Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Aliens in their own land: Sovereignty and the tent embassy

Australia does a nice line in snafu and this last week has provided a juicy example as the Australia Day prime ministerial dragging fiasco continues to spiral out of control. These events have thrown light on just how screwed political discourse in this country has become. It involves any number of major issues – inadequate security procedures, police incompetence, political misconduct, media manipulation, treatment of Aboriginal issues and subsequent substitution of white fights masquerading as concern for those Aboriginal issues. Not that Aboriginal leaders would be surprised their issues once criticised would then be ignored. It was ever thus since the Aboriginal Tent embassy that supposedly started all the current fuss (and now being ignored in the "who knew what" adviser scandal) was created in 1972.

Just before Christmas, I stumbled on the tent embassy when I was in Canberra. It was around 8.30am and I was on my way to visit the old parliament museum when I found the embassy at its doorstep. The museum didn’t open until 9am so I had time to wander around the site. Unlike the grandness of its near neighbour the Chinese embassy, the Aboriginal tent embassy is a low-key affair. Yet however shabby it looked, it seemed it had a right to be there. Successive governments and administrators have found its mixture of politics, symbolism and theatre difficult to counter. In a corner of the park in front of the old parliament looking across to the War Memorial lies the embassy, its flimsy tarpaulin dotted with signs protesting the lack of a treaty and the need for self determinism.

The camp proclaimed itself as a dry area and in the middle of the garden lay a giant fire circle with an Aboriginal flag and a sculpture of the word “sovereignty” all looking out across the lake. More than the tent, it was this “sacred fire” of sovereignty that gave the embassy an imposing air of permanence. The use of the word embassy gives it a stateliness that is contested by the Australian Government, but not to the point of seeking its removal. There was no sign of any cops about to shut down a long-standing “occupy movement”. Nor was there seemingly any movement there to disoccupy. There was no sign of life that morning though presumably there were people asleep inside the tents. It was all peaceful and remarkably normal.

The tent began in 1972 in frustration at the McMahon Coalition Government's refusal to recognise land rights. Hopes were high for Aboriginal land rights after winning the 1967 referendum to be counted at the ballot box. But five years later it was clear the Coalition was not about to disturb powerful interests. All McMahon would agree to was “general purpose leases” which would not affect existing land or mining titles. Most of the land titles were granted under common law “terra nullius” which assumed nobody lived on the land before the British granted title. The mining titles took precedence because, as McMahon said, they were “in the national interest”.

One of the embassy founders, Gary Foley, said McMahon’s laws made Aborigines “aliens in their own land". Like other aliens they needed an embassy which meant it had to be in Canberra. The notion of the ramshackle embassy as an “eyesore” has been central to its validity since the start. As John Newfong said in 1972: “If people think this is an eyesore, well it is the way it is on Government settlements.” Aboriginal policy was an eyesore that needed to stay in the public eye. Governments tried to remove the embassy by use of police force, invoking territory ordinances and planning guidelines, direct negotiation and simply turning a blind eye with the hope that the embassy would fizzle out. None worked. In tandem with another symbol invented the same year – the black, red and yellow flag – the black power activists’ tent reminded white Australia it was built on shaky foundations.

Ever since 1972, the embassy has only occasional impinged on wider conscience. Paul Kelly’s monumental The March of Patriots covered the Keating and Howard eras in great detail but made no mention of the embassy, even though the embassy became permanent just after the elevation of Keating as PM. Aboriginal affairs were a telling difference between Keating and Howard and deeply affected their tenure as prime ministers. Yet there were similarities too. Both men were affronted by the notion there was “another Australia” outside their jurisdiction though neither was foolish enough to raise in public the notion the “ambassadors” should be removed.

It was not politicians but judges who changed the law during Keating and Howard’s time. The Mabo and Wik judgements ended the fiction of terra nullius and helped forge a proper agreement over native title. 200 years of wrong could not be righted but some compensation was needed. Keating offered an apology in his 1994 Redfern speech but was hamstrung by his own side (corrupt WA Labor Premier Brian Burke had killed Bob Hawke’s Land Rights proposal in the 1980s). Keating was voted out in 1996, but not before getting a Mabo agreement through parliament over the objection of the Coalition.

Howard inherited Keating’s Stolen Generation Report that documented the extent of Australian 20th century interference in Aboriginal affairs. Ever conscious of the power of symbols, Howard could not bring himself to apologise. His later NT intervention was paternalism writ large masked under a pretence of preventing sexual violence. Despite the scale of the response (which the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments have been unable to undo), there was never a sense they were dealing with equal partners. The prospect of a treaty similar to Canada and New Zealand seems as remote as ever.

The embassy supporting that Treaty celebrated two notable anniversaries last week. The embassy has intermittently existed on the lawns since Australia Day 1972 and permanently since Australia Day 1992, so it either 40 or 20 years old according to taste. These anniversaries are appropriate moments to examine its worthiness. My view is that the overwhelming evidence suggests the “other Australia” still exists and therefore the indigenous protesters that live on the site are right to seek diplomatic relations. In all key life indicators, indigenous people lag behind the rest of the population thanks to two centuries of massacres, paternalism and benign neglect. As a defeated people since colonial times, they are under no obligation to accept white Australian rule as a fait accompli.

The howls of protest that accompanied Tony Abbott’s claim the embassy's time may be over, reflect a deeper concern that as Prime Minister he would not advance Aboriginal interests. He might also, despite the denials, be prepared to use his power to shut it down "occupy-style" using the media-generated confected rage against the “riot” that apparently caused the prime minister to trip over and lose a shoe. The Courier-Mail front page called it a "day of shame" without saying who should be ashamed. “Australia Day 2012 will be remembered for scenes of a terrified looking Ms Gillard being dragged away to safety,” the paper thundered. Whose fault was it? They didn’t say.

Instead they hinted at it. They said police clashed with protesters from the nearby aboriginal tent embassy and the two leaders were shoved into Ms Gillard’s bulletproof car and taken to “a safe place”. Police seemed to have overreacted in the way they escorted the politicians from the premises. Gillard and Abbott were at the Lobby restaurant presenting emergency services medals when “100 protesters surrounded the building”. Alerted by Labor apparatchiks (who presumably knew Gillard was there also), they came to protest against Abbott. Marxist march participant John Passant said witnesses reported that during a speech a woman interrupted to say Abbott had said the Tent Embassy should be moved on. "He was 50 metres away with his twin in racism, Julia Gillard,” Passant said. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. When protesters made the 50m journey to the Lobby, they banged on the glass walls. The chants started as “Shame, shame!” and “Racists, racists” and then became a steady “Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land.”

They were protesting an answer Abbott gave in a doorstep earlier that day. A journalist (unnamed in the press transcript) asked him: “Is the Tent Embassy still relevant or should it move?”. Abbott responded by saying he could understand why the embassy was established but a lot had changed for the better. “We had the historic apology just a few years ago, one of the genuine achievements of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister,” Abbott said. “We had the proposal which is currently for national consideration to recognise indigenous people in the Constitution. I think the indigenous people of Australia can be very proud of the respect in which they are held by every Australian and yes, I think a lot has changed since then and I think it probably is time to move on from that.”

No one asked the obvious follow-up question: Did he mean dismantling the tent? We don't know because the media circus moved on to Albanese’s Hollywood faux pas and the embassy answer hung out there to dry. Gillard’s people were on to the political implications quickly. The implied answer, Abbott might act as PM to “move on” the embassy, took little time to filter out.

Gillard’s media adviser Tony Hodges told Unions ACT secretary Kim Sattler and Sattler told the demonstrators. When they got to the restaurant, there were unedifying scenes of Aborigines clashing with police but no evidence to suggest violence was intended on Abbott or Gillard. It was the mob violence that wasn’t. All they wanted was for both leaders to talk to them. The prime minister’s security detail took a different view. In this risk averse culture they took the view she should leave quickly. On camera Gillard accepts their advice and asked them whether they should also inform Abbott. She is then shown on camera letting Abbott know they were "in it together".

Instead of confronting the protesters, the prime minister was dragged unceremoniously away. The footage showed the politicians, their security detail and news cameras with the protesters well back. World media were entranced by the footage particularly the fairytale angle of the “lost shoe”. Behind her, Abbott was also ushered away quickly without any wardrobe malfunctions. Abbott walked away without injury while Gillard lost not only her shoe, but her dignity, her press officer, her backroom probity and the political high ground. Abbott was able to say, “At the very least the Prime Minister should be offering an apology to everyone who was in that awards ceremony." But he did not clarify what Gillard had to apologise for except perhaps for incompetent staff who did not think through the consequences of their actions. Hodges paid the penalty and Abbott should stop playing put upon. He would have known fully what mischief his statement could cause on the Australia Day anniversary.

Meanwhile the 40 year sovereignty battle associated with the embassy has been damned by association. After the “riot”, influential voices like Bob Carr, Warren Mundine and David Penberthy have called for its abolition. None have attracted the opprobrium of Abbott but perhaps they should have. The time has not yet come to fold up the tent. The eyesore has not been treated. Sorry day has come and gone but the justice of sovereignty is no nearer for this continent’s oldest and most misunderstood inhabitants. Until it happens, they will remain aliens in their own land.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Red Hot Pokies: The politics of gambling

“The last time I played a gaming machine I intend to play for one hour and spend no more than $50. I blew $500 in six hours that day, my entire weekly pay. It happened despite my knowing the odds of winning a large payout were minuscule and it happened despite my very best intentions and determination to stick to a spending limit that I could afford on that day” (Sue Pinkerton, Committee Hansard, 1 February 2011)

Gambling is a $19b industry in Australia. The centre of attention of policy reform focuses on the “pokies” of which there are 200,000 in Australia (half in NSW) and an estimated 600,000 people them at least once a week. Some 95,000 of these (almost one in six) is considered problem gamblers and they incur social costs of up to $4.7 billion a year. The 2010 Productivity Commission report into gambling noted the technology changes of recent years have made it easier to lose large amounts of money quickly on the pokies.

They recommended a six year program which would impose an upper cash feeding limit into the pokies of $20 (currently up to $10,000) and lower the individual bet limit to $1 (currently $10). They also suggested longer shutdown hours, warning messages of likely losses, relocating ATMs and most controversially, mandatory pre-commitment (MPC). MPC requires lock-out when limits are reached, cooling-off periods for limit increases, safeguards to prevent gamblers from machine hopping and have an effective self-exclusion function.

In a rare moment of poetic licence, the Productivity Commission compares the notion of MPC to Ulysses binding himself to the mast of the ship to avoid the temptation of the call of the Sirens. Gambling has few market responses that enable individual pre-commitment to help people control their habit. Most gamblers rely on willpower but research has found continuous gambling leads to a loss of control, particularly when in an environment where alcohol is served. However the PC admitted the success of pre-commitment measures depended on their effectiveness, monetary and non-monetary cost (including erosions of autonomy) and addressing privacy concerns.

In 2011 the Senate produced its first report on a design and implementation of an MPC system for pokies. MPC would apply to big venues (>15 machines) and only to the high intensity machines capable of gobbling up thousands of dollars at a sitting. The slow $1 machines would be outside its purview – so it does not mean a licence to gamble. The MPC system would be introduced in 2014, require players to set a maximum loss in advance, lock out when that amount is reached, cool off before increasing a limit, have safeguards to prevent “machine hopping” and have an effective self-exclusion function.

While the report was well received by social groups, vested interest groups like Club Australia exploded in righteous indignation against what it called “draconian reforms”. The powerful club industry, with 4 000 clubs and 10 million members, launched a multi-media scare campaign called “Won’t Work Will Hurt”. They said MPC meant every poker machine player must show identification and register to obtain a card before they could play. They said the Government had agreed to work with the industry prior to the election on pokie reforms, and supported the introduction of voluntary pre-commitment. They said it wouldn’t help problem gamblers who would obtain the card and set high or no limits. Recreational gamblers wouldn’t apply for the card and would stop playing causing revenue loss that would devastate the clubs and pubs. They also put the squeeze on 30 Labor MPs in marginal electorates where pokies are prevalent.

Yet the Government might have weathered this campaign but for the fact it lacked bipartisan support in parliament. The Coalition’s policy paper on gambling tries to have it both ways. The report says less than one per cent of the Australian population are problem gamblers which equates to 220,000 people (the productivity commission says 115,000 are problem gamblers and another 280,000 are at “moderate risk”) while it is at pains to note 150,000 are employed in this “entertainment industry”. The Coalition also seeks to put a positive spin on the Productivity Commission report by saying problem rates are falling despite also admitting the one percent account for up to 60 percent of all gambling in Australia.

The Tony Abbott gambling policy involves a discussion paper proposing voluntary pre-commitment scheme, improved counselling services for problem gamblers and better training for gaming venue staff. It was roundly condemned by Independent MP Andrew Wilkie who said the paper “contained lies peddled by poker machine interests.” He said voluntary pre-commitment was a "nonsense" solution which would have no cashflow impact on clubs. He also hinted then he might be persuaded to water down his agreement with the Gillard Government.

Wilkie had been instrumental in installing the Government with an agreement he signed with Gillard on 2 September 2010. That agreement got Wilkie’s vote in parliament in return for $220 million for Royal Hobart Hospital and pokie reforms that included a full pre-commitment scheme by 2014, warning displays on machines and a $250 daily limit on pokie ATMs. A crucial date was 1 February 2012 by which the government had to advise Wilkie on the legal advice of getting the legislation through.

In the last act of parliament in December 20111, Gillard installed Liberal MP Peter Slipper as Speaker effectively given her a two vote buffer in the knife-edge parliament. I said at the time I didn’t think she would renegotiate the Wilkie agreement because I thought Gillard would still require his vote on occasion. I was wrong. On Saturday, Gillard announced a winding back of the proposal. There would be a trial in Canberra and MPC technology would be introduced to every pokie. The Government claimed unconvincingly it was reneging on the deal because it would not get through parliament.

Wilkie was unimpressed. He responded saying he had withdrawn support from the government. Wilkie said he could no longer guarantee supply and confidence for the Government because Gillard couldn’t honour the pre-commitment promise by end 2014. “I regard the Prime Minister to be in breach of the written agreement she signed, leaving me no option but to honour my word and end my current relationship with her Government,” Wilkie said. “Our democracy is simply too precious to trash with broken promises and backroom compromises. So I will walk, take my chances and so be it.” Whether it means he will now vote for Abbott – whom he has little respect for - is another matter. It is not just Andrew Wilkie who will be taking his chances. Unlike Sue Pinkerton and her pokies addiction, all bets are off in Australia parliament in 2012.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Hadrian's Wallet: Scotland's independence referendum and oil

Depending on who’s talking, the prospect of an independent Scotland would see either the arrival of a new, modern and confident state or it will be fed into the Euro-blender to be destroyed forever. The idea of an independent Scotland is not new – it dates back to those unhappy with the original Act of Union in 1707. What is new is the proposed referendum in 2014 to give Scots a chance to vote on the matter.

The governing Scottish National Party put the cat among the constitutional pigeons with their announcement on 10 January they would hold a referendum in autumn 2014. The referendum will ask two questions. The first is whether there should be an extension of the powers and responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament, short of independence; while the second asks whether the Scottish Parliament should "also have its powers extended to enable independence to be achieved".

In many respects, the controversy over the referendum is a storm in a tea-cup. All the polls suggest that voters will turn down the proposal. YouGov’s polling from 1990 to 2009 show support for full independence hovering around the high 20s to low 30s percentiles. A clearer majority – though never more than 60 percent – are happier with more tax raising powers for the existing Scottish parliament created in 1999. The referendum that created that parliament two years earlier showed most Scots wanted power over their own taxes (currently they can vary the basic rate of personal income tax by a maximum of 3p in the pound). The issue with that was as First Minister Alex Salmond said in October 2010, “there is no point in being a pocket money parliamanet when the pocket money stops.”

The 2011 study of Scottish attitudes showed 70 percent of the population saw themselves as Scottish first compared to about 15 percent who thought they were British. The study also showed that support for increased devolution is also on the up but there was a lot of ambiguous findings on specifics that show there is much to play for. Specific questions on who should pay for what and by what amount narrowed opinion in a way that was rather different than the ungranulated question of whether you support nationalist or unionist.

Opinion is also divided as to whether Scotland would do better alone with its annual £6.5b North Sea oil wealth. According to Michael Moore, the secretary of state for Scotland, the year on year variations of oil prices in 2011 were better managed in a UK wide economy where Scotland could share in the risks as well as rewards. But Scottish finance secretary John Swinney disagreed saying Scotland contributed far more to the UK Exchequer than its share of population which underlined the strength of Scotland’s finances and the opportunities of independence. Scottish opinion polls consistently support the latter view with most Scots thinking those south of Hadrian’s Wall do better from the Union than they do.

Yet opinion polls are less clear on the economic benefits of independence. Most people think they would pay slightly more tax under an Edinburgh administration and there is no consensus on whether the nation would be better off financially. The debate reflects a strong and complex intertwining of English, Scottish and British traditions that make most Scots slightly ambivalent about their nationality.

Unlike the Irish Act of Union a century later, the English-Scottish Act of Union of 1702 was a genuine marriage of near-equals. Scottish kings had sat on the throne of England for over a hundred years (until ousted by the Glorious Revolution). Scotland was still the minor party in the marriage, and as in the case of Ireland, bribery was needed to get the Act passed in Edinburgh. Scotland was still reeling from the economic catastrophe of the Darien Scheme which hoped to set up a Scottish colony in Panama. But the Act of Union was good for Scotland; it gave its economy free trade with England and led directly to the Scottish Enlightenment of the mid 1700s. Thinkers like David Hume and Adam Smith had an immense effect not only on Scotland but on the newly United Kingdom and beyond.

Scots became a driving force in the new British Empire, despite the continued rebellions of the highlanders. The lowlands were transformed by the Industrial Revolution with linen, coal and steel and a massive financial centre. Glasgow became a powerhouse city based on shipbuilding and railways. Scottish cities paid a terrible price for their industrialisation in World War II with extrensive bombing by the Luftwaffe. The deindustrialisation of the post-war years was balanced by the discovery of oil in the North Sea in 1970. Though production has fallen in recent years, a 2010 report said there was still 25 billion barrels of oil in Scottish waters, though they are in harder to reach areas near the Shetlands.

The importance of oil in any border negotiation between England and Scotland cannot be underestimated. 85% of British oil is in Scottish waters. The nationalist site Oil of Scotland claims Westminster moved Scotland's marine boundaries in 1999 from Berwick-upon-Tweed to Carnoustie “illegally making 6000 miles of Scotland's waters English.” The website called the Scottish Adjacent Waters Boundaries Order 1999 an “unjust act secretly passed, without the consent of the Scottish People” that took 15% of oil and gas revenues out of the Scottish sector of the North Sea and £2.2 Billion out of the Scottish economy. “This lost revenue is more than the proposed £35 Billion Scottish budget cuts for the next 15 years,” the group said.

100 Years On: Douglas Mawson and Australian identity forged in the Antarctic

Today, Prime Minister Gillard invoked “the spirit of Mawson” when she visited the site of the University of Tasmania’s new state-of-the-art Marine Research institute today. The site is due to open in 2014 and Gillard timed her visit on the celebrations of Douglas Mawson’s 100th anniversary as leader of Australia’s first Antarctic exhibition. Gillard said the Tasmanian facility committed Australia to the Antarctic in “a history 100 years old but with a great future in front of it.”

Leaving irony at the future of history aside, Mawson is a man well worth commemorating as a great Australian scientist and explorer. Gallipoli is commonly the moment when the newly-formed white commonwealth of Australia was supposed to be forged in battle. Certainly the number of dead that forlorn Turkish campaign caused was enough to invoke nationwide mourning, but Mawson’s earlier and less deadly adventure did much also to put a young nation on the map - and expand Australian thinking about the map and its place on it. His 100th anniversary celebrations in the Antarctic were delayed a few days due to bad weather, another irony that would not have been lost on the intrepid explorer.

Douglas Mawson like most Australians of the time (except the Irish) Mawson considered himself an Englishman. Mawson was of gritty Yorkshire stock born in Shipley in 1882. The family were cloth merchants who moved to Sydney while Douglas was still a toddler. He was educated at Rooty Hill and at Fort Street Model School. He attended the University of Sydney during the tumultuous change of century (1899-1902). While Australia federated and fought the Boer War, he studied mining engineering.

After graduating he was appointed as a junior demonstrator in chemistry at the university. He went into the field and did a six month geological survey of the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) under the island’s deputy commissioner Captain E. G. Rason. Mawson’s ‘The geology of the New Hebrides' was one of the first major works of its kind on Melanesia. Back in Australia he resumed studies in geology and was appointed lecturer in mineralogy and petrology in the University of Adelaide. It was here he became interested in glacial geology, particularly of SA. Mawson cemented his reputation by coming up with new classifications for the mineralised Precambrian rocks of the Barrier Range.

In November 1907, Ernest Shackleton met him in Adelaide. Shackleton was there as leader of the British Antarctic Expedition heading south. Shackleton wanted to be first to the South Pole, something that did not interest Mawson particularly. Yet Mawson immediately wanted to join him so he could explore the glaciations of the southern continent. Shackleton was impressed and made him physicist.

By March 1908 Mawson was on top of the volcano Mt Erebus in Antarctica, in the first group of men to climb the continent’s highest peak. While Shackleton and his team pressed onto the pole, Mawson and Edgeworth David travelled 2000km to be the first to reach the south magnetic pole. They survived the return trip despite lack of food, exhaustion and Mawson’s fall into a deep crevasse. Shackleton failed in the main exhibition and they returned to Australia chastened, but with Mawson’s reputation enhanced.

Cooling (or more likely warming) his heels back at the University of Adelaide, he heard Scott was planning another assault on the pole. Mawson asked for a ride to explore the coast west of Cape Adare. Scott refused but invited him to go to the pole with him. That did not interest Mawson so negotiations foundered. After Scott left for the south in 1910, Mawson launched his own exhibition to be called the Australasian Antarctic Expedition.

He set sail in December 1911 and made three crucial stops in the name of Australia. At Macquarie Island he established a base where they would be the first to relay radio messages from the Antarctic. Then on the continent itself, he established a Main Base at Commonwealth Bay and a Western Base on the Shackleton Ice Shelf. All three sites were dedicated to science: geology, cartography, meteorology, aurora, geomagnetism, biology and marine science.

The Base at Commonwealth Bay was ready by February 1912. Mawson went exploring in the Far East of Antarctica but both his fellow explorers died on the harsh journey. Though Mawson seriously debilitated, he cut his sledge in half, discarded everything except his geological specimens and records and dragged it 160km over 30 days to get back to Main Base. He was forced to stay the winter and continued explorations to 1913.

Back home in 1915, Mawson told his story in “The Home of the Blizzard”. It was a sensational read but a Great War meant Australian attention was preoccupied elsewhere and Mawson did not get the credit his extraordinary adventures, exploration, innovation and scientific work deserved. Mawson served in that war as embarkation officer for shipments of high explosives and poison gas from Britain to Russia.

After the war he worked for the White Russians before returning to Adelaide when the Communists won the revolution. Mawson returned to the University of Adelaide to spend 30 years researching South Australian Precambrian rocks of the Flinders Ranges. He also pored through his polar findings. He collected so much data from the trip, it took him that same 30 years to complete his "Scientific Reports", in twenty-two volumes. He led two more southern journeys for the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition in 1929-30 and 1930-31 which were both sea-based only. His mapping work was crucial to the Australian Antarctic Territory Acceptance Act of 1933 and the Australian Antarctic Territory three years later.

Mawson retired in 1952 to Melbourne and died of a cerebral haemorrhage at his Brighton home six years later on 14 October 1958, aged 78. By then Australia’s first permanent Antarctic base was established at Holme Bay in Mac Robertson Land. The base was Mawson’s idea and after World War II he convinced foreign minister Doc Evatt to set one up. The base was founded in 1954 and named for Mawson. It was an obvious but deserved honour for a man many see as the greatest polar explorer ever. By 1984, Mawson’s reputation was secured with his place on the $100 Australian note. It was something you could put your money on: Mawson was a great Australian and a man who always put science first.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The problem with Queensland's Local Health and Hospital Networks

I was saddened to hear today about the death of a man I met only once but have known about for a long time. Before I was headed to Roma a couple of years ago, a friend from IBM days told me I simply had to meet his cousin. His cousin was a named John Young who my friend told me was involved in the Roma airport and later the hospital and health system.

By the time I got to Roma,his cousin had mostly retreated (retired is not the right word) to his property some 50km south of Roma where he worked the land. It was well over a year before I got to meet him and this fact was always discussed whenever I met his cousin in Brisbane. I finally got to meet John Young at a meeting of the local Health Community Council

HCCs were a sort of half way health house set up by State Labor in 1991. For 20 years, HCCs operated geographically at just-above-local council level (there were 36 in Queensland) dealing on the ground with patients and their hospitals. They were the eyes and ears of the health system becoming aware of, and fixing local problems. They talked to the patients and they talked to the staff but relied on their soft power with authorities to get things done rather than any legislation.

Last year the Queensland Government disbanded HCCs in a major revamp of Queensland Health. From 1 July 2012 they will be replaced by 17 Local Health and Hospital Networks (with the unfriendly acronym of LHHNs). These new agencies will be responsible for bigger areas and will have more powers.

The old Roma HCC represented the views of the communities of the Maranoa and Balonne regional councils. They also monitor the performance and quality of public health services in these regions. John was the chair of the Roma HCC and I finally met him at a public meeting at Wallumbilla Hospital in February 2011. Only one couple showed up from the general public, the rest were there from the general hospital but John showed no disappointment with the small turn-out. He diligently explained what their role was and what assistance he could provide. He carefully listened to the couple’s issues with the health system and gave them options on what they could do to improve their situation.

He also talked logistics with the hospital staff. He made whoever he spoke to feel important and he gave suggestions to solve issues. Everything was important and surmountable. At the end of the meeting, he and I shared a joke or two about our mutual friend/cousin before going our separate ways. I never saw him again.

The HCCs were disbanded in June 2011. By June 2012 the will be replaced by 17 Local Health and Hospital Networks (LHHNs) which will have a strong local decision-making and accountability function. There is a 12-month gap while Queensland Health rolls them out with five already established including ones in Brisbane and the Gold Coast. The Government said this was a major reform with profound implications for the quality of health care in Queensland.

The LHHNs will be statutory bodies with Governing Councils, accountable to the local community and Queensland Parliament. In August 2011, I editorialised in my paper the changes were good ones with more money, more beds, more doctors and nurses available at a local level to support an overburdened system. But I said finding the right local people to go on these volunteer boards would be tough. The board members will have the huge responsibility for managing the operation and performance of the hospitals within the network. While I didn’t mention him by name, I thought John Young would have been ideal for the local board.

It will never happen now. This morning I found out he had died of a heart attack in his paddock yesterday. I was shocked and immediately texted his cousin to offer my condolences. He rang back within minutes. I was worried he had not heard the news prior to my text but he had almost found out in real time. John’s wife had relayed the terrible news on the phone to the wider family in updates. John had a fall and it doesn’t look good, she reported. Then a few minutes later, “he’s gone”. He was just 59 years old.

John’s death was a tragedy for the family but it was also bad news for the wider community. I don’t know if he nominated to be part of the local LHHN, but they need people like him if they are going to work. I don't blame him if he didn't nominate. The LHHNs are a far bigger ask than the HCCs, they cover a wider area and have greater powers. Members need skills in business, finance, legal and human resources expertise wanted as well as the delivery of clinical services. All this in volunteer and most unpaid work. Reform is needed, but for these new LHHNs to work, we need people like John on them - people with knowledge, understanding and the ability to listen to and act on problems, in short, people with a vocation for health. Our wellbeing depends on it.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Queensland election 2012: Bligh to go down with the ship

With everyone expecting the good ship Labor to sink without trace in this year’s Queensland state election, the biggest unknown is the timing. Anna Bligh made history in the 2009 election by being the first woman to win a poll outright at state level. But it seems highly unlikely she will be Premier for much longer. Most polls are predicting at least a 10 percent swing against Labor which if applied uniformly would mean the loss of 38 seats and remaining with just a rump of 13 seats in an 89-seat parliament. (photo: Derek Barry)

There may be some narrowing between now and polling date but not enough to change the outcome. The election defeat is less a matter of if than when. Legally Anna Bligh can wait until 16 June before calling the election but it is unlikely she will hold out to the bitter end, however tempting it might be. As former premier Peter Beattie argued last week, such a strategy would allow LNP leader Campbell Newman to run an campaign against the government, claiming its time up for the people to decide the future of Queensland. “The government would be seen to be running scared if there was a delayed election and a winning momentum would move solidly to Newman and the LNP,” Beattie said. He said Bligh needs to go before the third anniversary on 21 March.

The problem is that this year is also the end of the four year terms of Queensland councils. Electoral Commission Queensland has to manage both elections and wants a clear six-week gap between them so they can best manage their finite resources. Nearly everyone in local government and media is convinced the Council elections are happening on Saturday, 31 March yet I have seen no formal statement to that effect by the ECQ (whose website merely says “March 2012” or the State Government.

In a New Year’s Day article in the Courier-Mail, Darrel Giles was convinced the council election would be on 31 March which would mean no state election between 18 February and 12 May. But electoral commissioner David Kerslake denies this 6-week window in the same article and I cannot imagine Bligh accepting such a demand, no matter how well meaning. An election on the same day would be too big a logistical headache and might remind some angry voters who foisted the unpopular council amalgamations on them.

But a four weeks’ gap is not beyond the ECQ's ability to manage. Saturday, March 3 is seven weeks away and gives enough time to Labor to nut out their election strategy and announce candidates in each electorate before running a three or four week campaign. The Queensland ALP website is surprisingly silent on candidate details with only a list of sitting members and the “renew for 2012” option taking you to a membership form. Here in Roma the party have yet to announce a candidate for the seat of Warrego, which is one of the safest LNP seats in Queensland (though won by Labor as recently as 1974). It seems clear Labor will be investing all its resources into defending sitting members rather than encouraging new talent to take on other seats.

Such a strategy seems wise enough given the need to contain a heavy defeat. Antony Green’s December analysis mapped the 2010 Federal Election result onto state seats and even with the caveat State Labor do better than Federal Labor in Queensland, the news is grim. Green expects Labor to be wiped out on the Gold Coast and in Cairns, lose two of three in Townsville, and also lose Cook, Mount Isa and Whitsunday. He said Labor would also lose many seats in western Brisbane, and key seats in the south-east corridor to the Gold Coast and north towards the Sunshine Coast.

The prospect of such a landslide has left Campbell Newman in the pretty position of not having to sell many policies to win. Newman’s biggest asset is he has not been in Government 20 of the last 22 years. His LNP website rebadged cornily as Can Do Queensland is bursting with news and information about fresh-faced candidates, many of whom will soon become first-time parliamentarians. But the policies such as “build a four pillar economy” are light on detail about what exactly they would do differently in areas such as tourism, CSG, the environment and education. Newman can afford to deal in generalities and be a small target while Labor faces the hostility of an electorate fed up with its longevity, geed on by a media that wants to see a change of government.

Larvatus Prodeo's Mark Bahnisch would not be among those wanting a change of government but even he concedes its likelihood in a series of perceptive posts exploring the lie of the land in the lead up to the election. I agree with most of his conclusions except when he says a Newman failure in Ashgrove would mean an implosion of the LNP state wide campaign will almost necessarily follow.

It is entirely possible the LNP could win by a landslide and yet fail to take Ashgrove. Kate Jones is proving a skilful and dangerous opponent. She knows the territory and quit cabinet to focus on retaining her seat. The news One Nation is putting up a candidate, shows it will be unpredictable and may act as a "first past the post" contest. Kate Jones is popular – particularly among the young and the greens who are likely to give her a strong second preference - despite optional preferential voting. If only another 30 or 40 jaded looking Labor members had her enthusiasm, then defeat might not be a fait accompli.

Monday, January 09, 2012

David Bowie turns 65: A personal recollection

My first memory of David Bowie is when I was a young teenager at the house of my two older cousins. They influenced my early musical tastes which meant I had an early eclectic collection that featured Mike Oldfield, Steve Hillage, Rory Gallagher and Rush. Among their albums was a strange looking LP with an unforgettable cover photo. There was a man and a woman both shown naked from the chest upwards, the man with big bright red hair staring pensively straight into the camera, while the woman, her head resting gently on his shoulder, seemed almost forlorn. The album was called “Pinups” and the artist announced as just “Bowie”. I didn’t know whether “Bowie” was him or her or both of them but desperately wanted to know more. Her face was familiar but it was his voice that transfixed me from the first listen.

Later my cousin told me he was David Bowie and she was the model Twiggy, whom I remembered seeing on television. What was she doing on the cover, I asked. He didn’t know. It would be many years before I found out why though I figured Bowie must have had a thing for Twiggy when she got name checked (“Twig the Wonder Kid”) in Drive In Saturday on the album Aladdin Sane. That album and Pinups were released within six months of each other in 1973 when I was nine years old.

It was probably around late 1978 or so when my cousins first exposed me to his work and his astonishing different coloured eyes. The following year I got my first summer job porting cases around the Grand Hotel in Tramore for ten quid a week. I stayed at my auntie’s in Tramore and for the first time in my life I had discretionary spending money. All that summer I spent my wages on David Bowie’s back collection. There was Pinups, of course and Aladdin Sane. But there were lots more besides and I immediately loved them all.

Space Oddity (1969) featured the hit single of the same name. The tune was instantly familiar from radio but I never realised it was the same guy who shared a possibly naked album cover with Twiggy. There was The Man Who Sold the World (1971) full of raucous rocking anthems and the album that Roy Carr and Charles Murray later told me in their “Bowie: An Illustrated Record” (1981) was where the Bowie story really began. The cover art of Bowie in a dress was too much for 1970s Catholic Ireland (as it was for less conservative Britain) and we all had to make do with the “leg up” photo from the Ziggy era.

Hunky Dory (1971) quickly established itself as a personal favourite. While cycling in the countryside near Waterford I would sing loudly each song in the order they appeared on the album, much to the bemusement of the cows in the nearby fields who had to put up with my squealing out every previous moment of “Oh You Pretty Things". It was pure pop, Bowie style and I loved every minute of it. I'm not sure the cows shared my tastes.

Next up was Ziggy Stardust (1972). While this was the album – and the persona – that made Bowie a household name, it was never one I particularly loved. I thought the concept album idea was boring and none of the songs haunted their way into my conscience as did his other albums of the same era. I did like the instruction on the cover “To be played at maximum volume” but I never risked the wrath of mum and dad by actually complying.

As stated before the 1973 albums were my entry point to Bowie. Not until I read Carr & Murray, did I realise Pinups was full of 1960s covers and even recently when I heard Ray Davies blast out “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?” my first reaction was to think the Kinks did a great cover of Bowie’s record. Aladdin Sane, however, was pure Bowie and utterly haunting from the first listen. I was entranced by Bowie’s apocalyptic vision from the subtitle of the title song Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?) expecting World War III to break out any day. But it was Mike Garson’s piano in the final track Lady Grinning Soul that penetrated deepest with Bowie crooning “She will be your living end” grinning its way into my soul. It’s still my all time favourite Bowie song.

Then it was Diamond Dogs from 1974, another overrated album by my lights. I was never a huge fan of the singles Rebel, Rebel or Diamond Dogs though I loved the epic sweep of the Sweet Thing trilogy. Young Americans from 1975 was much more to my liking. Very different from anything Bowie did before, his “plastic soul” sounded anything but plastic and the influence of John Lennon still in his prime and Luther Vandross made this a very classy sounding album. Bowie’s voice seemed to adapt to any style.

Station to Station (1976) was another departure and another Bowie character the vampire-like Thin White Duke. Bowie was a heavy cocaine user during this period and it drives on the pulsating title track that opens the album. The opening minutes of that song are unforgettable as the train build up speed slowly with a droning guitar before the thin white Duke’s voice returns to bring this massive song home with an up tempo conclusion. Well, if it's not the side-effects of the cocaine, I'm thinking that it must be love.

It took me a while to love the two 1977 albums Low and Heroes. By then Bowie was in Berlin and under the influence of ambient musician Brian Eno. Low was well named, the pain of Bowie’s then splintered personal life brought out in songs like Breaking Glass and Always Crashing in the Same Car. The instrumental side 2 was difficult listening but ultimately rewarding. Heroes followed a similar trajectory with side one distilling in lyrics Bowie’s drug-crazed agonies while an instrumental side two seemed to explore the same concepts in music.

Lodger (1979) came out in the same year I was seriously getting into Bowie. It was a bit more upbeat than the previous two and was minus the instrumental frenzies but it was still a dark record. Boys Keep Swinging got Bowie back in the British charts but there was not much singles joy in this platter. The title Lodger hinted Bowie was not really at home in this music but his travels around world music did give him a better feel for dance music he would exploit successfully in the coming years.

That decade started with Scary Monsters and Super Creeps which was the first Bowie album I bought as soon as it came out. I was a bit disappointed. The album was a commercial successful and the singles Ashes to Ashes and Fashion put him at the top of the charts. Yet somehow I was expecting a bit more from Bowie. It was another change of musical philosophy for sure, but it just seemed to fall short. Maybe I was just being precious because everyone liked Bowie at the time. Listening again to It's No Game (Part 1) recently, it is a classic track with Michi Hirota singing the song in Japanese and Bowie spitting out the translation in English as if, as Carr & Murray said he was “tearing out his intestines”.

My love affair with Bowie ended in 1983 with Let’s Dance. Sooner or later Bowie would have to release a disco record and this was it, and a great success. But by 1983 I was a know-all 18 and starting to get into more obscure music, listening to Wire, the Virgin Prunes and the young Matt Johnson (later The The). I was unimpressed by Bowie’s clean dance sounds on this album. The title track was playing in every discotheque in the world that summer and I loathed it like I loathed Thriller which came out around the same time. This music was beneath me and I didn’t buy another Bowie record for 20 years.

Around 2005, there was a time when all his back collection of CDs was selling at $10 a pop in Brisbane record stores. In a fit of nostalgia I bought all those albums from 1970 to 1983. I fell in love with his early music again. Too much time had passed under the bridge for me to care about more recent Bowie offerings. I bought Heathen (2002) but because it had no 1970s or 1980s memories to weave on to, it never impinged on my conscience and I’ve hardly ever played it. But for those 13 years or so, Bowie’s voice, dexterity and mastery of various genres made him a musical genius of the highest order. Happy 65th birthday, David.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

A Walk up Carnarvon Gorge

Situated in pristine country, some 750km northwest of Brisbane is the Carnarvon National Park. The highlight is the astonishingly beautiful Carnarvon Gorge and I did the 240km drive north from Roma today to do some of its walks.

The full walk is over 10kms one way following the Carnarvon Creek with several detours along the way to interesting geology and human formations. I left Roma at 6am and got there at 8.30am. The rangers there recommended against the full walk with a very hot day (> 35 degrees C) expected. I still plumped for a tough 14km walk that took in four of the Gorge's intriguing diversions.

The geology of the area is complex. The white cliffs are sandstone and volcanic eruptions formed basalt caps.

The trail crisscrosses the creek on numerous occasions and it is important to keep an eye on the stones below as you hop across for fear of ending up in the drink.

I decided to go to the furtherest detour first and work my way back. And after 7km of walking I got to the Art Gallery, home to the Aboriginal rock art. Here Indigenous painters used stencils, quartzile tools, hand designs and free painting all the aspects of their lives. The life-size boomerangs, pottery, kangaroos and emu eggs are matched with a collection of vulvas unknown elsewhere in Aboriginal art. The thousand-year old stencils mix with more recent European etchings as people still want to leave their mark.

Next stop back is Ward's Canyon. The canyon is named for two brothers who camped here while trapping possums in the 1910s. The canyon is known for its tree ferns and king ferns. The king ferns are particularly impressive and this is only place away from the Australian coast you can find the threatened species. The two metre-long fronds rely totally on the water supply to keep them erect.

As the time crept towards midday, the sun was almost directly overhead making shade difficult to find and walking a hot and sweaty exercise. Plenty of water was required though the rangers don't recommend you drink the creek water.

The third stop is the amphitheatre. The shape of the entrance (reached by 50 steps) is a clue perhaps as to why the Aboriginal graffiti was full of vulvas in this area.

The amphitheatre is a magical spot. Like the Gorge, the amphitheatre was formed out of the erosion soft sandstone by the relentless forces of water. It is not hard to be awed by the spot and its cool shade was greatly appreciated today.

The last stop was the Moss Garden. The sandstone soaks up rainwater like a giant sponge. When the water meets an impenetrable layer of shale, the water moves sideways and trickles out from the wall. The constant moisture sustains a green oasis of mosses, ferns and liverworts. After 4 hours and 15km of walking in the hot sun, it was a relief to get back to base. The Carnarvons are a walker's paradise - but there is a reason it was quiet today. The tourist season is from April to October, when the temperatures are at least 15 degrees cooler.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Have yourself a very Orthodox Christmas

Minus all the Western commercial hoopla of 25 December, 300 million members of the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrated its Christmas today. The day is celebrated on January 7 according to the old Julian calendar by the Russian, Serbian, Georgian and Jerusalem Orthodox Churches and Mount Athos monasteries commemorate the birth of Jesus 13 days after Western Christmas. Unlike the Catholic Church where the Pope in preeminent, there are 14 autocephalous churches in the Orthodox community, though the mother church is Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the “first among equals”. Photo: Orthodox priests lead a Christmas service at the Bosnian Orthodox Church in Sarajevo (Amel Emric / AP)

At the 1459 Council of Florence monks from the self-governing Mt Athos in Greece refused to let Catholic and Orthodox Churches in return for Western military help against the Turks. As a result Constantinople fell to the Ottomans but Orthodoxy survived doctrinally intact. In today’s Istanbul as in many places across southern and eastern Europe, Orthodox Christian worshippers plunged into chilly waters to retrieve crucifixes in ceremonies commemorating the baptism of Jesus. Hundreds from Istanbul's now tiny Greek Orthodox community and Greek tourists attended the Epiphany ceremony of the Blessing of the Waters. About 20 faithful leaped into the cold Golden Horn inlet to retrieve a wooden cross thrown by the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. Apostolos Oikonomou, a 40-year-old Greek man, clinched the cross. "This year I was the lucky guy," he said. "I wish everybody peace and happy New Year."

Over 5,000 worshippers gathered at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ Our Saviour including outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his wife Svetlana. Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, called on the congregation to withstand the “cult of hasty lucre”. Archpriest Sergius Zvonarev of the Moscow Patriarchate said the day was both a solemn ritual and joyous celebration, Zvonarev said the Russian Orthodox Church remained loyal to the Julian calendar which regulated church life and traditions for centuries. “It reveres these traditions as the entire civilized world used to live by them in the past,” he said.

Orthodox Christians gathered in Bethlehem in front of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in the Church of the Nativity. Barely days after a fight between various Christian sects over territorial rights in the church, the Mayor of Bethlehem Victor Batarseh said the theme of this year’s celebration was Palestine celebrates hope. “Our message in these days is love and peace to all especially in the Holy Land”, Batarseh said. Over 2,000 scouts from all over the West Bank held a parade through Bethlehem with their marching bands and bagpipes.

Many in Bethlehem say the best band is the Syriac Orthodox Scouts’ pipers. Bethlehem’s Syriac Orthodox community is proud to trace its roots to the ancient Aramean peoples and are among the few people left that speak the language of Jesus, Aramaic. The scouts were established in 1958 and became internationally successful in sports in the 60s and 70s. After the Oslo Accords, their pipers became President Yasser Arafat’s military band. One former band member said they were in Gaza playing the bagpipes for Arafat when the news of Rabin’s assassination was announced. “They thought it was a Palestinian who had killed him so they would not let us leave Gaza,” he said. Today they took centre stage in Manger Square.

In Egypt, Copts nervously celebrated the day as sectarian violence continued, the first Christmas in the post Hosni Mubarak era. US President Barack Obama used the occasion to call for the protection of Copts and other minorities. "I want to reaffirm the commitment of the US to work for the protection of Christian and other religious minorities around the world," he said. The call comes after the military rulers cracked down on a Coptic march in October. Coptic Pope Shenouda III commended Islamist leaders, who attended the Coptic Church service. "We all celebrate together as Egyptians,” Shenouda said.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Mitt Romney and the meaning of Iowa

There have been two notable trains of thought regarding the Republican Iowa caucuses this week. The first is the saturation media coverage of what is the 2012 presidential race’s first meaningful contest. The second is that the media coverage is overblown and gives undue credit to a relatively unimportant event. The doings of a few hundred people in middle America has devoured television time, web pages and column inches while the impasse over the straits of Hormuz goes almost unrecognised. (photo: Reuters)

The truth is as always, somewhere in the middle. Barack Obama won the Democratic Caucus in Iowa in 2008, setting himself up for a surprise win over Hillary Clinton. On the Republican side winner Mike Huckabee pushed hard for nomination but was eventually beaten by John McCain who finished fourth in Iowa with just 13%. The importance of Iowa is not necessarily to win, though Obama showed it was handy enough, but to survive. Anything over 10% gives delegates a second chance.

The fact the caucus finished in “near deadlock” with Romney ahead of Santorum by eight votes will be of small value by the time of the GOP convention. Despite being first to vote, Iowa is last to decide. The Iowa caucuses are town meetings or “gatherings of neighbours” that have a straw vote to elect delegates to a county convention. The state convention is one of the last in the country. Iowa elects just 25 Republican delegates to National Convention, just one percent of the total. But Iowa garners a lot more than one percent in energy of candidates and media time.

2012 third place getter Ron Paul said his 21% was a good showing which “kept him in the race”. But last placed Michelle Bachman realised that the five percent of Iowans that cast votes for her was not enough to launch a nationwide campaign on and she quit immediately. “Last night the people of Iowa spoke with a very clear voice and so I have decided to stand aside,” she said.

Texan Governor Rick Perry is also on the ropes after his 10 percent showing. There were rumours he too would quit but he said he intends to fight on. "We're going to give the people of South Carolina, New Hampshire and America a choice in this election, and that's what this process is all about," he said. He said his opponents were all Washington insiders whose fault the country was “broken” and they needed an outsider like him as an alternative.

It may be wishful thinking but Perry has deep pockets and can afford one bad and possibly two bad results. It was significant Perry pushed South Carolina ahead of New Hampshire suggesting even a bad result in the northern state would not dislodge him from the race ahead of the bellwether South Carolina race – which has elected every successful Republican candidate since 1960. The South Carolina Primary is on 21 January so Perry has just over two weeks to go for broke. Newt Gingrich, with 13%, is in strife too with little money and just five days to overtake Romney in New Hampshire.

While Paul pronounced himself satisfied, Rick Santorum will be delighted. The oft-quoted reason is that of “momentum” leading into the New Hampshire Primary and the following states. Santorum’s close second place was a result of spending a lot of time in Iowa, and he will now attract a bigger buzz and more money. But it is unlikely he will not have the time to recreate his strategy and equally important, the space from the media, to perform like this in New Hampshire. The neologism “Santorum” is likely to become a crippling issue too if he continues to do well.

What Iowa really told us is this year’s Republican presidential nominee is likely to be the frontrunner Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor is the one candidate Obama might struggle to beat and he did lead Obama in the polls on several occasions during in 2011. In his favour is the fact he is telegenic and considered to be a party moderate and he can berate Obama over managing the US into a possible double-dip recession.

The charge labelled by Ron Paul in 2008, that Romney was a flip-flopper is also losing its relevance in 2012. Voters can see he changes his mind alright, but just that so does everyone else and when the facts change, what else do you do? Romney is still a classic Republican in favour of Reaganomics and cutting taxes to promote growth.

The big question is whether America is ready to elect a Mormon as their president. Mormons themselves preferred Jon Huntsman as their candidate which is likely to be a positive to Romney. Most Americans look uneasily at their missionary tradition and the close Church-State relations in Utah. Romney’s east coast ties keeps him away from any Salt Lake City baggage, though he did lead the 2002 Winter Olympics organising committee and turned a potential fiasco into a success.

Romney underplays his religion and is also at pains to stress the commonality of Mormonism to mainstream Christianity. But writing in 2005 about his 2008 bid, Amy Sullivan said his religion was a political problem. Sullivan said one in five voters wouldn’t vote for a Mormon and while some of this was a “fuzzy sort of bias” it was real enough to be a problem. It could particularly be a problem with his own party’s evangelic base that have serious doctrinal issues with Mormonism’s claim as the fully realised strain of Christianity - the "latter-day saints." Keeping his religion out of the picture may yet be Romney’s biggest challenge as the year pans out.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

The Hitching Post: The demons that drove Christopher Hitchens

“Are you a socialist?”asked the African leader.
I said, yes.
“People have been telling me,” he said lightly, “that you are a liberal....”
(Conor Cruise O’Brien, quoted in Christopher Hitchens, “Hitch-22” p.186).

About a month before Christopher Hitchens died in December, I happened to be reading his memoir Hitch-22. It was a book I had in my possession for over 12 months before I read it – It was sent to me by Crikey as part of their bribe to make me renew the subscription. Hitchens was never someone who had impinged strongly on my conscience so I was in no hurry to read him. Hitchens was a prolific essayist but other than his support for the Iraqi war, his strong atheism, and his waterboarding experiment, I’d never really remembered anything he wrote. I also knew he was suffering from cancer, which I knew from the fatalistic tone in Hitch-22 was likely terminal.

Yet when I heard he’d died just before Christmas, I felt an ineluctable sense of sadness on the passing of someone I felt I knew. The memoir was responsible. For months, I had Hitch-22 on my ‘to do’ list but the picture on the cover of a young hipster Hitchens smoking a cigarette never really threatened to excite my imagination. But a time came when I was on holidays on the beaches of NSW in November when there was no other book handy and I picked up Hitch-22. I quickly found it engrossing reading.

It is a rich exploration of a peripatetic journalist's fully-lived life made interesting for me because I had no real understanding of its trajectory before reading it. Hitchens' parents were both British archetypes, his stiff-upper-lipped father the remote “Commander” who gave his life to the Navy rather than family and his attractive Freudian mother who Hitchens preferred to call Yvonne rather than mum. Yvonne hated the life of a Navy wife and eventually left her husband for another man. In November 1973 she committed suicide in a pact with her lover in Athens. Hitchens flew to Greece to identify her body.

Apart from the obvious grief of losing his mother, the place of her death gave additional strains. Greece was then ruled by a right-wing military junta and being there was galling for a young left-wing radical. Hitchens had a typical middle upper-class upbringing, kept away from his parents and learning the value of compulsory games and a flogging at Leys School in Cambridge. He stayed in Cambridge to do his university education at Balliol where he joined the United Nations Association and the school committee, moves he described as shrewd. Hitchens was the classic 1960s hard left revolutionary, addicted to every socialist cause. He described himself as a Trotskyist, which was safe given that Trotsky never led Soviet Russia long enough to have his reputation thrashed.

Hitchens’ ideological purity was tested with a visit to Cuba which co-incided with the 1968 Prague Spring rebellion against the Soviet Union. Hitchens was there while Cubans held their breath wondering which side their leader would come down on. Castro knew which side his bread was buttered and going on radio he supported Brezhnev much to Hitchens’ disgust. Hitchens remained convinced Stalinism could be overturned from the Left and turned his attentions from the “great hopes of 1968” to the edges of Europe. He witnessed the end of Salazar’s fascist regime in Portugal and saw at close hand how Poland managed its communist contradictions in the 1970s.

The communist in Hitchens – something he never admitted to - wanted to iron out those contradictions. America was the place where such a thing was possible and a place where despite its conservatism, Hitchens could be “as free as possible.” The man to whom the book Hitch-22 is dedicated to - his friend the poet, James Fenton - told Slate, Hitchens became American because there was always something holding him back in England.

Hitchens forged a second identity as an American despite his antipathy to Nixon and Reagan. He also hated the Bushes and Bill Clinton, whom Hitchens thought a fraud. Hitchens knew the midtown Manhattan skyscrapers he landed in were an illusion but it was an illusion always accompanied by profound happiness and an exhilerating sense of freedom never experienced in England. When he saw some of those skyscrapers come down in 9/11, it instilled a deep and personal sense of horror against what he called the “cult of death”.

Hitchens supported the Afghan invasion – which was relatively uncontroversial in October 2001. It was the subsequent Iraq war that was to see the greatest cleavage with fellow leftists. Hitchens had been to Iraq in the 1970s and knew it as an artificial creation of British civil servants. His sympathies lay with the nationalists who put Iraq first not the Ba’athists who put the regime first. It was, Hitchens called, a "Republic of Fear". He was there as in the 1991 Gulf War to see Saddam’s Republican Guard get off scot-free while army conscripts were vaporised on the Highway of Death. The outcome left the people of Iraq worse off, but still condemned to suffer Saddam as leader. In a secret visit across the border Hitchens saw Saddam’s eco-catastrophes and Kurdish and Shiite massacres. “I recognised at once it was a state of affairs worth fighting for,” he wrote. “The idea of ‘Reds for Bush’ might seem incongruous but it was a great deal more wholesome than ‘pacifists for Saddam’”.

Hitchens’ anti-Saddam rhetoric was music to the ears of PNAC-influenced Defence deputy Paul Wolfowitz and the pair hit it off when the politician invited Hitchens to meet him. Hitchens became a salesman for the Iraqi war as the debate intensified. His support for the WMD theory was half-hearted. What he really believed was that Saddam was facing a meltdown moment that would lead to Rwanda-like consequences unless the west intervened. What Hitchens could not, or would not believe, was intervention would have similar consequences.

In the final chapter of his book, Hitchens argued it was the responsibility of intellectuals to argue for complexity and insist ideas should not be sloganised. But he also felt things should be simplified where possible. It was this paradox which led him into his highly-evolved yet deeply flawed Iraqi position. “Karl Marx was rightest of all when he recommended continual doubt and self criticism,” he wrote on the final page. Nothing wrong with that, except it looks for Marx for succour when introspection should be without a muse. The only reference to Heller’s masterpiece in the Hitch-22 title comes in the second last sentence of the book. Hitch’s Catch-22 was the impossible balancing act between his Marxian uncertainty and his desire to emulate the assured and dutiful life of his father. This paradox drove his endless creativity.

Monday, January 02, 2012

A Year of Revolt: In memory of Mohammed Bouazizi

Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book The End of History and The Last Man was misinterpreted as a triumph for democracy in the wake of the fall of western communism. It was therefore easy to laugh at him being hopelessly wrong as the New World Order collapsed in the late 1990s and new enemies appeared to replace old bugbears. Yet the “end of history” Fukuyama spoke about was the foremost importance of dignity in life not the success of democracy. This thesis was right then and remains true today. Democracy has massive failings but it always offers the dignity of revenge against oppressive or incompetent rulers in the promise of a future ballot box.

The Eastern European revolutions of the 1980s understood this as do today’s democracy-deprived Arab World. Societies dominated by single parties and long-term dictators are almost always intrinsically corrupt. People always privately grumbled about this lack but were too smart or too fearful to do much in public. It took someone to strike a match to bring serious people power out on the street. That someone was Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi and it was his search for dignity that began a worldwide revolution. When authorities took away Bouazizi’s vegetable cart because it was unlicensed and then slapped and humiliated him when he paid the fine, they unleashed consequences that would not just wipe away the certainties of their world, but also of our world.

Because Bouazizi was “humiliated and dejected”, he set fire to himself outside a Sidi Bouzid police station on December 17. The burns were horrific but Bouazizi did not die straight away. After 18 agonising days, he died on 4 January 2011, almost exactly a year ago. But by then the spark had already been lit. While Bouazizi lay dying in hospital, an impotent rage exploded across Tunisia. Hundreds of thousands had been victim to similar pettinesses at the hands of Abidine Ben Ali’s 23-year-old regime and rose in protest at his treatment. An alarmed Ben Ali visited the dying man in hospital but it was too late for both of them. Bouazizi died a week later and Ben Ali was out of power just 10 days after that.

With winter still in full swing, Bouazizi gave birth to the Arab Spring. It is only the west that calls it the Arab Spring, in the affected countries it is the Sidi Bouzid Revolt in honour of his hometown. Bouazizi’s enraged relatives, friends and acquaintances were first to take to the streets in support of his act of mad defiance.

The Labour unions quickly got on board. Inspired by the same need for dignity and respect, the country’s largest trade union, the normally pliant General Tunisian Workers' Union (UGTT), mobilised its half million members in favour of the revolution. Top level officials previously loyal to Ben Ali changed their tune under pressure from members and a vibrant youth movement.

The tremors from the earthquake epicentre on Sidi Bouzid quickly spread across the region once Ben Ali was overthrown. Just 11 days later, there were massive protests in Cairo against the regime of Hosni Mubarak who had been in power for 30 years and about to effect a handover to his son Gemal. After three weeks of mass protest across the country, Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman announced Mubarak was handing over power to the military much to the joy of the Tahrir Square protesters. But their joy was short-lived with the military junta showing no signs of wanting to share power and the protests continue a year later.

Between Tunisia and Egypt lay Libya, complete with its own long-term dictator. Mad Muammar Gaddafi had clever held on to power for 40 years despite often being public enemy number one in the West. In the end it was his own people that dislodged him after a bitter and long-lasting war. Riots independent of Tunisia’s problems were happening in Benghazi in January over chronic housing shortages but Gaddafi threw Libyan oil money at the problem to quieten the Benghazi protesters.

Those riots were still fresh in the mind at the end of the month when dissident writer Jamal al-Hajji issued an Internet call for demonstrations across Libya “in the Tunisian and Egyptian fashion”. Al-Hajji was arrested in early February and Gaddafi issued a warning to political activists, journalists and media figures to behave.

When Libyan lawyer Fatih Turbel was arrested in Benghazi on 15 February, police broke up protests and made dozens of further arrests. Yet the riots spread quickly through the east and a Day of Rage two days later shook the regime to its core. Within 24 hours, rebel forces controlled Benghazi. In the first week they pushed east to Misrata and Tobruk fell in yet another war. The rebels shouted the same slogans heard in Tunisia and Egypt: the people want to bring down the regime.

It seemed to the watching world a third regime was about to quickly topple but Gaddafi had no intention of quitting gracefully. Those that did not love him deserved to die and he threw the full force of his armies on the rebels. Their majority support among the people was endangered by Gaddafi guns purchased from Western countries.

Perhaps inspired by guilt for this – or more likely for their own political expediency – David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkozy pushed for intervention to save the revolution. Obama, already stretched by two wars in Islamic states, was harder to convince but eventually NATO airpower swung the pendulum back in the rebels favour. Tripoli fell in August and Gaddafi was butchered in October. Cameron and Sarkozy were heralded as heroes in Libya and Tunisia’s Burning Man had played a small part in overthrowing a third tyrant.

Bouazizi also indirectly or directly inspired protests in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Palestine and Yemen with varying degrees of success. Bouazizi could well claim two more leaders this year in Saleh in Yemen and Asad in Syria. The Arab Spring template was closely watched by many in the western world and played a symbolic role in the Occupy movement. Time Magazine, with eyes on both phenomena, called the anonymous protester its person of the year. But there is a good case to be made the protester was far from anonymous. Mohammed Bouazizi’s loss of dignity and death sacrifice was a pivotal “end of history” moment across the planet.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Nigeria's Boko Haram is threat to US

Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram have threatened the US embassy in the wake of their Christmas Day attack on a church in Madalla, Niger State which killed over 40 people. Nigerian newspaper The Moment said today the White House had intelligence reports indicating that the next target is the Lagos US diplomatic mission. The Moment said security analysts have advised US ambassador to Nigeria, Terence McCulley to get local police to fortify security around all US diplomatic missions and investments in the country. (Photo: AFP)

Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan has declared a state of emergency in four states (Borno, Yobe, Niger and plateau states) in the wake of the Christmas Day attack. Jonathan said what began as a sectarian crisis in the North East has gradually evolved into terrorist activities across the country. “The crisis has assumed a terrorist dimension with vital institutions of government including the UN Building and places of worship becoming targets of attacks,” he said. Jonathan also closed the borders adjacent to the four affected states.

Jonathan made the announcement on a visit to the Catholic Church in Madalla near the capital Abuja where 44 people were killed by a bomb as they were leaving a Christmas Day mass. During his address in the church, many worshippers cried uncontrollably, including two women who lost their husbands and four children in the attack. Parish priest, Reverend Father Isaac Achi, said the church had forgiven the attackers.“On behalf of the whole Christians in this country and Christ lovers… we have forgiven them from the bottom of our hearts,” he said. “We pray that such thing will not occur again in any place in this country.”

But others remain unhappy with the president. Nigerian newspaper The Nation said the governors of the affected states were annoyed they were not consulted in the president’s state of emergency. Some of the governors told the Nation the magnitude of the Boko Haram problem required collective effort. An unnamed governor said most of his colleagues were not happy being sidelined. “[Jonathan] has forgotten that whatever affects the nation is a collective burden we need to bear,” the Governor said. “"If governors are supposedly Chief Security Officers in their states, it presupposes that they must be part of solution to the spate of violence in the country.” The governors want a say in the choice of a new inspector general of police. Hafiz Ringim is due to retire within the next three months and the restructuring of police is central to Jonathan’s security overhaul to combat Boko Haram.

ND Danjobo from the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at the University of Ibadan said the rise of Boko Haram was related to the long-term failure of governance in Nigeria. Mohammed Yusuf, the movement’s founder was a Nigerian who was radicalised on Qur’an study visits to Chad and Niger. In Hausa language, the word “boko” can mean either “Western” or foreign; while the word “haram” is an Arabic derivative meaning “forbidden”. Yusuf wanted to forbid all Western influences and replace the modern state formation with the traditional Islamic state. His followers were school drop-outs and underemployed university graduates who believed that their hopelessness was caused by a government that imposed western education and failed to manage the resources of the country to the benefit of all.

Islamic Northern Nigeria has always been suspicious of western ways and there were major riots in 1980 against Christian interests that claimed 4,000 lives. The rise of Islamism elsewhere in the globe has strengthened hardliners and they were involved in a major outbreak of violence in 2009 with riots across six provinces and 1500 dead. Security forces killed 500 extremists in Borno alone. Despite, or perhaps because of the riots, Boko Haram enjoyed a wide spread of support within a short period of time. Yusuf was captured in 2009 and was "shot dead trying to escape". His followers treated his death as martyrdom and the group enjoyed renewed strength. In August 2011, Boko Haram attacked the UN headquarters in Abuja with a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, killing 23 people and injuring more than 80 others.

A US Committee on Homeland Security report of November 2011 said Boko Haram was a direct threat to the US developing alliances with Algerian-based Al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb and Somali al Shabaab. The report said the US Intelligence community largely underestimated the potential for al Qaeda affiliate groups to target the Homeland, wrongly assessing they had only regional ambitions and threats against the US were merely “aspirational.” They urged increase its intelligence collection on Boko Haram, outreach with the Nigerian Diaspora in the US and better liaison with Nigerian security and counter-intelligence services.