Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Thoughts on renewing my Crikey nominations

I’ve just paid $240 to renew my Crikey subscription for another two years. My current one doesn’t expire till early 2011 but I fell victim to their end of financial year marketing campaign which saw the wonderful First Dog on the Moon cross the dreaded church and state divide to spruik for business. Plus, with New Matilda going out of business this week there is now a nasty breeze from the hole in the Australian independent media space and I thought it was time to insulate against it.

I’ve been subscribing to Crikey now for four years or so and while they have a mixed record, I enjoy their daily digest of news served up in my favourite online tool: email. I keep hearing Gen Ys and beyond can’t tolerate email but as an asynchronous long or short form communication mechanism, it remains the best of its class - even if it has been in widespread use now for almost 20 years. It hardly makes Crikey “new media” but it certainly still keeps them independent and mildly profitable, unlike New Matilda which fell into the gap between subscription and free content.

In their email, Crikey deliver 20 or so stories in a package every lunchtime. I’m usually busy around that time and will often skim through most of the stories. But I will always take the time to read some of the articles. I like Bernard Keane’s post-public servant acerbic take on politics (even if he wears his Labor voting on his sleeve). I also enjoy Guy Rundle’s manic mutterings and then there is the incomparable First Dog on the Moon, Andrew Marlton. Marlton is quickly establishing himself as the cult Australian cartoonist of his generation borrowing liberally from other great cartoonists such as Michael Leunig and Jon Kudelka allied to his own native off the wall wit. His arrogant, foul-mouthed version of Jasper, Kevin Rudd’s Cat (who seems more suited to being Paul Keating’s pet) is well on the way to becoming one of the all-time great Australian fictional characters.

I also like Crikey’s well informed media coverage from Margaret Simons and the occasional tech rant from Stilgherrian. It has also collected a varied and lively collection of blogs under its banner. Oddly enough, the one thing I I don’t care too much for is Crikey's rumour and gossip. This is the section for which it initially became famous, and how the publication is still described by bigger media when they want to pour scorn on it.

Its skirting along the edge of defamation cost Crikey’s original owner Stephen Mayne his product but perhaps that was a good thing for the Australian mediasphere. It meant the more comercially-savvy Eric Beecher came in to take it over. Beecher has the same impassioned belief in the power of a free press that Mayne had. But he also has business smarts. His appointment of Amanda Gome as Private Media CEO shows the publication is heading in a new direction. Gome has a journalism background but she is also a publisher and a professor of business at Melbourne’s RMIT.

That new direction may have interesting ramifications for Crikey staff. Jason Whittaker took on the role of Crikey’s new deputy editor after Sophie Black was promoted to editor when Jonathan Green left to take over the ABC's The Drum. Whittaker is on the public record (prior to his Crikey days, admittedly) as a passionate defender of the traditional separation of journalism and advertising - the “church and state” of media.

If their most recent advertising campaign is anything to go by, Gome and Beecher are no longer so sure such a strategy is effective. In no other industry would a refusal of two key branches to work together be tolerated - even if there is a great possibility of conflict of interest. Crikey is a business and it must perform like a business. Its democratic function, as New Matilda has just found out, is just a sidebar. The main game is making enough money to survive and then thrive. This requires everyone in the organisation working to the same objective. The fun part will be watching how Crikey evolves to meet that objective. I look forward to following the journey for the next two years.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Being Julia Gillard: Understanding Australia's new prime minister

In Jacqueline Kent’s book The Making of Julia Gillard, Gillard herself tells a story of an event that took place in Hopper’s Crossing outside Melbourne, Victoria. She was at a shopping centre standing next to a board with a photo of her. "This old guy comes out of the supermarket, looks at me, looks at the photo, then turns back at me and says ‘Taken on a good day wasn’t it, love?’. I said 'And you’d be bloody Robert Redford, would you mate?'”

Gillard’s self-deprecating sense of humour is one of the crucial skills she will need to have at her disposal after her stunning accession to the Prime Minister of Australia this morning. Most people believed that Gillard was destined to become the country’s first female Prime Minister but until a few days ago no one would have believed it could happen in 2010.

But with Kevin Rudd in disarray in recent weeks and private party polling clearly telling powerbrokers they were heading to defeat in a number of key marginal seats, it was suddenly time to up the tempo. Unlike Rudd and his opposite number Tony Abbott, Gillard had kept her personal popularity in the recent political upheavals. The time was right for the kingmakers to dust off the guillotine and depose the incumbent. Rudd realised overnight he no longer had the numbers and resigned without a fight this morning.

That outcome is the best possible given that the leadership spill happened. Labor has panicked unnecessarily and would have won the next election under Rudd but by terminating his leadership they have handed an unexpected fillip to the opposition. At least the clean nature of the execution means there is no residual leadership tension that could further undermine Labor. Indeed given Rudd’s stated intention to stay on, it is not beyond the realms of possibility he could be restored as Foreign Minister under Gillard after the election.

The focus is now on the new leader. Gillard was born in the South Welsh coal port town of Barry in 1961. Her father was a brilliant student but being one of seven children in a poor family he was forced to end his education early and work in the mines. When the four year old Julia was diagnosed with bronchial pneumonia, a doctor advised her parents to move to a warmer climate. The family (including elder daughter Alison then aged 7) moved to Adelaide in 1966 where Julia’s father worked as a psychiatric nurse.

Gillard said she left the value of hard work from her father. In her Adelaide University years she was an organiser with the Australian union of students and then involved with the Melbourne-based Socialist Forum. Political views were heavily skewed in the ultra-left scene of 1970s student politics. Gillard told Australian Story that being a Labor student “you were viewed as a right-winger, I mean, we didn't really have that many sort of Liberals who were active in it to create that right-wing pole so most of student politics thought the Labor students were the enemy for being too right-wing.”

Gillard graduated from the University of Melbourne with an arts and law degree. She worked her way up to a partnership in Melbourne legal firm Slater & Gordon before several protracted and unsuccessful attempts to secure Labor preselection during the 1990s. She gained crucial government experience in her role as chief of staff to John Brumby when he was state opposition leader in Victoria during the Kennett years and she was finally elected to federal parliament in 1998.

ABC Radio National’s Peter Mares said that Gillard’s membership of the Victorian left of the ALP was “more organisational than ideological.” She is keen to promote social inclusion but wary of government heavy-handedness in social policy. “Gillard supports approaches that combine state and non-state actors in service delivery, encourage competition and individual initiative, yet maintain a safety net for those who fall,” Mares said.

Biographer Christine Wallace agrees Gillard is “no lefty” and said she is factional only so far as it is useful. Wallace described her as “transfactional” and said Gillard elicits an “intense, visceral response from voters, journalists and fellow political players.” Her talent was nurtured by Brumby, Simon Crean and Mark Latham. Gillard was one of the few Labor heavies not to suffer a tongue-lashing in the Latham Diaries and in return she is one of the few leaders not to twist the knife in Latham. By the time Rudd took over, Gillard was the obvious choice of deputy and since the election victory in 2007 she has revelled in the difficult twin roles of education and employment minister.

Wallace said what distinguishes Gillard from many female politicians is a genuine love of power. “Possessing it acts as a big political multiplier for her: the more power she gets, the better she performs and the more she accumulates as a result,” said Wallace. Gillard has now hit the jackpot when it comes to accumulation of power.

Her immediate task is consolidation to ensure it doesn’t just last a few months. But assuming she wins the 2010 election, we may see a new style of leader never before witnessed in Australia. Her policy record is mixed, but her native intelligence, a driving will to succeed and her indefatigable sense of humour will prove major allies in the fierce battles to come.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

I'm hearing only bad news from Radio Africa

I remember at the Italia 90 World Cup when Cameroon got to the quarter finals and were unluckily beaten by England everyone saying it was only a matter of time before an African side won the World Cup. The breakthrough would come some time in the next 20 years. What no one predicted was that Cameroon’s 1990 performance would be remain an African high water mark, equalled only by Senegal who also went out in quarter-final extra time in 2002.

Things have gone backwards since then. With one round of the group matches left to go in the first ever African World Cup, it remains a distinct possibility that no African side will make it through to the last 16. South Africa, Ivory Coast and Nigeria are almost certainly out already. Algeria has some hope in the group of sleep but will probably lose to USA. That leaves Ghana who top their group currently ahead of Germany and Serbia. However their lacklustre performance against a poor ten-man Australian side suggests that they will probably lose to Germany and allow Serbia to grab the other place with a win or draw against Australia.

Just about the one African innovation of note in this World Cup is not the football but the vuvuzela. The infamous horn has split sporting fans across the world who either love it for its ability to get the fans involved or, more usually hate it for its incessant one-pitched drone which drowns out every other noise in the stadium. Problems with the vuvuzela were identified as early as the 2009 Confederation Cup which acted as a dress rehearsal for the hosts. FIFA boss Sepp Blatter went on the record saying he didn’t want to ban the vuvuzela saying “we should not try to Europeanise an African World Cup.”

As with most things Blatter says, this was hypocritical bullshit. It had nothing to do with anti-colonialism and everything to do with office politics. There is certainly no long history of the vuvuzela’s use in Africa or elsewhere. Plastic horns first emerged in Mexico in the 1970s and were seen at the Argentina 1978 World Cup. They didn’t become popular in South Africa until 20 years later. With its dangerously high sound level and closeness to the frequency of human speech, the horns are detestable and Blatter probably hates them as much as anyone who is not playing them. What the FIFA President was really saying is that he was not prepared to risk African votes deserting him during the 2011 presidential election.

But while Blatter is busy buying votes, the tournament he runs is starting to gather pace after a slow start. The first week saw a succession of negative games and 1-0 scorelines. Desperately poor and uneven refereeing didn’t help. The code’s complete refusal to use technology to help the refs leaves it looking a laughing stock compared to the range of facilities available to rugby, cricket and tennis umpires.

This is especially ludicrous now that the referees and assistants are wired up to talk to each other. It would not take long to talk to a fourth or fifth official in the stands with access to replays, goal-line incidents and offside decisions. The oft-quoted excuse that it would “interrupt the flow of the game” beggars belief especially when considering how many interruptions currently exist when players fall over under the slightest provocation.

But back to the football itself. I’ve mentioned the problems with Africa, but Europe does not seem in much better health. A European team has never won the competition outside its home continent and this statistic is likely to continue in South Africa. Germany looked strong against Australia only to fold against Serbia. Meanwhile Italy, France and England all lack a cutting edge. Favourites Spain inexplicably lost to Switzerland and may find it impossible to recover from the shock of that loss. The Dutch look the best of the Europeans so far but don’t really have the aura of trophy winners.

The same cannot be said of Brazil and Argentina. Both sides have aura in abundance and won their games easily. With the right amount of fortune they should end up playing each other in the first all-South American final since 1950 (or 1930 if you are being picky and say there was no actual final in 1950) and the first ever final between these two old foes. It would be hilarious to watch Diego Maradona pick up another world cup trophy, despite all his obvious flaws and apparent madness. I suspect Brazil have slightly too much guile to make that happen, but it is Argentina and its current on-field genius Lionel Messi that have my heart as we head into the next few fascinating weeks.

Monday, June 21, 2010

2009 NT Intervention Report shows slow but steady progress

The Federal Government has just released its monitoring report (pdf) on the NT Intervention for the second half of 2009. The report shows much has been achieved in health, education and crime reporting since the Intervention started though critics still say there is not enough evidence yet to support its rollout.

The Northern Territory Emergency Response was a Howard Government initiative announced in June 2007 in response to reports of abuse and neglect of children outlined in the “Little Children are Sacred” report and supported by the Rudd Government when it took office five months later. The legislation period of NTER is five years and it commits the Government to actions to “close the gap” between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal key health indicators. The key objectives of NTER are ensuring the protection of women and children, reducing family violence, improving education, improving health, and promoting positive behaviours and personal responsibility.

In 2009, the Rudd Government attempted to remove some of the more odious elements of the NTER with legislation that is now before the Senate to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act. This was done after many in the 73 NTER communities felt they had been hurt, humiliated and confused by the often discriminatory way in which the original legislation was pushed through. However the same people admitted children, women and the elderly were were all feeling safer, better fed and clothed, and that there was less humbugging for alcohol, drugs and gambling.

There have been some good recorded improvements. The Government has built eight of nine promised new crèches and upgraded 11 out of another promised 13. Average school attendance has increased from 60.1 percent to 62.2 percent in 12 months. However this is still down on the 62.7 percent figure recorded in 2007. A school nutrition program is up and running staffed mainly by Indigenous people while over 140 new teaching positions have been funded in the NT. Another 173 health professionals are on the books covering nursing, GP, dental and allied health. Outreach teams have made 110 visits to 66 remote communities.

88 community stores were licensed to sell alcohol and out of 190 monitoring visits just one store had its licence revoked. Alcohol Management Plans are in place in Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Palmerston and Katherine and on their way in Borroloola, Maningrida, Gunbalanya, Elliot, Tiwi Islands and Groote Eylandt. The Government created 2,200 new jobs still leaving almost 17,000 on welfare quarantine known as “income management”. 96 percent of these spent $133 million on food and clothing using BasicCards.

The instance of child abuse cases increased over the 2009 reporting period giving the ABC its gloomy headline when discussing the report. The numbers of child abuses cases from 72 in 2007 to 142 two years later. However with 62 additional police deployed to communities, there is an obvious increase in reported crime, while the actual incidence of crime may have remained unchanged or have fallen. The numbers of alcohol related incidents went up 31 percent while the number of drug related incidents went up 23 percent while reported incidents of domestic abuse went up a staggering 75 percent between 2007 and 2009.

But undoubtedly problems still remain in the communities. Last year NT Indigenous children were six times as likely as other children to be the subject of a substantiation of a notification of abuse and neglect. Neglect remains the main crime (43 percent) followed by physical abuse (26 percent) and emotional abuse (24 percent). Sexual abuse accounted for less than 10 percent of cases and since July 2007 27 people (including 4 non-Indigenous people) have been convicted for child sexual assault.

Response to the report has so far been limited in the media and virtually non-existent in the blogosphere. Apart from the ABC article noted above, the NT News also picked up on the increased stats angle, The Australian published an article by Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin, while ANU’s Jon Altman in Crikey called the state of progress “disturbing”.

However what is truly disturbing is the mainstream lack of interest in the report and its contents other than for its political conflict value. Altman makes good points about some of the ways we have gone backwards since 2007. However, until there is a concerted hue and cry on behalf of white Australia to really follow through on the initiatives, nothing will change. Our media is failing us with this task. For those interested, Part 2 of the report provides detailed information and analysis by sub measure.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Gaza: A History of Neglect

While the recent flotilla attempts to end the economic blockade have turned it into front page news, Gaza has been a forgotten add-on for most of its 62 years of existence. For millennia it was simply a part of Palestine occupied by a succession of foreign rulers. On 14 May 1948 the last of those rulers, the British high commissioner, left Palestine formally ending the colonial mandate. (photo:AP)

The Zionists immediately proclaimed an independent Israel. Within 24 hours armies from Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq launched an attack across the frontier but stopped short at occupying Jewish settlements. The Israelis battle-hardened from fighting Germans and British alike routed the invaders.

When fighting ended in January 1949 Palestine had disappeared from the map. Most went to Israel, the west Bank went to Jordan leaving behind just the tiny strip of Gaza administered by Egypt. The strip was home to thousands of Palestinian refugees who fled across the border or were forced to leave by Jewish settlers.

Egypt’s King Farouk ordered the building of a new palace in Gaza where he could preside over a Palestinian Arab Government. But his grandiose schemes fell apart when Nasser and his Free Officers deposed him in a coup in 1952. Nasser turned his attentions to removing the hated British from the Suez Canal Zone while Gaza reverted to near lawless anarchy and fedayeen raids against Israel.

Four years later the Israelis invaded the strip in the Suez War. It followed a blitz attack on Egyptian forces in Sinai then a diversion south to open up the Gulf of Aqaba. The southern end of the Strip became one of the key battlefields of the war but the Israelis quickly overran the 8,000 Egyptian defenders before taking Gaza City.

After the war Israel told the UN it would keep its troops in Gaza and Sharm el-Sheikh in Sinai. The Americans although sympathetic to Israel, reacted angrily and threatened to cut off aid and end its guarantee of unrestricted oil supplies. With a likely vote on a UN resolution condemning Israel, then Prime Minister Ben Gurion accepted the inevitable and agreed to withdraw from Sinai and Gaza in exchange for access to the Gulf of Aqaba. The war ended the facade there was an independent government in Gaza. Direct control went back to Cairo with a military governor installed in Gaza City.

Gaza changed hands again in 1967 when once again the Strip and Sinai were vital battlefields in the Egyptian flank of the Six Day War. At the end of the war the Israeli Government voted unanimously to return the Sinai to Egypt and the Golan Heights to Syria in return for peace agreements. However Gaza was conspicuously absent from the decision and the arrangement was rejected by Egypt and Syria.

Israeli historian Benny Morris said at least 70,000 Gazans emigrated to Egypt and were forced to sign documents saying they were leaving of their own free will. Israelis moved into the Strip in large numbers taking up one fifth of the land in an already crowded area. Israel finally gave Sinai back to Egypt in 1979 but once again the status of Gaza was not addressed by President Carter’s peace treaty. Egypt did however agree to renounce its territorial claims on the area freeing it to become a part of Palestine, in theory.

Growing Palestinian unrest led to the First Intifada from 1987 to 1993 and a year later to the Oslo Accords which called for the total withdrawal of the IDF from parts of Gaza and the West Bank. It also created the Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority for these areas for a transitional period of five years. It was also the first time that Israel and the Palestinians agreed to view Gaza and the West Bank as a single territorial unit. The Oslo Accords were a brave move but ultimately foundered on aspects that had been deliberately put into the ‘too hard basket’: Israeli settlements, Palestinian refugees, security and border control, and the status of Jerusalem.

Yet there was impact in Gaza. The IDF left Gaza City and the urban conurbation around it and the Palestinian Authority began to administer and police the region in their place. The PA was racked by corruption and mismanagement and by 2000 most of the Strip’s 400,000 residents were frustrated by the lack of progress and the squalid conditions they lived in. The scene was set for the Second Intifada and the fracturing of the Oslo Accords.

After Israeli soldier were killed by a Palestinian mob in the West bank, the IDF launched retaliatory air strikes against PA targets in the West Bank and Gaza. Attitudes hardened on both sides with Israel turning to the right wing Likud Party while Hamas grew in popularity in Gaza. As matters dragged on for years, an exasperated Ariel Sharon decided in 2004 to unilaterally evict all Israelis from Gaza’s 21 settlements. The IDF withdrew a year later. The disengagement did not address wider issues of occupation. Israel still retained control over Gaza’s borders, airspace, coastline, infrastructure and power grid.

Nevertheless the withdrawal gave fresh hope to a peace settlement, hopes that were soon dashed again. In Palestine parliamentary elections were held in early 2006 for the first time in 10 years. Hamas stunned the ruling Fatah party by easily winning the election. With Hamas refusing to recognise Israel, the US and EU imposed sanctions on Palestine. Israel also imposed a blockade on the Strip which exists to this day. The election result also led to the “fratricidal war” between Hamas and Fatah and the latter used its greater numbers in the West Bank to wrest back power there. Hamas remained entrenched in the Strip.

They also continued their low-level war against Israel with home-made Qassam rockets a constant irritant in border regions. In December 2008, Israel lost patience and launched Operation Cast Lead with a series of air strikes before a ground-based invasion in which over a thousand Palestinians were killed and most of Gaza’s infrastructure was destroyed in a three-week campaign. Today the border remains sealed and the IDF strictly controls travel to and from the area.

The end result may to be harden attitudes within the Strip that its future lies not as part of a united Palestine with the West Bank but as a separate country in its own right. It is this reality that no one in the region has yet confronted.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Red Cross say Kyrgyzstan situation is "an immense crisis"

The International Committee of the Red Cross say at least 100,000 people have been displaced from their homes as a result of the crisis in southern Kyrgyzstan. An ICRC team which arrived in the remote area yesterday said Uzbek authorities have registered 75,000 adult refugees and an unknown number of children in Uzbekistan while tens of thousands remain stranded on the Kyrgyz side of the border. "We've seen for ourselves and also heard about pockets of displaced people ranging from several hundred to several thousand in number, so it's impossible to say with any certainty exactly how many people have been forced to flee their homes,” said Séverine Chappaz, the ICRC's deputy head of mission in Kyrgyzstan. “It's an immense crisis."

ICRC staff visited the main detention centre in Kyrgyzstan’s second biggest city Osh where they delivered food provided by the World Food Programme to around 1,000 detainees. It was part of an emergency WFP operation to deliver food to 13,000 people affected by the humanitarian crisis. WFP said transporting aid from the capital Bishkek was difficult, as roads are not safe and commercial trucking companies are reluctant to risk their vehicles. “This crisis is unfolding rapidly and WFP is mobilising its global expertise to ensure that the vulnerable – particularly women and children – do not suffer,” said WFP’s Executive Director Josette Sheeran. “We implore all sides to ensure humanitarian access to the vulnerable, trapped by the crisis.”

Officially almost 200 people have died in that crisis though the real death toll is likely to be much higher. Osh, the stronghold of former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, has been the epicentre of violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbek people for a week, though the roots of the violence date back a couple of months. Bakiyev was ousted from government in April in a coup that left 75 dead and hundreds injured in fighting between police and protesters. Ex-Foreign Minister Roza Otunbayeva said the opposition had taken over the reins of government and driven Bakiyev from office. Otunbeyeva was subsequently installed as interim leader.

However Bakiyev refused to accept the coup despite having lost the support of his Kremlin backers. He was first elected president in 2005 and re-elected in 2009 though there was a strong suspicion of electoral fraud in both elections. After the coup Bakiyev initially fled to Osh before eventually going to Kazakhstan. Bakiyev remained popular in the south of the country and it is not difficult to imagine his supporters being behind some of the violence that erupted spectacularly last week. The new Kyrgyz government was quick to blame Bakiyev for the violence. It said he hired "provocateurs" to instigate the deadly riots and they complained of a lack of international support, saying: "We were left alone with the enemy in the most difficult days."

However Kyrgyzstan’s most difficult days were not entirely Bakiyev’s fault. Clashes erupted on 11 June with the large Uzbek population of the city targeted by gangs. It soon spiralled out of control with possibly a thousand people dying in the clashes. It is not entirely clear who is driving the violence but it is tapping into ancient enmities. Ethnic Uzbeks make up 14 per cent of the country's population of 5.3 million but are almost half the population of Osh and neighbouring Jalal-Abad. In echoes of ethnic conflicts elsewhere, they are also a target being overly represented in the commercial class. Ex-pat Craig Murray in the British Telegraph suggests the violence may have been orchestrated by Moscow to undermine the overly Liberal Otunbeyeva regime.

The Kyrgyz administration has declared a state of emergency in the Osh and Jalal-Abad provinces and the next most important date for the interim regime is 27 June. On that date there will be a constitutional referendum to pave the way for parliamentary elections in October. The new leadership is determined to hold the vote, which it needs in order to entrench its legality. "The situation in Osh is stabilising. We have enough forces," said Azimbek Beknazarov, an interim deputy premier. “We need this [referendum] like air. Everyone who calls themselves a Kyrgyz citizen must vote."

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Twitter and politics: The Penrith Debate points to the future

Among the 1,200 tweets with the #penrithdebate tag, the most retweeted comment of the day came not from a politician but from a journalist who has long been familiar with the medium: Joe Hildebrand. Hildebrand used the conventions of his craft to turn the debate into an ironic news headline “EXCLUSIVE: TWITTER DEBATE CONFUSED, NONSENSICAL AND UNPRODUCTIVE; PERFECT REPRESENTATION OF NSW POLITICS” At least 41 others liked Hildebrand’s contribution enough to send it on to their followers too (photo: ABC)

The joke was funny because it used the metaphor of the Twitter debate standing in for the entire panoply of governance in NSW. But if true, Hildebrand as a Sydney based News Limited reporter, is part of the problem. As one observer noted, “Twitter is too short, and with a lot of people tweeting to participate in the debate means that information just flies by without being properly looked and picked apart”. Yet journalists and other truth finders can easily pick through the bones of the debate after the fact.

The Penrith Debate was an exchange of ideas between NSW three political leaders using Twitter as the communication channel for 30 minutes ahead of a state by-election in Penrith on the weekend. Under the moderation of TV journalist Kevin Wilde, the leaders Premier Kristina Keneally, the Liberals' Barry O’Farrell and the Greens' Lee Rhiannon would use the 140-character format to debate ideas, issues and policies. Keneally made grandiose claims about the possibilities: “Twitter flattens democratic debate. Enlivens democracy. A great tool for discussion, info exchange.”

All of this is true after a fashion, but Twitter does not make for great theatre. Because of the tool’s shortcomings with multi-pronged conversation, the debate became more geek gimmickry than any flush of oratory. Tech and social commentator Stilgherrian picked up on this calling it “confusing and pointless” and said Twitter was “completely the wrong medium for a debate.” Stilgherrian made the point that following the three Twitter streams was almost like watching three TV stations. Yet he also said a filtered stream of the hashtag limited to the participants was available on the day.

Twitter may be flawed but we forget it is just one piece of the communication puzzle. Keneally used her iphone to make her Tweets while Rhiannon used Tweetdeck. Others used a bewildering array of tools that sit on top of Twitter to make their points. The stream is being tamed as people find uses for the vast amount of data it consumes. And the debate, though badly executed, contained the germ of an old and timeless ideal: public accountability.

Among the masters of public accountability are the Dutch and they held several Twitter debates a couple of weeks ago in the lead-up to national elections. The Netherlands went further than NSW with three party leaders, two ministers and three other MPs taking part. The commentary from Dutch-based John Tyler at HagueGuy showed there was a massive audience for this kind of interaction regardless of how chaotic the rapid fire exchanges got. While it was easy to get confused, the debates have added a vast amount of information for the likes of the HagueGuy and Hildebrand to work with when critiquing politicians.

It is too easy to overlook just how exciting this kind of interactivity is. Working at its best, the Twitterati operates like synapses, a hivemind that is capable of massive thought and concerted action despite its 140 character limits, inherent anarchy, spamming, non sequiturs and juvenile humour. The creative boundary of briefness means complex words and sentences are pared down to their absolute essentials and often chiselled into remarkably dense thought. Admittedly we didn't see much of that today but there will be other opportunities.

More of these debates will be conducted in the trust economy of social media. Politicians will have to learn a new skill: how to become adept at ceding control. Twitter debates (or whatever social media format might follow) won’t decide the election, but with the right tools and the right filters, they can add to the general wellbeing of the body politic by getting tight messages out to a wide and engaged audience.

Greens participant Lee Rhiannon was in no doubt the debate was a success. “There would have been more people following this debate on line than would fit into many local town halls,” she wrote. “I am not saying they should replace public meetings but there is a place for online debates in the political landscape and we should encourage its development.”

While the debate format suited the Greens as it did not exclude them, Rhiannon is right – we should encourage their development. But we should not get too carried away; Rhiannon and the rest did what politicians do in any other debate on any other media. They spoke to their own themes and ignored pointed replies. It is politics, after all. It is up to us to go through the entrails to make sense of it.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Helen Thomas and the truth about Palestine

Nothing has depressed me more this week than the Helen Thomas affair. If you cannot have a controversial opinion after living on the planet for nine decades then when can you have one?

Thomas had to “retire in disgrace” after she said the Jews should leave Palestine. But she knows a bit about what she was talking about. All her working life she has watched the disaster that has unfolded in the region since Israel’s independence in 1948. In an age where media allow governments to get away with lies about “the peace process” for a journalist of almost 70 years standing to lose her job when she call a spade a spade even when it’s a particularly dirty shovel, is particularly odious.

Where as Palestinians can trace a 2,000 year old link of habitation with their land, the Jewish Diaspora of Europeans, Russians and Africans have been there at most a 100 years. The Jews must reach into their religion to find their ancient connection with Israel. And given how they have battered the original inhabitants into submission, It takes little wonder to imagine a Palestine which is a lot more of a Holy Land without the xenophobes that now administer the country in Jerusalem (a capital recognized by no other country).

Thomas is no fool. She knows she has no power to change facts and knows full well that the Israelis are going nowhere. She has seen first hand how US support and military hardware makes the Knesset well-nigh invincible. With the blessing of every president since Eisenhower (the first of 11 presidents Thomas reported on) Israel have increased their strangehold on Palestine. Thomas could see only too well how they turned the West Bank into a mess of powerless Bantustans and how they have bombed the Strip back into stateless inertia.

So when this knowledgeable near 90 year old is asked a leading question by a Jewish rabbi “Any comments on Israel?” it is hardly wonder she should reply “I think the Jews should get out of Palestine.”

It was the use of the word “Jews” that hung her. If she had said “I think the Israelis should get out of Palestine” it would have been perfectly valid and free from the hoary charge of “anti-Semitism”, a cliché that shows no understanding of what a Semite actually is.

Perhaps Thomas realised this or perhaps she didn’t. She is 89 years old after all. But she did quickly realise was how much an the effect her words would have on the mediated public sphere, given she is a product of it. She chose to fall on her own sword rather than have to constantly justify a position that is so anathema to the US mainstream.

Thomas’s Cassandra-like words exposed her to a path of political deviance. That is unsustainable in any path of American public trust which is based on the media lie that Israel is never wrong.

But she is old enough to remember another event in the same year as Israel’s independence. In 1948, the Russians imposed a wilful blockade on West Berlin aimed at starving it out of political existence. The western powers led by the US defeated it using a combination of outrage and ingenuity.

The blockade of Gaza deserves similar outrage regardless of your feelings about the legitimacy of the Hamas Government. 400,000 people are being systematically starved by a government in a brutal piece of collective punishment. In any other context, this would be called genocide. Shutting an old woman up won't make it any better.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Queensland Budget 2010

“Twelve months ago, this Government took the decision to fight for jobs, above all else.” These were the words Queensland Treasurer Andrew Fraser began his 2010 budget address with. Fraser is a hard-working and earnest young man but I wonder if it crossed his mind that others might wonder if the jobs they fought hardest for were their own. The Anna Bligh government has been on the nose for twelve months or more and the latest Galaxy poll in the Courier-Mail on Monday showed a 55-45 lead to the LNP on a 2PP basis.

On Monday Fraser claimed he would not be distracted by the poll and in his budget speech he recommitted the Government to what he called its “true task, providing Queenslanders with a chance at the dignity of work.” Given that the unemployment rate in Queensland is 5.6 percent, Fraser may be taking a gamble in his “first commitment” which does not address the other 94.4 percent of adult Queenslanders who either have jobs or who are not registered with Centrelink.

But Fraser did have good economic data to report. He spoke of a better than expected growth rate of 3 percent which was still “below trend” but was better than the national 2 percent rate. The recession-busting construction spree represented 7 percent of the State economy and 120,000 jobs with a predicted 2.75 percent increase in 2010-11. They will continue to pour money into infrastructure promising $17.1 billion this financial year though disappointingly, roads still get the lion’s share of the funds.

The State deficit has been reduced to $287 million which is well down on the $2.3 billion Mid Year forecast and a measure of how the resources boom has contributed to state coffers. Fraser said they are on target to deliver “a solid surplus” by 2015-2016 but the revised estimates suggest it will be happen a lot sooner than that.

Despite his money worries, Fraser still has the ability to dish it out to various constituencies. Pensioners do well as usual, a form of largesse that governments may need to reconsider as the country gets older over the next 20-30 years. Fraser gave them another $90 million 50 percent concession on Compulsory Third Party insurance and an increased electricity rebate worth $50 million. As worthy as these sound, I wish governments became more creative with their grants by either supporting a move towards the consumption of renewable energies and providing incentives to use more public transport instead of subsiding private vehicle use.

There are some sops to environmental concerns. There is $60 million for the popular Solar Bonus Scheme (which 22,000 people have signed up to already) $35 million for the Kogan Creek solar boost project (matching a similar amount from the Federal Government) to install a solar thermal addition to increase its capacity by 44 megawatts at peak solar conditions and improve plant efficiency.

The budget also has $300 million for education and training including funding for up to 316 new teachers and teacher aides and five new schools and 40 kindergartens. There is also $10 million for training in the booming Coal Seam Gas and Liquefied Natural Gas industries. There is an additional $72 million to provide disability support with good programs including autism services in regional areas, helping people with spinal cord injuries and transitioning disabled young people out of school. He also announced a new tax measure by excluding homes purchased through a disability trust from stamp duty. In Health the budget has increased from $5.35 billion to $10 billion in five years. The government will add 1,200 doctors, nurses and health professionals as well as building or upgrading 22 hospitals.

The government estimates that 100,000 people will move to Queensland in the next 12 months. That's a lot of people and Fraser said “we have to cater for that growth”. He announced a new Regional First Home Owner Boost, an extra $4,000 on top of the existing state funded $7,000 First Home Owner Grant to encourage people to move out of the South East. He also announced a $450 million new police academy as well as over 200 new police officers and spent $240 billion on yet another backwards looking project - the Gateway motorway upgrade south extension. Other roads to do well in the cash grab were the Port of Brisbane with $330 million, the Ted Smout Bridge to Redcliffe $315 million, the Forgan Smith Bridge in Mackay $148 million and the $190 million Port Access Road in Townsville.

Queensland’s 150th budget is much like the 149th that came before it. It is a carefully crafted grab-bag of token initiatives, old solutions and outright bribes that paper over the economic cracks but do little to address the State’s longer term needs: how to move to a 21st century economy as the population grows daily older. It will take a government with a lot more vision than the cautious Anna Bligh/Andrew Fraser administration to deliver on that promise. Such a government is nowhere in waiting in Queensland, however.

Monday, June 07, 2010

American lawyer jailed in Rwanda for giving legal counsel to Opposition leader

An American lawyer has pleaded not guilty to charges of denying Rwanda’s 1994 genocide in a court in Kigali on Friday. Peter Erlinder was also charged with publishing articles that threaten national stability in five hour hearing in the Rwandan capital. Erlinder is the lead defence lawyers at the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda held in Arusha, Tanzania. Erlinder said he believes the charges arise as a result of some misunderstanding however he could face 25 years in prison if convicted.

It is hard to believe Peter Erlinder is serious about a "misunderstanding". He knows better than most this trial is political. Erlinder arrived in Kigali last month to help defend opposition leader Victoire Umuhoza Ingabire, who was charged with promoting genocide ideology. Ingabire is the chair of the Unified Democratic Forces. She returned to Rwanda in January after spending 16 years in exile in the Netherlands specifically to contest the presidential election against dictator Paul Kagame in August. Kagame, who has ruled Rwanda since 1995, threw Ingabire in jail on charges of “association with a terrorist group; propagating genocide ideology; negationism and ethnic divisionism”. She is now out on bail with her passport seized and has been given instructions not to talk to the media.

It was obvious this was a tactic to ensure Ingabire would not be able to contest the election. She enlisted Erlinder’s help to fight the spurious charges. The 62 year old Erlinder is a distinguished jurist and a law professor at William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota before working for the ICTR. In his defence statements at Arusha, Erlinder disputed the standard characterisation of the genocide as Hutus deliberately slaughtering innocent Tutsis. Instead, he said, that the violence was more spontaneous and possibly the result of Tutsi rebels killing Hutu civilians. These provocative statements taken outside their courtroom context made him an ideal candidate for “propagating genocide ideology. He arrived in Kigali on 23 May and was arrested five days later. Martin Ngoga, Rwanda’s prosecutor general said it did not matter Erlinder made the offensive remarks abroad.

Erlinder requested bail to return to the US and receive treatment for injuries. He said he had not been maltreated but had also not had contact with family members or his doctor. On Wednesday, he was hospitalised after police said he had attempted suicide by taking dozens of pills. His family has denied the suicide attempt claim. On Thursday, the US State Dept called for him to be released on compassionate and humanitarian grounds. "We are pressing the Rwandan government to resolve this case quickly, and we would like to see him released on compassionate grounds," Philip Crowley, a state department spokesman, said.

The criticism of Rwanda is deliberately gentle. The country is a close American ally that has received hundreds of millions of dollars of US aid despite human rights violations in the months leading up to elections in August. No subject seems to be touchier than the genocide and the US has covered up evidence that Kagame and his Tutsi army were almost as culpable as the Hutu Power group that killed over half a million Tutsis in the period between April and June 1994. In recent years, thousands of Rwandans have been charged with the vaguely worded genocide ideology, which criminalises any non-government version of events in 1994. The difference now is, as the New York Times points out, Erlinder’s case is the first time Rwanda has leveled these charges against a Westerner.

Writing in MR Zine, American academics Edward Herman and David Peterson said Erlinder’s arrest revealed much about a regime that is routinely sanitised in Western intellectual life and media coverage. They remind readers Kagame does not like free elections and has either avoided them or rigged them. They said Kagame did the same thing before the last election in 2003. “Kagame's main rival at the time, a Hutu and former President Pasteur Bizimungu, was arrested and charged with ‘divisionism,’ a kind of Kagame-speak that means to provide political choices other than the one-party Kagame dictatorship,” wrote Herman and Peterson. “Hopefully, he has gone too far in using that Kafkaesque gimmick against Peter Erlinder, a notable fighter against both actual genocide and genocide denial.”

Sunday, June 06, 2010

The tale of Mitchell, Kenniff Country and Sam Johnson

The signs around Mitchell say this is “Kenniff Country” and tourists are invited to follow the “Kenniff Trail”. Just as the passage of time has turned the Kelly Gang from criminals and murderers to folk heroes, a similar process has happened here for two cattle thieves who murdered two men, including a policeman, twenty years later. The story of what happened in 1902 is fascinating and it was the first time white people were sentenced to death based solely on the testimony of an Aboriginal person.

Mitchell is 550km west of Brisbane and named for Sir Thomas Mitchell who was the first white person to trudge this country. Mitchell called it “Champagne Country” but many of those that followed him found life less bubbly and prosperous. The Kenniff brothers Patrick (b 1863) and James (b 1869) were among those to find out just how barren a beverage Champagne Country really was.

The pair were sons of Irish-born James Kenniff and his wife Mary. The Kenniffs lived near Dungog in NSW but the father and his two sons were convicted for stealing stock in northern NSW and they scampered away north to escape justice. They established a property at Ralph near Augathella and were determined to live a straight life. They lived by bush work; they also raced horses and opened books on the local race meetings.

But conditions were tough on the land and the depression of the 1890s left them penniless. It was all too easy to return to old ways. With convicted cattle duffers Thomas Stapleton, John and Richard Riley and others, they launched what the Australian Dictionary of Biography called a reign of 'mild terror' stealing cleanskin and poorly branded cattle from Carnarvon and other neighbouring stations.

In 1895 the brothers were charged in a Roma court with stealing or receiving stolen horses. Pat got a three year sentence and Jim got two years. Both served time in St Helena Prison off the coast of Brisbane. When Jim was released he went back to the Ralph property which was empty. A year later Pat was released and also went back to Ralph. Pat quickly returned to his thieving ways attracting the attention of Police Commissioner Parry-Ogden who sent a sergeant to investigate their activities. A warrant was issued for their arrest after a daring raid on a police camp and Jim was captured at Ralph after a shootout.

Jim beat the charge in court which encouraged his brother to turn himself in. But Pat was found guilty of another charge and was sent back to St Helena for another three years. While he was away, local landholders agitated the Lands Department to terminate the lease at Ralph Block when it expired in 1899. In the meantime, a neighbour bought the property directly from the Kenniffs and employed one Albert Christian Dahlke to manage the properties. He and Jim Kenniff had a personal animosity that ran deep.

Around the same time a new constable, George Doyle arrived in the area looking to set up a moveable police station. He chose Kenniff’s camp site on Ralph Block as the preferred site. Doyle and his Aboriginal tracker Sam Johnson moved into what was called the Upper Warrego Police Station.

In November 1901, Pat returned again from St Helena and was stunned to find a police station at his home. With the country in the middle of a massive drought, the brothers plotted to steal horses and sell them in Roma. In January 1902 they rounded up 36 horses and took them to Mt Moffatt in the Carnarvon Ranges.

Doyle and Johnson were patrolling in the area and intercepted Pat Kenniff. They took him to Mitchell where he was fined £20 and then released to find the money. He caught up with his brothers and launched a spree of retaliation, burning down an outstation, driving off horses and robbing workers.

On 25 March, Doyle received another arrest warrant for the Kenniffs. Dahlke was there when it arrived and volunteered to help carry out the arrests. On Good Friday 28 March, Doyle, Dahlke and Sam Johnson set off to find the horse thieves; only Constable Doyle was armed.

On Easter Sunday the trio had arrived in Lethbridge Pocket 10kms from Mt Moffatt Homestead where they spotted Jim, Pat and a third brother Tom. Dalhke and Doyle followed Jim while Johnson set off in elusive pursuit of the other two brothers.

When Johnson arrived back he found Jim Kenniff in their custody. Doyle told Johnson to ride the 200 metres to their pack horse to get handcuffs. While Johnson was away he heard gunfire that sounded different from Doyle’s revolver. Johnson rushed back only to see Pat and Jim riding towards him. Johnson took to the scrub and made his escape. He raised the alarm and another man, Jim Burke agreed to accompany Johnson back to the scene. They found two horses with blood stains but no sign of Doyle or Dalhke. They rode back to Mt Moffatt late on Easter Sunday to tell people of the news.

Johnson rode through the night and all the following day to get to Mitchell and the nearest telegraph station. Others returned to the scene where they found more blood stains and belongings of the two missing men. On the Wednesday they found a third horse which was Doyle’s mount. Inside its police pack bags were charcoal and burnt bones.

Police found the location where the bodies were burnt and a doctor confirmed the remains were of one or possibly two humans, recently deceased. Mt Moffatt was now a murder scene and a large manhunt began for the Kenniffs. On 12 May a reward of £1000 was offered for Pat and Jim’s capture. Early on Monday 23 June, the pair were found at Back Creek (later renamed Arrest Creek) a few kms south of Mitchell. They were captured unharmed and taken to Brisbane for trial.

The trial took place in the Supreme Court in November 1902. Sam Johnson’s evidence was crucial for the prosecution. The defence was simple: neither Kenniff was there at the time of the murder. It was a landmark case. No white man had ever been convicted of murder on black testimony. The defence lawyer tried to discredit Johnson’s evidence. But Johnson answered the derogatory questions in dignified fashion reinforcing the credibility of his evidence.

Both the Kenniffs were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. A Full Court later commuted Jim Kenniff’s sentence to life imprisonment. Pat Kenniff was hanged on 12 January 1903. Jim was released in 1912. After working on cattle-stations in the north-west he fossicked in the ranges north of Charters Towers and died there of cancer on 8 October 1940, aged around 71.

Back in Mitchell, those sympathetic to the Kenniffs blamed Johnson for the conviction and threatened retribution. Even those who did not much admire the Kenniffs did not like it was the word of a blackfella that convicted them. Johnson eventually requested a transfer for his own safety. He moved to Longreach where he died in 1919 of influenza. Sam Johnson was buried in a forgotten, unmarked grave and to this day has no monument or memorial in his name.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

A black history of Queensland

I’ve recently finished reading Raymond Evans' very thorough account of “A History of Queensland”. One thing above all else comes out from the book. It is that Queensland’s white history is one of almost continual dispossession and discrimination against the Indigenous inhabitants. Since the 1820s blacks have been massacred, dispossessed, forcibly removed, interned, had families split and had wages confiscated. In the 19th century they were treated like vermin to be hunted down and in the 20th century they were the victims of hypocritical paternalism, with shades of the earlier attitude still evident. As late as 1970, a North Queensland grazier told ABC television an Aboriginal person was “a sort of link between the upper and lower forms of the animal kingdom” which made them “dangerous to put…into society”.

Whites made every effort to put Aboriginals out of a society they had lived in for 60,000 years. Just prior to occupation in 1820 there were around 262,000 natives in Queensland. By a hundred years later, extermination and disease had reduced that number to just 15,700. In 1884 the “Queenslander” newspaper told its readers that “if a blackfellow is seen, he is brutally shot down the same as a dingo and with about the same feeling of remorse”. Keeping “racial purity” was a higher priority of colonial society than preserving Aboriginal lives. Officials lived in terror of sexual “contamination” that might lead to a “half-caste menace”.

Those that survived those terrible times became government property. A massive system of reserve, mission and police bureaucracy controlled every aspect of Aboriginal lives. The system ran cheaply on the intercepted wages of black workers. The workers themselves were quarantined on semi-penitential reserves with no health facilities. Older Aboriginals still recall with horror sadistic institutions such as Palm Island, Barambah (Cherbourg) and Woorabinda which were no better than concentration camps.

Governments of every stripe blatantly stole from Aboriginals. Evans noted how the 1930s William Forgan Smith Labor Government “perfected the art of robbery with a fountain pen” and stole £72,000 ($3.5m in today’s money) from Aboriginal trust accounts claiming it to be a depression-era emergency measure. Such theft continued through the years and administrations that followed.

The attitude of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen government of 1968-1987 veered between neglect and outright hostility to Aboriginals. Bjelke-Petersen insisted Queensland Aboriginal people lived “on clover”. They were "as wealthy as Arab oil sheiks", he said. But the statistics proved the lie to this absurd claim. In 1980 Indigenous people were 89 times more likely to die of an infectious disease than other Queenslanders. Half of all Aboriginals were unemployed. Half of all Aboriginal homes had no sewers, a quarter had no electricity and a fifth had no water. In 1987, Aboriginal men died on average 27 years younger than other men and for Aboriginal women it was even worse. They died 34 years earlier than other women. Aboriginals were four times more likely to be involved in violence or accidents and seven times more likely to be imprisoned.

By 1974 trachoma of the eye was a disease eradicated across the western world. But it was still rampant in Queensland’s Aboriginal children with 80 percent infection rates. When Fred Hollows and his team attempted to travel around the communities to address the problem, Bjelke-Petersen expelled them on the spurious grounds the team contained two “well-known radicals” who had “contrived an upsurge in voter registrations.”

Around the same time a federal health team described the high rates of childhood malnutrition, gastro-enteritis and threadworm as resembling conditions in Biafra. Queensland Health officials played the report down preferring to lay the blame on parental neglect. Similar criticisms from the World Council of Churches and Amnesty International were dismissed by Bjelke-Petersen as a sinister, subversive “arm of Communist propaganda”.

After the Nationals were finally turfed out in disgrace in 1989, the Labor Goss Government came to power on a wave of new promises. But their Lands Rights Act of 1991 attracted the ire of the Land Councils who said it deprived 95 percent of Queensland blacks from any claims on the land. Black protests on the issue were met with a vigorous police reaction and matters did not improve after talented dancer and activist Daniel Yock died suspiciously in custody in 1993.

Well meaning efforts by the subsequent Beattie-Bligh Governments have done little to arrest the long slide in Aboriginal Health. The adult black death rate remains 10 to 12 times greater than non-Indigenous rates, incarceration rates are 15 times higher and life expectancy is 20 years below the national average. In 2004, the Fred Hollows Foundation compared Queensland Aboriginal health unfavourably with experiences in Sudan, Sierra Leone and Nepal.

Police issues remain a thorn. The Government-sanctioned police response to the 2004 Palm Island riot following the Mulrunji death was particularly brutal. 80 Tactical Response Group commandos conducted dawn raids armed with riot shields, balaclavas, helmets with face masks and automatic weapons. They declared war on local residents while Beattie disgracefully described the entire community of Palm Islanders as “lazy, disruptive and dysfunctional.”

As Evans' book methodically shows, it is Governments from William Bligh's day to Anna Bligh's that are responsible for the real laziness, disruption and dysfunction of Aboriginal lives.

Once upon a time in the Western Star

As of Monday this week, I’ve been a journalist at the Western Star in Roma for six months. I came out here because as a blogger of several years standing who wanted to be a journalist, it was time to take the advice I heard from the wonderful Marian Edmunds at a journalism conference in Brisbane in August 2008. The advice was simple: “learn the craft”.

At the time I was a discontented project manager for IBM but had just completed a degree in communications majoring in journalism. In 2009 I quit IBM and started a masters in journalism with on-campus study at QUT where I learned much of the theory of the craft. The biggest lesson of all was that if I was serious about becoming a practitioner, I had to go bush. I spent a couple of enjoyable weeks in June-July 2009 filling in at The Western Times in Charleville. On 1 December 2009, I accepted a permanent offer to work at a sister paper, the Western Star in Roma.

The Roma Western Star is one of four newspapers I know of with the same title. There is a Western Star is Bessemer, Alabama another in Ohio (the state's oldest) and the third in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, Canada. This latter is most pleasing as it is roughly analogous to the fictional newspaper "The Gammy Bird" of Annie Proulx's The Shipping News.

The owner of my Gammy Bird is APN. APN is still controlled by Tony O’Reilly’s Independent News and Media group and his son Gavin is the CEO. I like the irony it is the first Irish company I have worked for in 25 years. Less ironic given Ireland's current woes is the fact APN is the most profitable part of the business.

I love my job. I’m learning every day particularly from my mistakes and they have been many. In today’s paper alone we forgot to put what date one event was happening (we just gave the time) and brought forward another event a whole week (wish fulfillment based on was getting too excited about the long weekend, which will actually be a long weekend for me). I apologised profusely to the organiser who had to field several confused phone calls.

But nice things happened today too. One of the town’s pastors I bumped into today was amazed at how many events us two journalists cover here and said the paper was greatly improved these days – he is not the first to tell me this. This is gratifying because it is something we consciously set out to do.

Other things are happening that are more surprising. I am slowly coming round to the opinion I’m not just a journalist but also a “reporter”. A journalist may investigate an incident or event, but a reporter tells you what happens. To report takes time and honesty. You need to be there (or have a proxy), then process it before writing the story of the event. It is not easy, and I work long and hard to achieve this. I have no idea how many hours I put in because I think work-life balance makes no sense (it is all “life”) but it is safe to assume it’s a lot. With no overtime I don’t want to calculate what my hourly rate is because it would depress me. Yet I don’t begrudge a moment of the time I spend on it. I’ve had more fun and met more people in Roma in six months as a journalist than in five years as a blogger in Roma.

Despite the low salary, journalism has several in-built prestige mechanisms. Three that quickly come to mind are regular publication, the right to ask questions of decision makers, and the ability to get to be involved in whatever special events are happening. In the last two days I got to go along and listen for free to great people like Geraldine Cox and Adam Penberthy when they came to town. Listening to the down-to-earth Cox was liberating. Though she’d probably hate the description, Cox is a genuine secular saint. A former diplomat and merchant banker, she got herself sacked at 50 and went to Cambodia where 15 years later she now runs two 200-children orphanages with a third on the way. Penberthy meanwhile was an entrepreneur since the age of 13 and now 12 years later runs his own advertising company in Brisbane called Fresh. Cox and Penberthy are very different but both their stories are inspiring and it was an honour to be there to capture it for the public record.

The public record or “newspaper of record” is a concept difficult to put in any newspaper bottom line. Profit is of no concern to my irate “clients” – the public – who demand I tell them the stories that matter regardless of whether my employer will make money from them. Journalism fits uneasily into the capitalist system as there is no obvious way to make money from it outside of it being used to hide advertising. Big news rooms are an expensive cost centre that produces no revenue. But without them, the news hole would remain exactly that, a hole.

The problems these holes cause for profit-seeking media companies were shown up by a recent ACMA decision to rap Bill Caralis and his shoestring Super Radio Network over the knuckles. The communications authority deemed Caralis’s networked programs in breach of local content rules. They did not satisfy the minimal three hours of local content because it was Sydney content that was beamed into Coff’s Harbour, Orange and Kempsey.

Roma’s major radio station Zinc ZR (formally 4ZR) meets the three-hour goal. It is owned by Prime Radio which runs a stable of stations under the Zinc logo. The Roma station broadcasts local content from 6am to 9am with “Gazza” (Gary Sands). I’ve met Gary on a number of occasions and he is a very experienced broadcaster who is passionate about the town. I'm not sure he would call himself a journalist, though he certainly acts as one from time to time.

In terms of other professional media in the region, there is the freebie Maranoa Mail which employs one journalist on a part-time basis. I have met at least two other independent media people who live in Roma who provide content for a number of organisations (including the Western Star). ABC Local Radio broadcasts out of Toowoomba and provides reasonable coverage of the region. I think one of their journalists lives in Roma though I haven't met her. But I can safely say that the Western Star (with two journalists) is the biggest content provider of local news in the region.

Our turf is large. The region is the Maranoa, an area of 58,830 km². If the Maranoa was a country or territory, it would be the 125th largest in the world, not far behind Ireland in 119th place (70,273 km²) with Norway’s surprisingly large Svalbard and Jan Mayen just ahead of Maranoa in 124th. But my region is bigger than Togo (56,785 km²) and Croatia (56,594 km²). But whereas there are 6.7 million people in Togo and 4.5 million in Croatia, there are just 13,000 people in the Maranoa. The roads are long and lonely.

Centred on Roma it goes west to the town of Mitchell (named for Sir Thomas Mitchell who was the first person to visit the region), south to Surat (named for the city in India), north to Injune (gateway to the Carnarvon Ranges) and east to the small township of Yuleba. We’ve made a special effort to cover these regional towns but it is not easy to know what is going on out there when we are based in Roma. I love getting out to these places and always feel more welcome and more likely to get a good story when visiting them.

I’m also enjoying getting to know the ins and outs of the people of Roma and learning its history. Originally settled by the Mandandanji people, Mitchell and Leichhardt started the white invasion in the 1840s and it was named for the Greek wife (Lady Diamantina Roma) of Queensland’s first governor. Roma was the first gazetted town in the newly independent colony of Queensland in 1962. Roma has a wine industry that dates back to the 19th century and an oil industry that goes back to 1905. It has a natural gas pipeline to Brisbane since 1969 that is still operational and it has Coal Seam Gas in abundance that is about unleash a firestorm of energy exports to Asia in the shape of cryogenically-frozen LNG from 2014 onwards.

The six months I’ve been here have been turbulent times. Unemployment is low at 1 percent but the town is undergoing the highs and lows of the Surat Basin resource boom servicing the CSG industry. There has been two major floods in a month including its worst ever recorded flooding in March. My job is throwing up unexpected bonuses as I learn the craft of story telling to a local audience.

Now I want to add to my workload. When I started at APN I put on hold my journalism masters degree for six months so I would have the energy to concentrate on the job. Now I believe I can still do the job but also finish the masters. I’m keen to finish it in the second half of this year. I’m not sure where I’ll find the time, but I know the study must be relevant. The most relevant thing in my life right now is Roma. I want to look at the Western Star and my role in it. I want to look at the paper’s history and where it fits in now. I want to look at other media, terrestrial TV, pay TV, radio, Internet, other newspapers (including the local freebie and other regional newspapers plus the impact of the Courier-Mail and The Australian), the local cinema, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, What does the Roma paper say about rural journalism? What does the paper say about Roma? I’d like to examine what we do…journalism, reporting, photography, page design, interviewing, reading, writing. If time permits I’d also like to find out what does Roma say about the paper. I’d also look at the corrections to identify why we got things wrong.

That scope is probably too much already. Yet somehow I want to shoehorn my work at Woolly Days into the thesis. I’ve been blogging for five years and have found it an immensely liberating and enjoyable practice. I need to find out how my blogging has informed my journalism and vice versa. With my Western Star work, I need to look what mistakes I've made and why I made them. What do I write about, what news frame do they fit and which news values do they have? What were the ethical dilemmas, the issues, the sources, the subject matter, the political economy, the reactions. This can be expressed in terms of the communication model – what am I saying to whom in what channel with what effect?

Its time for some serious content analysis of my writing in both forms to see what has influenced what. The journey of learning the craft has barely begun.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Rafa Benitez and Liverpool about to part company

The final chapter of one of Liverpool FC’s worst seasons in recent memory is about to written as manager Rafael Benitez accepts a payoff of to leave the club by “mutual consent”. The terminology masks an unusual sacking. In the end it came down to a lack of money for players. New chairman Martin Broughton told Benitez this week there was no money to sign new players during the summer break. In truth, Benitez deserves to go but the terms of his contract made getting rid of him a difficult and expensive challenge. For a club with Liverpool’s current financial difficulties (a debt of £351m) it had to be handled with care.

Not that care is a word often associated with Liverpool’s owners Thomas Ollis Hicks and George N Gillett Jr. Both are billionaires with extensive interests in US sporting franchises. The pair came together to buy Liverpool for £218.9m in 2007. The pair claimed that silverware and a new stadium were their highest priorities but they failed with both of these objectives instead saddling the club with increased debt. Fans that initially supported their bid ahead of a Dubai alternative quickly lost faith in them sparking protests against their continued ownership. Hicks and Gillett have finally agreed to sell up but Hicks did little to endear himself when he said he expects to make four times the money he paid for the club when it is sold.

The convenience of having “the yanks” as the bad guys took the heat off Benitez despite the club not winning any silverware during the last three years of his regime. Brought in from Valencia with great fanfare, Benitez quickly gained hero status after the 2005 Champions League win followed by success in the 2006 FA Cup. But man management issues and Benitez’s notorious aloofness forced several key players out of the club. The low point came this season with the club finishing seventh and exiting the Champions League at the group stage. The 50-year-old manager signed a renewed five-year contract in March 2009 which entitles him to a £16m severance fee (likely to be bargained down to £3m in the current negotiations).

Benitez’s contract is one of the club’s many major financial failures of recent years. The club’s recently published 2008-2009 annual financial report shows the extent to which the club has fallen on hard times during the GFC. The report shows the club posted a before tax loss of £52.8m despite finishing second in the league last season and reaching the Champions League quarter-final stage. The club paid £40m on interest payments alone with creditors owed £472.5m. The club is no nearer to building its badly needed 60,000 seater replacement for Anfield despite spending £45.5m on the project in the last two years.

The accounts also showed the club paid £4m in severance fees to former chief executive Rick Parry when he left at the end of the 2008-2009 season – easily the largest such fee in British football history. The sum was negotiated with previous chairman David Moores around the time Hicks and Gillett entered the bidding to buy Liverpool in 2007. Parry and Benitez never got on and the pair argued over responsibility for the club’s transfer budget.

If Liverpool’s finances look bad in the annual report, matters are only likely to get worse once this season’s efforts are taken into account. The lack of Champions League football will be a massive blow both in TV rights and the hook to attract top players. It is likely that Benitez’s departure will be followed by the club’s major on field stars. Fellow Spaniard 26-year-old Fernando Torres is easily the juiciest attraction. Benitez bought him from Atletico Madrid in the summer of 2007 for £25 million but his performances for Liverpool and Spain in the 2008 Euros have sent his value soaring to £60-70 million. A good world cup could add another ten million to his asking price. Given his injury record (he has missed half of the last two seasons), Liverpool may feel it is good value to cash in, though the club supporters who idolise “Nando” would not be impressed.

Club captain Steven Gerrard could also be on his way out. Gerrard has never made any secret of his desire to achieve high honours in the game and given the significance of his recent birthday (he turned 30 on Sunday), he may have come to the conclusion he is never going to win a championship medal with Liverpool. A big money move to Chelsea or Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid may also be looked on favourably by Liverpool’s management given Gerrard’s age and waning influence last season. Spanish goalkeeper Pepe Reina may also see his future lying elsewhere once his mentor moves on.

While selling such high profile players will bring big money into the club, most of it would be spent servicing debt rather than buying replacement players. Attracting new talent, both on and off the field will be difficult as the club’s cachet starts to wane. It is likely that like neighbours Everton, Liverpool are heading towards a period of steep decline as the game’s wealth becomes entrenched in London and Manchester.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Hatoyama brought down by the Keystone of the Pacific

Yet another Japanese Prime Minister has stood down less than a year into the job. Yukio Hatoyama resigned today a little more than eight months after taking office. His resignation came after he was forced to break an election campaign promise and keep open the controversial US marine base on the southern island of Okinawa. Speaking to members of his Democratic Party of Japan, he said he had tried for six months to move the base off the island but failed. He then bowed out as the fourth Japanese Prime Minister to be forced out of office in as many years.

Hatoyama had come to power on a wave of change. The DPJ won a historic election by a landslide in August 2009 over the Liberal Democrats who had ruled Japan for nearly 50 years. But the price of victory was high. Hatoyama made some extravagant election promises he would find difficult to keep. None was more difficult than removing the US bases off Okinawa.

Okinawa’s history and importance saw to that. The World War II Battle of Okinawa was one of the biggest and bitterest of the Pacific Campaign and was the last major battle before Japan’s surrender. It was the largest amphibious assault of the war outside of D-Day and 200,000 Japanese (half of whom were civilian) died in its fruitless defence. The US also suffered its largest casualties in the Pacific war with 12,000 soldiers killed in the invasion. 90 percent of the island was destroyed and the island would remain under American administration for 27 years after the war.

Okinawa was a crucial base in the Korean and Vietnamese wars as well as a launch pad for covert missions in Cambodia and Laos. Americans called the island the Keystone of the Pacific. America’s 50,000 military personnel on the island were exempt from local laws according to the Status of Forces Agreement. Their immunity and the wars they fought from the island led to the formation of a large protest movement on the island. The island was formally handed back to Japan in 1972 but the bases stayed. It remained the focal point of the treaty in which US guarantees Japan’s security at their expense.

But opposition to the Americans on the island grew to the point in 2007 where 85 percent wanted them out. Noise pollution, accidents, crime and environmental degradation were all cited as reasons. The US has looked at moving troops out to Guam and Australia but due to the large numbers involved (47,000 troops are still stationed there) the army is saying it is logistically impossible to move them all out until 2015.

This was the background to Hatoyama’s election promise. But after discussing the matter with President Obama last month, the best result Hatoyama could achieve was to move Futenma base from its current urban location to a less crowded part of the island. The deal was little different than the Liberal Democrat deal in 2006 Hatoyama vowed to overturn. According to the BBC “operational objections from the US, as well as opposition from people living on other islands proposed as alternative locations…forced the prime minister into a humiliating climbdown.”

The repercussions were immediate. Mizuho Fukushima, the gender equality minister and leader of the Social Democrats, said she could not "betray the Okinawans" by supporting the agreement. She was sacked from the ministry for not backing the deal. Fukushima then vowed to leave the ruling coalition. While the DPJ’s huge majority means they could easily rule alone in the Lower House, they rely on the SDs support to form a majority in the Upper House for which voters go to the polls in July.

The writing was on the wall for Hatoyama’s when new figures showed his approval rating plunged to just 17 percent at the start of this week. Hatoyama was the latest Japanese leader to find out he could not unlock the keystone of the Pacific. As Racewire says, the Okinawa base still stands as a symbol of an invidious occupation, and the communities living in the shadow of the US hegemony every day grow more and more resentful of their “protectors.”

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

BP's Tony Hayward likely to be oil spill's Top Kill

Perhaps the most relieved man in the world today is BP’s CEO Tony Hayward. Israel’s Mediterranean piracy has knocked his knackered Gulf of Mexico pipeline off the front page of the news. But Hayward’s relief, like all the attempts to fix the Deepwater Horizon rig since it exploded is likely to temporary and ultimately unsuccessful. The US Government and BP shareholders are both likely to demand Hayward's head on a pike for the worst American environmental disaster of all time.

The blowout of the Deepwater Horizon in a deadly methane explosion six weeks ago killed 11 people, injured 17 others and sank the rig that drilled the deepest oil well ever 9,100 metres below the surface. Thanks to the incredible pressure of the ocean floor, it is now spewing out up to 16 million litres a day for a total of almost 4.2 million barrels of oil since April 20. At the current price of $72 a barrel, it amounts to $290 million of oil in the ocean, not to mention the inestimable environment costs. (photo AP)

Hayward has blundered from one pathetic excuse to another as the damage bill rises. Today, BP still has no idea how to plug the leak. The series of exotically named and increasingly desperate rescue methods it tried have all failed. These included the “Top Hat”, the “Junk Shot” and the “Hot Tap” (which all provided wonderful fodder for Jon Stewart). The latest called the “top kill” failed on Saturday. In this method BP tried to pump large amounts of drilling mud into the blowout preventer faster than pressure of the rising oil and gas could push it back out. It didn’t work and other risky options are now being considered none of which have a great chance of success.

With all conventional and unconventional means proving fruitless, apparently serious organs such as Oil-Price.net are suggesting a subterranean nuclear explosion may be the only solution. They say the Russians have done it at least five times. In Uzbekistan in 1966, the Soviet Union put out a 120 meter tall flame which had been burning for three years fuelled by massive natural gas using a 30 kiloton atom bomb. The explosion sealed the well by displacing tonnes of rock over the spill.

While the nuclear option still sounds preposterous, it may be the only thing between the Gulf of Mexico and Armageddon. A few different perspectives show this is developing into one of the world’s most serious environmental catastrophes. Firstly, there is the view from space which looks as if a gigantic bird has shat on the Gulf. A vast whitened plume is headed straight for the Mississippi Delta and its fragile wetlands could easily be destroyed. Another useful tool is the Google maps app “in perspective” where you can centre the spill on any point in the globe to see just how wide a similar spill would look there. Centred on London the spill takes in all of East Anglia and the south coast across to Bristol.

Centring the explosion on London is particularly apposite as it contains the headquarters of BP. Founded 101 years ago as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company it became one of the largest companies in the world by seizing Iranian Oil for 70 years until it was thrown out by the Ayatollahs in 1979. Consistently named as one of the ten worst companies in the world it has suffered crisis after crisis with its Texas City Refinery explosion in 2005, Prudhoe Bay Alaskan oil spill in 2007 and its hook-up with Russian criminal billionaires in the TNK-BP joint venture.

But it survived them all unscathed. During the Bush era, BP seemed to stand for “Beyond Prosecution”. Deepwater Horizon promised more untold riches for the company. The Gulf rig was in the rich Tiber fields estimated to contain up to 6 billion barrels of oil. BP owns three fifths of Tiber and when it announced the discovery of oil last year, their share price rose 4.3 percent in the middle of the recession.

Now the share market has turned against the British monolith. Shares in the company fell 15 percent yesterday and the FTSE 100 fell by more than 100 points. But London cares only about its profits and is merely worried the crisis “won’t be solved until August” which is the month stockbrokers go on holidays. Nuclear explosion or no, the longer term prognosis for those must live with the consequences is poor. 400 bird species are at risk as are the already threatened loggerhead turtles. Sea birds, dolphins and other mammals could be affected if as is likely, the spill escapes into the Atlantic. The livelihood of poverty-stricken coastal Central Americans is threatened. Fishing and tourism across the region will also take the brunt. On the bright side, it may mean the US's unquestioning faith in the oil industry is starting to waver.

Americans are slowly awakening to the bitter truth that peak oil has already arrived and is swamping their Gulf.