Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Labor's end of empire

The joke I heard on Saturday night proved prophetic. What was the difference between Labor and a Tarago? The car would still have eight seats in the morning. Sure enough as the night progressed, the Queensland election carcrash got worse for Labor. When I caught up with the ABC tally around 6.30pm (Qld time) they were projecting 13 or 14 seats which was in line with most people’s worst assumptions. But as I watched, that number went steadily down. When it got to 4 with the possibility that even Anna Bligh could lose, a total whitewash seemed not beyond the bounds of possibilities. By the end of the night, Antony Green and co were predicting six or seven, arguably a full 150 percent better.

With official party status still in doubt, not many Labor supporters were seeing the bright side of this. Labor have dominated Queensland since the end of the Joh era and won eight consecutive elections coming into 2012 (the Rob Borbidge interregnum was the result of a by-election). They were slowly coming down from their 2001 high water mark. They took 66 out of 89 in 2001, 63 in 2004 and 59 in 2006 as the long side took forever to get momentum. In 2009 Labor had a swing of 5 percent against them and polled less than one percent more than the LNP in their first election. But they carried 51 seats to 34. Almost from the moment the Bligh Government took office, the electorate decided 2009 was the last roll of the dice.

In 2012 the percentages would favour the LNP in more ways than one. After three successive defeats for Lawrence Springborg, the party became gradually more urban. John-Paul Langbroek brought the leadership to the beach before party president Bruce McIver catapulted it into the heart of Brisbane with Campbell Newman. Through his own dedication during the 2010-2011 floods as Mayor of Brisbane, Newman was able to counter the one attribute Anna Bligh had going for her – a great wartime leader. Labor decided to push enormous resources into defeating Newman in Ashgrove – or at least tying him down there - while ignoring the dangers in the LNP’s own decapitation strategy that saw three future leaders Fraser, Hinchliffe and Dick a good chance of losing their seats.

In the end none of it worked for Labor.The swing was a further 15 percent and 51 seats became 7 in a state-wide bloodbath. Nine cabinet ministers lost include Fraser, Hinchliffe and Dick. The seat of Rockhampton and a few working class suburbs of Brisbane and Ipswich was all that survived. The LNP will end up with 78 or so of 89 and Queensland is precious close to becoming a one party state. As William Bowe said, this is not a happy state of affairs with Queensland’s parliamentary sessions possibly resembling those of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. Bowe said the Opposition will also be unable to fulfil its committee obligations and has no Senate to beef up the numbers.

Such unfettered power is unlikely to entirely suit the LNP either. There is a large, restless and untried team with which to fill the ministries. MPs in seats like Brisbane, Ipswich and Waterford will know they are on borrowed time and their demographics will mean a swing back to Labor in 2015. Nevertheless these are good problems for Newman. He has ten times as many seats as Labor who will have meagre resources to fight the next election mostly from outside parliament.

Their supporters are still in a state of shock, wondering how a disaster of this magnitude could occur. Denis Atkins nailed much of the late swing away today to Labor’s shocking campaign. Bligh’s attack on Newman under parliamentary privilege was so poor, the LNP used it in their mocking ads. And Labor’s own last minute ads “don’t give them too much power” was pathetic beyond belief. The Federal Government is looking on in horror as it sees the Ghost of Christmas Future in their own Queensland tilt though it is dangerous to draw too many Federal conclusions.

Meanwhile State Labor’s magnificent standing seven may even diminish further before it recovers. Anna Bligh’s inevitable resignation puts her knife edge seat on the chopping block with defeated cabinet ministers ruling themselves out of a second tilt. Who would want to rule this rabble? As Atkins said, Labor has been eaten by its own political obsession. They deserve the 15 years "they will spend in their long, cold winter,” Atkins wrote. That may be no bad thing. Queensland will be a very different place in 2032 and different parties and ideologies are required to face the many 21st century challenges. The state Labor parties across Australia do not appear to have a coherent strategy to face these times.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Campbell Newman should give Anna Bligh a ministry

A historic election tomorrow with the first ever victory by an organisation called the Liberal National Party in the state where it was founded. Queensland may not be the template for a conservative party merger but its stunning success will make the rest of the country take notice. I said in January the LNP would win comfortably and my then prediction of 13 seats to Labor now looks on track. (photo of Anna Bligh in Mitchell: Derek Barry)

Yet by March there was a bit of a narrowing and I doubted my own prediction. When I did the seat by seat Crikey poll on 13 March, my results were LNP 55, ALP 28 (including Ashgrove) and Independents 6. This still would have amounted to a handsome win for the LNP though tainted by the polls showing Kate Jones was ahead of the presumptive premier Campbell Newman.

Now just ten days later, that forecast appears hopelessly optimistic for the Labor and I won't be winning the Crikey comp. The tainted polls on Newman have been wiped away as is possibly the Queensland Labor Party itself. Labor's rump of 11 to 15 seats leaves hardly any ministerial talent and precious little room to grow in the near future.

Anna Bligh will be one of the few to survive but almost certain to take responsibility for the crushing loss and resign the leadership. Kim Jameson is tipping Annastacia Palaszczuk to be leader of the rump. Jones won’t survive in Ashgrove where the Newman polls have swung almost 10 percent and he is favourite again to get in as Premier. He may have a dislikeable glass jaw but there is no doubting his cojones in taking on a difficult seat and winning. He will owe nothing to his powerbrokers, many of whom would not have mourned his loss.

Because of this, Newman will have a lot of personal power when dealing out the spoils of office. He will lead a huge party with much jostling for position and granting of favours. He is guaranteed at least three terms of office to entrench that power. So here is an out of left field suggestion for him: Offer Anna Bligh a job.

The worst that could happen is that she refuses it, finding it too hard to work for a government she fought hard to resist. Newman would not lose any face and could get on with the largesse. But if somehow she agreed to take a role, the incoming government would be able to make a big statement of intent about inclusiveness and incorporation of ideas of the best people in the state.

Though neither side would admit it, their philosophies are broadly similar with a small tendency for Labor to prefer inclusion over wealth creation with an equally marginal tendency the other way for the LNP. Queensland Labor’s time is now up. In power for all but two of the last 20 years, voters are tired and want a change. That impression has been hammered home by a relentless advertising campaign powered by a huge budget that only winners attract. Newman is not exactly charismatic but has milked his “can do” reputation to the hilt to persuade enough people he will be a better leader.

Yet it will be a hard act to follow. I’ve met Bligh on a number of occasions on her visits to Roma and Mitchell and she is impressive in action. In every situation I’ve seen her in, she has always struck me as the one in charge and the master of every brief. Watching her from afar in last year’s 2010-2011 flooding, she was an effective commander-in-chief, overshadowing the Prime Minister in her visits to Brisbane.

There is also no doubting Bligh’s personal energy and commitment to Queensland, again on first hand observation. In any speech I heard her give, her vision always came around to getting a wealthy future for all Queenslanders. As such she saw the positives in coal seam gas while looking for ways to control the negative impacts. Newman won't change much because he too will rely on the royalties from this massive industry to pay Queensland's debt. There is no way a moratorium will ever be imposed on the industry.

Meanwhile Bligh has led the state through a succession of natural disasters that have emptied the state coffers as quickly as CSG is filling them. Where the gas is mined here in the Maranoa (a council region bigger than Togo or Croatia), the road damage bill alone is well north of $100 million with much of the devastation of the most recent floods last month still unaccounted for. It is reasonable to assume Mother Nature has not finished punishing her errant children and further severe storms in the years ahead are likely if the latest Bureau of Meteorology/CSIRO guide to the weather is correct.

So I could think of no better person to lead the Queensland Reconstruction Authority (or whatever it is renamed to in the LNP era) than Anna Bligh. The role has been filled by army personnel so it is reasonably non-political. There is no doubt that Bligh would throw herself into the ministry with the same gusto she finished the campaign on with 50 seats in a week (ours was one of the missing 39) and a laundry list of Love’s Labor’s Lost at the death.

As the first elected female Premier in Australia, Anna Bligh’s reputation will only grow after she leaves power. People will forget the failures of her watch, most of which were inherited from Peter Beattie. Instead they will remember a likeable and very able leader. The Newman at the current helm should capitalise on this in his moment of greatest power and offer her a ministry.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Death of Coptic Pope Shenouda III

The one time I went to Egypt back in 1988, I did the regulation tourism things: the pyramids, the Nile, the temples and the Red Sea. But the one thing I regret was the thing I did not do which was to take up an offer. It was at Aswan where a Coptic taxi driver befriended me. I cannot remember his name but I do remember he asked would I go home and meet his family. I turned him down either out of suspicion or because I wanted to spend more time at the poolside bar (Photo:AP).

It was a shame because I would have learned a lot more about Copts and their ancient form of Orthodox Christianity inherited from the Pharaonic Egyptians. I had blithely assumed Egypt, or officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, was a Muslim country but as my taxi driver reminded me, 10 percent were not. He also told me the leader of that 10 percent, some eight million Copts, was a Pope, just like the more famous one in St Peter's.

The leader then was Pope Shenouda III and he died on Saturday in Cairo after 40 years on throne, aged 88. Shenouda will be buried at St Bishoy Monastery of Wadi al-Natrun in the Nile Delta, where he spent time in exile. President Anwar Sadat banished Shenouda to the Monastery in 1981 after he criticised the Sadat government one too many times. Shenouda was an outspoken critic of Sadat and a thorn in his side who berated him over his handling of an Islamic insurgency in the 1970s and Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

Shenouda was the 117th pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Tradition says the Church was founded by St Mark but its independent history is traced back to the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The 'Chalcedonian Definition' defined Jesus as having a separate manhood and godhood. Still central canon to the Catholics and most Orthodox Churches, it was rejected by Alexandria. It was also in Alexandria where the concept of a “pope” first developed, long before Rome stole the idea. Deriving from the Greek word πάππας (pappas), the first man to carry the title was Patriarch of Alexandria, Pope Heracleus who died in 249.

In 451, the entire Egyptian population followed Pope Dioscorus in rejecting Chalcedon and the Coptic Church was born. Coptic was the language they spoke, grammatically closely akin to the hieroglyphic Late Egyptian. The Copts were hated by the Byzantines who saw them as heretics. There was a brief interregnum of Persian conquest by the Sassanids before the Muslims conquered Egypt in 642. The religion was left undisturbed on condition they pay Jizya to the new rulers. The new tax slowly took its toll though the conversion to Sunni Islam would take three centuries.

Copts survived but would remain second class citizens suffering petty discrimination in their own country until the 19th dynasty of Albanian Muhammad Ali Pasha. Ali abolished Jizya and saw their value as an administrative caste. In this, Ali emulated the British divide and conquer strategy of raising the profile of a despised minority. The Copts thrived and started their own schools of education. A 20th century Diaspora took the faith to every continent.

Nazeer Gayed Roufail was born into the faith on 3 August 1923, the youngest of eight children. He grew up in the ancient Nile settlement of Asyut, the Egyptian city with the highest Coptic concentration. Here, a traveller in 1918 wrote, “the wealthy Christian families have built themselves palaces and made gardens by the river side - The domes of the Coptic Cathedral and the minarets of the Mosques may be seen in the distance”.

Roufail was active in Sunday School and went to Cairo University, graduating in history and later the Coptic Theological Seminary. Roufail retreated to the Nitrian Desert where he joined the ascetic life of the Syrian Monastery under a new name of Father Antonios el-Syriani. The Monastery had already supplied one Coptic Pope in the 15th century and from the early days el-Syriani was marked out as a special candidate to repeat the feat. For six years he lived as a hermit before being ordained as a priest.

In 1962 Pope Cyril VI made him bishop of Christian Education and President of the Coptic Orthodox Theological Seminary. Cyril also gave him a third name: Shenouda. He was named for St Shenoute the Archimandrite, the most renowned saint of the Copts who lived for 118 years. The modern Shenouda revolutionised the seminary and tripled the intake of students. His influence ruffled Cyril’s feathers causing a reprimand when Shenouda argued bishops should be elected. It would not be his last fight over democracy.

In March 1971, Cyril VI died and Shenouda was enthroned the 117th pope six months later on 14 November. A year earlier Anwar Sadat had inherited political power of Egypt and was keen to flex his muscles. The Six Day War with Israel in 1967 had halted Coptic pilgrimage to Jerusalem, a situation that lasted for 11 years. When Sadat brokered the Camp David agreement with Carter and Begin, he hoped the Copts would lead the return of Egyptian travel to Israel. Shenouda did not play ball and decreed a papal ban on Coptic visits to Israel in 1979. “From the Arabic national point we should not abandon our Palestinian brothers and our Arabic brothers by normalising our relations with the Jews,” he said.

Shenouda’s inconvenient pro-Palestinianism irked Sadat as did his support of its suicide bombers. In 1981, Sadat sent Shenouda back to the Nitrian Desert where he had previously lived as a hermit. Sadat was assassinated later that year and on 2 January 1985 his successor Hosni Mubarak reversed the decree. Pope Shenouda came back to Cairo to a hero’s welcome celebrating the Orthodox Christmas on January 7. Shenouda expressed forgiveness to those who wronged him. “All Copts open their hearts to their brothers, the Muslims,” he told the congregation.

As the 20th century ended, more and more extremist Muslims were not prepared to open their hearts to their Christian brothers. In the predominately Christian village of El-Kosheh in 2000, riots between Christians and Muslims led to a shoot-out in which 21 Christians were killed. When the judge blamed Coptic incitement and acquitted most of those accused, Shenouda spoke out in rare public criticism. “We want to challenge this ruling. We don't accept it,” he said. But Copts were increasingly on the outer losing their positions of influence across society with only one percent of MPs.

Worse was to come after Mubarak was overthrown in the Arab Spring. For all his faults, Mubarak was a sometime protector of the faith and allowed them religious freedoms including the right to repair their churches to live broadcasts of Easter services and punished Islamists who persecuted them. When he was deposed, over 100,000 Copts fled Egypt, mostly to Canada. The killing began with a church bombing during a 2011 New Year’s Eve mass that left more than 20 dead and dozens wounded, followed by another deadly attack during the Coptic Christmas a week later. Islamists have called them infidels and accused them of being Western spies and traitors who are stockpiling arms in plots to secede from the country.

Shenouda was the peacemaker, often calling for harmony and he regularly met Muslim leaders to ease tensions. He was revered among Copts and popular among many moderate Muslims who respected him as a survivor. But the strain eventually told on his elderly frame. He flew regularly to the US this year for medical treatment and died on Saturday of lung and liver complications.

His death is a massive blow not only to the 8 million Copts but the 80 million Egyptian Muslims he leaves behind. A strong voice of moderation in a troublesome time, his absence will leave a huge void and may exacerbate the trend of Copts to leave the country. The loss of Egypt’s Copts would not only be tragedy for the millions of refugees, but also one for those left behind. Like my taxi driver in 1988, the Copts form much of the nation’s professional and business class. The loss of their expertise could be a fatal blow to Egypt’s faltering economy.

Monday, March 12, 2012

A history of aviation in Roma

(Photo: Unknown man prepares to give parachute demonstration at Campbell Park, Roma in the 1920s or early 1930s).
On Saturday, a new $12m Roma Airport will officially open, following in 92 years of aviation history, as well as three airfields, two terminal buildings and one famous custodian.

In America, the Wright Brothers first took to the air in 1903 and Harry Houdini made the first Australian flight at Diggers Rest, Victoria in 1910. After the end of World War I, Roma was as keen as any town in Australia to want to see the new craze of air fliers. In September 1919 the Western Star reported a plane landing in Roma would be an important occasion “as few residents apart from returned soldiers have seen aerial machines other than illustrations and moving pictures.” It would be another year before Captain Roy King landed in Roma (see attached story). King was followed by a succession of pilots all eagerly reported by the Star, with one complaining the Keiseker’s Flat landing site was too small.

The first proper airport was on the other side of the railway at Campbell’s Park.
The most famous early aviator in town was English Major Geoffrey de Havilland who arrived in October 1927 in own-designed de Havilland Moth. Roma was in the middle of a sudden oil boom and de Havilland was taken on a tour of the bore which he said would become “a national asset”.

On April 16 1929, the nine-year-old business known as QANTAS inaugurated the weekly Brisbane-Roma-Charleville route catering for seven passengers. The plane left Roma for Brisbane every Monday and took three hours and 20 minutes with a stopover in Toowoomba, all for a fee of £8.

In July 1929, the Star reported the arrival of the Astor radio plane from Surat. The Astor was a Gypsy Moth piloted by Captain Roberts and stayed two days offering joyflights. Astor was an Australian radio manufacturer of the 1920s and the plane was on an advertising tour of the west. The Star said the plane cost between £700 and £800 which was the price of a good motor car.

On Saturday 2 July, 1932 the Western Star announced the world famous Air Commodore Charles Kinsgford Smith Kt. M.C. A.F.C. would arrive tomorrow in Roma with his "world-renowened 3-engined aeroplane", the Southern Cross. Flights of 25 miles were available throughout the day and entry was 20/ for adults and 10/ for children.

On May 12, 1939 there was a fatal crash at the airport when pilot died though a passenger had a remarkable escape. RJ Ross was in charge of the training plane Gypsy Moth VH-UPY giving a lesson to a pupil when the plane suddenly nose-dived as Ross went through a forced landing routine. He died in hospital that evening but his pupil and passenger John Crawford, 17, the son of the owners of the Queens Arms, somehow survived the mangled wreckage.
In 1949, the airport moved to its current site on the Northern Road with the first plane landing on Friday, June 10. The following Tuesday’s Western Star said a Douglas aircraft inaugurated the new Monday to Friday Brisbane service which for the first time allowed locals to have a weekend in Brisbane, leaving Friday evening and return home on Monday morning.
A young Alan Berry had started at Roma Airport two years earlier in 1947 and he saw it grow from the site at the meatworks where there was no terminal, just an old shed. Berry was easily identifiable with his tash, shorts and white socks and quickly made himself indispensible at the airport. He did everything from loading and unloading planes, to do the bookings and running the airport. He was renowned in the Roma community, as was his famous old blue Falcon ute, which doubled as a check-in centre.

The current AT Berry terminal named in his honour was formally opened on April 27, 1996. Then-Roma Mayor Barry Braithwaite thanked Flight West Airlines for their support of the airport and congratulated Alan Berry for 40 years of service to air travellers in Roma. “The new centre is modern, giving staff and passengers a degree of comfort and efficiency Mr Berry did not have the opportunity to use,” Mayor Braithwaite said. “Roma Airport has gone from the back of the ‘old Falcon ute’ to a modern check-in area.”

On Saturday, the next chapter in Roma aviation history is about to be written with the opening of the second AT Berry terminal.

Monday, March 05, 2012

On Common Ground? Questioning Finkelstein's Media Inquiry assumptions

I’ve just finished reading Bruce Guthrie’s hugely enjoyable autobiography Man Bites Murdoch. Guthrie was the editor of Australia’s biggest selling daily, the Melbourne Herald-Sun when he was sacked in 2008. Guthrie successfully sued for wrongful dismissal and he gleefully turned News Corp’s courtroom embarrassment into a fine read. Guthrie was a hugely experienced editor who had two stints with News Ltd and also work for Fairfax and Time Magazines. In his recounting of his career in the book, the thing that most stands out is the constant dysfunctional management he had to deal with at every newspaper and magazine he worked for. Only in the early days of his stay at Time did Guthrie ever feel that management were on the same wavelength as the editor and even that was short-lived after the disastrous corporate merger with AOL.

I was thinking about this as I read Justice Ray Finkelstein’s opening remarks in his long-awaited Australian media inquiry. “There is common ground among all those who think seriously about the role of the news media and about journalistic ethics,” began his Lordship, before proceeding to list the steps along this “common ground”. These were journalism’s “essential role” in democracy, its need to be “fair and accurate”, its powerful effect on the political system, its ability to cause harm, its accountability, and its code of ethics.

This supposed consensus mixes up concepts of media with concepts of journalism, a mistake rarely made by news proprietors, managing directors and senior editors. All of these actors do not necessarily share Finkelstein’s assumptions though they do think seriously about the news media (less so about journalist ethics). Finkelstein leaves out one crucial fact in his “common ground”: that is, the need for news media to make a profit to thrive. Independent media like Crikey and New Matilda would be the closest in Australia that adhere to Finkelstein’s model but neither are big money-spinning ventures that must bow to corporate pressures. By contrast, the large daily metropolitan mastheads are huge commercial operations with profit and circulation imperatives, while chasing audiences fleeing from the heavy-duty but fading world of print into the more uncertain terrain of online media.

For owners and managing directors, the primary goals of these brands are to make money and add shareholder value. As Guthrie found out time after time in his career, Finkelstein's editorial assumptions ran a distant second. Issues such as the media’s effect on democracy, fairness and accuracy, accountability or a code of ethics were of little concern to senior management desperate to make profits and cut costs. In Guthrie's time (and probably the same today), the Herald-Sun was just another brand to advertising managers who sought to form partnerships with other organisations and who took a dim view of editorial staff failing to give these partners preferential status.

Let's look at Finkelstein's assumptions. Firstly, where is the proof of journalism’s essential role in Australian society? If there were no journalists, or if say they were under state control (such as Xinhua in China), would Australia be any worse off? As a journalist I’d like to say no, but given political journalism is mostly an "inside the beltway" game between the two key players, it is hard to say how useful it is. You could say, as I did to Julia Gillard when she came to Roma during the floods, that journos and pollies have a symbiotic relationship (she agreed with me). But as we head towards a social media age (and John Howard understood this aspect of talkback radio) journalists will become less necessary to the dissemination of the political message.

What too of journalism’s need to be fair and accurate? Fairness is notoriously difficult to judge. One man’s fair is another woman’s bias. Was former Howard Communications Minister Richard Alston seeking fairness or wasting public money on frivolous challenges with his 68 accusations of ABC bias in 2004? Who knows, but only 2 out of 68 held up. As for accuracy, a viewing of the Kurosawa film Rashomon should be enough to disabuse anyone of the notion of some universally established truth. Accuracy is at best a function of how many person-hours you can throw at a problem, an informed guess based on the observations of journalists and the estimate of the truth of observers they talk to.

No one would deny Finkelstein’s comment the media is powerful and affects the political system in “dramatic ways”. But so what of that drama? Was it as Robert Manne said, the overt campaign of the Australian that destroyed Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership or was it ruthless backroom boys (and there were no girls involved, apart from the winner) who obsessed over secret polling and focus groups that told them Rudd was haemorrhaging support from the party? The media are a channel and as they are finding out rapidly, they are not the only channel.

Finkelstein’s next assumption was about the harm the media can cause. Again, so what? If the definition of news is something someone somewhere doesn’t want published, then that person will be harmed by its publishing. Should the media “means test” its harm, before it publishes something that someone will be offended by?

Finkelstein then states “a free press should be publicly accountable for its performance”. That already happens. It is called a shareholder meeting. The only accountability the public can have for the publication is not to buy it, and that is all they need.

The last of Finkelstein’s “common ground” commandments is a code of ethics regarding accuracy, fairness, impartiality, integrity and independence. This he said, “should guide journalists and news organisations.” Journalists already have a code of ethics - a code that is followed, for the most part. But the problem is there is no such thing as an organisational code of ethics and no way of forcing them to set one up.

Ray Finkelstein’s report is well meaning and the fact Big Media doesn't like it must mean it is useful. But his set of assumptions completely neglects the business side of the industry and that is its greatest failing. Saving Australian media is not about getting new technology onto the Press Council or giving it teeth to address journalist failings (though neither are bad things). It is about somehow persuading an industry its long-term profitability depends on getting back its core level of trust with its audience. That means moving away from the assumptions that drive corporate behaviour. This ground is not as common as Justice Finkelstein thinks.