Sunday, April 29, 2012

Labor trounced in another Queensland election

The City of Brisbane has not yet finished punishing Labor delivering a handsome victory to the LNP in the Council elections. Suffering a swing of 5% since 2008, Labor is likely to lose three seats barely a month after being trounced in the State election. The city is Australia’s largest municipality and incumbent Mayor Graham Quirk is heading towards an easy victory with 60% of the vote with almost 65% counted.  Labor’s Ray Smith is polling a disappointing 24.69% while the Greens candidate the high profile and former Democrat senator candidate Andrew Bartlett is also not doing as well as some expected with 10.36% of the vote.

The Greens are doing much better in the councillor vote, in some inner western seats overturning Labor as the main opposition.  The LNP will comfortably retain their big majority in council and are likely to take three seats from Labor with another two Labor seats in the balance. In Central, Heather Beattie (wife of former premier Peter Beattie) is heading for defeat as she trails Vicki Howard by 51-31 percent with over half the vote counted. This was the seat vacated by Labor powerbroker and former deputy mayor David Hinchliffe ending a 24 year run by Labor in the seat.

There are 26 one-member constituency wards in Brisbane and at the time of writing, the result looks like being LNP 19, Labor 7 (20-7 including the Mayor). Two of those seven Labor seats are still in the balance: Wynnum-Manly (43-41) and Northgate (51-49).  Two more are definitely lost. In Karawatha (Woodridge) sitting ALP councillor Gail MacPherson stood down but her replacement Adrienne Cremin is losing easily to a candidate with a very un-LNP like name: Kim Marx. 

Labor's John Campbell is the only sitting councillor likely to be unseated as he trails Ryan Murphy in Doboy (Tingalpa) by 54-46. In the Indooroopilly-based Walter Taylor ward, the Green’s candidate Tim Dangerfield (19.77 per cent) outpolled Labor’s Adam Atkins (14.33 per cent) to finish second to LNP’s Julian Simmonds (65.91 per cent), with nearly two-thirds of the vote counted. 

Meanwhile Labor looks set to retain The Gabba which is in Anna Bligh’s old seat of South Brisbane. Bligh’s former election agent Jackie Trad has narrowly won the South Brisbane by-election which also took place yesterday though the LNP is not yet conceding just 800 votes behind with over half the votes counted. 

Delighted with his own win and the win in Central, returned Brisbane Mayor Graham Quirk said it was the first time the LNP had held inner-city Brisbane at all three levels of government.  "Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, is an opportunity - a very unique opportunity - for a high level of co-operation between the Premier of this state and the lord mayor of this city, to work in a cohesive and co-operative way," Cr Quirk said. "I think it is a very good thing for Brisbane and for Queensland."

correction: Tennyson was won by an independent not by the LNP making the result LNP 18, Lab 7 Ind 1 - thanks to Bird of Paradox for the pick-up.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Sierra Leone court finds Charles Taylor guilty

The Special Court for Sierra Leone has found Charles Taylor guilty of aiding, abetting and planning serious crimes after a five year trial. Taylor is the first former head of state to be found guilty by an international court since the Nuremberg trials sentenced Karl Doenitz to 10 years imprisonment in 1946. The trial was significant as Taylor failed to quash the charges on the basis he was head of state at the time of the indictment. 

Charles Ghankay Taylor, the former President of Liberia, faced three charges over a period from 1996 to 2002 crimes against humanity including murder, rape and enslavement, violation of the Geneva Conventions including violence, terrorism and pillage, and other serious violation of international humanitarian law including use of child soldiers.

Taylor was secretly indicted on 7 March 2003. The indictment was made public three months later on his first trip outside of Liberia. He resigned in August and went into exile in Nigeria. He was transferred to the Special Court three years later. Due to security concerns about holding the trial in Sierra Leone, the Special Court arranged for the trial to be held at the ICC offices in The Hague. The trial began in June 2007, but Taylor boycotted proceedings and demanded a new legal team. The prosecution finally opened in January 2008 and took 13 months to get testimony from 91 witnesses. After a delay while an acquit notice was thrown out, the defence opened in July 2009 and took 16 months to collect testimony from 20 witnesses including Taylor.

Taylor studied in America where he protested against then leader William Tolbert in 1979. He supported the Samuel Doe coup a year later and was appointed to Doe’s government. He fled Liberia after embezzling a million dollars but was arrested in the US on another embezzlement charge.  He escaped prison though there is strong evidence he was assisted by the CIA who used him as an agent in Africa. 

Taylor went to Libya where he was one of many West African revolutionaries trained by Gaddafi’s army in the late 1980s. There he met Foday Sankoh the head of Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front. As leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia Taylor provided a training camp for the RUF in Liberia as well as instructors, recruits and material support. The RUF attacked Sierra Leone from Liberia with the aid of NPLF troops in March 1991. But the two invaders fell out a year later and Taylor withdrew his NPLF army.

Nevertheless he continued to play an active involvement in the war sending arms, ammunition and other supplies across a porous border ensuring the bitter fighting continued for another five years. The RUF ignored the Abidjan Peace Accord of November 1996 and Sankoh was invited to join the government after an army coup in May 1997. But an ECOMOG force intervened in March 1998, expelled the junta from the capital Freetown, arrested Sankoh and reinstated Tejan Kabbah’s democratically elected Government.

Renegade forces under SamBockarie kept up the fight in the provinces and Bockarie went to Liberia to meet Taylor who was now president of Liberia. Taylor stressed to Bockarie the importance of re-taking the mineral stronghold of Kono so Taylor could resume the trade in guns and ammunition for Sierra Leone diamonds. Taylor told Bockarie to make his campaign fearful to pressure the Sierra Leone Government to release Sankoh from prison and use “all means” including terror tactics to take Freetown.

Bockarie named the attack OperationNo Living Thing and anything that stood in their way would be eliminated. He retook Kono in December 1998 and attacked Freetown in January 1999. All the while, he kept in close contact with Taylor who provided him with a satellite phone. The Liberian president also sent troops and facilitated the purchase and transport of a large shipment of arms and ammunition from Burkina Faso used in the Kono attack.  After Sankoh was released from prison in 1999 he personally delivered diamonds to Taylor as did other RUF leaders until cessation of hostilities in 2002. Sierra Leone diamonds were prized as much greater quality than Liberian ones.

The defence claimed Taylor was a diplomatic force for peace. But as president of Liberia and a member of the ECOWASCommittee he wielded considerable influence over the warring factions in Sierra Leone. But while publicly participating in regional efforts to broker peace, Taylor was secretly fuelling hostilities between the RUF and the Sierra Leone government. While the Court could not find a chain of command between Taylor and Sankoh it was satisfied he gave guidance, advice, guns and money that aided and abetted multiple murders, rape, slavery and other offences as well as planning the attacks on Kono and Freetown in 1998 and 1999.  Taylor is likely to appeal the decision.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Protect or Respect: Burma’s constitutional challenge

The wording of an oath is the pawn in a dangerous power game  in Burma as newly elected democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi flexes her muscles. Her party the National League for Democracy refused to allow its newly elected members to be sworn in at the parliamentary opening in Naypyidaw yesterday. The party made an overhaul of the Constitution one of its principal promises in the recent by-election but the ruling party is refusing to change the oath. Suu Kyi claims this is not a boycott but rather just “waiting for the right time to go” to parliament. The catch is they need to sit in parliament to have any chance of getting their reforms through and some are questioning whether Suu Kyi has picked the right issue to make a stance on. (photo: AFP/File, Ye Aung Thu)

The stand-off comes several weeks after the by-elections which saw the NLD win 40 of the 44 seats it contested. The victory was seen as a transformative moment in Burmese politics but the party remains a small minority in both the upper and lower house of parliament. The by-elections and the gradual opening of Burmese democracy have been driven by president Thein Sein who came to office in March 2011 as the former prime minister and handpicked successor of Than Shwe.

Both Shwe and Sein are military men but the US used the promotion of the latter to press for reforms. In return the US would ease its crippling sanctions and urge its allies to do the same. Sein released Suu Kyi from house arrest and released political prisoners in exchange for diplomatic relations.  Sein gave his first foreign interview in January to the Washington Post and said they not only wanted to engage with the NLD but also with the 11 ethnic groups Burma was at war with. During the interview, Sein brought up the constitution to defend the right of the president to appoint the commander in chief of the armed forces. But Wapo did not follow up with a question of the validity of that constitution.

Burma has been independent since 1947 but its original constitution was torn up the military when Ne Win who came to power in a 1962 coup. The generals orchestrated a second constitution in 1974 but even that was too liberal for the military rulers who seized power in 1988 and they abolished it with along with the offices of cabinet, judiciary and local councils. They ruled without a constitution until 2008 forced to enact new under a supposed “roadmap to democracy”. Outside observers judged it a sham, not least because it reserves a quarter of all seats for the military and prevented Suu Kyi from attaining the presidency due to her non-Burmese husband. 

But the issue Suu Kyi is most worried about now is the oath to defend that constitution.  The NLD wants the oath to be reworded from “abide by and protect the Constitution” to “abide by and respect the Constitution.”  Burmese activist Min Zin said the NPD were picking the wrong battle to fight on.  “Vowing to uphold and abide the constitution does not mean that the opposition can't try to amend it later,” Zin said. “A quick look at the texts of other countries' oaths of office shows that words like uphold and even defend are commonly used, but such language has never prevented anyone from proposing constitutional amendments.”  

The question is why Suu Kyi is making an issue out of it now. She would have been aware of the oath of office prior to the election and should have mentioned it in the campaign. A more likely reason would be to try to slow down the West’s normalisation of relations until there is more substantive progress. On the same day as the parliamentary boycott, the EU agreed to suspend most of its sanctions against Burma for a year.  

Burmese exiles say the West is going too fast. Soe Aung of the Forum for Democracy in Burma said the EU has suspended sanctions knowing that its own benchmarks on Burma have not been met: the unconditional release of all political prisoners and a cessation of attacks against ethnic minorities.  The suspension allows European companies to invest in Burma, which has significant natural resources and borders economic giants China and India. British PM David Cameron said changes were not yet irreversible, “which is why it is right to suspend rather than lift sanctions for good.” Yet it seems highly unlikely that once opened, big business would allow the door to be shut again. Only the immense counterweight of Suu Kyi’s public profile stands between the Burmese Government and Western spoils of commerce without the inconvenience of a public reckoning.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

New Western Star blog

Cross-posted at the Western Starblog

This is the first attempt to do a blog for the Queensland newspaper, the Western Star. Established in 1875, the Star has published every Tuesday and Friday continuously for 136 years from the town of Roma, 490kms west of Brisbane. It roughly covers the Maranoa council region serving towns such as Mitchell, Injune, Surat and Wallumbilla, in a rough 140km radius of Roma. (photo of Hodgson grain mill at dusk - Derek Barry)

That makes the area we cover larger than the European country of Croatia. But while Croatia has 4.2 mllion people in its 57,000 sq km, the Maranoa has just 13,000 souls spread across its 58,000 sq km.

Up to about a year ago, the Western Star was a print only publication. We took our first tentative steps onto the Internet when we created the Western Star Facebook page. We also created a Twitter page and linked the Facebook feed to also display in Twitter. We used the Facebook account to promote the newspaper and to publish community information that could not wait until the next print publication.

It wasn’t until January 2012, the Western Star finally started putting its content online starting with a back to school story. In early February, there were serious floods in the region that impacted Roma and Mitchell which gave us a chance to put important and timely content. Both towns broke river and creek height records. Thousands were cut off, hundreds of homes were inundated in both towns and one person lost her life in Roma.

A disaster management group was set up to deal with events in both towns. This author was invited to sit in on the group. This proved invaluable at getting reliable information out quickly via Facebook and the web site. The flooding happened on a Friday so previously we would have had to wait until Tuesday before publishing any information. Not this time. We were usually publishing as quickly as radio and in far more detail and authority. The feedback we got was that we were providing an essential service with timely and reliable information and we also posted a huge gallery of photos of the flood impact in both towns. Our Facebook likes soared from around 200 people to over a thousand in a couple of days.

The reliability of that information was directly related to my ability to sit in on the decisions as they were taken. The fact we were trusted by the audience was because I was trusted at the disaster group meetings to do the right thing. Occasionally in these meetings, dirty laundry got aired and I respected all requests by those doing the airing, not to publish this material. I told them if they could not debate these life and death matters freely, then there was no point in my being there. I would only publish material I felt to be in the public interest.

As soon as possible after the meeting, I would get back to my desk and write up a report on the latest flood news to go on the web and on Facebook. There were updates from the firies, ambos, police, SES, Ergon Energy, Main Roads, Council and other agencies. If something was particularly urgent, I would send an update directly from the meeting to our Facebook page. Things were happening so quickly, we occasionally got things wrong. When this happened we were quick to put out a correction and an explanation why we got something wrong. Trust was critical to our mission, so it was something we valued immensely.

The positive audience reaction shows what can be done when a news outlet is trusted. Today, our Facebook has stabilised just under 1300 “likes” which while small is still a substantial subset of our readership. Our print circulation of around 3000, and there is at least a thousand people that read us on Facebook that don’t read the paper. These are people who don’t buy or read newspapers or are part of the Roma Diaspora interested in the region but who live somewhere where they cannot easily buy the paper.

I am unsure what audience this blog will attract. That is in part because I am unsure what content will be provided here that isn’t provided elsewhere. Blogging is actually an older technology than Facebook. Blogging took off in 2002 after Google Blogger provided an easy to use interface to a population traumatised by 9/11 that wanted a public platform to write about it. Now people write blogs about everything under the sun. Blogging is a brilliant democratic tool that opened the freedom of the press to everyone.

Writing a blog is relatively easy but finding an audience remains difficult. The word “blogging” has negative overtones, its bad reputation often spread by newspapers. Yet newspaper websites are now chock-a-block with “blogs” because it seems to offer a way of publishing something in a simple and easy to use format. There is no general agreement on what a blog is other than it is a log of writing presented under a banner in reverse chronological order with the ability for readers to add comments. In many respects Facebook does this but not everyone is on Facebook. That why a blog is still useful and why there are now hundreds of millions of them on the Internet.

I am hoping the Western Starblog will evolve to fill some niche in our writing I’ve yet to fully understand. I welcome comments and suggestions on where to take it next.

Derek Barry,
Editor, the Western Star

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Governor of Queensland takes the road from Diamantina to Roma

The Governor of Queensland Penelope Wensley AC was in Roma and Mitchell this weekend and I caught up with her at engagements in both towns. The Governor met flood victims in both towns though her visit was organised off the back of an art gallery exhibition opening in Roma last night. The Governor is patron of 120 organisations one of which is Royal Queensland Art Society. Brisbane husband and wife artist team Joan and Len Cooper are holding the exhibition in Roma as they also celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary and invited the Governor and her husband Stuart McCosker to attend. They accepted the invitation.

I sent one of my journalists to catch up with the Governor at the meet-up of Roma flood victims and I later met her at the art opening. She spoke at length at the opening and well used to boring speeches I was expecting the worst. I was pleasantly surprised then by a touching, humorous and well considered speech that I know she spent considerable effort researching and putting together.

Governor Wensley noted that Roma was celebrating its sesquicentenary this year. Founded on the site of three pubs in 1862, it is 150 years old later this year. It was one of the first towns to be gazetted after Queensland separated from NSW and the town gained its name from the wife of Queensland’s first Governor Lady Diamantina Bowen (nee Roma). And it was clear from Governor Wensley’s speech it was Bowen’s wife she identified most with, not Queensland’s first Governor.

The young Contessa Diamantina di Roma was born on the Greek Ionian island of Zante near Corfu in 1833. Corfu had briefly passed through French hands during the Napoleonic era but by the time of Roma’s birth, her aristocratic Venetian family ruled the island in the name of Britain. Her mother was Contessa Orsola, née di Balsamo and her father Conte Giorgio-Candiano Roma was president of the Ionian Senate and known to Queen Victoria who appointed him a poet laureate.

George Ferguson Bowen was a protestant Irishman educated at Oxford and briefly in the Navy. He was appointed chief secretary to the government of the Ionian Islands in 1854 where he mixed in the same circles as Diamantina. They married in April 1856 and they stayed on Corfu until 1859. It was that year that Queensland broke free from NSW and Bowen was called by his country to serve as first Governor. Lady Bowen was about to head to unfamiliar territory but made immediately welcome by 4000 people on the docks of Brisbane waving British and Greek flags.

Following their arrival, the colony of Queensland was officially declared on Saturday, 10 December 1859. Two days later there was a function for the new Governor and his wife at the Botanic Gardens. Bowen would remain Governor of Queensland for eight years, an interventionist Governor who was sometimes popular and sometimes unpopular. He had debts to deal with after NSW closed down all its Queensland bank accounts and he had to create a civil service from scratch. It didn’t help his politicians were naive. Robert Herbert was just 28 when he became Queensland’s first premier and had arrived here as Bowen’s private secretary.

But Queensland would thrive as would the Bowens. Without the demands of office, Diamantina was extremely popular. Governor Wensley said despite her privileged upbringing in Greece, Lady Bowen loved the very different landscape of Queensland. She felt instantly at home in the climate and brought a sense of nobility and grace lacking in the young rough and tumble colony. Three of her six children were born in Brisbane. She was active in social welfare and became patron of many charitable societies. Her daughter, also Diamantina, would marry a Queensland grazier. Bowen and his wife would later serve in New Zealand, Victoria, Mauritius and Hong Kong before retiring to Britain.

There were 23 more governors of Queensland that followed Bowen before Wensley took over in July 2008. A distinguished diplomat she was appointed to the position after her predecessor Quentin Bryce was promoted to Governor-General of Australia. Penelope Wensley was a country girl born in Toowoomba in 1946. She joined the Australian Foreign Service in 1968 - the only woman selected in an intake of 19.

Wensley has a stellar diplomatic career at postings across the world including following in Bowen’s footsteps as Consul-General in Hong Kong. She was involved in putting together the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the UN Convention to combat Drought and Desertification. She is keenly interested humanitarian and human rights issues, women’s rights, and environmental and sustainable development. When she told Roma and Mitchell flood victims this weekend she would act as an advocate for them with the new State Government, it was difficult not to believe her. Just like Lady Diamantina Roma Bowen would have done.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Room for renewal: Bob Brown quits

In another move that has caught the Canberra hive mind off guard, Greens leader Bob Brown has stood down in favour of his deputy and fellow Tasmanian Christine Milne. Adam Bandt has been elected the new deputy. Brown steps down after 18 years in the job and 16 years in parliament since election in 1996. In his media conference announcing the decision, he said there needed to be “room for renewal”. The timing was related to the need for the Tasmanian Greens to decide on their Senate candidates for the next election before July. Aged 67, Brown did not want to commit to another six years in parliament.

Bernard Keane called Brown’s career a third party triumph. Keane said Brown went from being the only Green in parliament between 1998 to 2001 to the leader of nine senators in 2010 with a vote of 13 per cent. “At a time when politics is increasingly professionalised and parties are pushing younger, less experienced people into senior positions, Brown was a traditional conviction politician, forthright in attacking the most sacred of cows in Australian public policy on economics, the media and foreign policy,” Keane said.

Brown trained as a doctor and gained political prominence as the head of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society during the campaign to save the Franklin Dam. He was elected to the Tasmanian Parliament in 1983. In his book Bob Brown: Gentle Revolutionary James Norman called Brown the stalwart who has made the Greens the only unambiguously left-wing opposition party in Australia with enormous personal respect. “This gently spoken, bespectacled gay doctor has become something of a national hero of almost pop star status,” Norman wrote in 2005. “Respected even by those who diametrically oppose his politics.”

Some seven years later, not all his enemies were prepared to give him respect. News Ltd’s David Penberthy has been a strong critic for some time. In July 2010 he suggested Brown should be replaced as leader and last month he ridiculed Brown’s third annual Green Oration which opened with the salutation “fellow Earthians” as a “batty speech” and a “deep ecologist ramble” which demonstrated Brown’s “dippy enviro-spiritualism”.

Such attacks from News Ltd are not new to Brown. The Australian infamously editorialised in 2010 that Brown and his Green colleagues “are hypocrites; that they are bad for the nation; and that they should be destroyed at the ballot box.” In 2011 Brown called News “hate media” for their misrepresentations of him and the climate debate. The biggest selling daily in Australia, Melbourne’s Herald-Sun implored its readers to “Stop this man ruining the nation”.

In the end it wasn’t Murdoch’s papers that forced Brown out; it was his own sense of the need for party renewal. It is not quite generational change. New leader Christine Milne will be 59 next month. Milne has followed in the footsteps of Brown into the Tasmanian Green movement, then the State Parliament, then Canberra and now the leadership. She is determined to put a new stamp on the party, talking today of the need to appeal to ““progressive business”. With her rural background, she said the Greens must also appeal to rural and regional voters.

As someone who now lives in a rural area, I can safely say this will be a mighty challenge despite obvious synergies. Both rural people and the Greens claim to love the land, but see stewardship of it in different ways. Most rural people are suspicious of the Greens as a city-based organisation with little knowledge or empathy about how country folk live their lives. The Greens don’t have any organisation or presence in the bush. They also treat country voters with contempt by placing people in elections that don’t live in or even visit the constituency or cannot be bothered to talk to local media, such as Greens Warrego candidate Graeme Maizey in the recent Queensland election who was rewarded for his lack of engagement with just 2% of the vote.

Perhaps Milne can draw on the work of another Queensland template. Former Queensland Green senate candidate Drew Hutton is now working closely with Queensland farmers as president of the Lock the Gate Alliance against the coal seam gas industry. The Alliance says it is a national group of over 120 community, industry and environmental groups and over 1000 supporters concerned with “the devastating impact that certain inadequately assessed and inadequately-regulated fossil fuel extraction industries are having on our short and long term physical, social, environmental and economic wellbeing.”

The Alliance is likely to appeal to Milne as she seeks to grow the party towards its next stage of evolution. Brown has achieved much since starting the Greens from the ashes of the United Tasmania Party culminating with the election of Adam Bandt and the Coalition agreement with Labor in 2010. But as he said today “we don’t just want to keep the so-and-sos honest, we want to replace them.” Outright power is still a long way away for a party that polls in the low teens. Their biggest vote is among young people but as Pollytics analysed in 2009, it is a volatile demographic. If Milne can somehow reach across the suspicious divide, there may well be room for renewal.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Malawi's Banda of sisters

Joyce Banda was sworn in on the weekend as president of Malawi – and just the second female head of state of an African country. Banda was the country’s vice president and was promoted after 78-year-old president Bingu wa Mutharika died of cardiac arrest on Friday. Banda took the oath of office before parliament in the capital Lilongwe on Saturday as a threatened power succession struggle never eventuated. Banda and Mutharika were former party colleagues and Banda was promoted to vice president in 2009. (photo: AFP)

Mutharika and Banda ran together for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party in the 2009 elections but fell out just two months after they assumed office when the President started positioning his 72-year-old brother and Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Mutharika to succeed him on retirement in 2014. Mutharika expelled her from the party. Banda and other disgruntled politicians from the DPP and other parties launched the Peoples' Party. However Malawi’s constitution prevented Mutharika from sacking her as vice president.

Matters worsened in 2010 after former colonial power Britain slashed $4.5m from its annual $33m aid budget when Malawi bought a $13.26 million presidential jet. Britain said its aid criteria were based on the three principles of government commitment to poverty reduction, sound public financial management and human rights. Malawi relies on aid for 40 percent of its budget and the country is desperate undeveloped. Only one in 20 of Malawi's population has access to electricity while the rest depend on charcoal and paraffin for cooking and lighting respectively.

When Mutharika died, the country’s information minister Patricia Kaliati said Banda could not take over as head of state because she was in opposition. However strong calls from the US, EU and Britain and stopped a resistance movement to her ascension from gaining any traction. One of Banda's first actions was to sack Kaliati.

The 61-year-old Banda is no relation to Malawi’s founding president Hastings Banda who achieved independence for what was then Nyasaland from Britain in 1963. The earlier Banda chose the name Malawi for the country based on a corruption of Lake Maravi. Following a typical African post-colonial trajectory, Banda turned Malawi into a one party state and became immensely wealthy. A pro-Western proxy, his power and support faded after the end of the Soviet Union and by 1993 the internal pressure for democratic change was intense.

In the 1994 elections Hastings Banda was defeated by Elson Bakili Muluzi. Muluzi proved just as corrupt as his predecessor and siphoned off millions from the sale of Malawi's food reserves. Despite this Muluzi was re-elected in 1999 and tried to change the constitution to run a third time in 2004. He was frustrated by parliament, the courts and demonstrations in the street and was forced to stand aside, anointing Mutharika to replace him. Within 12 months Muluzi was apologising for his choice of successor and set himself to run again in 2009.

But an anti-corruption investigation into him in 2008 crippled his campaign and the country’s Electoral Commission and the courts combined to stop him from running again. Mutharika was at the height of his powers having overseen an increase in agricultural production. But the subsidies Mutharika paid to lift harvests could not be sustained after Britain cut its aid budget.

Joyce Banda was one of Mutharika’s earliest ministerial appointments. A single mother and refugee from a violent marriage, she had run several successful businesses before entering parliament in 2004. She quickly proved her mettle rising to become Foreign Affairs minister after just two years in office. She was made deputy for the 2009 election but felt betrayed after Mutharika endorsed his brother as successor.

The role of Peter Mutharika now becomes crucial as Banda attempts to establish her presidential credentials. Mutharika is relatively new to Malawi politics have lived in the US for decades as a teacher of law. He congratulated Banda on her appointment but is likely to become her biggest issue as he becomes DPP leader following his older brother.

His congratulations may be smart politics. Mutharika’s brother’s death was not greatly mourned. As Al Jazeera said, many of Malawi’s 13 million people saw him as an autocrat responsible for an economic crisis precipitated by the British withdrawal of aid. Fixing Malawi’s flailing economy presents a great challenge to Banda. There is plenty of time between now and 2014 for her to become unpopular allowing Mutharika an easy run at bringing the leadership back into the family.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Acting the goat

I had a near miss at the Roma goat races today. I was in front of a big crowd on the racing side of the barrier in order to get a good photo. When the goats set off I trained my camera on the leaders and started clicking. They passed me halfway down the course and I turned around to watch the finish. However one stray goat came loose from the field and bore down on me. I was unaware of the threat until I turned around at the last second. I saw a rider with arms outstretched as he attempted to regain control of the goat while avoiding clattering into me with his billycart.

I just had time to lean back out of the way and the wheels went over my foot. It also went over my camera bag but somehow did not smash the lens. A little surprised ut otherwise unhurt, I turned towards the goat and rider which trundled its way back on track. The goat was feisty but hardly distressed and there was no other damage done. Yet this tale could easily be another nail in the coffin of the races, the signature event of Roma’s Easter in the Country.

Easter in the Country is a rolling four day festival with something on in town each day of the weekend. There is an Easter parade, markets, thoroughbred racing, a rodeo, drag racing, speedway, motocross, an art show, bush poets and many other events dotted through town. Easter in the Country has been going for 35 years and over time the Easter Saturday goat races have become the iconic event attracting the biggest crowd. Today the main street was closed to traffic and packed with pedestrians finding the best vantage point for the two races. There are five goats in each race and the atmosphere is good-natured and friendly.

But it may be the last of its kind in Roma. Goat racing is legal but Animal Liberation wants it stopped on grounds of cruelty. Animal Lib has been concentrating on northern NSW and has been successful in closing down three goat races. Bundarra had to end its goat race due to the adverse publicity. Lightning Ridge has also replaced its Easter goat race with a big dig for opals in the main street.

The last straw was a Today Tonight report of 21 October 2011 which was a grab of selected crashes at a NSW country meet in Woolbrook. The Channel Seven report typically appealed to “think of the children” mentality while also making itself the story. The footage showed safety and wellbeing could be improved at Woolbrook (there was no examples of pulling goats by the horns in Roma). But the report did not prove Animal Liberation’s claim it was “barbaric and cruel”.

Cruel practices to goats remain unproven in law. However the mere taint of such publicity is now affecting Roma. One of the major Easter in the Country sponsors is threatening to pull out because of the goats. This is a big deal because Easter in the Country is as a not for profit organisation. Unpaid volunteers spend 12 months getting ready for the next event and rely almost totally on sponsorship. They get little financial support from Council (mostly in kind) but bring a lot of tourist dollars to Roma and the region.

The Easter in the Country committee knows the goat races are a drawcard and believes its goats are treated safely and humanely. I saw no evidence to the contrary today (my careless moment aside). Yet they cannot deliver a festival without sponsorship and unless a generous patron can be found that does not believe goat racing is cruel, the practice is unlikely to continue in 2013.

The sponsors who don't condone goat racing are hypocrites. Animal welfare is not their primary concern. If it was they would also have objected to other Easter in the Country events such as horse racing, bull ride and rodeo. The real reason is possible negative public relations coming from the association between the company and a national media outlet story about cruelty.

Perhaps the future will prove me wrong and goat racing will go the way of bear baiting and fox hunting, despite our collective atavistic appetite for animal sports. Seeking a halfway house, Roma could perhaps take its solution from overseas. London has its annual Oxford versus Cambridge goat race, but these goats fly solo, unencumbered with carts or riders. Oxford lost last year due to its goat slowing down to do a poo. Oxford apparently gained such revenge when it won the inaugural stoat race. I hope no-one tells Animal Liberation.

Wanting less News: Pay TV piracy and News Corp

If there was any doubt that News Ltd have too much power in Australia, it should be dispelled by their aggressive handling of the allegations of global Pay TV piracy this last week. The issue was launched internationally by a BBC Panorama program called “Murdoch’s TV pirates” and it was given a local angle with long time Murdoch tormentor Neil Chenoweth’s series of articles in the Australian Financial Review (Chenoweth was also an adviser to the BBC program). News Ltd has tried to bully the AFR out of their allegations while also questioning SBS for showing the documentary hinting it does not correspond with the station’s code of practice.

The Panorama program focussed on a British issue. It alleged the then News Corp security arm NDS (headquartered in Israel) hired an expert team of Pay TV hackers from the piracy site called The House of Ill Compute (THOIC). Originally known as News Datacom Systems, NDS established the “Operational Security” group in the 1990s to ensure the security of Murdoch’s growing pay TV interests. Cracking codes is not illegal but spreading the cracked code to encourage piracy is. NDS busted THOIC piracy but instead of prosecuting them they hired them. The THOIC brief was to open up the security codes of NDS competitors, Canal+ (from France), and flood them on the market. This action, Panorama said, was directly responsible for the death of On Digital (later called ITV Digital) which used the Canal+ system. On Digital was the biggest pay TV threat in the UK to Murdoch’s BSkyB which had smartcards made by NDS.

Panorama tracked down Lee Gibling, the former head of THOIC who told them NDS hired him to break competitors’ smart card systems. Panorama also secretly filmed two other key witnesses, former NDS employees Ray Adams (previously Metropolitan Police commander) and Len Withall and aired the footage without their permission. The footage found evidence that emerged in 2002 showing links from THOIC to News Corp. Canal+ sued News Ltd who dealt with the problem by spending $1 billion on an Italian Pay TV company called Telepiu, owned by Vivendi Universal which was on the brink of bankruptcy. Vivendi Universal also owned Canal+. The terms of the deal was to drop the lawsuit and the Canal+ Tech team that developed the smart cards was also disbanded.

Here in Australia, the AFR published the end of what they called “a four year investigation” into similar allegations into the local pay TV market. They published an archive of 14,400 Ray Adams emails and said piracy cost Australian pay TV companies $50  million a year at its height in 2002. It helped cripple the finances of Austar, which Murdoch’s part-owned Foxtel (which uses NDS) is now buying. The AFR published emails which were submitted in legal cases brought against NDS by rival pay TV operators in the US (DirectTV, Echostar) Europe (Canal+ and Sogecable) and Malaysia (Measat). Like the way they dealt with Canal+, News Corp bought 34 percent of DirectTV to end that case. In the only one to go to trial, Echostar won three of six counts, but won only minimal damage and had to pay court costs.

In Australian law, unauthorised access to electronic networks and illicit modification of databases are criminal offences. But Bruce Arnold, Law Lecturer at the University of Canberra, is only prepared to say News Corp may have exacerbated the issue. “Academic and industry research over two decades indicates the problems experienced by the defunct or ailing television networks were primarily attributable to poor management, poor marketing and inadequate capitalisation,” Arnold said.

Finding hard evidence is not easy, as Terry McCrann alluded to when hauled out by the Herald-Sun to defend News. McCrann wanted to see an email quoted in the AFR. “You know, something like: Murdoch to 007: My plan for world pay-TV domination rests on your piracy skills. Let's target one million pirated cards by Christmas.”

McCrann was flippant but giving the nastiness at the heart of News Corp exposed in the Levinson Inquiry, it not beyond the bounds of reason to think Murdoch wanted to see exactly that: one million pirated cards on the marketplace by Christmas. Such thoughts never make it to an email. Britain’s TV regulator Ofcom is currently examining if Rupert and James Murdoch are “fit and proper” to be in control of BSkyB based on the phone hacking scandal. One of the hacked MPs Tom Watson says the pay TV allegations should be added to that investigation.

Here the ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) is reviewing the $1.9 billion Austar takeover bid. With such a cloud over the Empire, it seems beyond belief the Australian Government should allow yet another contraction of ownership in the most concentrated media landscape in the western world. Yet time after time, Murdoch gets his way in Australia. Robert Manne explains why this is a problem: “The more the media is concentrated, the greater is the problem for the health of democracy”, Manne writes. “Yet the more the media is concentrated, the less likely it is that the issue will be debated freely in the only appropriate forum for the discussion, the media itself.” News Ltd Australia should be broken up, not expanded.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Le Havre and Greg Sheridan: wonder and wormholes

I saw a movie last night where the main character is one of the most reviled archetypes in Australia: a people smuggler. The film was Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre and the character was Marcel Marx, a Frenchman who aides an African boy on the run from immigration authorities.

Though the tone, characters and their dress suggest the film could be set 50 years ago, the subject matter and its undertones bring us straight in to the issues of the present. There is a newspaper report that suggests the missing boy might have links to Al Qaeda, which has no foundation. He stowed away with others in a container ship from Libreville, Gabon and is trying to get to London to be with his mother. The plan goes awry at Le Havre port and he is taken by Marx, a former writer and now shoe shiner. The boy, Idrissa, is no more a terrorist than Marx is a people smuggler. They are both adapting their lot to a broken world magically realised in Kaurismaki’s fond vision.

I was reminded of this in an article I read in yesterday’s Weekend Australian by the execrable Greg Sheridan who masquerades as the paper’s foreign correspondent. Sheridan brought his right-wing culture war world view to the mass killer Mohamed Merah in his article “We must avoid fatal folly that helped create Europe’s leaderless jihad".

Sheridan sees Merah’s murders as part of a giant French Muslim conspiracy, or as he quotes from Le Figaro (he was actually quoting a selected translation from Euro Topics) “the creation of a suburban counter-culture that is alienated from our country's legal basis.” Sheridan claims Merah was a terrorist on a different scale to fellow mass murderers Norwegian Anders Behring Brevik and Afghan killer Staff Sgt. Robert Bales (whom he carefully avoids naming). The reason? Merah’s actions are “part of a huge wave of anti-Semitic violence, virtually all of it originating in France's Muslim community.”

Sheridan doesn’t offer a shred of evidence to back this bold claim up. On the contrary, he admits “the vast majority of France's six million or so Muslims do not engage in anti-Semitic violence” and are law abiding. But the minority “attracted to a jihadist interpretation is disturbingly large.” How big exactly? We don’t know, Sheridan doesn’t offer any facts to back up his disturbances. Instead he rushes on towards a fait accompli discussion of Islam as anti-western religion.

Sheridan’s “leaderless jihad” is a variation on the “faceless men” beloved of those which to show conspirators acting with great intent when there is no evidence to support the suggestion. The fault of the jihad belongs to the civil libertarians for not allowing police to work out in advance Merah’s intentions from his friends or his internet behaviour. There follows some breathtaking conclusions. Merah was a fundamentalist ergo Africans have failed to integrate in Europe as have Pakistanis in the UK.

The lesson therefore for Australia, says Sheridan chutzpah intact, that Australia’s “legal and orderly” process (mandatory detention, temporary protection visas and off-shore processing) for accepting refugees should not be changed. The fear is the dismantling of Howard’s Pacific Solution is that “16,000 people have arrived in Australia in unlawful boats, the majority of them Muslim and from countries with strong traditions of Islamic extremism.” Sheridan doesn’t name those countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, because it would inconvenience his argument to remind his readers why those 16,000 are on the run: long wars in their country which Australia has been involved in.

As Kaurismaki and his honest and engaging characters in Le Havre remind us, refugees are not fundamentalists. They are people simply trying to find a better life in a more prosperous and peaceful country. Marcel Marx has cleaned enough shoes in his time not to forget this and he never for a moment questions Idrissa’s motives. Le Havre is magical realism but more grounded in the facts of human migration than Sheridan’s ponderous and sinister diatribe. If the Weekend Australian is serious about promoting public debate in this country then they should offer its opinion pages to those open up that debate not close it down in anachronistic ideological wormholes.