Friday, November 30, 2007

insiders and outsiders: a comparison of Brisbane media practices

Journalism is a cultural practice and it is instructive to understand how that culture operates in different settings. This post will compare journalistic practices in mainstream and alternative media outlets. The mainstream media example chosen for the comparison is the News Ltd owned Brisbane Courier-Mail. The alternative media example is the two publications The Bug and The Independent both run by Brisbane independent journalist Don Gordon-Brown. For the purposes of this comparison, I conducted in-depth interviews with Melanie Christiansen, a journalist at the Courier-Mail, Pat Johnson, a tour guide at the Courier-Mail production facility in Murarrie, and Don Gordon-Brown, the editor of the two alternative publications. The study will show that each form of journalism have their advantages and disadvantages. There are also strong points of similarity between the two forms. Both mainstream and alternative forms have relevance, and both shape new experience to established forms.

The Brisbane Courier-Mail is one of Australia’s oldest newspapers. Its forerunner, the Moreton Bay Courier, printed its first issue in 1846. The Courier-Mail was established in 1933 as a merger between the Daily Mail and the Courier. The publisher was Queensland Press whose major shareholder was the Keith Murdoch-managed Herald and Weekly Times (HWT). HWT shareholders kept Keith’s son Rupert at arm’s length from the company after his father’s death in 1952. In the wake of the Hawke-Keating government’s new cross-media laws in 1986, Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd successfully bid for HWT’s extensive newspaper interests. Murdoch bought all of Queensland Press’s shares and became effective owner of its prize possession, the Courier-Mail. Murdoch then closed down his own Brisbane newspaper the Sun leaving the Courier-Mail as the only daily newspaper published in Brisbane. At end 2006, its weekday circulation was 224,690 at end 2006 which makes it the third highest selling daily in Australia.

Don Gordon-Brown is a former Courier-Mail journalist. With ex-Queensland Labor press secretary Lindsay Marshall, he founded the political satirical sheet The Bug in 1989. The free title has since been produced on an irregular basis with a circulation of roughly 5,000. The ABC has described it as a “subversive little journal” that has ridiculed the vanities of state and federal politics for almost twenty years. Gordon-Brown and Marshall then founded The Independent in 2001 initially as a monthly and now as a fortnightly title. The Independent is a free local newspaper with a circulation of 15,000 copies bulk-dropped in the Brisbane CBD and surrounding suburbs.

The first obvious difference between the compared publications is the scale of their operations. The Courier-Mail is a Rupert Murdoch newspaper; one of over 130 titles globally belonging to one of the largest media groups in the world. The newspaper employs 750 staff in the editorial offices at Mayne and another 250 people in the production facility at Murarrie. There is over $400 million worth of state-of-the-art publishing equipment at Murarrie and the facility operates 24 hours a day in three shifts. By contrast, The Bug and The Independent are a small one-room operation in a building at Fortitude Valley. Yet the quality of the end product is high with contributions from well known journalists such as Mungo MacCallum and printing done by the Beaudesert Times. While The Bug and The Independent make some money from advertising, Gordon-Brown’s publications are typical of the alternative press in that at bottom they are more interested in the free flow of ideas than in profit.

Gordon-Brown said his operation was a “labour of love” and rarely turns a profit. He was critical of the way state government departments automatically give their advertising to the larger media players. Gordon-Brown’s position corroborates Chomsky who says major corporations rely heavily on state intervention and subsidies. Gordon-Brown described such practices as “lazy” and they stripped government agencies of their bargaining power. Despite the shoe-string budget, it was important to him that Brisbane had a newspaper “not owned by Rupert Murdoch”. He was proud of its independence and the fact it was locally owned. The aim of The Independent is typical of alternative media: to provide ‘ordinary people’ access to the media on their own terms.

By contrast, the Courier-Mail is part of a vast transnational empire; one of the mega-corporations that Chomsky calls “tyrannical, totalitarian institutions” whose primary function is to sell audiences to advertisers. There is no doubt that the Courier-Mail is big business calibrated to very fine commercial levels. It has a 60:40 ratio between advertising and editorial space, and the price of advertising is increased for display on the popular sports pages or in the well-thumbed bottom-right hand corner of each odd page. Moguls such as Murdoch have faced criticism for their alliances with politically conservative forces leading to the production of “soft” media content. For journalists, the pressure is often to produce something of a tangible sales impact then for the greater good of society.

There is also substantial difference in the journalistic autonomy between the two publications. Don Gordon-Brown is at total liberty to choose his own stories. He is a firm believer in wearing out “shoe leather” to get his stories and views The Independent as a “parish pump” newspaper. He says he gets his best stories from listening to people. He cites the example of his exposé of the problems with the Brunswick St railway station upgrade which he found out simply by conversing with nearby station workers. Gordon-Brown shows the characteristics of ethnographical journalism which Valerie Alia describes as humility, a willingness to learn new information, and an awareness of one’s limitations.

Christiansen has more limited autonomy to choose her own stories. She keeps a news diary of upcoming events as well as relying on contacts for leads. But because she is a general reporter, she is at the behest of the Courier-Mail’s two chiefs of staff who can also assign stories to her. Though she can argue her case for the merits of her own stories, management choices usually take precedence. Also because Christiansen can be working on up to three stories simultaneously, she is often tied to the office and relies more on the telephone and email than on-the-spot reporting to get the stories out. Such desk-bound reporting decreases “out and about” journalism. It also inevitably increases the reliance on easy-to-access accredited sources for information and makes it difficult for minority groups and ordinary people to enter public debate through the mainstream media. This has been borne out in a study of the Courier-Mail which revealed it uses Indigenous sources sparingly – even in stories about Indigenous affairs.

Like many alternative publications, The Bug and The Independent are essentially run by the editor with freelance writers and volunteers providing copy. Also typical of the alternative press is the fact that the editor is multi-skilled and responsible for a range of tasks within the organisation such as reporting, photography, editing, layout and distribution. Job delineation is far clearer at the Courier-Mail. Once Melanie Christiansen files her story, the night editor will determine if it makes the cut and where it should go in the newspaper. Then a sub-editor will “tidy it up” for publication with the journalist unlikely to be consulted again unless the sub-editor has a specific query). Critics have described this as a “battery hen approach to news gathering” but these are important processes. With a need to form newspaper pages and whole sections, gatekeepers such as sub-editors encode entirely new messages which are related to, but independent of, the messages that Christiansen has encoded. Yet while Christiansen is at the mercy of more gatekeepers than Gordon-Brown, she has the advantage of getting her by-line out to a significantly larger audience, however much her message has been further encoded.

Defamation remains a hazard for all publications, mainstream and alternative, despite recently streamlining of the law in Australia. Defined as “the wrong of another’s reputation without good reason or justification”, defamation law is something that all Australian journalists need to have a working understanding of. Both Christiansen and Gordon-Brown were conversant with defamation law but perhaps surprisingly, neither have had recourse to the law in their respective careers. Gordon-Brown said the closest he had come to the courts was a letter from the solicitors of Queensland University Press after The Bug made a satirical comment about a Sally-Anne Atkinson incident. Gordon-Brown ignored the letter and nothing further came of it. But while a poverty-stricken organisation like his is probably not worth taking to court, News Ltd certainly is. Yet Melanie Christiansen also says she not had any brush with the defamation laws. She said that any particularly controversial story is run past the legal department before publication. While this common lack of legal problems may be attributable to luck or co-incidence, it may also point to a strong ethical quality in the journalism of both reporters.

The use of Internet technologies is markedly different in the media organisations under scrutiny. Although Gordon-Brown holds the rights to the potentially economically valuable domain name, he says the web site is out of date and they have not uploaded any print issues since June 2006. He understands that the web is the way forward but does not have the time or technological wherewithal to keep the web site current. By contrast Rupert Murdoch is on the public record many times saying that the Internet is crucial to News Corporation’s ongoing success. Earlier this month he told a shareholders’ meeting his company needs to “educate” advertisers about the Internet’s virtues. Dr Stephen Quinn agrees and says student journalists should learn to become information workers before they become print reporters. At the Courier-Mail journalists like Christiansen are expected to file their stories regularly to the web site. However, Christiansen says that “scoops” are deliberately held over to the print editions.

Apart from Internet usage, Christiansen represents a generational shift from Gordon-Brown in one other key respect. While Christiansen has been a reporter for almost 20 years, her reliance on the telephone and email resembles the younger journalists’ techniques in Josie Vine’s study on the differences between journalism cultures in 1974 and 2003. Gordon-Brown’s repertoire of face-to-face interviews, tip-offs and foot-slogging are more typical of journalists who began their cadetship in the 1970s and 80s. The spirit of larrikinism, with its connotations of defiance, egalitarianism, and support for the underdog pervades The Bug and The Independent and is markedly absent from most journalism in the Courier-Mail.

Yet Gordon-Brown and Christiansen also have much in common. They are both committed journalists and dedicated to their craft. Both have a strong ethical commitment to their writing and enjoy being ‘on the beat’. Although a long-term study found that the Courier-Mail was significantly anti-Labor in the 1970s, Christiansen says there are no pressures to introduce bias in her reporting today. She also said that the “blokey culture” does not exist in news rooms anymore with over half of the Courier-Mail staff and one of the Chiefs of Staff female. Both Gordon-Brown and Christiansen adhere to the good working definition of journalism that it contains four essential elements: reporting, judging, a public voice, and a sense of the here and now. Both enjoy working in an industry that enjoys a privileged position in our culture’s hierarchy of values. They also enjoy being part of the basic premise of mass communication: the passing of knowledge to many more people than those from whom it originated.

This article has found major points of difference and some similarity in the cultural settings between the two journalists. There is significant difference in the scale of operations, the economic factors, the amount of journalistic autonomy, job delineation, and use of the Internet. But there are strong points of similarity too. While Don-Gordon Brown and Melanie Christiansen serve different masters and different markets, they both have an ethical commitment and enthusiasm for the job of journalism. There remains a place for both the journalism of the Courier-Mail and The Independent in Brisbane’s media landscape.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Nelson’s column inches steal Rudd’s cabinet thunder

On the day federal Labor announced its first cabinet in eleven years, they still found themselves sharing the headlines with the dethroned government. The reason was the surprise victory of Brendan Nelson who upset the favourite Malcolm Turnbull for the leadership of the Liberal Party. Nelson won a tight ballot by 45 votes to 42. In a continuation of the “me too” philosophies that dominated the election, Nelson said he wouldn’t get in the way of the government’s plans to ratify Kyoto and withdraw troops from Iraq. The Liberals have also mirrored the Labor leadership gender make-up by installing Julie Bishop as deputy leader.

The newly installed government wasted no time in taking aim at Nelson. This afternoon Labor media managers launched a website called “Nelson Facts” which takes aim at his record in government. The website highlights Nelson’s links with Howard’s Workchoices laws, and policies on nuclear power, Iraq and climate change.

However with the government planning an “education revolution” it is Nelson’s record as Education minister that may come under the most scrutiny. The “Nelson Facts” site gleefully quotes Nelson’s comment that university education “is a privilege” as well as blaming him for the country’s skill shortage. The Indigenous community was also critical of Nelson’s record. In 2006, the National Indigenous Times reported Nelson underspent $181 million earmarked for Aboriginal education.

That same year Nelson moved to the Defence portfolio where he presided over the Jake Kovco fiasco. Kovco died of gunshot wounds in mysterious circumstances while on duty in Iraq. Nelson didn’t help matters by issuing a series of contradictory statements about Kovco’s death. A military board of inquiry handed down a verdict of accidental shooting but this was rejected by Kovco’s family. Departmental incompetence continued when Kovco’s body was mislaid in transit to Australia and again when the ABC revealed the military lost the report into the saga.

Nelson survived this episode as well as he did his Iraq “gaffe” (otherwise known as inadvertently telling the truth) in May this year. His public statement that securing the world’s oil supply was a major factor in Iraqi troop deployment caused a flurry of speedy retractions from John Howard, Peter Costello and eventually Brendan Nelson himself. But Nelson was never punished and slowly built his support base by courting and helping backbenchers.

In the Liberal leadership contest, his brash rival Malcolm Turnbull said Nelson lacked the killer instinct. One of Turnbull’s supporters said “opposition is all about drive and determination and the ability to cut through - It's not about who's nicer or how much the colleagues all love him." But Turnbull over-estimated his numbers and in the end the party went for the less extroverted but slightly more politically experienced Nelson. But with a close vote, Tony Abbott waiting in the wings, and Labor hegemony in the parliament it has all the hallmarks of a temporary appointment.

While the Liberals continued their public traumas, Kevin Rudd smoothly clicked into power and named his first cabinet. With several key posts already locked in and the inevitable leaks in advance there were few surprises. The biggest of these was the promotion of Stephen Smith to Foreign Affairs. Robert McClelland was always likely to be demoted (he will be Attorney-General) after his “Bali bomber blunder”. Peter Garrett retains Environment but his inexperience during the campaign also saw some of his responsibilities stripped away with Malaysian-born Senator Penny Wong given a new ministry of Climate Change and Water. She will have the key Australian lead negotiator role in the upcoming Bali climate change talks.

Wong was one of several women to do well in the ministry. Deputy PM Julia Gillard adds education to her IR portfolio, while Nicola Roxon takes on Health. John Howard’s conqueror Maxine McKew will become a parliamentary secretary for childcare. The new cabinet was noticeably also for fact that it was personally selected by Kevin Rudd. This represents a break of 106 years of Labor tradition where positions have been nominated by the party factions. Rudd hailed his ministry “as a team with fresh ideas for our country’s future”. They will now be on notice to perform.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Suicide Tourism: A one way ticket to Euthanasia Central

Germans are flocking across the border to Switzerland looking for the right to die. Switzerland is one of the few European countries where euthanasia is legal. Since 1942, Swiss doctors can terminate a life if three conditions are satisfied: documented proof of the existing disease, the lack of protest from relatives and a signed contract, confirming that the decision is voluntary and invariable. Because the service is not limited to Swiss citizens, a suicidal tourism trade has developed for those who don’t need the money for a return ticket. Four companies have been set up to perform the service for about €5,000 and one of the companies Dignitas say that 120 of their 196 customers in 2006 were from Germany where the laws are tougher.

Germany is not the only jurisdiction that is less forgiving than the Swiss. In the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, Robert Latimer is serving a life sentence for killing his disabled daughter during what he says was an act of compassionate euthanasia. Latimer openly admitted his “guilt” and two juries convicted him of second-degree murder in the 1993 death of his 12 year old daughter, who was a 12 year old quadriplegic functioning at the level of a three-month-old. Latimer killed her by leaving her in his truck with the motor running and a hose from the tail pipe extended into the cab, while the rest of the family was at church. Critics of leniency for Latimer worried that a Supreme Court “soft” decision would send a signal that euthanasia was acceptable. The Supreme Court upheld the life decision in 2001.

Mercy killing is also illegal in India. In 2004, the Andhra Pradesh High Court rejected a plea from K. Venkatesh, a former national chess champion battling a neurological disorder, who asked to be taken off his life support system. Because of Venkatesh’s case and others, an MP named C.K. Chandrappanhas introduced the Euthanasia (Permission and Regulation) Bill, 2007, in the Indian parliament. If passed, it would provide for a humane and painless death of an individual suffering from an incurable disease. “If there is no hope of recovery for a patient, it is only humane to allow him to put an end to his pain and agony in a dignified manner” said Chandrappanhas.

The Indian bill has incurred the wrath of right to life groups such as the Bangalore-based Respect for Life India. They say the bill is unacceptable both from an ethical and moral standpoint. Right to lifers emphasise the “killing” aspect of euthanasia. According to the ACT Right to Life Association in Canberra the choice is stark “for euthanasia to occur, there must be an intention to kill.” They claim palliative care can now effectively relieve almost all severe pain and significantly relieve emotional distress.

But long-time voluntary euthanasia campaigner Philip Nitschke disagrees. Nitschke was instrumental in the short-lived Northern Territories legislation that was the world’s first Voluntary Euthanasia (VE) law in 1996. Under this law a terminally ill person could to get help from their doctor to die. Four of Nitschke’s patients used this law in the eight months before it was overruled in the Federal Parliament. Nitschke believes the law was overturned by “godbotherers” and a fundamentalist, all-denomination Christian lobby that are small in number but large in influence.

Nitschke is a doctor and therefore well aware that euthanasia is not mentioned explicitly in the Hippocratic Oath. The closest it has to say on the subject is “I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such counsel”. Nor is the position of international human rights law on the matter explicit or clearly defined. Article 6(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides: “Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.” Roman law and later English common law forbade both suicide and assisting suicide.

The arguments around euthanasia took on a new meaning in the 19th century with the availability of anaesthesia. New York was the first legislature to specifically ban the practice. Today some of the most liberal laws apply in the Netherlands where doctors have immunity from prosecution providing they have complied with a number of 'rules of careful practice'. Dutch acceptance of this practice has been put down to a number of factors including a mature public discussion of moral issues, a secular society, a sense of individual responsibility, the Royal Dutch Medical Association's approval, trust for the medical profession and universal medical coverage.

Euthanasia raises ethical, moral, religious, philosophical, legal, constitutional and human rights issues. Common arguments against include the danger that euthanasia is not only restricted to the terminally ill, it can be used as a health care cost containment, people could be pressurised into accepting it, and it is a rejection of the importance and value of human life. Meanwhile those in favour cite the unbearable pain of sufferers, the right to facilitate the end of this suffering and forcing people to stay alive against their wishes. According to deacon Michael Pershin, a priest of the Moscow Patriarchy, “the phenomenon of euthanasia becomes possible when the meaning of life is pleasure”. According to Nitschke, it's "an absolutely vital and important decision that an individual has".

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

LaRouche and the CEC: life on the lunar fringes

Serial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche told a China reunification conference on the weekend that the US and China needed to unite to reform the world’s financial system. Despite LaRouche’s unorthodox views and his tendency to see conspiracies everywhere, he always manages to gain an influential hearing and this conference was no different. He was a keynote speaker at Saturday’s Forum on US-China Relations and China's Peaceful Reunification, a gathering of a hundred US and Chinese government officials, scholars and activists to discuss the Taiwan question.

LaRouche told the conference the international financial system was in crisis and could only be brought under control by US-China co-operation. He proposed the US should form a sponsoring group made up of the governments of the China, Russia and India in order to “stabilise the world system”. LaRouche’s thesis was that the central bank needed to be placed under the government’s power, massive infrastructure projects were required, and a new Bretton Woods agreement was needed to fix the world’s exchange systems.

These are central themes for the now 85 year old Lyndon LaRouche. LaRouche has covered the entire political spectrum in his time. He began his political career on the Marxist left before gravitating to the Democrats. Though never endorsed by the party, he has run in the last four presidential elections (including one he ran from prison). In the 1980s, he was given unfettered access to the NSC and CIA for reasons never divulged but he claimed were related to President Reagan's Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI).

However he is best known for being sentenced to 15 years in jail for fraud related to fundraising for his movement and for his bizarre projects and conspiracy theories. He proposed a Eurasian land bridge to the Americas as “an economic engine of world development”. He also claimed Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip head a "financial oligarchy" that rules the world, that the British monarch is also responsible for most of the world’s drug trafficking, that Zionism is part of this conspiracy and that the Ku Klux Klan is controlled by the FBI.

LaRouche’s Australian wing is the shadowy and lunar right Citizen’s Electoral Council (CEC). The CEC was formed in 1988 in Kingaroy, Queensland, in response to the rural crisis when many farmers were in danger of losing their farms. Initially a successful grass-roots political organization with about 100 rural branches around the country, it was taken over within a few years by LaRouche’s supporters. Former members were worried those who stayed would be put through a LaRouchian "Cadre School" in the US, which was described as a brainwashing session to bind followers to the organisation.

LaRouche’s noted misogyny is rife in the CEC. Motherhood and the influence of women over their children were both often derided. Women were frequently referred to as "witches." LaRouche has written about "Mothers' Fears" the many psychological problems of activists allegedly caused by their mothers. One former member said she left an American LaRouche group in disgust when told that women's feelings of degradation were because female sexual organs are near the anus, thus causing women to confuse sex with excretion.

LaRouche has become a successful prophet of doom. According to the CEC, the most pressing issue of our times for Australia and the world is the “accelerating onset of a new Great Depression”. They place the blame on the “anti-human, bestial policies represented by the rock-drug-sex counterculture which took off in the 1960s”. Their solution is the LaRouchian policies (enunciated in his China conference speech) of a national bank, state infrastructure and a “new Bretton Woods”.

Despite the delusionary nature of LaRouche’s views and his apparent anti-Semitism, his Australian party is very active and an extremely able fundraiser. The CEC have been prominent at Government’s public consultations, with members loudly voicing their opposition to the proposals and distributing pamphlets. Annual returns on the Australian Electoral Commission website show that for 2002/2003, the CEC and its associated entities raised in excess of $1,786,000, a figure bettered only by the Coalition and the ALP.

The impressive CEC fundraising ability has not translated into electoral success. In the federal election just gone, they performed abysmally in the lower house seats they ran in and did no better in the Senate. In NSW and Victoria they took 0.05 per cent of the vote, Queensland and WA slightly better at 0.08 and they took 0.09 per cent of the Tasmanian. People in South Australia were the most sensible with just 207 people preferencing the CEC – barely 0.03 per cent of the total vote. Thanks to the unimpressed citizens of Adelaide and elsewhere, it will be at least until 2010 before the US and Australia are exhorted again to “defeat the evil British empire”.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Sucre riots test Morales' resolve for change in Bolivia

A power struggle between Bolivian president Evo Morales and his conservative opponents has now erupted on a new front: the status of the country’s constitutional capital Sucre. Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas on protesters in Sucre on the weekend. The protesters were demanding the full relocation of the country’s legislature and seat of government from La Paz.

So far two civilians and one policeman have died and a further 130 people have been injured in street clashes that have gone in the third day. Protesters hurled rocks, Molotov cocktails and dynamite at police. Morales blamed former president Jorge Quiroga and “criminal groups” for the riots. Morales easily defeated Quiroga in the last election and he (Quiroga) leads the right-wing coalition known as the Social and Democratic Power. Morales said some groups don’t accept an indigenous leader.

Morales was speaking in the wake of the Bolivian parliament approval of a new constitution. The controversial changes would permit his indefinite re-election and would give central authorities greater control over public revenue at the expense of state governments. Morales’s opponents still control the Senate and boycotted the vote. They say the new constitution unfairly reduces the power of Bolivia's nine states. Wealthy Sucre has become a fulcrum for opposition demands for civil disobedience in the regions they govern.

Land redistribution has been a key issue in Bolivia for the last fifty years. Morales’s Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party made a comprehensive agrarian reform plan a central plank of the new constitution. Morales and MAS is trying to overturn decades of land redistribution which has ended up with 4 percent of the landowners possessing 82 per cent of the land. The government believes the constitutional changes will fulfil economic and social provisions aimed righting injustices against the indigenous population.

Bolivia remains the poorest country in South America. The poverty is concentrated in the Indian population which makes up 60 percent of the population. Infant mortality has halved to 60 deaths per thousand due to recent improvements on health and education but remains one of the highest in the western hemisphere. The country’s best hope to alleviate poverty is in the growing oil and gas industry. Morales initially threatened to nationalise the industry but so far has just increased taxes. With high oil and gas prices, the government’s income from the industry has increased nine fold between 2002 and 2007.

Evo Morales is relying on his own high personal popularity to get his constitutional amendments through. In 2005 he was the first elected indigenous president in Bolivia’s history. His election prompted fears of a civil war between the Indian and the wealthy white population which did not eventuate. The opposition is backed by the Bush administration who have attacked Morales regime as “undemocratic” and a “champion of false populism”. Morales is unconcerned by attacks from Washington and plans to press ahead with his changes. “The constitution will be approved in a referendum by the people, which is the most democratic,” he said.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Australian Election 2007: Kevin at the rudder

If Kevin Rudd’s election victory speech is to be believed, he has already fortified himself with a “strong cup of tea and an iced vovo biscuit”. He quickly and smoothly assumed the reigns of power today in his first media conference as Australia’s Prime Minister elect. While the rest of the country grapples with the likely sea change that the Labor victory will bring, Rudd laid out his immediate 100 day plan.

Rudd said he “wanted to hit the ground running” and he wants to impose change with Whitlamesque speed. In a wide ranging speech, he reiterated his support for the US alliance, announced he will attend the Bali leaders’ climate change meeting next week, promised to ratify Kyoto by Christmas, hold a premiers' meeting to discuss health issues by March, and called for tenders for the rollout of high-speed broadband and computers into schools. Beyond that he plans to commit to an emissions trading regime by mid next year and will enforce a uniform mandatory renewable energy target by end 2008.

There was little gloating about his extraordinary overnight success or the reasons for it, but there is little doubt that his home state of Queensland was instrumental in the convincing margin (Labor is likely to have an overall 24 or 26 seat majority). Earlier this year Labor strategists believed that that the local man could take 8 Queensland seats from the Coalition. After the state government-based debacle of compulsory council amalgamation, Labor predictions dropped to 4 or 5. In the end, they needn’t have worried. When Premier Peter Beattie quit, the amalgamation issue faded away. Instead Queensland gleefully embraced the prospect of having their own PM (their first since Andrew Fisher in 1907) and Labor picked up an incredible 10 seats to demolish Howard in the Sunshine State.

Seven more seats fell in NSW. Between them, the two rugby league states delivered victory to Rudd. The outgoing Prime Minister was himself a victim of the carnage though still hasn’t formally conceded defeat in his seat of Bennelong. The margin was narrower in the southern states and WA swung against the trend. But the wealth of the west was not enough to save Howard's career. Nor Peter Costello’s. The outgoing Treasurer bowed to realpolitik today and refused the “poisoned chalice” nomination of the Liberal Party leadership. This was despite the endorsements of John Howard and foreign minister Alexander Downer. Costello cited the desire to spend more time with his family as the reason why he would not stand. The more likely reason is that he knows the election was in many ways a referendum on the Howard/Costello team and his own leadership would have been fatally handicapped by that association.

While Labor had been licking their lips at having to deal with Costello as opposition leader, the situation has now changed dramatically. Maverick Nationals senator Barnaby Joyce described it as a a likely “Melbourne Cup” field of candidates ready to step up to the job. Malcolm Turnbull (one of the few Liberals outside of WA to record a favourable swing) is slight favourite and was first to declare his candidacy. However he is likely to face challenges from the likes of Brendan Nelson, Julie Bishop, Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and possibly even Alexander Downer if he believes the memories of his failed 1994 run have faded.

Surprisingly, given their disarray in the lower house, the Liberals faired much better in the Senate matching Labor’s 18 seats this time round. But they will lose their overall majority on 30 June 2008. The balance of power will switch to a diverse crew of 5 Greens, 1 Family First (Steve Fielding) and newcomer independent Nick Xenophon from South Australia. While the views of the Greens and FF are well documented, the position of the aptly named Mr X is far less certain. Xenophon is a single issues campaigner who made his name in state politics with a ‘no pokies’ platform. Now he says his focus will be water issues.

A couple of sad notes to finish on. Firstly there was the loss of Andrew Bartlett’s seat in the Queensland Senate. While the Australian Democrats have been a rabble for several years, Senator Bartlett bucked the trend and was a credit to the parliament with his honesty, integrity and sense of social justice. His blog has been a wonderful advertisement for open access politics and a fascinating insider’s guide to parliament. A couple of weeks ago Bartlett wrote “Just think how bad it would be for the political credibility of blogging if the only politician who’d been doing it seriously for the last three years lost his seat!” Bartlett is right. This is bad news. Unless someone new takes up the cudgels, the blogosphere will lose its only window on Canberra on 1 July 2008.

Lastly but not least is the sad news today of the death of journalist Matt Price of a brain tumour. Just 46, he was a parliamentary reporter in Canberra for The Australian and painted wonderful vignettes of political life. I also enjoyed his regular ruminations about his favourite AFL club, the usually woeful Fremantle Dockers. His work beautifully evoked the rueful passions of those who bear the cross of supporting rubbish teams in any sporting code. He’ll be sadly missed.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Welcome to the New Government: Labor wins Australian election

Labor has won. The analysts are arguing over the margins and WA is not yet in but the only question is by how much. Howard has not yet conceded, yet he is presiding not just over a defeat, but is also relying on postal votes to avoid the humiliating loss of his own seat. Labor have a guaranteed 82 seats so far needing 76 to form government. They are also leading in most of the undeclared seats. The swing is 5.7 per cent. Neither leader has emerged yet to either concede or claim victory. But there is no doubt that Kevin Rudd has replaced John Howard as Australia’s Prime Minister.

Kevin Rudd’s name is almost astonishingly absent from the commentator’s lips at the moment but this represents a huge victory for the Queenslander who has turned around 2004’s massacre of Mark Latham in resounding fashion. It is also a personal defeat for John Howard who hoped to seal his legacy with a fifth straight election victory.

Not since the Wall St Crash era of 1929, has an Australian prime minister lost his seat. In that election Stanley Melbourne Bruce of the defunct United Australia Party went down with his ship. John Howard is in deep trouble behind on preferences this time round and is relying on a large postal vote to avoid defeat. Maxine McKew is on screen as I write, saying it was “still on a knifeedge”. But she is probably being coy. And even if McKew does not win Bennelong from John Howard tonight, there is little doubt she will win it comfortably in a by-election to follow in the next month.

ABC and Sky News were calling the result around 8.30pm Sydney time. Among the print media, the Daily Telegraph was an early on-line entry around the same time saying "Labour” were claiming the win. While the British daily may not realise the ALP use the US spelling of “Labor” they have correctly called the election.

Little word from the Senate yet but it likely the Coalition’s current majority there will disappear by 1 July 2008 when current terms end (there was a small chance it could end tonight if the second ACT seat falls to the Greens). In the lower house Labor needed a national swing of 4.7 to win and looks to have exceeded that comfortably. Needing 16 seats to change hands to claim government, it has picked up 20 definites so far. They are 7 seats in NSW, 6 in Queensland, 3 in South Australia, 2 in Victoria, and 2 in Tasmania (getting a clean sweep of the apple isle in the process). Several others seats including Howard’s remain in doubt.

But the champagne is already out in the Labor campaign offices and the Labor fans, Chaser boys and TV network wannabees are running amok in the tally room leading a chant of “Julia, Julia”. The queue to get into the room is massive. Inside they are feting the new deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard in the ABC tally room studio. Their loud whooping is causing much annoyance to ABC election presenter Kerry O’Brien. But Labor’s exultation is understandable, the party has not won government from opposition since 1983.

The mood for change was obvious out in the electorate. At the Catholic school where I voted, there was a queue of 30 people outside waiting to vote. The Liberal placards warned of “wall to wall Labor” while Labor’s called for “New Leadership”. I voted in the safe Labor seat of likely Treasurer-to-be Wayne Swan. I met fellow blogger Sam Clifford the sole Greens rep handing out how-to-vote cards. Theirs was a call to “Take action, Take Green action in the Senate”. Sam was zinced up with a full day ahead of him on the hustings. A man in a Kevin07 t-shirt was explaining the voting process to two women.“Swan is in the lower house, that’s where you are voting for the Prime Minister. The guys in the Senate you won’t have even heard of.”

As I entered the school building, there was a poster on the wall. It was a face of Jesus which was broken up into hundreds of people’s faces. Underneath was an injunction from the Gospel of Matthew 25:40 “truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me”. I’m not sure if this was a coded illegal how-to-vote message inside the election room directed at the minor parties.

Or maybe it was directed at Labor after all. Julia Gillard has just called Maxine McKew “a miracle worker”. The tally is now 81 to Labor. Sometime in the next hour John Howard will concede defeat. Then the man who amazingly no-one on TV still dares name, will emerge to claim victory. And he will say “My name is Kevin, I’m from Queensland and I’m here to help”.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Spamalot: the curse of email spam

Web security firm Message Labs claim that cybercrime will increase significantly in 2008 with spammers using ever more sophisticated malware tools to get their messages out. The lucrative $105 billion market is attracting a steady stream of new players using new tactics such as video file spam and the ‘storm worm’ (a Trojan attachment associated with mass email-outs). Despite all the new e-crime tools available, email spam remains at the heart of this massive problem that affects every computer user.

In 2004 Bill Gates predicted that the spam problem would be solved within two years. He was spectacularly wrong. The problem got worse and 2007 was the worst year yet for email spam. Experts believe that up to 90 per cent of all email is now generated by spam robots. 2007 was also the year where the total of spam emails surpassed genuine person-to-person emails: 10.8 trillion to 10.5 trillion. The gap is only likely to increase. Estimates range from 60 to 150 million emails a day spruiking penis extensions, Viagra and a variety of get-rich schemes. While the most common reaction to spam is annoyance, it is also harmful.

Spam is generally used to refer to unsolicited or unrequested junk
emails over the Internet, known as unsolicited bulk emails. Unlike regular advertising email, the sender cannot be reliable contacted and the receiver cannot unsubscribe. Spam affects productivity. In Australia, the time and bandwidth lost to spam is estimated to cost business $2 billion a year. A 2004 National Technology Readiness survey (pdf) in the US found workers spend 2.8 minutes a day deleting spam at a cost to business of $21.6 billion in lost productivity.

In response to the growing problem, the US implemented the CAN-SPAM Act in 2003. The act banned misleading header information, deceptive subject lines, and gave email recipients an opt out method that asked the sender not to send future email messages to that email address. The act was heavily watered down after pressure from lobby groups including the Direct Marketing Association. Anti-spam activists dubbed the act ‘you can spam act’ saying the act did not outlaw the practice and instead appeared to give federal approval to spammers.

Where as the US legislation is opt-out, the Australian Spam Act of the same year went much further with its ‘opt in’ clause. The act makes it illegal to send ‘unsolicited commercial electronic messages’ from Australia exempting only charities, religious organisations, political parties and the Government. The act covers email, instant messaging and other mobile phone messaging but does not include telephone traffic. Despite the stiff million dollar plus penalties, the act has been ineffective due to its inability to reach foreign spammers.

As Email filters have become more sophisticated in their response to the problem, so too have the spammers tactics themselves. Thus while filters look for common used spam words, do check-sum based filtering, and perform statistical analysis and authorisation, the spammers have hit back by disguising their messages. Thus they are replete with words like “pen1s”, “s3x” and “\ /i@gra”. And to overcome the Bayesian filtering technique (based on keyword likelihood theories), spammers include nonsense text such as “group jed dash grille.jar aghast waxen squad kerry”, a technique known as Bayesian poisoning.

While mail servers run spam filtering software such as Spam Assassin to mark those mails it thinks are spam and place them in dedicated spam folders, it remains an inexact science. User must continue to examine spam emails before deletion in case they really are not spam. Spammers get most of their distribution lists by using programs to crawl the web sniffing out email addresses.

A Center for Democracy & Technology study of what types of addresses are more likely targeted, showed the best way of combating this is by publicly listing an address in human readable form such “name AT place DOT com” so that bots cannot pilfer it for spam use. Despite these measures, spam is likely here to stay, according to Greg Toto, vice president of products and operations at computer security firm BigFix. “Eliminating spam is a war you cannot win," he says. "It is much cheaper to send spam than stop it.”

Thursday, November 22, 2007

An Interview with Democrat Senator Andrew Bartlett

This evening Woolly Days met with Andrew Bartlett at his electoral office in The Valley. Bartlett has been a Senator for Queensland since 1997 filling the casual vacancy left by Cheryl Kernot’s defection to Labor. He was re-elected in 2001. A former party leader, Bartlett is now probably the highest profile Democrat standing and the one with the best chance of retaining his seat. However this election is Bartlett’s greatest challenge and the latest Galaxy Senate poll released today gives him an “outside chance” of being re-elected.

Andrew Bartlett himself remains optimistic about his chances with barely two days left in the campaign. He is heartened by the fact that historically Queensland is the Democrats second most successful state. Bartlett is holding up well after a long and tiring six week campaign. He said it has been a long election year. He didn’t think it would be called this late in the year and compared the campaign to a marathon. With election now in sight, Bartlett admitted he was looking forward to Sunday. He said that at times the campaign bordered on “delirium”. “I’m doing all I can to get every last Senate vote,” he said. “But the Senate [result] is hard to predict.”

He admitted the gruelling campaign made family life difficult especially for his six year old daughter Lillith. Bartlett said he was able to stay at home because he mostly campaigned in South East Queensland. However he said that in some respects that was harder than being away on parliamentary business in Canberra. “I leave home in the morning before my daughter gets up, and she’s asleep by the time I get home,” he said.

Andrew Bartlett could never imagine what lay ahead when joined the Democrats in 1989. He said he was inspired by then leader Janine Haines. Bartlett said he liked that Haines "said what she thought rather than play it safe". He was also attracted to Democrat ideals such as the conscience vote, its strong pro-environment stance, and its sense of social justice. At the time, he didn’t conscientiously seek political office but he said, “I joined lots of organisations and got involved in lots of issues I found useful or interesting”.

In 1990, Bartlett joined the staff of Senator Cheryl Kernot as a fill-in. However the person he temporarily replaced never came back and Bartlett kept the role. He described the situation as ‘serendipitous’. Bartlett said Kernot was "a fascinating mix". He praised her contribution to parliament saying she played a pivotal role in the landmark changes to superannuation laws during the Labor Government era. “She had charisma, charm, and was highly articulate and focussed,” he said. “She was also a control freak and very hard to work for”. Bartlett and Kernot eventually fell out and he went to work for Senator John Woodley until 1997.

Bartlett’s life change dramatically after Kernot’s shock defection to Labor that year. He was chosen to fill the casual vacancy. Bartlett said no-one had an inkling that Kernot was about to leave the party. He decided to take on the role in an effort to “keep things together”. “It was an extraordinary situation,” he said. “It was a monumental crisis for the party, particularly in Queensland”.

Once elected, Bartlett quickly got across the various policy areas and got onto inquiries and committees. He said that one of the best things about being a Democrat senator is the chance to get across several portfolios. He compared that with the single-minded silo mentality of the major parties. “You cover so much, you can never get into things in the detail you’d like,” he said. But by looking after several portfolios, “you can see how different things connect.”

By 2001 the Democrats were in internal crisis with the party split over the fallout over the GST which was supported by former leader Meg Lees. The presidential campaign of new leader Natasha Stott Despoja was criticised by the Lees faction within the party. However Alison Rogers, Stott Despoja's press secretary, says she (Stott Despoja) saved the party from annihilation that election. Bartlett agrees. “Natasha kept us in a job,” he said. Bartlett was one of 4 Democrats who kept his seat at that election despite many predictions he would lose. Bartlett was a close supporter of Stott Despoja and inherited her job as leader after she was forced out in 2002 when the internal conflicts grew too great.

Bartlett was never comfortable as leader. He didn’t see himself as charismatic. “The ten second sound byte was never my forte,” he admitted candidly. Party founder Don Chipp said of Bartlett that he was “unbelievably self-effacing” and said his shy nature was not a great quality for a party leader. Bartlett said his role as leader was a “necessity of circumstance”. He said he would “hopefully hand it back to her [Stott Despoja] but of course, that didn’t happen”.

Bartlett resigned the leadership after the 2004 election when the Democrats lost three seats including one in Queensland. “I was brought in to stop the destabilisation, but it never translated into electoral success,” he said. Since then Bartlett has thrown himself back into his policy work and expanded into the social media with his thought-provoking blog at The Bartlett Diaries. He said the blog was just another avenue of communication and a way of de-mystifying politics. He said he didn’t want it to turn into an insider's diary and said it was “less exciting than it could have been”.

Bartlett said indigenous affairs was by far the most important policy area that was being ignored by the mainstream media. He described the plight of Aboriginal Australia as the country's “biggest unresolved problem”. Bartlett wants to push for action on delivering restitution for Stolen Wages and compensation for the Stolen Generation. He doubted if a new government would repeal the new NT intervention legislation though they may not act on the “massive powers” the minister now has.

Bartlett said he has found his time in the senate “fascinating”. When pressed to name the legislation he was most proud of, he nominated the 1999 environment protection and biodiversity conservation act. He said that at the time, the act was criticised by the Greens because it did not go far enough but he said this was “very significant legislation” and could be used, in time, to stop the Traveston Dam. He said environmental groups have not properly used the legislation. Bartlett said that a weakness of the Democrats was that they were “hopeless at promoting their own legacy”. He said they needed a better balance of self-promotion and hard work. There is no doubt that Andrew Bartlett demonstrates plenty of the latter quality, it is up to the Queensland voters on Saturday to see whether he has got the balance right with the self-promotion.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Election 2007: healing of a bipolar nation?

With just two days left of a bloated six week election campaign, Australia is are witnessing the final messy moments of the John Howard era. The $60 million advertising campaign ends tonight with the compulsory 48 hour blackout before Saturday’s ballot. The Prime Minister remains bewildered to the last why the nation is deserting him during a resources boom and a 33 year low in unemployment.

Appearing on ABC’s 7.30 Report last night, he clung to his two main themes of economic prosperity and national security credentials as reasons why voters should continue to trust him to run the country. He said the country was flirting with “change for change’s sake” and warned the country would be different. Not for the first time he launched into a scare campaign about the consequences of victory for Labor by comparing a change of government to an unwanted pet. “It's not like a Christmas present you didn't want,” he said. “You can take it back at the Boxing Day sale, it's not like that.”

Howard’s comment is an insulting indictment of the Australian electorate who are only all too aware that the term is three years, almost half of which is spent is spent campaigning for the next term. In his essay “Bipolar Nation: How to win the 2007 Election” (extract at New Matilda) written earlier this year, Sydney Morning Herald political reporter Peter Hartcher examines the contradictions that lie at the heart of Australian politics. Hatcher shows how Kevin Rudd has drawn away Howard’s core constituencies and undermined his fundamental arguments. Hartcher’s thesis is that Australians are economically secure and yet anxious about the future. He explores these themes under the banners of The Lucky Country and The Frightened Country.

The Lucky Country was Donald Horne's 1964 book about the complacency and mediocrity he saw in Australia’s ruling class. “Australia is a lucky country,” he wrote, “run mainly by second-rate people that share its luck.” The book was intended as a critique of a derivative society hostile to originality and expertise. The book’s title became misunderstood as praise for the country not a warning. But Horne was prophetic. Australia’s luck did run out in the seventies and eighties. Between 1970 and 1990 the country’s average income dropped from fourth in the world to fifteenth. Australia was well on the way to becoming what Lee Kuan Yew called “the poor white trash of Asia”.

But when Lee visited Australia in 2007, he said his comment was aimed at the discriminatory immigration policies which ended in the 1960s. He admitted Australia had changed for the better since then (Ruddock's policies notwithstanding). When interviewed by Hartcher, Horne too agreed Australia was now a different place. He hailed the economic reform program of the Hawke-Keating government as the “threshold moment” for Australia and one which arrest the country’s slide down the ranking of wealthy countries.

In 1983, the new Labor government slashed the tariff walls that protected the economy from competition. Labor’s industry minister John Button described manufacturing as an “industrial museum” while finance minister John Dawkins said the country had “first class living standards with a third class industrial structure”. With the tariffs gone, Paul Keating released the tightly controlled finance system and liberalised the wage structure. It was as necessary as it was unpopular. His courageous acts left him with few friends even within the Labor movement. “Not that one has a check list, but you do get around to offending everybody,” he told Hartcher. "But somebody has to give the country a break."

After a recession “we had to have”, Australia’s boom began in 1991. It is still humming along 16 years later. It comfortably survived the Asian economic crisis of 1997. But Keating didn’t. By then a vengeful electorate had tired of his “big visions”, high interest rates and fatal hubristic streak. The people gave John Howard’s Liberals a landslide win in 1996. The time lag between implementation and success meant it would be John Howard who would reap the benefit of Keating’s revolution. While the Coalition have added Reserve Bank independence, the GST and budget transparency, it is the Keating reforms that remain at the heart of Australian prosperity.

Howard successfully claimed ownership of the boom because Labor deserted the field. Because of Keating’s unpopularity, they never trumpeted their own success. Labor retreated into its traditional preoccupation, how to redistribute wealth not how to create it. Not until 2005 was Keating was rehabilitated and it took another year for Labor to fight back on economic credentials. In August 2006, Wayne Swan reminded (hansard pdf) John Howard that interest rates reached 21 per cent under his time at Treasury, 4 points higher than the Keating record.

Incredibly, it was the first time the Opposition used this tactic since Howard became Prime Minister. After a decade, Labor has finally re-entered the economic argument and started to take credit for its own accomplishments. With a self-styled “economic conservative” now at the helm, feted by the last three Labor PMs at his conference, Labor may finally be able wrest economic credibility back from the government. At his campaign launch speech last week he finally outflanked Howard on the economy. “I have no intention today of repeating Mr Howard’s irresponsible spending spree.” The Labor faithful, the press gallery, and probably the electorate, all lapped it up.

However, economic credibility is only half the battle. In his 7.30 Report interview last night, Howard reminded the viewers that “national security is being looked after”. Howard is aware that a fearfulness sits at the heart of Australia’s relationship with the outside world and has long capitalised on this fact. This is theory of The Frightened Country, that occupies the second half of Hartcher’s essay. The Frightened Country is also the title of a book by former diplomat Alan Renouf.

Renouf argues that Australia’s irrational fear of its neighbours is central to the national psyche. The country has always been a follower, either of Britain or of the US and rarely ventures into its own international policy making. There have been a succession of foreign ‘bogeymen’ such as the Russians, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Soviets, and in more recent times the Indonesians. Australia relies inordinately on the Anzus Treaty signed in 1951 but the wishy-washy text of the treaty declares the parties would only act “to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes”. Howard and his foreign minister Alexander Downer love to talk about the treaty but they never mention the fact that those inconvenient “constitutional processes” remove the sense of obligation.

Nor do they talk about the time in 1964 when Australia, which was worried about the Indonesia Reformasi crisis, invoked the treaty for the first and so far only time. The US refused to help. Nor did Howard enjoy the reaction of Clinton’s National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, who, when asked to support an international military coalition in East Timor, testily compared Australia’s problem to his daughter’s messy apartment.

Nevertheless Howard is a deft handler of the fear factor. According to Hartcher, Howard first prods them so people are aware of their fears. Then he offers reassurance. He has used this double strategy to keep troops in Iraq. His argument is if we remove them it would be a propaganda coup for terrorism and increase the number of terrorists in Indonesia. Implicit is the argument that Howard’s putative terrorists would be a threat to Australia. Despite the polls saying Iraq was an unpopular war, Howard’s appeal to fear resonated far stronger in the electorate than Latham’s 2004 promise to bring the troops home by Christmas.

However the elevation of the former shadow foreign minister to the Labor leadership has changed this ballgame too. Rudd was an unapologetic supporter of the Iraq war. Rudd was unable to seize this agenda and has remained remarkably quiet about it in the election campaign. He has relied on the Prime Minister to concede the running with a bad mistake. Howard made just such a blunder when he criticised Barack Obama’s call for total US withdrawal from Iraq equating it support for Al Qaeda. Obama underlined the flaw in Howard’s argument when he noted Australia’s small contingent in Iraq. He suggested Howard “calls up another 20,000 Australians and sends them to Iraq.” That was the end of the argument. John Howard was never prepared to put the bodies of the Frightened Country on the line.

In the endgame, it is the emperor who has lost his clothes. The bogeymen and the bipolar nation have moved on. Neutralised on security and outflanked on economic credibility, the Liberals have failed to gain any traction in the opinion polls and the main topic of political debate is now the margin of Labor’s win. Former Labor powerbroker Graham Richardson is today predicting a Labor landslide and a swing of six to seven percent (it needs 4.88 per cent to win). "I think people have just stopped listening to John Howard,” he said “He just stayed too long."

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Tony Tran: The culture of detention

Vietnamese born Binh (Tony) Tran is the latest victim of incompetence and arrogance in Australia’s troubled Immigration Department. Tran, now 35, was wrongfully detained and separated from his son for five and a half years between 1999 and 2005. He is now seeking compensation in the Victorian Supreme Court and his lawyers are saying the claim could reach into the millions of dollars. David Manne, from the Refugee & Immigration Legal Centre, said Tran had not yet received an apology and he had shown "extraordinary strength and dignity" since his release.

Tony Tran grew up in the US and entered Australia in 1992. He allowed his US re-entry permit to expire in 1994. In the meantime Tran married a Vietnamese Australian and applied for permanent residency. Because of this Tran believed he did not need to re-enter the US. Australia granted Tran a temporary spouse visa, and then a bridging visa. But while the Immigration Department was deciding whether he was eligible for a permanent spousal visa, he divorced, and his former wife withdrew her support for his permanent visa application. His application for a permanent spouse visa was rejected in 1996. He appealed but lost. However because of an “administrative error” Tran was never informed. The letter from Immigration never reached Tran – it was returned unopened to the Department.

ABC’s Lateline on 12 November took up the story in 1999. By then, Tran had re-married this time to a South Korean woman and they had an Australian-born son. The family lived in Brisbane where they owned a house. Tran had contacted Immigration to inquire about a spouse visa for his new wife. However instead of processing his wife’s application, they took an interest in Tran himself. While Tran believed he had a valid visa, Immigration told him he was an illegal immigrant. He was promptly handcuffed and taken into detention. Tran never saw his wife again. “I didn't expect to get locked up like that, so I never get to say goodbye or never get to kiss my son,” he said.

Meanwhile his wife and son were also threatened with detention and the department organised for them both to go to South Korea without his knowledge. They even provided the son an assumed South Korean name to facilitate entry to that country. After two years Tran’s wife returned to Queensland where she abandoned the son, Hai. Local child welfare authorities wrote to the department arguing the father should look after the son in the community. Immigration refused and Hai was assigned to foster care. Tony and Hai’s only contact was a weekly telephone call. While in prison, Tran was stabbed and bashed by an unstable inmate.

Finally in 2005, amid the scandals about the illegal detention of Cornelia Rau and deportation of Australian citizen Vivian Alvarez Solon, Tran was released without explanation and without apology. All he got was a letter saying his visa was valid since 1993. He was quickly reunited with Hai. But both and father and son remain without permanent residency and Minister Kevin Andrews has refused to make a decision on the matter prior to the election. Migration agent Libby Hogarth says the case has been before the minister for almost two years.

While he was still in detention, the Department told Hogarth Tran wasn't being very cooperative and hadn't taken much interest in his child's welfare. When she finally spoke to him, she was stunned to find out this was far from the truth. “It was very, very obvious to me that the major concern in his life was his young son who he hadn't seen for a number of years,” she said. Hogarth said immigration officials refused to pass on letters and photographs from Tran to his son, conduct she labelled "heartless and vicious".

In June, the Commonwealth Ombudsman John McMillan released a series of findings on the wrongful detention of 247 Australian citizens, all permanent residents and lawful visa holders between 1993 and 2007. He found that all Tran’s detention time was unlawful. Because a person must be properly notified before any action can be taken against them, it was unlawful for Immigration to act against him. McMillan recommended the Government “investigate a remedy”. The government refused and Tran is now seeking his own remedy in the Victorian Supreme Court.

On the night after Lateline revealed Tran’s story, the same program interviewed Labor spokesman for Immigration Tony Burke. Burke said Tran was one of “more than 200 cases” of unlawfully detained people. He blamed a “culture of assumption, a culture of denial - finally - a culture of cover-up” for the problems. But Burke was unable to get the details of the Tran case. Extraordinarily, with the government in caretaker mode, Burke did not get the briefings directly from departmental officials that would ordinarily be made available to a shadow minister. Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews has refused to speak to the media since the story broke. Tran now lives with his son in Melbourne, awaiting a final verdict on their fate. “For me my main focus is, like, my son, to hope that he can grow up and lead a normal life,” he said. “For me, I'm trying as well. It's not easy but I'm trying.”

Monday, November 19, 2007

IPCC report on climate change: the time for doubt has passed

UN General-Secretary Ban Ki-Moon urged world's policymakers yesterday to urgently deal with climate change at next month's summit in Bali. His call comes as the latest report from the Nobel Peace prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows that global warming is “unequivocal” based on wide ranging evidence. The IPCC has observed changes in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level and have ranked eleven of the last 12 years the warmest since record began in 1850. Ban said the time for doubt has passed and climate change is the defining challenge of our age. “I can tell you with assurance that global, sweeping, concerted action is needed now,” he said. “There is no time to waste.”

Ban issued the warning as he introduced the fourth assessment report (pdf) of the IPCC. The fourth report synthesises the work of the previous three reports. The gist of the latest report is that worldwide carbon emissions must stop increasing within seven years and greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 50 to 85 percent by 2050. It found the earth's average temperature has risen by 0.75 degrees Celsius over the past 100 years. Greenhouse gases emitted by humans increased 70 percent between 1970 to 2004 with the most harmful of those, carbon dioxide, increasing by 80 percent over that period.

The report is the work of thousands of scientific experts (pdf). There were 2,500 scientific reviewers, 800 contributing authors and 450 lead authors from 130 countries. The report said that an average 2 degree Celsius increase in temperature could endanger up to 30 percent of the planet's flora and fauna. It also predicted that almost 250 million people in Africa will suffer from water shortages by 2020. UN Environment Programme Director Achim Steiner said the report was a “compelling blueprint” for action. He said the price tag for failure included “increasing acidification of the oceans to the likely extinctions of economically important biodiversity”.

Ban called on the US and China to take the lead in cutting emissions. Neither country is bound by the current protocol. "I look forward to seeing the US and China playing a more constructive role, starting from the Bali conference,” he said “Both countries can lead in their own way.” The goal of the 11 day Bali December meeting is to agree to start urgent talks on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol on cutting carbon gas emissions. Kyoto expires in 2012.

In the current Australian federal election, neither major party has committed to short-term emission reductions. Opposition leader Kevin Rudd reacted to the report by saying Labor were committed to “swift action” and promised to set intermediate targets within six months of election. However John Howard wasn’t as convinced matters were as dire as Ban and his team of scientists were saying, merely promising the Coalition has a “balanced approach” to combating global warming. He said the report should not be taken out of context because "the world is not coming to an end tomorrow".

Former leader of the CSIRO's Climate Impact group and contributor to the IPCC Report Dr Barrie Pittock sharply criticised Howard’s comments as “non-committal” and failing to appreciate the urgency of the problem. In his 2007 book “Climate Change - Turning up the Heat” Pittock argues our attitudes to risk and uncertainty influence our decision making. He said climate takes a long time to alter so what we do now will have impacts decades later and market forces must be encouraged to think long term. Pittock says neither Labor nor the Liberals have tackled the problem seriously enough during the election campaign, and says the small incentives offered barely scratch the surface of what is required. “That compares with tens of billions of dollars in commitments for other things,” he said. “I think they've got it completely out of proportion.”

Sunday, November 18, 2007

A short history of myths

Myths may be old-fashioned but there is no doubting they still have currency. The world’s media love a good myth. In the last 48 hours alone, the concept of "myth" was used to explain matters as diverse as redemptive violence, search engine optimisation, Hitler's would-be assassin Von Stauffenburg, Black Friday, the music of Gram Parsons, a strong British pound, cricket’s nervous nineties, pay inequality in Bahrain,t he life of Hunter S Thompson and whether the English language was good for India. While today the word "myth" is often used to describe something that simply isn’t true, within its definition is an acknowledgement a myth is more powerful and complex than a mere lie. What is it about this concept of myth that unifies these diverse themes?

The idea and history of myths is explored in Karen Armstrong’s “A Short History of Myth”. Myth is culture’s way of understanding itself and the word has many meanings across ritual and anthropological, literary and semiological fields. Armstrong examines the primary meaning: its ritual and anthropological function. She said humans have been mythmakers since Neanderthal times and our imagination allows us to have irrational ideas. She said the five most important things about myths are 1) they are rooted in the fear of death 2) they are inseparable from ritual 3) they force us to go beyond our experience 4) they teach us how to behave and 5) they speak of another reality, most commonly referred to the world of the gods.

While now more akin to theology, the ancients saw mythology in the light of human experience. The world of the gods and the world of humanity were not separated and mythology was designed to cope with the human predicament. Mythology and lying are now conflated, but a myth used to be something which happened once, but also happened all the time. Because of our chronological view of history we have no word for such an occurrence but mythology transcends this core of reality. This is something we have become alienated to but has long been an indispensable part of our ability to make sense of the world. Armstrong calls this concept the “everywhen”.

The earliest myths belongs to Palaeolithic times, between 20000 and 8000 BCE. Prior to the development of agriculture, hunter-gatherers used myth as a stable backdrop of their lives. One of the earliest myths was the Golden Age which told of a lost paradise where humans lived in close contact with the divine. Its purpose was to show people how they could return to this era by rapture and more importantly by the regular duties of everyday life. Every mundane thing could be sacred. The earliest mythologies taught people to embrace an external reality in the ordinary. The sky with its storms, sunsets, eclipses, rainbows and meteors was a religious experience. People began to personify the drama of the heavens and sky gods were born.

As humanity developed survival skills and organised society, it developed a new pragmatic mode the Greeks would call “logos”. Different from mythical thinking, logos needs to correspond accurately to objective facts. Where mythos seeks explanation in the “everywhen”, logos always looks to the future. Both have their limitations and the pre-modern world realised they were complementary. One covered spiritual matters, the other technological.

Technology was to become increasingly important in human development during the Neolithic period between 8000 and 4000 BCE with the rise of agriculture. Initially this was a religious experience. The crop was sacred and the Earth was a living womb. Sexual myths prevailed. The soil was female, the seeds were semen, and rain was sex between heaven and earth. The Earth was a brutal and unforgiving Mother Goddess which pastoralists battled constantly to gain a living. She was the cause of death and sorrow and her journey was of initiation and transformation.

Around 4000 BCE, humans built the first cities and with them the first civilisations. The earliest successful cities were in the Fertile Crescent where the rate of societal growth rapidly increased. People learned new skills and new occupations: engineers, plumbers, builders, barbers, porters, musicians and scribes. Destruction was common-place. Cities brought wars, massacres and revolutions and urban violence was reflected in new mythology. Cain was the first city-builder and the first murderer. The Tower of Babel caused those who built it to be unable to understand each others speech. Mesopotamian myths such as the Epic of Gilgamesh were the first in which the Gods withdrew from the world. Civilisation and culture were on the ascendency and God was becoming increasingly remote.

The next major development occurred between 800 and 200 BCE. Armstrong quotes German philosopher Karl Jaspers who calls this period the Axial Age because it is a pivotal era in humanity’s spiritual development. It marks the beginning of modern religion. There was Confucianism and Taoism in China, Buddhism and Hinduism in India, monotheism (Zoroastrianism and Judaism) in the Middle East and rationalism in Greece. A market economy developed in which power passed from holy men and kings to merchants. The new religious movements tampered with the older myths. City life made the divine more remote and alien. Indian cultures reflected this with the severe asceticism of their holy men. The Chinese did not speak of the divine at all. The philosophy of Confucius and Lao Tse were based on the ethics of how humans dealt with each other.

All the new religions believed strongly in rites which gave the myths emotional resonance. Myths demanded action. The Jews, convinced by the emptiness of earlier myths, began to insist that their god, Yahweh, was the only God. The Greeks used logos to find a rational basis for old myths. In physics, philosophy and drama, they explored ancient themes in new settings. Plato was impatient with myths but he saw they were important in exploring ideas that lie beyond the scope of philosophy. He used the myth of the cave to show enlightenment was relative. Irrational matters, he conceded, might allow a plausible fable.

In the post-Axial Age of 200 BCE to 1500 CE, the status of myth remained constant. Judaism inspired the myth of Christianity. The historical figure of Jesus was mythologised by St Paul. Paul was uninterested in Jesus’s teachings. What was important to him was the mystery of the crucifixion and resurrection. He turned the death and ascension into a mythical creation of the ‘everywhen’. Western Christianity used the Fall of Rome to develop the myth of Original Sin, but the myth is unknown to the eastern Orthodox, where the Roman Empire did not fall. The Christians were followed by Mohammed and the Koran. The Muslim holy book is a series of parables that speak about the divine in terms of signs and symbols.

In the 16th century, Europe (followed by its North American imitation) was beginning its world dominance. The Western modernity was based on logos. Society was freed from its dependence on the constraints of traditional cultures and forged forward fuelled by technological advances and constant reinvestment of capital. The western economy seemed infinitely renewable. This modernity bred an intellectual enlightenment that deemed myth useless, false and outmoded. Modern medicine, hygiene, technologies and transport revolutionised life in Europe and North America. However logos could not explain these successes’ intuitive sense of significance. In reaction, some read religion factually; hence the horror of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species.

In 1882, one of Nietzsche’s characters in “The Gay Science” famously proclaimed God was dead. Armstrong argues Nietzsche was right in one way; without myth and ritual, the sense of sacredness dies. Humanity turned God into a wholly notional truth. The nihilism of the 20th century bore this out. The sinking of the Titanic, the killing fields of World War I, the death camps of World War II and the Russian gulags seemed to indicate the results of a total loss of the sacred. Armstrong argues we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion myth is false or inferior. She says we need them to help us identify with all of humanity, create a spiritual attitude and help us become transcendent. The stakes are high. "Unless there is some kind of spiritual revolution that is able to keep abreast of our technological genius, we will not save our planet," Armstrong concludes.