Monday, May 31, 2010

Israel massacres peace activists in the Mediterranean

The Israel Defence Force has murdered at least 16 people after storming ships on the high sea bound for Gaza. The six ships of the flotilla were carrying 10,000 tonnes of aid and around 600 human right activists from around the world who were determined to break Israel’s three year long blockade of the Palestinian territory. Israel had repeatedly said it would not let them in and IDF forces boarded the boats around 65km off Gaza before beginning their killing spree. Free Gaza Movement, the organisers of the flotilla, said the troops opened fire as soon as they stormed the convoy despite the raising of a white flag.

With the flotilla carrying mainly medical and food supplies, most of the world’s governments have condemned Israel’s provocative actions. Israeli police are on high alert across the country to prevent any civil disturbances. Meanwhile in Gaza, the Hamas government held an emergency meeting chaired by premier Ismail Haneya, following the Israeli Television Channel 10 report that 16 activists on the ships were killed and 30 wounded, including the Israeli-Arab Islamic activist Sheikh Raed Sallah (though the Jerusalem Post said he is injured not dead).

The IDF version of events needs to be treated with extreme caution but they said soldiers were attacked with knives and clubs as they boarded the six vessels. It said the violence turned deadly when an activist grabbed a weapon from one of the commandos. “The weapon discharged,” they said ambiguously not making it clear whether the activist fired it or if it went off accidentally.

The six ships of the flotilla sailed under Turkish and American flags and set off from Cyprus yesterday. Israeli forces said they would not allow them to land and the flotilla deliberated slowed down so that any forced landing would happen in daylight hours to maximize the media exposure. Meanwhile at the port in Gaza City, Hamas prepared a welcoming party with marquees and a buffet to greet the flotilla which was expected mid-afternoon today.

The first contact happened 200 kms off the Gaza shore. The IDF contacted the flotilla by radio and told them the Gaza Strip was a closed military zone. They offered them two options either follow the navy to Ashdod Port in Israel or else be commandeered by commandos. "If you ignore this order and enter the blockaded area, the Israeli navy will be forced to take all the necessary measures in order to enforce this blockade,” the IDF told them. The flotilla radar detected three Israeli ships in the area. After boarding the vessels and going on a shooting spree, the IDF towed the vessels to Ashdod.

The Hamas Government in Gaza said it considered the dead activists "as the martyrs of the Freedom Flotilla, adding that "the world should put an end to the biggest country of pirates.” Meanwhile Gaza premier Ismail Hanaya called the attack an international crime and a political scandal carried out according to an Israeli military order. “I call on the Palestinian Authority to immediately suspend its negotiations with Israel,” he said. He also called for street protects and the Arab states to respond to “end the unfair Israeli siege."

Israel justified its actions saying it already allows 15,000 tonnes of aid into Gaza each week. However the UN said this is just a quarter of what the Gaza Strip needs. Somewhere between 35 and 60 percent of Gaza’s agriculture industry was destroyed by Israel’s three week long invasion in 2008-2009 which left the land contaminated and cratered. This is the ninth time that the Free Gaza movement has tried to ship in humanitarian aid to Gaza since August 2008 but only five have been successful and none since Operation Cast Lead turned Gaza into a wasteland. The latest action confirms Israel is prepared to thumb its nose at international criticism as it lurches further into right-wing extremist nationalism.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Beneath Hill 60: Inside the circles of hell

There is a scene in the excellent Australian film “Beneath Hill 60” where two German soldiers are talking about the consequences after they have realised the enemy is about to blow their position sky high.
“Why don’t we just move back,” said one, reasonably. “After all Europe is a big place, one hill is not going to make any difference.”
The other is mortally offended.
“Our High Command would never consider it. The place is filled with German blood. You simply don’t understand war,” he concluded imperiously.

Understanding war is indeed a difficult task, particularly something as nasty, brutish and long as the First World War. The anonymous and unimpressive Hill 60 (deserving only of a number) was a particularly senseless battlefield in an extremely senseless war. The hill changed hands several times both before and after the events depicted in the film. The objective became meaningless over time and took millions of lives in the process. In some ways WW1 was the ultimate salute to the absurdity of modernism.

Tho events beneath Hill 60 are a little known adjunct to the 1917 Battle of Messines near Ypres in Flanders, Belgium. Based on the diaries of Captain Oliver Woodward, David Roach’s screenplay tells the stories of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company a group of miners and engineers cobbled together for the task of digging passages under enemy lines. Woodward was a Queensland miner brought in specially for the task. The plan at Messines was to lay 21 mines with almost 500 tonnes of ammonal explosives underneath German lines deep in the blue clay 25 metres below the soggy upper-level soil.

The plan was the brainchild of Viscount and Field Marshal Herbert Charles Onslow Plumer. Despite the toffish name and the Blimp-like reputation of many fellow World War I generals, Plumer was one of the finest army commanders on the Western Front. It helped he had an infantry background not cavalry and was not addicted to the grand but futile charges so beloved of many of his peers.

The idea for tunnels (attachment is a rich text file) came from the Germans. When the trench warfare was deadlocked in 1915 German Engineers realised the possibilities of literally undermining British morale by building a system of tunnels under their lines and detonating large charges of explosives. The British retaliated and began a rapid recruitment program of English and Welsh miners. The Government and mine owners objected and the net was cast further wide to Canada and Australia.

For almost 12 months ahead of the Messines battle, Plumer organised the digging of the mines which would be detonated prior to a ground assault. The evening before the attack, he told his staff, "Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.”

19 of the 21 mines laid exploded and according to the British newspapers, Londoners were startled out of their sleep at 3.10am by the sound of the huge explosion. German positions were shattered and their menacing high ground defence disappeared in an instance. The British advanced a few miles but the poor condition of the shell-torn terrain prevented them from following up the advantage.

In the end Hill 60 was just another death-ridden postscript to a vengeful war of attrition that destroyed a generation of young men across the "big place" of Europe and its imperial outposts. As ominously foreshadowed by the equally vicious American Civil War 50 years earlier, here were industrialised nations fighting with technologically advanced, mass-produced weapons which enabled killing and wounding on an unprecedented scale. 20 million people died and 20 million more were injured. The callous lack of regard for life it showed up led to the real war to end all wars 20 years later.

Jeremy Sims’ film Beneath Hill 60 gives us a window into that world. It is a below-basement level window and the claustrophobia of the Australian tunnellers it depicts is deftly handled. Though set in the months leading to June 1917, the weather is invariably cruel, wet and miserable. It is truly T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Sims takes us under the dull roots of the waste land to confront a human-engineered hell. The story contrasts springtime fertility with the black and muddy stench of death. The Australian flashback scenes invert the seasons as well as tone of the film. But as the only Australian scene in the film that is not a flashback shows, there is little chance for redemption for those who have visited the circles of hell under Hill 60; the best anyone can hope for is a painful and memory-scarred survival.

No wonder so many survivors don’t like talking of their war experiences. War is the very antithesis of life. That's why so few people understand it.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

New Matilda falls asleep at the wheel

As much as I admire Marni Cornell and Rod McGuinness, there’s no reason for tears over the death of the online journal New Matilda. The site finishes up on 25 June but they will not be the first or the last such outlet to die.

It was no coincidence Cornell quoted in her pre-requiem, Tom Fitzgerald, the founding editor of Nation. Its successor newspaper the Nation Review was in many ways a print template for what New Matilda aspires to be on line. But like Nation Review it has apparently outlived its relevance, or at least its paying clients.

The owner Duncan Turpie gambled on stopping subscription shortly before it became fashionable again. That was unlucky.

Nevertheless he was rewarded by greater numbers reading the engaging content but they were not followed by advertisers. They should well ask themselves why not. Why weren’t there enough people with products to sell interested in reaching the audience gained by New Matilda? Was it that forgetting that news fills a “hole” or “brings audiences to advertisers” means we also forget how exactly communication is paid for? Was it the ultimate postmodernist paradox that those wise souls that normally read New Matilda paid no attention to the advertising that paid for the news?

I do not know. But while sad we’re about to lose a valued publication I feel certain that great content will continue to emerge somewhere. The available media will expand to cater for it.

Phil Gomes thinks the answer to a post-media future will have to be amateur but I think he is aiming too low. Certainly those still in charge don’t think so. Just witness today’s Australian ads for itself on the ipad.

Where there is a wheel there is a way.

Monday, May 17, 2010

An Awkward Truth: the story of the 1942 Darwin bombing

I finished reading Peter Grose’s engrossing An Awkward Truth a few weeks ago but only now have had the time to review it. Written in 2009, the book is a thorough examination of the catastrophic Japanese bombing of Darwin in February 1942. The book opens up with an anonymous poem of soldiers’ doggerel “Bloody Darwin” that has eerie parallels with John Cooper Clark’s 1980s British urban classic Evidently Chickentown. “This bloody town’s a bloody cuss/No bloody trams, no bloody bus/And no one cares for bloody us/Oh bloody, bloody Darwin.” The poem is apt as the story of Darwin’s first bombing (it would be attacked a further 58 times) is one of official incompetence, wilful neglect, looting, desertion and failure of leadership that cast a dark shadow on Australia’s war record.

Yet while Grose is not afraid to talk of what then Territories minister Paul Hasluck called in 1955 a day “of national shame”, he also uncovers another story of personal heroism and dogged counter-attack he says deserves a place in the record books. The force that attacked Darwin on 19 February 1942 was the same one as that attacked Pearl Harbour two months earlier. Led by renowned “Tora Tora Tora” pilot Mitsuo Fuchida (who lived until 1976), the force learned from their Hawaiian mistakes and caused more damage in Darwin, taking more civilian casualties and sinking more ships. At the time Darwin stood with Coventry as one of the biggest air attacks of the war. Its death toll of around 300 people remains the deadliest single event on Australian soil.

The chief villain of the book is not Fuchida but Charles Aubrey Abbott a former NSW Country Party politician who dabbled with the extreme right. He was appointed NT’s administrator in 1937. When war arrived in 1939, the town of Darwin accepted it apathetically believing it was still half a world away. But by 1941 things had changed as Japan looked like entering on the Axis side. Darwin was suddenly a target. On 7 December Japan launched a double strike hitting out at Pearl Harbour while launching a large ground based invasion of Malaya supported by a bombing campaign from Hong Kong to Singapore. Disaster followed disaster. McArthur’s indecisiveness cost the Philippines, Guam fell as did the citadel of Singapore. Japan could now turn its attentions to its real target: Java’s oilfields.

Across the sea in Darwin, authorities drew up plans for its evacuation. But Abbott sat on the plans and argued a state of emergency would cause unnecessary panic. Most women and children were eventually taken out by boat in a chaotic evacuation. Darwin’s port was transformed into a supply base for the defence of the Dutch East Indies. Ships piled up in the harbour as its inefficient design and strike-prone wharfies made for painfully slow loading and unloading. There were also fighting ships from the Royal Australian and US Navy making a total of 45 ships in the harbour at the time of the bombing.

On 19 February, the Japanese Nagumo Force with its four aircraft carriers rendezvoused in the Timor Sea south of Maluku, 350km north of Darwin. It unleashed 188 aircraft, five more than in the first wave at Pearl and set a course for Darwin. They flew southward in the gap between Bathurst and Melville Island before turning in a loop to approach Darwin from the south-east. This had the double advantage of having the sun behind them and being the least likely direction of attack.

They arrived in Darwin without warning around 10am. They divided into two groups one attacking the port while the other strafed the airfield. The bombers exerted maximum damage on the port locomotives, railway trucks and scattering oil lines which caught fire in the water killing those who had dived in for safety. The town lay just beyond the port and suffered heavy damage. A direct hit took out the post office and communication building killed nine civilians inside.

Anti-aircraft guns did their best to return fire but lack of practice and problems with the shells in the tropical heat meant they were mostly ineffective. Over at the airfield, the second force strafed and bombed knocking out planes and communication equipment. Out on the harbour ships struggled to get away from the carnage. The US ship Peary sank with 91 dead aboard. 15 more died on the William B Preston, also sunk and 12 died on the hospital ship Manundra though it did not sink and continued to accept casualties. By the end of the raid, Darwin was a smoking mess.

After the all clear was sounded, dazed Darwinians emerged to survey the damage. But the Japanese were not finished yet and 54 aircraft arrived for a second attack two hours later. They concentrated on the airfield dropping 13,000kgs of high explosives before flying off at 12.20pm. It was from this point on that local officials displayed their incompetence. Neither Abbott nor the army commander took control of the situation. Abbott directed police away from rescue efforts to pack his valuable glass and china and take it south to safety.

Then there was the “Adelaide River Stakes”, a mass exodus from Darwin as rumours filled the void left by the absence of any official information. A convoy of vehicles set off to Adelaide River about 120kms to the south based on the false rumour civilians had been ordered to leave town. Anything that could move, did and the road jammed as drivers groped their way blindly in the red dust. Meanwhile the Army neglected to start a salvage operation, blowing any chance of giving the surviving aircraft a chance if the Japanese came back. With no orders transmitted, army units dispersed to other parts of the Territory.

Worse was to follow when those left behind decided Darwin was ideal for a spot of looting. Army personnel including military police were involved taking goods away by the truckload. By nightfall matters turned violent within drunken military personnel firing over the heads of crowds as they gathered to leave Darwin. There were no sanitary services and all the wharfies had fled leaving surviving ships with no way of unloading. The military police were out of control but as Grose writes “the Administrator’s port, sherry and other fine wines were in safe hands. Otherwise, Darwin was a mess.”

On the day after, the military finally took control. They took eligible men from Adelaide River and signed them up for the army back in Darwin. Non essential people were evacuated and a week later the whole of the NT was placed under Army control. There just remained the tricky problem of what to tell the world.

Unlike Roosevelt after Pearl, the Curtin administration would not trust Australians with the truth. At the time Curtin was engage in a furious row with Roosevelt and Churchill about withdrawing Aussie troops from the middle east. The three journalists in Darwin had splashed the news of the attacks but the Government was keen to underplay the news. Initially they reported the death tally as 19 with damage as minimal. Abbott also pretended in his communications Darwin was back to normal.

By the end of March the secret Lowe commission to investigate the attack reported back to Curtin that 240 died but censors made sure newspapers did not make much of it. Curtin’s secrecy policy backfired as the Japanese went on to attack Broome, Wyndham and other towns but used the excuse of the “national interest” to avoid any further comment or scrutiny. Darwin disappeared from public gaze. As Grose concluded “The full horror of the attack on Darwin was [the government’s] best chance to jolt Australians out of their apathy. Unwisely it chose not to take it.”

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Thai Government set for final showdown with Red Shirts

The city of Bangkok remains in a state of civil war as the three-day street riots that have killed 25 people continue. Authorities have declared a 4km radius of the Thai capital around Lumpini Park as a “live firing zone”. The Pattaya Daily News reports the Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation is considering ordering a curfew for residents of the affected areas “allegedly so that the military are able to isolate ‘terrorists’ from the innocent civilians”. Around 10,000 United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (Red Shirt) protesters are out on the streets demanding the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva step down. They claim Abhisit came to power illegitimately with the help of the army and have called for parliament to be dissolved. (photo by thethaireport)

The roads in and around the main Ratchaprasong rally site have been barricaded by the military, with water and food trucks being prevented from entering the site in an attempt to force the protesters to disband. Police have also set up checkpoints on Sukhumvit road at Soi Udomsuk to prevent more red shirts from coming in from rural areas. Transport services have been suspended for two days and protesters have barricaded MRT exits with tuk tuks delivering tyres to barricade points across the city. The latest round of fighting in the two month stand-off began late on Thursday as the army moved to isolate a fortified protest camp. Over the next two days 25 people were killed and another 215 injured as the two sides clashed on the streets with reports of army snipers picking off protesters.

Both sides have heightened the rhetoric as more blood has been spilt. This morning an army spokesman announced that some areas of the city would be subject to a curfew. Colonel Sunsern Kaewkumnerd said the curfew would be needed “so that police and soldiers can differentiate people from terrorists.” The army has not yet carried out its threat to move against the demonstrators' main rally site unless they dispersed but the curfew is likely to a precursor to a full-scale assault. But as Al Jazeera’s Aela Callan said the threat has not fazed the defenders. "Some of the red shirts I have spoken to have said they're not willing to leave," he said. "They're really hunked in there, they've set up their homes.”

More than 50 people have been killed and 1,600 wounded since the protests began in March. Tensions rose dramatically last week after the Red Shirts rejected Prime Minister Abhisit’s “roadmap” to an election on 14 November. Abhisit wanted anti-government protesters to accept his reconciliation plan and restore peace and stability. Not only did they reject that plan but Red Shirts demanded the prime minister and deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban hand themselves over to the Department of Special Investigations for their involvement in the deaths of 20 civilians following the April 10 clashes. On Thursday Abhisit ran out of patience and sent in the military.

Last night the Prime Minister made a public broadcast from the safety of an army barracks where he defended his decision to use force in the dispersal of the Red Shirts protesters. He argued that it was the only resort after peace negotiations broke down with the key opposition leader Jatuporn Prompan promising to “fight to the end”. The end may well be near for Prompan’s forces but the enmity Abhisit’s actions have caused are likely to have long-term repercussions that may leave Thailand fatally split for years to come.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Iraq trapped inside the Hurt Locker

Iraq was reminded this week the country is still not an entirely safe place for civilians. Yesterday a bomb exploded at a football match in the northern city of Mosul killing 25 people and injuring another 120. The carnage was caused by a car bomb quickly followed by a suicide bomber. The incident came four days after a series of attacks in five cities killed 110 people in the bloodiest violence this year. Politicians have blamed Al Qaeda as the country struggled to form a government two months after an indecisive general election. The formation of a stable government is a crucial step in ensuring US combat troops leave the country by 31 August – almost seven and a half years since the Bush Administration launched its invasion.

I was reminded of all these things as I went to watch The Hurt Locker last night. The film tells the story of a US bomb disposal team in the early years after the invasion. The title of the film refers to the place where an explosion sends you to – a private world of pain. It is a fitting allegory for the film because despite the fact it was filmed on near-location (Jordan) using many Iraqi refugees in minor parts, it fails to humanise anyone other than the three American participants of the bomb squad.

This is hardly unusual in American war films. But The Hurt Locker is a particular disappointment given the positive critical reception it has received. It was based on the Iraqi accounts of embedded freelance journalist Mark Boal, who also wrote the screenplay. As a journalist Boal should have been honest enough to look at the conflict from both sides. But the film never rises above a depiction of Iraqis as “the other”.

Director Kathryn Bigelow’s stated desire was to immerse the audience into something that was “raw, immediate and visceral” and to some extent she succeeded. But ultimately her movie put us in the position of the “fourth man in the humvee” and not the women looking fearfully out the window, or the boys in the alley or the men at the mosque or the souk. The Iraqis were never humanised. Significantly one of few Iraqis to be named was the boy called “Beckham” in honour of a footballer of a country that was also at war in Iraq. The name “Beckham” was a mask, and even peeled off it was never fully resolved as the American protagonist mistakenly believes he is dead. All these native boys look alike.

The film reveals the massive problem the US faced in its invasion of Iraq and still does in its Afghan incursion. There is a local lack of empathy with the people whose lives they have interrupted. Hardly any of the invaders speak Arabic (even less so Pashto and Dari), and no one has any cultural affinity with the places they must serve in. Yes, their job was difficult and they faced hostility but nowhere in the film did anyone ask what they were doing in Iraq in the first place. There is no political context and not even a hint of the role oil played in the invasion.

The Hurt Locker does a wonderful white knuckle job of getting into the day to day stresses of a bomb disposal squad. But it offered no insight to American audiences on why the bombs were there in the first place. Saddam Hussein was a cruel and vicious tyrant but he was created in America’s image. When the Republican Guard crumbled in 2003, the US was unprepared for what might follow. A county that had suffered almost continual war or sanctions since 1980 was on the brink of collapse and many desperate people had nothing to lose by declaring jihad on the invaders. “The poor man’s air force” did much to harden opinion against the invasion in both Iraq and the US. The nasty legacy is that many will remain attracted to the violence well after Obama has withdrawn the troops. Iraq has a long way to go before it can escape the Hurt Locker.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Estonia defies critics to join the euro zone

While it might seem bizarre given Greece’s current troubles, other European countries are still keen to join the euro zone. Yet just this week the European Commission has given its blessing to Estonia to take up the common currency. The commission announced yesterday that it would recommend that EU governments let the Baltic country switch to the currency in January 2011. Estonia, which currently uses the kroon, would become the 17th nation to adopt the euro. The announcement was accompanied by a report showing eight other EU countries do not yet satisfy the conditions for euro area membership - Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Sweden. (photo by tm-tm)

Estonia meanwhile was also invited this week to join the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development alongside Israel and Slovenia bringing its membership to 34 countries. All three countries were reviewed by 18 OECD Committees with respect to their compliance with OECD standards and benchmarks. OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría said Estonia has been receptive to OECD recommendations on important issues. “The OECD accession process has delivered real policy changes and reform in all candidate countries,” Gurría said. “Once countries become members, this transformational process continues.”

There is little doubt that Estonia has undergone an astonishing transformation in the last 20 years. After a 51 year absence, it returned to the world map in 1991 as an independent country during the collapse of the USSR. According to The Economist Estonia confounded its critics in the years that follow. It had a fast-growing economy, based on flat taxes, free trade and a currency board. In 2004 it joined the EU and NATO. Despite property values collapsing last year, the economy stabilised with the help of flexible wages and prices. It said Estonia was one of two EU countries (with Sweden) that met the common currency’s rules.

The European Central Bank has issued a cautionary note offering amore negative assessment of Estonia’s qualifications. It says that while Estonia is well within the limits on government spending and debt, the country’s current low inflation rates reflect mainly temporary factors. The ECB says Estonia has a history of high inflation that raises concerns. “Maintaining low inflation rates will be very challenging given the limited room for manoeuvre for monetary policy,” said the ECB. “Once output growth resumes, with a fixed exchange rate regime, the underlying real adjustment is likely to manifest itself in higher inflation.”

However the ECB did not explicitly say that Estonia should be denied and its opinion is not binding on the final decision makers, the EU governments. The New York Times said political leaders have form in brushing brushed off central bank concerns in their eagerness to expand the zone. “Greece won admission even after the central bank reported in 2000 that the country’s debt equalled 104 percent of gross domestic product, far above the limit of 60 percent in the Maastricht Treaty,” the NYT said. That decision has of course rebounded on the EU as it embarks on a $106 billion rescue of Greece’s wrecked economy in conjunction with the IMF.

Estonia has no such worries at the moment. Its inflation rate is 2.9 percent and its economy has rebounded out of the GFC with expected growth of 1 percent in 2010. BusinessNewEurope said judicious use of reserves accumulated during the boom years means government debt levels are currently the lowest in the EU. It also said the country’s pioneering adoption of a flat-rate tax system in 1992, combined with the "safe haven" label that membership of the Eurozone confers (Greece notwithstanding) “should make Estonia an interesting investment destination in the future.”

The Estonian finance minister has been playing down negative impacts of the euro to his country. Jürgen Ligi said that there is no real danger of the euro bringing major price increase to Estonia despite the temptation of traders to round prices up after the conversion. There will be parallel posting of prices in both euros and kroons for the obligatory six months before adoption of the euro. Ligi said that the country’s planned sales tax might mess up things but general studies show that “we don’t have the room for price increases for anything substantial to take place”.

Estonia has two more hurdles to jump before it is confirmed as a member. An EU committee meets at the end of May to discuss the move, followed by a finance ministers’ summit in early June for final confirmation. By January next year they will join the 329 million people that use the euro every day, nearly two-thirds of the EU population.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Noynoy phenomenon takes another Aquino to Philippines presidential victory

Britain wasn’t the only country to get a change of leadership this week. In the Philippines Senator Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III was headed for a landslide victory in the presidential election. His opponent former President Joseph Estrada has not yet conceded defeat but with 88 percent of the vote counted Aquino is five million votes clear with over 40 percent of the vote. Aquino has chosen not to claim victory until Congress proclaims him the winner of Monday’s election but he did say he was preparing to take over from sitting President Gloria Arroya who was constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.

If the name of 50-year-old Aquino is familiar then so it should be. The family has been involved in Filipino politics for several generations. His father Benigno Aquino was an opposition senator in the Marcos era who was assassinated in 1983 as he stepped off a plane in Manila after returning from exile. Aquino senior’s death pushed his wife Corazon Aquino into the spotlight and she subsequently ascended to the presidency after Marcos’s 20 year regime was ended three years later. Their son Benigno known as “Noynoy” was wounded during a failed coup attempt in 1987 but otherwise steered clear of politics during his mother’s six year presidency.

But by 1998 the lure of getting involved in the family business proved too strong and Noynoy won a seat in the House of Representatives, Philippines’ lower house. He worked his way up serving in various parliamentary committees and was elected the maximum three terms. In 2007 he moved to the Senate endorsed in TV ads by his mother. While his profile was increasing, no-one spoke of him as presidential material until Corazon Aquino died on 1 August 2009 after a year long battle with cancer. The so-called “Noynoy Phenomenon” took off as the country mourned his mother. He secured his presidential nomination against party chief Senator Mar Roxas and his presidential campaign was propelled by support from the Noynoy Aquino for President Movement a rainbow group of lawyers and activists.

The Huffington Post’s Virginia Moncrieff said Aquino appears the most unlikely person to win an election by a landslide given his “penchant for badly fitting shirts, dorky hair style, and complete lack of personal charisma.” Moncrieff called Aquino the “comfort candidate” who campaigned heavily on a message of anti-corruption. “In a country where crooks, charlatans, film stars, sportsmen and nut jobs routinely stand for, and get voted into office, Mr. Aquino represented a steady and secure vote,” Moncrieff said.

Aquino’s victory was declared in remarkably short order. In a country with 7000 islands, it used to take weeks to tally all the votes, but a new electronic voting system made his win apparent barely 16 hours after the polls closed. Aquino campaigned on pledges to investigate allegations of electoral fraud, corruption and rights abuses by the outgoing administration. He now says he will investigate his predecessor Arroyo for corruption. "We need to have closure on all items like the fertiliser scam. Who is responsible for this? Let's also look at the ZTE." In both cases, Arroyo has been associated with allegations of overpaying for deals and diversion of funds.

News of Aquino’s victory has buoyed international markets with Moody’s saying it sets a favourable tone for the country's credit fundamentals. Christian de Guzman, a Singapore-based Moody's assistant vice president and analyst, said Aquino’s comfortable win removed the undercurrents of political illegitimacy that had hampered Arroyo’s policy agenda. “The success of the first fully automated polls in Asia on Monday is at this time of greater relevance than the result itself, implying a strong mandate to govern for the victor," de Guzman said. Last year Moody’s upgraded the Philippines sovereign rating prompted by the country's strong external payments position and stability in the banking sector. They say these conditions will continue to provide support to the Philippines' rating over the next two years.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Wayne Swan delivers frugal budget in his own image

Wayne Swan launched his third budget as Federal Treasurer with a self-congratulatory speech that trumpeted “the highest standards of responsible economic management”. Aided by the continued economic growth of China and India, Swan was able to spend much of his budget speech talking up a speedy return to surplus and the government’s fiscal discipline before going through the spending highlights at the end. The highlight, unusually for an election year, is a focus on stability rather than a grab-bag of handouts. Labour has seized the mantle of economically responsible managers from the Libs and will push this agenda all the way to polling day. (photo: Glen McCurtayne)

Swan had some justification for his budget day pride pointing out how far the country had come since this time last year. In May 2009 Australia teetered on the verge of recession and had lost $60 billion in export earnings. Without a budget stimulus the economy would have contracted by 0.7 percent in 2009 but instead grew by 1.4 percent. The forecast contraction of 0.2 percent in 2009-2010 proved pessimistic and instead the economy grew by 2 percent. Unemployment peaked at 5.8 percent and is now falling. As a result the government is now predicting a budget deficit of $40.8 billion for 2010-2011 ($16.3b less than forecast last year and $5.5b lower than the midyear forecast) and a return to surplus in 2012-2013 three years ahead of last year’s schedule.

Swan said those looking for a big-spending pre-election Budget won’t find one. The levers for a return, according to the budget papers (pdf) to surplus were the natural recovery of tax receipts plus the reigning in of spending growth to 2 percent a year. The biggest tax initiative was the well-flagged Resource Super Profits Tax due to start on 1 July 2012. The RSPT is expected to raise $700m in 2012-2013 and will be used to create a new infrastructure fund and fund a one percent drop in company tax to 29 per cent in 2013-14 and again to 28 per cent in 2014-15. Swan said the measures would boost our competitiveness, expand investment and job opportunities. Small business would go direct to the 28 percent rate in 2012-2013 with write-off for assets costing less than $5,000 and a depreciation pool for other assets.

In the environment there will be a new $652 million Renewable Energy Future Fund. Funding will support the development of renewable energy projects including wind, solar and biomass. The Fund will engage with households, businesses and communities to achieve energy efficiency. The small amount of money saved in deferring the unlamented dogs dinner of a CPRS until 2013 will be used to support the Fund. The Ethanol Production Grants Program will not be continued after 2011.

There is also a $661 million a new Skills for Sustainable Growth strategy aimed at creating 39,000 training places and 22,500 apprentices with a guaranteed entitlement to a training place for all Australians under the age of 25 years. In infrastructure, the Government announced a $1 billion equity investment in the Australian Rail Track Corporation to fund rail freight works and lift capacity along the Brisbane to Melbourne, Melbourne to Adelaide and Sydney to Perth rail corridors. There is $71 million towards an intermodal terminal precinct at Moorebank to alleviate congestion at Port Botany in Sydney.

The Government is also spending $2.2 billion on Health over four years. $772 million will fund better after-hours access to GPs, upgrades to around 425 primary care clinics and 23 new GP Super Clinics. There is also a $523 million nursing training program, $532m over five years for extra capacity in aged care and a $467 million project to provide personally controlled electronic health records called the Individual Electronic Health Record system. The Federal Government said it will fund its increased responsibilities of the Australian public hospital system through a combination of the national Healthcare Specific Purpose Payment and an agreed amount of GST. $5 billion in funding will come from the 25 percent increase in cigarette excise.

In personal taxation, the effective tax free threshold has been increased from $11,000 in 2007-08 to $16,000 in 2010-11 through increases in the Low Income Tax Offset. The 30 per cent tax threshold will be lifted from $35,000 to $37,000 and the 38 per cent tax rate will be reduced by 1 percent for taxpayers with incomes between $80,000 and $180,000. Simpler tax returns are also on the agenda. There will be a standard deduction pack to replace the tax return from 1 July 2012 with an optional $500 in work expenses rising to $1,000 in 2013.

Wayne Swan finished his budget speech by saying the Government’s job now was to convert the economic achievements of the past year into enduring gains for our economy and our people. “We have great advantages, and a spring in our step,” he said. “We face the future with confidence, but not with complacency.” Swan need not worry on the score of complacency; a hostile media and resurgent opposition will see to that. But having got the bad news out of the way before the Budget, the coast is now clear for a Labor election campaign on economic credentials and this is a debate the Government will win.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Lot's lot: The Death of the Jordan

“You can almost jump across this river. In other places, you don’t need to even jump. You can just cross it. It’s ankle deep.” This was an Israeli scientist’s sad assessment of the dying Jordan River. Gidon Bromberg’s anecdotal evidence was backed by his team of Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian environmental scientists which says large stretches of the Jordan River could dry up by 2011. (photo: Getty)

A report from the EcoPeace / Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) group say the river is in grave danger from excessive water diversion and pollution as well as being treated as a backyard dump. An astonishing 98 percent of its fresh water is currently being diverted while discharge of large quantities of untreated sewage is threatening to cause irreversible damage to the river valley. In the last 50 years, the river’s annual flow has dropped from more than 1.3 billion cubic meters to less than 30 million cubic meters and it has lost half its biodiversity due to habitat loss and the high salinity of the water.

FoEME is an unique environmental peacemaking movement and a tri-lateral organisation that brings together Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli environmentalists. FoEME say their primary objective is the promotion of cooperative efforts to protect their shared environmental heritage. This, they say has a double purpose, that of advancing sustainable regional development and the creation of necessary conditions for lasting peace in the region.

The Jordan River is sacred to three religions. It is mentioned in Genesis: "And Lot lifted up his eyes, and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord." A pillar of salt near Deir Ain Abata in the Dead Sea is said to be Lot’s wife, after she turned to watch the destruction of Sodom. The Jordan is also the traditional baptismal site of Jesus and many of Mohammad’s venerable companions are buried near its banks, making it a holy site for Muslims around the world as well.

The Jordan Valley is also of immense ecological significance. The Valley is part of the 7,200-kilometre Great Rift Valley and is at the centre of one of the most important bird migration flyways on the planet. 500 million birds migrate annually through this narrow corridor between Europe and Africa. The area is also an important Middle Eastern wetland; both Birdlife International andWetland International have declared the entire river basin a significant bird and wetland area, maintaining many globally valuable species that are regionally or globally threatened or endangered species. The plight of the river is adding the strain on these species.

FoEME’s Israeli co-director Gidon Bromberg took journalists on a tour of the region to tell them what is killing the river and to tell them how much water is needed to save it and where the water would come from. Al Jazeera’s Orly Halpern said the river “was a narrow foul brownish stream that gurgled its way south”. Bromberg said the sewage from an additional 15,000 Israelis living in the upper Jordan Valley, 6,000 Israeli settlers, 60,000 Palestinians and 250,000 Jordanians provides the Lower Jordan with most of its water."No one can say this is holy water," said Bromberg. "The Jordan River has become holy shit.”

In their water quality study released 3 May entitled “Towards a Living River Jordan” (pdf) FoEME said the Lower Jordan needed 400 million cubic metres of fresh water annually to return to life. They suggest 220 mcm should be provided by Israel, 100 by Syria and 90 by Jordan based on the historical usage of the water. In addition, the report says the river needs an annual minor flood event to flush out the salinity of the water. It said Israel and Jordan are building new waste water treatment plants which will remove the pollutants but further action is now required to allocate fresh water.

But FoEME is pleased by the first steps. Earlier this year, the Israeli Ministry of Environment released the Terms of Reference (ToR) for their proposal to rehabilitate the LJR from the Sea of Galilee to Bezeq Stream at the border with the Palestinian West Bank. The Israeli side presented the ToR to Jordanian and Palestinian stakeholders for comments during FoEME’s Regional Advisory Committee in February. FoEME praised this as a “first step towards rehabilitation and encourages the international community to support Jordan and Palestine in the development of their own ToRs as partners to the rehabilitation effort.”

FoEME say a billion cubic metres of water could be saved if appropriate economies were introduced in Israel, Jordan and Palestine. "In the middle of the desert we continue to flush our toilets with fresh water rather than using grey water or even better - waterless toilets; and we grow tropical fruit for export," Bromberg said. "We can do much better in reducing water loss and we need to treat and reuse all of the sewage water that we produce."

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Clegg and Cameron: It's Complicated

The funniest joke doing the rounds on social media today is that British LibDem leader Nick Clegg has now changed his Facebook relationship status to “it's complicated”. It is an amusing but accurate enough summary of where things stand after the tightest British election since February 1974. That year’s hung parliament forced another election later that year and many are predicting the same outcome after last Thursday’s election produced no clear winner. Despite losing seats from 2005, Clegg’s party is in a position to woo a suitor and some heavy duty negotiation is on the cards before a shotgun wedding can happen in the days and weeks to come. (Photograph: Luke Macgregor/Reuters)

The most obvious and workable coalition would be between the Conservatives and the LibDems. The Financial Times reports David Cameron and Clegg are involved in “intense negotiation” to agree on a power-sharing pact before the markets open on Monday morning. During the election campaign Cameron had ruled out such an arrangement but he appears to have now woken up to the realpolitik of the situation.

Cameron is likely to realise his dream of being the first Tory Prime Minister since John Major yet the election must be tinged with some disappointment. After seemingly heading for a landslide victory in poll after poll, his popularity slumped in a mediocre election campaign. Voters wanted Gordon Brown out but did not trust Cameron enough to give him an undiluted majority. The Tory-leaning Telegraph is openly talking about who might replace him if attempts at forming a government fell apart.

With 649 seats up for decision, a party must get 325 seats to form a majority. In practice it needs to be even higher to counter the risk of MPs crossing the floor or losing by-elections. The Tories had the most votes and the most seats in a swing of 3.8 percent but could only turn this into 306 seats. With the LibDems on 57 seats (down 5 from 2005), a coalition between the two would muster 363 seats for a comfortable majority of 77 seats. The question remains however is whether either would survive for five years to another election, given the philosophical differences between the parties.

A possible alternative would be allowing the Tories to form a minority government on the understanding the LibDems would not block supply, but this would appear to be a very slippery slope towards an early election. What Clegg wants most is electoral reform so that their 23 percent of the vote translates into a similar number of seats (at the moment they have 8.8 percent). Neither the Tories nor Labour (nor the media which prefers the clean lines of "first past the post") are inclined to support this reform.

But if Clegg has some hope of getting a negotiated settlement with Cameron, there appears no chance of him supporting Gordon Brown to return to 10 Downing Street, even though the two parties are closer. With Labour on 258 seats, the combined parties would be 12 seats short of an outright majority and requiring the support of motley nationalist groups such as the Scotland’s SNP (6), Wales’ Plaid Cymru (3) and Northern Ireland’s SLDP (3) to get them over the line. While such a rainbow coalition is possible and common enough in Europe, experience suggests they rarely last for long.

There was also probably a great deal of truth in the rumour the post-election phone call between Clegg and Brown ended acrimoniously. It seems reasonable that Clegg might have suggested Labour was tainted by Brown’s leadership and the two parties might work better together with a new Labour leader. A senior unnamed LibDem source told the BBC’s Jon Sopel the conversation went downhill after Clegg’s resignation suggestion with Brown launching into a “diatribe and a rant” though both parties have strenuously denied Sopel’s report.

Yet whatever the outcome, Labour can cling to the idea the election was a relief. Previous by-elections had seen the party slaughtered with the ultimate humiliation of finishing fifth behind the Greens and the BNP in the 2008 Henley by-election. At that stage, YouGov were polling the Tories at 46 percent to Labour’s 28 percent. Labour haven't improved much since then - they only took 29 percent of the vote last week. But the big difference is the Tories lost 10 percent of the vote in the last two years saving Labour from an electoral whitewash.

Smart money at this stage has to be on a repeat of 1974 and another general election in November or thereabouts. Gordon Brown will be gone by then and one of the Miliband brothers will probably lead the party (it is just too difficult to imagine a British political party led by a man named “Balls”). Just as in 1974, the biggest party should win outright second time round. It is likely the Tories will learn from the mistakes of this campaign and get over the line as UK citizens worry about the effects of continued instability and Labour struggle with a new line up. And electoral reform is likely to wither on the vine.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Greek Tragedy Act 3: The rescue package

The fleet of ambulances have arrived in Athens with a rescue package but it remains to be seen if the patient can be revived. A combination of the EU and the IMF has agreed to provide a $146b bailout package to the new sick man of Europe. The EU will give Greece $106b and the IMF will give the rest. Finance ministers from the 16 countries of the euro zone endorsed the plan yesterday after the Greek government announced budget cuts and tax increases. The enormous package is Greece’s last chance saloon and may not stave of a default of its staggering sovereign debt. According to Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou the choice was "between collapse and salvation". (photo: AP)

In a joint statement, EU Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn and IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn said they recognised the sacrifices that will have to be made by the Greek people, but they were necessary to rebuild the country’s shattered economy. “We believe that the program is the right thing to do to put the economy back on track. Importantly, the authorities have also designed their program with fairness in mind," they said. “The support from European countries, the European Commission and the European Central Bank, and the IMF demonstrates a very high level of external commitment.”

But that commitment is not totally in place yet. For the European countries, the package was as much self-serving as it was about helping a neighbour. The German Government was particularly reluctant to pitch in. As Europe’s largest economy, Germany is expected to provide the largest share of the bailout funding despite strong opposition. Germans are angry at Greece for manipulating its financial figures to join the euro zone in 2001 and living beyond its means ever since. The German Cabinet meets later today to discuss the aid and despite grumblings, officials expect parliamentary approval by the end of the week.

The euro had plunged as Greece's financial problems increased last week with Standard & Poor downgrading its bond debt to junk status. But in the wake of the rescue package the European Central Bank said today it would accept the country’s bonds as collateral for loans regardless of how they are rated by credit agencies. The ECB Governing Council has changed its tune since January and now says it will exempt Greece from the minimum-rating requirement until further notice. “The Governing Council has assessed the program and considers it to be appropriate,” the ECB said. “This positive assessment and the strong commitment of the Greek government to fully implement the program are the basis, also from a risk management perspective, for the suspension.”

The Greek austerity measures include a rise in Value Added Tax of 2 percent to 23 per cent, a 10 per cent jump in fuel and alcohol taxes and a further reduction in public sector salaries and pensions. George Papaconstantinou, the Greek finance minister said the cuts would save $40b over three years with the aim of cutting the deficit from 13 percent to less than 3 percent of output by 2014. Annual holiday bonuses have been capped and axed for higher earners and public sector salaries have been frozen until 2014. With the combined cuts amounting to a 10 percent pay cut for many Greek workers, the mood is angry on the streets of Athens and Thessaloniki with a third general strike in as many months due on Wednesday.

Many observers believe the rescue package will not be enough to save Greece. Some analysts have warned Greece had not yet solved its fundamental problems and the Socialist PASOK government may not have the political stomach to carry out the reforms. The sovereign debt crisis also looms over Spain and Portugal and market speculators are watching carefully what happens next. Some economists say debt restructuring should not be ruled out to reduce the overall debt burden on Greece’s economy, but the downside is it would also create the heavy risk of denying Greece access to credit markets. The New York Times quoted Barcelona based economist and Fistful of Euros blogger Edward Hugh who was pessimistic about the outcome. “The immediate impact may be soothing, but the inflammation will soon show up again,” said Hugh. “My feeling is the rot has now gone too far.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Manning the barricades along Abbott's Battlelines

It is unlikely, as Treasurer Wayne Swan said, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott will be cracking open the champagne on hearing Malcolm Turnbull’s change of mind to stay in federal politics. Yet Turnbull’s decision is not without its gains for Abbott. For starters there is the obvious benefit of shoring up the seat of Wentworth, which was looking difficult to hold without Turnbull’s massive personal vote. Abbott would become a Liberal hero if he pulled off an unlikely victory or even staved off the monumental defeat that looked likely during most of the Brendon Nelson and Turnbull tenures as leader. With the gratitude of the party behind him, Abbott would be secure as leader and the best Turnbull could hope for is the Treasury, a position he would be admirably suited for.

This is a long odds prospect based on current opinion polls but as recent actions by the Government suggest, it is a prospect that worries Kevin Rudd. How else to explain the Government closing off debates and moving closer to Abbott positions on matters such as the ETS, migrant detention and about-turns on kindergarten centres, hospital takeovers and the insulation debacle? As Abbott said in the introductory sentence to his new book, “political parties have to treat defeat as an opportunity as well as a disaster”. As leader in the 2010 election no-one expects him to win, Abbott can afford to treat it as an opportunity to inflict maximum damage. Peter Hartcher observed Abbott’s team is crafted in his own image - populist, angry and spoiling for a fight.

A clue to why Abbott might do this can be found in the title of the book I quoted from. The title “Battlelines” is not accidental. Here is the former pugilist choosing to fight on several fronts. Abbott is a Christian warrior who admits he lacks the humility to be fearful about the size of the task. His Jesuit education makes him want to live life to the full. “For me,” Abbott wrote, “the message was God preferred big-hearted people who might sometimes make mistakes rather than robotic role-worshippers.”

The notion of God remains an important presence in Abbott’s life, as it does the Prime Minister. But whereas Rudd has succeeded in keeping his beliefs at arm’s length from policymaking, Abbott is fundamentally defined by his. Abbott’s approach to ethics is based on Rawl’s Veil of Ignorance. His best answer to most ethical dilemmas is “what if the boot was on the other foot?” which he said was closest to human instinct. This willingness to put himself in other people’s shoes has its limits. The Catholic thinking of B.A. Santamaria may have helped him become a “man for others” but his native conservatism made him feel threatened by some of life’s less conventional mores.

Abbott also admits he was threatened by multiculturalism in the 1980s. It wasn’t that he didn't want an Australia where many languages might be spoken, many religions worshipped, or many cultures practiced. It was because he was “too defensive about Western values that have turned out to have near-universal appeal.” Abbott has a somewhat narrow view of the European Enlightenment. He cherishes British values above all. He loves Britain, the source of the language and the law, as a “fountain of democracy”. He rejects the notion the monarchy is foreign though the “Australian Crown” to him means governor-generals and state governors as much as the Queen and the royal family.

Less intractable are Abbott’s economic opinions. He said he was joking when he said economics was boring and now insists “no serious person can be uninterested in economics.” Yet he has not drawn any economics battlelines and the book does not include economics in the index. His opposition to the GFC stimulus is for opposing sake rather than for a strategic economic masterplan - Abbott is no disciple of Hayek. This may be where Turnbull comes back in. While he has no intention of staying on as Abbott’s offsider, it may yet be his best bet if Abbott gets lucky over the next few months.