Thursday, July 31, 2008

Vatican chicanery: Australia and China to upgrade relations with the Holy See

One of the more intriguing outcomes from the Pope’s visit to Australia last week, was the announcement of a new Australian embassy to the Holy See. Previously all Vatican related matters have been handled as a minor item by the Australian embassy in Ireland. Labor crossed the political divide and appointed former National Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer to the post. Fischer will take up the position early next year. According to media reports, the creation of the position goes against the specific advice of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade who see no need for it. There is also criticism of the fact the new embassy will cost $5 million to set up and an additional $3 million a year to support.

But Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was not worried by these issues as he announced the decision last week in the wake of the papal Sydney visit for World Youth Day. As he farewelled Pope Benedict XVI, Rudd announced that Fischer would become Australia's first resident ambassador to the Vatican. Australia will now join 69 other nations with resident ambassadors to the Holy See, the world’s smallest official sovereign nation. The Age’s foreign affairs writer Daniel Fitton described the decision to open the embassy as bizarre. He found it hard to see how a “deeper engagement” with the Pope fits in Australia’s key foreign priorities of South East Asia, the US and the UN.

Some have pointed to the possible opening of relations between Vatican and China as a pointer to Australia’s decision. Greg Sheridan believes that Rudd’s establishment of the Vatican embassy is a “brilliant and far-sighted act” because of a likely thaw in the Vatican-China relationship. Sheridan says the Vatican is a world power despite being a small state. “It has agencies all over the world, an immense amount of global knowledge and huge influence,” he said. He believes the Vatican will move its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in the next few years. In return, Rome will appoint Catholic bishops, rather than having them appointed by the Chinese Government.

Currently, the Vatican is the only European “nation” that maintains diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which it established at the height of World War II in 1942 (with what was then Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist China). Earlier this month, the Taiwanese ambassador was forced to hose down rumours that the Vatican was switching its allegiance to Beijing. Tu Chou-shen said there were many issues to resolve before that would happen. “I cannot say the Vatican will never forge formal ties with China,” he said. “But such relations will not happen until Beijing commits to respecting basic human rights and the public’s freedom to worship.”

Animosity between the sides goes back over half a century. The Vatican broke off official relations with the newly founded People’s Republic of China in 1951. While the two sides have been making overtures to each other for many years, matters took a turn for the worse in 2006 when Beijing appointed its own bishops ignoring Catholic Church procedure. A Vatican spokesman announced that the pope was “profoundly displeased” to hear of the news and said ordaining new bishops without papal approval seriously harms the unity of the church, leading to "severe canonical sanctions."

The appointments are part of a power play between the Vatican and the Communist Party for control of Catholicism in China. While there are an estimated 13 million Catholics in China (one percent of the total population), they are split across Vatican and Beijing sponsored organising bodies. The official Church organ in China is the state-approved Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA). The CPCA is the only brand of Catholicism tolerated by the government and has an estimated five million members. It was established in 1957 by the country’s Religious Affairs Bureau for the purpose of introducing party ideals into the Catholic Church.

Since then the Vatican has maintained an ambiguous relationship with the CPCA. The Vatican’s hand is strengthened by the fact that it has the support of the majority of Chinese Catholics. While five million Chinese Catholics profess to belong to the CPCA, the other eight million follow the illegal underground church which remains loyal to Rome. In a letter to Chinese Catholics last year, Pope Benedict offered “guidelines” about how to evangelise non-Catholics (presumably including CPCA members). He also acknowledged the difficulty of episcopal appointments which he described as a “delicate problem”. Solving this issue will open the door to diplomatic relations. Australia will be there among the neighbours to welcome them.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

23 years and counting: Hun Sen wins another Cambodian election

EU monitors have declined to label last weekend’s Cambodian elections as unfair despite saying they failed to live up to international standards. Martin Callanan, the head of an EU election monitoring team, said Sunday's poll was dominated by the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) which was returned to power. He said CPP’s massive resources allowed "accusations of lack of impartiality to be made.” But Callanan pointedly didn’t make those accusations directly and he failed to back up the opposition Sam Rainsy party who alleged widespread vote rigging and who called on the international community to reject the result.

Prime Minister Hun Sen extended his 23 year rule when his CPP won 91 of the 123 seats in the Sunday election. Although final results will not be announced until sometime in August, election officers said the ruling party had taken at least 62 per cent of the vote in five of the nation's 24 provinces. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy rejected this and called for renewed balloting in Phnom Penh, where his party is strongest. He claims 200,000 people in the capital were ineligible to vote after their names were struck off registration lists. "Neither party won more than two-thirds of the seats," he said.

But despite Rainsy’s rhetoric, the CPP victory was not really a surprise. Hun Sen had been widely tipped to win for months and ran a very astute campaign. The country has been greatly normalised since the disastrous wars that devastated the country between the 1970s and 1990s. Cambodia was admitted to ASEAN in 1999. The Cambodian economy has been booming for the last few years and the quality of life is improving in one of the world's poorest nations. Cambodia's GDP grew by an impressive 13.4 percent in 2005, driven by garment exports, tourism, foreign investment, a construction boom, and record crops in agriculture.

In the last month, Sen has also capitalised on the nationalist sentiment sparked by the border feud with Thailand over the Preah Vihear Khmer temple complex. Now that the election is over Hun Sen is sounding more conciliatory but says the impetus to solve the two week dispute lies with Thailand. The foreign ministers of both countries have agreed to consider withdrawing troops from the area. Hun Sen claimed there was no problem on the Cambodian side. “The problem is with the Thai side. We understand their difficulty,” he said. “They need discussion and approval of the cabinet.”

UPI Asia Online believes Hun Sen’s victory should be attributed to the system of government the CPP put in place when it was a fully-fledged communist party in the 1980s. They added a democratic veneer in 1993 when the country theoretically embraced parliamentary democracy, but the CPP remained in firm control. The ruling party has utilized this system to get itself re-elected over and over since its defeat in the UN organised election in 1993.

The CPP controls all the key state apparatuses including the National Election Committee, the judiciary, security forces, civil service and educational institutions. They also maintain a de facto near-authoritarian control over the nation’s media. They run nationwide television and much of radio as well as constraining the non-party owned press. Reporters Without Borders said that in advance of the election there were fears that the ruling party would tighten its grip still further on electronic media with Hun Sen saying that he plans to stay in power for another 20 years.

There is still much work to be done in that time. Ian Lloyd Neubauer says Cambodia remains one of the least-developed countries in the world. Neubauer is a former Cambodian-based journalist and author of the novel “Maquis” whose theme is civil unrest in the country. He says Cambodian democracy exists in name only and the legal system works on a user-pays basis. “Alcoholism, methamphetamine use, prostitution, violence against women, land grabbing, unemployment and malnutrition are endemic,” he says.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Chinese internet consumption overtakes the US

A Chinese consulting firm has announced that more people connect to the Internet now from China than any other country in the world. BDA Advisory Services, which specialises in Chinese telecommunications, media and technology made the announcement last week. The quoted the work of the China Internet Network Information Centre (CINIC) who reckoned there were now 210 million Chinese Internet users at the end of 2007. While this figure is slightly less than the 216 million US users counted by Nielsen at the same time, the growth rate in China is much higher leading BDA to conclude China has now overtaken the US.

CINIC now estimates that the total number of Internet users in China is 253 million people, which represents 19.1 percent of the total population. CNNIC defines an Internet user as anyone aged six and over who accessed the Internet at least once per month, via a desktop computer, laptop or mobile phone. It says the users are predominantly a young group. Half the entire user base is under 25, while those aged 35 and under account for 80 percent of all users. CINIC also noted the high-tech nature of the Chinese Internet with a whopping 85 percent connecting via Broadband. The numbers show that China is becoming its own Internet centre of gravity.

China is now re-creating the Internet in its own image with the aid of US high tech companies. The great firewall of China runs on Cisco routers. China also has a contract with Yahoo to filter materials that might be harmful to Communist Party rule. Yahoo inspects and monitors information on behalf of China and its Chinese search engines only return sites not deemed threatening to public order. When Chinese journalist Shi Tao sent an email to a US democracy website from his Yahoo mail address in 2005, Yahoo identified the sender to China, who promptly jailed Tao for 10 years.

Yet these strictures are not impacting the explosive growth of the Chinese Internet. Commenting on the growth mid-last year (when there were “only” 137 million users), the Pew Centre said the influx has far-reaching consequences for China and the world at large. It says the Internet will give the Chinese a much more sophisticated information and communications world view. It also believes that the single Chinese written language (despite many different spoken tongues) could have a unifying effect on the country's widely dispersed citizenry. It could increase domestic tensions that could spill over into China's relations with the West and says the difference between Chinese and Western approaches to the internet could create new pressure points over human rights and restrictions on non-Chinese companies.

Business Week
wonders why India is being left behind while China surges ahead. Frederik Balfour notes that although the country’s have similar populations; there are just 42 million Internet users in India, representing just 4 percent of the total population. And barely 10 percent of these users access via Broadband. Balfour is surprised that China has an Internet boom despite operating “a vast and sophisticated firewall to prevent its citizens from accessing information and opinions the communists deem a threat to their monopoly on power”. He says the success of online commerce sites such as Alibaba’s Taobao are testament to how the country’s embrace of the internet is reshaping how its economy works.

However those who hope that China’s large Internet population will eventually lead to democracy, may be sorely disappointed. The government is weaving its own nationalist ideology into the Internet and the effect of its control of all media (including the Net) is not to kill all discussion of democracy but to put any movement for change at a major comparative disadvantage. For instance, Chinese chatrooms ban the discussion of democracy so users invent secret languages to get around the problem. While this may fool the government, it also makes it unintelligible to most ordinary Chinese. If the code becomes too well known, it gets blocked.

Meanwhile the Government does encourage open and fervent discussion of Chinese greatness. In their book “Who Controls the Internet?” Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu say that Internet-driven nationalism is beating democracy “hands down”. They say the ultimate effect of the Internet and its effect on China’s political evolution is too difficult to assess. However they warn that the West should not assume Chinese controls are meaningless or bound to fail. China is an enormous force that is changing the identity of the Internet. They quote the warning of Des Moines’ Drake University law professor Peter Yu. “The question is no longer how the Internet will affect China,” he says. “It is how China will affect the Internet.”

Monday, July 28, 2008

Queensland launches Liberal National Party

A new political party was launched in Queensland yesterday as the long-touted state merger of the Liberals and the Nationals finally came to pass. The executive of the new Liberal National Party (LNP) met in Brisbane and anointed former Nationals boss Bruce McIver as State President and former Liberal powerbroker Gary Spence as his deputy. The launch also introduced the new leadership team of Leader Lawrence Springborg, and Deputy Leader Mark McArdle. Like the presidential roles, the leadership and deputy roles were filled by former Nationals and Liberal leaders respectively, showing that Nationals remain the more powerful force in the combined entity.

Speaking in front of a thousand cheering fans, McIver said the launch marks the birth of a new era in Queensland politics. “The LNP is determined to offer the people of Queensland…a credible alternative to the current Government,” he said. “And a team with vision, built around the leadership of Lawrence Springborg and Mark McArdle.” New party leader Springborg said the creation of the LNP had ended conservative disunity which he described as the Labor government's “greatest asset”.

In his acceptance speech Springborg outlined four major areas the new party will focus on in the lead-up to the next election due in 2009. The four areas were: roads, hospitals, education and water. Springborg had the key backing of pro-merger Liberal MPs Tim Nicholls and Steve Dickson. He also received the endorsement of Liberal Brisbane mayor Campbell Newman who urged Liberal delegates to ignore calls by the party's federal president Alan Stockdale to delay the merger vote. Springborg attacked Stockdale and said the vote “can never be stopped and stymied by a few faceless men and women who seek to stand in the way.”

Embattled Federal Liberal leader Brendan Nelson came out in favour of the merger yesterday saying it would significantly strengthen the prospects of the conservatives defeating the Bligh Labor Government at the next state election. "We will all now work to see the best interests of the non-Labor side of politics are best served, both in Queensland and nationally," he said. Nelson’s statement came despite the last-minute Liberal moves to defer the vote over dispute over who would become president of the new party.

Crikey’s Bernard Keane says the LNP is merely the National Party with a Liberal rump. Apart from getting to go first in the name of the new party, Keane says the party is the “same clutch of dribbling hicks and divided incompetents [Queensland has] rejected for a decade.” He says that many Liberal members are now considering bailing out rather than joining a party that shares none of its basic beliefs. “The Nationals exist to promote the systematic abuse of government revenue and regulatory arrangements for the benefit of selected, primarily regional, industries and businesses,” he said. “Their record in government is one of corruption, rorting, rank incompetence and intolerance.”

But surprising or not, others accept the new arrangements, albeit with raised eyebrows. Andrew Bartlett called the merger a fait accompli and believes the merger will take the combined party further to the right. He said the new party fits comfortably with the “fundamentalist conservative right-wing mindset” of the Bjelke-Petersen era. But perceptively, Bartlett also points out that that the merger is less about ideology than it is about marketing. “Like any major party, it will try to focus on a few key messages and themes that it hopes will appeal to a majority of the electorate,” he said, “a large part of which will seek to focus on tapping into and building upon dissatisfaction with their opponent.”

Of course to do so, they will need to overcome dissatisfaction with their own side. As Poll Bludger points out, the new party structure over-represented rural and regional areas “in time-honoured Queensland style”. The newly elected Liberal state president Mal Brough has declared he will not join the new party. Brough maintains he is still officially the president of the Queensland Liberals until the federal party ratifies the merger. After that, he says he is undecided. "There's absolutely a career in politics if I want it, because that has been made very clear to me [by] my colleagues down south,” he said. “But whether I intend to do that or not is another thing altogether, that's not a decision I've taken.”

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Spain gives human rights to great apes

Spain is likely to pass a law giving great apes human rights to life and freedom. Last month a parliamentary environmental committee urged the government to give rights to the closest genetic relatives to humans. With cross party support, it managed to commit the Spanish Government enact a law within 12 months to outlaw harmful experiments on apes. The committee modelled their plan on the declaration of the “Great Ape Project” which has the backing of scientists and philosophers.

The declaration affords rights equal to humans for all the other great apes: chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans. It promotes the right to life, the protection of individual freedom and the prohibition of torture. The Great Ape Project was founded 15 years based on a book of that name by the philosophers Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri.

In 1993, Singer and Cavalieri wrote about the rich emotional and cultural lives of non-human great apes. The book recommended the creation of an international body for the extension of the moral community to all great apes. The book compared the slave trade in human and non-human ape societies and expanded the boundaries for legal rights for the other apes based on the evolution of hominids.

Hominids emerged out of the Great Rift Valley. The valley was formed 15 million years ago in a tectonic parting of the ways that stretched 10,000 km from Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley through the Dead Sea, the Red Sea and down to the Great Lakes of Africa that fill its crevasses. Along the rift, are active and inactive volcanos, as well as lakes, deserts and plains. In places, the valley floor is lower than sea level. The crack is widening and will eventually rip Africa apart. But for the now the valleys teem with life.

The Rift is also a theatre of death. At Olduvai Gorge, in what is now Tanzania, archaeologists Louis and Mary Leakey found fossilised hominid skulls some 1.75 million tears old. Mary Leakey would go on to find footprints frozen in wet ash by hominid parents and their child fleeing an eruption that took place almost 4 million years ago. The long lifeline between Ethiopia and Tanzania was the home of human forebears for millions of years before they reached down to pick up a tool.

The valley is also home to many of the great apes including the chimpanzee. Seven million years ago, the common ancestor of chimps and humans lived in the forests of the valley. But no fossil record exists of this creature. Heavy rains leach minerals from the tropical forest grounds before anything can fossilise. But genetics show this creature exists. American physical anthropologist Richard Wrangham gave this ape a name: Pan prior.

The name meant ‘prior to Pan troglodytes’ the scientific name for chimps. Wrangham and others believe that climate change seven million years ago caused an ice age that dried up Africa. One branch of Pan priors moved on to the savannah in a desperate measure to survive. By the time the planet warmed again, these grassland dwellers preferred to stay in the open. While they had lost its ability to live in trees, they had picked up new skills on the savannah.

Those that stayed in the forest evolved into chimpanzees. They are exceptionally bright creatures and superb hunters. Their successful kill rate of 80 percent compares well to the 10 to 20 percent of lions. But like humans, they are also extremely brutal to each other. They will launch raids in other clan territories. There, they will ambush unwary lone males and maul him to death. Once they have carefully picked off all the males in this way, they will claim the females of the territory. Fights will then break out to determine the alpha male in the group.

Much of chimp behaviour is disturbingly similar to human behaviour. To give them the same rights as humans is reasonable, if a little perplexing in Spain which has no native great apes. But the ruling is also likely to be a shot across the bows of other animal related industries, including the bullfighting lobby. Certainly that’s how Pedro Pozas, the Spanish Great Apes Project director, sees it. He said that the vote would set a precedent, establishing legal rights for animals that could be extended to other species. “We are seeking to break the species barrier,” he said. “We are just the point of the spear.”

Friday, July 25, 2008

Seriously Syria: attempting entente cordiale with the US

Israel and Syria continue to warm up to each other this week if a “fourth round of indirect diplomatic talks” can be said to produce heat. Both parties will meet in Turkey next week to discuss items such as the Golan Heights, water rights along the Jordan River, avoid war with each other, and the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. No easy tasks, for sure. But Syrian sources quoted in the Washington Post say that agreement is tantalisingly close in three of those areas: borders, waters and security. The last element, normalisation, is the sticking point, as it means normalisation with the US. This will not occur until there is a new occupant in the White House.

Even with a wait of a few months, this is cause for optimism. US-Syrian relations have long been marred by disagreements. In the Cold War era, Syria was considered a Soviet satellite state though its Ba’athist administration kept an eccentrically independent stance. Syria has seen both sides of political violence. In 1986, Syria was the victim of one of the largest terrorist attacks of the 80s when an explosion in Damascus killed 144 people and injured another 149. Syria blamed the attack on Israeli agents, but could provide no proof.

Syria was an active agent of terror too. That same year Syrians were suspected to be involved in the Berlin La Belle Disco attack. Two US servicemen and a Turkish woman died in the incident, for which Libya was blamed and attacked in supposed retaliation. Shaul Bakhash, writing in the New York Review of Books, said there was “persuasive evidence” two Jordanian brothers carried out the attack as Syrian recruits. However the information was not shared with other US media as the truth did not conveniently fit with the demonisation of Gaddafy’s Libya.

The same scenario applied a year earlier when the air terminals in Rome and Vienna were attacked on the same day. The US carried out retaliatory attacks on Libya, killing 100 people. The New York Times editorialised it was justified to “save the next Natasha Simpson” (an 11 year old US victim of the air terminal bombs) but pointed fail to provide any evidence Libya was the culprit. Meanwhile Italian and Austrian authorities said the perpetrators were trained in a Syrian-controlled area of Lebanon and had arrived in Europe via Damascus. When the Italian Interior Minister reiterated his belief Syria was responsible, the New York Times duly reported it without feeling the need to justify their earlier comment about Libya.

But Syria and the US have been allies too. In 1976, Syria entered Lebanon in 1976 with US approval in an attempt to end the Lebanese civil war. Instead the civil war dragged on another 15 years and Syrian troops stayed on in violation of UN Security Council resolution 520. According to Noam Chomsky, Syria help implement such massacres as occurred in the Palestinian refugee camp of Tel Al-Zaater, where thousands died at the hands of Syrian-backed Christian forces armed with Israeli weapons.

Today, the relationship between US and Syria remains ambiguous. While the State Department officially categorises Syria as a sponsor of terror, the US was happy to receive Syrian help about Islamist radicals suspected of having connections with Al Qaeda. Syria has been a willing participant in the US extraordinary rendition program, most notoriously in the case of Canadian IT programmer Maher Arar.

However relations cooled significantly after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told an American audience that Syria had gained membership of the “axis of evil” club in an update of George W. Bush’s tiresome metaphor of 2002. The US also accused Syria of aiding and abetting Iraqi insurgents while its likely involvement in the assassination of Lebanon PM Rafik Hariri also raised US hackles. The Bush administration have since tried and failed to oust the Assad Government by all means short of invasion.

But an Obama or McCain White House will not have the same level of vindictiveness. Syria and Lebanon are finally coming to terms with each other, with successful peace talks brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifah. The reconciliation between Syria and former colonial power France is also significant in geopolitical terms. According to Professor Hilal Khashan, chair of the political science department at the American University of Beirut, Syria is indirectly approaching the US through its talks with France and Israel. "The Damascus regime will only conclude a peace deal with Israel that is overseen by America," he says.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Bashir defiant with Chinese support

Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir received a hero’s welcome in a carefully choreographed appearance in North Darfur yesterday. Bashir spoke in front of 10,000 people in El Fasher where he defied the International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant. Bashir told his audience it was an attempt to foil his government's efforts to restore peace in the region and said Sudan would not be cowed by the threat of sanctions either. His feisty words come a week after the ICC prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, sought an arrest warrant against Bashir on charges including genocide and war crimes in Darfur.

Moreno-Ocampo presented his evidence in The Hague on 14 July after a three year investigation. In 2005 the UN referred the Darfur war crimes to the Prosecutor of the ICC. Moreno-Ocampo’s conclusion is that there are “reasonable grounds” to believe that Bashir bears criminal responsibility in relation to 10 counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Bashir failed to defeat the armed movements in Darfur, so he went after the people. “His motives were largely political. His alibi was a ‘counterinsurgency'.” However, he continued, “his intent was genocide.”

Not everyone in the international community accepts this intent. China warned last week it was “deeply concerned” and hoped “the situation in Darfur would not be complicated by any attempted prosecution of Sudanese President”. Chinese spokesman Liu Jianchao proceeded to snow the issue by saying the international community held different views on Sudan and China was ready “to continue an exchange of views” as long as they were “within a certain framework”. Liu said China was only interested in safeguarding the peace and stability of Sudan and the Darfur region. But his glib patter made no mention of China’s real interest: Sudanese oil.

China has incorporated a strategic element into its energy deals with developing countries. In order to gain access to markets such as Sudan they provide sweeteners such as millions in economic and military aid, access to China’s growing market, and diplomatic support at the UN where China can wield its veto power in the Security Council. China has provided both cash and political cover to the Bashir regime in direct violation of international sanctions.

The Clinton administration imposed sanctions on Sudan as a “sponsor of terror” in 1997 which effectively banned investment by the West. China stepped in to fill the void to enable Sudan circumvent the US-applied economic pressure. China now imports seven percent of all its oil from Sudan. It is Sudan’s second largest export partner (after Japan) and is the largest import partner by a considerable margin (ahead of Saudi Arabia). Chinese companies own substantial parts of the $2 billion Sudanese oil industry including the Khartoum Oil Refinery and half of the 1,600km pipeline to Port Sudan.

China stood up for Sudan when it got into international trouble over its genocidal policies in Darfur. When in 2004 the US brought a resolution to the Security Council demanding oil sanctions if the Sudanese failed to rein in the militias, China threatened to use its veto. As a result, the US baulked and the UN agreed on a watered-down resolution which merely “considered further actions”. China’s ambassador to the UN, Wang Guangya, claimed oil interests were not a factor and argued stronger resolutions would eliminate the Sudanese government’s incentive to co-operate.

This is clearly a specious argument. China has paid for some of Sudan’s oil in weaponry and over 4000 non-uniformed Chinese military forces are reported to provide physical protection for Beijing’s investments. Two weeks ago, BBC’s Panorama program reported that the Chinese government is providing training and equipments that are used by Bashir’s forces in Darfur in contravention of an arms embargo. Earlier this year China defended its policies claiming it accounted for just 8 percent of Sudan's total arms imports and blamed the US, Russia and UK as "the biggest arms exporters to developing countries including Sudan.

Whereever the weapons come from, there is little doubt Sudan is eager to have them. Omar al-Bashir’s regime is in many ways a typical example of a state-controlling regime in Sudanese history. Sudan has many communities and tribes characterised by hierarchical traditional cultures, some of which have state power. The state is therefore a competition between different Arab groups for power. The situation in Darfur is even more complex. Removing Bashir would not remove the authoritarianism that lies at the heart of Sudanese society. The Bashir regime has survived since 1989 by appealing to Islamism and by maintaining the support of the armed forces. For Sudan to succeed it needs to move on beyond its policies of nationalist and ethnic exclusiveness and compose a national identity that makes non Arabs and non Muslims feel welcome. Without that transformation, the future for Sudan is bleak, regardless of whether Bashir is indicted or not.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Cvetkovic power play in Karadzic arrest

Serbian Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic has called on the remaining Balkan war crimes fugitives to surrender voluntarily after Tuesday’s arrest of Radovan Karadzic. He hailed Karadzic’s arrest as a major step for Serbia and urged others to voluntarily surrender. Cvetkovic claimed the arrest would open the way for reconciliation throughout the region, allow for better life in Serbia and the more efficient defence of its territorial integrity. Cvetkovic will be hoping for a major rapprochement with the EU as a reward for Karadzic’s high profile arrest.

And there is no doubting this is a major PR coup for the new PM installed in June this year. Radovan Karadzic declared himself president of the Republika Srpska (Bosnian Serb republic) when Bosnia-Herzegovina seceded from Yugoslavia in 1992. On 11 July 1995, the UN and NATO allowed Bosnian Serb forces to seize Srebrenica, despite it having been declared a United Nations “safe area.” Serb forces killed between 7,000 and 8,000 Bosnian men and boys in the week after the fall of the town. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) ruled the crimes in Srebrenica to be genocide and Karadzic was removed from power by the Dayton Accords which ended the conflict later that year.

Now, reconciliation is starting to happen in Srebrenica. In 2003 a memorial service was held where security was provided in part by Bosnian Serb police while the Bosnian Serb Prime Minister spoke of “respect for the dead” and called for reconciliation. That same year the Bosnian Serb government admitted on local television station in the capital, Banja Luka for the first time its culpability for the slaughter at Srebrenica. The report revealed that the code name for the Srebrenica operation was "Krivaja 95" named for a small town in central Bosnia. The report named five detention centres where men were held and said a large number of Bosnian Muslims were executed nearby.

But while the leadership makes noises towards normalisation, the war leaders continue to resist arrest. With Karadzic nailed, the focus turns to Ratko Mladic who is also wanted for his role in Srebrenica. Mladic lived in the Serb capital Belgrade, under the protection of former president Slobodan Milosevic until he (Milosevic) was arrested in 2001. By 2004 Mladic was believed to be living under the protection Bosnian Serb military forces but hasn’t been heard of since.

In 2005, Human Rights Watch (HRW) complained that NATO did not do enough to capture Karadzic and Mladic. HRW’s European director Holly Cartner said NATO peacekeepers in Bosnia made only three confirmed attempts to arrest Radovan Karadzic in ten years despite numerous sightings of him. “You can count on one hand the number of times NATO has made real attempts to arrest Karadzic and Mladic,” she said. “Karadzic’s continuing freedom a decade after Srebrenica is a profound moral failure for NATO and the international community,

Much of that “moral failure” has now been rectified. After spending years with impugnity in the extraordinary guise of a new age medical preacher, Karadzic was arrested two days ago in Belgrade. According to the BBC, he was finally uncovered by an unnamed foreign intelligence service and was kept under surveillance by local security forces for a couple of weeks before being arrest. A statement from Cvetkovic’s office said “Karadzic was located and arrested tonight [and] was brought to the investigative judge of the War Crimes Court in Belgrade, in accordance with the law on cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.” While it may take years for Karadzic to have his day in court, Bosnian Muslims could be forgiven for celebrating in Sarajevo. Cvetkovic may also be celebrating a major bargaining tool in the upcoming battles with Brussels.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

News and sport dominate Australian television production

New figures produced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) show news, light entertainment and sport dominate local television production. During financial year 2006-2007, $1.4 billion was spent on productions primarily for television. 30 percent of this was spent on news and current affairs, 22 percent on light entertainment and a further 20 percent on sport. Spending on drama, documentaries, comedy and children’s programs was well behind the big three.

However in terms of first release broadcast hours, sport led the way with 22,200 hours about two thousand hours more than news and current affairs. This breakdown not only illustrated the continuing (and mostly sedentary) Australian obsession with sport but also proves that news is a lot more expensive to produce than sport. The discrepancy may also explain the downsizing of television newsrooms as news production shifts to repackaging on other platforms and other networks and the use of video journalists who act as solo operators in the field.

The ABS study also showed that Australian commercial TV broadcasters generated $6.8 billion in income in 2006-07. This figure was split 65:35 between free-to-air and pay TV operators though they earned their income in different ways. The free-to-air operators earned 80 percent of their income by the sale of airtime to advertisers. However pay TV operators earned 86 percent of their income through subscription fees.

Between them, the two commercial TV sectors employ over 10,000 people in a 70:30 ratio between free-to-air and pay TV. A massive 42 percent of these employees live in NSW confirming Sydney’s role as the centre of television in Australia and the headquarters of all the major TV networks. Less than half that number lived in Victoria, while there was a slightly smaller number in Queensland with the remainder in WA, SA and Canberra (numbers were negligible in Tasmania and NT). This is reflected in the newsrooms of regional areas where there is often just the one journalist who must work on multiple stories as well as an increasing reliance on content sourced from capital cities.

Whether these numbers are sustainable in the longer term depends on the impact of the Internet. Free-to-air viewing figures have been in decline since the turn of the century as alternative forms of entertainment have become established. As well as pay TV, internet use has increased from an average 8.9 hours a week in 2005 to 13.7 in 2008 finally overtaking TV which has stagnated at 13.3 hours a week over the same three year period.

As audiences become increasing fragmented, the TV industry will need to innovate to survive. The ABC is in the early days of an experiment with Internet TV with its new product ABC playback. ABC launched the product in March claiming it would offer an “authentic, full-screen television experience” via the Internet. However the early adopter Stilgherrian is underwhelmed by its program selection, its hard link with broadcast schedules and the inability to save programs for later viewing. He is also critical of the fact that he has to go to a “special place” to view it rather than consume wherever he wants. “It seems more like the last gasp of old-style broadcast TV than a prelude to something new and wonderful,” he said.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Thailand Cambodia border stand-off

High level talks between Thai and Cambodian officials have failed to come to terms on the week-long military stand-off over the disputed Preah Vihear temple on their shared border. While both sides expressed the desire to ease tensions, neither have given ground in talks in the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet, 380 km from the 11th century temple at the centre of the dispute. So far there have been no casualties and both sides talked up the peace. Thai Supreme Commander Boonsrang Niumpradit saying Thailand had a “reasonable offer” while Cambodian commander Chea Mon said he didn’t want armed troops disturbing Buddhist monks praying at the temple.

Both countries are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). An ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Singapore originally scheduled to discuss the aftermath of Burma’s cyclone Nargiss was sidetracked by the border spat between Thailand and Cambodia. The two countries agreed to "exert utmost efforts" to find a peaceful solution to their border standoff. Singapore's Foreign Minister George Yeo says both sides were urged to resolve their differences amicably in the spirit of ASEAN solidarity and good neighbourliness. "Both sides affirmed that they would abide by their ASEAN and international obligations and exert their utmost efforts to find a peaceful solution to the issue," said Yeo in a statement.

However Yeo’s statement appeared optimistic given what was happening on the ground. More than 500 Thai troops face off against well over 1,000 Cambodian soldiers stationed around a small Buddhist pagoda leading to the ruins of the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple, where nearby land is claimed by both sides. Although traditional Thai land, it was ceded to French Indochina in a 1906 treaty with Thailand. While Japan promised the land back to Thailand during World War Two, Thailand agreed to return it to Cambodia after the war in order to secure UN membership. Cambodian ownership has since been confirmed by an International Court of Justice ruling.

However Matters came to a head when UNESCO listed Preah Vihear as a World Heritage site this month. UNESCO said the site was exceptional for three reasons: firstly its natural situation on a promontory, with sheer cliffs overlooking a vast plain and mountain range; secondly the quality of its architecture adapted to the natural environment and religious function of the temple; and thirdly, the exceptional quality of the carved stone ornamentation of the temple. It cited the fact that both the governments of Cambodia and Thailand were “in full agreement that the Sacred Site of the Temple of Preah Vihear has Outstanding Universal Value.”

However the decision triggered political uproar in Bangkok, where the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) accused the government of selling out Thailand's history by backing the listing. PAD have fastened on to the nationalist strains of this “sell out” to oust Thai PM Samak Sundaravej. The anti-Thaksin Shinawatra party have been conducting street demonstrations against the government since June. Their protests gained new impetus with the UNESCO decision and they claim Sudaravej had gained business concessions in Cambodia in payment for ceding Thai territory.

The Thais call Preah Vihear “Khao Phra Viharn”. The temple was the subject of a prolonged legal tussle between the Thai and Cambodian governments, both of which claimed ownership after centuries of rivalry, invasions and fluctuating borders. In 1961-62, the International Court of Justice got involved and declared that the site belonged to Cambodia. In 1963, Thai Prime Minister Sarit told his country in a televised address that Thailand would comply with the Court ruling and withdraw from Khao Phra Viharn. The site has been under Cambodian administration since then.

But for tourists the site is still easiest reached from Thailand. Telegraph journalist Alex Spillius visited the site in 1998 by Cambodian army helicopter but says he was lucky to survive the experience. For those not inclined to hitch a lift from the military, the journey to Preah Vihear from Cambodia involves a two-day journey from Siem Reap , the town that serves Angkor Wat, “on small roads that, although improved, would still not do your spine any favours.” From Thailand, a visit can be built in to a tour of the north-east, (known as “Isaan”) starting at Nakhon Ratchasima or Ubon Ratchathani airports, both short flights from Bangkok. It is a short walk across a border where passports were not required. However no tourists are welcome to Preah Vihear for the time being.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

British curry houses face major skills shortage

Last month, Indian restaurant owners in the UK warned they may have to close because Bangladeshi immigrants who do the cooking are banned from entering Britain under new rules requiring them to speak English. Business Secretary John Denham stepped in saying he wanted a thousand British curry chefs trained as soon as possible and has provided emergency funding to the catering industry emergency to set up courses in ethnic food.

Curry is a $6 billion industry in Britain. Of the countries 8,000 or so Indian restaurants, the great majority are run by Bangladeshis. A staggering 90 percent of these come from the seaman’s zone in the small district of Syhlet. Until 1947 Syhlet was a part of the Assam province in British India. After the partition, it was partitioned from Assam and included as a part of East Pakistan and now is a part of Bangladesh. During the Raj it was strategically important due to the series of waterways which linked the Assam tea plantations with the port of Calcutta. When the British introduced steamships, the Syhleti boatmen became employed as sailors in the engine rooms.

Many moved to Calcutta for work. There they joined the huge contingent of lascars who found employment on ocean-going steamships. Because the Syhletis could not speak English, they remained confined to the noisy engine rooms stoking the huge boilers with coal. Many died of heatstroke or the occasional explosion. With conditions so poor, they jumped ship whenever they could. Many ended up in London’s East End where they lived in a network of grotty boarding houses full of sly grog, gambling and opium smokers.

But by the outbreak of World War II, many landlords had cleaned up their act and a number of cafes emerged to cater for the tastes of the lascars. All along areas such as Sandy Row, Brick Lane, New Road and Commercial Road, boarding houses for Syhleti seamen were accompanied by nearby cafes which doubled as community centres. These seamen’s cafes would become the root of Britain’s Indian restaurant industry.

One of these seamen was Nawab Ali who jumped ship in Cardiff during the war. Like the majority of his fellow Syhletis, Ali got a job in catering; in his case cleaning, washing up and peeling potatoes in an Egyptian coffee shop. He moved on to Veeraswamy’s, Britain’s oldest Indian restaurant, which was visited by Gandhi and Nehru among others. At the time, Veeraswamy’s was one of just a handful of Indian restaurants in London. It served Anglo-Indian curries to rich Londoners and retired civil servants nostalgic for their colonial home.

After the war, there were plenty of bombed out cafés in need of restoration. Syhleti seamen used their savings to buy them as well as many decrepit fish-and-chip shops. Fish and chips was originally seen as slum food, but by the 1950s was gradually taken up by working class families as a change to the monotony of meat-and-three-veg. Nawab Ali was one of the many Syhletis who spruced up an old fish and chip shop and in addition sold tea, coffee, rice and curry to his predominantly white customers. The Syhleti owners also kept up the old custom of keeping their shops open after 11pm to catch the trade as the pubs were closing.

Gradually the white customers became more adventurous and began trying out the curry side of the menu. In particular the after pub crowd found that a spicy vindaloo went down exceedingly well on stomach full of beer. Thus began the tradition of a curry after a night in the pub. As the customers became more fond of the curries, the cafes simply dropped the fish and chips from the menu and became out-and-out Indian restaurants and take-aways.

New ventures in the 1950s began to choose Indian names for the restaurants and an entirely Indian menu. The close bond between the Syhletis in the community centres meant they began to dominate the trade. While they became Pakistanis in 1947 and then Bangladeshis in 1971, London-based Syhletis were mostly happy to be described as “Indians” in order to conjure up romantic images of the Raj in their clientele. The décor also projected this idea with pictures of elephants and maharajas. Most copied the menu of Veeraswamy’s and other early Indian restaurants who served the Mughlai and Punjabi vindaloo, biryani and rogan josh curries favoured by Anglo-Indians.

When Bangladeshis were allowed to apply for British passports in 1956, established immigrants brought their families over. A growing Asian immigrant community stimulated the growth of a little India around Drummond St near London’s Euston Station. Asian grocers supplied Bangladeshi spices to the restaurant trade. This was accompanied by a revolution in British eating habits in the 1960s. Syhletis responded by opening new restaurants and expanding their cuisine. By 1970, there were two thousand Indian restaurants which were part of the landscape of every British town and curry was part of the national diet.

More than any other ethnic food, curry is now a quintessential part of British culture. Britons spend $4 billion a year eating out in curry houses. Supermarkets no longer put curry paste in the ethnic foods category but define them as “mainstream British flavours”. However Lizzy Collingham, in her delightful book, “Curry – A Biography” says that despite eating large amounts of curry, the British are not always welcoming to the Asians who make it for them. She says the prevalence of curry in the British diet is not a sign of a new multicultural sensitivity, but rather is symptomatic of British insularity.

Their tastes may be cosmopolitan but their food habits remain thoroughly British. These matters clash with the mandatory English language immigration rule introduced in 2006. As the Financial Times points out, “it will count for naught that a would-be immigrant can mix a mean masala. He will need fluent English and a high-level cooking certificate too.”

Saturday, July 19, 2008

India blames Pakistan’s ISI for Kabul embassy blast

Last week National Security Advisor MK Narayanan said the Indian government has good evidence linking Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI to the 7 July embassy bomb in Kabul that killed 56 people. Narayanan refused to elaborate on the nature of the evidence but said “the ISI needs to be destroyed”. Pakistan Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani earlier denied his country's intelligence service had any involvement in the bombing. 'Why should Pakistan destabilize Afghanistan?” he said. “It is in our interest to have a stable Afghanistan.”

But whether or not the ISI was directly involved in the Kabul bombing, there is little doubt they have played an active role in Afghan affairs. ISI stands for the directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence. Very little happens in Pakistan or its proxy state Afghanistan without the knowledge of this powerful but shadowy group. The ISI has been crucial in maintaining order and sustaining military rule in an otherwise semi-anarchic state.

Critics now say the ISI is out of control answering to neither the president nor the Prime Minister. Mariane Pearl, writing about the murder of her husband Danny, described the ISI as a “kingdom within a state”. Many in the organisation are ideologically sympathetic to jihadi organisations. The Pearls were both journalists working in Karachi in 2002 when one Jihadi group kidnapped Danny and executed him. Mariane’s account of the incident reached a wider audience with Michael Winterbottom's film version of A Mighty Heart (starring Angelina Jolie). The Pearls had gotten an inkling of official Pakistani views when they interviewed Hamid Gul who accused the “Jews and Mossad” of carrying out the 9/11 attacks.

Hamid Gul was no ordinary conspiracy theorist. He was the director of the ISI from 1987 to 1989 and was considered the architect of the Afghan jihad. Gul masterminded the mujahideen war against the Soviets, financed by the CIA. In the nineties Gul was called “the Godfather of the Taliban”. Gul fell out of power but remains an important background voice. After the US invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, he told Robert Fisk he was not a Muslim extremist "but I support the implementation of Shari'a and we must be governed by the rules of Allah."

After the Afghan mujahideen war, Pakistan terrorists turned their attention to the “liberation” of Kashmir. By 1995, the ISI engaged the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeM) to raise a Taliban-type force of young Pakistani students to fight Indian forces in Kashmir. But now the Jihadi monster it created has gotten out of control. In 2003, JeM suicide bombers attempted to assassinate President Musharraf. A year earlier Pearl was killed by Sheikh Omar Saeed, a double agent of the ISI and JeM.

The ISI did not like journalists getting too close to their operations. As well as Pearl, they persecuted two Pakistani journalists who dared write about their activities. Ghulam Hasnain, whose work was syndicated to Time and CNN, was investigating Indian fugitive and smuggler Dawood Ebrahim when was arrested by the ISI a day before Pearl disappeared. He was so traumatised when released 36 hours later, he has refused to speak of it to anyone since. They also physically threatened Shaheen Sehbai, the editor of Islamabad’s The News, in a vain attempt to stop him from linking Pearl’s assassin, Sheik Omar Saeed, with the ISI.

Other leading Pakistani journalists such as Kamran Khan have struck a Faustian pact with the ISI in order to continually report freely. In order to maintain a relationship with them he writes as much to please them as about them. Khan freely admits the ISI have funded madrassas which have harboured Al Qaeda operatives. But he said that some of the Islamists are actually double-agents. He explained how it works to PBS Frontline: “the bottom line here is that, ‘Look. Whatever you are doing, whatever you do, we understand. But mind you, we cannot afford to harbour Arabs here. We cannot afford to harbour non-Pakistanis here. So please, please cooperate with us on that count.’ There is a very deep connection between the religious madrassas, and the key religious scholars, and the establishment.”

Given their power, Mariane Pearl could never understand why the ISI took an active interest in her husband’s disappearance. While the investigating police told Pearl that the ISI had been to her house on the day after the kidnap, she was unaware of their presence except the two occasions they sent a sullen, unhelpful and unsympathetic man who gave his name and rank, in possible homage to Catch-22, as “Major Major”. But if Major played dumb, others in the ISI definitely knew more about the killing than they were letting on.

When the Pakistani police finally tracked down Omar, they found he had already turned himself in to the custody of the home secretary of the Punjab state. Brigadier Ejaz Shah gave Omar sanctuary and kept his detention secret a week. Shah was a powerful figure behind the scenes. In the 1990s, he worked for the ISI and was the official “handler” for Bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Musharraf appointed him to the Punjab role on taking power in 1999. It is likely the ISI interrogated Omar during that week.

The Pakistanis weren’t the only people interested in Omar. In 2001, the FBI were tracing a link between Omar and 9/11 leader Mohammad Atta. Omar wired $100,000 to Atta in the month before the US attacks and the FBI wanted to know who authorised him to make the money transfer. It seemed the order had come from Omar’s boss: ISI head Lieutenant General Mahmood Ahmed. But while this might have shocked the FBI, it would have been no surprise to another well-known American agency. Wajid Shamsul Hasan, Former Pakistan High Commissioner to UK, told the South Asia Tribune in 2004 it has long been established, “the ISI has acted as go-between in intelligence operations on behalf of the CIA”. Yet this unpalatable truth remains hidden in a patchwork of Byzantine alliances. And as the Indian embassy bombing showed, it remains out of control.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Robert Forster in conversation with Andrew Stafford

I went along tonight to a free event at Queensland State Library where I saw Robert Forster in conversation with Andrew Stafford. The pair were talking about the legacy of Grant McLennan. McLennan died in 2006 and he and Forster were the creative heart of one of Brisbane’s finest gift to music: The Go-Betweens. Interviewer Stafford’s book “Pig City: from the Saints to Savage Garden” is a musically history of Brisbane, the city Forster and McLennan called home either side of a long stint in exile.

Stafford began by asking was their early move to London done for creative reasons. Forster said it was because they could finally see the bands they were reading about in the 1970s. They saw the Cure at the Marquee, Scritti Politti, The Fall, Gang of Four, Bauhaus and Simple Minds. They saw the Pretenders the week “Brass in Pocket” reached number one. Forster called it a crash course in musical education. “Interesting bands would only come to Brisbane every four months or so, but in London we were seeing bands three or four times a week,” he said. “It would have taken us five years to do in Brisbane”.

Stafford said it was almost a cliché now that bands no longer had to leave Brisbane to be successful. Forster disagreed and said not enough young Australian bands head overseas. “I could think of several bands who could do with six months in Berlin, Thailand or South America” he said, with more than a passing nod to Nick Cave’s Sao Paolo period.

Stafford then asked about Forster’s return to Brisbane in 1992 after eleven years away and whether he thought of it as a transitional phase of the city. Forster said he arrived back with no set of preconceptions. He met up with the members of local band Custard and its alter ego COW (Country or Western). Both bands were the brainchild of James McCormack. Forster said their music was like the Go-Betweens’ late 70s material and meeting McCormack was like “running into a younger version of myself”. But, he said, they made music together on Forster’s Calling From A Country Phone album in 1994 despite the fact “I was 34 and they were all 22 or 24”.

Stafford then asked Forster about the newest album The Evangelist, his first solo recording in 12 years and which was recorded in London. Forster said he wanted it to sound different. He wanted “big, clean sounds” with “piano, voices, acoustic guitar, no drums”. Forster said it was a return to the familiar London environment he worked in during the 80s. “London has always been good to me,” he said. “I had good recording times there”.

The album includes three songs written by McLennan. Forster said he first heard the songs in February 2006; three months before McLennan died. After they played the songs they were talking about Audrey Riley, a British cellist the pair met in London in the 1980s. Her career took off after she did the strings for their fourth album “Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express”. Forster invited her to do the strings on the new album on McLennan’s song “Demon Days”.

Stafford asked how difficult was the album to record in the studio where he did so much work with his former partner. Forster admitted he was worried by that, “but there were no scary moments, I mean pianos never suddenly started playing!” But it was difficult to get over the death of his professional partner of 30 years. “Part of it felt “like madness, but I’m glad we did it,” he said. “I thought it was going to get all ‘stoopy’, but it didn’t. Process takes over”. That musical process helped Forster get over his loss and record the album, entitled “The Evangelist”.

Stafford asked him to name his five favourite McLennan songs. Forster named seven: The Wrong Road, Cattle and Cane, Bye Bye Pride, Magic in Here, Finding You, Quiet Heart and The Clock. This creativity befits a man whose death was mourned in NSW’s parliament. Forster said McLennan had the gift of finding a new melody for basic chords. He remembers going around to McLennan’s house in New Farm where he played Forster the new tune he wrote “Finding You”. It had “great verse, great chorus, and an incredible middle eight,” said Forster, “ I thought: fuck! He nailed it!”

Stafford asked why three of McLennan’s last six songs did not make it to the new album. Forster said he “didn’t get” those songs. “Grant is a different singer to me”, he said. To do his songs justice Forster had to sing in McLennan’s key but these three songs didn’t work. He said he might give two of them away to other performers. One is quite rocky,” he said. “Don’t tell anyone, but I might give that one to Powderfinger!”

Forster said the album had to be true to his partner but there was always a contrast between them. He admitted McLennan could be “tetchy” and hard to work with at times. Telephone conversations would be terse and he could be cruel and cold. “At times you had to reintroduce yourself to him, talk about bands or movies you’d seen, the cricket, anything to get him going again,” he said. McLennan was moody, but “there was truth in that moodiness”.

Forster has brought back bassist Adele Pickvance and drummer Glenn Thompson from the Go Between’s final line-up for the new album. He said both were great friends and he couldn’t imagine making music without them. Adele lives in the Brisbane suburb of Paddington and Forster said she is his first port of call with the songs for the new album. “We’ll meet at ten, have a coffee, talk silly Brisbane rock gossip and then play music,” he said. “Adele played bass and mandolin as I played these new songs”. Forster described the songwriting process as “real music therapy” after Grant died. He will be showcasing songs from the new album (as well as singing McLennan’s own “Finding You”) on his national tour next month. Forster plays the Powerhouse in his home town Friday 15 August.

Forster / McLennan "Bye Bye Pride"

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Not so Green Paper : Labor avoids the tough decisions again

The Australian federal government released its eagerly awaited green paper today on its response to climate change. A green paper is government speak for a “discussion paper” and does not represent a commitment to act. However, it is a significant response to the challenge issued by the Garnaut Report. The green paper says the Government still intends to introduce Garnaut’s model of an emissions trading scheme by 2010 but has renamed it a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. Climate Change minister Penny Wong says the scheme represents a significant economic reform which responds to threats across the Australian economy. "Placing a limit and a price on pollution will change the things we produce, the way we produce them and the things we buy," she said.

The Green Paper’s foreword (pdf) reiterated the line that carbon pollution is causing climate change, resulting in higher temperatures, more droughts, rising sea levels and more extreme weather. It says the impact will be great on Australian food production, agriculture, water and tourism if no immediate action is taken. The paper says the Government is taking action on three fronts: reducing greenhouse emissions, adapting to climate change, and helping shape a global solution.

The central plank of the strategy is the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. It is a cap and trade scheme which will place an upper limit on carbon pollution each industry can emit. The biggest polluting businesses and industries will buy a permit for each tonne of emitted carbon. This involves one thousand companies (representing just one percent of Australian business) who produce 25,000 tonnes of carbon each year. The money raised by the scheme will go towards investments in clean energy and what it calls “adjustment” costs.

These adjustment costs are attracting the most flak from Green groups. The key element of the adjustment cost is the decision to cut fuel taxes for three years on a cent for cent basis to offset the initial price impact. The Government has also promised assistance measures for low and middle income households and free permits to the most emission-intensive industries including coal-fired electricity generators. Greens Senator Christine Milne says the adjustments neutralise the carbon price signals and has protected the investment of polluters in the coal, aluminium and logging industries. She also criticised the mixed message on petrol. “The Government has its foot on the brake and the accelerator at the same time,” she said.

Meanwhile the Government says that climate change requires a global solution. It points to its early ratification of the Kyoto Protocol and its serious negotiations for the next stage. It says that emission schemes are already in place in 27 European countries while 28 states and provinces in the US and Canada are also introducing trading as is New Zealand. The Government says it will take account of the evolving international negotiations in determining the path set to meet the target of reducing Australia’s carbon pollution by 60 per cent below 2000 levels by 2050.

Many critics have stated that the Government have caved in to Opposition pressure with its proposal. Canberra Times’s economic correspondent Peter Martin says the real author of the report is Brendan Nelson. Gary Sauer-Thompson agrees and says “the ALP has embraced the Liberals policy whilst belting them over the head for being wimps.” Chris Hammer in The Age said the Government has “defied” Ross Garnaut (though whether the act of ignoring the evidence of an independent auditor can be described as defiance is a moot point). Onymous Lefty Jeremy Sear described the plan as a “pissweak ALP copout” and said the petrol excise reduction is futile as oil prices will continue to rise.

Bernard Keane in Crikey calls the green paper “a handout bonanza for our biggest polluters”. He says the Government will give away more in assistance and free permits than it gets for the paid permits. Keane believes the scheme is a political reaction designed to “minimise the whingeing from our biggest polluters – motorists and electricity generators.” In its efforts to minimise opposition to the scheme, the Government have come up with an anodyne response that is likely to fail in its primary duty to reduce carbon emissions.

Sadly, this prevarication seems to be the norm from the overly poll-conscious new Labor administration. Two weeks ago, Barrie Cassidy interviewed Kevin Rudd for ABC's Insiders program and he asked him to nominate the "toughest decision" the Government has made since coming into office. Rudd gave a waffly answer before alluding to the theme of climate change saying: "The easiest thing to do is stick your head in the sand and say not my problem, but I frankly don't think most Australians can do that and look in the faces of their children and their grandchildren. They think that it is their problem and they expect Government to take responsible, calm, measured approaches to dealing with it and that's what we're seeking to do." The Green Paper is certainly calm and measured, but is it responsible? The jury will be out for a very long time.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Plutoid on the Makemake

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has named its first plutoid. The Kuiper belt object formerly known as 2005 FY9 has been rechristened “Makemake” and classified as both a dwarf planet and plutoid. Makemake is fifty times further away from the Sun than we are and its orbital period is 310 Earth years. It has an apparent magnitude of about 16.7, which makes it bright enough to be visible using high-end amateur telescopes. The plutoid is named for a Polynesian God and is pronounced “mahki-mahki”.

The IAU announced the new category of plutoid last month at a meeting of its executive committee in Oslo. The category covers what it calls “transneptunian dwarf planets similar to Pluto”. Plutoids orbit the Sun at a distance generally greater than that of Neptune and have a minimum defined magnitude of brightness. Makemake now joins the two other two known and named plutoids Eris and Pluto itself. The IAU fully expects that more plutoids will be named as science progresses and new discoveries are made.

The plutoid Makemake was discovered in Easter 2005 by astronomers at California’s Palomar Observatory. According to Mike Brown, who led the Caltech team that found the object, they nicknamed it “Easterbunny”. The IAU preferred to give it the interim name of 2005 FY9 but after six months of lobbying they accepted a proposal from Brown's team to rename it to Makemake. Brown says the planet is two thirds the size of Pluto and is the brightest object in the Kuiper Belt after Pluto itself. He says the surface is “covered with large amounts of almost pure methane ice, which is scientifically fascinating, but really not easily relatable to terrestrial mythology.”

Brown is also the discoverer of Eris which ultimately led to Pluto’s demotion from the major planets. The existence of Eris drastically heated up the debate over how to define a planet with over a dozen other candidates vying for acceptance. In 2006, it seemed as if the IAU was going down the path of greatly expanding the list of solar system planets but instead decided there were would only be eight. Pluto and Eris (then called 2003 UB313) joined a new category called dwarf planets which also included Ceres which lies in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. However because of its location, Ceres can not be considered a plutoid.

In keeping with the original “Easterbunny” nickname for the newest plutoid, Makemake is named for the supreme god of Rapa Nui (Chile's Easter Island). Makemake was the creator of the first humans and the patron of the Tangata bird cult. He was worshipped in the form of sea birds, which were his incarnation. His material symbol, a man with a bird's head, can be found carved in petroglyphs on the island. With his divine power he makes the plants and animals grow. Some believe that the huge statues on the island are connected to his cult. Easter Island was first visited by Europeans on Easter Sunday 1722, exactly 283 years before the plutoid was discovered.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Outbreak of deadly Marburg virus in Uganda

(cc photo by Shek Graham) The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned people against visiting the bat caves in western Uganda after a tourist suspected to have contracted the Marburg virus died on Friday. The Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA) has temporarily stopped visits to the caves in Maramagambo forest while they investigate the link to the deadly virus, which is related to Ebola. Experts are now in the area to confirm that Maramagambo is the source of the Marburg disease which killed the Dutch woman last week.

The unidentified 40 year old women died in Leiden University Medical Centre on Friday. Because the disease is highly infectious, doctors are now monitoring the health on a daily basis of people who were in close contact with the victim. No-one else has shown any symptoms. The women visited two caves during a three-week trip to Uganda and suffered fever and chills four days after her return home. She was admitted to Leiden hospital on 2 July.

The Dutch Government notified WHO after a lab test confirmed a tourist had contracted the virus. The Hamburg based Bernhard Nocht Institute isolated the virus in the women who was in Uganda between 5-28 June and entered caves on two occasions. On her second visit, she went to the popular Maramagambo Forest between Queen Elisabeth Park and Kabale. There she had contact with a fruit bat species known to carry filoviruses. Filoviruses cause two types of viral haemorrhagic fever: Marburg and Ebola.

WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl played down the outbreak saying it was an isolated case of “imported Marburg." He advised people should not think about amending their travel plans to Uganda but should not go into caves with bats. His advice was reiterated by the Ugandan Health Ministry. They advised people who have to enter caves in Uganda that they should exercise "maximum precaution not to get into close contact with the bats and non-human primates in the nearby forests".

Marburg is an acute, infectious, hemorrhagic viral fever which affects both human and nonhuman primates. Marburg is a contagious disease that causes sudden bleeding and high fever. Other early symptoms include severe diarrhoea, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, severe chest pain, and sometimes sore throat and coughing. The incubation period is 3 to 9 days. Contact with bodily fluids of infected people is the main risk factor for infection. There is no treatment or vaccine. The natural source of the virus remains unknown.

Although endemic to Central and East Africa, the virus is named after the German town in which some of the first cases were described when local workers were exposed to green monkeys imported from Uganda. It is spread through contact with blood, semen or other bodily fluids. The Marburg virus is identical to Ebola in most respects, differing only in that it stimulates the production of different antibodies. Death rates are currently 80 to 90 percent of sufferers. At least 220 people died in the largest ever Marburg epidemic in Angola in 2004 and 2005, which followed an outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo which cost 128 lives between 1998 and 2000.

While no cure is yet available, North American scientists have successfully demonstrated an experimental Marburg vaccine in monkeys. Researchers from Maryland's Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and Winnipeg's National Microbiology Laboratory injected eight monkeys with an extremely high dose of the virus. After half an hour, five of the eight were given the vaccine. The vaccinated animals all survived for at least 80 days, but the others died within 12 days. The vaccine is not yet ready for human testing but researchers are hopeful it may eventually be possible to immunise researchers infected in laboratory accidents. "Quite honestly, we were astonished," said Dr Thomas Geisbert, a senior US army virologist involved in the test. "We never thought it would work that well for something acute like Marburg, where the infection happens so fast that you don't have time to intervene."

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Premier Dilemma: Whither Morris Iemma?

A week out from his 47th birthday, NSW Premier Morris Iemma announced his intention to fight on as leader saying he is listening to the criticism which is “sending him a clear message to work harder”. Many in politics and the media have interpreted these criticisms (both in poor opinion polls and from factions within the ruling party) as a sign that Iemma cannot “take a trick” and should quit. The calls come in the wake of criticism after a string of recent scandals. These included his disgraceful “annoyance laws” for World Youth Day (laws the Catholic Church says it didn’t ask for), his senior Minister John Della Bosca’s resignation for his role in the Iguanagate farce, a Labor MP’s involvement in a Wollongong bribery scandal and the revolt by trade unions over Iemma’s plans for privatisation of the electricity retail sector.

But writing in the Australian yesterday (unfortunately article not online), Imre Salusinszky poured cold water on the arguments that Iemma is on his way out. He said his party enemies lacked the numbers to replace him and the Sydney media outlets which have predicted his demise have been writing the same exclusives since December last year. Salusinszky may not be totally neutral observer, he wrote a feature article on Iemma for the Weekend Australian in early 2007. Crikey have commented on the strangeness of a “fevered anti-communist and hard right ideologue from Quadrant” supporting Iemma, himself the son of a Communist.

Iemma’s father Giuseppe was a member of the Communist Party in the tough southern province of Reggio Calabria, in the boot heel of Italy. The Iemmas owned a patch of land outside Martone in the hills of Calabria. But poverty forced Giuseppe and his wife Maria to emigrate to Sydney in 1960. They faced this new and strange environment among friends; they shared a house with five other newly arrived Italian families on an estate in Glebe. Morris Iemma was born a year later. The Iemma family moved to Sydney’s Beverly Hills (which thirty years earlier changed its name from the dumpy Dumbleton to match the California suburb where movie stars lived).

The life of the Iemma family was typical for what Anglo Australians called “wogs” in the 1960s and 70s. Both Giuseppe and Maria worked long hours going from job to job in metal foundries, blanket factories and clothing sweatshops. Morris Iemma remembers how his mother’s fingers were bent from years of working in sweatshops. I poked my head inside some of those clothing factories, one in Sussex Street - they were terrible places,” he remembered. “My mother's neck and hands, knees. Her fingers are all bent, ganglions.”

Giuseppe’s political passion seeped into his son and Morris was active in Young Labor by the time he turned 16. Iemma studied economics and majored in industrial relations and politics at the University of Sydney. He took the traditional Labor route to power first with a bank union, then worked for federal ALP senator and factional powerbroker Graham Richardson for five years. Under his tutelage young Morris learned all about the backroom deal and how to use political opportunism.

In the 1991 election Iemma ran for the marginal seat of Hurstville against a Liberal sitting member. Then a shy 29 year old, he ran a on a campaign of “a local who listens”. He asked Labor leader Bob Carr to come out and make only one promise: to reopen the estate's Housing Commission office, closed by Liberal Premier. Iemma won the seat but Nick Greiner retained government. He retained the seat as Labor swept to power in 1995. When Hurstville was abolished in 1999, Bob Carr rewarded Iemma with the nearby safe seat of Lakemba. That same year Iemma was promoted to the outer ministry. His rose through Public Works and then the Sport portfolio. However he was catapulted out of obscurity in 2003 and when Carr appointed him Health Secretary.

When Carr unexpectedly resigned in 2005, the mantle was expected to fall on planning Minister Craig Knowles. There was also deputy leader and treasurer Andrew Refshauge, however he, like Carr, had decided his time was up. When Knowles was convicted of a drink-driving offence Iemma was suddenly the favourite. After Carr anointed him, unpopular Police Minister Carl Scully resigned from the race. Iemma, the last man standing, was unanimously appointed Premier. With two years before he would face the people, Iemma took over as Labor were on the nose, politically. Iemma tried to distance himself from the Carr legacy and was assisted by an incompetent Liberal opposition who put forward a succession of weak leaders. The apparently electable John Brogden nosedived after making a racist remark about Bob Carr’s Malaysian wife and attempted suicide.

Labor almost committed political suicide of its own as Iemma survived the series of scandals before the election. Ports Minister Joe Tripodi was accused of profiting from public land and not disclosing his shareholdings. Carl Scully was sacked as Police Minister after misleading the parliament over the Cronulla Riots. Then there was the Milton Orkopoulos fallout. Iemma sacked the former Aboriginal affairs Minister after he was accused of 30 child sex and drug charges. There were claims senior party officials knew about Orkopoulos but said nothing. Meanwhile, safe Labor seat MP Steven Chaytor was forced to resign after being convicted of assaulting his girlfriend. Parliamentary secretary Tony Stewart resigned after a drink-driving offence and a Minister Kerry Hickey admitted to speeding offences.

Yet the Coalition was unable to turn these fiascos into political capital for itself. New leader Peter Debnam was from the hard right of the party and too focussed on ‘laura norder’ to the detriment of all other issues. When he allowed himself to be photographed in Speedos, he was ridiculed by the media while the people winced at his dick-togs. The same people did give him a three percent swing against the Government, but he needed eight. Iemma had won and was at the peak of his career; finally, he was an elected Premier. In his victory speech he cautioned for humility and gratitude. “Tonight we have been given another chance,” he said. “ The mandate is to get back to work, keep your promises and get services we rely on moving in the right direction”.

But March 2007 was Iemma’s high-water mark. It was all downhill from the election. The biggest issue he faced was a stark divide between his “green” and “brown” ministers. The Green wing (led by Phil Koperberg) was worried about the health of the planet but the brown wing (Michael Costa, Tony Kelly and Ian MacDonald) was more worried the health of the Government which depended on the state’s rich lode of brown coal. Costa went on record accusing the federal Government of Chicken Little politics on global warming, Costa was also behind Iemma’s decision to privatise the retail end of electricity industry attracted by the multi-billion dollar revenues earned by Victoria and Queensland’s privatisation programs. But those plans have now attracted the ire of the union movement who concerned by redundancies have threatened to derail the program,

In other words, very little has changed in the last few years. Iemma’s government has lurched from crisis to crisis. But there is change on the Opposition side. Barry O’Farrell is the best Liberal party leader of the last ten years, though that is not really saying much. ABC pollster Antony Green noted after the last election that the Coalition was better placed to win in 2011 than the overall result indicated. The lesson from 2007 was that no matter how unhappy the electorate was with an incumbent government, voters are reluctant to change unless they are reasonably confident it is for the better. The Liberals are still a fractious mob stacked by the hard right, but recent opinion polls suggest O’Farrell has finally given them a sniff of electability. Labor cannot rely on another Morris minor miracle.