally ignoring the consequences of the Aboriginal people most affected by the act. No doubt the Canberra press corps would argue they were objective in their analysis of Wik. But it seems an imperfect and closeted summary of events. A better understanding of external reality would have been a useful aid to greater objectivity. Lee defined three types of reality: plain truth, verifiable realities and non-verifiable realities. Journalists need to be objective about all of these realities.

So what about the South Australian ombudsman who declared objectivity a myth? This essay has gone a long way to agreeing with Mary Beasley. Yet objectivity is not a myth. For one thing, a myth in its semiotic sense is culture-specific, changeable and unarticulated. Lee’s definition provides a framework that is culturally independent, permanent and textually expressed. More importantly, it reminds us that objectivity does not reside in the quality of the product but in the mode of performance. Whenever someone says of journalism “this is not objective”, that person assumes the possibility of objectivity. It is time again for objectivity to resume the rigorous role that Franklin and Lippman meant for it and not become a prescription for ritual.


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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Wolf waits for justice

On 6 February, Josh Wolf became the longest incarcerated journalist in US history. He is in prison for protecting his sources on a matter of principle. The 24 year old Wolf is currently serving time in a federal correctional institute in Dublin, California for refusing to comply with a subpoena to turn over unpublished video out-takes to a federal grand jury. The jury is investigating events related to an anti G8 meeting in San Francisco in July 2005.

Wolf is an independent journalist and blogger who was jailed on 1 August 2006 when he refused to testify or turn over unpublished video out-takes to a federal grand jury investigation. Although never convicted of any crime, Wolf is being held on charges of contempt of court in an effort to coerce him to testify and turn over the material. Although he was released on bail on 1 September, he was ordered to return to prison on 22 September pending a hearing before the entire 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Now it seems likely he will remain in prison until July as the 9th Circuit denied his petition for a rehearing in USA v Josh Wolf. According to the prosecution, Wolf videotaped a public demonstration where there may have been an attempt to set a police car ablaze, and where a San Francisco police officer's skull was fractured when he was hit from behind by a demonstrator. The court ruled Wolf does not have the right to withhold video outtakes of the protest.

Interviewed in prison by Amy Goodman, Wolf said he went to the San Francisco G8 protest to document what he felt was an event the “news media was almost certainly likely to ignore”. The protest was held by a group called Anarchist Action. Wolf claims a lone police car rammed into the crowd. One officer fled the scene and Wolf filmed the other being choked by the crowd. The officer that fled the scene had his skull fractured but Wolf did not capture this incident on the video.

Although Wolf is protected by Californian shield laws, the case was heard federally because the San Francisco Police Department receive funding from Washington for training against terrorism and therefore damage to their property is a federal offence. Although 31 states and District of Columbia have media shield laws, there are currently no federal laws that stop reporters from having to divulge sources or turn over their notes in cases that involve federal authorities.

Wolf says the federal Government’s aim is twofold. Firstly they are attempting to identify civil dissidents and form databases. The ACLU has uncovered numerous instances of the government trying to capture identities of people who are protesting against the government. Documents ACLU obtained under Freedom of Information showed that military officials labelled events like a “Stop the War Now” rally in Akron, Ohio in March 2005 as “potential terrorist activity”.

Wolf says the second aim is a move toward state-sanctioned journalism and his status as an independent journalist has been questioned. In a recent court filing, US Attorney Kevin Ryan said "it's only in Wolf's imagination that he is a journalist." The Society of Professional Journalists don’t agree. Their Northern California chapter named Josh Wolf Journalist of the Year for 2006, and will give him the James Madison Freedom of Information Award next month. "Josh's commitment to a free and unfettered press deserves profound respect," SPJ National President Christine Tatum said.

Despite the awards, support from the mainstream media for Wolf has been muted due to their unwillingness to acknowledge the role of independent journalists in today’s media landscape. But Wolf’s attorney warned that his client's activities have ramifications for other media workers. “My client's political activity and free speech activity in the Bay Area as a journalist and this subpoena, with its associated threat of jail time for non-compliance, has an incredible chilling effect on his and other journalist's freedom to gather and disseminate information of groups who espouse dissident beliefs," he said.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Vultures feast on Zambia

A UK High Court judge ruled last week that Zambia will have to pay a significant part of a nearly 30-year debt to what is commonly called a "vulture fund". Justice Andrew Smith ruled in favour of Investment funds company Donegal International but Zambia is claiming a moral victory after the judge struck out key payment terms which drastically reduces the country’s liability. The exact amount of the liability will be determined at a later date when the judge announces his full findings, but the judgement comments suggest it is likely the court will advise Zambia to pay about half the amount Donegal asked for. That forty million dollar plus amount was equal to all the debt relief Zambia received last year.

Known as “Distressed and Vulture funds”, these debts are money spinning devices for investment companies. These companies buy up the debt of poor nations cheaply when it is about to be written off, then sue the country for the full value of the debt plus interest. These assets may include actively traded debt, so-called "lender of last resort" securities, bankrupt issues and hedge funds. The idea was the brainchild of Paul Singer, a reclusive New York billionaire. In 1996, he bought up some of Peru's debt for $11 million, and then successfully threatened to bankrupt Peru if they didn't give him $58 million.

The cause of the British high court case dates back to 1979. In that year Zambia bought $15 million worth of Romanian tractors. Due to the collapse of world copper prices, Zambia could not pay in cash and Romania agreed to loan the money. Over the course of time, Zambia reneged on the repayments and in 1999 the outstanding debt was renegotiated to $3 million. However before the deal was finalised, another company stepped to pay Romania $4 million for the debt. That company is based in the Caribbean tax-free haven known as the British Virgin Islands. The company is called Donegal International and they are partially owned by a shadowy US outfit called Debt Advisory International (Note: Not to be confused with an international sustainable development group also called DAI).

Debt Advisory International keeps a low profile but they are active in the US political scene. In the last three years they paid Greenberg Traurig LLP half a million dollars to lobby for them in Washington. Greenberg Traurig is a Miami-based 1,350-lawyer full-service international law firm "with the fourth-largest number of lawyers in the United States and eighth-largest worldwide." The company have substantial links to the Bush family having represented George W Bush in the 2000 election court case and are the personal lawyers of brother and Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

It is also possible that Debt Advisory International may now be using a second set of lobbyists, Navigators who see themselves as an “elite team of lobbyists, political strategists and public relations experts that offers integrated campaigns to solve difficult public policy problems”. With friends like these, Debt Advisory International can afford to ignore any flak related to their actions. Once their subsidiary Donegal took charge of the Zambian debt, they immediately demanded repayment of the full amount due, plus interests and costs, which amount to $42 million.

$42 million is a lot of money in Zambia. Home to 12 million people, Zambia ranks as 153rd out of 176 countries in terms of poverty. Over 70% percent of Zambians live below the breadline. Per capita annual incomes are $395 and life expectancy is about 37 years. One in 6 adults is infected with HIV. 100,000 died of the epidemic in 2004, and 710,000 Zambian children are AIDS orphans. 40% of women are illiterate. Schooling is only free up to year 7 and most children drop out then.

It is unlikely the fate of uneducated Zambian schoolchildren carries much weight in the corridors of power in Washington especially with the likes of Greenberg Traurig and Navigators working hard to protect the interests of their wealthy clients. But there are calls to clamp down on vulture funds. In 2002, British treasurer Gordon Brown made a statement to the International Monetary and Financial Committee in Washington. In it, he called for “a trust account, funded by donors, to pay for technical assistance to help any HIPC (Heavily Indebted Poor Country) being sued by a creditor who refuses to deliver relief, including vulture funds.” With Brown likely to take over the reins of power from Blair sometime in the next 12 months, it will be interesting to see if he clamps down on a company based in the British-owned Virgin Islands.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Happy Ding Hai

A record 160,000 people flowed through Beijing international airport yesterday as the city geared up for the Lunar New Year's Eve. Airport staff removed business stands from airport lounges to make room for passengers and more parking lots have been arranged for large areoplanes. Beijing’s air travellers will be part of an astonishing 2.17 billion passengers on the move during the Spring Festival season in 2007. It's a number that is up 5% on last year's holiday season. Increased affluence and a greater number of migrant workers have added to the strain on China's transport system.

The reason so many are on the move is that today is the start of the Year of the Pig. The lunar new year is China’s most important festival. For 15 days, Chinese people across the world celebrate this auspicious occasion. There are parades of carnival dragons and fireworks light up the night sky, as they have done in China for 2,000 years. State TV showed pictures of President Hu Jintao visiting a ordinary Chinese family to wish them well.

It is a well-wishing time for all Chinese. The pig is the symbol of good luck and prosperity and this time it is a golden pig year, which happens once every 60 years. The formal name of the golden pig year is Ding Hai. This Ding Hai is the 8th year in the current 60-year cycle and takes us into the Year 4704, by the Chinese calendar. The names of the Chinese years come from a legend where Lord Buddha summons the animals to him before he departs from the Earth. The tardy pig is the last to arrive behind 11 other quicker animals (who were the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster and dog). Despite, or many because of, its lack of speed, astrologers says the pig is honest, steadfast and generous.

But not everyone believes a pig year is a portent of good fortune. Some soothsayers caution the pig can bring turbulence, and warn of a rise in natural disasters and conflict in 2007. Hong Kong feng shui master Raymond Lo thinks the Year of the Pig will not be peaceful. “Pig years can be turbulent because they are dominated by fire and water, conflicting elements that tend to cause havoc,” he said.

There is also some religious sensitivity to the celebrations this year. China has banned ads with visual and verbal pork references. The state-run broadcaster CCTV has told major advertising agencies not to use pig images, cartoons or slogans "to avoid conflicts with ethnic minorities." This is code for China’s 20 million Muslims. Hassan Bai Runsheng, an imam at a Shanghai mosque, approves of the ban. "We see a decision like this in the context of creating a harmonious society between Han Chinese and ethnic minority groups," he said.

It is not just a Muslim aversion to pork that is the problem. There remains an aftertaste of religious oppression that China is trying to forget. The Hui people are one of China’s largest ethnic minorities. Although similar in culture to the Han Chinese, they are differentiated by their practice of Islam. About 70,000 of China's almost 10 million Hui live in the city of Xian, one of the country’s major ancient capitals. That is only a fraction of the estimated 800,000 who lived in China's northern Shaanxi province before 1862, when the Qing Dynasty sent its armies to wipe them out after a series of rebellions. More than a million Muslims were killed in the Qing crackdown. Tolerance was slow in coming to China, During Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Chinese Muslims were not allowed to attend the Hajj. This policy was reversed in 1979. Now represented by pressure groups such Chinese Patriotic Islamic Association and the China Islamic Association, Islam is on the rise again. The pig ad ban is testament to its growing power in China.

But most of the other 1.3 billion Chinese will be more favourably disposed to the year of the hog. Because of its lucky year status, babies born this year are said to be blessed with a carefree life. Demographers are expecting a baby boom in China this year. Condom sales are decreasing and wedding plans are on the increase. China’s creaking health system will struggle to keep up with demand in the maternity wards.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Dear Leader's birthday presents

Yesterday North Korean President Kim Il-Jong celebrated his 65th birthday as the nation entered what state media called a state of “war preparedness”. His birthday is the country’s biggest annual holiday and sees a host of flower shows, dances, exhibitions and most importantly, pledges of loyalty. A meeting on Thursday held by the Communist party, government and armed forces wrote a letter to Kim which vowed to follow his guidance to build a "powerful socialist state".

The party is upbeat after North Korea signed an agreement earlier in the week to halt its nuclear weapons programme in return for energy and other aid. Under the terms of the 12 February deal negotiated in Beijing, Pyongyang will close and disable its main nuclear facility. In return they will get 1 million tons of aid from the five powers that attended the talks (China, Japan, South Korea, US and Russia). North Korea will have to shut down Yongbyon reactor within 60 days in exchange for an initial 50,000 tonnes of fuel oil or equivalent aid. When the 60 day period expires, they will receive another 950,000 tonnes of fuel oil.

Some analysts are surprised that Kim has agreed to these conditions but Xu Guangyu, an analyst with the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, told Reuters “their ultimate goal is not nuclear weapons but two things -- normalizing relations with the United States, especially economic and security ties, and becoming a normal state accepted in international society."

Conservative critics such as John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the UN, said the deal rewarded North Korea by relieving the economically strapped country of financial pressure for only partially dismantling its nuclear program. "This sends a very bad signal, not just to North Korea but to Iran and other would-be proliferates," he said. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rejected this saying the deal shows strong diplomacy can achieve results.

But the deal is not as strong as it could be for those worried by Korea’s nuclear ambitions. While it prevents Pyongyang from creating new fissile material, it lets North Korea keep whatever nuclear weapons it has already built, plus it doesn’t stop them building more weapons with whatever fissile material it has already produced.

Such issues will be far from the minds of those who gathered in the capital yesterday celebrate the 65th birthday of 'dear leader'. North Koreans usually receive benefits such as extra food on holidays, though outsiders are unsure whether it will occur this time given the country’s chronic food shortage. National TV showed pictures of thousands dancing in the streets underneath a barrage of flags and banners. One woman told TV “At the time of this significant February holiday I want to see President Kim more than ever.” But it’s unclear whether she got her wish as the reclusive leader rarely makes public appearances.

Kim has led North Korea since 1994. According to Soviet research, he was born in an army camp in the far east of USSR in village of Vyatskoye. At the time, his father Kim Il-Sung was a member of the Communist Party and involved in the anti-Japanese resistance. He had fled to Siberia under pressure from the rampant Japanese. When the war ended, the Korean peninsula was divided along the 38th parallel into two military occupation zones, administered by the USSR in the north and the US in the South.

The northern Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was founded under Kim’s leadership in 1949. With the US in retreat, he convinced Stalin to bankroll his invasion of the south. The Korean war ended in stalemate after three years claiming three million casualties. Kim consolidated his control of the north under the program of 'Juche'. Also called 'Kim Il Sung Thought', the ideology demanded total loyalty to the paramount leader and the "religion of Kim Il Sungism".

Kim continued to develop a personality cult around him. In 1980 a party congress announced that Kim Il-Jong would succeed his father. But it would be a while yet before it could happen. In the meantime Kim senior took Korea into the nuclear age commissioning a nuclear reactor in 1986. Within three years they claimed they had the technology to produce weapons-grade enriched uranium. Kim died suddenly in 1994 and his death reportedly occurred during a heated argument with his son.

Initially Kim Il-Jong agreed to permanently shut down nuclear facilities and cooperate with IAEA inspectors. But the promised US aid in return never arrived. And in 1998 Korea declared its intention to continue to develop, test, deploy and sell missiles in order to counter the alleged military threat presented by the US despite a debt soaring to $10 billion, most of it with Russia.

North Korea still relies on Russia and China for its continued survival. Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and China's Communist Party sent congratulations on Kim's 65th birthday.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Cargo Culture

One of the world’s oldest surviving cargo cults is celebrating its golden anniversary in Vanuatu this week. Yesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of John Frum Day on the remote island of Tanna in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu. The movement worships a mysterious spirit that urged them to reject the teachings of the Christian Churches and maintain their traditional customs.

15 February is John Frum Day on Tanna. The day celebrates a cultural hero who would come from across the sea bringing wealth in abundance. John Frum was a 'mysterious little man with bleached hair, high-pitched voice and clad in a coat with shining buttons.' John Frum issued moral injunctions against idleness, encouraged communal gardening and co-operation, and advocated dancing and the drinking of kava.

The “John Frum” movement dates back to World War II when US forces landed weapons, food and medicine on the island. In what was then the New Hebrides, 300,000 US troops landed to fight the Japanese. The size, wealth and power of the Americans deeply impressed the natives. But they were also impressed by their egalitarianism. Uncle Sam became a mythic figure who would empower the island peoples by giving them cargo wealth.

The name John Frum originates from John "from" America. John Frum is identified either as a god who lives in the crater of Tanna's highest mountain with his army or the 'king of America'. “John promised he’ll bring planeloads and shiploads of cargo to us from America if we pray to him,” said a village elder. In 1957 an American warship called the Yankee, called at Tanna. The ship’s commander explained to the crowds that there was no person with the name John Frum in America. But the locals wouldn’t believe him and dismissed the commander as "a false American."

The Tannanese suffered the curse of missionaries and were declared converted to Presbyterianism in the early years of the 20th century. Prior to World War II, a movement emerged to re-establish traditional values in Tanna. When the Americans arrived it gave their religion new meaning.

Anthropologist Kirk Huffman, who spent 17 years in Vanuatu, told The Smithsonian “You get cargo cults when the outside world, with all its material wealth, suddenly descends on remote, indigenous tribes.” According to a village elder “John promised he’ll bring planeloads and shiploads of cargo to us from America if we pray to him. Radios, TVs, trucks, boats, watches, iceboxes, medicine, Coca-Cola and many other wonderful things.”

But why wait for someone who never seems to come? David Attenborough, one of the first foreigners to "discover" the John Frum movement, asked the Tannanese that question when he visited the island in the early 1960s. "Is 19 years a long time to wait?" one of the islanders reportedly replied, "You have been waiting for 2,000 years for Jesus Christ."

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Brisbane mothers get their knickers in a twist over nude ride

Yesterday, a local councillor lent her support to a group of Brisbane “concerned mothers” who have voiced their protest about a planned nude bike ride on 10 March. The event is the Brisbane leg of the World Naked Bike Ride. On that day, people in 56 cities in 16 different countries will ride to raise awareness about environmental issues. The Brisbane nude leg is due to take place between the suburbs of Toowong and Milton, however Toowong ward councillor Judy Magub is not happy: “I think it should be stopped – I can’t see any reason for it,” she said “it’s just for exhibitionists and I can’t see any purpose in riding nude to get a message across”.

Magub claims it’s a police issue of “wilful exposure”. Acting Senior Sergeant Chris Peters from Indooroopilly station said protesters taking part in the World Naked Bike Ride risked public indecency charges if they go totally naked. He said women would have to wear knickers but would be allowed to ride topless and men had to wear "a discretely placed sock". Presumably not on a foot.

Event organiser Dario Western will be meeting police prior to the event before the ride. He said riders would be encouraged to go "as bare as you dare" and decorate themselves with body paint for the 20-minute ride along Coronation Drive between Toowong and Milton. Western is a naturist and according to his myspace site, his heroes include two activists for nudity; Spencer Tunick and Stephen Gough.

Tunick is an American photographer famous for his group nudes. Starting out in the States Tunick began by single and small group nudes but soon moved on to mass temporary installation pieces. He has photographed nudes across the world. In 2004 he completed his largest shoot in Barcelona with 7,000 naked Catalans lying down in a square.

Meanwhile British-born Stephen Gough prefers a solo approach. Gough gained the nickname of the Naked Rambler and gained fame for walking the length of Britain from Land's End to John o'Groats in 2003–2004. He wore no clothes except boots, socks, rucksack and the occasional hat. He was arrested several times during the walk. He repeated the feat in 2005-2006 and took his total arrest tally to 20. He was then charged with contempt of court and sentenced to three months jail for appearing naked in court. He is now serving another seven month sentence after breaching his bail condition by walking out of prison in the nude.

In his essay “the offence of public nudity”, Mark Storey argues that public nudity is a victimless crime. He says legislators attempt to show it is immoral due to fallacious cultural norms. He says lawmakers who ban public nudity justify their actions by an appeal to offence. The argument goes that nudity offends people, and that because of the seriousness of the offence, such nudity may justifiably be prohibited by criminal law.

Here in Brisbane, the mysterious “concerned mothers” are certainly taking offence. But even their spokeswoman Councillor Magub can see the funny side, “I have had nothing but laughter” she said. “I went to my Rotary club this morning and a few people mentioned it and had a bit of a chuckle so I think there definitely is a light-hearted side for it.” There is also a serious side to it. According to the World Naked Bike Ride website, the event is a pedal protest against oil dependency and car culture. They claim the real indecent exposure is to car emissions.

The Brisbane event starts at Toowong at 4pm on Saturday, 10 March. If nothing else, wear sunscreen and a bike helmet.