Friday, July 31, 2009

Tony Fitzgerald's challenge to Queensland

On Tuesday, Tony Fitzgerald returned to Queensland for the 20th anniversary of his landmark Inquiry to make a powerful statement about the nature of patronage and power. Fitzgerald’s extraordinary 1987-1989 “Commission of Inquiry into Possible Illegal Activities and Associated Police Misconduct” set new legal standards for commissions of inquiry. By giving indemnities in return for evidence, it not only exposed a corrupt police force, but also toppled the entrenched 32 year reign of the National Party Government. This week Fitzgerald was back in Brisbane to point the finger at Labor’s two decade domination of Queensland.

Yesterday the Courier-Mail repeated his speech in full as part of their long-running campaign against the state government. “Dirty Dozen” ran their page one headline (article not online) saying Fitzgerald's speech “savages Labor’s 12 years in power”. But Brisbane’s only daily newspaper somewhat missed the point he was making. Fitzgerald was not gunning for the government; he was issuing a warning to the people. It was based on the political history of the last 20 years in Queensland.

That was obvious from Fitzgerald’s first sentences. He began by praising Labor’s reform agenda in the early 1990s. The political program outlined by the Inquiry was pushed through by Premier Wayne Goss and his active Attorney-General Matt Foley. It was enthusiastically administrated in the revamped public sector by Glyn Davis and Peter Coaldrake (and by their fellow horsemen Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan). As Peter Beattie would later say, the Fitzgerald Inquiry was Queensland's Berlin Wall. "It washed away an old regime and heralded in a new era."

But the new era didn't happen as fast as many would like. Fitzgerald did not mention the timidity of the first term in 1989-1992 when Goss was forced to move to the right to shore up the vote. And although he grew more confident in the second term, the voters misread it as hubris. Like everywhere else in Australia, Queensland swung to the right in the mid 1990s. Under newly installed state secretary Mike Kaiser, Labor hung on in the 1995 election by one seat. But in early 1996 the Court of Disputed Returns ordered the Mundingburra by-election in Townsville in February 1996. Labor lost that seat and with it their majority. To the surprise of most, Goss immediately resigned. He hoped he had "left Queensland a better place.”

But as Fitzgerald said, the new National government was uncomfortably similar in voters’ minds to the corrupt one who lost in 1989. After it was revealed that Rob Borbidge’s government had struck a deal with police to repeal many of the Goss reforms, they were turfed out at the first time of asking. Goss’s replacement, Peter Beattie, cobbled a majority with the support of independents. He also decided to move to the right to gain more certainty as premier. Beattie shut down the examination of the past and made peace with Joh Bjelke-Petersen. As Fitzgerald said, Queenslanders were encouraged to forget the repressions and corruption that had occurred and the social upheaval that had been involved in eradicating those injustices.

Labor’s return to power also marked the end of Fitzgerald’s influence in Queensland. In 1998 he “accepted” the time had come to resign and he moved to Sydney. Beattie claimed today that the real reasons Fitzgerald quit was because he missed out on chief justice and because he was annoyed with the friendship Beattie had forged with Joh.

But eventually Queenslanders forgot about Fitzgerald and reform. Beattie’s cause was helped by the resources boom. China was eager to import as much coal as Queensland could provide. Aided by ample funds in the exchequer and a tyro leading the opposition, Beattie won a landslide victory in 2001 and repeated it in 2004 and 2007. The sins of the past were forgotten in the largeness (and largesse) of victory. Fitzgerald says younger Queenslanders “know little of that era and are largely ignorant of the possibility that history might be repeated.”

And while Peter Beattie’s own personal probity was never an issue, he was let down by faction-appointed ministers. Also many of his advisors migrated out into business where their connections with the centre of power were highly valued.

Fitzgerald described the consequences: "Access can now be purchased, patronage is dispensed, mates and supporters are appointed and retired politicians exploit their political connections to obtain 'success fees' for deals between business and government," he said.

None of the scandals of the era touched the Teflon Premier. But after nine years in the job, Beattie suddenly had enough and quit in 2007. His wife Heather called him a “tired, exhausted man with bags under his eyes”. In an orderly succession, he handed over power to his deputy Anna Bligh.

Bligh hung on in this year’s election but recent events such as the Gordon Nuttall prosecution and the CMC (Crime and Misconduct Commission) report into renewed police misconduct have weakened her position. Bligh acknowledged this state of affairs in her own speech leading up to the Fitzgerald Inquiry anniversary. She said Fitzgerald’s Inquiry was the reason she entered politics. She hailed the $43m CMC and its broad mission to oversee and investigate allegations of public sector misconduct and major organised crime. There are also new FOI laws, a Lobbyists Register, new political donation laws, and laws banning ministers from holding shares or company directorships.

Bligh says the fact that the problems have been found shows that the system works. “The drive for reform is never over,” she said. And as Mark Bahnisch says, openness and transparency are not just the responsibility of the government. He reminds us the media also have a role. But Queensland media are not healthy. The Courier-Mail and ABC local radio have gone tabloid, the state 7.30 report has gone weekly and “there’s no new Quentin Dempster to put the pollies and coppers under the microscope.”

But Fitzgerald is saying we cannot afford to wait for new Quentin Dempsters to arrive and put probity under the microscope. “[E]ven if we cannot rely on politicians to voluntarily curb their excesses or tell the truth,” he wrote, “a well-informed community that is committed to doing so can influence the way it is governed."

Over to us.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Robert McNamara: strange mists

In every decade of his long public life Robert Strange MacNamara was at the centre of whatever the world’s most intractable problems were at the time. In the forties, he dealt forensically with fascism. In the fifties he used market research to put some sense into the newly booming car culture. In the sixties he was on the front line of the Cold War and in the seventies he ran global finance at the World Bank. Towards the end of his always busy life he campaigned against nuclear arms and worked on solutions to reduce poverty.

His death at 93 earlier this month robbed the world of one of its great technocrats and fiercest thinkers. But almost every obit focussed almost exclusively on the 1960s and the flawed nature of his leadership of the war in Vietnam. His seven year role as a Kennedy-appointed Defence Secretary was also central to the documentary SBS showed in his honour tonight. The Fog of War is Errol Morris’s Oscar-winning 2003 documentary about "11 lessons from McNamara’s life".

The “fog of war” was coined by the nineteenth century Prussian military thinker Carl Von Clausewitz. In his magnum opus On War, Clausewitz warned about the uncertainty of all data. It was a peculiar difficulty, he said, because all action is “planned in a mere twilight, which in addition not unfrequently—like the effect of a fog or moonshine—gives to things exaggerated dimensions and an unnatural appearance.” McNamara could certainly identify with the chaos of war as seen by those immersed in some component of it.

Much of McNamara’s time as Defence Secretary (1961-1967) were spent immersed in a war fog of one kind or another. His recollections to Morris were an attempt to view the fog through the clarity of hindsight. But while McNamara was happy enough about the title he was not happy about the 11 lessons subtitle. Morris put these in very late in the editing process. McNamara complained bitterly to him, “these are not my lessons; these are your lessons”. But Morris would not take them out, he was making a movie and was determined to paint the story as he saw fit. “It's a Horatio Alger story, Morris told Tom Ryan, “the story of a man who comes from relatively humble origins – his parents didn't finish high school – who becomes this incredible achiever”. Morris called it a very powerful story about a man who believes in rational solutions to economic, social and political problems.

McNamara saw a lot of action in the Pentagon hot seat. He had to deal with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassionations of Ngo Dinh Diem and Kennedy within a month of each other, the difficulty of doing business with Johnson, the Gulf of Tonkin incident which escalated the war in Vietnam, and the authorisation of the deadly herbicide Agent Orange in that war. He attempted to rationalise his way through all of these difficult decisions. But in one of the lessons of Morris’ film he is forced to admit that “rationality will not save us”.

Yet there was little evidence from the rest of McNamara’s life that he had abandoned his belief in rationality. His 13 year reign as President of the World Bank transformed the stuffy cautious institution he inherited. The Bank began to address problems of income disparity and poverty. It diversified into sectors of activity where progress was inevitably slow and unspectacular. It was also taking more of an interest in the economic and social conditions of its borrowers. McNamara called the bank "an innovative, problem-solving mechanism…to help fashion a better life for mankind in the decades ahead."

Though McNamara still had two decades of his own life to shape after 1981, Vietnam continued to haunt him and dominated the public discourse about his legacy. 25,000 Americans and a million or more Vietnamese died during his reign as Secretary of Defence. He claimed his role was to soften President Johnson’s hawkishness. But he told his biographer Deborah Shipley he was never sure enough of his doubts about Vietnam to act on them.

McNamara knew his was a tough reputation to defend. But defend it he did using Shipley, Morris and many other proxies to tell his story. He also wrote his own memoir, In Retrospect published in 1995. Morris probably got his “lessons” idea from this book which was subtitled “The tragedy and lessons of Vietnam”. McNamara claimed it was a book he planned never to put on the public record. He did not want to “appear self-serving, defensive, or vindictive” and found it hard to face his mistakes. “But something changed my attitude and willingness to speak,” he wrote. “I am responding not to a desire to get out my personal story but rather to a wish to put before the American people why their government and its leaders behaved as they did and what we may learn from that experience.”

Writing about the book, Noam Chomsky witheringly noted that McNamara did not have much of an idea of what was going on around him, neither then nor now. And to some degree this is true, McNamara has always been embroiled in the fog of war. But what Chomsky does not deny is that McNamara was at the centre of major decision making constantly confronted by the uncertainty of the data he was using. He may not always have been right, but he could always plausibly justify his course of action. This alone makes him worth learning from.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Making Health better: Bennett’s call to arms

(Photo "Health Dept" by Kate in Sydney)

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd put off the decision today for six months whether to implement a $16b public health revamp suggested by the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission. Rudd says he is not frightened to tackle the issue but will consult with the public and health professionals before taking recommendations to the COAG meeting at a date to be announced late this year.

The revamp was outlined in a report released today by commission chair and BUPA Australia chief medical officer Dr Christine Bennett. The executive summary is available here in in PDF format. The report had five recommendations across the areas of indigenous health, mental illness, rural issues, dental care and access to public hospitals and suggested moving full funding of the system transfer from the states to the Commonwealth.

Though the additional funding required is problematic, the transfer of powers is not as big a deal as it sounds. The federal government already runs the health system at a macro level. As Medicare Australia says, Canberra has the primary role of developing broad national policies, regulation and funding for the industry.

It also does much of the spending. The department’s 2007 factbook (pdf) revealed that Canberra spent 46 percent of the total health budget with states responsible for another 22 percent (individuals spend 19 percent with “other private” bodies on 13). But it is the states that have primarily responsible to deliver and manage public health services. It is NSW, Victoria and the rest that also maintain direct relationships with most health care providers, including regulation of health professionals and private hospitals.

Bennett is not so much interested in taking power away from the states as giving individuals more power. Her stated motto is “wellness begins with you” and the aim of the document released today is to ensure the Department of Health lives up to its name rather than being a Department of Sickness, Injury and Death. This is reflected in the name of the report released today: “A healthier future for all Australians”.

The report had five major recommendations. The first was improving health outcomes for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders (ATSI). It recommends a new authority to run ATSI health. The new body will be better funded, target nutrition, and train up an indigenous workforce. All this are good ambitions but a holistic health plan must take into accoun the impact the appalling imprisonment rates are having on ATSI life expectancy.

The second priority is improved care for the mentally ill. It wants more “sub-acute” (which defines a stage of illness between acute and chronic) services in the community with 7 x 24 “rapid response outreach” teams to provide alternative to hospital treatment. The third priority was support for people in remote and rural areas. This concept of universal service obligation (USO) is borrowed from telecommunications and insists that rural and remote citizens get treated the same as urban citizens. This is admirable but often impractical in a country the size of Australia. To address the shortage of doctors, nurses and facilities in remote and rural areas, the report suggests top-up funding to match communities who have better access medical, pharmaceutical and other primary health care services.

(Photo: 7 Day Dental by flickr_b3rn)

The fourth key recommendation is improved access to dental care. One in three Australians put off dental visits due to costs and there are 650,000 people (3 percent of the total population) on the public waiting list. The report recommends education of dentists and schools and a new universal scheme called Denticare Australia where basic services can be paid by private health insurance or the public purse.

The fifth and final recommendation is improving timely access to public hospitals. It says large public hospitals should have emergency beds available at all times, as well extra funding to reduce waiting lists beyond the budget moneys allocated to 2010-2011 (Health's $52b annual budget is scheduled to be slashed in half for 2011-2012). It suggests a national access target to measure whether people are getting access to health services when they need it.

The report is talking about fundamental re-design. Bennett wants to embed prevention and early intervention, connect and integrate health services, and move to what it calls the "next generation of Medicare" to review comprehensiveness, the USO and safety nets. Crucially it will also examine what pharmaceuticals and services get onto the lucrative Medicare benefits schedule which is five percent of the total health spend.

The report says COAG needs to agree on a Healthy Australia Accord to realign roles and responsibilities for health. This talks for the need for “one health system” under full Commonwealth funding control of primary health care, as well as dental, aged and ATSI care. The Commonwealth would pay the states “activity-based benefits” for public hospital care to share the risk caused by increased demand and provide an incentive for better care. It will start at 40 percent of cost of every public hospital admission and will eventually rise to 100 percent at which time the federal government will be in de facto control of Australian public health.

It suggests a timetable for the Accord to be 2010 and says the reform plan will cost between $2.8b and $5.7b with a further $4.3b to $7.3b in infrastructure. The Denticare plan will cost an additional $3.6b which could be offset by a 0.75 percent increase in the Medicare levy. This taxation hit will be difficult to sell. But as Bennett says in the report “[governments], the community, health professionals and health services are…ready to embrace reform”. Let’s hope COAG sees it that way.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Citizen Byte conference part 3: Political blogging in Australia

This is the third and final post about Friday’s “New Media and the Informed Citizen” symposium held at Brisbane’s South Bank. See links to parts one and two.

In his perceptive book Blogwars (2008), American academic David Perlmutter says that too many news and information blogs read like reporters’ notes prior to going to press. He quotes the famous dictum of Washington Post publisher Philip Graham who said that journalism is the first draft of history. Blogs, said Perlmutter, could now be considered the first draft of journalism. But where exactly blogging and journalism intersect has always been a thorny subject in the Australian political and media landscape and this was one of topics Graham Young touched on in his speech to the Citizen Byte forum.

Young is well qualified to speak to this theme having vast experience across blogging, the media, and politics. He blogs at Ambit Gambit, conducts online polling at What the People Want and is also the chief editor of one of Australia’s most important Internet journals, On Line Opinion. In the 1990s he was the vice-president and campaign chairman of the Queensland Liberal Party. He was successful too – the Liberals last election victory in 1995 occurred on his watch. But Young was always too iconoclastic to be a Liberal hero and is now outside the fold.

He began by discussing how the Internet was affecting Australian politics. He quoted the 2007 Nielsen Internet Technology Report which found the technology was pervasive and that 72 percent of all Internet users use it for news, sport and weather updates. However when he looked at the data, he found that despite the existence of thousands of political blogs, online users were consistently turning to existing media organisations for their news. In order of frequency the most accessed were (with Alexa ranking in brackets) Nine MSN (9), (11), SMH (14), ABC (21) and The Age (26). The exclusively online organisations were well down the ladder with the biggest Crikey at 40,977 and Young’s own On Line Opinion further down at 142,137.

The message from this data, said Young, was that “tyrants rule” in Australia. Existing brands count, he said, as do the number of resources at their disposal, their national presence, and the fact that Australia is such a small and competitive marketplace. The few exclusively online operations that have been successful serve niche markets. Young also found that geographical proximity counted on the Internet and 30 percent of On Line Opinion’s users were from Queensland (which has 20 percent of total population).

This accentuation of the local was repeated in the Youdecide2007 citizen journalism project which Young was also involved with. This 2007 federal election site was an initiative of the Creative Industries faculty at QUT, funded by the Australian Research Council, and supported by project partners On Line Opinion, SBS and Cisco. The intention was to provide hyperlocal news and information on a seat-by-seat basis. However, audiences and stories from Queensland predominated (including the site’s one ‘gotcha’ story crategate) and this can be attributed to the fact the project was run out of Brisbane.

Young also noted how what he called Australian “para-parties” use the Internet. In the last election, 200,000 people joined the union-based Your Rights At Work campaign to fight the then-Governments Workchoices legislation. Activist group Getup! has an even bigger membership with 325,000 people registered on their books. Young disputes whether these are "members" in a traditional sense. He see Getup! as a harvester of e-mail addresses to which it then targets fundraising and single-political issue campaigns. According to AEC returns Getup! raised $1.2m in the election year of 2007 and it campaigned heavily (with mixed success) in the seats of Bennelong and Wentworth against Liberal heavyweights John Howard and Malcolm Turnbull respectively.

The mainstream political parties haven’t embraced the Internet as much as the “para-parties”. Young says there is a good reason for this – the old fashioned methods still work. TV ads and direct mail remain the most successful media campaign techniques. According to Young, Liberals used the Internet the most (with 44 percent of candidates having websites) with Labor second on 30 percent. Surprisingly, the minor parties such as the Greens and the Democrats were well behind, preferring to use their scarce funds on more traditional advertising. Despite their apparent net-friendly credentials, these parties were only too aware where the real priority was when it came to spending money. (This is not a unique Australian problem; Perlmutter notes in his book that despite being a very adept blogger, Iowa Democrat governor Tom Vilsack was forced to drop out of the 2008 presidential race because didn’t have the money to buy television time).

Young then turned his attention to what he called the problem of “the failure of the blogosphere". He gave his version of an a-list of blogs he called “the domain” which included Larvatus Prodeo, Jennifer Marohasy, Homepagedaily, John Quiggin, Club Troppo and Henry Thornton. Young said that with the possible exception of Thornton who writes a fortnightly column in The Australian, none have successfully made a breakthrough similar to US blogs. Possible reasons for this include their point-of-view, a competitive market, the unwillingness of the MSM to interact, and the lack of a sustainable financial model. Young conceded some polling blogs have succeeded in impacting the agenda but he said this was hardly a mainstream interest. He also suggested that the highly educated people that ran most of his “domain” blogs may not be talking about the issues relevant to everyday Australians.

Because, he said, in the mainstream “brands count”. Media companies rely on severe audience inertia acting against change. Commercial television stations know that the 5.30pm slot is the most important because if they can lock in viewers prior to the high cost ads of the 6pm news, the likelihood they won’t change the channel – remote or no remote. Other issues affecting the ability of blogs to impact on politics here include the central control of party funding and candidate selection and the fact that Australia, generally speaking, is well run. What that means is that people generally don’t need to think about politics in daily life – they have more exciting things to do. The reason almost 100 percent of people voted in Iran’s recent election, said Young, was because there was a burning desire to fix a problem. The same desires don't exist here. The blogs have their community but have not crashed through to a greater public. According to Young, "the days of the Interknight errant never arrived”.

Citizens bite: Part 2

“Everyone, from journalists to the people we cover to our sources and the former audience, must change their ways. The alternative is just more of the same” – Dan Gillmor (We the Media).

And speaking of changing ways, I must begin with a correction. I gave the impression that Brisbane media did not attend the Citizen Byte new media symposium in Brisbane yesterday. That simply wasn't true. Graham Young (OnLine Opinion, Ambit Gambit, What the People Want) was an invited speaker and there was also and Woolly Days. I have since found out that other journalists and academics would have attended with more notice. In any case, the proceedings were filmed and I hope will be available in the public domain soon enough.

Citizen Byte is a community research project whose stated purpose is to “examine what the implications of the new media environment are on politics and the political sphere both in Australia and in Malaysia.” One of those implications was that new media was having a bigger impact in Malaysia than it was in Australia. Last night I discussed the role of keynote speaker Steven Gan. The editor of Malaysiakini is the “new media” go-to person for the White House and the New York Times and he has transformed a small online venture into Malaysia’s most popular news site. But tonight I want to discuss some of the other Malaysian wisdom on offer at the symposium. Tomorrow I will conclude with some great observations by the conference’s only Australian speaker, Graham Young.

Not the least wisdom came from a member of Malaysia’s media elite: Datuk Azman Ujang. Datuk Azman is chair of the Malaysian Press Institute and the Editorial Adviser at both national news agency Bernama and its broadcasting arm Bernama TV. He took up the latter two jobs having retired as overall GM of Bernama. Datuk Azman is an experienced powerful insider who can get away with calling a spade a spade in the corridors of power. He told his Brisbane audience how the government admonishes him for being “too honest” but it does not dare censure him further. Yet even he was disturbed by the last election result which he said was a wake-up call for the media as well the government. Datuk Azman said that entrenched government support within the media has resulted in biased news for 50 years. The arrival of new media suddenly made their credibility a marketplace issue for urban voters. Malaysiakini took up the challenge and inspired other news portals. Meanwhile opposition politicians took to blogging in numbers to enhance their appeal with younger audiences and crash through their lack of coverage in the MSM. They also used the world’s highest mobile penetration to good effect to spread viral political messages.

But most of the villages don’t have the Internet or mobile phones and the government won the election overall 60:40. The poorer states, particularly East Malaysia voted for BN. There is entrenched corruption in Sabah and Sarawak that has survived for half a century which KL turns a blind eye to. And the government uses regulation of the broadcast spectrum and annual licensing of newspapers to keep the media in check. Datuk Azman said there were “unwritten laws” which depended on the circumstances and mood and attitude of the government at a particular time.

Mohd. Zulkifli was the next to speak. Zulkifli is a content manager at Media Prima Berhad. Media Prima Berhad is Malaysia’s largest media company with a diversified portfolio of assets including four free-to-air TV channels. Zulkifli is bringing the power of new media to bear on many of those assets. He said audiences had to register to his websites but the content was free. 838,000 Malaysians have signed up.

Zulkifli says their biggest differentiator is video content but they are also providing Tweetdecks, SMS alerts (with video alerts starting next month), streaming content on mobiles, as well as interacting with television shows in innovative ways that would please fan theorists like Henry Jenkins.

Their websites are full of blogs and online discussions with network stars and there are discussion rooms where audiences can go to have their say and possibly affect the plots of soap operas. There is also an “Indie showcase” channel that deliberately attempts to “push the boundaries of censorship”. In 2007 Berhad released Malaysia’s first made-for-web drama. “Kerana Karina” or KK tells the story of overnight pop star Karina in 20 four-minute episodes. Though he didn’t mention in the speech, Zulkifli took time out from his day job to write the lyrics to the KK theme song.

What he did mention was that Berhad’s investment in new media (including 60 staff) is starting to pay off. The most popular site gets 41 million hits each month. His job is to keep the revenue high otherwise, he said, he “wouldn’t be here next year”. Zulkifli says that social media is the big challenge of the next couple of years. Somehow, I don’t expect him to fail this challenge - Mohd. Zulkifli is definitely not “more of the same”.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Malaysiakini editor speaks in Brisbane

When Barack Obama’s campaign team and the New York Times online editor were scouring Asia-Pacific for innovative ways to harness the power of new media, they avoided Australia. There was little going on here they did not already know. Where they did go to was Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which is home to some of the most cutting-edge use of media in the world. The person both organisations sought out was journalist and editor Steven Gan. Gan is the editor of Malaysiakini (MK) an online citizen news service that has become the most trusted media organisation in the peninsula. MK publishes in Malay, Chinese, English and Tamil and has also expanded into video.

Today, Brisbane was fortunate enough to host Gan and several other key Malaysian new media players at an all-day symposium called “New Media and the Informed Citizen” at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music in Brisbane’s South Bank. The conference outlined the vibrancy of the industry in Malaysia in front of audience of about thirty people and it was a shame more people in Brisbane didn’t get the chance to listen to how the media is being shaped in new directions in our part of the world.

“Malaysiakini” means Malaysia Now and celebrates its tenth anniversary in November. Up to around 1998 the Malaysian Barisan National (BN) government (which has ruled since independence in 1957) had a monopoly on news in cyberspace. But after visiting Silicon Valley, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad introduced the Multimedia Super Corridor (now MSC Malaysia) to kickstart the local IT industry. One of things Bill Gates and others told Mahathir was that he should not censor the Internet. While Mahathir had misgivings (particularly over pornography) he saw the business benefit and agreed. Malaysiakini rose to exploit the loophole, starting up with just four journalists.

But despite the liberal censorship rules (by Malaysian standards) the new publication still attracted the unwelcome attention of authorities. In January 2003, police raided the offices of MK looking for details of an anonymous letter writer who satirically compared a politician to the Ku Klux Klan. The politician was not amused and sent police in to find out the identity of the letter writer. Gan, as any good journalist would do, refused to divulge his source. Police seized four servers and 15 central processing units from its office and interrogated Gan and senior staff. The move provoked an outcry with spontaneous protests outside the office and led to a coalition of groups condemning the raid. Police never formally raised charges and returned the now obsolete boxes two years later.

MK continued to grow as its attacks on government corruption attracted a new readership unhappy with the servile nature of Malaysia’s mainstream press. In 2006 they broke the Petronas story over lies the oil company boss told about its activities in Sabah. The following year they took on Abdul Taib Mahmud the long-term corrupt leader of Sarawak over logging kickbacks to Japanese shipping firms. And last year MK played a pivotal rule in the general election (where the MSM all supported the government) and BN had its worst result in 50 years, losing control of five states.

MK now employs 30 journalists and has moved into video at www. They have also trained up a team of citizen journalists and provided them with video cameras to report on local news across East and West Malaysia. MK grew steadily with a subscription only model ("go subscription" was the advice he gave the NYT) and a large bed of content.

As the election got closer in 2008, Gan made an important decision. He opened up the site for free for the entire period of the election. By the time of the vote on 8 March it had overtaken The Star newspaper as Malaysia’s most popular political site. Gan called the election a tsunami that almost completely overturned Malaysia’s political system (a later speaker said it wasn’t a new chapter in Malaysian politics – it was a new book).

Thanks to a corrupt government and the biased MSM, Malaysiakini has now established itself as the most trusted media brand. It brought in thousands of new subscribers after the election. The badly shaken BN government admitted they lost the Internet war and have now started to negotiate with MK and the other online outlets.

MK is now a thriving media organisation that has made a profit in each of the last four years. Gan says they were lucky they started their subscription model early. And after the election he says that big advertisers have started to take notice. He described one of his proudest moments as a video they released of a “nude ear-squat” form of prisoner punishment the government claimed had not been used in decades. The video scandal caused a Royal Commission to be set up to investigate the affair. “A half minute video changed practices that were going on for years," he said.

Muphry’s Law and Sarah Palin's resignation letter

As an Irishman I know Murphy’s Law only too well. I have often been bitten by it and occasionally made bitter by it. The law says that if anything can go wrong, it surely will - and usually at the worst possible moment. Yet Murphy has to be admired as an unbending issuer of Rhadamanthine justice who cautions you to be wary that a serious snafu is always just an ill-timed moment away.

Yesterday I found Murphy's literary cousin has a similar rule. Called Muphry’s Law, it states that if you are going to correct someone’s grammar you will undoubtably foul up the correction. This post is another attempt at breaking that important rule.

I learned about Muphry in the comments of a wonderful article in the Punch. "Mind your language if you’re making a parse at me" was a “lucethought” from JJJ journalist and news reader Lucy Carter. Carter described herself as a rarity amongst her peers: “a 22 year old who adores a well constructed sentence.” In "mind your language" she tells the story about how her flirting with a barista went off the rails when she automatically corrected his grammar.

Because as she ruefully admitted, "nothing says 'we should go out' like a grammar check".

Amusing, but Carter was making a serious point. She was discussing our education system - a subject the state of NSW is making laws to stop you talking about. Carter doesn’t think there is anything wrong in the way newer-style education forces people to examining theme within literary works. But she says the loss of grammar in the curriculum means that she cannot “parse” sentences like her mother could. What Carter was realising was that grammar is a useful tool for deconstruction.

This was amply demonstrated by the article's comments thread. The first commenter “Allan Cox” (who missed a good opportunity to legitimately use the misnomer “frist”) said the article had restored his faith in “gen-yer’s” but also suggested this group were more analytical than they were letting on – particularly when it came to money.

The second commenter was BD. It was BD who enlightened me about “Muphry’s Law": anybody who writes about poor grammar will inevitably make at least one grammatical error. BD sternly picked apart several mistakes in Carter’s copy and gave the mark “must do better”. But BD had not thought through the concept.

The third commenter, The Punch’s own Tory Maguire, pointed out the pot-kettle moment when she mentioned BD's own mispelling of the “fist letter of University”. Maguire was smart enough herself to keep her fist out of her mouth - she posted just one sentence which was gramatically correct. Muphry’s magic ended temporarily. It would appear again in later comments.

Because Muphry, it seems, is an unavoidable consequence of large-scale correction. Take the case of Vanity Fair's story about Sarah Palin’s Alaskan governor resignation speech. The magazine used a high-powered team of the magazine’s executive literary editor and representatives of the research and copy departments to unpick the speech line by rambling line. The trio took to the task with gusto and red, green and blue pens scrawled hundreds of corrections. It was great editing work. My only quibble was the resulting pictures weren’t easy to read and Vanity Fair did not provide a cleaned up version (presumably that was Palin's job).

Oddly enough, Palin may have taken notice. Another report what she actually said had some (but not all) of Vanity Fair's corrections.

But I wanted to see the finished article and felt compelled to write out my own post-Vanity Fair version of the farewell speech. I found just one Vanity Muphry (marked with 'sic') but there may be others. It almost certainly has fresh Muphry-ness introduced by me.

Yet Muphry or no, the communications question is: is this remashed version still identifiable as Palin's speech?


Thank you all for coming here today to Lake Lucille. You are a source of inspiration for my family and me. And I’m thankful that Todd flew in last night from commercial fishing grounds in Bristol Bay to stand by my side as always.

It is the eve of our celebration as a nation a time to remember those souls who sacrificed selflessly so that we might live in freedom. From the shores of Maine to Texas and California, to the tip of Barrow, we live in peace because 233 years ago so many brave men and women fought for something far greater than themselves, and so many continue to fight for us today. Therefore I say God bless our military on this eve of Independence Day.

People who know me know that except for God and family, nothing is more important to me than our beloved Alaska. Serving her people is the greatest honour I can imagine. I want Alaskans to grasp what can be in store for our state. We were purchased as a territory because a member of President Andrew Johnson’s cabinet, William H. Seward, heard of this great land’s hoard of vast riches and beauty and recognised its strategic placement on the globe. He boldly looked to the future but later endured ridicule and mockery for his vision. His adversaries called his great dream "Seward's Folly".

Seward however, secured Alaska realising that Alaska could help secure the United States.

Alaska is strategic as a crossroads of the world and a gatekeeper of the continent. Seward and other early visionaries saw that Alaska would play a key role in America’s destiny.

That destiny includes developing the natural resources of the land, its wildlife and minerals, its oil and gas.

Serving this important state is a humbling responsibility. I trust you know me by now, I promised four years ago I would show independence and put an end to politics as usual. My administration's accomplishments speak for themselves.

We created a Petroleum Systems Integrity Office to oversee safe development. We held the line on Point Thomson. And now with our co-operation you’re seeing drilling up there for oil and gas.

[Alaska Gas Inducement Act] AGIA, the gasline project was a massive and bi-partisan victory. The vote was 58 to 1. Like many other projects of its kind, this one is very competitive perhaps the largest private sector energy project ever achieved in this state.

[Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share] ACES, another bi-partisan effort is working as intended to work and industry is publicly acknowledging its success. Alaskans will no longer be taken advantage of. ACES provides incentives for new exploration and development. It also provides for new jobs unlike the system under a monopolised North Slope Oil Basin.

We ushered in bi-partisan ethics reform and we slowed the rate of government growth. We worked with the Legislature to save billions of dollars for our future. I made no new lobbyist friends with my hundreds of millions of dollars in budget vetoes. Living beyond our means today spells chaos for tomorrow.

We took the dairy business away from the government and put it back into the hands of the private-sector where it belongs. We provided support for education. We finally filled long-vacant public safety positions, including the doubling of Police academy recruits. We built a sub-cabinet to deal with climate change. We took heat from special interests for what I believe are our biologically sound practices to deal with wildlife management and predator control.

We broke ground on the state’s new prison.

We eliminated such luxuries for government employees such as jets, chefs and personal entourages. The lieutenant governor and I said no to pay raises. For our success in this first term I am proud to take credit for hiring the right people. Our goal was to achieve a gasline project, more fair oil and gas valuation, and ethics reform in four years. Thanks to our group’s astounding work ethic, we are well on the way in just two. I wish you would hear more from the media about your state’s progress and how we tackle the special interests and bodies that would stymie our state and force the heavy hand of federal government into our communities.

I have taken criticism for exercising my veto when I knew it was the right thing to do but I’m convinced it is better than being popular. I felt that some of those special interest dollars would harm not only Alaska but also America. I turned down those dollars because they would add to the obscene national debt we're forcing on our children because of today's big Government spending. It is not just immoral, it doesn't even make economic sense.

Our Department of Law protected state’s [sic] rights. In just the last two weeks U.S. Supreme Court reversals came down against the liberal Ninth Circuit, deciding in our state's favor over the last two weeks.

You don't hear much of the good stuff in the press and some say things changed for me on August 29 last year, the day John McCain tapped me to be his running-mate. It was an honour to be his running mate. It was an honour to stand beside a true American hero. But I say others changed and let me elaborate on that for a minute.
Political operatives descended on Alaska digging for dirt. The ethics law I championed became their weapon of choice. Over the past nine months I've been accused of all sorts of frivolous ethics violations from holding a fish in a photograph to wearing a jacket with the logo of my husband’s snow-making sponsor on it while answering reporters' questions. Most of these ethics complaints have been dismissed. We won but it cost us. The State has wasted thousands of hours of your time and shelled out nearly 200,000 of your dollars to respond these attacks. That’s money that won’t be going to fund teachers or troopers or safer roads. Because of this politics of personal destruction Todd and I are looking at more than half a million dollars in legal bills to set the record straight.

And what about the people who brought up these silly accusations? It doesn't cost them a dime so they're not going to stop spending the public’s money in this game. It's insane. My staff and I spend most of our day dealing with this stuff instead of working for our state.

If I have learned one thing, it’s that life is about choices. You can choose to engage in things that tear people down, or build people up. I choose to work very hard to build up this state and our great country.

Life is too short to waste time and resources. Though it may be tempting to listen to those who tell you to stay in line and shut up but that's the quitter's way out. I think one big problem in our country today is apathy and I refuse to just hunker down and go with the flow. We’re fishermen so we know only dead fish go with the flow. Productive people know where to put their efforts and how to utilize precious time. There is such a need now to build up our state and fight for our country. I'll work hard for those who believe in free enterprise, smaller government, and strong national security, who want to support our troops and protect our freedom.

I will support others who willing to serve in or out of office inside or outside of Alaska. I don't care what party they belong to.

But I won't do it from the governor's desk. So for the sake of my family, I have chosen not to seek re-election as governor.

As I thought about this announcement, I also thought about how much fun some governors have as lame ducks. Many politicians travel around the state and other states, maybe even go overseas on international trade missions. But then I thought, that's wrong just to hit the road and draw a paycheck. I’m not going to put Alaskans through that.

I am not wired to operate under the same old politics as usual. I promised you that four years ago and I meant it. It's not what is best for Alaska.

Therefore I’ve decided it's best to transfer the authority of governor to Lieutenant Governor Parnell so that this administration, with its positive agenda and its accomplishments can continue without interruption to achieve administrative and legislative success.

We know we can effect positive change outside government at this moment in time and actually make a difference for our priorities. So we will, for Alaskans and for Americans.

Let me apply an analogy that seems comfortable to me and that’s basketball. You’d be naïve if you didn't see a full-court press picking away right now. A good point guard drives through that full court press, protecting the ball, keeping her eye on the basket. She knows exactly when to pass the ball so that the team can win. That is what I'm doing - keeping an eye on the ball that represents sound priorities. Those include energy independence, smaller government, and national security. And I know that it's time to pass the ball for victory.

I have given you my reasons candidly. My last day won't be for another few weeks so the transition will be smooth. In fact, we will look forward to swearing in Sean Parnell up there in Fairbanks at the conclusion of our governor's picnic at the end of the month.

I don’t want to disappoint anyone with my decision so all I can do is ask you to trust me.

Maybe some Alaskans don't mind wasting public dollars and state time but I do. I cannot allow all that time and money go to waste just so I can hold the title of Governor. Some people are going to question the timing. Let me just say that this decision has been in the works for a while and only comes after much prayer and consideration.

I polled the most important people in my life - my kids – and they were unanimous. I asked them do you want me to make a positive difference and fight for all our children's future from outside the governor's office. It was four yeses and one "hell yeah!" That "hell yeah" sealed it.

For the kids, their approval had to do with the kids seeing their baby brother, Trig, mocked by mean-spirited adults. I only wish folks could understand how much we learn so much from someone like Trig. I know he needs me, but I need him even more. The world needs more Trigs.

My decision was fortified by my trip to Kosovo and Landstuhl, to visit our wounded soldiers overseas. We can all learn from our selfless troops. They're bold and they don't give up, and they know that life is short so they choose not to waste time. They choose to serve something greater than self and to build up our great country. These troops are where the worthy causes in this world can be found today. And that is where our public resources should be spent, instead of wasteful political bloodsport.

We’ve got to put first things first. For me, that means Alaska. It hurts to make this choice but I am doing what's best for Alaska. My parents have a little magnet on their refrigerator that says "don't explain: your friends don't need it and your enemies won't believe you anyway." But I have chosen to give you my reasons. I’ve had my fill of usual.

I’m taking my fight for what’s right for Alaska in a new direction. However, I don't want to dissuade any Alaskan from entering politics after seeing the real climate change that began last August. We need hardworking, average Americans fighting for what's right. And I will support you because you can effect change, just as I can, too, outside the political arena.

We need more people who will respect our Constitution, resist big government takeover and protect individual rights, who will have the good sense to know when conditions drastically change and who will pass the ball when it's time so that the right team can win! That is what I'm doing here today.

Remember, Alaska, America is more than ever looking north to the future. God bless you. You have my heart. We’re all going to be in the capable hands of our lieutenant governor, Sean Parnell. Lieutenant General Craig Campbell will assume the role of lieutenant governor. And I promise you that I will be standing by, ready to assist. We have a strong, positive agenda for Alaska.

Take the words often attributed to General MacArthur, "We are not retreating. We are advancing in another direction."

Again I say thank you, and God bless you, Alaska.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

ACF calls for public to oppose Olympic Dam uranium expansion

The Australian Conservation Environment is calling on Australians to challenge BHP Billiton’s (BHPB) uranium expansion plan at Olympic Dam by making public submissions in the next two weeks. The proposal will represent another difficult decision on uranium mining for Environment Minister Peter Garrett. Having approved the new Four Mile mine last week, it will be his job to make the final decision on BPHB’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project. The ACF says Australia should not become the uranium quarry to the global nuclear industry. “Our uranium exports fuel unacceptable nuclear risks and unresolved nuclear waste management around the globe,” says its statement calling for public submissions.

The ACF call is supported by local indigenous groups who have labelled the expansion “environmental genocide”. Rebecca Wingfield is a Kokatha custodian and an international human rights campaigner for Aboriginal people. She is also a traditional owner of the land around the Olympic Dam site. Wingfield disputes the claim of the SA government and BHPB that there is no scientific research proving the environmental harm of uranium mining. She also referred to the Manila Declaration signed by Indigenous organisations from 35 countries which says that mining exploitation without consent has led to “the worst forms of environmental degradation, human rights violations and land dispossession and is contributing to climate change.”

Unsurprisingly BHPB don’t quite see it that way. Their Olympic Dam is already a massive copper, uranium, gold and silver mine situated south of Lake Eyre in remote northern South Australia, about five hour s drive north of Adelaide. According to the Draft EIS for the expansion project, Olympic Dam is the world’s largest known uranium deposit and world' fourth largest reserve of copper. The massive 11 year expansion project involves the creation of a new open pit mine, an upgrade of the smelter and new concentrator and hydrometallurgical plants to process the additional ore. There would also be a desalination plant at Whyalla, a new rail network, a new airport, a new port at Darwin, a new barge landing facility at Port Augusta, and 270kms of additional electricity transmission lines also from Port Augusta.

The company town 14km from the mine will also be expanded. Roxby Downs was established in 1988 by Western Mining Corporation to service the uranium mine. BHPB bought out the mine in 2005 and with it the town. According to the 2006 census 4,054 now live there with continued growth expected. It is a young population – only 150 are over 55 and the town’s cemetery is empty. The residential population is supplemented by a fly-in/ fly-out workforce which brings the population up to 5,000. The local council claims that theirs is the most affluent postcode in the state: in 2006, the median individual weekly income was $1,103, more than double the national average.

But not everyone there seems very interested in the plans BHPB have for the town. The blog Stories from a Communist Lemon Factory reported that at the end of May the company held an EIS information session at the Roxby Downs leisure centre. However hardly anyone from the community attended. But the town won’t escape the development. The expansion will double the workforce to 8,000 and the new arrivals will need homes, shops, schools and other infrastructure.

Pro-development South Australian Premier Mike Rann also says the mining expansion will have big flow-on effects for the Roxby Downs community. “From the childcare to the local school, to a big increase in the size of the police station, particularly to do with the construction camp that will be part of the process of shifting a million tonnes of rock a day,” he said. The South Australian government is keen for the plan to go ahead. Rann has already given a go-ahead for a $10 million police station for an extra 30 officers to be operational by September.

The ACF does not dispute the economic growth the new project brings to Roxby but says that uranium is not the only option. ACF Nuclear Free Campaigner David Noonan says that the mine should expand with copper. “Setting out a path for Olympic Dam to process all its copper products in South Australia, instead of processing a bulk radioactive copper concentrate in China, would boost local jobs and be much better for the global environment,” he said. Noonan says the risks associated with uranium mining are too great. He says the EIS must explain how BHPB will manage the expanded mine’s bulk radioactive tailings waste for the 10,000 years they remain a radiological hazard. The writer behind the Communist Lemon Factory had similar concerns. “I have to wonder if Olympic Dam will become the next Woomera, forever haunted by its relationship with radiation,” she said.

Public submissions on the EIS must be in by Friday 7 August.

Liberal Rules OK?

For the last few days SBS has been heavily promoting Liberal Rule: The Politics that Changed Australia, a weighty three-hour retrospective on the Howard era of Government. This was always threatening to be compulsory viewing not only because of the sociological claim in the subtitle but also because many of the biggest Liberal politicians and staffers contributed: John Howard was in it as was Fraser, Costello, Downer, Reith, Staley and Sinodinos. Here would be some good insights into the business of government.

This morning, anticipation was lifted up another notch when Gerard Henderson in the Sydney Morning Herald called the documentary “a shocker and a disgrace”. Henderson is a Howard supporter and plainly didn’t like the authors’ “layers of subtext” which he saw as code for left wing. He sportingly said the left got “free kick after free kick” and then played the man not the ball when he said Norm Abjorensen's book John Howard and the Conservative Tradition has sold fewer than 100 copies in a year.

But I’m thinking Henderson should be on the SBS marketing payroll if he isn’t already. By publicly bagging the program, he was drawing splendid attention to it. And it was a program he was in. In his SMH attack he leaves out any discussion of the layers of sub-text of his segment. This suggests the filmmakers treated him fairly. Henderson did show he was more accurate than SBS in one key respect - he got the time of the show right. SBS were sending out online ads in Crikey and elsewhere all day saying it was on “SBS One Wednesday 8.30pm”. But Henderson got the facts right in his article – It was aired at 8.30pm tonight (Tuesday).

Apart from unnecessarily losing out on audiences, the SBS mistake also undermines the fact that Liberal Rules is likely to become good history - assuming the quality does not dip in the next two episodes. As Henderson rightly criticised, it did not interview any Labor or National politicians and overcompensated with leftwing critics such as the unfortunate Abjorensen, Judith Brett and Mark Davis (whose praise appeared on the blurb of the ad with the wrong day). But so what. In three hours of television, there will be a wealth of great historical material to choose from the political interviews.

This is a necessity the filmmakers turned into a brilliant virtue. Joint filmmaker Garry Sturgess had brought his skills as a senior researcher on ABC’s Labor in Power to do a similar job on the Howard era. But Sturgess found it difficult to open old doors. He and partner Nick Torrens struggled with sibling rivalry on the public purse when they tried to gain access to ABC’s treasure chest of news archives. It was the job of ex-SBS employee Alan Sunderland to deny the request on the grounds that their “primary responsibility is to make programs for the Australian public.”

So Sturgess and Torrens stacked the program with talking heads. This is difficult to make exciting and they wasted no time showing the questions or questioners inanely nodding. Audiences had to work out what was going on from the guiding of the anonymous narrator, the taut editing of the film, and the surprisingly candid answers themselves.

Howard and the other Liberals agreed to take part because they knew this would be a film about legacy and they were keen to shape it. As the film itself says, the Liberals are all about leadership. From Menzies to Turnbull the ethos of the party is that leadership is central to its identity. Liberal philosophy changes with the winds unburdened as it is by any -ism. What was most of interest in this film was how Howard and the rest approached their decision making.

For example Costello was brutally honest about the spoils of power. He would go to meetings where there might be 15 or 16 or people. The difficulty of getting them to do something for him was that all of them there were appointed by Howard. All that is, except him. “I was the only one elected”, he said. Ever since he backed Downer for the leadership in 1993, it was clear Costello always preferred to be the message rather than the messenger.

What mattered was not who did things the best, but who announced them best. And John Howard was always better at that than Costello. Howard was more ruthlesss for starters and served a tougher apprenticeship learning for the top job. In the 1970s, he was a young and generally hopeless Treasurer. In the 1980s, he wrestled with Peacock for the right to lose to Bob Hawke. And in the early 1990s, he watched as the newer leaders Hewson and Downer were gobbled up and spat out by the “street brawler” Paul Keating. Downer resigned in 1995 as the party stared at a sixth election loss. Costello was kept as deputy but it was Howard – battle-hardened but just 56 year old – who was chosen. He came out by Costello’s side to tell the media he had been appointed “unanimous leader”. His body language suggested supreme confidence he was going to be the next Prime Minister and he crushed Keating at the election a year later.

Howard was the master of the small agenda but his inability to look up almost made him a one-term premier. In trouble in the polls, he turned to his tax agenda and decided to run hard on getting a mandate for a Goods and Services Tax. While this overturned an election promise, he got away with it because Labor though an election could not be won selling a tax. Despite the fact his victory over Beazley was narrow, it was was a turning point. Although Howard would have to reach into his bag of tricks again to find another issue to win in 2001 (Tampa), it was the GST election that cemented his place in the party’s pantheon.

After that second win, he had carte blanche to do what he wanted. Howard used the twin drivers of the mining boom and a trillion dollars worth of personal debt to get the government back in the black. He then increased public spending on favoured projects and dished out largesse in the budget much to the chagrin of the more economic rationalist Treasurer. Neither of them did much on climate change. It is this sense that Liberal frittered away their years in power that bothered Henderson about Liberal Rules.

He says the left have won the victory of ideas because unlike the Liberals, they take history seriously. Henderson took the example of Opposition frontbencher George Brandis who complained in The Spectator that that Liberals are not celebrating the 100th anniversary of the formation of the inaugural Liberal Party. “But Brandis could have arranged such a celebration himself,” Henderson said. As Malcolm Turnbull and all the others before him showed, the Liberals are not about ideas, they are about actions.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Arias appeals for more time to end Honduras stalemate

(Picture: Zelaya in the stetson in conversation with Arias in less stressful times.) Costa Rica President Oscar Arias has asked for more time to resolve Honduras’s political stalemate and warned that civil war was possible if the three-week crisis isn’t ended soon. Arias has met separately with ousted president Manuel Zelaya and his replacement Roberto Micheletti in the Costa Rican capital San Jose but has been unable to get either man to agree to the seven-point solution he presented on Saturday. “I want to take 72 hours to work more intensely,” said Arias. Because the alternative he said was “civil war and bloodshed that the Honduran people don’t deserve.”

Arias may be grandstanding but he does have form as a peacekeeper. He won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in getting five central American presidents to sign the Esquipulas peace accord in Guatemala. His seven point plan for Honduras calls for the formation of a national reconciliation government to be led Zelaya. It would also move forward planned elections to October from November and offer political amnesty to those involved in the crisis. But neither the old nor the new leader have been particularly helpful. Zelaya threatened to resort to other means if he did not get his way while Micheletti repeated his demand that Zelaya not return to power before he agrees to stand down.

The Council for Hemisphere Affairs says negotiation fatigue is beginning to make itself evident among the two sides after three weeks of deadlock. The crisis started on 28 June, the day Zelaya had scheduled a controversial non-binding plebiscite to determine if citizens should vote in November elections to change the constitution. Zelaya claimed the plebiscite was a merely a survey, but his opponents saw it as a means of giving him a second term of government when his current term expires in 2010.

Zelaya had sacked the head of the armed forces who refused to give logistical support for the vote. The Supreme Court overruled him, saying the army chief should be reinstated. On the morning of the vote, over 200 troops arrived at his home and ordered him to surrender on pain of death. They drove him to the airport and put him on a plane to neighbouring Costa Rica.

Later that day, Congress produced what it claimed was Zelaya’s letter of resignation. Speaker and constitutionally second in line to the presidency, Roberto Micheletti, was sworn in as interim leader. The new government issued arrest orders against Zelaya on 18 charges that include betrayal of the country and failure to fulfil his duties. Protests against the coup began immediately with several thousand pro-Zelaya supporters gathering near the Presidential Palace in Tegucigalpa. On 2 July, social organisations of workers, farmers and citizens held a massive march to deliver a message of gratitude for support for democracy at the UN office. After two days, Congress had enough and approved a decree to enforce a curfew and declare a “state of exception” which banned meetings, curtailed travel, justify search without warrants and imposed restrictions on the media.

Zelaya continues to have the support of the OAS (Organisation of American States) but is no closer to getting home. On 5 July he tried to fly back home but his plane was blocked from landing. While Zelaya is a wealthy land-owning cattle baron and timber merchant he derives most of his support from Honduras’s poorest people. Almost half the population survives on $2 a day or less with one in five considered undernourished.

Honduras is hopeless corrupt, one of the least transparent countries in Latin America and is extremely dependent on US and multilateral organisations for financial support. The US suspended a significant amount of aid to Honduras in support of Zelaya but has been reluctantly to get fully involved in the crisis. In a statement after the coup, President Obama called on all sides to respect democratic norms and the rule of law. “Any existing tensions and disputes must be resolved peacefully through dialogue free from any outside interference,” he said. The coup government has interpreted this as a green light to continue its rule.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Defending Peter Garrett

(photo by Revenge Radio) The band Midnight Oil play wonderful, pumping, roadtrip music. Though they were one of the few Aussie outfits I was aware of when growing up in the Northern Hemisphere, I never really got into them until a “best of” compilation was on high rotation when driving up the Newell Highway from Melbourne to Brisbane for Christmas in 1990. It was hardly seasonal but it was good singalong stuff and the energy in Peter Garrett’s music helped make the three day trip go a lot faster.

Given his natural charisma and the polemics of his lyrics, it was no surprise to see him eventually enter politics. What was surprising to me, was that he picked Labor ahead of the Greens. The mistake I was making about Garrett, like many people before and since, was to only look at his passion and forget about his power.

Labor was in awe of Garrett. On the eve of Australia Day 2004, then leader Mark Latham met him for lunch at Garrett's home in Mittagong in rural NSW. Latham was totally entranced by his host. “Simply outstanding, charismatic, humane, full of ideas [and] dedicated to his gorgeous family,” gushed Latham in his Diaries. “I felt like giving him my seat”. Latham wasn't quite that generous (he eventually gave that to Chris Hayes) but he did parachute Garrett into parliament for the safe inner Sydney east seat of Kingsford-Smith on the resignation of Laurie Brereton. Garrett’s candidacy attracted huge media interest. In a losing election for Labor, Garrett held Kingsford-Smith increasing the margin by two to ten percent.

Mark Latham knew that Peter Garrett would be electoral gold for Labor. The kudos he brought with his musical career and his work with the Australian Conservation Foundation were huge and he became a fundamental plank of Labor’s strategy to win back power. Whenever the Howard Government or their messengers in the media complained that Labor was the plaything of trade unionists, leaders such as Latham, Beazley and Rudd could wheel out a bona fide rock star in their midst. Garrett was a breath of fresh air. Rudd was particularly fond of this card. He was in no doubt that Garrett would play a leading role in re-positioning Labor as a party that cares about the environment.

The Liberals too immediately saw Garrett as a dangerous opponent and moved heaven and earth to destabilise him. They pointed out how he wasn’t registered to vote in Australian elections for a decade. Garrett's claim in return wasn’t entirely convincing. He said he had a silent enrolment, needed to keep his home address private for security reasons, and insisted he voted in “most elections.”

More damagaing however, was the changing-it-all-in-power “joke” with Steve Price at Melbourne airport a couple of weeks before the 2007 election. Many on the left worried that this was an appalling blunder notwithstanding Price’s shabby role in the affair. Many in the party secretly worried about the impact on its rebranding too. But it all washed over and did not undermine Rudd’s brutal blitzkrieg on the prime ministership - nor Garrett's own electoral popularity. Garrett bagged a further swing of 4.6 percent in 2007.

Kevin Rudd publicly promised Garrett the environment ministry. But with Price mistake reminding everyone he was a political greenhorn, and the environment threatening to become the second most important minister after the Treasury; Rudd carefully clipped Garrett’s wings and gave the crucial portfolios of climate change and water to the more wonkish Senator Penny Wong. Wayne Swan would be the spokesman on these affairs in the lower house.

Once again, this was played out as a defeat for Garrett by both sides of politics. The right crowed that Garrett was being punished for his stupidity while the left felt Garrett was being set up to fail by his boss. Garrett was rolled on uranium policy and would now had to carry it out. Yet as environment, heritage and the arts minister Garrett still wields considerable cultural power. And despite often overruling him, I suspect that the fellow workaholic Kevin Rudd is very happy with the brilliant and energetic job Garrett is doing in a difficult job. He challenges the rules to the greenest of his compromise abilities and hasn’t had a single appellate challenge to his decisions yet. He knows that the law must change for decisions to change. Yet very few other ministers are as accused of hypocrisy as often as he is.

(photo by Liam) The French, on the other hand, have no doubt where he stands in the pantheon. The Oils were always extremely popular in France. Last month, French culture minister Frederic Mitterrand named Garrett Officier in the French Order of Arts and Letters. In his speech Mitterrand praised Garrett not only for work as an internationally acclaimed rock singer but also because he was “un ardent défenseur de l'environnement et à une figure éminente de l'écologie.”

Ardent defenders of this figure éminente in the local media had been few and far between but have begun to crop up in the last few days. Crikey’s Bernard Keane started the fightback on Thursday. “Leave Peter alone”, he demanded. Garrett like Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull, Keane reminded us, doesn’t have to be in politics, or work at all. All could retire now and count their money. “[But a]ll are in politics because they want to achieve genuine change,” he said.

That theme was picked up further in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald. Paul Daley says Garrett is “singularly miscast as the naive blunderer in the big, bad world of public policy”. Garrett joined the Labor Party because he knew that is where he could achieve the most amount of change. Despite the apparent “slaps in the face” he has received, Garrett “does not greet the sunrise with existential angst.” On the contrary, Daley says Garrett has a longer term view and sees well past the midnight hour.

On the same day over at Murdoch opinion HQ, Peter van Onselen also waded in for Garrett. He says the former singer has become an accomplished pragmatist who doesn’t become captured by lobby groups, despite having with a strong environment conscience. Van Onselen had a caveat for his fellow Peter. “What you have to hope, however,” he said. “is that Garrett has a line in the sand that he won't cross, a policy decision he would refuse to be part of in government.” True, but I also hope that’s true of all of them. Garrett, as ever, is judged by higher standards.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

And that’s the way it is: Walter Cronkite dies

On the fortieth anniversary of humanity’s biggest feat – the first moon landing – the man who told his nation “and now we have two Americans on the moon” has died. Walter Cronkite died in New York aged 92. The man who anchored the CBS Evening News” from 1962 to 1981 died of cerebrovascular disease with complications from dementia. In July 1969, he was on air for 27 of the 30 hours of Apollo 11’s mission and his marathon live coverage brought the excitement and impact of the moon landing into the homes of millions of Americans and observers around the world. He remains the only outsider to have won NASA’s Ambassador of Exploration Award which he picked up in 2006.

That award was one of many in a lifetime of achievement. His name has become virtually synonymous with the position of news anchor worldwide. In Sweden anchors are known as Kronkiters whereas the Dutch called them Cronkiters. In America, Cronkite was not just an anchor he was also an honorary member of families he had never seen or met. “Uncle Walter” was voted the most trusted figure in American public life in surveys in 1972 and 1974. But Cronkite viewed himself as a working journalist and his title at CBS was "managing editor" of the Evening News. His way was to get the story, "fast, accurate, and unbiased".

Cronkite learned this credo during his days as a wire service reporter. Walter Leland Cronkite was the only child of a dentist father and homemaker mother who moved from Missouri to Texas when he was young. Walter attended The University of Texas at Austin in the 1930s and worked as a student reporter for The Daily Texan campus newspaper. Cronkite left university without a qualification. He worked at public relations firms, newspapers, and in small radio stations throughout the Midwest. In 1939 Cronkite joined United Press to cover World War II. He joined a unit fondly remembered as the "Writing 69th" a group of civilian journalists trained to take part in high-altitude bombing missions.

The breath of his war coverage was enormous. As well as flying many bombing mission over Germany, he went ashore in Africa and D-Day landings, he parachuted with the l0lst Airborne, he covered the Nuremburg trials, and ran the UP's first post-war Moscow bureau. His own view of his war record was characteristically modest. “Personally, I feel I was an overweening coward in the war. I was scared to death all the time,” he said. “I did everything possible to avoid getting into combat.”

True or not, Cronkite was certainly made for media combat. Fellow war veteran Edward Murrow recruited him for CBS Washington in 1950. "My first love was newspapering," Cronkite later wrote. "But as the 1940s drew to a close television was coming into its own, and it became evident that the young industry would eventually become the dominant form of entertainment and news."

His first job in front of the camera was as host of a historical recreation series You Are There. He briefly co-hosted the CBS Morning Show with the puppet named Charlemagne the Lion. Cronkite impressed with his anchoring of CBS's coverage of the l952 presidential nominating conventions. But it would take another ten years before he would finally take over the centre stage Evening News anchor role from Douglas Edwards. In October 1963 the broadcast was increased from 15 to 30 minutes and the first expanded broadcast included an exclusive interview with President Kennedy.

Barely a month later, Cronkite fought back tears when he reported to a shocked world that Kennedy had been assassinated. If that announcement was Cronkite’s apotheosis as a news anchor, it was the coverage of the Kennedy funeral that manifested the power of TV to involve an entire population in a ritual process. And Cronkite was ideally placed to benefit from that power. From 1967 through to his retirement, the CBS Evening News was the nation’s top rating television program. Americans turned to Cronkite to learn about the Moon landings, Vietnam, Watergate and the oil crisis.

Cronkite was acclaimed as an unbiased reporter but when he took sides, he was extremely influential. In 1965 he applauded the “courageous decision that Communism’s advance must be stopped in Asia”. But three years later he was not so sure. He visited Vietnam after the 1968 Tet offensive where his report advocated negotiations and the withdrawal of American troops. "We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds," he said. "We are mired in bloody stalemate." Though Cronkite’s 30 second TV grab was inaccurate, his report shifted public opinion and was crucial in Johnson’s decision not to recontest the 1968 presidential election. After the broadcast, he reportedly told advisors, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America."

When Cronkite announced he was going to retire in 1981, there were signs of palpable public panic. A briefly popular T-shirt posed the half-joking question, "Oh, my God - what are we going to do without Walter Cronkite?" But he did not disappear from the public eye. His hosting of PBS's broadcast of the Vienna Philharmonic has become as much a New Years Eve tradition as the dropping of the ball in Times Square. He has also hosted PBS documentaries on health, old age and poor children. In l993 he signed a contract with the Discovery and Learning Channel to do 36 documentaries in three years.

Failing health finally crippled his output in the last few years. Tributes poured in from ordinary viewers after his death. “There is not one major (public) event in my life that Walter didn’t lead me through. Not one,“ said one. “I don’t believe Walter Cronkite has departed. Not until I hear it from him!” said another. Cronkite was at the height of his power (and powers) during an era of attributed-style journalism. There was no CNN, MSNBC, FoxNews or Al Jazeera. The Internet was still the plaything of military scientists. When he said “that’s the way it is” at end of his TV network news, America believed him, partially because of his aura and partially because there was so little choice but to believe what he reported. But the era of news that does no more than quote officials and experts is just as dead as the master broadcaster himself. And that’s the way it is.