Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The Real Bangkok Hilton

Lazing back at the hostel planning on my next big adventure, I came across this on the notice board (read the whole thing here):

It is usually possible to go and visit a prisoner without prior notice.
These visits allow the visitor to have a conversation with only a fence,
( or two fences as at Bangkwang ) between yourself the prisoner.

Message boards around Bangkok invite the casual traveler to visit anytime.
SCHEDULES : Bangkwang Klong Prem Lard Yao Women's Prison

This was an experience too exciting to pass up. There are so many layers to this encounter, I think I should start off by just explaining what I saw:

Dutifully, I followed the straight foward instructions that lead me to the river, on a 30 minute river express boat ride up to the poverty-riddled northern part of Bangkok, and then for a brief walk to the prison grounds. The visitors centre is a chaotic open-air courtyard, with surly bureaucrats and young families clustered around some tables and chairs fanning themselves from the heat. Amongst the crowd of Thais there were a handful of western faces, whom I approached.

There were five fellow backpackers (from Canada, Finland and the UK) as well as a missionary worker from Holland, Greet (her name, not her response to me). Greet has been travelling to Bangkok twice a year for nearly a decade, and has befriended many of the prisoners. She is also fully aware of the procedures for visiting prisoners. Following her instructions, I photocopied my passport with the help of one of the officials, and then obtained a visitors slip from another. Along with all the details about myself, I also had to nominate the prisoner I was there to visit. At the hostel I had read a little about Jagnathan Samynathan, a Malaysian national imprisoned at Bangkwang. I put his name on the form.

As a group, the seven of us then headed across to the prison itself. Bags need to be checked it - including cameras, money, books... everything but for pen and paper, passport and a bottle of water. The visiting centre at the prison is a chaotic, noisy one, not helped by the mid-construction of the new centre in the same area. On one side, prisoners sit side by side with a decent space between each, on simple benches. In from of them is thickly matted wire, with spaces of no more than a square centimetre in the long fence. On the opposite side is the visitors area, with a similar set up. Visitors sit along long benches, with wire and bars in front of them. A metre gap separates the prisoners' fence from the visitors' fence.

At one end of these long parallel fences sit the Thai prisoners and their visitors, whilst at the other sit the foreign prisoners. Speaking with a raised voice is the only way to communicate, due to both the distance between the visitor and prisoner, and also the noise from other conversations. It is trying and frustrating, but the prisoners are used to the inconvenience and carry on regardless. On the wall in both English and Thai is a warning that any anyone caught trying to organise narcotic sales will be given the death penalty. And have a nice day.

Finally I met Jagnathan, or Jag as he soon became. Jag was an amazingly warm and friendly man, talking at ease about some of the most horrendous and soul-destroying experiences. Piece by piece his story was revealed. Jag is a committed Christian from the Mallaca province in Malaysia and in his late 30s. When a shipping business he was the founder of was struggling in 1991, he headed to Bangkok to try and make his fortune. Soon a drug deal he was involved in went horribly wrong, and the participants who had been caught immediately led them to Jag, who was arrested for his part. With the aid of a Thai government appointed lawyer (who did not speak English, with Jag - at the time - not speaking any Thai) he saw his options as to plead guilty, and accept a life sentence which might be commuted to a lengthy stay, or to plead not guilty, and if he lost, to face the death penalty, which might be commuted to life in prison, with little hope of any shoter sentence. He chose to fight it, and lost.

Jag has spent 14 years on the inside of Bangkwang prison. In 1996, at the 50th annivesary of the King's corronation, his death penalty was commuted to life in prison, a change which meant he no longer needed to wear shackles on his legs 24 hours a day. He has seen many prisoners come into Bangkwang, but seen few leave. Overcrowding is rife at the prison, and up to 8,000 prisoners are no held there, clearly beyond its capacity. Jag sleeps in a room with 25 others, and there is no bedding at all. They sleep on the cold floors, and if they are enterprising enough they can make a small blanket, no larger than the size of a pillow case from Jag's desciption.

As we are talking, some other prisoners walk by and stop for a chat. Two who sit down to discuss their situation are a couple of British prisoners, in prison for drug offences. Andrew Hawke, Michael Connell (more about Andrew and Michael here) and Lee James William. All of them are remarkably stoic and accepting of their plight. Universally, they accept that they have done wrong but believe they deserve a second chance. There is no sense of self-pity or desperate longing for the outside world, tempting as that must be. To keep morale high, the four joke and toy with each other, thick British accents seeming strangely out of place. They mutter about the silliness of the prison bureaucracy and its obscure rules and decisions, and there is a general consensus that the medical care is inadequate. One prisoner was told he was lying about his injured leg and so denied assistance, was Jag avoids the pain of his peptic ulcers through his own crude treatment - he avoids eating anything.

In my mind there is a stereotype of the typical prisoner, and this stereotype is only greater for those in a foreign prison. I expect world-weary people, who show the phyiscal and emotional scars of time on the inside and hold a high level of cynicism about the outside world. In my mind, it is hardened wrongdoers who find they way into prison, and they are people who know little else. The stereotype is wrong, at least in this case. The prisoners I met were fundamentally good blokes, who for their own regrettable reasons did wrong. They are worldly, intelligent, well-read and hopeful about having a decent future. Easy as it would be to dismiss them as fools or worse, they are not the dregs of society but instead the wrong people in the wrong circumstance.

Jag mentioned that he believes he has had an especially tough time because of his nationality. As a Christian from the predominantly Muslim nation of Malaysia, he believes his government was not prepared to fight for his release or his transfer home. Also because of his nationality, he believes he doesn't receive the volume of visitors the other prisoners recieve, many of which are European missionaries or British travellers keen to comfort 'one of their own'. Jag has used his time inside productively, and has learnt Thai, perfected English, and is now attempting Spanish (to go with his Malay and Tamil from before he entered) as well as learning to play the guitar. There is a sense that Jag is arming himself for life on the outside, although sadly this seems to be a long way off. Jag was hopeful that the 60th anniversary of the royal corronation in 2006 might result in a pardon for himself and some other prisoners.

Finally the bells ring and it is time to depart the visitors centre. Tearful farewells are exchanged amongst both the Thai families there to visit their loved ones and the foriegn visitors there to make contact with new people. The tears are all from those outside the prison - for those inside it is just another grinding day, and just another farewell until the next visit.

From there it was on to Klong Prem prison, a thirty minute bus ride away. Stories from inside there reflect a similar reality, although the ethnic rivalries are interesting. Several Burmese prisoners are housed at Klong Prem, including Zaw Naing Htun, who I spoke with. The foriegn prisoners are giving special treatment, including high quality white rice and and exemption from labour. The Burmese, however, are grouped with the Thai prisoners, and given the tough treatment. Like with Jag, Zaw expects little help from his Embassy and has been underwhelmed by their interest.

All in all, a dark and sinister side to Bangkok, and one that few visitors get to see. The stories from those inside haunts anyone who hears them, and this is perhaps the closest thing to a living hell. Difficult conditions, no one who cares and no hope of release.

The prisoners at Bangkwang can be contacted at:

Bangkwang Prison
Nonthaburi Road
Nonthaburi, 11000

Not quite onebig happy family

Though on the surface Thailand is a happy, tolerant, cohensive nation, a little below the surface tensions simmer and occassionally threaten to come to the boil, Pad Pak-style. Whilst Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist country, the south is predominantly Muslim. In recent times the southern Muslims have become more vocal is pushing for their civil rights and autonomy. Earlier this year, the tensions become overwhelming and in Tak Bai in Pattani province over 80 Muslim protesters - who were protesting against the treatment of prisoners - died in the back of army trucks whilst being transported to a neighbouring province.

So what does Prime Minister Thaksin Shinwatra decide to do? Shower the south in the paper rubbish from the rest of the country. Well, that's not how he'd put it. The Nation newspaper from Bangkok put it a little differently:

People in the country’s southernmost provinces will purportedly be showered with love and sympathy this weekend. At the latest count, more than 20 million origami birds have been folded by their compatriots from around the country, and when they are dropped from the skies on December 5, it will send an unmistakable message of deep concern and caring.

(A side note from an article read a couple of days ago - the Doves of Peace thing has become a bit of a joke. Muslim leaders are rejecting it, arguing the doves have no significance to their culture. The army are pissed off that so much of their energy is being put into transporting them all the way down south. The environmental movement are worried about the effect of masses of paper waste. The local people are upset at the asthetic effect on the neighbourhood. Policy on the run, Thai-style.)

The way this farang (whitefella) sees things, the heart of the problem lies in the intimate relationship between Thailand and Buddhism. Thailand is the spiritual home of the religion, Wats (religious temples) are dotted throughout Bangkok and indeed the rest of the nation. The flags of the two fly side by side, and the Buddhist monks who can be seen on the streets are the most revered figures around. There is an aura of spirituality that is felt everywhere. On it's own, this is healthy and desirable and provides an outlet for spirituality that would otherwise be lost in a sea of 7-Elevens and Skytrain stations, but when it turns into relgious nationalism, the outcome in the south seems strangely inevitable.

When a group of people are told that they are a deviation from the norm, and can never be truly Thai so long as they are not Buddhist, they rebel, and often with anger. Particularly when emboldened from similar but different Islamic struggles in Chechnya, Kashmir and some other joint in the Mid-East, Muslim nationalism is growing. A prediction - within a generation, southern Thailand will break off from the rest of the country and form its own state. Just another reason why secularism it the best way for national cohesion.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Bangkok Boxing

Thailand's proudest sporting heritage is in the boxing ring, where it boasts the world's leading Thai Boxers. Thai Boxing is a little different from its traditional alternative (or Queen Berry rules, as the written guide explained). In Thai Boxing, anything goes. Literally. Punches, kicks, wrestling, bearhugs, all are considered fair game, and the more outlandish the move the more the cheers from the assembled crowd.

6 nights a week you can head out to see boxing in Bangkok, at either of the two venues. On Sunday night it was my turn to head out and experience at bit of local sporting culture. The night started promisingly, with a programme of 11 bouts to whet the appetite, 6 of which were up-and-comers, followed by 5 more as the Main Event, with each bout consisting of 5 three minute rounds. A mild ticket price and a friendly Pom as a companion (he obviously hadn't read my post of BA - see below) meant that things were going well. Each bout is more a ritual than a sporting contest.

Before each bout, the fighters enter the ring and bless/pray for/lean against each of the four posts at the corners of the ring, and they then head into the middle for some more theatre. Each of the fighters move through the ring, shadow boxing, kissing the ground, showing the crowd that they've got what it takes to make it as a belly dancer if the boxing thing doesn't work out. Then finally the bout starts, and there's plenty of noise and movement and excitement rippling through the crowd.

Unlike traditional boxing, where the punches fly thick and fast, this one is a much more subtle art, with the right combination of kicks and punches needed to unsettle an opponent, as well as a slick move that sees one competitor bearhug the other, usually against the ropes, and then try and stick their foot in their opponents groin. I used to try that one on my brother. Most of the bouts go the full 5 rounds, and then a panel of three judges decide which boxer landed the most heels on the nads. We have a winner. Repeat 11 times.

BA to complain about on BA

This something a little strange about travelling on British Airways. The flight from Sydney to Bangkok was then heading on to London (without me, obviously) and so it was BA who were taking care of me. It's the little things that add a touch of class to a flight with them - when departing, they gave us the time at the origin, the destination, and in London as well for good measure, along with a little 'for those of you interested in the time at (clear throat) home'. The flight was largely uneventful, with the usual inoffensive rubbish screening on the little TV, and a feed that kept this unfussy diner happy. And it was worth taking note of the ANZAC Biscuit which came as snack two-thirds of the way through the flight. No doubt it was ANZAC Biscuits that the Brits were snacking on way back in '15 when our boys were going over the top against the Turkish Delights. If only they were serving them instead.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Black backpack's back

Less than 24 hours now, and everything is falling into place. The passport and visas came back yesterday, a day earlier than expected, and the passport is considerably chunkier than when it left me (although disappointingly, it tastes much the same) now that it has an assortment of papers and stickers attached by the various embassies.

A shopping expedition on Wednesday helped me avail myself of the latest in travel knick-knacks. A stunning new backpack - complete with pokey little pockets in all sorts of shapes and sizes and locations - as well as a money belt, padlocks, gloves, some snappy new clothes, and best of all from a two-dollar shop: six Australian map shaped key-rings, made in China like all good manufacturing is, and bought with the intention of being given to North Korean youngsters to assure them that the world really does care for them. Diplomacy, backpacker-style.

Now the backpack is full with clothes, shoes, books, toiletries and trinkets for North Koreans. Thankfully I'm big enough to carry it on my back without making too many chiropractors fabulously wealthy.

It's strange how every object needs to be carefully considered. With only a limited amount of space and weight, every object needs to justify itself. Will I really wear that shirt or that book or that tube of toothpaste? Decisions, decisiona, and I won't know if I've made the right ones until I get there.

Latham: Snakes and Ladders

It's getting close to silly season, and the best evidence yet is the petulence and self-indulgence shown by some anonymous Labor heavyweights in trying to undermine Mark Latham. It is a political no-brainer that the party must defend its leader and respect his (or occassionally her) authority, otherwise the nasty political assertion that division is death will again prove itself as one of the more enduring and accurate cliches.

A few quick facts to remember:
- Latham was re-elected leader unopposed a fortnight after the election defeat. If he was okay then, then he's okay now.
- There is no clear alternative. Smith is boring, Macklin aint up to it, Rudd is still warming up, Beazley has health problems and Swan is quite happy as Shadow Treasurer.
- The last election was almost unwinnable, regardless of who was leader. None of the alternatives would have got them into government, and Beazley said as much on election night.
- There is 2 years and 10 months to the next election. There is no point in rushing toward a leadership change now. If Latham really is on the nose, then give it 12 months to test out that hunch. Fools rush in... and so does the Labor caucus, apparently.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Election: Down at the local

It was with great excitement that I rushed to the letterbox a fortnight ago to pick up my voting pack for local government elections. Voting and elections are fetishes of mine, and the pleasure of being able to do so twice in the space of two months - when many around the world for been denied the right to do it once in two centuries - was a rare honour. Imagine my disappointment when all that came out of the envelope was a DL sized slip that read:

Boroondara City Council elections November 2004

Gardiner Ward

There will be no voting required in Gardiner Ward. As only one nomination was received, Coral Ross is elected unopposed.

Geoff Bell
Returning Officer

Now Coral is an excellent councillor, and I have no problem at all with her representation. But this is an election, and elections should be contested. It's the free market spirit applied to democracy - competition keeps competitors on their toes and constantly striving to do better.

Fortunately, uncontested elections seem to be the exception rather than the norm in Boroondara. In the ward of Maranoa (not, apparently a seafood pasta sauce) there are eight candidates battling for the right to call themselves a councillor.

Perhaps the problem is that Boroondara has persisted with single member wards, meaning that unless there is an extremely local isse (wards have just a couple of thousand voters each, you see) there is little chance of unseating a candidate. Other local councils, such as Moreland, Stonnington and the City of Melbourne have instead created multi-member wards, so that proportional representation is used and the chances of new blood and fiesty competition is much greater. It also means that there is a larger pool of voters being wooed and so a broader range of issues enter the campaign.

As for who will win the contests in Boroondara, it is largely pot luck. The margins are likely to be small, turnout poor, and incumbants recontesting their wards are probably going to be safe. And Coral will get back in as well.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Mid East: Abbas and the Right of Return

In the battle to fill the chasmic void left amongst Palestinian leadership by the death of Arafat, there are some contenders who are offering something new, and plenty more who are serving up more of the same. One who has been deserving of praise in the past has been Mahmood Abbas (aka Abu Mazen). Abbas had his time in the spotlight last year when he was appointed as the first Palestinian Prime Minister during attempts to sideline Arafat and create a partner for peace. Abbas was intelligent, keen and committed to something more substantial than making martyrs out of kids who had their lives ahead of them. His downfall, ultimately, was the Arafat refused to give an inch (or perhaps, given it's the holy land, it should be a cubit) and perceived Abbas as a threat.

Abbas is making his push for the leadership, and has scored himself the Fatah candidacy in the elections scheduled for January 9. Keen to win over the Arafat supporters, Abbas has taken a hard line in the support of the right of return.

From Ha'Aretz:

Abbas: I won't give up demand for right of return of refugees

PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas told the Palestinian parliament Tuesday that he would follow in Yasser Arafat's footsteps and demand that Israel recognize the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.

It's not worth reading too much into this one. Two reasons - firstly, Abbas needs to win over the radical elements of the Palestinian population, and this is an ideal way to do it. Secondly, the right of return is an ambit claim, always has been and always will, that will never be realised but instead be traded away for a couple of hectares of desert. Still, it is telling that the right of return, a notion which is infinately more destructive than the construction of a fence, is still seen as fair game amongst the Palestinian populace.

Just as a quick refresher: there's no point in having the state of Palestine and Israel side by side if the Palestinian population are also given the right to return and live in Israel. It would soon lead to Israel having a Jewish minority by stealth, and result in two states - Palestine 1 and Palestine 2, which might be good for Sheffield Shield cricket, but is not the basis of a just peace.

Abu Mazen: Who Farted?
Abu Mazen: Who Farted?

Auf Wiedersehen

Farewell drinks tonight went off wonderfully well. The loosely prepared speech, with was one part Bill Bryson, one part Bill Hicks and six parts Fidel Castro was not needed, since the gathering had a rather casual, relaxed vibe and I didn't want to be the one to break the mood.

Thanks to everyone who was there, and a double thanks with a thick Guiness head of cream on top to everyone who was kind enough to give a present. Kind wishes were exchanged in industrial quantities, a few stories swapped and groups of friends from different parts of my life fused together in a wonderfully eclectic gathering. Whatever the hell that means.

To prove I'm not making it up, here's a photo:

A whole lotta happy faces, and one strange looking one.

Looking through the round window, I can see Gil and Michael and Rob and Ari (with an odd pocket bulge) and in the front is Hannah, who looks like she's just seen Osama. And if you look in the background you might even see an Aussie Ankle Biter, although that's Senator Aussie Ankle Biter to you.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Almost there

Finally, the last exam of the semester is out of the way and I can focus all my energies on getting things ready to go for my departure on Saturday. Tonight is a big boozy get together for friends, family and assorted others, whilst tomorrow is the day for shots in the arm, a lightening of the wallet and a trip back home on the train looking remarkably like a German backpacker, with a big chunky backpack on the back and a slightly hungover look in the eyes.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Time for a Telstra rant

Yet another fuck up from the prize idiots at Telstra:

Porn apology over Idol win
And although BigPond may have scored a touchdown in making Casey’s debut single available for download on its BigPond Music service, the service provider has made an equally large touch not with a massive blooper.

The half-page ad, which appeared in both the News Ltd papers in Sydney and Melbourne today, mentions the site www.caseydonovan.com right at the top, under the mistaken assumption that it is the official site for the song.

Instead, the site caters to those looking for gay porn and is not exactly the kind of website which parents would recommend to teenagers - the main audience of the Idol show.

(Unfortunately for all the fans of Casey - the gay male porn star, that is, rather than the try hard school kid with the big voice - Telstra have moved quickly and all attempts to log onto caseydonovan.com are all directed straight to its more family-friendly AusIdol site, caseydonovan.com.au)

But the point remains: Telstra fucked up. Again.

This is just the lastest in a line of screw ups that has plagued a company which revels in its own mediocrity, and remains as profitable as it does only because it had half a century as a monopoly provider. Because I feel like it, it's worth cataloguing examples of Telstra stupidity and incompetence, if only to provide an example of how a large company is not necessarily a well-managed company:

Let's start with Telstra's branding efforts. Telstra is a household name. Everyone knows Telstra. Everyone knows what it does. Everyone knows what its logo is. Everyone knows what its values are. So why the fuck do they spend their money constantly reminding us??? For some absurd and unknown reason, the company has scored itself the naming rights for 2 of the biggest 3 stadia in the country (Docklands Stadium in Melbourne and the Olympic Stadium in Sydney). This would be an ideal marketing effort were Telstra trying to boost name recognition, make people familiar and comfortable with the brand. But as noted earlier, it has already achieved this. What more does it want? Recognition amongst pets and untamed marsupials as well?

Instead of spending tens of millions on naming writes for sporting venues, Telstra might actually like to promote itself as a sophisticated, hi-tech, value for money proposition. In all three, its efforts at both promotion and substance are laughable. In an era when consumers are savvy and acutely aware of their competitive options, Telstra are making glossy ads with kids kicking a footy and gooving to I Am Australian. The Telstra marketing mindset has not moved one iota from its time as a monopoly carrier 15 years ago when a crusty looking John Williamson was crooning that This is Australia Calling.

Marketing aside, it's worth looking at the product line on offer. In the mobile phone game, Telstra are consistantly last to market with new innovations. Months after other carriers launched so-called capped plans (aka bucket plans), Telstra finally decide to get into it. Too little, too late. Price plans are outrageously expensive, a lack of creative energy, and generally a second rate product. Sure, it might be the only network that provides coverage to Lower Wherethefucksville, but customers around the nation pay for the privilege.

The Bigpond product is another sad joke. Unexplained and unscheduled outages are legendry amongst Bigpond users, and these seem to occur far more frequently than for their competition. Email users will be aware of the frequest Mailer-Daemon messages which inevitably arrive when email is sent to a Bigpond email address, reminding the sender that the message will be delayed. Bigpond have managed to successfully delayed the sending of email so frequently that it makes Australia Post an even-money bet in a race between the two. True, Bigpond is leading the way with broadband roll-out, but it is only now catching up to where it should have been three years ago.

On the question of landline services, Telstra shot itself in the foot from close range with a machine gun earlier this year when it increased line rental costs significantly. Telstra, in its stupidity, had figured that their customers saw landline services as a necessity and so much as consumers might complain, ultimately they would pay whatever they were charged. How wrong this was. Customers are abandoning landlines in record numbers and are rushing toward consolidating all the phone use onto a mobile phone. Particularly so with the new call caps on mobiles, in most cases their is no economic sense in maintaining both a landline and mobile and so customers are voting with their feet. It didn't have to happen that way, but an oafish corporation like Telstra make it seem strangely inevitable.

So we've identified the problem, hurled plenty of abuse, but what's the solution. Since the days of Charles Darwin and then Adam Smith, there has been a strong case for letting the market (and by that we mean consumers, and by then we mean me, you and anyone else with a dollar to burn) sort the truly competitive organisations from the bloated Woolly Mammoths of the corporate world. Keep the infrastructure in public hands, privatise the rest, sack the entire marketing division, and find management which is interested in making this bloated company into a sleek, efficient operation which is relevant to consumers. If not, then watch Telstra wither and die.

UPDATE 23/11, 11:40am: Probably worth popping in a disclosure statement at the end of the rant. AOTW is a Telstra shareholder, since he clearly likes questioning his own judgement. He's also employed by an outsourcing firm which works with both Telstra and its competition. So there.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Mayoral race in home stretch

After listening to most of the heavy hitters in the Melbourne Lord Mayoral election on Triple R (The Party Show, 12-2 on a Sunday morning, a programme that punches well above its weight week after week with A-list guests that would make Mitchell, Hinch and Faine shave in excitement), there are several useful observations that can be made:

- The field of serious candidates is limited to just a handful: John So, Clem Newton-Brown, Richard Di Natale and Kevin Chamberlin. A couple are there to stir the pot and have a good time: Allan Watson, Wellington Lee and Gary Morgan. One was serious until his history got the better of him: James Long. And the rest are stooges and nutters, all without their eyes on the prize.

- John So is slowly becoming a parody of himself. Okay, the langauge barrier issue has become the equivalent of the Second World War in The Germans episode of Fawlty Towers, but more concerning is So's reliance on cliches and platitudes to ignore most of the substantive issues facing the city. With rumours swirling of So spending upwards of $200,000 on the campaign (quick sums: 75,000 voters in total, 15% a reasonable primary vote for So = $17.77 per vote) So is looking increasingly like an ineffective politician trying to buy himself another term.

- Other than So and his feeder tickets, there are two broad groups developing. Candidates on the left, such as Chamberlin and Di Natale are exchanging preferences and deciding not to attack each other, hoping to piggy-back off one another to give themself a chance at Mayoralty. Di Natale is likely to get knocked out of the race early with a low primary vote, and this preference flow to Chamberlin (this is a tad ironic given that many Greens blame Chamberlin's candidacy in the 2002 State Election in the seat of Melbourne, and his preferences flowing to the ALP, as the reason the Greens failed to win the seat).

- On the right, a looser (no, not loser, smartarse) alliance is forming between like minded conservative candidates. Though the Liberal party is keeping its distance from the race, young fogey Clem Newton-Brown has his hat in the ring, and pollster Garry Morgan is running a pro-business campaign. Preferences are being swapped, but the gloves are most definately off between those candidates, with plenty of sparring going on. The question of how serious Morgan is is an interesting one. He spent the first couple of weeks of the campaign overseas, and in his media appearances he seems angry and defensive, making too many faux pas (too many druggies etc) to sound credible. Is he just along for the ride to experience a real campaign rather than simply be a pollster?

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Visas and DFAT

A few quick travel updates at the end of a long day:

- Visa problems. I found out today that the fine folks at the Myanmar (that's Burma to all you colonialists out there) Embassy in Canberra had refused to process my application because I had not used the most up-to-date form. Fair enough. Except for the fact that they sat on it for several weeks and didn't tell anyone, thereby not forwarding it to the Cambodian or Laotian Embassies for the relevant visas. The outcome is that I am still likely to get the Myanmar visa, although it and the passport will not get back to me until Friday next week which is just ONE DAY before departure, and I will be without a Cambodian or Laotian visa. From all reports it is not too difficult to get hold of these visas at the right border crossing, so not too much is lost. But damn those Myanmarianese.

- All registered with DFAT. Jumped onto the heavily-promoted-but-rather-unhelpful Smart Traveller website. Told Alexander where I was going (and how many times have I wanted to tell him where to go...?) and signed up to receive any updates to the Australian travel advice for the countries I'll be hitting. The website is clunky and not very user friendly, and seems to have real problems for people who are travelling to more than a couple of countries. Each subscription to the updates service needs to be separate (that's 10 for me), and I was reluctant to follow all the way through. I guess all the DFAT people are living it up in Chile at the moment, and who can blame them?

Friday, November 19, 2004

Ando-gate, maybe?

The Anderson/Windsor scandal looks to have hit a stalemate with the two having fundamentally different accounts of what went on. The accounts are so alarmingly different that Anderson, Windsor or the Tamworth businessman at the centre of it all, Greg Maguire, are up to no good. Someone is telling porkies, the question is who. Hopefully Windsor will have the guts to make the allegation on the hard concrete outside the House rather than on the soft tanbark within it. That way, if Windsor is wrong Anderson and Maguire can sue for defamation, or if he's not then the silence from A and M will be deafening.

He's a country member.
Ando: He's a country member.

10 things before I hit the road

I can now count the number of days until departing overseas without the need to take off my shoes and socks. In just eight days I will jump on a flight at Tullamarine, and land in a whole new city filled with wonderous excitement, unusual smells, odd looking people, a different language, new food and more gritty urbanness than I could possibly expect back at home - yep, I'll land in Sydney. But then I'll leave Sydney, and head to Bangkok, and from there my three month Asian adventure will slowly reveal itself.

The travel experience is a lot of fun once you hit the road. The period beforehand, though, is considerably less fun, and filled with nervous anxiety as you stress over whether you're prepared for what lies ahead; psychologically, physically and mentally.

Between now and Saturday week, here's my checklist of things to do. Kinda like Homer's list after he samples too much Japanese cuisine, except with less fear of death at the end:

1. Sort through guidebooks. Unfortunately, the gaggle of destinations I'll be heading to don't group nicely into a single Lonely Planet guide, and so I'll end up carrying my own body weight in different books. So far I have SE Asia on a Shoestring, China and Korea. For political reasons, Taiwan is not included in the China book (and fair enough, too) but the stand alone Taiwan book is hard to get hold of (not so fair).

2. Bag. A big bag. A big, fat, chunky bag that can carry socks, jocks, dirty undies and a whole lot of Lonely Planet guides (see #1). I took a new back with me on a previous trip, and it lasted just on the six month length of that trip, although was in no condition to travel again. It's important to get this one right, because there's no easy way out when a bag breaks in the middle of no-where. Not many camping stores in down-town Vientienne, apparently.

3. Toiletries. If you get this one right, it looks a little like a scene part way through Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the real one with Gene Wilder, not that Johnny Depp rubbish). From the outside, it looks like a tiny entrance that could barely fit a thing, but once inside it's wide and spacious and there's something there to clean your teeth. A shaver, toothbrush, toothpaste, Band-Aids (TM), Panadol (TM), batteries and a comb.

4. Vaccinations. Two sessions down, one to go. I've taken a minimulist approach to shots, based on a bit of research that suggests that the risk is low inside the major cities in the countries I'll be venturing through. When off the beaten track malaria and rabies can be a risk, but otherwise it's best to make sure you're up to date with all the others. Measels, Mumps and Rubella is all sorted out, as is Hepititis A, and one more shot to go in the Hep B regime. Feeling good.

5. Paperwork. Fingers crossed (or its agnostic equivalent) that the visas have all come through successfully. I'll find out early next week whether any of the six embassies I've applied through think that I'm a threat to national security. Thankfully it's been a fairly painless task, thanks to the fine folks at Travcour, as well as the work of the wonderful Nat at STA in Camberwell.

6. Tickets. All have been issued, but I've get to take possession. Some careful checking and attention to detail (something that I've never been a big fan of) will be in order. Probably best to include a Fine Tooth Comb in the toiletries bag (see #3).

Fine Tooth Comb
A fine tooth comb, sighted yesterday.

7. Money. Stocking up on Thai Baht, Vietnamese Dong and Korean Won before departure? Nope. Instead, I'll be taking a wad of the closest thing the world has to the Esperanto of currency - crisp US dollars. They'll be easily exchangeable anywhere I visit, although exchange rates will be rather crippling when I do. Also some travellers cheques thrown in for good measure. Where possible it will be using a local ATM to get some of the local currency, but technology can be an enemy as well as a friend.

8. Names, numbers, email. I'm lucky enough to have made some new friends in a variety on cities on the itinerary, and I'm keen to be in contact in person once I hit the road.

9. Tell Lexy where I'm going. It would have been laughable a couple of years ago, but thesedays there's real value is letting DFAT know where you'll be travelling to. Not only can they quickly and easily work out where to send the body to if things go horribly wrong, but you can also recieve email updates with the latest travel advice on the places you'll be heading to. Though I'll usually disregard the "don't go there" advice, it's worth knowing what the risks are.

10. Clean my room. I'd hate to come home and find this place is in the same messy state it is now. Instead, I want to work back in the door in late February and find a place that's as clean and virginal as the Pyongyang McDonalds.

Lists like this are easy to write and hard to follow through. I guess I need to spend more time getting these things done and less time doing wasteful things like surfing the web, sleeping in and preparing for exams. It's all about priorities.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

12 Angry Men - Athenaeum Theatre

You are the thirteenth jury member. Like it or not, you have been given a grave responsibility, and you better make sure that you play your part carefully. A man’s life hangs in the balance, and a wrong decision can land him in the electric chair, or let a guilty man walk the streets. Choose carefully: if you get it wrong it will haunt you forever.

Such is the intensity of 12 Angry Men that you can’t help but feel like you’re a part of their deliberations. As the jury members tread the boards in front of you – a cross section of 1950s New York white males – presenting cogent arguments for both guilt or innocence, each audience member is swayed one way or the other. The well meaning but useless request to put prejudices aside before walking into the room is especially tough given the heat and passion of the arguments. What starts off as a black and white case (literally) soon develops a rainbow of grey hues as the certainty of truth and facts dissolves into a murky collection of presumptions and conjecture.


Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Sinking to new depths

This story speaks for itself. It shows how far the rules of modern warfare have changed in the past couple of years. Many of the previously sacrosanct symbols - the UN, international aid workers, CARE - are now seen as legitimate targets. A scary prospect:

New video 'shows Hassan murder'

A video apparently showing the murder of aid worker Margaret Hassan seems to be genuine, says the Foreign Office.

"We now believe that she has probably been murdered", Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said after analysing the tape.

Her Iraqi husband, Tahseen Ali Hassan, has made a plea for her body to be returned to him "to rest in peace".

The rest from the Beeb.

RIP, Margaret.

UPDATE 18/11, 2:10am: Interesting to note the juxtaposition of the Hassan murder with the story of the US marine shooting dead a wounded and unarmed Iraqi in a mosque in Falluja, and caught on camera by an embedded reporter. Tragic though this is, it would be moral equivalence of the worst kind to try and draw some sort of goes-around-comes-around parallel between the two events. The US marine may be facing war crimes charges (an unlikely fate for the murderous thugs who killed Hassan) whilst it was uncertain at the time whether the wounded Iraqi was indeed armed. We can be pretty sure, however, that Hassan went to her death unarmed.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Can't wait to get there

A couple of quick singles (to use an oddly placed cricket metaphor) on North Korea. On Sunday night I lodged my visa and trip application with the folks at Koryo Tours, one of the world's best (only?) North Korean travel experts. Nick and Simon, the Beijing-based Englishmen who are the brains behind the operation have a tremendously close connection with the regime, and not only take curious travellers into NK, but have also arranged for several documentaries to be shot there. An impressive effort given the severe limitations usually imposed on journalists.

In other North Korean news, the rivetting story of US Sgt Charles Robert Jenkins, an American soldier who defected to the North in 1965, has had a few twists and turns. Jenkins has been sentenced by a US court martial to 30 days in prison, a demotion to Private and a dishonourable discharge. Not bad after spending 39 years enjoying North Korean hospitality.

It's definately worth checking out the interview and profile of Jenkins in the (now, sadly folded) Far Eastern Economic Review. How's this for a teaser - it's a story of hardship, politics, the military, romance and Junichiro Koizumi:

In Jenkins' first interview since taking flight from the North Korean regime in July, the alleged defector tells the REVIEW why he intends to turn himself over to the U.S. Army even though he expects to face a court martial. Jenkins reveals that he sought asylum at the Soviet embassy in Pyongyang in 1966, endured repeated beatings at the hands of another alleged American defector, and was pressured by North Korean authorities to reject a personal invitation by the Japanese prime minister to leave the country with him. And he describes how his difficult life in North Korea was lifted from misery by a love affair with a Japanese nurse who shared his hatred of the communist regime and eventually helped him and their two daughters escape.

Yo Bro, it's Junichiro Koizumi (thanks to worth100.com)
Yo Bro, it's Junichiro Koizumi (thanks to worth100.com)

UPDATE 19/11 1:30am: A quick clarification on the Koryo Group and the government of North Korea. The guys at Koryo are not in any way politically aligned with the government, and their dealings are with the NK state travel company Ryohaengsa and with the Department of Foreign Affairs. The close connection that they share is an administrative rather than political one.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Indy Speaker the Order of the Day (groan)

5 weeks after the Federal election, and Parliament meets for the first time in this new term today. Much like the first day at school, it's a chance for the new kids to get to know their way around, the old kids to work out who their new best friend will be, and everyone to queue up at the tuck-shop and order a Little Lickie. Or at least it was at my primary school.

One of the most important tasks today is the election of the new Speaker in the House. The numbers in the House of Reps mean that the Coalition have got the spot all to themselves, and the race is looking interesting. Traditionally it is long serving MPs who get the honour, and this time around is no alternative. According to Michelle Grattan in The Age, the five in contention this time around are Bruce Baird, Bronwyn Bishop (apparently the one that Howard doesn't want), David Hawker, David Jull and Wilson Tuckey. Whoever gets the job, we can be sure that they will be as tired and one-sided as their predecessors, who - with the exception of Ian 'Sinker' Sinclair - have been a rather underwhelming bunch.

It is disappointing, however, that the Speaker is a partisan politician. It is an impossible task for a Speaker to be fair and balanced when they owe their political livelihood to the Prime Minister of the day, and having nothing at all to gain from being a fair umpire. As well as the sheer reality of bias, there is the inevitable danger about a perception of bias. With public opinion of political standards at an dangerous depth (unfairly, in my mind, but the perception is there) a partisan Speaker does little to inspire confidence.

So we know the problem, what's the solution? Easy. There are plenty of emminent Australians out there who can't score themselves a contract flogging pasta sauce, sitting on a judicial bench or occupying the Governor's mansion in one of the outer states. Many of them would be ideally suited to the job of speaker, which essentially requires a commanding voice, some legal background and the ability to be in the same room as Sophie Panopolous without punching her. Appointment could be via the Governor General, or perhaps 2/3 majority of Parliament. If this were the case, the office would carry much more gravitas, Parliament would function smoother and allegations of bias would be rarer. What's so difficult?

The MUSU Files

As Molly would say, do yourself a favour and check out this rivetting read from Brent Houghton. The past few weeks Brent has been delving into The MUSU Files (sans Mulder and Scully) in the light of the scandallous revelations about two former Presidents.

Brent's a genuine insider, friends with some of the participants, and a damn nice bloke.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Values: Talk of the Town

Tim Colebatch on Australia:

Mr Salt said big swings to the Liberals among people on welfare were no surprise. "Even people in housing commission flats no longer see themselves as aligned to a particular class, but to the values set of middle Australia," he said. By contrast, "I think most sea-changers and tree-changers are Labor voters. These are inner-city people so they've got property wealth and green values."

Cristina Odone on Britain:

In a post-communist world, where the market is accepted by all, conventional political divisions over taxes, government spending and big business are giving way to more deeply felt differences on issues such as when life begins, the make-up of the family unit and the boundaries of medical science. Adrian Woolridge, US correspondent of the Economist and co-author of The Right Nation, sees Britain progressing from the class politics of the trade unions, through the managerial politics of the Blair-Brown era, "to arguments about the sort of people we are and what we value. Profound issues, in short, are coming back to the centre stage of politics."

Gregory Hywood on the USA:

While they are the subject of heated debate, what constitutes marriage and when life begins are areas of legitimate dispute rather than, as liberals would have it, evidence of intolerance. The celebration of the traditional family is clearly an electorally popular notion except at the extreme end of the socially liberal constituencies attached to the Democrats. Yet these groups have as much sway over the Democrats as do the fundamentalists over the Republicans. This is the rub. To their ongoing electoral cost, social liberals have difficulty accepting these issues as matters of debate even though the American electorate clearly does.

The fault lines of politics in the west are changing, and those on the left have got two options - they can fight it, or they can adapt to it. The recurring theme through these and other commentaries in recent times is that the major political divide has moved from being an economic division to being a social or moral division. Whilst in the past politics could appeal to voters' sense of alligience and economic interests, instead voters are now concerned with values.

On the question of values, it is the right which have claimed the firm middle ground for themselves, having pitched a tent and gone off to fish in the river, whilst the left are too busy being occupied on the fringes to make a serious pitch. Mainstream social values are innately conservative, driven by a mix of religion and back-of-the-mind fears of social engineering. So on questions of abortion, gay marriage and environmentalism the right have successfully struck a chord many voters who would lean to the left economically. Working class people who stare in scorn at the rampant lifestyles of the small-l liberals.

The response of the left has so far been to deny that there's a problem - namely, to deny that their social values are different to those of the middle and working class whom they are trying to woo. Note Latham's pitch to the green fringe with the forestry policy, and Kerry's ambiguity on gay marriage - both were targetted at well-to-do social liberals, but pissed off the working class social conservatives. If the left are to make themselves electable, they need to confront the divide, and temper their policies accordingly.

Lefties in Australian and the US alike can walk around with a moral superiority complex, but languish out of government, or they can try and engage and win over those over whom they feel so superior. A good place to start would be to look to Britain where Blair has claimed that turf for the Labour Party, and with great success (again, from Odone):

Under Blair's stewardship, new Labour stealthily and successfully claimed territory that had traditionally been Conservative. With words such as "good" and "bad" seeping into speeches, with talk of moral responsibility and educational ethos, new Labour stole the high horse from right under the Tories. It could well prove a shrewd move: Thomas Frank, one of America's most acute observers, warns that the 21st century will be a time when "good wages, fair play, the fate of a trade union - all these are distant seconds to evolution, abortion, gay marriage".

Friday, November 12, 2004

Satire or not? Either way I'm going to hell.

I don't make a habit out of reading spam, but sometimes curiousity gets the better of me and I find myself staring at a genuine penis enlarger or a sincere plea from my long lost Nigerian cousin. In this case, it was the forces of Christianity which graced my in-box... or was it the forces of satire? Christian advocates have taken up some strange tools to fulfil the wishes of the Almighty thesedays - some pray, some vote and some chose to burn lesbians on a stake.

Genuine or satire, what do you think?:

Our suggestions
Please implement the following basics of website design:

use frames — frames are like Jesus’ words, they let us know where we’ve been, where we’re going and how to get there.

use a coherent colour scheme — the current scheme is literally nauseating when worshipping G-d using drugs — Brent thought that his mind was broken. Remember Revelation 17:4 ‘And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication’.

the links don’t work — imagine flicking to Philippians 1:1 but still being at Mark 4:21! Almost like having one’s link to G-d broken!

The full e-mail is in the comments.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

The Army. The Dregs.

The Army.  The Dregs.

Just what is it with military folks and hoods? This is the ADF showing their caring side in Townsville in 2000, with an 'initiation ritual' which consisted of a KKK-style ceremony. Thanks to the Daily Tele for getting onto the story. Given the push for truth in advertising, will we see this on the next batch of recruitment propaganda ads? It is worth asking why it came to light now, four years after being taken, and also important to know just what came of the participants?

UPDATE 11/11 11:20pm. WARNING, WARNING, DESPERATE SPIN ALERT. From the photographer of the offending photo on PM this evening:

RICHARD FRAYLEY: There was no malice in it. Everybody was laughing and joking. If you could get hold of the photo and have a look, everybody's got a smile on their face.

Sure, Richard.


It looks like Pandagate (lame name, but who's got anything better?) has come to a thrilling climax; but ultimately it is all over. It's time for the participants to move aside, and the historians (well, those with too much time on their hands and reckon that every other topic has been done to death, Arafat-style) to move in. Ariontheweb is close enough to too many of the participants to not feel comfortable getting involved, but I freely admit that I have been watching from the sidelines with plenty of interest and jaw agape.

There are oodles of blogs covering the ins-and-outs-and-who-said-what-to-whom-whilst-dressed-as-a-panda, and I won't attempt to be a player. But the question of how it came to be is an interesting one.

This dispute was not a right-vs-left dispute, a simple dichotomy that explains much of the conflict on the web. This one was a battle of egos, where two, and later more, people chose to escalate a dispute rather than seek to resolve it. At numerous points throughout, from the early days of the sparring Alexes (Lew and White), through to the Danby intervention, the Bolt intervention and finally the Crikey intervention, there was an opportunity to de-escalate the dispute and keep things nice, but each time a mix of pride and ego got in the way. In the same way that the MAD philosophy kept the world in relative peace during the Cold War, participants would have found that there was mutual benefit to be gained out of keeping cool.

After all that has gone on, it seems likely that no participant (other than perhaps the man with the big reveal at the end Robert Corr) has come out looking good. Miranda - and Alex L - has no doubt learnt plenty from it all, although remains now blog-homeless after owning her own place and then later shacking up on the now defunct Two Cents. Marieke Hardy is likely to be just as outrageous, although she played some seriously dirty games if she had anything to do with the mysterious-and-non-existant solicitor Stephen Hollis. Bolt looks like as big a goose as usual.

So can we write it off as just a bit of exam period hijinx to pass the time, or does it say something more? It says plenty about the contagious nature of the internet, that allows a petty dispute to take on monumental proportions with great speed, and as it does the chances of everyone escaping dignity intact are lessened. Think of it as a school yard brawl: what starts as a couple of kids yelling insults soon gets ugly once a crowd gathers. So maybe that's the lesson - all of us who sat around watching it should have moved on, kept our noses out of it, and let the participants sort out their differences. So it's all my fault??

UPDATE, 11/11 12:15pm: On further reflection, it seems unfair to conflate the early sparring between Alex 1 and Alex 2 into the later saga that was Pandagate. Instead it's helpful to keep em separate, with the Misha Schubert article being the natural starting point. It is useful background information, though, to consider the funny-buggers being played in the week before it all started, with Alex L/Two Cents in a serious and potentially ligitious battle which saw a concerted attempt to see a blogging rival sacked from their employment. Sound familiar?

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Arafat, AIDS and afterlife

The little rodents running around the rumour mill have been working overtime lately, throwing up a couple of interesting questions about Arafat, and some even more interesting answers. Two questions to think about: does Arafat have AIDS, and is Arafat in fact already dead.

Yes of course he does, they're the ones who get him coffee in the morning. Boom boom. The suggestion has been circulating for years that Arafat has been an active bisexual, since at least the late 70s if this report is accurate:

Ion Pacepa, who was deputy chief of Romanian foreign intelligence under the Ceaucescu regime and who defected to the West in 1978, says in his memoirs that the Romania government bugged Arafat and had recordings of the Arab leader in orgies with his body guards.

Recent reports that doctors have had difficulty diagnosing his illness would add to the credibility of the AIDS story. It is heard to believe that Arafat might have a 'mystery illness', more likely he has an illness that has been diagnosed, but the nature of it might be seen to reflect badly on him, eg AIDS. The fine folks at 365gay (personally, my favourite news source for the ins and outs on the Middle East) have taken up the story.

Just what is that mystery illness?

This one has been going around for a couple of days, but now it is starting to reach respectable circles. The logic is that Arafat died some time last week, and that the announcement is being delayed until his minders can get him buried as requested in Jerusalem, and also until a desirable successor can rise above the fray and take over from Arafat. This would be a conspiracy of monumental size, particularly given the need for the French Department of Defence to be complicit - he's being treated at the Hopital d'Instruction des Armees de Percy, where, incidentally, France's best HIV specialists practice - as well as the stream of people who have been in contact with him.

A few outlets have toyed with the story, but so far no one has the Smoking Gun, or is that the rotting corpse, to run with it with confidence.

Monday, November 08, 2004

MW, Marr missed mark on Manji

It's time to leap to the defence of fiery Muslim Refusenik (her words) Irshad Manji who copped a rather unfair clip around the ears by the departing David Marr on Media Watch tonight. See the allegation as it was spelt out on the show here. Essentially, Manji has been reusing the same Op-Ed piece despairing at the extremist dominance of Islam in response to a variety of different Islamist episodes - in September it was after the Jakarta bombing, and just this week the Theo van Gogh murder in the Netherlands.

The criticism is absurd - Manji has been using her own words to make the same point on several different occassions, each time making them relevant to recent events. Yep, that's it. No smoke and mirrors, no heart-wrenching snuff film, just a bit of intellectual conservation. Without sounding like Graham Morris after drinking too much port, go and find a real target, Media Watch.

In true Media Watch spirit, Ariontheweb must declare an interest in all this - when she was in Australia in September I was lucky enough to have dinner with Manji and am a big fan of her work, and more importantly her ideas. While on the topic, it's worth checking out her public letter to Yasser Arafat from a few years back - not sure if he read it at the time, but it might be a bit of a struggle to get him to read it now:

Do you glimpse the breakthrough? I mean, here’s a form of Arab ammo, rooted in an Arab past, that permits Palestinians to claim the occupied territories as their own and yet compels them to welcome the other children of Abraham! Jewish tradition provided our Prophet with sanctuary and succour. Today, it’s payback time.

Abortion agenda-setting

Hmmm, the morality of the abortion debate is one question worth considering, but what is to gain politically?

A few days back Health Minister Tony Abbott, as well as Parly Sec for Shitstirring and Pissing Off The Left, Christopher Pyne entered the debate with gusto, condemning abortion as an "epidemic" (Abbott) and that abortions after 21 weeks should be banned (Pyne). Then Governor General Michael Jeffery rather foolishly got himself entangled in the debate, and it was on for young, old and foetal.

The initial suspicion was that it was simply another example of Abbott's ill-disciplined wandering mind, throwing up a distraction that the government didn't need. Abbott has made a habit in the past of intellectual meandering, bringing up all sorts of topics that the Government would rather not on the agenda. The entry of Pyne into the debate, though, changes the dynamic.

Christopher Pyning for the Fjords.

No longer is it simply the thoughts of one minister. Instead it is an orchestrated campaign, a deliberate attempt to set the agenda with an issue that government wishes to confront and to create headlines with. This is a neat, cosy fit with the acquisition of the Balance of Power in the Senate from July of next year. By putting the issue on the agenda and establishing the guidelines for the debate, the government is flagging it as something to return to when it obtains the political power to have its own way.

The abortion issues doesn't quite fit as a 'wedge' issue which the government has so famously used to divide its opponents in the past - it is as divisive for the Coalition (note the pro-choice sentiments of Sharman Stone and Julie Bishop) as it is for the ALP (with the conservative working class base on one side and the progressive middle-class on the other). It is, though, yet another way that Howard can leave his thumbprint on the social landscape. The debate will go quiet for now, but watch for this one to be firmly back on the agenda once those pesky Democrats are out of the way.

Is this the first substantial contribution of Family First to public debate 8 months before they enter the Senate?

Sunday, November 07, 2004

(Insert John So pun here)

The Age has gone in hard today attacking Melbourne Lord Mayor John So, and presumably it's due to more than just a series of cute puns in the headline and the fear that there might only be a couple more weeks to use them:

New questions about the role of Melbourne Lord Mayor John So in appointing the city's $300,000-a-year chief executive officer, and concerns about his close relationship with the Bracks Government, have placed renewed pressure on Cr So and his uphill battle for re-election.

Confidential City of Melbourne documents seen by The Sunday Age show that when the five councillors on the council's CEO selection committee expressed their two top preferences for the position, the man who was ultimately successful, David Pitchford, came last and was supported only by Cr So.

The general theme seems to be that So was a good Mayor for the period immediately after all the factionalism and infighting brought the council to its knees, but now it is functional again more of a Go-Getter is required. The cosiness with the State Government is worrying, although So deserves credit for healing many of the previous rifts that tore the council apart.

It also seems that So has been squeezed out of the preference deals. With a Melbourne Cup field running, it will be difficult for So to get back in unless he can score a decent swag of preferences. The Age makes the point that he can expect to be comfortably ahead on primary votes but will get massacred when the preferences are distributed. Watch this space.

So is the one on the left.
So is the one on the left

The No Republic of Australia

Five years (and one day, now) from the Republic Referendum, and we are still a long way from achieving what looked so achievable at the time. Public sentiment on the issue has not changed significantly since the vote - at the time the majority were overwhelmingly republican, just as they are now. It was not the monarchy which prevailed in '99 - it was a fear campaign which beat a solid model.

It's worth asking a question or two of the Direct Election brigade (we're looking at you, Phil) who teamed up with the Monarchists to run the scare campaign:

- When is this mysterious 'second chance' going to come about? You know, the chance to vote again on the republic with a different model if we didn't like the first one. The Direct Election people thought they were sitting beside a sushi train of constitutional reform. They rejected the Parliamentry Model Sushimi because they were waiting for the Direct Election Tempura, only to end up with a big mouthful of Monarchist Wasabi.
- How has the push for a republic been furthered by the successful No vote?
- What the hell were you guys thinking??

Phil and Gerry - God Save Our Gracious Queen

Just what would Gerry Adams think of his No-voting republican friend Phil Cleary?

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Arafat's legacy

When Yasser Arafat passes away in the next day or two, barely a tear will be shed. Arafat leaves this life having backed himself completely and utterly into a corner and has no one to blame but himself for his failings and the miserable leadership he has offered his people. Arafat has been rejected by his own people, rejected by the international community, and rejected by his own wife if her four years living it up in Paris is any guide.

Arafat is the architect of Intifada, mark I and II, and has shown that he is a man who can only communicate through terror. Given the historic opportunity to create a homeland for his people, he looked in horror as he realised he would have to lead a peaceful state rather than a terrorist rabble and turned back. Arafat has shown that those who use terror can never be decent civic leaders.

Yasser in his more zany days

Ariontheweb subscribes to the "Fucked Over Twice" theory of why the Palestinian mindset is as it is: the Palestinians have been fucked over by the Israelis who live in fear and paranoia and so hit out, sometimes irrationally, at the Palestinians. More significant, though is the second fuck-over: the Palestinian people have been fucked over by their own leadership, primarily Arafat. The people have a government of crooks, cronies, liars, thugs and psychopaths who offer no leadership or positive vision and so lead their people to a life of squalor and desparation. This is no accident, of course. The Palestinian leadership use this squalor to demonise the Israelis and the Americans, who are presented in the Palestinian propaganda rags as the cause of all these ills.

What happens after Arafat's death is highly debatable:

In the short term, there was be instability and internal conflict within the PA. There will be conflict between rival factions, rival leaders and rival gangs keen to make a killing, literally, in the chaos. Despite the fears in Israel, this will be short lived. Sooner rather than later a leader will emerge from the uncertainty and assert themself - most likely will be Abu Mazen, ex-Prime Minister, a moderate.

In the longer term, Arafat's death will be a great help to achieving a lasting peace. His successor will have greater legitimacy that Arafat did, will be welcomed at the negotiating table by Israel and the Quartet (remember them?), and will not have the murderous creditials that Arafat did. A tick in every box.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Democrats roll dice again

If the past 48 hours hasn't been bad enough for Democrats, for the local variety it has just got a tad worse. The latest rearrangement of the deckchairs upon the Titanic sees the Skipper and his First Mate swap possies. The next leader will be Senator Lyn Allison, whilst Senator Andrew Bartlett will assume the deputy's position.

This is an inevitable move more than it is a desirable one. With only four Senators remaining after July 1 next year, there was little choice but for Allison to assume the leadership position. Stott Despoja wouldn't want it, Murray wouldn't win it and Bartlett was damaged goods. It's a painful but necessary question to ask whether the decision to elect Andrew Bartlett as leader in 2002 was the right one. Ariontheweb must confess his interest in this one - I was working hard inside the party to help Bartless beat Brian Greig for the top spot. Alas, the Bartlett leadership was a disappointment, and probably a mistake.

The task for the Democrats is a monumental one, and one that no leader - Allison or otherwise - would be able to achieve. The party brand name is seriously damaged in the public mind, and no amount of spin and new faces can change that. In the minds of most voters, the Democrats are associated with conflict, division, indecisiveness and the GST. All of those labels will remain with the party.

As a former staff member (briefly) of Senator Allison, I wish her well - it would be wonderful if the Democrats could return to the balance of power role in 2008, and they will be infinately more responsible than the Lib-Nats who will soon have it. In reality, however, the party is scampering around on its last legs, and the vet may soon be moving the curtain around to protect the racegoing public from seeing the splatter of blood in the final moments.

United States of Television

Wednesday afternoon was spent performing thumb exercises with the remote control as the results flowed in from the US. The pond that is the Pacific Ocean makes absolutely no difference in the flow of information - from the comfort of my (well, technically my grandmother's, but it would ruin the flow of the sentence... damn) armchair I could flick between CNN, FoxNews, ABC, CBS, NBC, Bloomberg and the BBC.

Remarkable similarities across the coverage all round:
- Tickertape across the bottom
- Multiple 'panels' of experts and commentators to flick between
- Big walls of data for commentators to physically move within
- The same familiar faces popping up for interviews - Guiliani early on, and the Ohio Secretary of State as the night drew on
- A dearth of new and interesting things to say once the seventh or eighth hour of coverage came around.

Full marks to the BBC for having the most gobsmackingly impressive graphic illustrating the result in each state as it arose. It was scintilating television as our host walked across the map, pointing out the geographical features of electoral USA as we travelled on a journey. If only the Beeb spent more on decent, balanced journalism and less on political tourism it would be on the right track.

Ultimately, the coverage from the major networks was disappointing. The Florida saga from 2000 meant that the networks were very risk averse when it came to declaring winners in each state. Florida, Virginia, New Hampshire and Ohio all took much longer to call than they should have. It seems that they were too restained this year, and need to be more prepared to trust their instincts.

The experts were seemingly underprepared. There was a complete lack of an Antony-Green-esque character who could demonstrate that they knew their stuff, and too many ring-ins without a strong understanding on the mathematics of an election. The preference for talking in terms of numbers of votes rather than percentages looked remarkably amateur-hour.

In the end, CNN had the best all-round coverage, although Fox News deserves credit for being prepared to call most states early, and as it transpired, accurately.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Bush Basks as Kerry Koncedes

Political junkies around the world were devastated at the gutless and premature concession of defeat at 11am (east coast USA time) by Senator John Kerry. The night before, the count ended with just the slightest hint of 2000 all over again with a cliff hanger in Ohio, but alas it comes to nothing. The thrill of waiting 11 days until the fine folks of Ohio counted the provisional votes sounded promising. Democracy certainly makes a great spectator sport. One network was speculating that the Democrats had a plane and a crack squad of electoral lawyers ready to fly anywhere from Alaska to Florida to fight the good fight. But, with the Bush margin in Ohio growing and the popular vote nationwide clearly going Bush's way, Kerry decided to throw in the towel.

As predicted yesterday, the status quo from 2000 has remained almost exactly as it was, with only New Mexico and New Hampshire likely to swap sides. This seems to reflect the idea that voters had an instintive positive or negative reponse to Bush when they first encountered him in 2000, and over the length of his presidency little has changed, with those views being reinforced one way or the other. If we accept the logic that Kerry won the campaign itself (the debate, the public mood) then it makes sense that voters had already decided the election result long ago. Also, consider the fact that voter turnout was significantly higher than in 2000 - people felt more strongly one way or the other, and many more passed the 'do I give enough of a stuff to go out and vote?' threshold.

Bush can rightfully read this result as an endorsement of the last 4 years. The election result will give him a much freer hand in dealing with Iraq. Watch for a change in the response to the 'international community' (that's code for Europe and the UN): they were holding back in contributing significantly in Iraq, hoping for a change in US administration, but now they know they have 4MY, they have no choice but to work alongside Bush. It is also an invitation for Bush to persist with his reckness economic policy of deficit financing that would make Keynes blush and turn straight.

Don't for a moment expect Bush to echo Howard's rejection of triumphalism. This is party time for the Right around the world who see it as a ringing endorsement of the neo-conservative view of the world. On the 'big questions' of international relations at the moment - rogue states, terrorism - the Left have locked themselves out of the argument. Bush's re-election is just another nail in the metaphor for the Left.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004


The polls have already opened on the east coast, and so the final campaign rally has been held, the final dodgy campaign commercial has been aired, the final Bush cliche has been spoken, the final Kerry flip flopped and the final Nader utterance ignored. It's election day, and come Wednesday afternoon in the antipedes, it will be election night.

Prediction: Bush to win comfortably. Bush may have screwed up Iraq, fumbled with 9/11 and missed the chance with Osama, but it won't matter a bit. Bush makes Americans feel good about being Americans, he asserts a dominant place for his country in the world and offers strength of conviction, a quality that is admired regardless of whether a voter agrees with that conviction or not. Bush has also played a dominant, and largely successful role, in implementing domestic policy. Health, education, jobs and prosperity are all travelling well, and Bush is claiming much of the credit.

The other reason is Ariontheroad's patented Civil War Theory. It goes like this. The civil war aint really over, and the South are still bravely fighting on. Whilst voters in northern states have no qualms about voting for a candidate strictly on merit, voters in the south do not trust northerners or Washington insiders. The evidence is there - the last two northerners from a major party to run for president were shot down in flames. In 1988, Massachussan Michael Dukakis won only 10 states, whilst in 1984 Minnesotan Walter Mondale won just 1. Contrast that with highly competitive southerners Bush 1, Clinton, Perot, Dole, Gore, Bush 2. This time around, how will the CTW theory play out? Kerry has tried to neutralise it by chosen Edwards as his VP, but the south are still not buying it. To then, Kerry represents the worst aspects of northern aloofness, whilst Bush is the All-American kid.

It's a mammoth task to predict the outcomes in all 50 states plus the D of C, and it's unlikely that history will remember Ariontheroad as a vital organ of political discourse, so instead I'll stick to predicting states that will vote differently in '04 to '00:

Republican to Democrat
New Hampshire

Democrat to Republican:
New Mexico

A quick bit of arithmetic shows that this puts Bush about 40 votes over the line. Sounds right, unfortunately.

Quick observations on other votes taking place:
- Colorado is having an interesting ballot on its 9 electoral college votes being allocated proportionally to the size of the vote received by each candidate rather than the current winner-takes-all allocation. Hopefully Colorado will vote for change, and it will be the start of a nationwide reform of the anarchornistic system in place at the moment.
- Republicans to retain control of the House, and consolidate their number in the Senate.
- The speculated litigation and endless challenges to result to not eventuate - the Republican margin will be large enough to be beyond challenge.

The Melbored Cup

It's Melbourne Cup day, and I am overwhelmed by apathy at the occassion. Couldn't care less who wins the thing, but if She's Archie could come either first or last, I'll come out ahead in the Cup sweep at work.

Predictions on the race itself abound, often from people who actually know something about it as well as crackpot psychics who don't (and watch out in the Herald Sun for plenty of useless celebrity tips), but here is an alternative set of predictions for the day:

- Bruce McAvaney will be in a state of delirium for all six hours of the race day.
- Bart Cummings will fail to crack a smile all day
- Gai Waterhouse will have a botoxed permanent smile all day
- The horse leading 1000 metres in won't have a hope in hell of winning
- Some idiot will wear a tuxedo and a pair of boxer shorts. Said idiot will feature in numerous 'colour pieces' in the evening news
- Bookies will make a killing with all the first-time punters on the course
- Z-Grade celebrities will abound in the Birdcage
- It will rain

And to capture the true spirit of the Melbourne Cup carnival, a quick snippet from last year's excitement:

Wondering where Paris & Nicky Hilton had disappeared to on Melbourne Cup day, I like the quote overheard from Seven boss, David Leckie, "We paid top dollar for those bitches, now where are they?!?"

...but they meme well

Social scientists coined the phrase meme (no, not the first-person babbling of a split-personality) to describe the phenomena of ideas and concepts which quickly spread and propogate with no apparent trigger, and often die just as quickly.

This is Wikipedia's take on it:

A meme is a unit of information that replicates from brains or retention systems, such as books, to other brains or retention systems. In more specific terms, a meme is a self-propagating unit of cultural evolution, analogous to the gene (the unit of genetics). Memes can represent parts of ideas, languages, tunes, designs, skills, moral and aesthetic values and anything else that is commonly learned and passed on to others as a unit.

The Melbourne University blog craze is a meme in its natural habitat. Without entering into the detail of who-said-what-to-whom-and-who's-got-the-photo, it's worth noting that since the start of October, the following people have entered the blogosphere: Nick Demiris, Jayde Lovell, Sarah Meredith, Joel Parsons, Miranda Airey-Branson, Alex Lew, Rohan D'Souza and Miranda again (a dormant blog revived in recent weeks). So is there good cause to celebrate the embracing of reflection and contemplation? Or is it in the same category as yo-yos and devotion to Yahoo Serious?

UPDATE 19/11 12:33am: It looks like the hunch hinted at in the above post has been proven correct. Of the blogs mentioned, Nick Demiris is no longer online, nor is the famous Miranda Airey Branson, or Alex, Rohan and Miranda's joint effort. Jade, Sarah and Joel have been sitting idle, with just a single post each in more than a week. Yoyos, blogs and the music of Frente, all shortlived, slick and headache-inducing (except for the blogs and yoyos).

Monday, November 01, 2004

New Labor Cabinet

Poor lil Mark Latham. In the space of a month he has gone from being a respectable chance to win The Big One to being an embittered wannabe with the political equivalent of Herpes. No one of talent wants to get close to Mark, and so he's putting up with second best. The announcement last week of the new Labor frontbench was rather underwhelming, with most of the big names either no longer in Parliament or previously announcing their preference for the backbench. No Beazley, Tanner, Melham, Faulkner, Ellis, Cox, Collins, Emerson. Instead, it was the B-team who are filling the front bench, inevitably keeping the seats warm until the A-team decide they want to have a crack 18 months out from the next election.

Let's have a sticky beak at what's new:

- Wayne Swan was the eventual winner of a nasty battle for the Shadow Treasurer's job. Julia Gillard, who looked the goods for a long while, bowed out of the running with dignity and honour and will remain a well-respected senior figure. Swan has the intellect and perseverence to take the battle up to Costello, although he sounded a little hackneyed on Tuesday with this recurring motif: "As I said today, we've got to mix with people from the lounge room, as well as the boardroom, from the lunch room to the cabinet table." It was Wayne Swan, in the Lunch Room, with the knife, your honour.

- Anthony Albenese, a talented left winger from Sydney, scores the Environment portfolio. True, he has hair and has never sung in an 80s rock band, but he still deserves the job.

- Tony Burke, straight into parliament and the ministry in the challenging (for the ALP, at least) Small Business portfolio.

- Simon Crean, stripped of the leadership, then of the treasurer's job, is now Shadow Minister for Trade. What's next - Arts?? Sport??

- Senator Joe Ludwig from Queensland has scored a mixed bag of goodies.

- Tanya Plibersek gets a range of portfolios that suggest Latham reckons she's nothing more than a pair of ovaries on legs: Shadow Minister for Work, Family, Community, Youth and Early Childhood Education, Assisting the Leader on the Status of Women.

- Bob Sercombe, a safe-seat-holding underachiever from Melbourne scores the, wait for it, job of Shadow Minister for Pacific Islands. "Tahiti looks nice, Roger."

- Penny Wong, a hugely talented SA Senator makes it into Cabinet, shadowing Kevin Andrews. A shadow minister to watch.

All in all, a passable team although there is no way this will be the combination that will take Labor to the next election. Watch for a major shuffle in early 2006 to bring back most of the talent who coyly drifted to the backbench, and many of these shadow ministers to barely get a taste of the action before being turfed. Labor have continued the strange habit of not aligning the shadow ministry directly with the ministry itself, instead they've split some portfolios, merged others, created new ones, and left out Transport all together. Seems to guarantee demarcation disputes when the gloves really need to be laid into the government.

The closest thing to a Shadow Cabinet photo:
Latham greets the new Shadow Minister for Red T-Shirts