Monday, July 26, 2010

So far, Somare: Papua New Guinea adjourns democracy

Confusion reigns in Papua New Guinea as conflicting rumours abound whether long-standing Prime Minister Michael Somare is about to resign. Port Moresby’s Courier Mail said Somare is planning to relinquish the party leadership by the time of the National Alliance party's national convention on 14 August. The paper quote Deputy PM Don Polye who said Somare made his decision during a party caucus meeting last week. Polye said Somare would reshuffle the government in the next two weeks and would step aside either before or at the convention.

However, the ABC is reporting National Alliance party spokesperson Stephen Pokawin has denied the newspaper’s report. All Pokawin would confirm was that the party's leadership would be the main topic of discussion at the convention with Polye ready to make a bid for the top job. Pokawin, who is the National Alliance Party's general secretary, says the party constitution prevents Somare from contesting the leadership for a third time, having won elections for the National Alliance in 2002 and again in 2007. Somare was also the country's first PM in 1975 and won again in 1982. The next election is due in 2012.

Somare’s recent actions show little sign of a man wanting to step aside any time soon. Last week he chose eight new Government ministers after three key figures including deputy Puka Temu left to form a new party on Monday. Their aim was to move a vote of no confidence and form a new government. Polye was promoted to take Temu’s job and with his help Somare hung on to defeat the no confidence motion 64-45 to remain Prime Minister.

Badly shaken by the vote, Somare adjourned the parliament for four months on Wednesday. The Speaker Jeffrey Nape adjourned the house until mid November despite the opposition's claim it had enough votes to stop the adjournment. Nape, an ally of Somare refused to count the “no” votes and called for the adjournment. The decision caused an uproar in the parliament with cries of “dictatorship”. This angered Somare so much he rose across the floor and pointed at Opposition member Sam Basil shouting “Bai mi kilim yu autsait” which translated meant “I will kill you outside”. Somare was restrained by his son Arthur.

With Michael Somare now 74 years old, many see Arthur as his logical groomed successor. The National editorialised that Arthur is the most senior MP from the Mamose (a region which covers Sepik, Madang and Morobe). The National said the son lives in the shadow of his famous father and won’t emerge till “the shadow moves on”. But the National also acknowledges this outcome would case “much disgruntlement, particularly from the Mamose faction that feels it is past time power were not centralised in the Sepik or with the Somare family.”

New Deputy Don Polye, meanwhile, draws his support from the Central Highlands in the province of Enga. It appears Polye reneged on a deal with long standing deputy Puka Temu for them to both walk out on Somare’s Government. Polye was rewarded with the deputy role, a role The Australian’s Asia-Pacific editor Rowan Callick believes will cement Somare in power till the 2012 election.

New Opposition leader Puka Temu is not so sure. This is the second time in two years Somare has adjourned parliament for several months to stop a no confidence vote and Temu has had enough. He is calling for Somare to quit now for the good of Papua New Guinea. "They call him the 'father of the nation' but he and his family are destroying the nation," he said. "They break laws, they treat parliament like a joke. Is this what PNG wants? No, they want an end to this." Temu said they would continue lobbying ministers and MPs who remain on the fence. "We have 45, all we need is 55," he said.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Towards a Citizens' Assembly: In defence of Gillard's climate change plan

This week Prime Minister Julia Gillard made a major speech on climate change that was almost universally reviled. The left, including Larvatus Prodeo didn’t like it because it didn’t nominate a carbon price, the right including Andrew Bolt believes Gillard is doing nothing on climate change while pretending to do something. Centrist Club Troppo’s Ken Parish was not impressed saying the deliberative democracy proposal is unlikely to work. And senior members of the commentariat like Laurie Oakes didn’t like it because it abdicates responsibility.

In rushing to condemn Gillard, no seems to have listened to what she said. Here is an excerpt of the speech:
“Global temperatures are rising. 2009 has been ranked the fifth warmest year on record globally and finished off the hottest decade in recorded history. The temperatures are largely driven by pollution created by carbon emissions. Climate change has a particular environmental and economic impact on Australia. 2009 was the second hottest year in Australia and ended our hottest decade. Each decade since the 1940s has been warmer than the last. With climate change, the number of droughts could increase by up to 40 per cent in eastern Australia, and up to 80 per cent in south-western Australia within the next six decades. Without action to reduce our pollution, irrigated agricultural production in the Murray-Darling Basin is projected to fall by over 90 per cent by 2100. About 85 per cent of Australians live in coastal regions. Just under 250,000 residential buildings, worth up to $63 billion, will be at risk from sea inundation if the sea-level were to rise by 1.1 metres. Coastal industries, such as the tourism industry, will also face increasing challenges with climate change.”

I agree with every word of that, and as Julia Gillard realises, many other people do too. Probably even a majority. Certainly all of the above commentators would (except Bolt). But the point is undermined by public hypocrisy. The majority does not yet appreciate “there is not a switch to flick or one single behaviour to change.” What Gillard won’t do yet is spell out what we can flick and all the behaviours that must change.

Her predecessor Kevin Rudd won the 2007 election, partly on his promises to act on climate change. He came close. We would now have a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme on the books if not for the poor decision making of the five Greens in the Upper House who could not join Judith Troeth and Sue Boyce in their courageous departure from party line. It would have been a flawed ETS, possibly even counter-productive. Nevertheless, getting it on the books would have been a great start to getting it right. It also meant the 2010 election would have been a contest of ideas between Rudd and Turnbull rather than the race to the bottom it has become under Gillard and Abbott.

I do not blame Julia Gillard for circling the horses as she attempts to win the election. I suspect that like Garrett’s fateful 2007 joke “she’ll change everything when she gets in” but for now she is moral powerless at the moment as a leader. She also knows meaningful action on climate change is impossible without a consensus. She might get that if she wins the election by a handsome majority (and if that Kingston poll is replicated widely she will get it too).

But even if she wins, consensus on climate change is out of the question with Tony Abbott as Opposition leader. It also needs an advocating (or at least understanding) media that accepts the inevitability of action to stop climate change. The mainstream Australian media has made no such concession. With their quotidian needs for conflict, they handle platforms to contrarians who prefer to focus on the immediate cost and its impacts, rather than the virtues of the long-term solution and its impacts.

Gillard explained what she meant by consensus. “I do not mean that government can take no action until every member of the community is fully convinced,” she said. Her solution is a Climate Change Commission. Those that think climate change is a communist plot will detest the new CCC with a passion. The same people will equally loathe the Citizens’ Assembly, with its name a whiff of the French Revolution. The media will attack both as toothless tigers redolent of the apparent pointlessness of the 2008 Summit.

But the Summit wasn’t pointless and neither will be these two new bodies. Deliberative democracy may not change votes but it should help push the effect of making the denialists look like flat-earthers. The remaining devil will be in the policy detail which can be ironed out over time. Gillard remains committed to a CPRS and if she wins she will be dealing with the Greens who will have the balance of power after July 2012 (the Senate election is as important as the Lower House one if not more so but is ignored by the media because it lacks the one-on-one drama). Let us hope by then the Greens wake up to the need to grab whatever power you can get and not repeat their mistake of 2009.

Until a proposal becomes the law of the land, we remain headed towards the final act climax of the Tragedy of the Commons. Australia’s electricity generation is projected to grow by nearly 50 per cent between now and 2030 to meet growing demand. Each of us takes a little much out of the garden, knowing all the while its stock is not being replenished. People can be educated out of their selfishness, by being bought or commanded to change. Maybe the CCC or the Citizens Assembly will help. But as long as there is an adversarial nature to our politics and our media, nothing will be done until we move into disaster recovery.

Friday, July 23, 2010

ABC News Twentyfour Seven Eleven

In 20 years time when they ask the trivia question “in what year did ABC start its 24-hour television news channel?”, I hope we will not remember the answer with a sense of nostalgia for something we’ve lost.

I certainly have no idea what television will look like in 20 years but I suspect whatever medium it transforms into it, its content would still include 7 x 24 news with some kind of local slant. The ABC “News 24” stationed launched today despite the grumblings of Sky News Australia’s owners (and there is no reason in time it cannot become the Al Jazeera of the Asia Pacific, especially if it can nail overseas broadcasting.

There are plenty of misgivings of course, and Sky's is not the limit. As far back as the 1840s Henry David Thoreau noted our inventions are pretty toys which distract attention from serious things. At time, the US was rapidly linking itself up by magnetic telegraph to Britain and also internally from Maine to Texas.
But as Thoreau reminded us the first news on these newfangled tubes may well have been that Princess Adelaide had the whooping while Maine and Texas, may have nothing important to communicate to each other.

Thoreau was right to sound his warning about the blandness of news into the “broad flapping American ear” but completely wrong in his guess - Maine and Texas had plenty of important things to communicate as they shared in the national imagining of a greater America. The ABC News 24 channel can fulfil a similar role here.

Visionary Managing-Director Mark Scott has no doubts about its raison d'etre. He told his own reporters there should be a 24/7 news channel on Australian free-to-air television and the public broadcaster ABC was ideal to run it “given our history, given our experience, given our resources given our integrity, given our independence.” He says News 24 will ensure the ABC's future in broadcasting.

Others are not so sure. Jason Wilson said the public is entitled to be sceptical about its long-term expansion. He said the broadcaster is already overstretched and no new resources have been allocated for the channel. It means the station must reuse content for other media, poach staff from other departments and expect the journalists to work longer hours.

Wilson wonders whether ABC are straying too far from “core business” and should be looking at more innovative ways of delivering content in the post-broadcast age. “There's no convincing case for creating yet another one-size-fits-all continuous news broadcaster when cheap, plentiful bandwidth will allow for the distribution of a plethora of niche, on-demand or streaming audiovisual content,” Wilson said.

As usual Wilson makes astute points. However this long tail approach leaves the audience feeling fragmented which leads to yearning for a more centralised delivery. ABC has a role in providing informed news across Australia. When the national broadcaster was set up in 1932, the newspapers at the time (led by Keith Murdoch) fiercely resisted moves for its radio station to include news. But by the end of World War II, it was increasingly clear the ABC had a mandate to produce despite Murdoch’s best efforts in his wartime role of Director-General of Information.

Keith’s son Rupert is still making his displeasure known about public broadcasting unfairly impinging on his turf, but that to me seems more of a reason to treasure the ABC. But taxpayers should not be expected to pay additional dollars for this new service. Working harder, repurposing content and shifting staff are all reasonable demands when the money is not there up front. For now, ABC News 24 may have to “fake it till it makes it” but with broad public trust and time on its side, the oily rag can one day turn into a silk coat. I welcome its addition to the public sphere.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Awaiting election time CPI data with interest

The Australian Bureau of Statistics would seem like an unlikely election game changer, yet their release of the usually fairly innocuous quarterly Consumer Price Index next Wednesday could have profound impact on the weeks to follow. In the minutes of the monetary policy meeting for 6 July released today, the Reserve Bank Board said the deciding factor on a rate rise next month would be the July CPI figure. The Board meets again on Tuesday 3 August and a high CPI number followed by a rate rise could give the Opposition a major impetus in the last 18 days of the election campaign.

The signs are there, that a rate rise is on the way. In the March quarter the headline rate was 2.9 percent with the all groups CPI rising 0.9 percent following a 0.5 percent rise the previous quarter. Hikes in the price of pharmaceuticals, vegetables, electricity and fuel were the main reasons for the March quarter increase. The Board said CPI inflation was expected to rise to a little above 3 per cent in the June quarter figures partly due to the effects of higher taxes on tobacco. “The important question for the Board at its next meeting would be whether the new information materially changed the medium-term outlook for inflation,” they said.

Higher taxing cigarettes or not, several senior Government will be anxious smoking a few coffin nails which waiting for the CPI headline figure on Wednesday. The RBA have held interest rates at 4.5 percent for the last two months – still very low by Australian standards, but even a 0.25 percent rise is a bad look in the middle of a tight election campaign. In doorstops Opposition leader Tony Abbott has been hammering home the point of “upward pressure on interest rates” and while he blames government borrowing rather than new excises, an August rate rise would play into his campaign themes.

The cash rate has gone up seven times in the past year but this was after a historical low of 3.0 percent during the height of the Global Financial Crisis in 2009. However rates are still 2 percent lower than when Labor took office in November 2007 and also slightly lower than most of the period between 2001-2005 when the Howard Government dined out on the “low interest rates” they said their policies were responsible for.

Their promises were finally exposed as fiction as rates rose prior to the last election and they continued to do so when Labor took power. Playing politics with interest rates ignores the fact that the Reserve Bank Board is an entity independent of Government control. At a luncheon in Sydney today Glenn Stevens reminded the audience about that fact when the Board decision would not be swayed by the election campaign. He also said the CPI figure would not be the only decision factor. As today’s RBB minutes noted, the health of the European banking sector has a significant impact on financial markets and global confidence which could lead to an “updated reading on domestic prices”.

Neither major party likes to draw attention to this fact because it shows how little control Governments have over the wider economy. Ken Henry (himself an RBA board member) and the Treasury did a terrific job to keep Australia out of recession during the GFC but the economy and the interest rate was not immune from its devastating impacts. Rising interest rates means the economy is in good shape. Politicians and their media cohorts should be reminded of that fact whenever they play games with rate rises. Lower interest rates means either the China boom has ended or the European sovereign debt crisis has spiralled out of control. Either way, a $40 a month saving on the monthly mortgage won’t mean much if there is no job to pay for it. The media needs to tell this story fully instead of falling for phony political lines about "upward pressure".

Monday, July 19, 2010

Fiji turns the screws on the media

Opponents of Fiji’s media censorship want to set up a pirate radio station in international waters to broadcast news and music currently banned by the Frank Bainimarama dictatorship. Usaia Waqatairewa, the Sydney-based president of the Fiji Democracy and Freedom Movement, told the ABC today they wanted to put an antenna on an American or Australian registered ship located outside Fiji's legal jurisdiction. Waqatairewa says Internet access was rare in Fiji and people needed another means of getting news the Bainimarama government isn't letting them hear. “What we're planning to do is to if we could in some way set up a freedom radio that does not have the control of the regime in Fiji and be able to broadcast out the real news, instead of their propaganda and what they have censored themselves,” he said. (photo by Jachin Sheehy)

The announcement comes just days after the Fijian dictator, who has ruled since 2006, claimed the country would probably not be “ready” for elections in 2014. It also comes less than a month after strict new laws further inhibited Fiji’s media from honestly reporting on what is happening there. On 29 June the military backed regime introduced its new "Media Industry Development Decree 2010" which brought in a new set of strict rules governing Fiji’s media. The laws strengthen already tough laws governing the media, military intimidation of reporters, censors in newsrooms and the deportation of foreign-born newspaper executives.

One of those executives was Russell Hunter who was the former managing-director of the Fiji Sun before he was deported in 2007. Hunter called the laws draconian and an erosion of freedom and basic human rights. The laws give the media authority the right to demand the name of confidential sources if the story relates to government corruption. Journalists could be fined $50,000 and jailed for two years for work deemed against the “public interest or order”. The most well-known provision is the 10 percent limit on foreign ownership as it directly affects the News Ltd owned Fiji Times, which is the country’s oldest and largest newspaper.

The Fijian Government has now given News Ltd three months to sell the paper or be forcibly shut down. It also casts huge doubts over the viability of foreign investment in the country at the very time it is most needed. News Limited boss John Hartigan said the laws eroded the "basic tenets of democracy" in Fiji. "This illegal government has retrospectively withdrawn permission for foreign media investment in Fiji, which is not only grossly unfair but will inevitably be enormously damaging to Fiji's reputation as an attractive investment opportunity," he said.

In response, the Fijian media regulator said the country’s media needs to be a part of the regime not an opponent. Former Canberra-based academic Satendra Nandan, chair of the Media Industry Development Authority, said action needed to be taken against newspapers such as The Fiji Times, which had acted against the Bainimarama government. Nandan told The Australian the Times’ coverage of the scrapping of the judiciary and constitution last year was “abusive and scurrilous”. "The Fiji Times took a strong stand against the current government and the abrogation of the constitution and they didn't consider the national interest,” Nandan said.

The New Zealand Herald says the media laws are part of an ongoing removal of Fijians' rights including quashing the constitution, removing dissent and empty promises on a new election. With 60 percent of Fiji’s tourist income coming from New Zealand and Australia, the Herald rightly suggest the time is now right to reconsider holiday plans in Fiji. “Tourists might like to say that Fijian businesses and jobs should not be penalised for the sins of the regime,” the paper said. “But they are undermining their own country's diplomatic efforts."

Saturday, July 17, 2010

What if they gave an election and nobody came?

Australia will get the government it deserves when the country goes to the polls on 21 August. For the next five weeks democracy temporarily ceases to be an opaque topic as people are reminded on a daily basis someone wants their vote.

Those in marginal seats will be the subject of extraordinary promises. There will be endless and persuasive marketing. Most of it will be on television where the masses still congregate but increasingly more is migrating to the social web where there is less control (though with imagination and humour as Old Spice proved, it can be a very successful strategy). Both the Government and the Opposition will spend vast amounts of money in the hope of convincing the small number of swinging or disaffected voters their candidate ought to be elected.

The parties shill to a small number because they know the rest don't matter. Seats with large majorities won't change hands regardless of who wins. There are other external factors parties cannot control. The donkey vote is real and top placement on the ballot can be the margin of victory in a tight race. So too is happiness unrelated to politics which can make a person punish or reward the incumbent. And ultimately it is a secret ballot. As the Sex Party notes, it doesn’t matter who you say you vote for when it gets to the unpredictability of what actually happens when it’s just you and a pen in the voting booth.

Predicting elections is not entirely impossible, of course. If it was, pollsters would go out of business. Good polls are usually right to within 3 percent and the current polls, and the bookmakers predict a narrow win for Julia Gillard and the Labor party. That margin of error means an Abbott win is not out of the question with a targeted marginal seat strategy.

It doesn't matter who wins, it is what they do in parliament that counts with the ugly sausage-making of changing and making of laws. In the US, Obama is proving a master at this by making left-liberals and conservatives alike hate him for being “always willing to cut a deal and grab for half the loaf.”

Both the parties here will also be willing to go for half the loaf. Gillard will obviously want more of the left of the loaf than Abbott – but only by a matter of a few crumbs. When the new Prime Minister took Labor to the right with her revised immigration policy, almost 70 percent of voters approved. Gillard may personally want looser immigration rules, gay marriage and bigger taxes on mining companies. But while the majority of the people she needs the vote of do not, she is not going to step far ahead. Otherwise, she knows she's toast.

It is not just a conservative electorate Gillard must deal with, there is also a hyper-sensitive media. If her Government was to step too far to the left, it would be demonised by soapboxes in the press and talkback radio. Television is too simple to need shock jocks or op-eds; it rules by allowing only eight minute blocks squeezed between advertisements where everything is reduced to pious homilies like “moving forward” and “working families” and “great big new tax”.

That leaves the untamed frontier of the Internet. Research shows the brands that dominate the web are the same ones that dominate other media channels. So in Australia most people get their online news from News Ltd, Channel Nine, the ABC and Fairfax. The big portals such as Google are complicating the picture but like the big newspapers a hundred years ago, they are finding they can make more money by being impartial.

The radicals are still out there on newsletters, blogs and social media. But with no trust or brand awareness, they will be far away from the networks of power. Journalists (or perhaps more truthfully, their editors) who decide who is in the news and the politicians they talk to in front of the camera, mic or pen, collude to set a narrow agenda that keeps most topics firmly off the agenda, Facebook and Twitter notwithstanding.

As I've written before, I believe this collusion of cosy mutual interest is the biggest threat to the health of democracy. However I’ve been glibly attacking this threat without ever explaining what democracy means. The Gettysburg Address is a half decent stab at it with its notion of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

While "the people" might have been an identifiable concept in Lincoln's time (and I have my doubts), it does not make much sense 150 years later. There is no such thing as the people, there are just people. And a government of people by people and for people is too amorphous and tricky to manage. Every person is placid and contrary, irascible and content, malleable and intractable, driven and bored. It’s hard enough to please one person, a democracy that tries to please everyone is doomed to fail.

Yet it must so try. Democracy is indeed the worst form of government apart from all the others. As rotten and stinking as it is, there is nothing better waiting in the wings to take its place. If it can’t be replaced, it’s got to be fixed.

There is a role for journalism here, or rather many roles. There needs to be more muck-rakers hunting down corruption, more fourth estate reporting on and commenting on the goings on of government, parliament and the courts, and more lobbying on behalf of those with legitimate grievances by asking questions to those who have the power to affect these grievances.

The problem for journalism is that most journalists are employed by corporate media. The single biggest threat to democracy is the corporation itself with its profit motive subsuming all other motives to the fatal detriment of the body politic. That means large numbers of lobbyists, PR flacks and lawyers working only to make more money for their company. People who don't see society, only consumers.

Neither Julia Gillard nor Tony Abbott will be willing to address this problem, nor indeed even admit this is a problem. And if they were somehow foolish enough to stray off-message and be honest about it or even allude to it, the media would be there to gleefully humiliate them as someone who made a terrible “gaffe”.

Nevertheless until corporate greed is made to serve the public good, then democracy will continue to become as bad as all the other systems Churchill didn’t like. And “the people” will continue to treat politicians and the media with contempt.

Bernard Keane on the probability of a content-free election campaign.
Stilgherrian on how the media will report it.
Guy Beres on the dumbing down of Federal politics.
Mark Bahnisch on the parties' opening salvoes.
Gary Sauer-Thompson on the importance of Queensland and NSW.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Journalists and politicians: A double danger to democracy

Journalists share an uneasy yet cosy relationship with the politicians they use as sources with both sides using available media for their own ends, neither of which usually serve the public good. That these relationships pose many difficulties to democracy was shown again in two incidents that occurred in the last 24 hours.

In the first incident, Australian Immigration Minister Chris Evans’ apparently off the record incendiary remarks at a Sydney speech were noted by a journalist and spilled into the public record today. In a second incident, NSW politician Barry O’Farrell accidentally sent a journalist a Twitter open reply that was meant to be an off the record Twitter Direct Message. Both incidents cast an unsavoury light on the closely bound relationships that govern both journalists and their political sources. Occasionally their relationships get both into trouble and lead to a public loss of trust of politicians and journalists alike.

Evans’ troubles began when he was invited to be the keynote speaker at a University of NSW-Harvard University conference on immigration. The event was publicly advertised and listed on wire agency AAP's diary with television cameras invited to capture his latest comments on the debate over asylum seekers. However on arrival Evans wanted to change the rules. He said he would do a quick media “doorstop” on arrival and then asked for a closed session where he could speak frankly to academics about the issues. The term “doorstop” is illuminating because it prevents a door from opening too widely. Evans knew he could give a brief and uninformative response before dealing with the meat of the issue without prying journalists around.

The problem was that 2UE journalist Matt de Groot was late arriving to the venue and knew nothing about the change of plan. He was ushered into the room where he heard an expansive Evans talk honestly about the asylum debate which he said was killing the Government. Evans also admitted that radio talkback shock jocks were deliberately promoting misinformation about the debate to stoke up a xenophobic reaction in their listeners.

At the end of the debate, de Groot approached Evans’ media adviser with the intention of getting the Minister to speak on these matters. The adviser was horrified and told de Groot the speech would not look good for the minister if reported and was off the record anyway. De Groot insisted he would report what he heard. Evans’ minders told the journalist if he did so, he would be acting unethically.

De Groot took the “publish and be damned” path but as expected, it was Evans who was mostly damned today. It was almost enough to feel sorry for Evans that he be punished for plain speaking but given that politicians are content to play the game with journalists, he has only himself to blame when the rules break down. Crikey’s editorial today put it best: “The moment your government promises a ‘frank, open, honest national conversation on the issues of border protection and asylum seekers’ then they must tell it like it is to everyone, not just a select group of officials.”

The O’Farrell slip-up was a different category error though it also involved a 2UE reporter and a senior politician. It throws light on the symbiotic relationship between journalists and their sources. NSW Opposition leader Barry O’Farrell was attempting to send a Direct Message to the Canberra Press Gallery journalist Latika Bourke. “Deeply off the record – I think the timetable & struggle to get candidates reflects internal poll – pre & post the ranga.” Translated, it meant the Liberals were struggling to attract quality candidates to stand for the forthcoming Federal Election and the ascension of Julia Gillard (the “ranga”) to the role of Prime Minister has made no difference.

But to O’Farrell’s horror the message was not as deeply off the record as he would have liked – he accidentally chose the Twitter reply option rather than DM making the message immediately visible to any of his 3,548 followers online at the time. O’Farrell quickly realised his error and deleted the offending tweet. But by then it was too late having been re-tweeted at least nine times and captured as a screenprint by Tally Room blogger Ben Raue.

The media immediately seized on the mistake which in time honoured fashion was renamed a “gaffe”. The Australian chose to highlight the unflattering nickname of Gillard as the ranga, (from “orangutan” referring to Gillard’s red hair) though any number of commentators have gotten away with this moniker using humour as a cloak – with Gillard herself often seeing the funny side.

But again no one picked up on why O’Farrell should decide to illuminate the journalist Bourke in this manner. The familiar tone suggested they had done this before. Forget the “ranga”, why is it that the Liberals preselection woes are “deeply off the record”? Politicians use the “off the record” tag to get damaging material off their chest without suffering the consequences. Journalists, ever protective of their access to senior politicians, collude in this game and it is the general public who suffer. As Wendy Bacon and Chris Nash wrote in 1999 “journalists should commit themselves to confidentiality only in the pursuit of the public right to information and generally should seek to place as much information on the record in ways that are verifiable.”

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Prime Television beancounters lose faith in regional Australia

In the same week as the smaller New South Wales cities launched a campaign to lure Sydneysiders out of the Big Smoke, one of the big television stations has kicked the regions in the teeth by closing studios in two of its major towns. The three-year $2 million Evocities campaign which kicks off next month was created by the cities of Albury, Armidale, Bathurst, Dubbo, Orange, Tamworth and Wagga Wagga, with the aim of promoting life in regional NSW. But two of those towns, Orange and Wagga, have just lost one of their main channels of information with the local news studio shutting down facilities to avoid the cost of digital conversion.

The guilty party is Prime Television, which is an affiliate of Channel Seven. They said the closure is happening because they cannot afford any upgrades after the News services move to Canberra. This seems like a spurious reason given that it only cost them $100,000 to upgrade their Albury studio to digital. The move is part of a growing trend to ignore the public affairs interests of regional areas in favour of cost cutting to meet bottom lines in an increasingly aggressive media marketplace. Prime’s studio facility in Tamworth which produces two news bulletins for North West and North Coast will also close in 2011. Little of the $240m bribe (disguised as a “rebate”) Stephen Conroy handed the industry in February seems to be making its way to country areas.

The two closing stations have almost 50 years of association with their towns. The Orange-based station is the former base of CBN8 which began in 1962 as one of the first regional stations in NSW. The Wagga studio is the former regional station RVN2 which began broadcasting two years later. RVN and CBN produced hours of local programming including quiz shows, children's programs and news until satellite and microwave links made networking possible in the early 1970s. Both were incorporated into the Prime Television network in the 1980s in the lead-up to aggregation, the process used to expand choice to regional viewers in the eastern states. Local services were reduced to a half-hourly news bulletin. Some of the big players now have an interest in Prime. Seven’s owner Kerry Stokes paid $20m in 2009 to take a 11.4 percent stake which Lachlan Murdoch’s Illyria also bought 8.9 percent last year. These men do not give a flying fig about local content rules and care only for the bottom line.

In March Prime announced services originating from Orange and Wagga would end in July to be replaced by a Canberra bulletin. Reporters will still be based in each local area but the half-hour bulletins will be compiled from the national capital. At least one full-time position will disappear from each centre. As Talking Television points out, Prime’s move will effectively mark the end of local television production as rival operators such as NBN, WIN and Southern Cross Ten already have centralised facilities for the provision of local news.

According to ACMA, new rules were introduced in January 2008 to cover local content on regional commercial television broadcasters. The licence requires broadcasters to show at least 1.5 hours of local content in any given week and a minimum of 12 hours over six weeks. Local content is defined as “material of local significance” which can relate to either “a local area, or to the licensee’s licence area.” There seems little doubt licensees will cling to the latter definition as they strip local towns of their ability to produce news.

According to its latest annual report, Prime made a profit of $175 million in the year 2008-2009. The document noted that while the changeover to digital transmission brings new growth opportunities they lost $5 million a year when the Government’s Regional Equalisation Plan rebates ended. The REP was the 2000 brainchild of the Howard Government to defray half the cost of digital conversion for the regional broadcasters. At the time it was thought Australia would be fully digital by 2004 but now it won’t happen until 2013. But Labor ended the rebate this year.

These are tough times for television. Prime wrote off the Orange and Wagga stations as “dinosaurs of the digital age”. But it wouldn’t have cost too much to transform them to survive the digital comet and it would have been a great act of faith in regional Australia. Sky News boss Angelos Frangopoulos, who cut his teeth at Prime in Orange, predicted what will happen in their absence. "The reality is that era of proper locally produced regional television pretty much ended a long time ago," he said."It's important that regional TV doesn't perpetuate the mistakes made by regional radio stations and remove so much localism that it has just become a network feed with 1800 numbers and weather inserts attached."

The reign in Spain is mainly plain

And so a World Cup that began as African, and then turned South American before becoming European ended up as Spanish in a tense but always absorbing final overnight in Johannesburg. Nelson Mandela delighted fans by turning up but not as much as Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniestra did by scoring the game’s only goal deep into extra time consigning the Dutch to their third final defeat.

One punter on Twitter said after the game a Dutch victory would have been a Scorsese award: given purely for their work in the 1970s – this is a little unfair on Martin Scorsese whose more recent films Gangs of New York and The Departed are on a par with anything he did in his earlier career but the point is well made nonetheless.

Holland (never the more geographical correct Netherlands) were the great side of the 1970s with Johan Cruyff at the centre of most of their brilliance. But they never won anything at national level being undone by their own arrogance in 1974, 1976 and 1978 losing to the hosts and winners of the tournament each time. 1978 was a particularly tragedy when Cruyff decided for political reasons not to go to Argentina. What better rebuff to the junta generals would have been for him to lift the trophy in front of them.

The defeat of the current Dutch crop is no tragedy, being nowhere near as good as the total football side of the 1970s. The current vintage is a competent if workmanlike team epitomised by the starring role of Liverpool’s much maligned workhorse Dirk Kuyt. They beat Brazil which was perhaps the biggest shock of the entire World Cup. But otherwise they were like Brazil’s 2006 conquerors France, tough to beat and lucky but not worldbeaters themselves.

And in terms of sporting disappointment, they are only the second best of the month compared to unknown Frenchman Nicolas Mahut who lost his Wimbledon tennis match to equally obscure American John Isner in a record breaking three-day 11-hour contest 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7-9), 7-6 (7-3), 70-68. I can’t begin to imagine how Mahut felt at the end of that final 183rd game after they shared almost a thousand points between them.

But even Wimbledon reminds us of the World Cup with a Spaniard Rafael Nadal carrying off his second crown. His fellow countrymen – and they are countrymen, despites their catalogue of Catalans - one nilled their way to the World Cup final and repeated the dose one last time to deservedly take the crown. I congratulate them on their first title, a magnificent achievement especially outside their own continent.

As convincing European Champions in 2008 they went in as the favourite side from the northern hemisphere, but few people thought they could get past Brazil or Argentina to win outside their own continent. More still (myself included, I must admit) wrote them off after their opening shock loss to unrated Switzerland. The defeat was occasion for great angst in Madrid and Barcelona yet two games later they were back on track having won the group while the Swiss packed their bags for home.

The group win was crucial. It meant they avoided Brazil in the round of 16. Instead they won a tense Iberian derby before squeezing past a Paraguay side that was just delighted to be in the quarter finals. Germany was a different kettle of pescado having thrashed Australia, England and then Argentina but Spain passed them to death to deservedly win before repeating the dose against the Dutch.

Perhaps it is appropriate that the most Africanised country in Europe (and the one closest geographically) should triumph in Africa though the players probably won’t feel that way. But this victory may do what 50 years of oppression under Franco could not: seal a farrago of nationalities into a nation. Though it was a Castilian Iker Casillas who lifted the trophy (and in the process joining Dino Zoff in the pantheon of goalkeeping greats), it was a Catalan backbone that sealed the win. And the celebrations would have been just as great in Basque Bilbao and Galician La Coruna as they were in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Seville. Viva Espana.

Friday, July 09, 2010

The Loans Affair 35 years on: lessons in history

As the Government clings to clumsy populism to avoid defeat that seemed unlikely six months ago, it’s worth remembering a pivotal anniversary in another Labor downfall after just three years in office.

35 years ago today the famous Overseas Loans Affair was debated in Federal Australian parliament. The debate was one of just two times outside witnesses have been called to the bar of the Senate. The first time was at the height of the great depression in 1931 when Sir Robert Gibson, Chairman of the Commonwealth Bank Board, was called in to help the Senate “secure the utmost information possible to guide them wisely in dealing with the difficulties with which Australia is confronted.”

But in 1975 not just one, but many esteemed senior public servants were summoned to the bar. They were all there to say what they knew about the overseas loans negotiations. A year earlier a hard-up Labor Government attempted to raise $4 billion via unorthodox means. $4 billion was a lot of money in 1975 and Labor wanted to kickstart a sluggish post Oil Crisis economy with a massive number of resource and energy and infrastructure initiatives. They were going to electrify railways, build natural gas pipelines and enrich uranium for nuclear power.

The Minister for Minerals and Energy Rex Connor was authorised to bypass normal Treasury channels and seek access to Gulf Petrodollars that were floating around in enormous numbers after OPEC flexed its muscles. The problem was that no organised money market existed for directly investing the growing pool of money.

The Government were trying to get access to it but had no connections in the Gulf they could deal with directly. Neither did Adelaide builder Gerasimos “Gerry” Keridis but he had good indirect connections in the finance industry. In 1974 Keridis had heard from a friend about someone who had $200 million burning a hole in his pocket waiting to invest in something. The friend asked Keridis if he could help. Keridis traced the request to local jeweller and opal dealer, Tibor Shelley. Keridis then rang Clyde Cameron, another friend who also happened to be Gough Whitlam's minister for labour. Keridis asked Cameron whether he knew of anyone wanting some serious investment. Cameron was intrigued and began to work the phones.

The next day Keridis was invited to Canberra to meet Connor who was already plotting to get his $4 billion. The two men got along and Keridis left the meeting to find out the bona fides of the $200 million loan story. Keridis traced the money to Hong Kong but the trail ran cold there. He went back to Shelley who gave him the name of another finance broker who in turn gave him the name Tirath Khemlani.

The Pakistani-born Khemlani had credibility through his employers Dalamal and Sons in London. Britain’s Scotland Yard told the Australian Government Dalamal was a respectable commodities firm. Khemlani had heard about the Australian interest in getting Gulf money through a Hong Kong connection of Shelley’s. Though he had little experience in high finance he wanted to broker the deal himself.

He flew to Australia and met Connor and Keridis. Connor told him about the $200 million. Khemlani said that was chickenfeed and he urged Connor to go for $2 billion. Connor didn’t tell him the exact amount he needed but he described his visions such as the east-to-west coast railway, a national power grid and control of the North-West shelf's energy stocks. Connor and Keridis saw Khemlani as the messenger. They expected Dalamal and Sons to broker the deal.

Khemlani flew back to London to begin looking for the money. He reported regularly back to Keridis who in turn briefed Connor. Keridis continued to explore other avenues to get the money, hoping for a fat commission of up the $7 million on a $4 billion deal.

On 13 December 1974 the Government inner council authorised Connor to raise the money as a 20-year loan "for temporary purposes". This sleight of hand avoided the oversight of the Australian Loans Council to coordinate borrowing by Federal and State governments. The Loans Council was then governed by a “gentleman’s agreement” to impose borrowing limits on the Commonwealth and State semi-governmental and local authorities which was honoured more in the breach.

By avoiding the Loans Council, the Government kept the Liberal State Governments out of the loop and had the benefit of keeping their own side of parliament in the dark. The deal also insisted that the Government pay no commissions so Keridis was out of pocket. Six months of hard work with Khemlani had come to nothing. Each time the Dalamal broker rang in, there was a new reason why he had yet to engage the moneymen. A week after the secret deal was signed, officials convinced Treasurer Jim Cairns, Khemlani was a dud and he got Connor to terminate the arrangement.

There the matter might have rested except Khemlani was not inclined to take no for an answer. Though no longer employed by the Australian Government, he kept looking for the money and Connor kept talking to him unofficially. Connor later told the Enquiry he dropped Khemlani after his loan authority was revoked on 20 May 1975 but Khemlani would later tell the media they were still talking later than that. The middle man Keridis remained a fan of the Pakistani until he began to make blackmail threats. That happened when Khemlani arrived back in Australia in October 1975, a month before the Dismissal, with a bag of secret documents about the affair he wanted to sell to the highest bidder.

By then most of the political damage had been done. In May, the Government had gotten cold feet about petrodollars and instead went to an American investment house, whose name was never revealed (a fact forgotten in the furore). The Americans insisted they be the sole authorisers and Whitlam revoked the loan authorisation.

Information had started to leak and by July an outraged opposition demanded the Government to tell all about the affair. On 9 July, Whitlam played his cards, tabling all the documents in parliament confident that they had done nothing wrong and determined to show they were a Government with vision. His gamble came unstuck. The media ignored the reasons why the money was needed and came down hard on its secrecy and haplessness. The “Loans Affair” became a term loaded with negativity and ignominy, despite the fact no money ever changed hands.

Already beset by economic difficulties, the affair made the Government look like amateurs. Whitlam was forced to sack his Treasurer Cairns and then saw Labor suffer a shock loss in a Tasmanian by-election. The 15 percent swing was enough to give Opposition leader Malcolm Fraser the confidence to use his upper house majority (thanks to Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s night of the long prawns) to block supply of the Budget. The rest was history.

It is well to remember that history 35 years later. New Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s catastrophic blunder over East Timor in an effort to look tough allied to a stupid pretence it never happened, could yet end Labor up in Loans Affair-like election trouble again.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Guinea election candidates allege fraud

Supporters of the third placed candidate in Guinea’s presidential election have taken to the streets of the capital in protest at his expulsion from the run-off ballot. The protesters defied a Government ban on demonstrations as they claimed ex-prime minister Sidya Toure was cheated out of a top two place in the 27 June election that would have earned him a place in the run-off on 18 July. 3,000 people – mostly women marched in front of the electoral commission and the Supreme Court offices in Conakry chanting "Sidya was cheated" and "we want Sidya for the second round" before being sprayed with tear gas. (photo: UK Reuters)

Toure finished third in last month’s poll which was generally believed to be the first free election in Guinea’s 50 year history. Toure picked up 16 percent of the vote and was pipped by another former PM Cellou Dalein Diallo who took 40 percent and Alpha Conde who took 21 percent. Toure claims the second-placed Conde “stuffed the ballots” in his party’s stronghold area which prevented Toure from finishing second. Toure released a statement saying results from several polling stations and constituencies were manipulated in favour of Conde. Many of the other losing 21 candidates and their parties also alleged irregularities in what is becoming a depressingly familiar story for African elections.

The news came as US President Obama congratulated the country on holding its first election since independence from France in 1958. Obama said many people feared the country become unstable again after the 28 September massacre last year of people protesting against the then military leader Moussa Dadis Camara. “The Guinean people, however, demonstrated extraordinary courage and determination to pull their country out of crisis, and to chart a new course toward a democratic future,” said Obama. “They were supported by the leadership of Interim President General Sekouba Konate, who has focused intensely and urgently on transitioning the country to civilian rule.”

After Camara was deposed in December, Konate flew back from exile in Lebanon to take over. Konate was widely praised for overseeing a free and fair vote last month with a near 80 percent turnout. On Tuesday however, he announced he was resigning as chairman of the transition and asked the contact group and the international community to appoint a new president to lead it. Though he was eventually talked out of it, Konate was angry at accusations of fraud against him brought by Toure’s supporters. It required a phone call from Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade to convince him to stay in power until the end of the presidential election and the proclamation of the final results.

The run-off poll is bound by the constitution to be held on 18 July. But given the delay in announcing the results of the first round, the run-off may be delayed to give more time to fix deficiencies in technical expertise in the stretched electoral commission. Provisional results from the earlier election were delayed because of logistical, transport and security difficulties. Losing candidates also had eight days from Monday to lodge formal complaints with the Supreme Court, which will rule on the validity of the election within another three days. But the delay is unlikely to help Toure’s cause despite his protesting women. Election observers from the EU and the Carter Centre said they were broadly satisfied with the vote saying irregularities were caused by logistical problems. It will take a lot longer however to fix problems caused during the decades of mismanagement under the dictator Lansana Conte who died in December 2008.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

A Very Australian Coup

Julia Gillard has been Australian Prime Minister now for almost two weeks and the mutterings have begun about whether she is the right person for the job based on her mining compromise and her apparent willingness to sacrifice refugees on the barbecue of marginal outer Sydney electorates.

But few people in Australia have questioned her right to be Prime Minister. Despite the very presidential style of modern elections, it is MPs and Senators that people vote for and it is MPs and Senators who decide who leads them, and therefore the country. The media, so wrapped up in the exciting specifics of the overthrow, accepted the legitimacy of the practice without a murmur as “the Westminster system”.

In her first media conference as Prime Minister, Julia Gillard acknowledged she had not been elected Prime Minister by the Australian people. “And in coming months I will ask the Governor-General to call for a general election," she said, "so that the Australian people can exercise their birthright to choose their Prime Minister.”

Despite the media narrative of her need to get a “mandate”, Gillard never once mentioned the word in any of her early statements. Merrion Webster defines the word mandate in this context as “an authorisation to act given to a representative”. According to that definition Gillard has all the mandate she needs despite the birthright, having been elected unopposed by her party with the backing of powerful union bosses.

If the Australian media are mostly sanguine about this turn of events, voices are more uneasy overseas where the Westminster system has less sway. US papers called it a party revolt and a mutiny. Craig McMurtrie from the ABC’s Washington bureau said a Washington Post columnist though it looked disturbingly like a coup d’etat. The Americans are right, of course. Sure, there was no blood spilled or tanks on the lawn. Nevertheless, Gillard’s ascension shares this in common with coups more common to South America, Asia and Africa: it was ruthless overthrow of a country’s elected leader without the consent of the people who elected him.

Australians have been blinded to this fact by its commonness at State level where many premiers, most recently Kristina Keneally have been elevated into office by the backdoor. It is also common for the Federal Opposition with both Labor and the Liberals changing their leaders many times in the last 50 years when out of power. But it is surprisingly rare at the highest level of Government. Only twice has an Australian Prime Minister ever been dumped by their own party while in office – Gorton for McMahon in 1971 and Hawke for Keating in 1991. The 20 year symmetry wasn’t quite there for Kevin Rudd but the brutal machinations of backroom party politics were reminiscent of past coups. Even Gillard’s own Party has not yet caught up. The Australian Labor website still goes by the name of

Meanwhile Opposition Leader Tony Abbott came out with a curious denunciation of the coup. He called it a political assassination (though Rudd may yet rise from that particular death) and an “ugly process” and said “Prime Ministers should not be treated in this way.” Presumably Abbott must think it is ok for Opposition leaders to be treated that way.

Though he probably has no intention of doing anything about it, Abbott is correct in his criticism. Prime Ministers should not be appointed out of backroom deals and there is no reason it cannot be changed. The Australian Constitution is silent on the matter of Prime Ministers and what exists are conventions that supposedly “assist the smooth operation of the legislature.”

Smooth doesn’t begin to describe the operation to depose Rudd. It is easier to describe the shock, distaste and a sense of powerlessness among the wider public (despite goodwill to towards Gillard) about the ugly process of succession. That is not good for democracy. It is time for people power to assert itself and insist the Prime Minister they elected is only removed when they say so.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

New Zealand passes ETS legislation

Not for the first time, New Zealand has beaten Australia to the punch for a great democratic innovation. Today on 1 July, 2010 it became the first country in the Asia Pacific region to implement an Emissions Trading Scheme. The passing of the legislation will look even more remarkable to Australian eyes given that it was a conservative administration that has enacted it.

The legislation was the brainchild of the old Helen Clark Labour administration but when the Nationals won the election in 2008, the new John Key Government amended it with input from the Maori Party and United Future. These are two of the minor parties Key needed the support of to form a stable majority Government and their horsetrading insisted an ETS be part of the deal. Key himself committed to 50 percent reductions of 1990 levels by 2050. And so while the Nationals have watered down some provisions, it represents a real start for emissions trading in the region that Australians will need to study closely.

A new trading concept, the New Zealand Unit, is now in existence with one one NZU being the right to emit one tonne of carbon dioxide, or the equivalent amount of certain other greenhouse gases. Under the plan householders won’t have to take any direct action though they will notice slightly larger energy bills. Businesses who engage in certain mandated activities however, will now be obliged to surrender NZUs to the Government to account for the greenhouse gas emissions they incur during their business.

With few of New Zealand’s major trading partners yet signed up for an ETS, Kiwi companies may be slightly disadvantaged in trading due to the additional taxation burden imposed on them. However these same companies will be ahead of the game when other countries bow to the inevitable and impose similar schemes of their own. Don’t expect Australia to quickly learn the lesson. As well as the intractable political problems caused by Key’s contemporaries in the Liberal Party, the country is also is too trapped in the short-term focus of the media cycle to ever raise its head above the parapet long enough to judge an ETS on its own merits.

Even the supposedly neutral ABC’s report on the ETS today was framed in terms of cost rather than impact. This may be acceptable journalism for New Zealand media whose customers will be directly affected. But the ABC has no constituency in New Zealand and therefore should not have fallen into the trap of reporting it in terms of people “bracing for higher electricity prices” rather than looking at the longer term impact. There is little discussion in any media today what an ETS might do in terms of improving the way Kiwis see themselves, setting an example to others, being a good world citizen. not to mention whether it will actually reduce emissions.

The New Zealand ETS probably won’t initially reduce emissions. But like a ship with a wide turning circle, it forces a radical change of direction that is not immediately apparent. It will at the very least make people think about emissions in their business decision making. Given that it will also increase the price of petrol and electricity it may even impact on consumer behaviour and make them more frugal with energy, surely a desirable consequential impact.

There are justifiable criticisms of the plan but there is nothing that cannot be tweaked. The agriculture sector is omitted until 2015 despite being the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in New Zealand with almost half the total emissions. But although they may bitch and moan, they will come under the scheme in four years. The cap and trade ETS is not without its problems (not least that it was designed for pollution in a small American market). The EU version founded in 2005 is flawed by the free permits given to heavy industry. The New Zealand version is also generous to polluters but is the first true all-sectors all-gases scheme in the world. It is a brave first step by a small and independent country. New Zealand has set a good standard for Australia and the rest of the world to follow.