Monday, May 31, 2004

Time to get out of Gaza

It was disappointing to wake up and hear that the Israeli cabinet has delayed its vote indefinately on the Ariel Sharon plans for a complete withdrawl from Gaza. It seems that Finance Minister Bibi Netanyahu is playing politics with it by whipping up opposition to Sharon's sensible proposal, and can sniff a second turn as Prime Minister if he can generate enough opposition to the plan and challenge Sharon's supremecy. Although leftists might resist the idea, Sharon is very much the dove in this scenario. Sharon has exposed himself to being undermined in this way through his poor decision to put the issue to a vote of the Likud membership, which rejected the idea in spite of the majority of the public supporting the proposal.

Sharon and his allies in the Cabinet need to do some deft persuading so that the withdrawl plan gets the support of the Cabinet, and soon. The floating of a four-stage withdrawl is the wrong approach, and will only prolong the difficulties and bloodshed that settlers and the IDF are facing in Gaza. A one-step "clean break" is what is needed, as well as an orderly transition to PA control to prevent militants from exploiting the administrative vacuum (presumably a cleaning device used by public servents).

Watch out for a rate rise

A pinch and a punch for the first of the month... and since it's a Tuesday tomorrow, that means the Reserve Bank will be sitting down for a yak. Look out for a 0.25% increase in interest rates, as the RBA does its bit to try and control inflation which would have been given a healthy kickalong by the government's profligate budget.

Seat watch - Solomon

This is the first of an occasional series of profiles of electorates for the 2004 Federal Election (FedElec04 it would no doubt be, if some marketing graduates got their hands on it, possibly as part of the AEC's contribution to Work for the Dole, which would in turn become Work4daDole). Thanks to the fine folks at Mumble, a newly updated and recalculated Mackerras pendulum is available for all to see. In fairness to all, seats will be discussed in order from most marginal to least marginal, or until I get bored, whichever comes sooner.

First up is the seat of Solomon. This is an NT seat that covers a fair chunk (a technical term) of Darwin. The seat is held by the Country Liberal Party's David Tollner by just 0.1% (a mere 45 votes decided the seat in '01... sorry, FedElec01). The Labor candidate for the seat is a local, Jim Davidson, who has a background in construction. If the government is on the nose, then Tollner is likely to feel it. Given how well Clare Martin and her territory Labor team are travelling, the party may enjoy a flow-on effect federally. A territory election is also due rather soon. Purely speculative, but one would imagine that Mark Latham's no-nonsense style would go down well in Darwin. Tollner hasn't done himself too many favours with his recent airbourne drunken antics.

The verdict - a probable gain to the ALP.

Sunday, May 30, 2004

Lees, Falconio and some territory justice

First it was the rail link, then it was the prospect of cricket in August, but finally the NT government have stumbled across the perfect way to keep its economy bubbling along - a murder mystery. It was indeed good fortune for the Darwinians that the star witness this time around happened to be an attractive Englishwoman, and not, say an ugly Kiwi bloke or a no-hoper local.

As it is, the Australian media, with a healthy selection of Fleet Street gutter-crawlers, have headed to Darwin for the Lees-Falconio hearing. Let's hope that the magistrate is a proud territorian and allows the case to progress from the committal hearing in the Maggie's Court to a full blown Supreme Court battle.

What is remarkable, although probably not surprising, is how much of the media has focussed on the most minute of details surrounding Lees and her appearance in the top end. The silly saga surrounding who would have photographic access to her, as well as the regular appearance of media lawyers in the court room, is demeaning to everyone for whom journalism is a profession.

Unsurprisingly, Lees jetsetted straight back home as soon as her appearance was over, but if the case does go to trial she will no doubt be back. When she does arrive back, the media would do well to give her some breathing space, and a chance to have some control over the situation. By not doing this the first time around, the media have suffocated their own story.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Thomas on tackling terror - and truly terrible aliteration

One of the most incisive commentators on the state of the planet is the New York Times' Thomas Friedman. (Wait a couple of days and it will no doubt pop up in The Age and The SMH.)

In his column today, "Shoulda Woulda Can", Friedman throws around some ideas on practical ways forward to combat terror. Through he doesn't address the politics of it, you get the impression that Bush is in a much worse position that Kerry to implement some of the ideas that Friedman puts up. For all his huffing and puffing in Iraq, Bush still seems genuinely clueless on practical, non-invasive methods of challenging terror.

Some of Friedman's ideas are just plain kooky - improving the libraries at US Embassies, for example, as if Osama bin Laden is just a bedtime story away from being at peace with the world (maybe Mark Latham should look into it as well) - some of them have a lot of merit.

A US Patriot Tax of a couple of cents a gallon (or litre will do just fine) to put into research into hydrogen as an alternative fuel source is clever, and will do plenty to challenge the economic foundations of many terror-sponsoring oil regimes. It's also a nifty proposal that will marginally reduce consumption and keep the air just that bit cleaner. Seems like a tick in every box. The sooner these oil regimes can diversify their economy, the sooner democracy and liberal markets will have a fighting chance of gaining a foothold.

The overarching theme coming out of Friedman's column, and much of his past writing, is the need to return to the rules of international behaviour and to rediscover respect and faith in international institutions of governance. There's no doubt that much of the lack of support for these institutions is due to the institutions themselves, with diploma-speak coming first and action a distant second. However, these institutions - from the UN, Kyoto agreement, ICC (that's the criminal court, not the cricket council, which, by the way, is just about beyond repair) - are worthy of being reformed rather than rejected. It seems unlikely, though, that Bush can lead the way.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Tea with Robert

In a sleeper story that hasn't made the impact it deserved to, Sky News in the UK on Monday aired an interview with Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe. This is the first 'in depth' interview that Mugabe has given in four years, and Mugabe seems to be in a state of denial about the depths to which his country has sunk, as well as showing breathtaking contempt for the rest of the world.

Interviewer Stuart Ramsay did well to tackle Mugabe on some of the trickier aspects of being a despot. Try these quotes on for size...

On the grossly unfair 2000 election:

STUART RAMSAY: International observers were critical of the election.

ROBERT MUGABE: Which international observers?

STUART RAMSAY: A variety of countries.

ROBERT MUGABE: Which ones?

STUART RAMSAY: Britain obviously was one of them, Australia...

ROBERT MUGABE: Great Britain, you know the attitude of Britain, they will never accept anything as right when it is done by us.

On food aid from the World Food Programme...

STUART RAMSAY: Countries like Britain and the United States having given, what, Britain £51 million in the last 18 months to assist Zimbabwe and yet you only have critical words for Britain and the United States.

ROBERT MUGABE: What is this?

STUART RAMSAY: They give financial assistance to aid agencies directly to bring in food and whatever general assistance is needed here.

ROBERT MUGABE: We have expressed our gratitude to WFP for its assistance.

STUART RAMSAY: The major donors are Britain and the United States.

ROBERT MUGABE: Well yes, sure, so when we say thank you to WFP we were saying thank you to the donors of WFP aren't we?

STUART RAMSAY: Are you saying thank you to Great Britain?

ROBERT MUGABE: We are saying thank you to WFP.

An President Mugabe, the eternal optimist:
ROBERT MUGABE: We are producing it this year, definitely. Our estimates are there and they are showing us we will have enough food for the country and with a surplus.

STUART RAMSAY: 800,000 tons the shortfall is estimated.

ROBERT MUGABE: Why is WFP wanting to feed us when we are saying that...

STUART RAMSAY: Because they don't want people to starve.

ROBERT MUGABE: We are not hungry. It should go to hungrier people, hungrier countries than ourselves. They need the food and we urge it to go and do good work there.

But at least Mugabe has it right on one thing. This is his perspective on the vital role of the Commonwealth:
ROBERT MUGABE: Well the relevance is that it is a kind of club where there is a comradeship and you discuss issues of all kinds, political issues, issues that have to do with the international situation. You discuss economic issues as well but at the end of the day you do nothing about them, you see, except maybe gang together, have a cup of tea and actually, practically do nothing.

There is some hope, thankfully, to come out of the Ramsay interview. At age 80, with no clear successor, Mugabe is close to meeting his maker. This will be the best chance in ages for a more moderate replacement, with a basic respect for democracy and the rule of law. Perhaps it's due to the obsessive focus on Iraq, but Zimbabwe does deserve much more attention that it's currently receiving. Of course, this leads to the perennial problem that faces the developed world in tackling despots - how do you bring down a leader without hurting ordinary civilians. Sanction? Bombs? Nasty motions passed by UN General Assembly? Hmmmm....

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Draper - some pespective, please

What a tired saga the Trish Draper story is. Yes, she was in the wrong. Yes, she exercised appalling judgement. Yes, she's become a political liability, in the short term at least. But let's put it in perspective - this is the suggestion that 4 years ago, $5000 may or may not have been spent by an MP in contravention of the government guidelines. Today Tonight had the story, and a court injunction later, the story hit the airwaves last night.

Only the most ardent and one-eyed of the John Howard Army will come out and defend Draper's actions as being in line with the guidelines for claiming spouse/de facto travel entitlements. This is not in dispute.

Instead, there is a strong case to be made that there is much more significant unjustifiable waste and petty corruption in the highest levels of government that put Draper's misspending to shame. Have a look at how many millions taxpayers have been jibbed through a wink-and-a-nod agreement over the leasing of Cententary House in Canberra during the dying days of the Keating government? Have a look at how many millions were wasted in political propaganda dressed up as government information in the introduction of the GST, Medicare Plus etc. Have a look at how much is being wasted right now in the flinging of mud between state Labor governments and a coalition federal government over the allocation of grants to the states.

The waste in all this spending is exponentially higher than the waste attributed to Draper. True, these stories are less sexy than the Draper scandal (full marks, BTW, to Today Tonight for incorporation shots of a porno website into the story, tabloid producers around the world would be in awe) but the amount of waste is far more significant, and equally as blatant.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Bracks, Crooked Cops and a Royal Commission

Get ready for another Bracksflip. The esteemed Victorian Premier's second term seems to be defined by a tendancy to second guess his own decisions (and worse, getting them wrong in the first place). While in his first term, Steve Bracks surprised most pundits by holding the affairs of state together with a young, rather inexperienced ministerial team, his second term shows that he has unlearnt many of the lessons that he learnt in the first.

After backflipping on tolls to the Mitcham-Frankston Freeway (a road which, in Ari-on-the-web's opinion, should never be built anyhow) and then just last week on the placement of a Toxic Dump in the verbal toxic dump of ruralandregionalVictoria, Bracksflip number three is fast approaching.

After doing his best impression of an ostrich on the issue of police corruption, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Victoria needs a Fitzgerald-style inquiry into official corruption in the police force. So far, the Government has insisted that the best means of investigating crooked cops is an expanded Ombudsperson's office. However, as more and more is revealed about misdeeds in the Drug Squad, and suggestions of close links between Ganglangers and those who are policing them, the Ombudsman option looks increasingly inadequate.

Here's the deal, Mr Premier. It is time to bite the bullet (a police issue .38, with your government's name on it) and call for a Royal Commission. If you do it now, you can maintain the illusion that you are in control and that it was of your own chosing. If you wait much longer, and more allegations are made, it will appear that you have been forced into it, kicking and screaming. Not a good look.

It's a mistake that shouldn't have been made in the first place - as soon as evidence of corruption started flowing, a Royal Commission should have been called. Catch the problem early, and appear in control. Now that the mistake has been made, corrective action is needed as soon as possible.

And while you're at it, give the cops some legal muscle in their battle against Ganglanders. It looks like they need it.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Friday night football

Seemingly endless war in Iraq, train crashes in North Korea, seriously crooked cops in Melbourne, tricky Trish Draper... all might suggest that things are not looking too crash hot in the world at the moment. But I think we can safely forget all that, because COLLINGWOOD HAVE JUST BROKEN THEIR SIX GAME LOSING STREAK!!!

The view from the top deck of Dockland Stadium was that it was the Magpies younger brigade that lifted the team from the depths it had sunk to in previous weeks. With 7 players aged 20 or under, it was possible that on field leadership would be difficult to come by, but when Adelaide seriously challenged the Pies in the last quarter, the mental resolve of the players was evident. So let's hear it for Rhyce Shaw and Cameron Cloke and Matthew Lokan, second tier players who shone through tonight.

Another streak was also broken at the game on Friday. About six years had passed since Ari-on-the-web (who at that time was simply Ari) last purchased anything to eat at the football. A combination of work, and post-work boozing, had led to a hunger that couldn't wait until after the game. Bewildered by the culinary delights on offer at Docklands, Ari-on-the-web opted for a traditional footy staple - jam doughnuts. Four of them. Courtesy of the highly conflicted folks at Spotless Catering. A little underwhelmed by the ratio of jam to doughnut, for this hungry football patron the product struggled to satisfy an appetite. A week may be a long time in football, but six years, it seems, is but a blink of an eye when it comes to catering.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Fairfax sake...

Where have all the journalists gone? Just days ago, the SMH announced that it was downsizing (or is it rightsizing now - I'll need to consult my corporate wankspeak dictionary to find out) its editorial staff. Initially through voluntary redundencies, and then presumably through more forceful means, the Herald hopes to slash 35-45 from its newsroom workforce, for a saving of $4 million annually. John Fairfax Holdings, publishers of the SMH, made the ASX announcement on Tuesday, and The Australian followed up on Wednesday with a piece that had only the faintest hint of "Nyah-nyah-nyah-nyaaaaah-nyah".

There are two separate issues that arise from this decision. Firstly, what does it say about Fairfax, and secondly, what does it say about opportunities for Australian journos.

First, the first one. It's no secret that Fairfax are doing it tough at the moment. The chairman, Fred Hilmer has announced he is standing down, and the search is on for a replacement. The classifieds market - "the rivers of gold", to use an overused cliche - are slowly being eroded by the internet. Fairfax's online division, f2, has cost the best part of $100 million, and it's too early to tell whether the media empire did its dough on a rickety New Zealand venture. So is the SMH decision a further sign of the problems that face Fairfax, or is it simply generational change? Also, can we count the days now until we hear rumblings about The Age and SMH merging their Canberra bureau? The speculation has done the rounds before (check out the speculation in this ancient piece on Nine's Sunday in 1998), but surely it can't be too long until it's a reality.

Next up, the second one. It's getting tougher and tougher for journalists to get a gig these days. So many of the graduates from journalism and writing courses around the country seem to find themselves working in PR or advertising and so few of them make it to the newsroom coalface. Is it any wonder given that that is where job security and opportunities lie? With the ABC cutting it's cadets programme, Fairfax cutting staff, News Ltd requiring an unhealthy devotion to Rupe, it seems that opportunities are limited. Surely these room in a mature, cosmopolitan media market like Australia for another national daily?

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Time to take a stand

Today's the day that the world discovers another of my fetishes - sport. Not as a participant of course, but in the much more Australian role as a keen observer. The money, ethics and politics of getting a bit of excercise is fascinating stuff.

The time has come to make the tough call on cricket in Zimbabwe. No longer can the Australian national side hide behind the increasingly inadequate fig-leaf protection of the "sport and politics don't mix" line. They do, and they have been mixed by the decision of the ZCU to refuse to select white players for the national side, an innately political move that reflects the authoritarian state that Zimbabwe has become. The decision by 15 of the ousted white players to 'strike' is a noble one, and surely a difficult personal decision given the fearsome reputation of nationalist Prime Minister Robert Magabe.

The Australian side cannot shirk their responsibility. To refuse to play on the grounds that the Zimbabwean side is woefully bad and unable to play at an international standard is a glib cop out. To argue that the players should leave the country because their personal safety is at risk is a furphy. Instead, the Australian side need to stand firm and state their reasons clearly and unabiguously - they will not play against a side who's selection policy is based on race and not skill.

The fact that this situation has reached the point that it has is a poor reflection on the muddle-headed bureaucrats who run the game. The ZCU should have suffered the wrath of the ICC as soon as its race-based policy was introduced, rather than waiting for the national cricket bodies of competing sides to confront the issue as they were scheduled to play Zimbabwe. The ICC need to move beyond being "gutless wonders" on this issue, otherwise the issue will fester and continue to haunt the game.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

An embarrassed Government's last resort?

Top marks to the spin-doctors and propaganda machine who turn defense of Australia's indefensible immigration policy into an artform. On Thursday last week the government tabled the HREOC report into Australia's policy of immigration detention of children, A Last Resort? The report deserves some examination, but so does the cynical timing of its release. This was released at the tail end of budget week, when the attention of the media and public was almost exclusively focused on all things budgetary. It would be hard to find a time on the political calendar when less attention could possibly be given to the document. Well spun, chaps. Murali would be proud.

The report itself is damning of the government, and so it should be. The findings demonstrate the gross physical, mental and psychological harm caused to children who spend a significant chunk of their time in detention. Slowed development, poor socialisation and suicidal tendencies have all been found in children in detention, and the best interests of children is sadly ignored. Of course, it shouldn't have taken a hefty report from HREOC to demonstrate what all of us knew instinctively - the wrong side of barbed wire is not a good place to bring up kids.

Perhaps most shameful is the overarching finding that:
Australia's immigration detention laws, as administered by the Commonwealth, and applied to unauthorised arrival children, create a detention system that is fundamentally inconsistent with the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

The report then goes onto to identify the clauses of the CRC breached by the Australian government. The findings and recommendations of the report is testament to how easily steps could be taken to improve the lot of kids in detention. Given that more than 90% are accepted into Australia as genuine refugees, the collective benefit of taking up these recommendations is hard to ignore. Not just for their time as detainees, but also to aid their social adaption after release.

Let's not delude ourselves that Australia is the worst offender when it comes to CRC breaches. Child soldiers fighting forgotten wars in Africa, child labour in Asia and the use of children as tools for terrorism in the Middle East are all likely to knock Australia out of the Kiddie Abuse World Cup by the Quarter Finals. But as a first-world, educated, informed and open society with a decent respect for international law, Australia should be leading by example rather than wallowing in excuses.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Wondrous Oblivion

Race issues on film tend to have a rather earnest, aren't-all-those-nasty-racists-evil feel to them. Often they miss the subtlety of the time and place that they are set and instead hit the viewer over the head with a morality tale.

Thankfully, Wondrous Oblivion (mostly) avoids this trap and tells a strong story with a valuable message. This film tells the story of brooding racism in suburban England in the 1960s, where a Jamaican family move in next door to a family of Jewish holocaust survivors and their nosy and none-too-subtle racist neighbours. Soon friendship blossoms between the son of the survivors and the Jamaican family, a friendship fostered over a joint love of cricket.

The film gently takes the mickey (I would say 'piss', but it is English after all) out of racial stereotypes, of the Jamaican family, the Jewish entrepreneur and the whiter-than-white nosy neighbours. This device means that the viewer can at different points relate to the dilemmas faced by the protagonists. The only disappointment is that the racist thug who brings the film to its climax is so utterly two-dimensional and lacking in a motivation that he is too easy to hate.

Still, good acting, a cozy suburban setting, and being one of only two films that I can think of involving cricket (the other being The Crying Game, which featured both bat and balls) all make for a film with plenty of affection without pulling its punches.

It's a lazy Sunday arvo...

What better way to share my thoughts with the world than via the medium of modern telecommunications and its finest product, the internet. It's no longer just an place for nut-bag political conspiracy theorists, amateur pornographers and suicidal degenerates to feel at home - now it's for me as well.

Strap yourself in for a bumpy ride. My hope is that this blog will catalogue my various obscure and largely unrelated interests. Media and communications. Travel to obscure places. Elections. Counter-culture. Trams, trains and buses. North Korea. The Collingwood Football Club. There's something for everyone, but except for me, probably not everything for someone.

Let's start with the second last one first. Come the end of the year, I hope to travel to North Korea (actually, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. That's the one without elections. Where 3 million people starved to death in the 1990s. With a head of state revered more than any monarch could possibly ever be. Well, they got the Korea bit right). Perhaps the place is not quite as opaque and impenetrable as previously thought. One person to sample the delights that the DPRK has to offer is Peter Crowcroft, and you can check it out here
What strikes me is how vibrant and lively the city shots seem to be, compared at least to expectations (and Hobart).

I guess perceptions and reality differ somewhat like the way perception and reality differed in the former Soviet Union. Every mental picture most of us on the other side of the iron curtain have is of cold, dark, graying, lifeless streets. Why is it so? Did the sun not shine where Communism thrived? Did people lose all aesthetic sense? Of course not. Just the same is the case, it seems, in downtown Pyongyang.