Monday, May 30, 2005

French vote a disappointment

One need not be a francophone to understand this front page story in Le Monde:

Le vote français plonge l'Union européenne dans une période d'incertitudes
The French, the great leaders of the European cause have done the unthinkable and given the thumbs down to the EU Constitution. The EU is one of those great political phenomena which has wonderfully inoffensive objectives, but when the practical details are considered, manages to offend nearly everyone. The Constitution has been adopted by nine countries already, although rarely is this due to popular support - most countries, such as Germany most recently, have chosen to adopt it via a parliamentary vote.

Much as this latest vote might be a setback, Europe, or more rightly the EU, will survive and eventally prosper. Individually, each European nation knows that it is vulnerable economically and culturally if it seeks to stand out on its own. In an era of trade blocs and strategic alliances, each nation is in a fairly weak bargaining position and will otherwise confine itself to irrelevancy. Together, though, the nations of the EU have the potential to major world powers, rivalling the US, and down the track perhaps China, as vital international players. Deep down, most Europeans realise this and would hate to be left without the safety-in-numbers that the EU provides. When they think they can get away wit a dummy spit, though, they will.

The French rejected the Constitution fairly vigourously on Sunday, despite everyone from the conservative Jacques Chirac to François Hollande, the leader of the Socialist party lending their support to the Yes case. There seems to be a similar discourse emerging in France that had emerged in many other parts of the world - elite opinion pushing toward great national projects (an Australian republic, democracy in Iraq, a single Europe) whilst popular opinion seeks to undermine this rush toward grandness and draw attention to their feelings of being left behind.

This interesting graphic (oui, aussi Le Monde) says much about the division between the affluent metropolitan and the struggling regions. Three of the highly populated Parisian départements (départements 75, 78 92 for the hordes of French psephologists who reguarly flock to this site) voted strongly in favour of the European constitution, as did the affluent west-coasters. Right through the rest of the country, much of it rural and small cities, voted no in great number. Whilst those with wealth feel they can afford to dream of Brussels, most of their countryfolk can thing only of their next Brussel Sprouts (groan). For the great European project to work, ordinary punters need to be shown the benefits rather than simply told what's good for them. Show them the benefits of a powerful currency. Show them the benefits of flexible labour. Show them the benefits of a united defence force. It's hard work but it's the only way to win hearts and minds.

Ari in Canberra

I'll be away in Canberra for three days from Tuesday to Thursday of this week. I'd love to meet up with Canberra friends, both new and old. If you've got a couple of hours free, get in touch, so that we can drink coffee, read the papers, and make up rumours about Barnaby Joyce. Who's with me?

Corby case - a few angles

It was hard not to be emotionally moved by the tsunami of coverage of the Schapelle Corby judgement that was delivered on Friday. Given that there are plenty of people around the world have are victim to far greater injustices than Corby, it seems a tad irrational to become so emotionally involved in this case. Perhaps it comes down to deep-seated prejudices - here was a young, attractive, Australian woman on trial - that mean we prioritise some people's suffering over others. Most likely, on a subconscious level we can all relate to Schapelle - she could be our sister, or our daughter, or in some parts of Tassie both at once. This might further explain the lack of Indonesian sympathy for her, since most Indonesians have trouble identifying with a 20-something fair-skinned boogie-boarding beauty therapy student.

A few observations about the past 48 hours:

- The Federal government has finally given formal assistance to Corby as she mounts her appeal. The question was asked, why was this assistance not given at an earlier stage? The answer: it was offered but not accepted, with Corby's appointed lawyers making the decision. One theory heard was that the original lawyers had stitched up media deals which required them to be the main legal representatives - for them to accept the Australian government lawyers would sacrifice the media deal and the money that went with it. If it's true, it's a scandal. If it's not, it's just another tale for the rumour mill.

- The media interest has bordered on the fanatical. The coverage on Friday was vast and expansive, in print, broadcast and electronic form. There seemed to be a shortage of material, particularly once the guilty verdict was given, with the same lines being rehashed over and over. Given the circumstances, it was a commendable effort, but the story was crying out for a sense of perspective and critical distance, which so far has been lacking.

- The appeals lodged by both prosecution and defence over the sentence are likely to leave the sentence just where it is. Without any new evidence coming to light, it's hard to see on what grounds a higher court with overturn Friday's verdict. The only thing that could change the outcome would be a conviction of a baggage handler at Brisbane or Sydney airport for planting the drugs in Corby's bag. Anything less is unlikely to sway an appeal court.

- The appeal for clemency from SBY might have more success. (A much smarter move now, post-verdict, then it was a fortnight ago when Corby poured her heart out to SBY.) If the stories about the corruptability of the Indonesian judicial system are correct, then it may prove to be of benefit to Corby recieving clemency. The backlash against all things Indonesian amongst Australians is likely to be strong and prolonged, and political considerations such as this are likely to influence the president. Such is the nature of corruption that a tactic has a real chance of succeeding. All this needs to be balanced, of course, against the considerable anti-drug feeling amongst Indonesians, who are likely to object to percieved special treatment for a convicted drug courier.

It'll be interesting to see whether this degree of compassion continues when the case of the Bali Nine is heard. Given the differences in the two cases, my hunch is that people will be a lot more hard-hearted toward the Nine, who seem far more responsible for their own circumstances than does Corby. The irony is that with a quality legal team and more information about the source of the drugs, most in the Bali Nine might be in a good position to construct a defence. The question is who will be the fall guy (or girl)?

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Picture thanks to the Foreign Priosoner Support Service

Friday, May 27, 2005

Jews and Australian Politics Forum, Thursday night

Just returned from a very interesting forum at the Jewish Museum of Australia, based around the fiery new book Jews and Australian Politics. On the panel was co-editor Phillip Mendes (Geoffrey Brahm Levey was the other hand in this effort), along with Michael Danby and Julian Sheezel, both Jews with a long involvement in the Labor and Liberal parties respectively. All three were in good form, with Mendes offering some interesting insights into the drift toward conservatism (well, toward voting Liberal, at least) amongst Australian Jewry, whilst Danby and Sheezel launched some diplomatic but well directed attacks at their political opponents. I admit I am yet to read the book although I would quite like to, so for now I'll just offer a few interesting snippets from Thursday night's forum:

- Just what is the character of Jewish voters, and how has it changed over time? Mendes forcefully argued that whilst Jews generally come from a higher socio-economic background, they usually identify with a progressive position on social issues such as refugees, abortion and welfare. This has historically led them to vote for the ALP, and can in part explain why 8 of the 9 Jewish MPs since Federation have been from Labor. Now the trend is on toward voting Liberal, in part perhaps to the odiousness of the left fringe of the ALP.

- Danby had a dig at some of the elder statespeople within the ALP over the branch-stacking issue. The issue of ethnic groups being used to stack out Labor branches was raised, and Danby indignantly suggested that Labor should be proud for engaging non-Anglo people in the political process. Danby asked whether it was fair that party elders "with Anglo names like Matthews, Kirner and Cain" (that would be with the equally Anglo first names of Race, Joan and John) determine whether ethnic members were legitimate or just stackers. A clever argument.

- The question of who won the Jewish vote in Melbourne Ports arose. Though it is impossible to give a definate answer (Caulfield might be ghettoised, but it's not that ghettoised), it is possible the theorise. Danby argued that he had won the Jewish vote, whilst Sheezel argued that the Liberal candidate Southwick did, though both seemed a little unsure. Using Primary Votes as the guide, since this gives a good idea of the voter's intention, some quick samples reveal the following:

Danby 39.25%
Southwick 42.94%

Heavily Jewish booths:
Danby 33.40%
Southwick 58.22%

Caulfield Upper:
Danby 34.95%
Southwick 52.14%

Danby 37.19%
Southwick 44.51%

Heavily non-Jewish:
Danby 45.38%
Southwick 41.51%

Danby 66.97%
Southwick 24.08%

Port Melbourne:
Danby 42.89%
Southwick 42.83%

Based on these samples, it's hard to see how Danby won the Jewish vote. True, he may have won it on preferences, but overall it seems that Danby lost the Jewish vote but won - or at least drew even - amongst the non-Jewish voters.

- A few interesting comments on the pro-Palestinian movement within Canberra. The Parly Friends of Palestine is currently headed by Liberal Sussan Lay and was previously headed by former MP, Liberal Ross Cameron. The Palestian Authority representative in Canberra, the equivalent of an ambassador for a non-state, is apparently appallingly bombastic and ineffective. There is a growing generation, though, of Australian-born, politically savvy Arabs and Muslims to put a more persuasive and professional case.

- The book has recieved some attention in the Jewish media suggesting that the book was a diatribe against controversial Jewish lobbyists AIJAC (Austalia/Israel and Jewish Affair Council). Mendes was fairly dismissive of the attention, explaining that a critique of AIJAC fills just three pages of the book, in the context of the Hanan Ashrawi/Sydney Peace Price saga. Are Colin Rubenstein et al at AIJAC the Carly Simon of Australian politics ("You're so vain... I bet you think this song is about you...")?

An interesting night out with some worthwhile topics on the table for discussion. Next step: to read the book.

UPDATE 30/5, 10:20pm: A friend has alerted me to AIJAC's response to the perceived criticisms in the book, and in a column in its publication The Review, Ted Lapkin comes out fighting:

Stripped of all the window dressing, the essence of the Levey/Mendes grievance about AIJAC’s purported "political bias" stems from the fact that the partiality in question isn’t theirs. Like many Jewish Leftists, Levey and Mendes resent the fact that their worldview places them far outside the ambit of the community’s political common denominators. They are frustrated that the inherent extremism of their politics consigns them to the status of bit players on the Jewish communal stage.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The King is dead...

Graham Kennedy,

...long live the King.

Crikey on Ari on Bill

Those looking for the piece on Bill Shorten mentioned on Crikey( can find it here.

Does the world owe farmers a living?

Queenslander Barnaby Joyce has been in the Senate all of, well, eh, he's yet to take office, actually, but he manages to attract the sort of attention that most of the red-leather seat warmers can only dream of. Today, he made the front page of The Oz with a crackpot proposal for "zonal taxation":

Queensland Nationals senator-elect Barnaby Joyce and Queensland colleagues have suggested their own long-term solution: generous tax concessions in regional Australia to attract infrastructure investment.

The Queensland Nationals, who will play a crucial role in the Senate from July 1 after helping deliver the Coalition a majority, say flat and favourable tax rates in depressed rural areas would breathe new economic life into the bush.

Mr Joyce, who is championing the "zonal taxation" proposals, argues the tax initiative would be cost-neutral because it was the fastest way to turn welfare recipients into working taxpayers.

The proposal continues in a long tradition of the city subsidising the country. Many of the beneficiaries of this proposal - and the current 'drought rescue' package going through Cabinet - are farmers who have seen many good harvests in recent years, yet have set aside insufficient funds to cope with tough times. In the same way that businesses in the city need to plan ahead for uncertain times, bush dwellers can't expect to be bailed out because the sun shines too much. Besides, many of these farmers are working in highly wasteful and unprofitable fam sectors, and there would be little lost if they were to leave farming and use their resources more productively in other ways.

There is the small problem, of course, that the Joyce proposal might not be consitutional (Section 51 - The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to:- (ii.) Taxation; but so as not to discriminate between States or parts of States). But never fear, the Queensland Nationals were never too phased about Constitutions, the separation of powers, that sorta thing. Right, Sir Joh?

This proposal is a dud, but at least it's an innovative dud.

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BJ: Now we know why he's smiling.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Canadian progessive survives... just

In Canada, the Prime Minister Paul Martin, from the (progressive) Liberal Party managed to survive a no-confidence vote only after the Speaker cast the deciding vote. Martin may have made it through this time, but the Conservatives have sniffed blood, and they're likely to continue to make life tricky.

There's plenty on the web about the issue, but here's a first-hand take on things from a Canadian friend of mine, Charles:

The Tories may win the confidence vote, but it remains to be seen whether they can win the election that will follow!

It is expected that the next campaign will last 40 days, more than the usual 30 days, a lot can happen, and the Liberals have a great organisation (the big red machine), much better oiled than that of the Tories. Besides, because the Bloc Quebecois' hard base splits the vote, the Tories will lack necessary support in the East to win a majority in the House of Commons. And probably most importantly, Canadians do not like the Tories' leader, Stephen Harper, he is very right-wing despite a few recent efforts to move toward the center. Recent surveys put the Liberals ahead. Finally, it is stupid to call an election in the summer in Canada. I do not think it has ever been done.

I just think it is very very very sad that our leaders are so preoccupied with childish issues instead of focusing on the real problems affecting Canada. We are wasting precious time... China is coming.
So maybe the Liberals will survive for a while yet.

It's Paul Martin!
That's Paul Martin in the front, and an unknown assaillant behind him.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Review: PHOBIA @ North Melbourne Town Hall

As Marion Crane gracefully steps into the bathtub to take her final wash, it's not the coquettish innocence of her face that stays in the memory, nor is it the pure whiteness of the shower curtain. Instead, it is the incessant squealing of violins, alerting everyone but Marion to the immanent danger lurking just a few feet away. Without the nerve-jangling intensity of the soundtrack, this iconic Hollywood scene would remain as just another cinematic murder. As it is, this scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is etched into the collective consciousness of generations of movie-goers, and has forever condemned both white shower curtains and violin E strings to be associated with bathtub murder.

Bernard Herrmann, the composer who wrote this memory-scarring piece of music, was not the only one to be fascinated by the power of sound in Hitchcock’s work. As well as being the composer for Psycho, Herrmann also composed the soundtrack to Vertigo, another Hitchcock classic, and it is this film that has inspired Chamber Made to create the highly innovative Phobia.


It's a Friday Night Funnyman!

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Indonesian Justice

Despite the billion dollar tsunami aid package pledged by Australia to the Indonesian government, relations between the two are going through a low ebb, at least according to Professor Tim Lindsey in his interesting public lecture at the Melbourne University Law School. Professor Lindsey is a legal academic, and has kept a very close eye on three important events that are shaping the bilateral relationship - the Schapelle Corby case, the Bali Nine, and the trials of the Bali bombers. In each case, the Indonesian legal system has taken a batterring, at least in the eyes of the Australian public, via the tabloid media.

Lindsey argues that the criticisms levelled at the Indo justice system are ignorant and incorrect. There has been plenty of baseless scuttlebutt circulating, including suggestions that the justice system has a presumption of guilt rather than innocence, that the judges' verdict is predetermined, and the notion that the Australian government should do more (more what is never made clear) to help its citizens on trial overseas. Lindsey challenges these ideas, and suggests that the Indonesian legal system has a history grounded in Dutch (and by extention, French) legal process, which may be foreign to Australians, but is quite common around the world. The legal system undoubtedly has his flaws, Lindsey admits: corruption is still widespread, resources are scarce, and basic infrastructure - such as court transcripts and a decent translation service - is lacking.

Instead of blaming the justice system, in the case of Corby, Lindsey argues that an incompetent defence is to blame. Despite having good cause to challenge the intregrity of the physical evidence, after the Indo police failed to fingerprint the bag, Corby's defence failed to score a hit (pardon the pun) and instead focused on an emotive case, likely to win over the audience of A Current Affair, but less likely to woo a panel of hard-nosed Indonesian judges.

So what are the likely verdicts for Corby and the Bali Nine? Lindsey seemed certain that Corby would escape the death penalty, and after appeals and the possibility of Presidential clemency, would end up serving 15 to 20 years. He was sceptical of the possibilities for a prisoner transfer to Australia, explaining that there were technical and legal issues to be resolved first, particularly the likely arrangement the that Indonesians currently held in Australian prisons would need to be repatriated. The outcome for the Bali Nine is even more pessimistic - with the physical evidence strapped to their bodies, it was going to take a supremely dedicated defence team to punch holes in the evidence.

As for the Bali bombers, it was the death sentence for some, but a pitiful sentence for others (albeit just today upheld):

Jakarta High Court has upheld radical Islamic cleric Abu Bakar Baasyir’s 30-month jail sentence for involvement in the conspiracy behind the October 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Blog's first birthday and my Top 10

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.
It feels like only yesterday, but it's exactly 12 months to the day since I first put these words in that order and hit the upload button, commencing the first post on this very blog. It's been a fun twelve months of blogging, and has seen this modest medium of self-indulgent folly become an important personal project, bettered only by my attempt to cover the entire metropolitan train network in a single day in 1998. Unlike that ultimately futile project, this one has a point. For me, this is a chance to develop a 'voice', and give form to the thoughts which have floated around my brain and kept me laying awake at night.

During this twelve months, the biggest blogging achievement has been my three months of blogging from Asia (see every post in December, January, February) and most of all my North Korean travellogue, which has made me a household name in Pyongyang (see the index on the right hand side). Both have shown the potential of the blog to move beyond self-indulgence, and offer something insightful and worthwhile which adds to the same of human knowledge... and allows me to pun in 12 different langauges.

To mark the first birthday of this piece of internet real estate, I've put together my top ten favourite posts - in chronological order - which are the sort of things I'd happily show my mother:

10. Not Happy, John - at the launch of NH,J in Melbourne, this little piece of sarcasm on my part caught the eye of crikey, as well as a few Margo Kingston lovers and haters. It also inspired one of the few bits of hatemail I've ever received:

From : Claire Shaw
Sent : Wednesday, 30 June 2004 4:02:08 PM
To :
Subject : Margo Kingston book launch

Dear Ari Sharp

You are a twat.

Go and live in the Gaza Strip with the Palestinians for a while and see how much fun you have. Maybe your house will be bulldozed on top of you and we won't have to read your crap any more.
Thanks for that, Claire!

9. Senatorial Mathematics - in June last year I contemplated the possibility of strange things happening in the Senate election, and saw the prospect of the Liberals getting perilously close to a majority. Little did I know that my prediction would underestimate the Coalition numbers in the Senate.

8. Let Freedom (of Trade) Reign - this is my brilliant proposal for lifting the third world out of poverty through trade rather than patronising aid.

7. The Greens election astroturfing exposed... and no-one gave a shit. This was quite a significant revelation about a dirty tactic used by St Bob's mob in last year's Federal Election, but despite many efforts, no one else took up the story.

6. Yassar's dead. Finally. Like many people, I was relieved to see the mastermind of Mid-East terror buried. It's interesting to note that the six months since his death have been the most productive in the past five years at achieving a lasting peace.

5. Seat Watch was a fun little exercise leading up to last years' FedElec, and let me be the Antony Green of my own living room, putting up analyses and predictions for 10 of the most intriguing electoral battles. In the end, I picked a respectable 7 out of 10 correctly.

4. The Real Bangkok Hilton. During my visit to Thailand, I went on a very moving visit to the prison in Bangkok that houses many of the foreign prisoners. One of them, Jagnathan Samynathan, told his story to me.

3. My attempt to visit Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma was unsuccessful, but I had great fun trying, and learnt plenty about the awful situation the Burmese people find themselves in at the hands or a regime that just doesn't care.

2. Am I a Crackpot? China is faced with a massive population problem, not just in size but in the gender balance. One of the unintended consequences of the one child policy has been that there are a generation of young, militant men whose chance of marriage is slim. What with the government do about it?

1. The Streets of Pyongyang aint likely to be the name of a cop film any time soon, but it was an incredible place to visit, and I'm glad I can tell the stories of what I saw there. Alas, I missed out on seeing Km Jong Il as well.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Murder, (Aung San Suu) Kyi Wrote?

There's a mystery playing itself out in Burma at the moment which demonstrates just how fractured the country is. Saturday a week ago, a bomb exploded at a trade fair in Rangoon, killing 11 (well, that was the official figure) and wounding over 100. Like all good mysteries, there are plenty of possible suspects and plenty of possible motives.

The appalling SPDC (State Peace and Development Council, the mob who run the place) were first off the mark and accused Burma's various different ethnic groups of plotting to undermine the state with the bombing. The consequence of this, of course, is that it gives the Burmese junta a handy justification for cracking down on these ethnic groups, as well as categorising them as terrorist with all the implications that go with that. Hmmm, a cute bit of politics, but perhaps the SPDC would have more to gain than the ethnic rebels would.

Then there is the suggestion that the pro-democracy activists were behind it, frustrated at the lack of progress toward democracy and trying to kick-start action. Given the severe crackdowns that any sort of activists face in Burma (check out this post from my recent trip there), it is hard to believe they could gather the resources to carry out such an attack. Again, the mere suggestion gives the government leverage to strike down on its opponents.

Hopefully the outcome of this appalling attack is that the rest of the world will keep a close eye on Burma. Due to the fact that it doens't pose a major threat to its neighbours - only its own citizens have to endure its nastiness - Burma has slipped under the International Radar of Nastiness. Like some of the Middle Eastern states, Burma is rich in natural resources, with minerals being a major export item. For now, it's been able to pay the rest of the world to look the other way whilst its people suffer. But for how much longer?

Friday, May 13, 2005

Walk on Water

Go and see Walk of Water, but make sure you cover your eyes for the last three minutes before the credits roll around. Nothing grusome, graphic or erotic in that last hurrah, but instead the most ridiculous, unnecessary plot twist since she was a he in The Crying Game.

Walk on Water is a challenging, exciting film from Israeli Eytan Fox. The plot weaves together three complicated characters: a German brother and sister who's grandfather was a Nazi, and the Israeli Mossad agent who acts as their tour guide on a trip to the Holy Land. It's an intriguing tale of who knows what, and who knows who knows what, and the story is told with gripping, pacey drama.

What sets this film apart from so many others in the spy genre is that the characters are all fundamentally flawed, and extremely human. There are no good guys or bad guys, just many characters in a variety of shades of grey. That's how it should be. Just as in the real world, most believe in the rightness of their actions, regardless of the consequences. It's hard not to empathise with the plight of each of the characters, even when it places them in conflict with each other.

There are few holocaust themed films which have big dollops of humour, with Europa Europa and Life is Beautiful being the honourable exceptions. Whilst not strictly a holocaust film, this one manages to keep the laughs coming without undermining its message.


Strange psychological exercise in my Strategic Management class on Thursday. About two-thirds of the way through the lecture, a shrill, piercing sound rung out through the theatre, and the "Evacuate Now" light flashed. Rather than rushing quickly to the door, us lemming students sat waiting for guidance from our lecturer. For several agonising minutes, the lecturer urged us to remain seated, suggesting that the alarm would pass. Finally, after three passive minutes as the fire raged/anthrax spread/criminal crazed, the lecturer decided that we really should leave, and that he'd abandon the rest of the lecture. Still at a rather leisurely pace, we all packed our bags and muttered our way to the door.

This time around, it turned out to be a false alarm, and there was no harm done. But at the time, who was to know. Are we all so innately trusting of our lecturer that we would place our lives in his hands? Or are we so painfully conformist that we didn't want to break away from the group and head for the door? Is the desire to be fashionably laid-back and reserved so pervasive that in the case of an emergency, we don't want to be seen to be too keen to get to the door? Strange.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Market research Shortens odds

A reliable source has told me about some interesting political market research being carried out by AusPoll, a research firm with close links to the ALP.

At a focus group in the inner eastern suburbs of Melbourne, participants were discussing two separate but (kinda) related issues - opposition to a Free Trade Agreement with China, and perceptions of Bill Shorten. Apparently the client for the two was one-and-the-same, presumably AWU heavyweight Shorten, who is keen to challenge incumbant Labor MP Bob Sercombe in the seat of Maribynong during Labor preselection.

As part of the research, participants were shown various news clips of Shorten and were asked to evaluate his style, manner and appearance. No doubt Shorten appeared in his famous blue AWU shirt, which seems to be permanently stitched to his back. During the China FTA research, the firm tested various messages on participants, in particular looking at China as a human rights abuser and a 'Fairwear' style campaign to challenge Chinese-made goods.

The very fact that the Shorten research is taking place is interesting for a couple of reasons. It suggests that Shorten is keen on a high profile campaign during preselection, perhaps emulating Malcolm Turnbull's successful campaign for Wentworth. Given the expense that goes with market research of this type, Shorten presumably has deep pockets, and is prepared to spend plenty to gain preselection. It is also a little unusual that the research took place in the leafy green inner eastern suburbs, quite a long way from Shorten's preferred electorate of Maribyrnong in the west. Is there some element of cockiness in Shorten's approach: he's yet to win the preselection, and is likely to have a fight on his hands, but he has already started wooing the electorate before he's wooed the numbers men in the ALP.

Shorten was opposed to the FTA with the US, and presumably will be taking a similar hard line to any deal with China. Perhaps he sees his best chance for electoral success as riding on the back of anti-FTA sentiment, likely to be particularly potent in his working-class electorate? Hmmm, just what is Bill up to?

Monday, May 09, 2005

Weekend away

This afternoon I returned from a very relaxing weekend away in Ballarat with my Significant Other, Linh. I won't bore you with the stories, since there's not much to tell, but I will enlighten you with a handful of 'Rat happy snaps.

Bush and Dick

As someone with an arduous beauty regimen, I couldn't bare to go through a week-end without a cleansing facial. Note the Dubya and Cheney (that's Bush and Dick during my more infantile moments) inauguration t-shirt, not necessarily a reflection of my politics, but more a reflection of my depressing wardrobe.

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Linh and I spent most of the time talking, reading the paper, and stuffing our faces. Here we're doing a little of all three.

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On Sunday night, we dined at Ballarat's most sophisticated and exotic restaurant featuring a gorilla. The very best in Thai, Malaysian and Chinese food, thankfully without wacky waiters.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Blair's back, but his days are numbered

Blair's back, although he took a hit that will force him to play the humble servent for a while. There were a significant number of seats that shifted from Labour to Tory, though this may well be a quirk of first-past-the-post voting: if enough voters shift from Labour to Lib-Dem then the Tories can win, even if they have no swing toward them.

The Lib-Dems were disappointing in not being able to capitalise further on the anti-Labour sentiment, capturing just 11 new seats when Labour lost 47. The Tories managed to snap up many of these, and the potential for two equally balanced oppostion parties, in the Lib-Dems and the Tories, attacking Pincer-style from the left and from the right, is not to be.

The message that can be taken from the result is that voters are gradually plucking up the courage to vote again for the tainted Conservative brand. Voters were concerned about the unrestrained power possessed by Blair in his previous term in office, and want to choke it back. Turfing out some sitting Labour MPs was the best way to do it.

Blair now runs the risk of being a lame duck Prime Minister. He's already announced that this will be his final term as PM, but the $64 question (damn I wish I had the pound symbol on this keyboard) is just when will he hand the reins over, and more to the point, who the hell does he think he is riding Santa's sleigh anyway? The voters' gentle rebuke of Blair suggests that sooner rather than later is the time to hand them over. He risks outstaying his welcome, and making electoral success even tougher for his successor, if he refuses to heed the message. In his victory speech, ex-Labour nutter George Galloway suggested that Blair resign in the morning. It won't quite happen that way, but Blair needs to start thinking about it. Blair has a good enough sense of history to go with grace and dignity rather than forcing his deputy Gordon Browne to challenge. Watch for it in late 2006.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Talking Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan has slipped under the radar as a horrid, tyrannic place under the iron first of resident nutter Saparmurat Niyazov. Here's a first hand account in life in the former Soviet state, sent by a well travelled friend of mine:

Turkmenistan was a lot of fun, they have a massive personality cult but nobody seems to take the Turkmenbashi seriously, however I didn't hear any direct criticism. A Guide I had at one time made a few jokes about the ways they control people's movement in the country with all the checkpoints but from what I could gather the people there accept their leader as he is basically the same as in all the other Stans, just a bit more idiosyncratic, they feel that this is the leader they are supposed to have, all the stans have authoritarian dictators who are the same guy who led them in the USSR period so this seems reasonable enough. Anyway I would describe it as 50% Russia and 50% DPRK, well worth a trip if you are ever in that area!

Check out the haircut!
Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov

UK poll musings

The polls in the UK are open, and not long after the sun rises in the wide brown land, the polls will close. Not too much heat or excitement in this campaign, since the result seems like a foregone conclusion, and the speculation is merely on the size of the margin.

Despite the protests of the fashionable commentariat, Blair is still reasonably popular amongst ordinary Britons. He did use up some of his political capital in his poor management of the case for war in Iraq, but regardless on the myriad of domestic issues which influence voters more than anything else, Blair is seen as doing the right thing. The Tories are still tarnished by their slash and burn approach to public services under Thatcher and Major, and much as Howard likes to present himself as a new generation of Tory, voters are not yet willing to accept it.

The wildcard in this election is the Liberal-Democrats. Those minority of voters who are pissed off at Labour over Iraq will invariably turn to the Lib-Dems, who took a strong line against the war, rather than the Tories. Polling figures just a few days ago suggested that the Lib-Dems are headed for their best result yet, and may replace the Conservatives as the major opposition party. So long as the flood of votes toward the Lib-Dems doesn't unseat Blair, then their strong vote is a healthy thing for democracy since it will disrupt the Labour-Tory power duopoly. Should the Lib-Dems do well in the Labour-vs-Conservative marginal seats, and put Blair in danger of losing, then the Lib-Dems result could unwittingly produce their nightmare scenario - Tories in power. Such is the silliness of the first-past-the-post system used in the UK, but that's a debate for another time.

As for a prediction - no specific numbers, but the Tories to maintain their current standing, the Lib-Dems to increase their representation at the expense of Labour, and Labour to be returned to government with a decreased majority. Now that Howard has tried and failed, the real challenge to unseat Blair begins... from within. Browne, Cook, Hoon, step right up.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

And from our man in Caracas...

Last week I received a fascinating email from a friend of mine in Venezuela, a place run by old style leader Hugo Chávez, a man who is keen on creeping towards dictatorship rather than having the gumption to make a bold move:

Greetings anew, Master Ari.

Geez...just reading about your trips,'s like I can almost get a whiff of Asian air. Too bad I'm sort of landlocked, you know...My wages are so ridiculously low it'll be funny only when I've lost my mind for good.

I couldn't help noticing some parallels between what you said about North Korea and what we're living here in Venezuela:

"That place is truly bizarre, (...). The poverty is bad, although on a par with typical third world poverty, but the religious obsession with Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il is what sets the place apart. People there feel genuinely blessed to have two such wonderful leaders for their country, and don't realise how much the rest of the world holds the leaders up to ridicule."

You wanna talk about poverty? Try digging this:

a) US Dollars are "officially" at 1960,00 Venezuelan Bolívares -In reality, though, given the currency exchange regulations, for the average Joe to get dollars at that price is nothing short of a miraculous feat. Of course, there's always the black market. How much for those dollars? "that'll be just 3100,00 Bs (bolívares) each, mate"
b) Venezuela's largest mobile phone company, Telcel, has been bought by Movistar (which, as I understand it, is as Spanish company).
c) CITGO Petroleum Corporation, a subsidiary of PDVSA (our main national oil company) has sold two of its refineries over to foreign companies.
d) Over 80% of the total workforce is either jobless or forming part of the "informal economy" sector. Many laid-off professionals join these ranks every day
e) In Caracas alone, there are over 3600 stray children (the so-called "children of the streets"). Among these, many have started performing a juggling show whenever the stoplight turns red so as to earn a few miserable coins. Needless to say, these children are often exploited by their parents, who spend the money on beer (the drunken bastards).

I could go on and on, but that would prove too depressing, even for myself. The point is, a sizeable portion of the populace revere -or, at the very least, they fake it at academy award-winning standards- this vile mockery of a president called Hugo Chávez. A great many people have sold out their conscience for mere crums. This government has even bought weaponry from Spain on the false ground that they are preparing for an "asymetrical battle" against the US (like someone in his sane mind would believe that). Those weapons will serve the sole purpose of slaughtering anyone who dares oppose this tyranny openly.

I'm off to work now, pal. Tell you more when I find the time.

Best regards,

It's tricky to be on the left of Fidel Castro, but Hugo Chávez has found a way.
It's tricky to be on the left of Fidel Castro, but Hugo Chávez has found a way.