Sunday, October 31, 2010

Israel commemorates 15th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin's death

20,000 people gathered in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square overnight to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In the spot where Rabin was shot dead, President Shimon Peres told the crowd those favouring peace would prevail but preferred to blame Arabs rather than Israelis for the delays. “There are still those that wish to remove the Jews from Israel and that these people do not make the way to peace any easier,” he said. "The road to peace is long and difficult, and our neighbours are not helping us, but we will not be denied the hope for peace nor from attaining it”.

But it wasn’t a neighbour that killed Rabin, it was one of the family. Rabin was murdered after a peace rally on 4 November 1995 by an Israeli. His assassin was Yigal Amir, an ultra-nationalist Jewish extremist who opposed Rabin's policy of trading land to the Palestinians for peace. Amir was sentenced to life in prison. Amir was egged on by the hostile spirit of the time with many political hard-liners branding Rabin a traitor for pursuing the Oslo Accords and some fringe extremists calling for his death.

The first native-born Prime Minister of Israel he was born in Jerusalem in 1922 of a Ukrainian-Belarusian family. Yitzhak Rabin grew up in a spirit of activism and both his parents were avid volunteers. After completing his studies at the School for Workers' Children, Rabin spent two years at a kibbutz before enrolling in the Kadoorie Agricultural School, at the foot of Mount Tabor. The school was surrounded by Arab villages, and the daily routine included defence training and guard duty. While at Kadoorie, Rabin joined the Haganah, the Zionist military organisation.

During the war years Rabin served as a scout for Allied Forces units invading Syria and Lebanon against Vichy French Army units. But his friendship with British forces ended in 1945 when his battalion attempted to free 200 Jews from a British internment camp near Haifa. He was arrested in June 1946 and served five months in prison. In the Israeli war of independence Rabin safeguarded convoys of food, ammunition and medical supplies to the beleaguered city of Jerusalem. He also served as chief operations officer in the campaign to drive Egyptian and Jordanian forces from the Negev. At one point in the war Rabin met Nasser, then an Egyptian army officer, where they discussed the military situation and shared a bowl of fruit.

Rabin rose through the ranks to become the second ranking officer in the IDF. He was chief of staff during the Six Days War and it was his recommendation to carry out a pre-emptive strike. He left the armed forces after Israel’s total victory in 1967 and he served as Israeli Ambassador to Washington for five years. On his return he joined the Labour Party and was appointed minister of labour in Prime Minister Golda Meir's 1973 government.

Protests over the poor preparation in the Yom Kippur war forced Meir’s resignation and Rabin was elected as head of the Labour Party, and prime minister. His first term of office was dominated by negotiations with Egypt and Syria mediated by Kissinger. He authorised the attack on the hijackers at Entebbe in Uganda in 1976 but was forced to resign a year later over reports his wife had a secret US bank account.

He returned to politics in 1984 as the Defence Minister in a new unity government. He held the post for six years during which time he was engrossed in trying to disentangle the IDF from the disastrous 1982 invasion of Lebanon. After the collapse of the unity government, Rabin took over the Labour leadership once more and won the 1992 election with the help of minor parties. His government made major advances in the peace process, signing the Oslo Accords with Arafat’s PLO in 1993 and the Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace in 1994. He was also planning to concede the Golan Heights to Syria. Rabin, Shimon Peres and Arafat were rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 “for their efforts to create peace in the Middle East”.

But if his efforts were lauded overseas, they were detested by many at home. His assassin, a far-right law student named Yigal Amir was one of many deeply unhappy with Rabin’s peace moves. Amir appealed to the traditional Jewish legal concept of din rodef (law of the pursuer) to justify the murder. The tradition comes from the Talmud which allows a bystander to kill someone who is pursuing someone else with the intention of murder. Amir claimed din rodef applied because Rabin was endangering Jewish lives with his peace plans.

On the night of 4 November 1995, Rabin was attending a Tel Aviv peace rally in what was then known as Kings of Israel Square. At the end of the rally, Rabin walked down the city hall steps towards the open door of his car. Amir emerged from the crowd and fired three shots with a semi-automatic weapon. Two bullets struck Rabin and a third injured a bodyguard. Rabin was pronounced dead 40 minutes later at Tel Aviv Medical Centre.

While Rabin’s death was a huge shock and embarrassment for Israel, his Labour Party did not benefit from his death. Hardliner Binyamin Netanyahu was a surprise winner of the Prime Ministerial election that followed in 1996 and he set Israel on a path of conflict with its neighbours it has yet to fully emerge from. Rabin was no saint and his “anti Israel” attitude was completely exaggerated by his political enemies. But in the 15 years since his death, no Israeli leader has come close to him in reaching out past the pain of Israel's history to confront the reality of its precarious geography.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Robert Peel and the Irish Famine

In 1845 a devastating blight hit the Irish potato crop which was the sole diet of millions of Irish people. The blight wasn’t the first of its kind, but it was the worst. That is until the following year which was worse again. The effects of a third blight in four years in 1848 left Ireland reeling in a way it has never fully recovered from. Millions died, and millions more fled to Britain and North America. To this day, the island of Ireland’s population remains two million less than it was in 1845. There was well meaning sympathy next door in the then-wealthiest country on earth, but the problem got ignored whenever a solution inconveniently threatened to interfere with British financial interests.

The problem itself was slow to manifest itself at first. As digging of the potato crop progressed in the autumn of 1845, the news from Ireland grew steadily worse. By mid October, reports from the local constabulary were growing that showed crop failure all parts of the country. In Monaghan and elsewhere it was remarked “potatoes brought a few days ago, seemingly remarkably good, have rotted.”

It was this initial soundness that left everyone bewildered and then thrown into despair. What looked like a splendid crop rotted in front of farmers’ eyes. Wild theories were put forward as it why it was happening. Some blamed static electricity in the atmosphere generated by smoke from locomotives that had just come into use. Others pinned the culprit as 'mortiferous vapours' from ‘blind volcanos’ deep in the earth. One school of thought blamed another recent fashion: the collection of guano manure.

The esteemed British Prime Minister Robert Peel was being kept abreast of developments and asked his good friend and scientist Dr Lyon Playfair to investigate. Peel appointed Playfair head of a Scientific Commission to see what could be done to save the Irish potato. Playfair had studied under Justus von Liebig but was a better courtier than chemist. He asked the editor of the leading horticultural paper in Britain, Dr John Lindley to join him on his expedition.

In Ireland they were met by the eminent Irish Catholic scientist (a rarity for the time) Professor Robert Kane. Peel asked Kane to work with his Commission because he knew Kane was already investigating the problem and had written an important book about The Industrial Resources of Ireland. He would also provide the men with local knowledge and between them, Peel hoped, they would come up with a “dispassionate judgement” on the problem.

The Commission needed little deliberation. Members found evidence all too easily the problem was even worse than reported. They estimated half the crop was destroyed or about to be. Their mission became finding a method of preventing sound potatoes from rotting. But despite the involvement of Kane, fatal ignorance of Irish conditions proved the Commission’s undoing.

The traditional Irish method of storing potatoes was to keep them in a simple pit where the tubers could be partially protected from frost and rain. The Commissioners advised farmers to dry the potatoes in the sun and then put them in a trench covered in turf. There followed complicated instructions on sifting packing stuff using unslacked lime, burnt turf and dry sawdust. There was a laundry list of unobtainable tools required and opaque hints on how to make bread from the starchy material. 70,000 copies were printed of the instructions which suggested if the farmer did not understand them they should ask their landlord or clergyman to explain its meaning.

The Commission produced “four monster reports” to the Peel Government in three weeks. Hopes that the starchy material would provide sustenance were dashed as was the possibility of separating the good and bad bits of slightly blighted spuds. It didn’t matter what people did with them, the potatoes melted into a slimy decaying mess.

Senior landowners started warning Dublin Castle that the problem was getting out of hand. Lord Clare told the Irish Under-Secretary at the Castle he “would not answer for the consequences” if a famine occurred. With the year’s crop destroyed “how were they to survive to August 1846?” Clare asked. One person suggested the 12,000 police and army horse supply of corn be cut while the Duke of Norfolk said the Irish “should learn to consume curry powder” which he said had nourished India.

On 28 October 1845, the Dublin Corporation called for a committee to be set up to advise the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland Lord Heytesbury to adopt measures “to avoid calamity”. The committee led by Daniel O’Connell proposed corn exports be stopped and the ports thrown open for free import of food, rice and Indian corn. They also suggested food stores and public works for country areas. O’Connell suggested a tax on landlords to pay for all this.

Heytesbury was unimpressed by the proposal. He used the time-immemorial excuse of stonewalling politicians saying all the evidence was not yet in. “It was impossible to form an accurate opinion...until digging was complete,” he said. The plans needed to be “maturely weighed”. The Freeman’s Journal led with the condemnation of Heytesbury’s weasel words. They summarised his message as “let them starve”.

If Heytesbury was an archetypal colonial fool, Peel was not. He knew that the crop failure meant the Irish must be fed on grain, so his answer was to repeal the Corn Laws. He also knew this was political suicide. A previous supporter, the Duke of Buckingham had resigned from cabinet three years earlier rather than tolerate a slight modification to the laws. Now Peel was staring down a remedy that involved the abolition of duties on all “articles of subsistence.”

This was bad for Peel, but it would prove even worse for Ireland. In England, the vital oxygen of publicity for the fate of the Irish was deprived by the burning domestic issue of the laws. English farmers in particular stood to lose out if duties on imported grain were lifted. Worse still, opponents of abolition repeatedly denied there was any problem in Ireland at all and that change was unnecessary. The Tory Mayor of Liverpool refused to call a meeting for the relief of Irish distress while the blight was seen as “the invention of agitators”. To even express the opinion the blight existed, had the danger of setting the speaker out as a dangerous radical.

The abolition question produced a huge split in Peel’s own protectionist Conservative Party. There was an overwhelming majority in Cabinet against him. Despite being rolled on the issue, Peel refused to resign. Playfair produced his final report on 15 November. He said late rainy weather had made the problem even worse than before. But the Cabinet was unmoved. On 5 December Peel tendered his resignation to Queen Victoria. After “ten famous days” of feverish negotiations, opposition leader Lord John Russell told Victoria he too found it impossible to form a government.

The poisoned chalice was handed back to Peel who had to carry out Corn Law reform against his own party’s wishes. Ireland’s fate lay in his hands but they were tied behind his back. As 1845 passed into the deep winter of 1846, control of Ireland passed to Peel's increasingly powerful Treasury Assistant Charles Trevelyan. Trevelyan had little sympathy for the Irish whom he felt did not help themselves enough. He worked to undermine Peel’s relief plans of Indian corn. The Irish gave up hope on English assistance and prayed instead for survival to a good harvest in 1846. It was this second failure that did all the damage. The British had charity fatigue second time round and Trevelyan shut down the relief operation.

Peel, meanwhile got his Corn Law repeals through at fatal cost. On 26 June 1846 the Whigs and Protectionist Tories combined to bring him down. He was defeated by 73 votes and resigned three days later. As an observer said at the time, the vote “had as much to do with Ireland as Kamschatka". But with the laissez faire Lord John Russell in power supported by Trevelyan of similar mind, any hope Britain would intervene in the calamity that followed disappeared. Britain practised genocide by omission. In lieu of potatoes, the Russell Government planted the seeds that would lead to Ireland’s 20th century rebellions.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

LNP's balancing act as they head to drover's dog election win

The Liberal National Party held a shadow cabinet meeting in Roma last week where they re-committed their support to the Surat Basin resource region at the centre of the $30b mining approvals given by Environment Minister Tony Burke last week. The fact the Queensland Liberal National Party is in favour of the massive coal seam gas developments might usually be assumed at a matter of course. The party has been pro-development in most of its guises through the years.

But the ruling Bligh Government is also in favour, desperate for what they will earn in royalties from the deals. The Opposition has been forced to play the green card in order to make a point of differentiation. They are adding their voice to concerns about the groundwater released during the gas extraction and possible damage to the water table. But the position hides tensions: the Nationals half are comfortable digging in for the farmers who grumble about wells on their properties while the more Liberal end of town wants to see the deals with China sealed as soon as possible.

There is a good reason for this haste; they want to be in power when the money arrives. Bligh’s trickery and the loss of Prime Ministerial power has left Labor on the nose in Queensland. The LNP won 21 out of 30 Queensland seats in the 2010 Federal election. Queensland too will go to the polls in either late 2011 or early 2012. If all recent polls are to be believed, the LNP will win in some comfort. The party will need to adjust to the mindset of government over the next 18 months as it lords over the Queensland political scene and grapples with what kind of administration it wants to be.

The LNP is a hybrid party formed in mid-2008 after a long and difficult birth. Uniquely the Nationals were always the bigger entity in Queensland and their members were enthusiastically in favour of merger. After four straight defeats to Labor, they were anxious to regain power by any means. But the Queensland Liberals were much more divided with the right faction in favour but the moderates opposed. John Howard categorically rejected the idea of a stand-alone Queensland amalgamation in 2005. In 2006 Senator Barnaby Joyce pronounced the last rights on it in 2006 saying because it looked and smelled like a dead duck, it probably was one.

But two events in 2007 conspired to put the dead duck back on the agenda. When the Liberals did not contest Brisbane Central after Peter Beattie resigned, it angered the Nationals and even Liberal's own Deputy Leader Mark McArdle who publicly admitted they had failed the people of the electorate. Then in November, the Federal Coalition lost the election and Howard lost his seat. The biggest obstacle to merger was gone. When Lawrence Springborg replaced Jeff Seeney as Nats leader in January 2008, he pressed forward the amalgamation agenda over the head of opposing Liberals.

They outmanoeuvred their opponents in several key ways. Firstly they got the Federal MPs onside by guaranteeing them pre-selection for the next election. Secondly the two party presidents (who were both in favour of merger) conducted polls of branch members which found an overwhelming majority in favour of merging. Thirdly the new party would become the Queensland division of the Liberal Party and an affiliation with the federal Nationals.

Nats President Bruce McIver set a timetable for amalgamation calling a constitutional convention for 26 July 2008 to make a decision. Pro-merger Libs agreed to meet on the same day. Two days before the appointed date, Lib state council narrowly voted to postpone, but the pro-merger faction went to the courts and secured a Supreme Court judgement to ensure it went ahead. At both conventions on 26 June, the merger was approved. McIver was elected president and former Libs state president Gary Spence became deputy. Springborg was anointed leader of the combined entity with McArdle his deputy. It wasn’t until eight months later the Federal Council of the Liberal Party ratified the new LNPQ as its Queensland Division.

Electoral desperation had driven the two parties together but it did not pay immediate dividends. Anna Bligh clung to power in the 2009 state election despite losing eight seats. Springborg resigned after his third defeat and handed over the reins to former dentist John-Paul Langbroek. Langbroek is an ex-Liberal and his succession wasn’t an easy one, winning possibly by as little as one vote.

Almost 18 months later, the rumblings in the cabinet room continue with Infrastructure and Planning spokesman David Gibson resigning from the frontbench after Langbroek called for a ministerial reshuffle without first consulting colleagues. Tim Nicholls, who Langbroek defeated for the top job, is not ruling out a challenge.

But Nicholls is just noise. Only one of two people can become Premier in the next Queensland election and Nicholls is not one of them. Given Labor’s latest catastrophic polling in Brisbane, neither is Anna Bligh nor anyone in the party that might overthrow her.

In what is shaping up to be a drover's dog election, the next Premier of Queensland will be either JP Langbroek or Lawrence Springborg. The “Borg”, as he likes to be known, remains extremely powerful as deputy and the unofficial head of the Nationals wing of the party. But three defeats have shown he is not trusted in the metropolitan areas. It is up to the more likeable Langbroek to step up in the next 18 months to show he is Premier material.

I saw signs of it when he made a major speech here in Roma last weekend when the Shadow Cabinet met in town. Springborg was notably absent, but the rest of Langbroek's cabinet had the steely determination of a party about to seize government and were looking seriously at the problems that will bring. Langbroek's style is consensual but philosophical differences means the marriage of the Nats and Libs remains fragile. Langbroek will be looking for the smell of victory to keep them away from the divorce courts in the shorter term.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Haiti struggles to deal with major cholera outbreak

Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince is bracing itself for an outbreak of cholera as the disease which has killed 200 in the countryside makes itself known in the city. The five confirmed cases in the capital are among more than 2,000 people who were infected in an outbreak mostly centred in the Artibonite region north of Port-au-Prince. At least 208 people have died with that figure likely to rise in the country’s first outbreak of cholera since 1960. The outbreak is the latest disaster to hit the poverty-stricken country still struggling to recover from the devastating 7.0 earthquake which left much of the country in ruins last January. (photo: David Darg)

Medecins San Frontieres sent assessment teams to the Artibonite region including the coastal town of St Marc, 70km north of Port-au-Prince. MSF said St Marc’s hospital was becoming overcrowded and does not have the capacity to handle a cholera epidemic. MSF staff are giving patients an oral rehydration solution to replace fluids lost from diarrhoea and vomiting symptoms of a cholera infection. Patients too sick to drink the ORS are given infusions intravenously. “The most important thing is to isolate the cholera patients there from the rest of the patients, in order to best treat those people who are infected and to prevent further spread of the disease,” the local MSF coordinator said. “This will also enable the hospital to run as normally as possible. We are setting up a separate, isolated cholera treatment centre now."

David Darg, of the US-based Operation Blessing International, drove the two hours from Port-au-Prince to find a “horror scene” at St Marc hospital. Darg said he had to fight his way through the gate through crowds of distressed relatives while others carried dying relatives into the compound. “Some children were screaming and writhing in agony, others were motionless with their eyes rolled back into their heads as doctors and nursing staff searched desperately for a vein to give them an IV,” he said. “The hospital was overwhelmed, apparently caught out suddenly by one of the fastest killers there is.”

Cholera is an acute intestinal infection caused by bacteria carried in human faeces and can be transmitted by water, some foodstuffs and, more rarely, from person to person. The main symptoms are watery diarrhoea and vomiting, which lead to severe dehydration and rapid death if not treated promptly. According to the World Health Organisation, there are an estimated three to five million cholera cases every year causing between 100,000 to 120,000 deaths. The WHO is worried about the emergence of a new and more virulent strain of cholera that now predominates in parts of Africa and Asia, as well as the unpredictable emergence and spread of antibiotic-resistant strains. And because brackish water and estuaries are natural reservoirs of this strain, cholera could increase where there are rising sea levels and increases in water temperatures.

While it is too early to tell what is causing the Haitian outbreak, conditions in the IDP camps remain primitive and conditions were ripe for disease to strike in areas with limited access to clean water. 230,000 people died in the quake. 1.2 million people were displaced as of August 2010 and a further 1.8 million are affected. According to a post-earthquake fact sheet produced by USAID, the majority of IDPs in Artibonite are “residing with host families, straining resources and creating housing space issues for both groups.” It noted deficiencies in disease reporting processes. As well there has been a mass migration of 120,000 people from Artibonite to Port-au-Prince in search of a better life.

So far there has been no reports of cholera in the camps, but if it does a public health crisis could be imminent. "It will be very, very dangerous," Claude Surena, president of the Haitian Medical Association, said. "Port-au-Prince already has more than 2.4 million people, and the way they are living is dangerous enough already. Clearly a lot more needs to be done."

Saturday, October 23, 2010

BTEX throws a spanner in the Queensland CSG works

The fraught relationship between mining companies and landowners in rural Queensland took another blow with the mysterious discovery of an illegal poison in eight Origin Coal Seam Gas drilling wells about 350km west of Brisbane. The find of the banned toxic chemical BTEX last week comes just months after the Queensland Government ordered Cougar Energy to shut down its Underground Coal Gasification plant near Kingaroy when water tests detected similar compounds of benzene and toluene in groundwater monitoring bores.

CSG is a very different technology to the unproven UCG. However, the BTEX find puts a cloud over an industry that is about to take off in the mineral-rich Surat Basin energy province. On Friday Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke gave conditional approval to the GLNG (jointly owned by Santos, Petronas and Total) and BG plan to export $30 billion of CSG to Chinese markets via Liquefied Natural Gas plants in Gladstone in the coming 20 years. Neither company were directly affected by the BTEX find which occurred at eight Australia Pacific LNG (jointly owned by Origin and ConocoPhillips) coal seam gas sites in an area between Miles and Roma.

The industry has been on the defensive over the outbreak. APLNG is likely to be the next major CSG player to have its environmental impact assessment tested by government. Their Environmental Impact Assessment has been with the Queensland Coordinator General Colin Jensen since January this year. Jensen has been holding off his decision awaiting the Federal Government on GLNG and BG. Landholders in particular in coal seam gas areas have not been happy about the impacts to their land and water. Given that Burke imposed more than 300 strict conditions on GLNG and BG, it is likely the Origin/ConocoPhillips project will have to address these also.

The BTEX contamination is an added headache. The problem came to light last Tuesday when Origin released a statement to the ASX saying they had found traces of BTEX in fluid samples taken from eight exploration wells. They said they advised relevant landowners, Western Downs Regional council (but not apparently the Roma-based Maranoa Council which was also affected) and the Queensland government of the find. The company told Queensland Minister for Sustainability and Climate Change, Kate Jones there was no evidence of environmental harm or risk to landholder bores. However Jones has requested confirmatory testing by an independent service provider.

The finds come just days after the Queensland Government banned BTEX from all coal seam gas operations. Minister for Natural Resource Mines and Energy, Stephen Robertson told parliament BTEX petroleum compounds were not used in Queensland CSG operations but have been used in overseas oil and gas operations in the fraccing process. Fraccing is the controversial process that involves pumping fluid at high pressure into a coal seam to fracture the seam to allow gas to flow readily into gas wells. The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association say chemicals make up less than 1 percent of fraccing fluid and the risk to public health at those levels was negligible.

Which is just as well, as BTEX is extremely toxic. As well as being a cancer-causing compound, there is a documented history of harmful effects on the central nervous system. Because of the solubility of the majority of the BTEX components they are also prone to leaching into the underground waterways polluting areas larger than the original contamination site.

BTEX gets its name from its make-up: petroleum compounds containing benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes. They are aromatic hydrocarbons which occur naturally in crude oil at low levels. In the 1970s the oil industry invested so heavily in BTEX it comprised 35 percent of all US gasoline (petrol) by 1990. When the EPA found excessive benzene concentrations in city air, the culprit was identified as the aromatics. While the percentage was subsequently decreased, it still makes up a significant component of petroleum.

Origin say they have no idea how it was found at their wells last week but admit it may have been contained in lubricants used at the site. While its use in fraccing is illegal, they may be used on a drill bit which remains legal. APLNG's executive general manager of oil and gas, Paul Zealand told the Courier-Mail the traces were barely detectable, did not enter the water table and may be naturally occurring. "It is isolated from water courses and livestock," he said. "The company will undertake further testing in consultation with landholders in the coming days."

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Australia will pay the price of Queensland's asset sales

The Queensland Government furniture firesale continues as they soften the market for the crashlanding of QR National. In one of the first major share offerings since the GFC, the rail freight business is being pitched as a “growth story” for which they hope to get somewhere between 6.6 and 7.8 billion dollars. Bligh acknowledges dividends will be low and investors will not make a quick killing. What she does not acknowledge is that this slow long-term growth behaviour makes it ideal to remain in government hands.

There is another reason the sale is bad. Privatisation of any enterprise costs money and the cost is deducted from the sale price, effectively meaning the vendor pays for the transition. Australian and Queensland tax payers will also lose tens of billions in long term revenues.

In the case of QR National, the "book value" of the company is $7.4 billion which puts it in the ballpark of a fair price. But the book value does not measure other aspects of the company value including future earnings, goodwill and the power that comes from being the leading producing of freight services in Australia. It too must be in the billions of dollars.

QR National is the biggest of five assets to be disposed as Queensland buckles under financial penalties caused by its AA credit rating. With $52b of debt to service, international credit demanded these tasty morsels be released in downpayment. The unfolding financial disaster left Bligh was in a no win situation after her election. The only people that wanted these assets privatised would never vote for her. Her base detested the move and her credibility was shot to pieces after she introduced the sale without a mandate in the 2009 election.

These are not trivial items. QR National is huge. They are the largest rail freight haulage business in Australia by tonnes hauled and are particularly strong in coal haulage which has doubled in ten years. QRN operate 2,300 of dedicated railway lines across five states. Their future outlook is strong having invested $3.4 billion in three years keeping its rolling stock up-to-date while expanding its network. Another $3.8b is earmarked in expansion programs in the next two years.

QR National may be the jewel in the crown but the other four assets are also sparkly. Queensland’s largest cargo port, the Port of Brisbane could fetch up to $2 billion. Queensland Motorways operates the tolling franchise on the Gateway and Logan motorways and is worth about $4.5 billion. But as Professor Ross Guest told RACQ a likely sale price of $3 to $4b “would therefore transfer net worth from Queensland taxpayers”.

The fourth item up for grabs is Australia’s most northerly coal port: Abbott Point Coal Terminal. Abbott Point is 25km north of Bowen and is the quickest coal route to China. The port is also valuable because there are few other locations along Queensland's eastern seaboard where very deep water is so close in-shore. Whitsunday Regional Council Mayor Mike Brunker said the terminal might go for half its $3 billion asking price because of crucial missing links in the railways that provide coal to the port.

The fifth asset is a 99-year licence for Forestry Plantations Queensland and it is already lost to the state. The smallest of the five, it was the ideal candidate to be first cab off the privatisation rank. The licence to manage, harvest and re-grow plantation timber on over 200,000 hectares of plantation lands was sold for $603 million at the end of June to American company Hancock Timber Resource Group. The price shows exactly how much privatisation costs.

Professor Gary Bacon, adjunct professor with Griffith University's Environmental Futures Centre, said the state's forestry assets appeared to be going at bargain basement prices. He said if the land remained in government hands, the right to grow and harvest trees on it would be worth an estimated $1370 million. This higher figure came from parliamentary research commissioned by Bruce Flegg and while it is politically motivated, it shows a loss of $767m on unrealised earnings for the state. There are also environmental concerns. Hancock Timber Resource Group are the target of Greens' ire over their Victorian operation which will clearfell much of the Strzelecki Ranges.

The QR National sale is likely to dwarf the Forestries sale in scale, impact and likely money lost forever to the state. In parliament on 7 October, Queensland Treasurer Andrew Fraser called the QR National share offer a “historic moment for QR, for Queensland and indeed for the nation.” Apart from failing to recognise the impact of the GFC, it was this curious phrase “indeed the nation” that made it suggest Australian interest was an afterthought with the sale.

This is a major blunder given QR National’s size and reach into the important NSW market, a state which will recover its crippled mojo when the hopelessly compromised Labor administration is turfed out of power in 2012. The Queensland Government is expecting to receive something between about $3.6 billion and $5 billion in proceeds from the float, but once again the true value of future earnings is not included. Bligh is aware of all of this but has no option but to press on. Her fear of bankers appears worse than her fear of voters who don’t want the sales to go ahead. This death wish suggests she has little choice in the manoeuvre.

The coded message for help in the Queensland Government’s spiel appears in the very name of the new entity “QR National”. Its sale means billions of dollars will be lost to Australia. If Bligh is unable to act in a notional national interest, then Prime Minister Julia Gillard ought to. She could buy the remaining assets for the cost of about a tenth of a stimulus package.

Tens of billions are leaving the Queensland economy which will not be compensated by the benefits of privatisation. Stephen Bartolemeusz in Business Spectator gives the game away when he says the value of QRN is in the privatisation alone. Given the company’s strong set of businesses with dominant market positions it ought to release considerable value. But “against that” he outlines reasons why investors won’t pay premium prices: The grandfathering arrangements to protect jobs, the retention of 25-40 percent Government ownership and a 15pc ceiling on individual shareholding.

It is these political risk management strategies that drives the increase of buying cost, a factor the Federal Government would not have to worry about. What the Feds would have to worry about is being locked out of the “growth story” Bligh is now telling because they will have to deal with the consequences of private ownership decisions on the management of the Australian economy and environment.

Queensland’s troubles is another example why federalism is a mess and is economically unsustainable. If there really is a new paradigm in Canberra, it should send a message to show how our state-based power structure is crippling Australia. In the “future directions for rural industries and rural communities” session in the 2020 summit two years ago, session chair Tim Fischer admitted their solutions saw them “almost demolishing the states”. It's a worthy vision for 2020 - the quicker it happens the better.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Grog rations

After reading some of Grog’s Gamut’s first posts since The Australian journalist James Massola revealed his name, I was struck by the quality of the personal detail which informed his arguments. While it was always there to some degree, it seemed Grog suddenly had more freedom to back up opinions with detailed events from his life. As a result, I tweeted last night “Reading @grogsgamut's blog with added personal experiences makes me think @jamesmassola may have actually done us all a favour.”

Grog, who has also returned to twitter, replied to me promptly: “@derekbarry they were always there - you just didn't know my name.”

I didn’t dispute either of these points. But given the way his story was "always there" I was far from surprised the pseudonymous blogger was outed when it happened. Grog’s recent rise to prominence allied to the hints about his life in his work, made me sure sooner or later his identity would be revealed. He also tempted fate by trusting Massola not to reveal something he told him months ago. And surely he knew the writing was on the wall when he appeared at Canberra Media140 in September as embedded blogger “Greg”.

I was out of the country at the time so I missed that conference and I also missed much of the heat of the Twitter firestorm generated by “#groggate”. While it was good to see social media flex its muscles against the arrogance of older players, I thought it was amusing how enthusiastically they used the journalism cliché of “-gate”.

Yet I was still angry when I heard the Australian had outed him for no apparent reason. I foresaw the likely consequences of the article - his employers would force him to cease blogging and Australia would lose a useful critical voice. Though I’d never heard of the name of “Greg Jericho”, I’ve known about the blogger called “Grog’s Gamut” for some time. His bio was of a Canberra public servant who admitted he looked nothing like his Ralph Fiennes icon. Yet this unknown part-time writer was fast becoming one of the sharpest political writers in Australia. He excelled himself in his daily coverage of the 2010 election coverage. His 31 July tour de force “bring the journalists home” article attacking poor journalistic practices caused an ABC review and put him in the wider news. But it was the Murdoch empire that was Grog’s real target and it was only a matter of time before they would launch a counterattack.

Grog said he told Massola his name ten months ago, but it wasn’t until 27 September that he was “unmasked”. Massola's article and that of his boss Geoff Elliot who defended him became notorious in the Twittersphere and a matter of much derision. While some of the criticism was over the top, neither journalist can have much complaint. They failed the basic test of newsworthiness, completely botching the justification for the outing, because there was none.

Massola’s first sentence, which should be the most important, revealed nothing new. “The anonymous blogger who prompted Mark Scott to redirect the ABC's federal election coverage is a Canberra public servant,” he wrote. It served only as a false rationale for the name in the second sentence: “Greg Jericho, a public servant who spends his days working in the film section of the former Department of Environment, Heritage, Water and the Arts.” Massola passed the blame to twitter speculation for the revelation and then attempted to justify it by saying Grog’s bias might impact the “impartial and professional” way the APS is run.

The unmasking did not sit well with the Twitterati (not least with Grog himself). They blasted Massola for his abuse of privilege, false emphasis, lack of principles and lack of care of the consequences of his actions. Massola had violated a social norm and The Australian's Media section editor Geoff Elliott was forced to come out and defend him. Elliot only succeeded in making matters worse with his pompous tone. “If you are influencing the public debate, particularly as a public servant, it is the public's right to know who you are,” he said. “It is the media's duty to report it.”

Elliot never made it clear why the public had such a right nor why it was his job to inform the public about that right, particularly when that paper has a long history of pseudonymous publication. It is not difficult to read between these few terse lines of an experienced news curator to see News Ltd’s purely political line at work aimed at destabilising a potentially dangerous enemy in a manner that was borderline unethical.

Fortunately the Australian Public Service proved Elliot and me both wrong. After a couple of weeks of silence, Grog was back online this week. He may not “deserve anonymity” that Elliot summarily stripped him of but he certainly deserved to have a voice. His employers took into account he steered well clear of his own policy area in his writing. They took the sensible position no one of reasonable mind could confuse Grog’s views with those of his employers.

Reading the newest Grog/Greg musings shows he remains fiercely partisan. His opinions haven’t changed but I detected a greater willingness to use life experiences as collateral because now he could do so without fear of consequence. Though Grog has denied this, it was this new explanatory power I sensed which made me think Massola had, quite unintentionally, done us all a favour.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A history of abortion law in Queensland

Cairns is the scene of the latest battle in the fight to update Queensland’s antiquated abortion laws. The District Court there will try Tegan Leach, 21, and her partner Sergie Brennan, 22, for procuring drugs for an abortion between November 2008 and January 2009. Leach has been charged with procuring her own miscarriage and Brennan with procuring drugs for an abortion. The Crown’s case is that S282 of the criminal code does not apply in this case and because there was no serious risks to the mental or physical health of Leach, the abortion was illegal. The case jeopardises the availability of the 14,000 abortions carried out each year in Queensland.

In Queensland abortion is a crime under the Queensland Act, although generally regarded as lawful if performed to prevent serious danger to the woman’s physical or mental health. Queensland has draconian legislation in place dating from 1899 that criminalised abortion. Abortion is defined as unlawful in the Queensland Criminal Code (1899) under Sections 224, 225 & 226 (sited between “incest” and “indecent acts” in the code). Women, doctors and their helpers can be criminally prosecuted for accessing abortion. Under section 224 a person who intends to “procure the miscarriage of a woman” is liable for 14 years imprisonment. Under S225 a woman who seeks her own miscarriage is liable for 7 years while S226 condemns anyone else who helps out to 3 years. The only defence is S282 which absolves medical operations on “a person or an unborn child to preserve the mother’s life”.

In the Cairns case, police alleged the couple arranged for a relative to bring a supply of the drug misoprostol along with a variation of mifepristone, used in medical abortions, to Australia from the Ukraine. They also alleged the woman used the drug successfully to terminate her pregnancy at 60 days, after the couple decided they were too young to parent. Leach has been charged under S225 and Brennan under S226. She faces a maximum of seven years while he faces three years in prison.

While this is the first time in over 50 years a woman has been charged in Queensland for choosing an abortion, the case is the latest in a long line of depressing state sanctions against pro-choicers. In the Joh era of the early 1970s, the Minister for Justice announced that it was illegal to terminate the pregnancy of a woman with rubella, and that vasectomy was illegal. Although a few private doctors were prepared to do a limited number of abortions and menstrual extractions, abortions in public hospitals were performed strictly on medical grounds. Most women had to travel interstate to obtain an abortion.

The Greenslopes Fertility Control Clinic opened in 1976 and was a thorn in the side of the hypocritically conservative (but corrupt) Joh administration for the next ten years. A court ruled search warrants used in a police raid on the clinic in 1985 were invalid so the Government appealed for whistleblowers to denounce the clinic. A 21-year-old mother came forward and the clinic’s Drs Bayliss and Cullen were charged with procuring an illegal abortion contrary to Section 224 of the Criminal Code and inflicting grievous bodily harm.

Judge McGuire heard the case and based his ruling on the English case R v Bourne (1939) and a Victorian ruling by Justice Menhennit in R v Davidson (1969). McGuire said R v Davidson represented the law in Queensland with respect to Sections 224 and 282. S282 provided the accepted defence to a charge of unlawful abortion under s224. It meant a prosecution under s224 would fail unless the Crown could prove the abortion was not performed “for the preservation of the mother’s life” and was not “reasonable having regard to the patient’s state at the time and to all the circumstances of the case”.

Since the 1980s, lobby groups have fought to change the abortion law. In 1995 the Goss Labor Government introduced “revised” criminal legislation that retained abortion as a criminal offence despite the Premier’s verbal support in Parliament for women’s access to abortion. A year later, his Government was defeated and the new anti-choice Health Minister in the Borbidge Government (Mike Horan) cancelled funding for women’s choice support groups. They were re-funded under the Beattie administration in 1999. A Taskforce on Women and the Criminal Code recommended repeal of the abortion laws in 2000 citing community support. However the Beattie government would not implement this recommendation claiming abortion was a matter for the consciences of members of parliament and not public policy.

Anna Bligh hid behind the same excuse when refusing to change the law last year and so abortion remains illegal in the state. Where abortions are illegal, they are also generally unsafe. In an article for the Deakin Law Review, Rebecca Dean estimates 68,000 women die annually and 5.3 million suffer temporary or permanent disability as a result of 20 million unsafe abortions across the world. “Women will continue to have unplanned pregnancies they seek to abort because, among other factors, contraception is not one hundred percent effective, and rape and domestic violence are prevalent around the world,” said Dean.

Monday, October 11, 2010

British banks complicit in Nigerian corruption

A new report from a British non-government corporate watchdog has exposed how British banks have accepted millions of dollars in bribes from corrupt Nigerian politicians. The report called “International Thief Thief: How British Banks are complicit in Nigerian corruption”(PDF) has exposed rotten practices in the banking industry. Global Witness named five major banks Barclays, NatWest, Royal Bank of Scotland, HSBC and Switzerland's UBS in the 40-page report it said have failed to adequately investigate the source of tens of millions of dollars taken from two Nigerian governors accused of corruption.

Robert Palmer, a campaigner at Global Witness said banks were are quick to penalise ordinary customers for minor infractions but seem to be less concerned about dirty money passing through their accounts. "Large scale corruption is simply not possible without a bank willing to process payments from dodgy sources, or hold accounts for corrupt politicians,” he said.

Global Witness admitted the five banks might not have broken the law but said British banking regulator the Financial Services Authority must do more to close loopholes to prevent money laundering through British banks. "The FSA needs to do much more to prevent banks from facilitating corruption,” the report said. “As yet, no British bank has been publicly fined or even named by the regulators for taking corrupt funds, whether willingly or through negligence... in stark contrast to the United States, where banks have been fined hundreds of millions of dollars for handling dirty money." While HSBC claimed it had "rigorous and robust" measures in place to stop such abuses, a spokesman refused to talk about individual customers hiding behind the bank's confidentiality policies.

Global Witness’s findings were based on court documents from successful cases the Nigerian government brought in London against two former state governors Diepreye Alamieyeseigha of Bayelsa state and Joshua Dariye of Plateau state. Alamieyeseigha was jailed in Nigeria after pleading guilty to embezzlement and money laundering charges after being caught with $1.6m in cash at his London home. Dariye was arrested in 2004 in London after buying properties worth millions of dollars though he was on $63,500 a year salary.

Global Witness found that Barclays, HSBC, RBS, NatWest and UBS held accounts for both men. They said they “funnelled dirty money into the UK, spending their ill-gotten gains on sustaining a luxury lifestyle, in stark contrast to the poverty of ordinary Nigerians.” Global Witness said banks which were propped up by taxpayer’s money were getting away with practices that undermine aid programs. “This is not just illogical, it is immoral,” they said. “Our financial system is morally complicit in Nigerian corruption.” The banks have form: nearly all of them had previously fallen foul of the FSA in 2001 by reportedly helping the former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha funnel nearly a billion pounds through the UK.

Nigeria ranks 130 out of 180 nations in Transparency International's list of countries perceived as most transparent in 2009. It has a population of 150 million people many of whom survive on $2 a day yet the country is one of the world's top champagne importers and its wealthiest residents are among the continent's richest. Al Jazeera quoted Nuhu Ribadu, the former head of Nigeria's anti-corruption agency who estimated that corruption and mismanagement swallows up about 40 per cent of the country's annual oil income. "Without access to the international financial system, it would be much harder for corrupt politicians from the developing world to loot their treasuries or accept bribes," Global Witness said in its report.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Courier-Mail and the 1971 Brisbane Springbok riot

Today’s Courier-Mail has a front page splash that purports to tell the “real story behind a Queensland political myth”. The article is about former premier Peter Beattie’s involvement in the 1971 Springbok tour riot in Brisbane and a vintage picture of the former Premier complete with impressive 70s style moustache adorns the front page. The article is based on a newly released police dossier which the Courier-Mail trumpets as “Forty years on, the facts come out”.

The bland inside headline of “Two sides to every story” hides far more than it reveals. With Beattie among 400 protesters facing off against 500 police there were at least 900 sides to this story, not to mention the important parts played by politicians, the unions and the media, of which the Courier-Mail was the most craven example. Given the subsequent revelations about Queensland’s police corruption and their role in the brutal repression of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen era with the complicity of the media, a 64-page police dossier from the time is hardly to be trusted as an independent verification of what happened. Nor is today’s article the first time “the facts” have come out about the 1971 riot.

The best story of what happened when the white South African rugby team came to Brisbane during the Apartheid era was told in 2004 by Raymond Evans' “Springbok Tour Confrontation”, a chapter in Radical Brisbane: An Unruly History (edited by Evans and Carole Ferrier).

Evans began his account with an ABC audio tape of Sounds of the Seventies. Protesters and foreign journalists (the local ones at the Courier-Mail stayed on the police side of the line) recounted events with fear audible in their voices. “[The police] just chased us with a big grin on their faces,” said one. “When people got to the bottom of the hill, they realised they had been trapped. I think that’s when they started to be brutal,” said another.

The voices were describing the events of the cold winter’s night of Thursday, 22 July 1971. The Springbok tour party was staying at the Tower Mill Motel on Brisbane’s Wickham Terrace. They were separated from the 400 protesters by a line of 500 quasi-military style police officers. The protest turnout was poorer than expected partly because of the police intimidation and partly because Brisbanites bought the official line “sport and politics should not mix”.

That this cliché was an easily exposed fiction did not matter - the media did not expose it. Both federal and state political leaders were quick to use the tour to bolster their faltering credentials. Fast-fading Liberal PM Billy McMahon provided RAAF transport after civilian carriers refused to carry the Springboks. He also opened up Enoggera Barracks to house the additional police Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen called in.

But while the Springboks did not save the PM, it amply served the Premier. Joh was in the job less than 2 years and still untested when he began to try out anti-democratic practices which became familiar in the next 16 years. Eight days before the game, he declared a State of Emergency to secure the Exhibition Grounds, suspending civil liberties for a month in the process. The legislation gave police carte blanche to treat protesters as they liked. The day before the Mill protest, 200 students marched to the city centre. 36 were arrested as police applied excessive force. TV cameramen and press photographers were also hassled by police and had their film confiscated.

Trade unionists kept out of the protests believing the convenient lie about sport and politics. But unions had make life awkward for Joh in the lead-up. The game had to be played at the Exhibition Grounds because BWIU unionists blackbanned essential plumbing works at the Ballymore rugby ground. The BWIU also halted the production of police batons and the AMIEU stopped the transport of police horses to the demonstration. But on the night of the protest, most sports-loving unionists stayed away from Tower Mill. It was students like Beattie who filled the police cells that night. It was easier to demonise the students in the media as hippies and long-haired layabouts. The other major protesters were Aboriginals who paralleled South Africa with Queensland. This was a truth the media could also ignore. After all, weren't Queensland's Aboriginals, as Joh said, "living on clover"?

The numbers of students, aboriginals and academics outside the Mill was swollen by plain clothes police who acted as agent provocateurs. With no warning, the line of uniformed police marched forward and ordered the protesters to clear the footpath. The demonstrators were forced to flee down the steep and pitch-dark hill into Wickham Park. The police attacked with fists, batons and boots as plain-clothes colleagues joined in. Some protesters escaped by jumping an eight metre high embankment into the busy traffic of Albert Street below. Some were simply thrown over.

Others still, including Beattie, sought sanctuary in the nearby Trades Hall building near Jacob's Ladder (now demolished to make way for the IBM building). One unionist saw a girl held and punched by police while a youth (later identified as Beattie) was also jumped on and held to the floor. Two of the three police attacking him were forcibly ejected from the building and the third became frightened when he realised he was alone. The last policeman, Lindsay Daniels left the injured Beattie alone and became quiet. He was wearing two different police numbers at least one of which was wrenched off by students who now greatly outnumbered him.

Outside, 50 police attempted to gain entry to the building. When ambulance officers were allowed admission, police followed them in and were restrained only because they were accompanied by an inspector. Beattie was taken under armed guard to the orthopaedic ward of the Royal Brisbane Hospital for observation of suspected spinal injuries. According to the Courier-Mail report, two doctors told police no excessive force was used in the attack.

According to another report years later quoted by Evans, Beattie said he was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest though he was the one assaulted. “I will never forgive or forget what happened next,” Beattie said. “I was verballed by the police who manufactured the most incredible statements about the whole thing.” Beattie was later released on bail and police never pressed charges.

The day after, angry students at the University of Queensland held a political strike. That night protesters significantly outnumbered police at the Mill and officers refrained from repeating their tactics from the night before. The day after was the Saturday of the game. Just 6,000 attended instead of the anticipated 30,000 full house. With the Oval ringed by barbed wire, protesters demonstrated in nearby Victoria Park instead. 2,000 people turned up faced by 900 police. Led by Labor Senator George Georges, marchers went down Fortitude Valley and into the city conducting the first sit-in at Queen Street. Violence was minimal during the day as Labor MP Bill Hayden urged caution. But the peace did not last.

After some outbreaks of violence in the city, a thousand gathered once more at the Mill that evening. Police Commissioner Ray Whitrod commanded his men to drive the protesters down into the park once more. Whitrod, who was inside the motel, claimed the police charge was in response to a rock thrown into a motel window. The offending missile was never produced and glaziers called to fix the window insisted the fall of the glass suggested it was broken from inside. But with country officers present threatening a no confidence motion in Whitrod’s “soft handling" of demonstrators, he was determined to act tough. He was supported by Joh who wanted to “stop all this business of going soft on all these demonstrations” because he could see it “leading to complete anarchy”.

The only anarchy in town that weekend was caused by rampaging police officers sanctioned by the Government while the Courier-Mail looked the other way. 40 years on, the paper is as cowardly as ever, preferring to concentrate on the irrelevant issue of whether Beattie called the police “pigs” rather than question the nature of the assault. The Springbok riot set the template for one and half decades of police brutality and corruption sanctioned by an undemocratic Premier who could hose down a meek press simply by “feeding the chooks”.