Monday, April 26, 2010

21 years of living next door to Anzac

My first Anzac Day in Australia was in 1989 and it brings back happy memories purely because it was an unexpected long weekend and a first chance to visit Adelaide. When in the city of churches I paid no attention to whatever Anzac Day ceremonies were in place and probably spent the day either on Glenelg beach or in the Barossa wineries. Even when I got Australian citizenship a few years later, I didn’t think my love for living in Australia would ever cover its military history or traditions. (picture: 2010 dawn service at Muckadilla, Western Queensland)

The first twenty years of my life spent in Ireland left a strong legacy of distrusting any institutions that had strong links to British imperialism and the culture around Anzac Day fitted that bill. I was also naturally inclined to view it through the prism of the senseless slaughter of the First World War. Its religious overtones held little appeal too. My anti Anzac Day sentiments were shored up by Peter Weir’s Gallipoli and the angry lament of the Pogues’ version of “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”.

Anzac Day would eventually prove Eric Bogle wrong. Although the numbers of the original diggers had shrunk to nothing by the time Bogle wrote the song in 1971, there were more than enough veterans of other military conflicts and overseas engagements prepared to take their places. The size of the march began to increase again and so did the audience for the services and parade. The young people stopped asking “what are they marching for” and began to wear their grandparents medals with pride. Gelibolu Yarımadası became a compulsory stop on any European tour.

Thanks to the attention it got from the Hawke and Keating governments, Anzac Day was well on the mend in Australia by 1996. Through a collection of circumstances I was awake and in the centre of Melbourne for that year’s Anzac Day dawn service. I shivered through a crisp autumn morning at the city’s massive war memorial on St Kilda road but was fascinated by the formal solemnity of the ritual I was watching. Lit by fires under the dramatic dawn skies, the ceremony expertly fused elements from church services, funerals, concerts, orations and military display in pervasive sombreness.

About a month earlier, John Howard was elected Prime Minister. Eight long years after he said it, the times finally suited him. The invented tradition of Anzac Day chimed in perfectly with his more strident view of Australian white history and the British tradition it sprung from. He also tapped into a growing nationalism based on “Aussie, Aussie” culture and the primacy of the flag. Anzac Day became bigger than ever.

I resisted most of these strains. Yet Gallipoli was growing on me. I read Les Carlyon’s wonderful history of the campaign and what struck me most, apart from the inevitable catalog of errors, was the number of Australian deaths. 643 in the first week, 1,805 through May, 265 in June, 143 in July, 2,054 in the August offensive with another 572 in the last four months. All through southern winter, people would have heard about the death of a father, brother, son, cousin or friend. This was Australia's first major national tragedy since Federation in 1901 and it was communal grief the ANZAC committees tapped into as early as 25 April 1916.

The Anzac experience was compounded by events in Western Europe. Thousands more Australians would die in the hell holes of Ypres and the Somme. Over 400,000 Australians enlisted in the First World War – almost two in five of the adult population between 18 and 44. 61,513 of them died (easily the largest of any conflict) and another 170,000 were injured or taken POW. In a country of four million people, it would be difficult to imagine anyone who wasn’t somehow affected by this catastrophe. Anzac Day was as good a way as any of honouring the memory of this harrowing experience.

This year, my job as a country reporter took me to two dawn services, the first in Roma and the second 40km away in the tiny town of Muckadilla. I hadn’t been to a dawn service since Melbourne in 1996 though I had attended a few parades. The formal part of the Roma and Muckadilla proceedings had not changed. “Shortly after 2am, three battleships, the Queen, the Prince of Wales and London reached their sea rendezvous off Gaba Tebe and stopped to lower their boats,” began the narrative of 95 years ago. The flag was lower and raised, the Ode was recited followed by a minute's silence, the last post and the national anthem.

Beyond effigies of symbolism lay the meeting of real people. 250 people turned up in Roma, 42 in tiny Muckadilla, easily doubling its population. A bigger crowd still congregated back in Roma for the parade and another service. It wasn’t the ritual that was important, it was what those people did and said to each other before and after the ceremonies that gave the day its power. It brought people together for a common theme if not a common purpose. I asked various people what Anzac Day meant to them. Almost all the answers were thoughtful and complex. Most remembered the deaths of family members or friends or people they knew about. If nothing else the Anzac tradition concentrates the mind wonderfully about mortality, and that for a day is no harm.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Time to ditch the Salary Cap

The fallout continues from the latest Australian rugby league salary cap breach which has seen champions Melbourne Storm hit with the largest punishment in the code’s history. The Storm were stripped of their 2007 and 2009 premierships, not allowed to compete for points this season, forced to return $1.1m in prize money and fined $500,000. Their breaches included $1.7m in salary over five years for the News Ltd owned team. News Ltd CEO John Hartigan has distanced himself from the fraud and former Club boss and now rugby Melbourne Rebels boss Brian Waldron has fallen on his sword as the supposed “architect” of the rorts. (photo:Getty)

However there are a lot of questions unanswered. As many commentators have pointed out, the case brings into question ownership of Australian sporting teams. There are also obvious conflicts of interest between News Ltd as owners and media reporting on the issue. It seems difficult to believe that senior administrators such as Hartigan are as innocent as they portray themselves especially as News have admitted it does not have a “satisfactory explanation” as to what the players’ agents knew and when.

But questions much also be asked about the efficacy of the salary cap system itself. None of this would have occurred if there was no salary cap and it has been of dubious benefit in keeping the competition open and clubs from falling into financial ruin. The salary cap is an American import. In the US sports administrators first brought in salary caps in the 1980s to avoid the ruinous escalation of player salaries and competitive imbalance leading to boring games. The positives also include the ability of smaller clubs able to keep their star players.

But some experts have viewed salary caps as a collusive resort by clubs to maximise league revenues by controlling labour costs at the expense of less competitive balance within the league. Although European football also has dangers of competitive imbalance and financial instability it never followed the American example. As the University of Zurich noted in a 2008 paper, The labour relations approach employed by the hermetic American major leagues is not feasible within the European association-governed football pyramid. Another key difference is European clubs are treated as win-maximisers and not as profit-maximisers in sports economics literature: Kesenne and Jeanrenaud argue the most important divergence between the USA and Europe is that American clubs are business-type companies seeking to make profits, whereas the only aim of most European clubs so far is to be successful on the field. However in recent years UEFA and the clubs have begun exploring options due to the general perception that competitive balance in European club football is declining and a large number of clubs are accumulating ever-increasing debt.

Like European football clubs, Australian sporting clubs were also considered win-maximisers for most of their existence. Matters began to change in the late 1980s as first Australian Rules and then Rugby League began to move to national competitions. In 1987 the then Victorian Football League (renamed to AFL in 1990) brought in the cap as the Brisbane Bears and West Coast Eagles joined the competition. Up to then the biggest Melbourne clubs Carlton, Essendon and Collingwood had dominated the competition and the salary cap was seen as an equalisation policy (as well as a means of ensuring the poorer Melbourne clubs would survive in a national setting).

The then NSW Rugby League competition (renamed NRL in 1995) also brought in a salary cap in 1990 after the Brisbane Broncos, Newcastle Knights and Canberra Raiders had taken the league beyond the Sydney suburbs. Unlike the AFL however, the NRL has to deal with the problem of players leaving to play in lucrative overseas markets but the league believes this is an acceptable price to stop richer clubs dominating. The problem is, however, it does not completely stop that domination. In the last 12 years, Melbourne and Brisbane have won three times each – and it is no coincidence both clubs are owned by News Ltd.

The fact remains that in both AFL and NRL codes the history of the cap has been most honoured in the breach. The new Sydney Swans breached the VFL cap in the very first season and were fined $20,000 for doubling the cap. In NRL there have been 13 known breaches in 20 years involving multiple clubs. In AFL there have been at least 16 breaches in the 23 years of its existence and there have also been breaches in the next level down including most recently in the South Australian SANFL when Norwood was fined $50,000 and excluded for 12 months from registering any players outside its promotional boundary zone after a serious breach of the 2008 cap.

Like many good ideas, the salary cap is one prone to the law of unintended consequences. As sport becomes big business, its owners and controllers will stop at nothing to achieve success. It is all too easy to avoid scrutiny and the Storm debacle was only uncovered by accident. In my view, it is time to remove the cap. It won’t affect lower income clubs who can barely reach the cap ceilings now and it will drive more honest behaviour in the big clubs and patrons will get to judge exactly how much their stars are earning. As in every other occupation, the market should be best judge of salaries not the administrators.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Australian Government refuses to implement a Human Rights Act

The Australian Government finally issued its Human Rights Framework today after considering a consultation committee report for over six months and ending a process that started in December 2008. The Government is calling it a “framework” because it has gone against the recommendation of the national human rights consultation panel to introduce a new human rights act. McClelland said a human rights framework (pdf version) is more appropriate than legislation. "The Government believes that the enhancement of human rights should be done in a way that as far as possible unites rather than divides our community, and the framework is designed to achieve that outcome," he said.

The head of the consultation panel, Jesuit priest and law professor Frank Brennan, was disappointed with the decision. He said he doubted if politicians will be sufficient faithful to framework obligations without judicial oversight. The Australian Human Rights Commission also criticised the Government’s response saying while it includes important steps to improve the understanding of human rights in Australia, it had missed the opportunity to create an adequate national system of protection. “The Government has missed the opportunity to provide comprehensive human rights protection for everyone in Australia through adopting a national Human Rights Act,” President of the Australian Human Rights Commission Cathy Branson said. Branson urged the Government to revisit the question of the Act as part of its 2014 review of the Framework.

According to The Australian, the reason McClelland refused to include a Human Rights Act was because of a rebellion within his own party. It said this was one of two contentious issues (introducing rules for judges that would have required them to interpret legislation in a way they believe is in accordance with human rights was the other) but did not reveal who in the party room was against these measures or why they opposed them.

Opposition spokesperson for legal affairs George Brandis called it a “humiliation” for McClelland. He said the Rudd Government wasted more than $2 million in promoting an idea which never had community support and only appealed to “a self-regarding elite of legal academics and activist judges.” Brandis said The Opposition has always opposed the bill of rights as “a dangerous and foolish idea”, which would have diminished parliament’s authority of Parliament and politicised the judiciary. “It would have been a Trojan horse to impose a left-wing social agenda on Australians without democratic legitimacy,” Brandis claimed.

According to McClelland’s media release the framework is based on five key principles. These are: a commitment to human rights obligations; the importance of human rights education; enhancing domestic and international engagement on human rights issues; improving human rights protections, including greater parliamentary scrutiny; and achieving greater respect for human rights principles within the community. McClelland said the Government would spend $12m on education initiatives and would establish a new Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights to scrutinise legislation for compliance with international human rights obligations.

In the blogosphere, reaction to the announcement was mostly scathing. Classical Liberal Andrew Norton agreed with the decision not to include a charter but said it would have focussed attention on which freedoms deserved to achieve semi-constitutional status and which were matters of ordinary political debate. Instead, he said, human rights would become subject to undemocratic treaties. Guy Beres said McClelland’s assertion an Act would be divisive is risible given how divisive the lack of one is. Kim at Larvatus Prodeo agrees with Beres and said the Act had been squibbed by the ALP’s “authoritarian streak, which seems particularly prominent in New South Wales.”

In the end this was political compromise of an ugly kind. While most Labor MPs were philosophically in favour of such an Act (especially knowing how its lack contributed to some of the worst excesses of the Howard administration), no one in Rudd's kitchen cabinet was prepared to die in the trenches of marginal seats for it in an election year. In the end, it has been replaced by feel-good phrases, a rubber-stamp committee and an education campaign that has “failure” written all over it. Taxpayers can consider themselves lucky that just $12m will be wasted on it. We will have to wait until the 2014 review of a likely third-term Labor Government before something better is offered.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Federal Court to rule on The Australian's terrorist leak source tomorrow

The Federal Court will reveal tomorrow whether it will allow Victorian Police name the source of the leak to The Australian’s journalist Cameron Stewart over last year’s Melbourne terrorist arrest operation. On 4 August 2009 the Australian printed Cameron Stewart’s exclusive. The article quoted Australian Federal Police commissioner Tony Negus saying the AFP had disrupted a “terrorist attack that could have claimed many lives”. Four men were arrested in Melbourne in Operation Neath after 400 police raided homes in the city’s northern suburbs. The four were said to have been inspired by Somalia’s Islamist Al Shabaab and about to attack a military base using semi-automatic weapons.

A great story, and Stewart had gotten the inside scoop. The Australian had learned of the operation a full week before it occurred and agreed to hold off on publication until the morning of the raid. But Victoria Police were incensed to find out the details of the operation hit the streets for the first run of the paper in the early hours of this morning and criticised it for potentially jeopardising a series of early morning raids, calling it an “unacceptable risk”. The Australian rejected the claim, saying the story was held up from early editions while the raids took place. According to the paper’s then editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell, "only papers that were sold at newsagents after the raid, and those destined for home delivery, had the raid story on page one."

The online outlet Crikey later found out the edition with the story in it was available in some retail outlets at 1.30am, some three hours before the raid started. While few if any papers were purchased, thefts of papers outside agents are not uncommon and those that do buy papers at that time of the morning include taxi drivers, which happened to be the occupation of some of the suspects. So it is fair to say, the integrity of the operation could well have been jeopardized by The Australian’s actions. But it is also arguable the operation should have been brought forward as soon as the AFP realised its secrecy was compromised.

On 9 August the police corruption watchdog got involved. In a media release Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity commissioner Philip Moss announced they would investigate an alleged security breach relating to Operation Neath. The announcement said the ACLEI investigation was part of a coordinated response by State and Federal law enforcement and integrity agencies, including the Office of Police Integrity (Victoria). “ACLEI’s focus will relate to the involvement, if any, of members of the Australian Federal Police in the alleged security breach,” the release said.

In March, Stewart won the Gold Quill for outstanding journalism at the Melbourne Press Club's annual Quill Awards dinner. In his acceptance speech for the award Stewart said he couldn’t speak about the incident due to reasons of legal confidentially. He painted the case as one of press freedom and said the lack of shield laws for sources and journalists was a disgrace. “What none of you know here is that it's been a very, very difficult and ugly legal battle behind the scenes,” he said. "But let me tell you that it is a real fight in this country for press freedom because it is a very ugly battle that we face and I hope that every single person in this room does what they can to stand up for it.”

As a result of the ACLEI / OPI investigation, a Victorian policeman was identified as Stewart’s source and suspended for leaking the information. When ACLEI and OPI drafted a report into the source of the leak, The Australian won an injunction prohibiting its publication. The case currently before the courts attempts to overturn that injunction. However the two police forces involved have broken ranks. Margaret Simons in Crikey said last week court documents show ACLEI has cut a deal with The Australian and has agreed not to publish any of the information they have obtained about the newspaper during their investigation and will also allow The Australian to review any report it writes that refers to the paper or its employees.

The Victorian agency is understandably unhappy with its federal counterpart and going ahead with the request to overturn the injunction. Simons has been covering the case from the courtroom for the last few days using the Twitter hashtag #ozleak No-one is prepared to make a call on what way the court will judge. But the case does put into question dodgy practices in the media and police. Both Simons and Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes have publicly questioned whether Stewart deserved a high journalism accolade for his work on a story that could so easily have gone drastically wrong. Was it great work in the interest of the public’s right to know or merely “a policeman blabbing to a journo about a legitimate terrorist investigation” as Holmes put it? Either way, Stewart may find nasty repercussions if he is ever forced to confirm the source in a criminal investigation.

Monday, April 19, 2010

West and Third World disagree on legitimacy of Sudan elections

International observers have disagreed on whether Sudan’s first multi-party elections in 24 years were free and fair. While western observers and media say the election falls “far short” of international standards, African and Middle Eastern observers say it was successful despite defects. The vote was held over five days last week and results have not yet been formally announced but President Omar al-Bashir and his National Congress Party are expected to win comfortably. (photo: AFP)

Al-Bashir who took power in an Islamist-backed coup in 1989 is hoping to legitimise his rule ahead of war crimes charges from the international criminal court. The country’s national election commission said the election results due tomorrow would be delayed further. An election official told AFP they could not set a definite date because the count was a “complicated process”.

Counting of the votes began on Friday amid logistical snags and charges of fraud. The Sudanese National Elections Commission has said 60 percent out of 16 million voters cast ballots. The election was marred by an opposition boycott and the withdrawal of two presidential candidates, the Umma party's Sadiq al-Mahdi and the former southern rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement's Yasser Arman. The NCP dominates the north of the country and currently rules alongside the SPLM as part of a peace deal that ended civil war in 2005, but there are significant tensions between the two parties.

The head of a 130-member EU observer mission in Sudan criticised the poll, saying there had been "significant deficiencies". Veronique de Keyser said the organisation of elections represented a complex challenge. “Unfortunately…deficiencies in voters’ lists and weak organisation hindered the voters’ participation,” she said. “I am also concerned that polling was affected by intimidation and threats. De Keyser said that although the elections paved the way for democratic progress, it is essential shortcomings are addressed to achieve a genuine democratic environment for future elections.

The EU’s position was endorsed by monitors from the US Carter Centre, run by former US president Jimmy Carter. A statement from the centre said it was apparent that the elections will fall short of meeting international standards and Sudan's obligations for genuine elections. "Unfortunately, many political rights and freedoms were circumscribed for most of this period, fostering distrust among the political parties,” the statement read. "Ultimately the success of the elections will depend on whether Sudan's leaders take action to promote lasting democratic transformation."

However Arab League observers said the election was a “big step forward” and will become “an example for other African and Arab countries”. The African Union also disagreed with the EU and Carter Centre assessments. The head of the AU observer’s mission, Kunle Adeyemi said it was not a perfect election but a historic one. “Looking into the fact this is a country that had not had a multi-party election for almost a generation…to say they are free and fair, to the best of our knowledge we have no reason to think the contrary,” Adeyemi said.

UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon was also upbeat about the success of the election. He welcomed efforts by the ruling parties in Sudan to enter dialogue with opposition candidates and parties. The UN said polls closed across Sudan today without any major violent incidents, although there were some reported cases of irregularities and opposition boycotts. In a statement, Ban said he “encourages all political actors in Sudan to tackle issues in a spirit of dialogue, towards a peaceful electoral outcome and ongoing implementation of the CPA [the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the north-south civil war]”.

That war is heading towards its inevitable conclusion next year. This is likely to be the last time Southern Sudan voters vote for their autonomous leaders within the Sudanese election. In January 2011 Southern Sudan votes on a referendum on full independence which most observers expect will be carried. However Juba, which is set to become the world's newest capital city, has no landline telephones, no public transport, no power grid, no industry, no agriculture and few buildings. Growing fears over a post-Sudan split is leading Southern Sudan to build new trade routes. One ambitious plan calls for a high speed railway line from Juba to Tororo in Uganda which would cost $7 billion. This railway line could facilitate the movement of goods and people to and from Juba to any part of the wider East African region including Mombasa, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Cameraman takes the rap for Nine's shoddy practices

On Wednesday last week, Channel Nine Melbourne sacked one of its news cameramen Simon Fuller after an incident on the streets with a man named Gad Amr on 1 April. On that day Gad’s son Omar Amr, 19, was released by Melbourne Magistrates Court on strict bail conditions after being accused of a riot in the suburb of Oakleigh last month in which drag-race fans trashed a Bob Jane T-Mart store. Amr and two fellow defendants Hussein Alameddine and Aziz Elbayehare are due to reappear in court on 27 July. (photo: ABC)

The Oakleigh riot was instigated by the cancellation of a proposed Easter drag race at Calder Park which was sponsored by Bob Jane T-Marts. On 19 March Disappointed fans took to the streets to protest the decision but became violent when it came upon a Bob Jane T-Mart store in Oakleigh. The store was torched and looted and the owner was lucky to escape with minor injuries. Hundreds of drag racing fans trashed the store, broke windows and stole car parts from inside, forcing bystanders to flee for safety.

Although the three charged on 1 April were all middle-eastern, there was no suggestion the riot was in any way racially motivated. However it is likely the Amrs felt they were being unfairly treated as Channel Seven and Nine camera operators followed them down the street after their court appearance. Such behaviour by camera operators may be unedifying, but it is hardly unusual. The pedestrian parade is a staple of TV news court reporting usually with the suspect / victim covering their face as they walk away quickly from the camera.

It is difficult to say exactly why this case differed from the thousands like it that have taken place near Australian courthouses. Occasionally they turn violent if the victim feels the camera crews have taken too many liberties but mostly people just try to get away from the situation as quickly as they can. The situation is unlikely to change any time soon as news directors insist on footage from this charade as part of their court coverage. It was Channel Nine cameraman Simon Fuller’s job to follow the Amrs out of the court room and grab footage of Omar for that night’s news.

When confronted by Gad Amr and asked to stop filming, Fuller’s automatic reply was “I’m just doing my job”. Fuller was mostly right. In following Amr down the street he was doing his job. The question is whether he was “just” doing that. In the footage of the incident dissected by Media Watch Jonathan Holmes said “at most he needed a couple of shots of the pair. You'd think he'd have got enough by now.”

So why did Fuller keep shooting? It would appear from that moment on, it became personal for Amr and Fuller. Amr came close to Fuller as if threatening (this was the only footage of the incident shown by an opportunistic Channel Seven whose own camera operator was also following the action). Fuller became defensive saying “You don't touch me” and “You don't touch people” before retreating to his Nuremberg Defence of “We're just doing our jobs.” As Holmes said “You don't touch people. But it's fine, apparently, to stick a camera in their faces for minutes on end while they walk down a public street.”

As the argument continued, it degenerated further into a swearing match. The son Omar, called Fuller “a fucking knuckle” to which Fuller replied “you fucking terrorist”. It is likely that this insult cost Fuller his job. After Media Watch got hold of the footage and contacted Channel Nine, they were told Fuller was “stood down pending the completion of an investigation”. Two days later he was sacked.

In my view, Fuller was a scapegoat. There was much he did wrong. He filmed the Amrs for too long but probably figured his employers would love the image of the aggressive middle easterners attacking an “innocent” media person. (The irony is that this is exactly what rivals Channel Seven and Ten did with the footage while Nine did not show any of it.) His racist attack on the Amrs of “fucking terrorist” was incredibly stupid and unsurprisingly provocative though the Amrs' own behaviour (particularly the son Omar’s) in the incident was not beyond reproach either. However it could be argued Fuller's obscenity was heat of the moment stuff that could have been dealt with a rebuke and a personal apology to the Amrs.

I believe Fuller is now unemployed not because he did all those things but because his behaviour was publicly revealed. He besmirched Nine not because he overstepped the mark but because he was caught making a racial slur. I very much doubt Channel Nine no longer condone camera operators “just doing their job” when they invade the privacy of people walking down the street. Individuals need to be responsible for their actions, but their employers must be clear about what is expected of them. Fuller, in my view, is a scapegoat for rotten corporate practices. Nine will feel good about themselves but they will continue to harass members of the public in the interest of news ratings.

For a vigorous rebuttal of my take on this, I am indebted to Jo White, an American-based Australian journalist, critic and researcher who goes by the online name of Mediamum. When I called Fuller a scapegoat on Twitter, White said he got what he deserved and it was people like him that gave journalists such a bad reputation. “What he did was unethical, reprehensible and about as bad as journalism gets,” wrote White. “He should have been sacked fifty times.” White said he got involved in the story, abused his position and denied the “terrorist” slur was a heat of the moment offence. “The problem is each Journalist should take responsibility for their own actions and not hide behind employers,” she wrote. “Sacking Fuller won't solve the problem. But it gets rid of one albeit small representation of it.”

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Obama gets a good start in Nuclear Security Summit

The Washington Nuclear Security Summit ended yesterday after two days with a 12 point communiqué and an agreement to meet again in 2012 in South Korea. The 47-nation summit agreed to lock up the world's most vulnerable nuclear materials within four years to keep it out of terrorist hands. The communiqué said nuclear terrorism was one of the most challenging threats to international security and strong nuclear security measures were the most effective means to prevent “terrorist criminals or other unauthorized actors” from acquiring nuclear materials. The conference also issued a call to all nations to work collectively "to strengthen nuclear security and reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism."

The conference follows in the footsteps of the recent US-Russia agreement to reduce nuclear weapons. The outcome will see an renewed role for the International Atomic Energy agency who will inspect sites where fissile material is stored (including in the US). Other positive outcomes include Chile, Ukraine and Mexico agreeing to ship out their entire stock of highly enriched uranium, which can be used in weapons. The Guardian judged the summit a reasonable success, partly thanks to a narrow focus on a field that is more technical than political.

However, the Christian Science Monitor said while the conference objectives were reassuring, a “global reality” will make the goal difficult. It said worldwide production of highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium is going to increase in coming years as civilian nuclear programs grow. Experts such as David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington see contradictions in the approach. Albright said France blocked limiting the production of separated plutonium, which is a core element of the French nuclear energy industry. But there were also successes including the US/Ukraine agreement to secure Kiev’s stockpile of highly enriched uranium and the North American agreement to remove Mexico’s supply of highly enriched uranium to the US for conversion to low-enriched uranium.

This was Obama’s first major international conference on home soil and he used the full force of his personality to bear on events. He held 15 bilateral meetings with regional leaders. Several European diplomats told the Washington Times the large number of attendees reflects Obama's popularity abroad. Nuclear weapons were not a huge issue for many of those leaders and Obama’s challenge was to make them care about securing the military sites, research reactors and universities where nuclear materials are stored. "Coming into this summit, there were a range of views on this danger," Obama said. "But at our dinner last night, and throughout the day, we developed a shared understanding of the risk."

In the president’s closing speech Obama outlines four major planks to the agreement that came out of the meeting. Firstly he declared nuclear terrorism to be one of the most challenging threats to international security. To stop this threat, Obama said, requires action to protect nuclear materials and prevent nuclear smuggling. Secondly he said the conference had endorsed the US position to secure the world’s vulnerable nuclear materials within four years. Thirdly the conference reaffirmed the fundamental responsibility of nations to secure its nuclear materials and facilities. Lastly it acknowledged international cooperation was required to maintain effective security.

Security was quite effective at the conference itself with almost 50 world leaders in attendance. However not everyone was happy about it, with Dana Milbank in the Washington Post complaining of excessive media management. Most sessions were closed to the press, foreign media were given short shrift and no questions were allowed in bilateral meetings with only anodyne readouts available. It wasn’t until the end of the conference that Obama allowed tough questions from his own media corps, including pointing out the nonproliferation agreements weren't binding, the failure to curb North Korea's weapons, and the notable absence from the conference of nuclear rogue state Israel.

But the most notable questions were about Iran. According to Tony Karon in Time the goals of the summit were so modest it could hardly have failed. Karon says the real action took place off the main stage with Obama doing one-on-one lobbying with world leaders over sanctions against Iran. Neither Russia nor China seem prepared to support the US on the matter. China in particular as Iran’s largest energy partner is reluctant to support measures such as shutting down investment in the energy sector, blocking access to international credit or punishing companies associated with the Revolutionary Guard. China and Russia’s veto powers seem destined to defeat any significant move to hobble Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Centre-right has landslide win in Hungarian election

The centre-right Fidesz Party has won power from the ruling Socialists after winning over half the vote in Sunday’s Hungarian parliamentary elections. Fidesz performed as well as the opinion polls had predicted and won 52.8 of the vote which translates to a healthy majority of 206 seats in the 386 seat legislature. The socialists were routed and ended up with just 28 seats barely two more than gained by the far right Jobbik Party. The Greens also passed the threshold to get into parliament, securing five seats. A second round of voting follows on April 25 to elect another 121 members but Fidesz already has the numbers to rule outright.

Nevertheless the second round of voting is important as they are in sight of a two-thirds majority it needs to push through vital reforms. The victory will see Fidesz party leader Victor Orban take the prime minister’s job for the second rule. The Oxford educated Orban is a veteran of Hungarian politics despite being just 46 years old. He was a foundation member of Fidesz (an acronym of FIatal DEmokraták SZövetsége which means "Alliance of Young Democrats" ) in 1988 at the end of the Communist era. He took over the leadership of the party two years later in the first free elections and became Hungary’s second youngest ever Prime Minister in 1998 after he led a Coalition to victory. He oversaw Hungary’s admission into NATO but was beset by scandals which helped him lose office in 2002. Fidesz were defeated again in 2006 but with his leadership secure Orban was in a position to capitalise this time round on electoral dissatisfaction with the Socialists savage budget cuts.

With unemployment running at 11.4 percent and an economy that contracted by 6.3 percent in 2009 Orhan faces a massive task to avoid the same fate despite his strong mandate. Fidesz campaigned on cutting taxes, creating jobs and supporting local businesses but was hazy about how to deliver on a promise to create a million jobs in 10 years. Fidesz has also said could double the deficit target set by the IMF and EU as part of a rescue package by slashing local government and implementing efficiencies in health care and education.

Besides Orhan’s routing of the ruling party, the elections other big talking point was the dangerous rise of Jobbik. The anti-semitic and anti-gypsy party came from nowhere in the last four years capitalising on discontent with the major parties. Led by 32-year-old history teacher Gabor Vona, the party tapped into nationalist sentiment of shame over Hungary’s reputation as a sick economy. Jobbik campaigned on a platform of blaming Jews and the Roma for Hungary’s ills and their rise brings back uncomfortable memories of the Nazi era. Much of their support was in poor rural areas with high unemployment and they were helped organisationally by the Magyar Garda (Hungarian Guard) a paramilitary group with black uniforms to the Arrow Cross, Hungary's original Nazi party. Though the Guard was disbanded by court order last year for breaking association law in continues under an assumed name. Vona is a founding member of the Magyar Garda.

Prime Minister in waiting Orhan has said he is deeply unhappy with Jobbik’s rise and has no plans to bring them into a coalition. He will be relying on an improvement in the economy to curb their growing appeal. Orban said good governing was the best defense against the far right. “I am convinced that the better the performance of the government is, the weaker the far right will be in the future,” he said. However it is also likely Orhan will restrain Jobbik’s influence by embracing its social conservatism and family values while adopting its tough attitudes on law and order.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Bartlett should accept McKim's Tasmanian Coalition offer

A Tasmanian Green media release today confirmed what most people understood as the Green position in the Apple Isle: they would prefer a coalition government but in the meantime won’t support a no confidence motion against the Labor Government. In the absence of a negotiated settlement or outright malfeasance by Labor, David Bartlett will be able to serve out a second term as Tasmanian Premier. Yet Greens leader Nick McKim continued to offer to negotiate with either party and said they would still hold all of their pre-election policies including opposition to the proposed Gunns pulp mill, fighting to save Tasmania’s high conservation value forests, and rolling back the government’s education reform program “Tasmania Tomorrow”.

These latter three policies are likely to be major sticking points and make Bartlett’s long-term survival hopes appear tenuous. Bartlett could strengthen that position by sitting down with McKim but he has shown little sign of wanting to negotiate what would appear on face value to be an obvious centre-left coalition between Labor and the Greens. But in the poisonous world of Tasmanian politics, Labor might have been better served seeking a Coalition with the Liberals. Prior to the election, Bartlett said he had no level of trust in McKim.

The election under the Hare-Clark rules on 20 March left Tasmania with a lower house of 10 Labor seats, 10 Liberal and 5 Greens. While such a result is common in Europe and leads to perfectly workable coalitions, here the result was greeted with consternation. Both the major parties stuck their collective heads in the sand and said working with the Greens was impossible – working with each other was simply the beyond the realm of thought.

Because the Liberals took 39 percent of the vote compared to Labor’s 37, Bartlett initially held to his campaign promise that he would have over power to the Liberals in the event they outvoted them. Bartlett began to pull back from that promise in the weeks following the election as it became obvious it was dubious from the standpoint of constitutional conventions. He was also bolstered by McKim’s offer of support despite having making no efforts to woo the Greens. On 9 April, Tasmanian Governor Peter Underwood made the correct call and offered the Premiership back to Bartlett. Underwood still retains the possibility of offering the job to the Liberals’ Will Hodgman in the event it doesn’t work out. Only then would Tasmanians face another election.

Hodgman bitterly protested the decision and slammed Bartlett for going back on his promise. But this was never Bartlett’s decision to make. As Tasmanian lawyer Greg Barns said, “Underwood correctly applied constitutional convention, which is to say he asked himself which party could provide stability and saw that the answer was clearly the ALP. End of story.”

Of course, it is very far from the end of this particularly story. However, ABC election analyst Antony Green believes Bartlett and McKim are finally discussing the possibility of coalition government with the possibility that McKim and fellow Greens MP Tim Morris may be offered ministries. Former Premier Paul Lennon is also pushing for Bartlett to offer McKim a ministry. How they deal with the looming decision on Gunn’s Tamar Vale pulp mill will be an early test of such an alliance, nevertheless it is good they are talking and the Greens may find it harder to oppose from inside the tent. Australian politicians don’t take easy to compromise but it is the mark of mature governance and often the only way things get done in a democracy.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Refugees as election pawns: Labor's immigration shame

In the minute or so it took to issue an infamous media release, the Rudd Labor Government blew away all the goodwill it generated with its previous attempts to undo the shabby Howard era treatment of refugees. On Friday, Labor went back to the future and tore shreds out of Australia’s already battered international reputation on the humane treatment of refugees.

The release began ominously with the words “effective immediately”. These two words had a double meaning. Firstly it showed Labor were not going to give anyone time to prepare, and secondly it was showing it was going to hide behind an instruction delivered in management-speak. The instruction itself was a knock-out blow “the Australian Government has today introduced a suspension of the processing of new asylum applications from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.”

What did the unfortunate people of Sri Lanka and Afghanistan do to deserve this sudden treatment? Apparently, according to the breathtaking insouciance of the Government, there are “evolving circumstances” in these countries that “will mean that it is likely that, in the future, more asylum claims from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan will be refused.” Evolving circumstances is a fancy way of saying things have changed though even these weasel-words of this sentence did not dare claim circumstances have evolved necessarily for the better.

That arduous task was left to the sentences that followed. Looking through Asian politics with glasses so rose-tinted it matches their shameful embarrassment, the Labor Government has somehow concluded that wartorn Afghanistan is now safe for Hazaris and post-war Sri Lanka is safe for Tamils. Afghans will be surprised to hear about the “Taliban’s fall” and “durable security” (admittedly only “in parts of the country”). Meanwhile lucky Tamils have “hopes for further improvement and stabilisation in conditions.” Based on this flimsiest of evidence, the Australian Government has suspended the processing of new asylum claims by Sri Lankans for three months and Afghans for six months.

This is a breathtaking assumption for these “developments” that the facts on the ground simply do not support. In 2009, the worsening humanitarian crises caused by the American occupation and “surge” in Afghanistan and the Sri Lankan army’s brutal crushing of the Tamil independence movement has led to more desperate boatloads of Hazaris and Tamil refugees arriving. They will now be detained for three or six months as political pawns in an Australian game.

The blame for this shameful announcement can be shared equally between three pollyannas - Immigration Minister Senator Chris Evans, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor. Nevertheless the release has the fingerprints of their mutual boss all over it. Kevin Rudd is enough of a foreign policy wonk to know this message about “evolving developments” is complete rubbish. But this announcement has nothing to do with the political situation in Afghanistan or Sri Lanka – even a cursory glance at either country would not support this spurious nonsense spouted by his three stooges Evans, Smith and O’Connor.

No, the real reason is that opinion polls are showing 64 percent of Australians are afraid of the refugee boats and want them “stopped”. These numbers are dangerous but not yet near Tampa territory and the last thing Kevin Rudd wants in an election year is an issue Tony Abbott can wedge him on. So his solution is breathtakingly efficient and hypocritical – Park the issue for six months until the election is over.

According to Evans et al’s presser, the Australian Government believes “asylum seekers should only be granted the right to live in Australia if they are genuinely in need of protection.” This has nothing to do with evolving circumstances and everything to do with treating every case on its merits. But the hysterical media reaction to a few dozen boats arriving on our northern shores has dusted off the fears that always seem to lie just under the surface of Australia’s fragile settler mentality. According to the UNHCR’s 2009 report, Australia / New Zealand had 6,500 asylum claims last year out of a worldwide total of 377,200 – barely 1.6 percent of the world’s refugees.

But this data is conveniently glossed over in the vapid heat over the asylum “debate”. Nor is the truth of conditions on the ground in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan of any local interest. Instead the agenda is set by dangerous stupidity from politicians such as Barnaby Joyce and fuelled by talk show hosts and tabloid editorials who speak only in the xenophobic language that panders to the fears of their readers and listeners. As a result, what we share as a people matters less than what we might lose as individuals. This is a human tragedy and not just for the asylum seekers. Kevin Rudd is to blame, but we are all indicted.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

IP not Idiot Proof: Britain passes bad Digital Economy Bill

The hilarity of yesterday’s news was provided by Boing Boing’ Cory Doctorow who revealed that the Minister for Digital Britain did not know what an IP address is. In a letter purporting to be from the Minister (Neither Boing Boing nor the Financial Times were certain it was genuine and Timms did not respond to a direct enquiry on the matter by Woolly Days) to a fellow Labour MP, an IP address is called an “Intellectual Property” address rather than a “Internet Protocol” address. Such a mistake is forgivable for lay people, but not only is Timms the relevant minister who should know better, but he has also has been responsible for a piece of legislation called the Digital Economy Bill that many see has seriously set back the cause of a free and open Internet. In this context the error takes on a whole new meaning.

The Digital Economy Bill was one of the last acts of the current British Government which they pushed through late on Wednesday night. It may have many long-lasting and unintended consequences. The bill is an extraordinarily wide-ranging piece of legislation that affects communications regulator Ofcom, Channel Four, Commercial TV, spectrum regulation, broadband, digital radio, video games, intellectual property (not Internet Protocol!) and internet domain registrations. MPs had just a few hours to digest its lengthy contents. All of it needs scrutiny but it is its recommendation on illegal downloads that has generated the most controversy.

As Gigaom says the bill tackles copyright infringement by forcing ISPs to cut off persistent file-sharers. In their rush to pass the legislation, it is looking leaky and undercooked and is likely to have many negative implications for digital freedoms. Among the concerns are it could have the unintended consequence of forcing libraries and cafes to stop offering free Wi-Fi and worryingly it could also give the government the power to block sites like Wikileaks, on the excuse it hosts copyright-infringing material. By tackling those who download copyrighted content illegally, the bill also moves to suspend or slow down some web users' connections.

The bill won cross-party support but one of the few active voices in parliament against it was Labour MP Tom Watson. Watson is one of the few MPs who understands what the digital economy actually means, and in his speech against it he described it as a mass (or mess) of “unintended consequences”. As Mike Butcher wrote in the Telegraph those consequences include potentially huge legal bills for Internet start-ups, and everyday parents who have little idea how their download limit is being used up by “teenage children, neighbours, or even someone parked outside their house.”

Another dissenter in parliament, Tory MP William Cash, made the point the impact and implications of the Bill's many clauses are sophisticated and not immediately obvious, and supporting it should not be a given. "The Bill should not be rushed through," he said. "It is not the Dangerous Dogs Bill; it is a very different type of Bill."

But TechCrunch Europe have seen it all before. They emotively used a Churchill pre-war speech as a metaphor for what is happening now “The stations of uncensored expression are closing down,” said Churchill about Nazi dominated Europe in 1938 and TechCrunch argued these stations were shutting down again today. Just as in the proposed Australian legislation the onus will be on ISPs to police the new laws. TechCrunch says ISPs will have to send letters to their subscribers who have been linked to copyright infringements and, after these warnings, suspend their accounts. Copyright holders will be able to apply for a court order to gain access to the names and addresses of serious infringers and take legal action.

Similar to the battle here in Australia over the Government’s proposed Internet censorship plans, the British digital economy bill has lined up the tech savvy and civil libertarians on one side and mainstream politicians on the other. As in Australia, neither side has covered themselves in glory in an issue that does not fully resonate with the majority of the electorate. Politicians, with too many other issues to deal with, allow themselves to be swayed by party whips, vested interests and industry lobby groups. The tech savvy’s mobilisation of platforms such as Twitter starts by being a good focus of anger but ends up being a frustrated and vitriolic echo chamber of like-minded views. Politicians know these views fail to cut through to suburbia and the issues affecting marginal electorates. Those fighting the #nocleanfeed war in Australia should closely examine the way the Digital Economy Bill played out. An antipodean repeat is on the cards.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Russian and Polish leaders commemorate 70th anniversary of Katyn Massacre

The Russian and Polish Prime Ministers attended a memorial service yesterday to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre near the modern-day Russian city of Smolensk. Polish PM Donald Tusk accompanied Vladimir Putin to a memorial at the site where 4,500 Polish prisoners of war were killed by Soviet security forces during World War II. Putin admitted the Soviets told cynical lies for 50 years about what happened at Katyn while Tusk urged Putin to ensure all Soviet-era archives related to the massacre are open to researchers. It was the first time leaders of both countries attended the service. (photo: Reuters)

The massacre remains a deeply troubling event for Polish-Russian relations. In 1940 Poland had temporarily ceased to exist (not for the first time) as the Nazis and the Soviets carved it up under the terms of their Non-Aggression Pact. The NKVD interned about 125,000 Polish prisoners of which 40,000 were still in their hands in early 1940 and these were held at various camps across the west of the Soviet Union. The internees underwent a lengthy interrogation to weed out those who had no Communist sympathies.

On 5 March 1940 Stalin’s head of the NKVD secret police (which would eventually become the KGB after Stalin’s death) Lavrentiy Beria wrote a letter to his boss. The letter stated a large number of former officers of the Polish Army, Police, political groups and intelligence services were held in NKVD prisoner-of-war camps in Ukraine and Belarus. They were all, he wrote, “sworn enemies of Soviet authority full of hatred for the Soviet system.” Beria accused them of counter-revolutionary activities and “anti-Soviet agitation”. He urged 25,000 of them be tried before special tribunals and be applied the “supreme penalty: shooting”.

Stalin was one of six other Politburo leaders who signed off on Beria’s letter. The 25,000 on Beria’s list were deemed enemies of the state. Stalin knew exactly what he was doing. If Poland ever became independent again, its leaders would not forgive the Soviets for their treachery in attacking in unison with the Nazis. The obvious solution in his eyes was to eliminate those leaders. The three main camps where they were held were Kolezsk, Starobielsk and Ostashtov. Kolezsk camp housed about 5,000 Polish military officers and was close to Katyn Forest, about 20km from the city of Smolensk. Between April and May 1940, the NKVD transferred about 4,500 prisoners to the forest to be executed one by one, all under the cover of darkness. Similar numbers died at the two other camps and more still died in Belarus and Ukraine. The final death toll was in excess of 22,000.

What made Katyn special was that it was found out. Polish workers found mass graves there as early as 1942 but no one would believe their claims. The official Russian story (now that they had switched sides after the German Barbarossa invasion) was that Polish officers were released in the east and went missing in Manchuria. In April 1943, retreating Wehrmacht soldiers found a mass grave at Katyn and Goebbels used it as a propaganda weapon to sow discord between the USSR and Poland. It very nearly worked with Free Polish leader General Sikorski threatening to break off the alliance. His unexplained death two months later proved very convenient for Stalin.

When the Russians re-took Katyn they destroyed the cemetery Polish Red Cross had put in place. They held a commission which whitewashed the incident and blamed the Nazies. With bigger fish to fry, the Western Alliance overlooked the matter and resisted internal pressure to investigate the matter further. The Russians tried to include it as a German war crime in the Nuremburg trials but had to drop it due to lack of evidence. In Communist Poland it was dangerous to mention Katyn, but that very danger meant the memory remained cherished through the years. As the Warsaw Pact collapsed in 1989, Russian scholars admitted the truth about Katyn and a year later President Gorbachev finally publicly stated the NKVD had executed the Poles, and confirmed there were two other burial sites similar to the one at Katyn.

In his speech yesterday at Katyn, Putin firmly put the blame on the Soviet Union’s totalitarian regime. This is part of Putin’s agenda to placate the Poles. Last August Putin praised Polish soldiers and citizens for their bravery in resisting the Nazis at an anniversary ceremony in Poland observing the start of World War II. Russia has also invited Poland to take part in the WWII Victory Day parade on Red Square this year for the first time. And last week, a Kremlin-run television channel showed “Katyn,” an Oscar-nominated film by the Polish director Andrzej Wajda which had screened only a few times in Russia. With Poland encouraging the US to host its missile shield, it is likely all be part of a grand Faustian bargain. But for now we may enjoy a rare Putin truth while it lasts.

UPDATE Saturday, 10 April.
The anniversary ceremony has been completely overshadowed by the shocking plane crash which killed the Polish president and many of the country's elite on the way to Katyn.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Sri Lanka set to give Rajapakse another big victory

Sri Lanka is gearing up for tomorrow's election for a new 225-seat parliament just three months after its presidential election. Opinion polls suggest President Mahinda Rajapakse’s United People's Freedom Alliance will win the elections. They should secure a big majority and retain government following the president’s resounding victory in the 26 January presidential polls. “President Rajapakse’s victory over the LTTE has given him a huge popularity boost,” said Sri Lankan political analyst Rohan Edirsinghe. “The presidential election victory in turn has given his party a boost because most people in Sri Lanka recognise that the presidency is the most powerful office under the Sri Lankan constitution.”

The main opposition the United National Party has accused the ruling party of campaign abuses and said it did not expect a free and fair election. UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said Rajapakse's administration had used state-owned cars and offices for campaigning and turned the government-run media into a party mouthpiece. "There was a suppression of private media [and] Journalists were attacked and abducted by those connected to the government," Wickremesinghe said. "Editors were arrested and intimidated."

The Government has also extended the country’s emergency laws by another month just two days before the election. The extension is the second since parliament was dissolved in February. The emergency has been in place since August 2005 when Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in was assassinated. Opposition parties have questioned the need to keep the laws active since the military defeat of the LTTE in May last year. The government claims it needs the law to flush out remaining Tigers cadres.

The government is also jittery about the threat posed by jailed former army chief General Sarath Fonseka. A court martial was set to resume its hearings on Tuesday against the 59-year-old Fonseka who lost out to Rajapakse in the January elections. However the BBC has reported it has been adjourned because of an outstanding case lodged with Sri Lanka's Court of Appeal challenging the legality of the courts martial. Another court martial charging the general of breaking army procurement rules is also due to resume on Tuesday but may also be adjourned on the same grounds. Fonseka has been detained since 8 February but is still running in tomorrow’s election as a candidate from the opposition Democratic National Alliance saying that all charges against him are politically motivated.

Fonseka has his supporters. The country’s influential Buddhist monks have said the government would regret its action after police arrested a dozen of their number who demanded the release of Fonseka. The National Bhikku Front accused Rajapakse of committing an "unforgivable sin" when police beat and arrested 12 monks staging a fast outside Colombo’s main railway station in support of Fonseka. NBF head Dambara Amila said "the government will have to pay for this." The monks said they planned a mass rally to keep up pressure on the government.

But Rajapakse has gained the unexpected support of a doctor who drew world attention to civilian deaths during the war last year and who now is contesting the election for a pro-government party. Veerakathipillai Shanmugarajah, 40, was arrested for falsely spreading rebel propaganda following the army's final victory over the Tamil Tigers. Now he's running for parliament for a Tamil party called Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students that is supporting Rajapakse. Shanmugarah now prefers to talk about the future rather than the war. "I believe President Rajapakse is ideally suited to lead and rebuild our country after the war,” he said. “I will work to support him."

There are also signs Rajapakse wants to create a new political dynasty in Sri Lanka as he grooms his eldest son Namal for high office. Namal is contesting the election in the family's home southern constituency of Hambantota. Namal, who turns 24 on Sunday, promotes himself as an ideological successor to his father, and is hoping his father’s personal popularity will rub off on him and ensure a resounding poll win for his ruling Freedom Alliance party. According to his website Namal said he wanted “to protect for future generations the freedom won” by his father. Rajapakse Senior addressing a rally for Namal on Monday and images of the pair have been prominent in local newspapers and television.

The 64-year-old Rajapakse now has a second six year term to bed in his agenda and groom his successor. He and his allies are hoping to get 150 seats in the parliament election which will give him a two-thirds majority and the ability to change the constitution, though he has not signaled his intentions to make any changes yet. In his favour there is a resurgent post-war economy, propelled by a stock market that has gained more than 150 percent in 12 months, as well as accelerated development and foreign investment in government securities. Sri Lankans are likely to reward Rajapakse with a big win though he may find the hard work has just started.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Britain set for an election and a change of power

In one of those wonderfully quaint British rituals, Gordon Brown drove the short distance from Downing Street to Buckingham Palace today to seek “permission” to dissolve parliament next week and call a general election for 6 May. Brown is heartened for his four-week campaign by a narrowing of the polls according to Guardian ICM. Nevertheless most pundits expect David Cameron’s Conservative Party to win their first election in 18 years in what will be a test of new faces. It is the first election in charge for all three major party leaders Brown, Cameron and the LibDem’s Nick Clegg.

The latest yougov opinion poll has the Tories on 41 percent, Labour 31 and LibDems 18 which is typical of most UK polls which give the Conservatives a lead of 10 points, enough to win an outright majority if it is applied consistently across the country. They are also favoured by notionally redrawn electoral boundaries. The number of seats has risen by 4 since 2005 to 650. Labour had a majority of 66 seats in 2005 with 35 percent of the vote. This has been reduced by successive by-election losses to a working majority of 48. The Tories need a uniform swing of 4.3 percent to be the largest party in parliament and a swing of 7.0 percent for an overall majority. However the first past the post system complicates matters entirely: Labour got almost double the Tory seats in 2005 despite only getting 3 percent more of the popular vote and the LibDems got less than 10 percent of the seats despite getting 22 percent of the vote.

Gordon Brown missed his best chance to win an election in his honeymoon period after he replaced Tony Blair in June 2007. At the time Cameron said Brown had shown "great weakness and indecision", and had made a "humiliating retreat" but he later admitted the Conservatives would have most likely lost that election. By the end of the year, the Tories had regained the lead in the polls they had gained in the dying days of the Blair Government and never looked back.

The 2008 GFC left the British economy in ruins and by 2009 the MP expenses scandal had erupted. All parties were affected (and both Brown and Cameron apologised) to the effect the 2005 election was dubbed “the rotten parliament”. But it was Labour who bore the public brunt of the anger with high-profile casualties such as Speaker Michael Martin (the first to be forced out of office since 1695), and Cabinet ministers Shahid Malik, Jacqui Smith, Hazel Blears and Tony McNulty.

In the event of a hung parliament, the fortunes of the minor parties could become crucial. The LibDems have not made the advances they expected five years ago but the balance of power offers them their best chance to change the voting rules to something more democratic. The Greens have their best ever chance of a breakthrough in Brighton Pavilion and may also do well in Lewisham Deptford. Respect MP George Galloway moves to fight Poplar and Limehouse while they hope to retain his old Bethnal Green and Bow seat too. BNP party leader Nick Griffin is likely to stand in Barking where new boundaries give him a good chance of success. The UKIP’s best hope is Buckingham where their former leader Nigel Farage takes on new Speaker John Bercow.

Nevertheless the main political narrative will be the presidential style contest between Brown and Cameron. Both men are hamstrung. As Matthew Flinders (the British academic not the sailor) wrote, Brown may have the political inclination to deliver far-reaching reform but he lacks the capacity; Cameron is likely to have the capacity but not the inclination. Both will campaign around the state of the economy and whether it is too early to jeopardise the recovery by applying the spending cuts the Tories want. But in the end, it may just be about change. The electorate is tired of Labour. Cameron will most likely win, despite his Posh Boy baggage, simply because he is not Gordon Brown.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Danger far from over in Shen Neng 1 Barrier Reef oil spill

A coal ship grounded on the Great Barrier Reef could spill more oil onto the reef if the vessel is refloated too soon. That is the concern of Maritime Safety Queensland who say a hydrostatic plug caused by the pressure of the ocean water is preventing oil escaping from the ship's engine room. This plug may give way if the breach in the tank is not repaired before refloating. “We need to assess the vessel's remaining strength before we consider any salvage options which may be available to us," MSQ general manager Captain Patrick Quirk said.

The 230m-long bulk coal carrier Shen Neng 1 ran aground at Douglas Shoal about 70km east of Great Keppel Island at 5.10pm Queensland time on Saturday. The ship had left the port of Gladstone bound for China with a crew of 23, 65,000 tonnes of coal and 975 tonnes of heavy fuel oil. The ship was off course about 120km east of Rockhampton and in a protected area, well outside the normal shipping channels. The 150 tonne fuel tank has been ruptured and heavy seas are driving the ship further into the fragile reef area.

Shen Neng 1 owners the Chinese COSCO Group is one of the largest shipping companies in the world with over 500 vessels. Queensland Premier Anna Bligh has threatened fines of $1 million for the company and a further $200,000 for the captain for straying into the off-limits area. The owners could also be liable for the multi-million dollar clean up, though as Queensland found out last year in the Pacific Adventurer case, there is an upper limit set by international maritime convention.

In the latest accident, the ship’s captain initially told MSQ no oil had been spilt. The impact, he said, had created one hole in the ship’s lower hull which was 40m away from the nearest oil storage area. The captain said he would try to refloat the ship after midnight. MSQ worked with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to coordinate the emergency response. AMSA airlifted surveyors aboard to assess the condition of the ship. Emergency surveillance aircraft inspected the scene at first light. A long-range helicopter came from Bundaberg to take specialist response personnel to the vessel.

At 2am Sunday, the oil advice to MSQ had changed. Now “there was an unknown amount of oil” in the water, though the media release did not say who provided this advice or how it squared with the captain’s earlier statement about the hole being 40m away from oil storage. The new knowledge kicked off a national oil spill response plan. MSQ asked the GBRMPA for permission to use aerial dispersants on the oil leak. Response crews were activated in Brisbane, Gladstone and Rockhampton. MSQ’s vessel Norfolk was dispatched from Heron Island to provide logistical support.

By daylight on Easter Sunday it was clear from the air there were oil patches in the waters south-east of the ship. MSQ said at 8.30am there was “no major loss of oil” so far. The carrier was aground on a shoal and would need salvage crews to get it off. A light aircraft from Rockhampton arrived at midmorning to spray chemical dispersant on the spilled oil. Early arrival was critical as dispersants are most effective in breaking up heavy oil when deployed within the first one to two days.

A second aircraft arrived midafternoon yesterday to spray what MSQ called “a ‘ribbon’ of oil measuring approximately three kilometres by 100 metres.” MSQ staff reported only seeing small volumes of oil in the water in the vicinity of the ship but its persistent nature meant it could take some time to break apart. Modelling showed oil could possibly wash up around the nearby Shoalwater Bay military area within the next two days, depending on weather.

The most recent MSQ update at 6am today reported salvors were aboard the Shen Neng 1 to begin the salvage process. The main engine room was breached, the main engine damaged and the rudder seriously damaged. With reported 2 metre swells in the area, the ship was still moving on the reef causing further damage. The long term consequences to the fragile reef are yet to be fully felt.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Urbi et Orbi: Pope on the ropes

As the Easter Sunday Catholic faithful wait outside St Peter’s for Benedict XVI to deliver his tenth papal address, the Church itself has come under unprecedented attack and criticism. Numerous controversies have emerged about the protection of child-molesting priest in many countries including Germany, the US and Ireland with the Pope implicated in many of the scandals.

Although the Church has addressed some of the concerns, its preference is to adopt a siege mentality as the charges multiply. The Pope downplayed the charges as “petty gossip” while the Vatican daily, L'Osservatore Romano, has accused the media of a "clear and ignoble intent of trying to strike Benedict and his closest collaborators".

One of the Pope’s apologists, Vatican priest Raniero Cantalamessa noted Easter and Passover fell during the same week this year and said this led him to think of comparisons with the Jews. “They know from experience what it means to be victims of collective violence, and also because of this they are quick to recognise the recurring symptoms,” Cantalamessa said. “The use of stereotypes [and] the passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt, remind me of the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism.” However a US advocate for sexual abuse victims said the comparison was “breathtakingly callous and misguided.” David Clohessy said “men who deliberately and consistently hide child sex crime are in no way victims and to conflate public scrutiny with horrific violence is about as wrong as wrong can be.”

The public scrutiny into child sex crimes is becoming deeply uncomfortable for the Church and indeed for Benedict himself. In Germany, Father Peter Hullermann has become the focus of an expanding sexual-abuse scandal that has embroiled the Pope. Hullermann was a priest in northern Germany with an addiction to sexual abuse of children. He was transferred to Munich for therapy where Pope Paul VI had appointed Joseph Ratzinger as Archbishop in 1977. Ratzinger was copied in on a 1980 memo which said Hullermann would be returned to pastoral work within days of beginning psychiatric treatment. A German court eventually convicted Hullermann of further child abuse in 1986 but the church still took no action to stop him from working with children. The Archdiocese has acknowledged that “bad mistakes” were made with Hullermann, but said it was the fault of people reporting to Ratzinger rather than to the cardinal himself.

In the US, the news is no better for the Pope. As the then leader of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1981-2005), he was also implicated in the scandal of the St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Lawrence C. Murphy worked at the school from 1950 to 1974 initially as chaplain and later as director. Murphy admitted he sexually abused deaf boys for 22 years. Victims tried for more than three decades to bring him to justice, but recent documents show Ratzinger’s office neither defrocked him nor referred him for prosecution but instead encouraged “pastoral action” to resolve the problem. In the end Murphy solved the problem for the Vatican by conveniently dying before the trial could proceed.

In Ireland too, sex scandals have left the reputation of the Church in tatters (though it hasn’t stopped them from trying to enforce Good Friday alcohol bans). There have been three official Irish state-sanctioned investigations into the Church’s abuse of children. The most recent and most comprehensive, the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse released its damning report last year which found widespread physical and emotional abuse were a feature of outdated Catholic-run institutions and sex abuse was endemic, particularly at boy’s institutions and known to Church authorities.

Sexual offenders were usually transferred elsewhere where they were free to continue abusing other children. The Church relied on a culture of secrecy, a compliant Education department and a fear of retribution to keep matters quiet. While the Pope has recently blasted the Irish bishops for “grave errors of judgement”, his apology did not address the Vatican's own role nor did it endorse the report finding that the church leadership was to blame for the scale and longevity of abuse heaped on Irish children throughout the 20th century.

That would have been a step too far for the Vatican as it would mean having to confront its own rulebook. The Catholic Church’s unnatural insistence on celibacy for its priests has contributed greatly to the problems in the US, Germany, Ireland and elsewhere. It is hardly surprising that men without sexual access to women looked for gratification elsewhere, particularly among young and vulnerable people without the access or knowledge about how to complain about their treatment. And while the Church professes to be pro-life, care for its flock seems to stop at birth. The Church continues to see sexual offence as a risk only in terms of the potential for scandal and bad publicity. The danger to children has never been taken into account. This obsessive, cynical and secretive accretion of power at all costs is now coming back to bite the Church badly.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Invictus: a Morgan Freeman Mandela masterclass

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
(Invictus, William Ernest Henley, 1875).

This is the short poem that gave its name to Clint Eastwood’s most recent film. The poem was favourite of Nelson Mandela during his many years imprisoned in the horror of the shade at Robben Island. The story of the first year of his presidency after his 1994 election win and how it interwove with South Africa’s win in the 1995 rugby world cup makes for a superior couple of hours in entertainment in a typically thoughtful Clint Eastwood fashion. (photo:Wikipedia)

It makes for important viewing as South Africa is about to enter the world cup spotlight again, this time in the sport favoured by the black majority – football. Football would be hard enough to sell to an American audience, but promoting a movie in the US about Nelson Mandela, South Africa after apartheid and rugby is hard work even for a master filmmaker like Eastwood. Ideally it would have had an all South African cast but Hollywood backers demanded the star power of Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman (it is notable the movie poster has Damon facing the camera and Freeman with his back turned). Yet both these casting decisions are spot on. As Roger Ebert said, Eastwood is too old and too accomplished to have an interest in making a film only for money. Damon I always find the woodenest of actors but I also suspect that is all that is required to nail the character of Springbok captain Francois Pienaar.

For Freeman this is one of the great roles and one which he lives and breathes. Everyone knows what Nelson Mandela looks like, but Freeman allowed you to forget that for a couple of hours while he inhaled the spirit of the man. Unfortunately the American tendency to have all things end with cheesy triumph spoils the film somewhat as the Springbok’s world cup win was a somewhat illusory event on the road to rainbow nationhood. The nation remains deeply divided with the political power entrenched in ANC hands but most of the economic power still with the white minority. The mutual backslapping and cheering that seems to be compulsory to the ending of American films makes its way here though undoubtedly the 1995 victory was shared by nearly all South Africans (if perhaps not together).

What the film does brilliantly bring out is how Mandela used the Springboks as a political tool (though some aspects were fictionalised). The Boks were a despised key part of the apartheid establishment and a focus for world anger whenever they toured abroad. It was unsurprising that the ANC wanted to change the colours, symbols and nickname to the more benign “Proteas” (as used by the cricket team). What Mandela saw was the “bread and circuses” aspect of sport and how it could be used as a tool to unify the nation. That meant keeping the old symbols but divesting them of their original meaning.

The fairytale win of South Africa in that tournament is faithfully replicated. Rugby with its choreographed moves and often languid tempo lends itself well to cinematography (one of the reasons there has never been a great football movie is that the round ball code is too unpredictable). The characters of the players never much rise beyond predictable “black = terrorist” views so it is difficult to empathise with them. The sub-story of how Mandela’s black and white security staff deal with each other has more promise and more complex characters (the black leader’s injunction to a white guard to “smile” at a black meeting is one of the funnier moments).

But what the film really is about is Mandela, and the film really shines whenever there is a scene involving Morgan Freeman. It is easy to see how Matiba is venerated by black South Africans when the mirror of his soul is played with such rare accomplishment by Morgan Freeman. The real Nelson Mandela turns 92 this year. The UN have decided his birthday 18 July, will henceforth be known as Mandela Day. As secular saints go there are few finer, but Invictus is no hagiography. It is a noble tribute to a man whose unconquerable soul made him one of the world’s finest politicians of the 20th century.