Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Whither Bahrain?

Libya is not the only Arabic revolution where outside forces have intervened; there are also foreign troops on the streets of Bahrain. But unlike Libya, the foreigners in Bahrain have come in on the side of the discredited regime. Occupying forces from Saudi Arabia and the UAE are helping the monarchy put down a rebellion with only a few hypocritical murmurs from the West and no sign of any UN-sponsored intervention in the rebels’ favour. With martial law in place after almost two months of protests, Bahrain has today brushed off a Kuwaiti offer to mediate with the rebels saying it wasn’t necessary. The detested al-Khalifa regime is set on a path of destroying the opposition while hoping the rest of the world is too distracted by events in Libya to do anything about it. (photo:AFP)

The Sunni Al Khalifa tribe has ruled Bahrain for almost 200 years, a rule cemented by British overlords and trade-based wealth in the 1800s. The majority Shia did not share in the general prosperity and remained second class citizens despite the implicit and sometimes explicit support of Iran. The discovery of oil ensured British meddling would continue for much of the 20th century. The struggle for supremacy in Bahraini affairs by both Britain and Iran continued until the country gained full independence in 1971. A 1973 constitution promised free elections (though for men only) but this was thrown out two years later by the then-emir Salman al Khalifa.

In the 1990s opposition forces came together to demand reforms from the ageing emir and a return to the 1973 constitution. For six years the streets were plagued with riots which were met by suppression by the regime The intifada did not end until the death of Salman in March 1999. Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa succeeded his father and immediately promised to carry out political reforms. On 14 February 2001 a referendum to carry out the National Action Charter to return the country to constitutional rule was overwhelming supported by 98.4 percent of the voters. The 2000s saw important progress including the enfranchisement of women and parliamentary elections in 2006 and 2010. But key problems remain including discrimination against the Shia and the all pervasive power of the al Khalifa caste.

Problems of powersharing were thrown firmly into the spotlight after pro-democracy demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt hit the headlines in January. In Bahrain opposition was mobilised to demonstrate on the 10th anniversary of the signing of the National Action Charter on 14 February. Pearl Square in the capital Manama became the epicentre of resistance with protesters calling for political reform and equalisation of the economic benefits of Bahrain’s oil-rich economy. The reaction from the alarmed administration was swift. On 17 February a pre-dawn tank raid on the square killed 5 and injured 230 others. Soldiers placed roadblocks and barbed wire around the centre of town and leaders banned public gatherings.

The effect was to harden resistance. Talk of reform was replaced by talk of overthrow of the al Khalifas. The funerals of the dead turned into shrines of martyrdom with talk of 100,000 on the streets – about one eighth of the country’s population. Unity of opposition forces was marred by sectarian clashes between Sunni and Shia. Meanwhile panicky leadership cadres made some concessions by sacking extremist ministers while still authorising a shoot to kill policy on the streets.

On 14 March, the Emir had enough and called for support from his Sunni allies. Led by Saudi Arabia they answered the call. A thousand Saudi troops and 500 UAE police officers crossed the bridge to Manama. The invaders were part of a deployment by the Gulf Co-operation Council, a six-nation regional grouping of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and UAE. The force immediately set about protecting the oil and gas plants and financial institutions. According to al Khalifa, the troops were there “to look at ways to help them to defuse the tension in Bahrain.” But no one in the country was under any illusion this was anything but an occupation force to crush the revolution.

There was the inevitable bleating from the West but no sign of action to back it up. Hillary Clinton said Bahrain and its GCC allies were "on the wrong track” but mentioned nothing about the 5th fleet that remains in its Bahrain base protecting US oil wealth in the greater region. The Khalifas may not be loved by their subjects but the White House know a Shia government in Manama would not be accommodating to 4,500 US military personnel in the city. The Americans have nailed their colours to the mast. The Fifth Fleet is not there to create disorder but to preserve it. When the regime does fall, as it inevitably will, the Americans can have no complaints when they are kicked out.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

NSW Labor finally deliver something on schedule: its own execution

As expected for almost four years, the Liberals have regained power in NSW for the first time since 1995. It was a victory made almost a day after the last election four years ago when it was clear the state had enough of Labor but weren’t quite ready to trust the other lot.

Labor were always going to lose today, as long as the opposition leader didn’t have any sexual peccadilloes to be exposed. NSW’s incoming premier Barry O’Farrell has no such skeletons in his closet, and was quite content to stay in that closet while Labor quietly and quickly destroyed itself. Premier Maurice Iemma survived the 2007 election not because he was any good – he was useless – but because the well-liked John Brogden couldn’t control his tongue. His successor Peter Debnam was inept in the election campaign.

Barry O’Farrell was deputy leader under Brogden and favourite to replace him. Debnam outmanoeuvred him in 2005 but fell on his own sword after the 2007 election. O’Farrell is typical Irish stock, conservative, canny and pragmatic to a fault. He knew that to win the 2011 election he simply had to not put a foot wrong. This meant keeping dancing engagements to a minimum and letting Labor hang itself with the help of a favourable media.

Under O’Farrell the Liberals quickly established a lead in the polls. Iemma quit barely a year after winning and his replacement Nathan Rees was quickly seen as a dead man walking. Leading the state during the GFC didn’t help as revenues shrunk and three by-elections resulted in massive defeat for the party. But Rees had even less gravitas than Iemma and both were compared unfavourably to party hero Bob Carr. Some critics wanted to fast-forward to the next election and criticised the state’s mandatory four year terms. As Antony Green pointed out, this was nonsense. The Rees government would have been highly unlikely to call an election until the last possible date because opinion polls indicate it couldn't win.

But what the fixed term did do was to mark 26 March 2011 on the long term calendar as a day of retribution. Whoever was Labor leader on that day would pay for 16 years of apparent ineptitude. NSW ranks last in state economies. Given that it remains the state with the biggest population and Australia’s biggest and only international city, it rankled with status-conscious locals.

Despite the fact NSW unemployment is now falling the damage was done. Kristina Kenealy was drafted in to replace the increasingly exposed Rees. Her enthusiasm and American glamour made her personally popular but she was unable to stop the inevitable blood bath today. The result was as expected with O’Farrell’s coalition expected to win 68 seats to Labor’s 22. It is a defeat the scale of which is likely to keep it out of power for 12 to 16 years.

While Labor retreats to nurse its wounds, O’Farrell will now have to step out of the shadows. As David Marr said in 2009 O'Farrell was determined but cautious. "He commits no blunders." Marr also called him one of the most capable apparatchiks the party has produced in a generation. In 1992 he defeated Tony Abbott to become State Director of NSW Liberals. Long content to be a backroom boy he told people “when I lose weight and the beard, then you'll know I'm after the Liberal leadership.” In 2001 the beard went and he started weight loss programs two years later as Brogden’s deputy.

Marr notes how O’Farrell’s failure to step up to replace Brogden in 2005 “haunts his career”. As he celebrates being the first Liberal leader of NSW in over 17 years, perhaps now he can forget his old nightmares. The serious question remains however, can he help NSW forget its?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Of country journalism and amoral insurers

(photo credit: Maranoa Regional Council)

I have a story in tomorrow’s paper that made me angry, angry that is, I had to write it at all.

This time last year, Roma and western Queensland had a major flood. There was substantial damage to homes and livelihoods, though fortunately no died as a direct result. Nevertheless in many ways the floods wreaked havoc in the same way as they would later do in Eastern Queensland in Dec 2010 and Jan 2011. There was the initial heartbreak of waters getting into houses and destroying prize possessions and priceless memories. Then later, many residents found they had been dealt a double blow.

Insurance companies sent out pennypinching assessors with unwritten orders not to pay out and found every last measly trick in the book to deny insurance claims. In South West Queensland hundreds of residents had their claims refused after the March 2010 event; in South East Queensland at the turn of the year, thousands were forced into the same leaky boat. Rapacious insurers such as NRMA, NAB (and underwriters Allianz) and ANZ (underwritten by QBE) paid hydrologists to make findings that suited the companies. “Sunny Day Flooding” they called it, which wasn’t covered according to the small print, and not stormwater damage which was. This was despite independent hydrology reports saying exactly the opposite.

When Roma, St George and Bollon residents found out their insurers had abandoned them to their fate, they were left with two choices: involve the Financial Ombudsman Service or join a class action to fight the companies. There were a few small and remote voices (the Western Star was one) who complained long and bitterly about the cynical customer management of the insurers but they were of no concern to multi-national companies with shareholders to look after.

The east Queensland flood event was a quantum degree higher in intensity and effect. When the companies began to refuse claimants, national media took notice as did the PR departments of the major companies. One of the biggest is the National Australia Bank. They (and Allianz) refused to pay out based on their WorleyParsons hydrologist's report. It was Roma all over again with one crucial difference. Uncomfortable national media headlines in a national emergency was not a good look, so NAB pledged $4 billion in lending support and a $15m assistance fund for underinsured clients “to provide ex-gratia payments to assist NAB Home Insurance customers who are not covered for the losses they have suffered in the recent floods.”

When customers who suffered in the 2010 Roma flood heard about this fund, they reasonably rang the number provided. They were told the fund was not for them. “Your event happened too long ago”, they were told bluntly and refused help. The event happened on 2 March 2010, slightly over a year ago, but as one victim who lost all their furniture to the floods told me poignantly, “we remember every detail like it happened yesterday.”

I contacted the National Bank’s media people and lobbed three questions at them:
1) Is the Courier-Mail “Sunny Day Flooding” report accurate and has the NAB put aside a large amount of money to cover Brisbane and Toowoomba flood victims who may be under insured?
2) If so, are there any plans to extend these payments to flood victims of the Western Qld floods of March 2010?
3) If there are no such plans, how does the bank justify helping out those in urban areas while not extending the same courtesy to its rural customers who suffered just as much in a similar fashion, but at a different time and with less national media exposure?

The response I got on Monday was a masterpiece of PR puffery that told me nothing but took its time about getting there.
“NAB can confirm, that NAB branded insurance does not provide cover for floods. However, earlier this year, due to the size and impact of the floods which affected East Australia, NAB, like many other Australian businesses and individuals, provided additional support measures to assist impacted customers. NAB always provides a range of hardship and other support measures to customers who are impacted by natural disasters.”

The response made no attempt to answer my questions directly but more or less confirmed question 1 was true. Questions 2 and 3 weren't addressed. Instead I got managerial language and a brush off.

Undeterred, I responded again on Tuesday: "You didn’t address my questions 2 and 3 so I will take this to mean that NAB has no intention of helping out its rural customers who pay just as much insurance as their city counterparts. I will also take it to mean NAB is unable to justify why they won’t help out Roma customers other than the fact that they were unlucky enough to be impacted by floods which did not have as much 'size and impact' as the East Australia flood".

This time I got no response. So I let them have it with both barrels in a story I wrote for tomorrow’s front page. The first sentence read “National Australia Bank’s motto is 'more give and take less' but try telling that to fuming Roma customers who the bank has abandoned a second time in 12 months.” You’ll have to buy the paper to read the rest of the story. However, wanting to give NAB a chance to respond, I sent them a full copy of the article several hours before my deadline and told them to pass it on to their management. I don’t know if they did or did not but they never responded to me.

After all, why should they? This is a company that made cash profits of $4.58 billion last year. What was I but the representative of some two-bit hick media outfit out in Woop Woop. There was no need to set up a fund for ex-gratia payments for the people I represent.

But regional newspapers play a vital role in small towns. As Rod Kirkpatrick points out, since the 19th century a district was lacking an essential weapon in its armoury if it wasn't represented by a journal of its own. They became advocates and agitators for regional rights and vehicles for political causes. They achieved cohesion and “countrymindedness” for their constituents.

Today, many rural papers have been run down by the pressures of running a newsprint business. But the need for cohesion and countrymindedness (if not bloodymindedness) is still as strong as ever. If I as a country journalist, don’t get mad when local citizens are duped by sanctimonious commercial enterprises that are supposed to serve them but instead act like moral pygmies, then who will?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Newman at the helm of Queensland's LNP

An extraordinary week in Queensland State Opposition politics has ended with Brisbane Mayor Campbell Newman being catapulted to LNP leader despite not being in parliament. The current leader and his deputy, John-Paul Langbroek and Lawrence Springborg, resigned their positions today leaving Jeff Seeney as “leader of opposition business” in parliament. Newman prompted their resignations by declaring two hours earlier he would stand for the Brisbane seat of Ashgrove held by Labor Climate Change Minister Kate Jones. Newman said if successfully preselected for that seat, he would challenge Langbroek for the leadership. Seeing the writing on the wall, Langbroek fell on his sword. Newman’s elevation to leader-in-waiting as a non-MP is unprecedented in Australian politics. (photo: Tony Moore)

Premier Anna Bligh reacted to the news at a media conference by accusing Newman of abandoning the people of Brisbane and she also hinted at an early election. “What I see in Campbell Newman is a man who when his city faced its worst disaster, when families across our suburbs are in shells of homes, Campbell Newman decided to cut and run when people needed him most,” Bligh said. “What I say to the people of Queensland is that I will never cut and run when you need me.”

Bligh used the phrase “cut and run” five times in the interview setting the tone for a likely plan of attack during the election. With three year terms in Queensland, the next election is due by 2012. But with Council elections mandatory in March 2012, the likelihood was always that Bligh would go early to avoid any residual taint from the loathed forced council amalgamations of 2007. Tanking in the opinion polls in 2010, Bligh’s stocks rose with the rivers during the 2010-2011 Queensland flood and cyclone crisis when there was almost universal praise for her leadership, while Langbroek was perceived to be missing in action.

While recent polls showed Bligh’s approval rating more than doubled to 60 percent, they also showed the LNP would still comfortably win the election with a 55-45 lead in 2PP terms. Bligh was preferred premier, but despite the floods it was still looking like a proverbial “drover’s dog election”.

The only question would be who would get to be drover. The internal campaign against Langbroek had been brewing for some time and came to a head earlier this month when MPs complained the organisation had not yet endorsed a single sitting MP for the next election. LNP President Bruce McIver claimed this was merely procedural, but MPs were not convinced.

One MP told The Courier-Mail the relationship between Langbroek and McIver had deteriorated significantly. Yesterday, Langbroek was reported calling for the faceless men in the party to resign. “Faceless men” has long been a metaphor in Australian politics for those who count the numbers in backrooms, and in this case it was a clear reference to McIver.

Labor gleefully upped the ante on the weekend when Treasurer Andrew Fraser said McIver offered an illegal inducement. He asked the Crime and Misconduct Commission to look into suggestions LNP president Bruce McIver offered Bruce Flegg a top job in London if he quit his seat of Moggill so Newman could be parachuted into state politics. Fraser said it was an offence under section 87 of the Criminal Code to promise a public office holder a favour or benefit.

Fraser’s allegation remains to be tested, but it blew apart any hope of Newman taking a safe seat. Hence the announcement today about Ashgrove where Kate Jones won in 2009 with a margin of 7.1 percent on Green preferences. She won’t be easy to unseat. Queensland’s optional preferential voting makes preferences difficult to predict but Kate Jones as climate change minister can expect a good preference flow. According to Andrew Bartlett today, “the Greens will have a good candidate in Ashgrove who may well also be announced fairly soon”.

Bartlett admits it is to Newman’s credit he is not being parachuted into a safe seat. Newman will be relying on his own personal popularity to carry him over the line. It has been a while since Newman was Australia’s most senior Liberal (that honour was taken in turn by WA Premier Colin Barnett then Victoria’s Ted Baillieu and next week by NSW's Barry O’Farrell) but it was always in his blue blood that Brisbane would not be big enough for his ambitions.

His mother Jocelyn was a Tasmanian Senator and minister in the first two Howard Governments and his late father Kevin was a Tasmanian MP and a minister in the Fraser Government. Campbell followed Kevin into the army and then into politics.
He was elected Brisbane Mayor in 2004 and comfortably retained his position with a big win in 2008. His second win also helped cement a Liberal victory in the council elections.

In December 2010 he finished fifth in a competition to find the best mayor in the world behind Mexico City, Oklahoma City, Riace (Italy) and Surrey (Canada). Testimonials for Newman praised his vision, drive and passion. These will be qualities he will need in abundance if he is to steer the LNP to victory in the next election from outside the gates of parliament.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Saleh becomining increasingly desperate in Yemen

Embattled Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh has sacked one of his ministers as the month-long protests against his 32-year rule shows no sign of ending. Hamoud al-Hattar is the scapegoat for failing to find a way to deal with opponents who are demanding Saleh step down. Protesters in the capital Sana’a are fed up with a lack of democratic reform, widespread corruption and human rights abuses by Saleh, his family and allies. Saleh refuses to step down until his term of office expires in 2013. (photo:STR/ AFP/ Getty Images)

Yemeni authorities have deported four western journalists over their coverage of the protests. Security forces raided an apartment and arrested two British and two American journalists and kicked them out of the country. They follow the deporting of an American journalist and Italian photographer a day earlier. Briton Oliver Holmes said that said that one of the agents told him they were all being kicked out because of their coverage of the protests. “We have all been reporting on the use of violence by the police,” Holmes told Al Jazeera.

The flashpoint has moved to the north eastern Marib province where the governor was stabbed, police have opened fire on protesters, and rebels have blown up an important oil pipeline. Marib is a predominantly tribal area implacably opposed to Saleh’s regime. Saleh’s man in the province Governor Naji al-Zaidi was caught up in a large demonstration outside the local government building yesterday. Security troops fired live ammunition and tear gas, injuring around 37 people. In the melee, a group of men stabbed al-Zaidi and four bodyguards with daggers before he was flown by helicopter to a military hospital in the capital.

Meanwhil tribal fighters sabotaged an oil pipeline this morning and cut the road between the Marib’s gas fields and the capital. Local police said the pipeline connecting Marib's oil fields to the Red Sea was ablaze and the main road between Sanaa and Safer was cut off disrupting tanker traffic and jeopardising gas supplies to the capital.
There have been grumblings in the Arab world’s poorest country for several years over Saleh’s autocratic regime and the likelihood of an eventual transfer of power to his son Ahmed Saleh. His troubles are compounded by an insurgency by Houthi rebels in the north, a separatist movement in the south and a large Al Qaeda threat. But it took January’s Tunisian revolution to galvanise the opposition into action. Large street protests flooded the capital and Saleh offered reforms including presidential term limits and voter registration. The opposition and protesters rejected the proposals saying the reforms did not ensure that Saleh could not run again.

Emboldened by success in Tunisia and the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, protesters held a “day of rage” in early February. Unlike events in Egypt, the 20,000 strong Yemeni protest ended peacefully, though Saleh did make efforts to stifle them and his forces shot dead protesters in Aden. Protests continued through the month, gradually increasing in size and scope. Yemeni soldiers fired artillery at anti-government protesters in the northern village of Semla in Amran, killing two and wounding seven.

After his offer to form a national unity government was rejected, Saleh imposed a tight security cordon around Sana’a. His objective now is to stop more protesters joining 150,000 in the main square. They include tribesmen from Hamdan tribe who were angered when police killed one of their kinsmen. The Hamdan are not Saleh’s only headache. Sheikh Ameen al-Okaimi, chieftain of northern largest powerful tribe Bakil, staged a sit-in in Sana’a with a sign emblazoned "Welcome to the Liberation Land."

Where the protests have been most successful is in bringing Yemen’s deeply fractured opposition movements together. In the last election in 2006, Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress took 76 percent of the vote with the umbrella group Joint Meeting Parties taking 21 percent. Now the JMP has united with the tribal and Islamist Islah party bringing most of the anti-Saleh forces under one banner. But the Hashid tribal confederation and Houthi rebellion forces remain outside the tent and it would be unclear what role if any they would have in any post-Saleh government. Indeed it is likely secessionist movements will continue to agitate regardless of who reigns in Sana’a.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Why now is not the time to oppose nuclear technology

With Fukushima No 1, 2 and now 3 plant on the verge of meltdown now might not seem to be a good time to be advocating nuclear power. Yet I am coming to the conclusion that environmentalists like Lovelock are right. If we don’t go nuclear, we are toast. When scientists have good data that says the planet’s temperatures are heading into unknown territory and we don’t seem to want to change our ways, then at the very least we should have a bloody good Plan B. Despite the longer-term potential of solar and wind power, nuclear power is the best proven Plan B we currently have. (picture NTV Japan)

As Japan is proving, nuclear fission is a flawed technology. Yet Chernobyl aside, it has killed only a handful of people since the 1950s despite providing now 15 percent of the world’s electricity and 6 percent of the world's energy. Ever since the CND and Greenham Common, nuclear power has been an emotional talisman for the green movement. Opposition to it is one of its fundamentals and an almost taboo subject of discussion. The Greens, who in Australia are the most steadfast voices for recognising the problem of climate change, refuse to acknowledge the single most advanced technology we have for solving it in the short term.

Unassailable reams of climate data tells us that severe consequences are coming in the next 50 years if we don't do anything about our emissions. Green technologies are not quite ready to step up to the plate to fix the problem. Protectionism of fossil fuel technologies hasn’t helped but the best evidence is that we are 50 years away from renewable sources providing base load electricity that supports our current lifestyle. Renewable power stations will also be just as expensive and will face the same NIMBY issues as nuclear ones do.

Rebellion against that lifestyle motivates many Greens. But most humans, a majority of Greens included, are not yet prepared to give away improvements in technologies such as cheap international travel, internet access, or private transport. Short of some sort of human catastrophe we can all agree is attributable to global warming, the history of climate change international negotiation shows that change will be painfully slow.

Nuclear power is a way of confronting this problem, now. As Crikey editorialised today, the expense of setting up nuclear power is the biggest issue the industry has (though nuclear waste is not far behind as illegal dumping of radioactive waste by mafia groups such as the 'Ndrangheta is a huge law enforcement issue). Nuclear power has nothing to do with morality. What is moral or ought to be, is consistency with uranium and waste policy.

Both problems of creating nuclear power and disposing of its after effects could be resolved with the proceeds of a carbon tax though as yet no one is advocating this. The Libs would be the obvious candidate to suggest this possibility, but their implacable opposition to the tax means no one dares suggest that publicly.

Labor is just as equivocal as the liberals and their party website studiously avoids policy discussion on the subject. Only party extremists on either end such as Martin Ferguson and Peter Garrett could claim to have a coherent policy on nuclear power. Those in the middle equivocate according to the arguments du jour.

Regardless of what The Australian newspaper thinks, the Greens have been a very positive force in politics with their positions on climate change. It’s never a popular position to stand up as a Cassandra and warn of the problem if we don’t change our ways. For this reason, the Greens will never be popular enough to form Government in their own right without significantly ditching many core parts of their agenda.

Their ideological purity allows them to carry most ideas through to logical conclusions without the need for compromise. It’s no surprise to find they are the most inherently coherent party on most aspects of the conversion to a green economy. Yet there is one blind spot to their argument.

The near religious hold “no nuclear power” has on the green movement and many in the Australian Labor Party means we are considerably weakening our options to deal with the problems when they will inevitably arise. The Opposition is no better. The Australian right only seriously considers nuclear power as a wedge to taunt Labor. Together the three major parties perpetuate the fiction Australian is not a nuclear power despite its uranium exports, Lucas Heights facility and the likelihood of nukes at Pine Gap and visiting American warships. The Australian Greens policy remains a monument to pious thinking and not a solution to real world problems.

The Greens have five principals that deal with nuclear power worth exploring in more detail.

1. "There is a strong link between the mining and export of uranium and nuclear weapons proliferation."
This is true enough but is a weak first principle. It seeks to show that people can’t be trusted with nuclear power which is a fault of the people and not of the tool. Mutually assured destruction is not much fun for anymore, but it remains an important tactic for smaller powers to threaten larger ones. Take away nuclear power and they will find other weapons to achieve the same result. As alcohol prohibitionists found out, banning something is not the way to stop it.

2. "The consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, or of catastrophic accidents at, or terrorist attacks on, nuclear power stations, are so great that the risks are unacceptably high."
Much of this is a repeat of the first principle. The rest is hyperbole despite the current crisis. Nuclear weapons haven’t been used in war since 1945 though many times as exercises (see Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto’s astonishing 14 minute timelapse of all 2053 nuclear explosion between 1945 and 1998). There have been a few catastrophic accidents. But no deaths or serious injuries have ever been attributed to radiation from a Western civil nuclear power plant. Three Mile Island is one of only two meltdowns in the US (Fermi 1 was the other) and neither suffered loss of life.

The IAEA’s International Nuclear Event Scale goes from 0 (no safety issues) to 7 (major accident). The 1986 failure of Reactor 4 at Prypiat, Ukraine, better known as the Chernobyl Disaster is the only INES 7 accident yet recorded with a possible 4,000 deaths recorded caused directly or indirectly by the incident. This was a tragedy of the first rank but it says more about Soviet industry standards than it does about nuclear power. Other power sources in Russia are just as vulnerable. In the 1999 disaster at the largest hydroelectric power station in the country Sayano-Shuskensky in southern Russia seven people died. If the 240m dam had collapsed, hundreds of thousands in the cities below the dam would also have been in jeopardy. Yet there is no talk of The Greens wanting to ban hydroelectrical power because of the possibility of accidents.

The third part of that second policy principal deals with terrorist actions, which remains a potential threat. But again, banning something simply because terrorists use it, is not a problem limited to nuclear power.

3. "Future generations must not be burdened with high level radioactive waste.” This is a noble gesture but it begs the question: what is the extent of the burden? Waste comes from both the front and back end of the nuclear process. The front end waste depleted uranium is used in highly destructive weapons that are morally repulsive but it also has practical applications such as in the keel of yachts. The back end waste, spent fuel rods, is the heavy hitting stuff. The amount of High Level Waste worldwide is increasing by 12,000 metric tons a year, which says nuclear power company Marathon Resourcing is the equivalent to about 100 double-decker buses 100 double-decker buses. As an industry body, it is no surprise to hear them say it is “modest compared with other industrial wastes.” But they might be right. London currently has the largest of double decker buses with about 1200 buses which if put together would amount to 12 years of high level nuclear waste. The burden seems small on this evidence.

4. "Nuclear power is not a safe, clean, timely, economic or practical solution to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions".
The fear factor of safety returns to the ideas in the first three principles. How safe is not addressing global emissions by use of nuclear power? The word “clean” is a platitude presented without any evidence. “Timely” is questionable but has some merit. A nuclear power plant would take 12-15 years to commission and build, a small period of time given the consequences of inaction. They are expensive to build but so will be any solution that envisages humans keep up their energy usage-intensive lifestyles. As for nuclear being not a “practical solution”, go ask any of the world’s 440 commercial nuclear power stations in 30 countries, even those ones that are built on geological faultlines.

5. "Australia's reliance on the US nuclear weapons 'umbrella' lends our bases, ports and infrastructure to the US nuclear war fighting apparatus."
This final argument has nothing to do with nuclear power. Australia’s ANZUS agreement lends our bases to US nuclear war fighting apparatus regardless of our policy on nuclear power. The agreement needs to be understood in what it purports to be protecting Australia from and not what it protecting Australia with. Fight the agreement if this is wrong and not a tool used to enforce it.

These five principals are not wrong individually. It’s just that they are weak arguments given the current deck of cards we’ve been dealt with. Longer term, renewable energy is easily the most sensible solution. But we’ve got to get to that longer term first. Until we overcome the variability of solar and wind power production, land area required, and the NIMBY fights to get there, nuclear power is far and away the best proven technology to achieve base and peak load in an emission-free way. Nuclear reactors will never kill as many people as a nature’s earthquakes or tsunami, they just need to be a bit better built on the Pacific Rim.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Walker gets closer to pushing his anti-labour laws through in Wisconsin

US capital has won a major battle in the war against labour in the state of Wisconsin. A bill to bust the power of the state’s public workers unions was set for approval on Thursday US time after Republicans lawmakers pulled a fast one. With Democrats deliberately out of the state, the Republican could not get a quorum to pass a budget bill. So what they have done is strip references to the budget from the bill, which allowed it to pass without the legislative quorum required for fiscal measures. The State’s Republican Governor Scott Walker said passing the bill will give them the tools to reward productive workers and improve their operations. Unions disagree and have maintained large protests in the capital for three and a half weeks. (Photo of rally at Wisconsin Capitol by WxMom)

Wisconsin is not unlike many government agencies across the world running at a loss, enduring a $3.6 billion budget shortfall for 2011. Walker wants to solve the problem by getting public sector workers to reduce their salary and give away their collective bargaining rights through legislation. NBC’s John Bailey is expecting to blow out to $1.3 billion by 2013 blaming falling tax revenues for the blowout allied to rising unemployment putting pressure on the public purse. Tax cuts since 2003 have accumulated to $3.7 billion in lost income, though it is harder to estimate whether they have had positive effect. Walker was keener to balance the books with cuts rather than taxes. He claimed the alternative was worse: laying off 6,000 state workers, and taking away Medicaid coverage for hundreds of thousands of children.

The unions responded by agreeing to the pay cuts but refusing to give away their rights. Walker said that wouldn’t work for the organisations that get their funding from the state. Collective bargaining, he said, stood in the way of local governments and school districts being able to balance their budget. "My goal all along has been to give these folks tools to control their own budgets. You've got to give them some flexibility."

Wisconsin is normally a safe pro-labour state that has voted Democrat in the last six presidential elections. But it swung viciously to the Republicans in the 2010 midterms as the recession shattered consumer confidence. The GOP won a Senate seat and control of the House of Reps. They also gained the governorship as Scott Walker ended a Democrat eight year reign after Governor Jim Doyle retired.

Doyle’s replacement is a typical fiscal conservative Republican who is pro-life, anti-big-government, tough-on-crime, and pro welfare reform. During his election, Walker campaigned on business tax cuts to promote growth. He said he would pay for this by cutting public sector pay. His opponent Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett attempted to portray Walker as an extremist due to his moral positions but the electorate were in a mood to punish the Democrats with Walker winning 52-48. Walker took office on new year’s day and immediately got to work on his plan. He approved new tax cuts in January which he called “a bold statement that Wisconsin is a more welcoming place for businesses.”

On Valentine’s Day, Walker made another bold statement when he romanced the Committee on Senate organisation to introduce a budget repair bill known as Senate Bill 11. The bill requires state workers pay additional direct pension and health insurance contributions and removes collective bargaining rights except for wages, which is limited to CPI.

The budget repair bill also included provisions to empower the state to sell government infrastructure on a no-bid basis without Public Service Commission oversight. Koch Industries, a major contributor to Walker’s election campaign are the likely beneficiaries of this looser arrangement and could potentially snap up Wisconsin power plants at bargain basement prices.

Union leaders began pressing lawmakers to reject the idea. This was personal – Wisconsin was the first state to provide collective bargaining rights to public employees over 50 years ago in 1959. Rallies started in the state capital Madison on the same day the legislated was released, 14 February. Within three days, they were getting 70,000 and visits from Jesse Jackson. There was serious talk the protests would energise the Democrat base. On 20 February they occupied the Capitol. By 3 March police were opening fire outside the building.

Walker threatened to get the National Guard out to “handle state duties”. However other state duties are proving less important with the Governor also saying he would also dismiss 1,500 workers this week if the billed is not passed soon. Democrats have taken evasive action to delay it. Minority leader Mark Miller and his colleagues crossed into Illinois to avoid taking part in a vote. Until they return, there is no quorum and the measure cannot be passed.

In revenge, the Republicans suspended direct debit payments forcing them to pick up pay cheques in person. They have been docked $100 for every day they stay away, their parking spaces have been seized and their secretaries fired. A blogger named Buffalo Beast pretending to be David Koch caught Walker out into admitted he was ratcheting up his actions every day.

While Walker made his demands, unions protested in ever larger numbers in a direct echo of events in North Africa - echoes of “Mubarak of the West” played down in American media but not in the Guardian or Herald Scotland. Meanwhile Michael Moore has urged others to join in saying it was a lie to saying Wisconsin is broke. “The truth is, there's lots of money to go around,” Moore said. “It's just that those in charge have diverted that wealth into a deep well that sits on their well-guarded estates.”

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Ghost of Omar al-Mukhtar haunts Gaddafy

When Muamar Gaddafy made his first ever visit to Italy in 2009, he wore a ill-fitting, gold braided military uniform with an image of Omar al Mukhtar pinned to his chest. It was a pointed borrowing of the legacy of an older Libyan hero, whose face still adorns the Libyan ten-dinar note. Al Mukhtar was the Lion of the Desert, the Libyan resistance leader who fought a brutal Italian regime for 20 years and was hanged by colonial forces in 1931. (picture of the arrest of Omar al-Mukhtar from Wikipedia)

Like the current insurgents, al Mukhtar came from the east of the country, Cyrenaica, named for the city of Cyrene, the oldest and most important of the five Greek cities in the region. Cyrenaica was a part of the Ottoman Empire as al Mukhtar grew up but was claimed by Italy with Tripolitana and Fezzan who together formed modern Libya. The Italians launched an invasion of Libya in 1911 under the bogus claim of liberating it from the rule of the Sultans.

The Libyans weren’t fooled and organised by al-Mukhtar they fought a resistance that would last until World War II. For 20 years he was a thorn in the colonists side until Mussolini placed 100,000 Libyans in internment camps and closed the borders preventing foreign aid. In September 1931 Al-Mukhtar, then aged 70, was wounded in battle in the eastern town of Slonta and captured by the Italians. After a three-day trial, he was hanged and his last words were “to God we belong and to Him we shall return.”

After the war, Italy relinquished all claims to Libya which was one of the first African countries to gain independence in 1951. The former Emir of Cyrenaica, Sayyid Muhammad Idris was anointed as King Idris, head of a constitutional monarchy as the Libyan economy prospered with oil wealth. But Idris was increasingly disliked at home for his close ties to the US and UK. His vulnerability increased due to ill-health and the death in childhood of all of his male heirs (a female monarch was unthinkable). Purges against Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese and Syrians and internal Baathists did little to endear him to his people. On 1 September 1969, a group of officers acting under the name of the Revolutionary Command Council launched a coup while Idris was recuperating in Turkey.

Seven days later the new cabinet was announced. The commander in chief of the armed forces was named as Colonel Muammar Gaddafy, then 27. The monarchy was abolished and the Libyan Arab Republic was proclaimed. Initially the Americans believed they could work with the new ruler and killed a secret British plan to restore the king with the aid of mercenaries. Slowly the cult of personality took over. The Idris portraits were banished and even the worshipped iconography of al-Mukhtar took a back seat to the new Lion of the Desert. Gaddafy was supported by Nasser as Egypt provided advisers and advice on media, propaganda and use of the security apparatus.

As Mohamed Eljahmi noted in the Middle East Quarterly in 2006, Gaddafy used various means to hold on to power. He made it a criminal offense to proselytise against the state, to arouse class hatred, to spread falsehood, or to participate in strikes and demonstrations. He instituted an Islamisation and Arabisation campaign to rid the country of Western influence. He removed European street signs, banned alcohol, closed US and UK bases, and expelled foreigners and Jews. He converted Tripoli's cathedral to a mosque and Benghazi's cathedral to a headquarters for the Arab Socialist Union. He even forced the Italian community to exhume the remains of their dead to take back to Italy, an event he televised live.

Gaddafy’s sponsorship of international terrorism brought the wrath of the Reagan administration in 1986. He narrowly survived the bombing of Libya after being tipped by the Prime Minister of Malta who told him unauthorised aircraft were flying over Maltese airspace heading south towards Tripoli. He also won the subsequent propaganda war inventing the death of an adopted daughter which was swallowed whole by western media. Libyan isolation grew in the 1990s after Gaddafy’s agents were blamed for the Lockerbie disaster.

It wasn’t until George W Bush’s executive order 13477 in October 2008 the Gaddafy regime finally came in from the cold. Libyan oil revenues were too lucrative to ignore and American and European energy companies lined up to do business with him. The West ignored the fact his behaviour was becoming increasingly erratic. No one paid attention to the growing internal grumblings. The National Conference for the Libyan Opposition was founded in 2005 in London but could not mobilise in Libya until the protests started last month. Then the people power revolutions spread across the border from Tunisia and Egypt and quickly escalated into civil war.

Gaddafy claims he is fighting against Al Qaeda, though in truth Al Qaeda were caught as flatfooted as Western leaders by the speed of the revolution. The wheel has now come full circle with Omar al-Mukhtar’s 90-year-old son coming out in support of the opposition. “I was proud to be there. I went to help raise their morale,” he told the Irish Times. “There was a lot of cheering when they saw me because of my father’s legacy.” Asked how his father might view the situation if he were alive today, his son replied: “[He] loved Libya. He would have a similar position to mine for the benefit of the country.”

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

House of Saud on the verge of a nervous breakdown

Sooner or later the protests that have racked the Middle East and North Africa will finally affect the most undemocratic regime of them all, Saudi Arabia. Arguably that has already happened. Absolute monarch King Abdullah is now 86. Well aware of his own vulnerability, he gave away over $36 billion in benefits to lower and middle income Saudis last week. He also granted thousands of civil servants job security and said he would reshuffle the cabinet. Abdullah rushed back to the country after months of hospitalisation and recuperation in the US and Morocco to make these announcements. No one is under any illusion he wasn’t panicked into action by the wave of protests across the region that threatened to roll across his equally undemocratic border.

Abdullah’s bribery will likely keep the protesters at home for now and the illegality of political parties and public protest are a deterrent. Yet resistance to the power of the Sauds is growing slowly. The Saudiwoman blog says the country is “still on the train heading to revolution town.” The young are unhappy with large-scale unemployment and the conservative grip of the religious police, she said. Older generations are fed up with the corruption, nepotism and the disappearance of the middle class.

Activists are calling for protests on 11 and 20 March but may well be frustrated by police. They stymied two attempts to stage protests in Jeddah last month after they arrested 30 to 50 people. Saudi blogger Ahmed al-Omran said authorities were watching closely what people were saying on Facebook and Twitter. “They are anxious as they are surrounded with unrest and want to make sure we don't catch the bug,” al-Omran said.

Western leaders are also keen the Saudis don’t catch the bug. In 2007 then British foreign office minister Kim Howells infamously talked about Britain and Saudi Arabia’s “shared values”. Meanwhile in October 2010, the US Obama Administration kept the Carter Doctrine alive with the sale of $60.5 billion worth of arms to the KSA which was the biggest arms sale in American history. According to an Israeli study of the sale, the package was totally offensive in nature, with its attack planes, helicopters, and "bunker-buster" bombs, and designed to show the US would stand strongly by its allies. ‘US officials have also begun to refer to the "Persian Gulf" as the "Arabian Gulf," a hot-button issue for the Iranians,’ the study said.

The financial world is also less interested in the democratic desires of ordinary Saudis than they are in the fate of light sweet crude oil futures. Crude was trading at $97.25 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange yesterday having spiked since the start of the year. This has more to do with Libya and issues in Oman and Bahrain but Saudi Arabia remains pivotal to production with the world’s largest reserves. Saudi Aramco have stepped up production since the Libyan revolution started but as the Financial Times points out, oil-dominated economies create few jobs, “especially if they support a bloated royal family that affects not to understand where a privy purse ends and a public budget begins”.

Abdullah’s successor in the agnatic seniority preferred by that 7000-strong royal family is his half-brother Crown Prince Sultan. Sultan, 82 or possibly 86 is just as old, just as unhealthy and just as corrupt as Abdullah. Behind them comes the conservative autocrat Prince Nayef who abhors the idea of reform. The monarchy survived the 20th century thanks to the black gold they controlled and their alliance with the Wahhabists that control religious affairs. The end of the carbon economy would have killed them anyway but with everyday Saudis unwilling to wait, the days of authority of both these ancient institutions are likely to be numbered.