Tuesday, June 28, 2005

10 of the worst

If a week is a long time in football, then ten years is an epoch when it comes to politics. As John Howard creeps up (and creep being the operative word) on his tenth anniversary as Prime Minister, it's worth thinking about the ministers who have served under him. Sure, there are the old faithful ones, like Downer, Ruddock, Vanstone and the Eternal Bridesmaid Costello. But what about the less significant ones? The ministers who, for reasons of laziness, incompetence or the circumstances of the time, had no impact in the job, or worse.

So to remember those lesser-lights of Howard ministries over the years, here's my top 10 list - in order of chronology - of the worst ministers in the Howard years (thanks to Malcolm at AustralianPolitics and the Parliamentary Library for the trip down memory lane):

1. Senator Jim Short (1996-1996), Assistant Treasurer. Costello's first Assistant Treasurer, and one who got caught up in the application of Howard's Ministerial Code of Conduct. He was the first to go, caught up in a conflict of interest scandal in the issueing of bank licenses, barely six months after being appointed. Soon after, he took a rather cushy job in the Eurocracy in London.

2. David Jull (1996-1997), Minister for Administrative Services. Jull has 30 years experience in the parliament, but just 18 months of it as a minister. This was an important time for the public service, as Jull along with Howard and his right-hand man Max "The Axe" Moore-Wilton removed the vital organs of many public servants. Evidently Jull lacked the intestinal fortitude for the job, and he was forced to resign after a travel rorts saga.

3. Geoff Prosser (1996-1997), Minister for Small Business and Consumer Affairs. A WA Minister who was also caught up in scandal. Incredibly, almost a decade after leaving the ministry, he still keeps a seat warm in the House of Reps. Prosser was another minister caught up in a conflict of interest.

4. Andrew Thomson (1997-1998), Minister for Sport and Tourism, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Sydney 2000 Games. Briefly was a leading thinker in the Howard Government, before losing preselection in Wentworth in a nasty little tussle with Peter King. What goes around, comes around.

Handy Andy Thomson

5. Alex Somlyay (1997-1998), Minister for Regional Development, Territories and Local Government. Alex has spent many a year snoozing on the backbench, but at one stage he managed to rise to the heights of the outer ministery.

6. Warwick Smith (1996-1998), Minister for Sport, Territories, Local Government, Family Services. Before Eric Abetz put Tassie on the Ministerial map, Wariwck Smith, the in-out-and-in-again member for Bass, was given this oddball collection of portfolios.

7. John Sharp (1996-1997), Minister for Transport and Regional Development. Sharp got his teeth stuck into the early part of waterfront reform, although the fun part was left for Peter Reith. Oh the irony of a minister for transport who loses his job in a travel rorts saga, this one after he tried to make a secret $9000 payment to cover his tracks when the heat was on (the late) Senator Mal Colston.

John Sharp - Who?

8. Jackie Kelly (1998 - 2001), Minister for Sport and Tourism. A mumblingly bumblingly lightweight performance from a minister who was completely out of her depth. As a minister whose job it is to spread small bundles of cash far and wide throughout the land to sporting clubs and tourism operators, it's hard to go wrong. Somehow, she did.

9. Danna Vale (2001-2005), Minister for Veteran's Affairs. A minister with her foot permanently lodged in her mouth, Vale found her core constituents - namely, veterans - failed to warm to her. Also, displayed her sycophancy toward Alan Jones in her "Stay brave and true" stray fax saga.

10. Senator Kay Patterson (2001-2005), Minister for Health and Ageing, then Minister for Family and Community Services. Patterson had the tough job of selling the government's cost cutting in health, and just couldn't make it as a saleswoman. No particular scandal occured under her watch, but time and time again she failed to stand up to the department, doctors, private health insurers, the office clearer, or anyone else who put up a fight. Was replaced by the ultimately attack dog, Tony Abbott.

Monday, June 27, 2005

What a difference an assassin's bullet would make

As the world turns to Africa as part of Bono's "Live Aid" warm-inner-glow-sing-a-song-or-a-dark-kiddie-dies-of-AIDS extravaganza, it's worth looking at a part of Africa that has taken giant strides backwards in the past couple of years. I speak of Zimbabwe, a country that at one time not so long ago seemed to have effectively removed the yoke of colonialism and was headed to a bright, and presumably yoke-free future. Nowadays, though, it's governed by a racist thug who seems to have a deep disdain for everyone but himself.

Robert Mugabe is a deeply troubling figure. For a few years now, he was nasty, but predictably nasty. The world knew of his hatred for colonialism, and his country's white population served as an effective proxy for the big C. Policies such as his land redistribution policy, whilst incredibly destructive to both the rule of law and economy, made sense when seen through the prism of reflexive anti-white racism. In more recent times, his nastiness has become more unpredictable. This from CNN:

Police have destroyed tens of thousands of shacks, street stalls and even the vegetable gardens planted by the urban poor at a time of acute food shortages, since launching the program dubbed Operation Murambatsvina, or Drive Out Trash, on May 19. Estimates of the number affected range between 300,000 and 1.5 million.

Mugabe says the campaign is necessary to fight crime and maintain health standards in Zimbabwe's cities.

The rationale, presumably, is for Mugabe to punish his critics, with areas which recorded a low Mugabe vote in last year's election most heavily targeted. It is a further sign, though that Mugabe has gone troppo and is destroying the lives of his country's black population worse than any colonialist possibly could have.

To see the sadness of a country in ruins, it's worth checking out a few stories from The Standard and The Independent, two sister papers which represent almost the only critical voices in a nation run by an elected depsot. Take your pick out of these depressing stories of life in a failed state:

Clean-up forces 300 000 pupils out of school
By our own staff

EDUCATION, one of the sectors where Zimbabwe won world recognition for post-independence successes, is a major casualty of the government's on-going clean-up operation, The Standard can reveal.

The Progressive Teachers' Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ) and the Zimbabwe Teachers' Association (Zimta) estimate that as many as 300 000 children have dropped out of school after their homes were destroyed.
Insult laws a gag on media - analysts
Ray Matikinye

ZIMBABWE'S restrictive Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) in combination with insult laws have inhibited public discussion and gagged media probes into shady deals by high-ranking officials.

Experts say democracy and economic prosperity are not possible without public accountability of its leaders and transparency in their transactions, and vigorous public discussion of issues and choices.

Insult laws are statutes that make it a criminal offense to "insult" the honour or dignity of public officials. These statutes are used as vehicles to prevent and punish journalistic scrutiny of public records and official misdemeanours.
Zim lacks way out of fuel crisis

THE International Monetary Fund, currently in the country this week, met with officials from the National Oil Company of Zimbabwe (Noczim) and the Ministry of Energy and learnt that Zimbabwe had no plan in place to save the country from the crippling fuel shortage.

Zimbabwe does not currently have any fuel in reserve as the shortages have continued to bite. This week fuel retailers said the country was experiencing its worst-ever fuel crisis with only a few service stations in Harare getting the commodity. There was virtually no fuel in smaller towns.

The impact of the shortages were also manifest during peak hours as many public transport operators have parked their vehicles due to the stockout.
Zim's domestic debt soars to $10 trillion
Godfrey Marawanyika

ZIMBABWE'S domestic debt has ballooned to $10 trillion from $7 trillion as of April this year as government continues to borrow from local banks to finance its budget deficit.

A prize fuckwit

Friday, June 24, 2005

Little John stands down

The fact that Ando's days as National Party leader were nearing their end was perhaps one of the worst kept secrets in Canberra, but it was still a bit of a shock when it all become official:

After carefully weighing the interests of my party, my family, and my health, I have decided that the time has arrived for me to step down as Leader of the Nationals, and return to the backbench after the winter break.

So after nearly six years as National's leaders and Deputy PM, what will his legacy be? For starters, Anderson will be remembered as a nice bloke, who brought some level of civility and decency to political exchanges. He had the permanent look of a young dad, constantly trying to do the honourable and decent thing with all of his kids watching. Anderson never seemed entirely comfortable with the adversarial nature of party politics. Watching Anderson in Question Time, it's hard not to sense that he doesn't quite feel like he belongs - whilst Costello, Abbott, Nelson et al all sink the boot into the ALP with reckless abandon, Anderson seems more restrained. Perhaps he's just too gracious to lay a punch.

Anderson can claim some credit for the National's broadening their voter base. The number of farmers, who used to make up the core of the Nat's voter base, is now dwindling at the Nationals have had to diversify to survive. Under Anderson, they have steadily reached out to other regional communities, particularly coastal towns, in a way that gives the party some sort of a future. True, last year they lost the seat of Richmond - dominated by large towns - to the Labor Party, but you'd have to give Anderson credit for realising the problem his party faces and doing something about it. Continuing this revitalisation is a major challenge for his successor.

As for his policy achievements as a minister, in true Nationals style here's how Ando described them:

I step down feeling that I have made as great a contribution as I have been able to ensuring that Australia has a world-class water policy framework, and the basis of a proper national land transport plan. The National Water Initiative and AusLink respectively are now well and truly in the groove and can only advance from now.
The strengthening of the Marriage Act was a decisive blow in favour of families and children.
Agriculture Advancing Australia set Australian agriculture on a much more self-reliant, forward-looking course, with programmes such as FarmBis and the Farm Management Deposits. Drought has cruelly interrupted that course, but we've been there doing all the assistance heavy-lifting through Exceptional Circumstances.
Aviation safety concerns used to splatter across the front pages of our newspaper regularly. Now, a reformed CASA has global standing.

All sound fair. Though he'd never be indiscreet enough to admit it, he'd probably want to put the fact that Telstra remains in partial public ownership on his list. He could never play a really free hand on that one, but you got the feeling that he lacked any of the enthusiasm for this great privatisation project that Costello and Howard had, and was happy to see the breaks put on it.

Sounds like Anderson has plenty to be proud of. Next step: getting rid of the pain in his arse (and I'm not talking about Barnaby Joyce).

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Beazley telegraphs his punches: ABC still waiting for smoke signal

Beazley has finally got around to reshuffling his frontbench, including liberating Laurie Ferguson from the burden of the Shadow Ministry.

In a doorstop interview on Tuesday, there was this exchange:

JOURNALIST: Will you be giving any thought to improving that front bench line-up over the six week break?

BEAZLEY: There are always things you can do to improve a situation, but I've made comments on this in the past and I'll just simply refer you to them.

To anyone schooled in the basics of spin, this is a sure sign that a reshuffle is on the cards - as indeed it was.

Strangely, though,this is how Stephanie Kennedy reported it on PM that night:

STEPHANIE KENNEDY: Mr Beazley insists Mr Ferguson retains his full confidence, and the Labor leader has said he'll maintain this frontbench up until the 2007 election.

Huh? Where did that come from? Beazley made no such assertion, and his actions today show that this was clearly not the sentiment coming from Beazley's office earlier in the week. Just where the ABC got its 'same frontbench until 2007' line from is a mystery.


Let's wait to see the substance of the changes before passing comment. Here's hoping that we still have a Shadow Minister for Pacific Islands at the end of it all.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Political Compass

Last week I rather flippantly described my personal ideology like this:

Though I started off as a lefty a few years back, since leaving the near-extinct Democrats in 2003 I've been sitting firmly on the left-right fence, with the pickets occasionally doing damage to my sensitive regions. On economic and foreign policy, I'm on the right with the free marketeers and the less nutty neo-cons. On social policy, I'm lining up with the vegetarian gay whales in defending their right to euthenise their IVF babies in privacy.
After bringing up this Big Question, the comments section quickly led to a discussion of the Political Compass, a useful online tool which uses a series of simple moral, social and economic questions to determine one's political ideology - both on an economic scale from left to right, and a social scale ranging from authoritarian to libertarian.

So here, for the first time since I last did it, is my result:

Economic Left/Right: 4.00
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -3.64

Clowns to the left of me, jokers to my right...
So I guess that means I have the economic free marketeerism of Jacques Chirac and the respect for liberty of the Nelson Mandela. I can live with that.

Lord NelsonIt's Jacques!

(Alas, if only I had the fashion sense of Nelson and the expressive forehead of Jacques...)

True, there are limitations in the survey method - a small collection of questions, often with loaded wording, with a small number of possible answers. Even with these limitations, it's a useful way to help clarify where you stand politically. It also deserves plenty of credit for differentiating lib/auth from the left/right divide, in a way that much better reflects ideological positions than did previous representations.

So jump to the survey, find out where you stand, and tell the world.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

What a wonderful world

On Thursday night, my aunt Deb and uncle Peter gave birth (well, she did at least) to two beautiful baby girls, who are - as those of you with a modest understanding of familial relations will attest - my cousins.

Seeing these two newborns living and breathing on their own was a magical experience. Whilst not one to get sentimental about babies, it was hard not to become gooey and emotional at the site of these two tiny creatures. Their facial features are so incredibly finely crafted, with distinctive curves, dainty eyes, and a scalp that is so thin and delicate that the veins can be seen running across the top. They might be just three days old, but already they've completed one incredible journey.

So here are B1 and B2 Ernest (first names pending):

First born baby
Second born baby

Click here for more photos of these two.

UPDATE, 21/6 1:24am: We now have names for these two bundles o' joy. Twin one (top photo) is Netani Amana Ernest, and twin two (bottom photo) is Sasha Alessandra Ernest. Not likely to be too many people with those names spinning around the world.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Thanks, Petro

I'm a Petro fan. For a long time I've admired Petro Georgiou as a diligent intellect, someone who was rational in his world view, but was never afraid to show compassion or a respect for the social fabric that turns Australia from a functional economy to a functional society. Georgiou has a strong understanding not just of pragmatic politics (where his credentials were unquestionably demonstrated in masterminding Kennett's 1992 "Guilty Party" campaign) but also of principle and the need to stand by a set of values regardless of whether they accorded perfectly with party policy.

Georgiou has paid a significant price for his principled approach to politics. When the coalition came to office, Georgiou was a rising star and was expected to play a senior role in government. However, he and Howard come from fundamentally different perspectives in their support for the Liberal cause. Georgiou is a liberal in the classic sense - one who believes in the autonomy of the individual and the need for progressive social policy. Howard, though, is a conservative who grew up in an era of Menzies' "forgotten people" and sees his political purpose as to continue the struggle for middle class people, usually with middle class conservative values. It is this difference - and Howard's reluctance to put aside personal differences for the sake of the party - which has kept Georgiou out of the ministry for so long.

I've seen Georgiou up close. In 2001 I was the Democrat candidate in Georgiou's seat of Kooyong. Throughout, I was at pains to emphasise to voters that I had no problem with Georgiou as an individual - indeed, I freely admitted that he was a Liberal I admired. Given the considerable respect he commands amongst his constituents, there was little point in attacking Georgiou head on. For me (at that time, at least) Geogiou was the best of a bad lot of stuffy conservatives.

It is unsurprising that Georgiou is the Liberal MP leading the charge against the government's draconian refugee policy. Like his positions on compulsory voting (he's in favour), mandatory sentencing (he's against) or SBS (he founded it, well kinda), it is a position grounded in principle rather than pragmatism. This looks like a battle he might not win. But in standing up for a strand of liberalism which has been mercilessly crushed in John Howard's Liberal Party, Georgiou is presenting himself as an alternative voice not just on refugee issues but on attitudes to social policy. For that we should all be thankful.

Thanks, Petro.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us


The flame of the Marieke Hardy kinda-sorta-a-bit conflict of interest story from last week was down to a few dying embers, although Ben Butler at Inpress (and repeated here on The Music) has decided to stoke those embers with a big stick like a bright-eyed kid on school camp:

It may not be rating very well, but Seven's new Australian drama Last Man Standing is causing aggro anyway. Last week, right-wing blogger Ari Sharp pointed out that an Age profile of the show's writer, Marieke Hardy, failed to disclose that she appears in subscriber ads for the paper. "Surely something like this - that Hardy has a commercial relationship with the newspaper - was worthy of a mention at the end of the profile," Sharp wrote. But The Age isn't on its lonesome when it comes to being conflicted over Last Man Standing. Also last week, the Herald Sun's Sally Morrell wrote an opinion piece attacking the show's "gratuitous" nudity (or something - Morrell's argument lacks clarity). Morrell didn't tell readers she's married to fellow Hun pundit Andrew Bolt, who had a ding-dong battle with Hardy in November last year over Hardy's attack on a Young Liberal (Bolt ended up using his column to say Hardy is "unwittingly helping to push us into the abyss of despair".) Morrell didn't reply to an emailed request for comment by deadline. (Apparently, it's impossible to write about LMS without some sort of conflict of interest. Here's this column's: the writer provided some unpaid advice to an act whose music the show's producers want to use in an upcoming episode.)

Generally a fair comment, although I don't know how I qualify as a right-winger. Though I started off as a lefty a few years back, since leaving the near-extinct Democrats in 2003 I've been sitting firmly on the left-right fence, with the pickets occasionally doing damage to my sensitive regions. On economic and foreign policy, I'm on the right with the free marketeers and the less nutty neo-cons. On social policy, I'm lining up with the vegetarian gay whales in defending their right to euthenise their IVF babies in privacy.

Jackson Jury's a Joke

Michael Jackson gets off. (Alleged) Gangland (Alleged) thug Mick Gatto gets off. Schapelle Corby gets 20 years. Completely unrelated cases in different jurisdictions, but all three undermine any lingering faith I had in the justice system.

I've long held the view that the jury system is a flawed system and should be abolished, and seeing the juries acquit Jackson and Gatto is a good demonstration of why. To get selected for a jury, you must demonstate that you have no preconcieved notions of the case, little knowledge of the people involved, no strong views, and last had an original thought some time during the Nixon administration. Then, after demonstrating that they are the poster-children of ordinariness, jurors are expected to critically evaluate vast quantities of technical and legal evidence, balance competing claims on the truth, and reach a reasoned and careful judgement. Why do we persist with such an absurd system.

If we trust judges to oversee the trial and apply the rules of law, then surely we should trust them to reach a verdict. By definition, judges are experts in the evaluation of evidence, logical reasoning and legal principles. To set aside this expertise, and instead rely on lay-opinion, is absurd.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Hellfire Pass changes - up close and personal

Earlier this year there was plenty of attention given to the redevelopment of ANZAC Cove at Gallipoli. A road-widening effort being carried out to accommodate the large number of visitors had the apparent effect of making the sight nearly unrecognizable, and certainly very different to how it was on the cold morning of April 25, 1915.

Flashing forward a few months, and all the attention is on the Hellfire Pass site in Thailand, where the POW-built Thai-Burma railway passed through. Again there's plenty of controversy over renovations at the sight, with the suggestion being made that the ashes of Edward "Weary" Dunlop are being disturbed with the movement of a short stretch of railway tracks, which was part of the actual railway constructed in 1942 (from The Age):

The son of Australian war hero Edward "Weary" Dunlop yesterday criticised the "desecration" of his father's ashes at Hellfire Pass in Thailand.

Alexander Boyd Dunlop, the elder of Dunlop's two sons, said the family was upset that it had not been consulted before the ashes were disturbed on the Burma railway site where his father famously saved other POWs.

"The work shouldn't have been started without any consultation with relatives," Mr Dunlop, 56, said from the family's cattle property at Smiths Gully, near St Andrews, north-east of Melbourne.

The original rails and sleepers that covered his father's ashes at the Hellfire Pass site have been removed and replaced with a granite and sandstone memorial.

I've become quite personally engaged in this particular bit of WW2 history since I visited the Hellfire Pass site in December last year.

Firstly, a bit of background. During the Second World War Japan had control of both Thailand and Burma, and used Allied PoWs, as well as unwilling local Thais, Malays and Burmese, to construct a railway from Bangkok to Rangoon. The initial estimations said it would take 5 years to construct the 415km railway, but with slave labour and torturous techniques, the railway was completed in just 16 months. Thousands of soldiers died in the process, mostly through malnutrition, disease and construction accidents.

One of the most dangerous and forboding stretches of railway was the part that stretched through a large rocky area, which has since become known as Hellfire Pass. The rock is tremendously long and tall, and given that the path had to be carved away using only manual tools, it is an awe-inspiring effort. The labour involved was backbreaking, and the finished product sees the railway wind smoothly through the pass, with two tall, intimidating walls of rock on either side. The name 'Hellfire Pass' arose due to the strange light the PoWs would see at night as the moon, the stars and their campfire was reflected in the rock.

Nowadays, the site is a memorial to those who worked and died in the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway. A stylish meseum on the site documents the tremendous strain that the PoWs were under and the ruthlessness of the Japanese soldiers.

Next door, at the Pass itself, a small stretch of railway sleepers still sits in its original location. To get there requires visitors to walk down several long flights of stairs, a journey which itself reminds visitors of just how tall and large the rock was that was carved away to make Hellfire Pass. Whilst the site itself is unremarkable, seeing it as it was more than 60 years ago when it was first built is an effective, simple reminder of what an amazing achievement it was. Though it is not clear at the site, this was also where "Weary" Dunlop had some of his ashes scattered in 1994.

It seems a great shame to disturb the site, given that the simple elegance that previously existed. Regardless of the disrespected to Sir Edward, there is no need to install a granite stone monument. Other sites nearby - the War Cemetary in Kanchanaburi, the bridge over the River Kwai, the PoW museum - all have appropriate memorials, and there is little need for another one, especially when it disturbs the resting state of the site. Leave the place alone.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Insight into incitement

And now a word from our spiritual adviser, Sheik Ibrahim Mudeiris, in his Friday sermon broadcast on Palestinian Authority TV last month:

Allah has tormented us with "the people most hostile to the believers" – the Jews. "Thou shalt find that the people most hostile to the believers to be the Jews and the polytheists." Allah warned His beloved Prophet Muhammad about the Jews, who had killed their prophets, forged their Torah, and sowed corruption throughout their history.

With the establishment of the state of Israel, the entire Islamic nation was lost, because Israel is a cancer spreading through the body of the Islamic nation, and because the Jews are a virus resembling AIDS, from which the entire world suffers.
We have ruled the world before, and by Allah, the day will come when we will rule the entire world again. The day will come when we will rule America. The day will come when we will rule Britain and the entire world – except for the Jews. The Jews will not enjoy a life of tranquility under our rule, because they are treacherous by nature, as they have been throughout history. The day will come when everything will be relieved of the Jews - even the stones and trees which were harmed by them. Listen to the Prophet Muhammad, who tells you about the evil end that awaits Jews. The stones and trees will want the Muslims to finish off every Jew.
What are the chances of this man making peace with his neighbour?

Plenty more if you want it on the transcript or the video. (Thanks to MEMRI - The Middle East Media Research Institute.)

Are we The Whingers of Oz?

The Schapelle saga has made its way into the UK's The Spectator, under the rather unsettling title The Whingers of Oz. Writen by expat Australian Eric Ellis, the piece paints a rather unflattering portrait of the Wide Brown Land:

The reaction is deeply unhinged, and baffling to an Asia that has come to see Australia as a no-nonsense, logical country, one trying to shake off the remains of its ‘White Australia’ policy and engage with their region on its own terms. But that’s not how it is.

In many Australian households, Asia is seen as the place where Bad Things Happen. Despite their closeness to the region, many Australians have trouble distinguishing between Asia’s disparate cultures. Where Europeans and North Americans might see an exotic region of boundless economic opportunity, many Australians still regard their backyard with deep suspicion — a threatening, teeming hellhole of unscrupulous religious zealots who have dubious toilet habits, rip you off, speak strange languages and eat cats, dogs and rats (all overspiced, of course) and are desperate to come to Australia and steal Australian jobs.

One other paragraph that told me something I didn't already know about the case and people involved:

Surrounding Our Schapelle is a cast of characters made for the tabloids: a screeching big sister (Mercedes), a dope-smoking Dad (Mike) and a hysterical Mum (Ros). But why ‘Schapelle’? The Chappell brothers, Ian and Greg, dominated Australian cricket when the Corbys’ younger daughter was born. Australians everywhere were naming their boys after these heroes. That was tough for Aussies with daughters. But Ros — or so the story goes — spotted the feminine possibilities in ‘Chappell’, and named her new daughter with what she imagined was a certain je ne sais quoi of Euro-sophistication to give her new daughter a leg out of the grim Aussie suburbs.

So that's where 'Schapelle' comes from.

Check out the full article here (you may need to register, but it's free anyway and you shouldn't be so bloody lazy).

UPDATE, 17/6, 12:13am: Found a link to the article that doesn't require a subscription. If only I found this a week ago...

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Hug a Chinese blogger

It's easy to get complacent about the freedoms provided by the internet. Whilst most of us in the West freely blog away contendedly, arguing about the trivialities of whatever occupies the space between our ears, things are not so easy in other parts of the world.

Reporters Without Borders are campaigning against the archaic restrictions being imposed by the Chinese government:

Reporters Without Borders voiced alarm today at the Chinese government's announced intention to close down all China-based websites and blogs that are not officially registered. The plan is all the more worrying as the government has also revealed that it has a new system for monitoring sites in real time and spotting those that fail to comply.

A China-based blogger told Reporters Without Borders on condition of anonymity that the Shanghai police recently rendered his website inaccessible because it had not been registered. He then phoned the MII to ask what he had to do in order to register, and was told that in his case it was "not worth bothering" because "there was no chance of an independent blog getting permission to publish."

So go on, hug a Chinese blogger today. Tell Hailey and Yang and Viviana and Wanbro and Charles that you support their right to free speech.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Congestion charge in Australian cities

The number of vehicles on the road rises inexorably, as do journey times, as do carbon dioxide emissions. It was Ken Livingstone who led the way with a congestion-charge gamble for London that Tony Blair and his cabinet were frightened of endorsing. Now that it has proved a success, ministers seek to proclaim it as their own, while cities across the UK and further afield prepare to emulate it.

That's the leader in this week's New Statesmen, a left-of-centre British magazine.

And it is absolutely correct. This is a problem that we are equally afflicted with in Australia. Our major cities are becoming clogged, smokey, avoid-it-if-you can eyesores, and the 'livability' that we used to pride ourselves on is declining. So much of it is due to the car obsession that the western world seems to have.

It's about time that Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane seriously considered a London-style congestion charge. The positive effects would be enormous: less congestion leading to more efficient public transport leading to less pollution leading to our cities being healthier and more vibrant places.

For a long time, ideas like this have been exclusively from the Left, pushing the environment and social responsibility lines. There's no inherent reason why the Right can't be equally supportive, appealling to the user-pays principle in the use of roadspace as well as the internalising of many negative externalities. The charge need not be revenue-raising - discount car registration fees by the amount of revenue the congestion charge will generate.

Here's what the Business Council of Australia had to say about it (via The Age):

In the inner-metropolitan area, where space is hard to find for additional roads and even public transport (although tunnels can be used), congestion charges must be an important part of the traffic management mix. Not to utilise them is to condemn inner-city areas to eventual gridlock at certain times.

So if lobby groups on the right and left are on board, we have a good international example, and the problem continues to mount, let's get it onto the agenda. BRING IT ON.

Marina Maharthir on Malaysia

Her father might be an anti-Semitic, recalcitrant megalomaniac, but Marina Mahathir makes plenty of good points about the need to shake up religious conservatism in Malaysia, and indeed other parts of the Muslim world:

I recall that in the last elections, most of us chose a government that promised us more tolerance, more openness and more freedom. We gave a clear mandate to them to do all that they promised because we wanted to be able to express ourselves more, have more opportunities in life, which necessitates more openness and choices.

But we are not getting it. Or at least some of us are getting choked even more while the rest of us are simply ignored. The lovely multiethnic, multicultural Malaysia that is our pride and joy is simply crumbling because, and I have heard some people openly say it, there are people who would like to make it mono-ethnic, monocultural and mono-religious. That’s not the Malaysia I grew up in, not the Malaysia I want my children to live in. Not the Malaysia I love.
Read the rest in Malaysia's The Star.

Mohammad Mahathir (actually, it's Mahathir Mohammad - see update) during his Elvis period. (Actually, it's neither Mohammad Mahathir nor Mahathir Mohammad. It's columnist Karim Raslan. For those desperately craving a photo of MM, here tis:
Image Hosted by ImageShack.us
Thanks to Steve at the Pub for clearing that one up for me.)

UPDATE, 9/6 11:20pm: The very insightful, and very Malaysian, Aiza (who has had an interesting debate with the also very insightful and almost as Malaysian John in the comments section) has pointed out that the former Malaysian president's name is Maharthir Mohammad, not the other way around:

Just thought I would point out that her father's name is Mahathir Mohammad, not Mohammad Mahathir as you labelled the Elvis picture. Muslims do not have family names the way that Caucasians or Chinese people do. Instead, they take, as their last name, the first name of their father.

Than'u very much.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Old Parly House

After a few minor distractions, it's back to last week's Canberra trip...

There's something unpretentiously authentically humblingly modestly Australian about Old Parliament House. For 70 years the building served as the hub of democracy in the wide brown land, but now it looks like the Canberra division of God's Waiting Room. Rather than the bustle of important people which once filled the corridors, nowadays it is an army of volunteer guides, most of them superannuated public servents with a fine sense of history and a desire to wear some rather dapper shirts and ties. The occasional squeal is heard in the corridors, and rather than Jim Cairns putting the moves on Junie Morosi, or Hawkie putting them on the lunch lady, it's the sounds from the masses of school children making their pilgrimage to Canberra.

It's Old Parliament House!

The first thing for most visitors to the House next to the House on the Hill is to check out the House of Reps chamber and the Senate. The two are remarkably easy to access, on either side of King's Hall, which is essentially the front foyer of the modestly sized building. The chambers are tiny, faded green and red leather, and more the feel of a local council chamber than a national parliament. There is a real sense of history there - these were the despatch boxes where Menzies and Evatt stood toe-to-toe, where Her Maj stood to open parliament, where the only joint sitting in our nation's history nearly brought the country to its knees in 1974.

The previous day I found myself lost in the cavernous underbelly of the New Parliament House, with its myriad of generic looking corridors and meeting rooms designed to confuse even the most hardy of potential assassins. Today, though at OPH, I think I could master the building layout well before lunch. The place is small and pokey, with cramped rooms and straight, narrow pathways. By the time the building was decommissioned in 1988, the place must have been teeming with staff, media and pollies, with barely enough room to pass wind without having it causing a scandal through the entire building. Even the rooms for the Prime Minister and Cabinet (Gough, with his utopian, all-of-us-are-one no-inner-and-outer-ministry philosophy needed the Cabinet room especially redesigned) leave little space for private whispers.

Right now OPH is the host to a special exhibition on The Petrov Affair, on which I must admit my previous ignorance, but now feel sufficiently informed to bullshit my way through a Master's Thesis. Without recounting the ins and outs of the incident, it does seem to be one of the most interesting events in Australia's Cold War history. The archives seem to suggest a very different story to the one that is commonly understood. The climax to the Petrov Affair was the dramatic struggle at Sydney airport as Evdokia Petrov was about to return to an uncertain fate in Moscow after her husband's defection a fortnight earlier. The common view is that Mrs Petrov was being forcibly taken home by two burly KGB Agents as a large crowd of protestors gathered, and that she at the time was attempting to claim asylum. It was only when the plane stopped to refuel in Darwin that she actually defected. The exhibition - based on archival information released - suggests that Mrs Petrov was in fact a willing passanger to Moscow, and the KGB agents were there to protect her from the crowd, whom she felt were hostile toward her due to the dynamics of the Cold War. This is based on the premise that Mrs Petrov was not fully aware of her husband's defection at the time. It was only when the plane landed in Darwin that the gravity of the situation was explained and she chose to seek asylum in Australia. What are the chances that popular opinion in this country might actually be contrary to the truth?? Nah, never.

Anyone got a room for the night?

After leaving OPH, I headed straight across the forecourt, although only after recreating Gough's "Well May We Say..." speech at the top of the steps. On the other side is the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, in it's fourth decade and looking a little worse for wear. Much as it is a Canberra institution, the Embassy is now a ragged eyesore, with a small tent city having popped up, more as a poor substitute for a Canberra Backpackers than as a political protest. There's the occasional political banner, a few unfocussed slogans about Redfern ("The Holocaust at Redfern"?? Come on...), but a lack of heart and soul. In the middle sits a small bushfire, sending a trail of smoke into the Canberra skies. There were two men I had a chance to speak to, both attending to a makeshift barbeque. A quick chat revealed that neither were in fact decendants of the original inhabitants of the land, and at least one did in fact sported quite a distinctive English accent. The two had been there for just a couple of weeks, and saw the lawns outside OPH as the ideal place to gather their thoughts, as well as their belongings. I managed to resist the urge to comment on the irony of the two Brits in front of me taking up space which was traditionally inhabited by Aboriginal people. I don't think they would have seen the funny side to it.

Enough for now. More later.

New food blog

The multitalented Linh Tran has launched her new restaurant review blog, poking fun at some of the more affordable eateries around this fair city. As Linh's frequent dining companion, I can vouch for the tenacity of her culinary investigative skills. Whatever the hell that means. Check it out.

Off the artistic role call

She was born with a pedigree for writing, but screenwriter Marieke Hardy - awaiting the start of her new TV series - likes to do it her way.

Although she prefers to keep her online identity a secret, Marieke Hardy, the 29-year-old Melbourne screenwriter who wrote and produced Seven's 22-part drama, Last Man Standing, drops some fairly strong clues about it in her own publicity material for the show.

Along with her impressive professional credentials in the program notes for the 20-something series are the lines: "Marieke Hardy has a radio show, a political fashion label, a go-go dancing career, a regular DJ gig and a secret contentious life on the internet.

It appears that Marieke Hardy/Ms Fits of Reasons You Will Hate Me fame has cracked it for a three page profile in the metro (yep, capital letters are on a ration at Spencer Street due to budget cuts) section of The Age on Monday. The profile, by entertainment writer Wendy Tuohy, is remarkably positive about Hardy, her writing, her personality, her love for Bob Ellis, even the presense of a flower behind her ear. It seems that Ms Fits can do no wrong. Of course, during the profile she gives the obligatory plug to her new TV series which hit the airwaves last night.

It certainly is some sensational personal publicity for Hardy. A little odd though, that the day the new program launches, when the network publicity machine is going into overdrive, that it's not the stars who feature prominantly - as would be expected - but the scriptwriter.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Hardy has been in the pocket of The Age. Hardy has been appearing in their ultra-lame "a subscriber because..." adverts, which feature minor Melbourne luminaries telling the world why they subscribe to the paper. Surely something like this - that Hardy has a commercial relationship with the newspaper - was worthy of a mention at the end of the profile. Alas not.

Marieke Hardy flogs The Age

Looks like that's the deal, folks. You praise them, and they'll praise you. How cosy.

I'm a big fan of The Age, and a modest fan of Ms Fits (Hardy's alter-ego) but the whistle needs to be blown on shonky little arrangements like this. Firstly, The Age shouldn't stoop to tacky 'celebrity endorsements' to sell a quality broadsheet. Secondly, if they are going to do it, then they've got to disclose it should it be relevant to a story. Sounds pretty straight-forward.

The last word on this one ought to go to that great philosopher of our age, the very wise, and now very dead, Bill Hicks:

"If you do a commercial, you're off the artistic role call. Every word you say is suspect and is like a turd falling out of your mouth and into my drink."

That'd be you, Marieke.

UPDATE, 7/6, 11:41pm: How depressing. After pouring my heart and soul into fascinating insights into the human condition in places as diverse as Burma, North Korea and a stinky Thai prison, the record for hits and comments on this blog is set when I hang shit on a former writer from All Together Now. Ah well, thanks to everyone who stopped by, had the time to abuse the hell out of me and fart in my general direction. As I said in the post, I'm a fan of both Hardy and The Age and don't want to drag either through the mud, I just believe that we need to all be vigilant when it comes to conflicts of interest. Oh yeah, and I wanted an excuse to get out my old Hicks CDs.

UPDATE 11/6, 11:20pm: Various netizens in the Ozblogosphere having been chipping in their two cents on this particular storm in a tea cup, and up until now I've decided to keep my nose out of it. Given that plenty of misinformation has been floating around, I thought I might take a chance to separate fact from fiction:

1. I have no agenda. I've never met Marieke Hardy, and the little I know is derived from the article, and from being aware of her involvement in the Pandagate kerfuffle last year. I don't have some desperate craving to undermine her credibility. Indeed, as the writer of a new Australian comedy/drama, I wish her all the best and hope that anything which pushes the merry-go-round of crass reality shows off its axis is a good thing. I missed the first ep of Last Men Standing, but I will tune in next week to catch it.

2. There is no reason to think that the only reason the original Age profile was run with her connection with the paper. That is absolutely absurd and at no time did I claim that. Instead, the point of my post was to suggest that The Age owed its readers some basic disclosure about Marieke's role spruiking the paper via the ads. Without this disclosure, it was fair for readers to wonder what was really going on. The article could quite happily have been published as it was, but a two sentence disclosure at the bottom would have let readers be fully informed.

3. It is wrong to draw a parallel between Hardy featuring in an advertisement and then recieving positive press with a media outlet/restaurant/film publishing a paid ad and then recieving positive press. The crucial difference is that Hardy's appearance was spruiking the paper, not simply spruiking her own product.

4. It's also wrong to say that we can read nothing more into "a subscriber because..." ad other than Marieke is a subscriber. Instead it tells us that not only is she a subscriber, but that she has chosen to become a public advocate for the newspaper, and been paid (presumably she was paid, otherwise she's a dill, and she aint) for doing so. She is not merely 'a subscriber' but a paid spruiker.

5. I did indeed screw up the spelling in the title: it is a ROLL CALL, not a ROLE CALL. Much as I'd love to change it now and burn the evidence, that would breach an unwritten blogging rule, as well as destroying links that have been made to this post. Apologies to the English teachers who taught me to spell over the years... and conducted a roll call at the start of class.

6. I've copped plenty of rather personal criticism for all this. For posterity's sake, here are some of the juicer ones:

La Nadine asks: who the fuck are you?

Jess reckons I'm: smarmy and self-congratulatory

Kranki chipped in with: The only person in America who knows you exist thinks that you are a sad, bitter and misguided fecal nugget, who isn't funny enough to earn the right to even quote Bill Hicks. (Hey, at least I have a big following in Sweden. -A.)

thomasr addresses me as: you fucking shit stick

Over at Virulent Memes I am: some reactionary tard (A still can't quite work out what a 'tard' is - a misspelling of turd? a late Frenchman? a Doctor Who fan with a missing syllable? -A.)

tiny tirant wonders: young chubby Ari (what the f*ck is going on with that pic?)

Flashman agrees with Jess (earlier) that I'd slipped into: 'smarmy git' mode

It seems like it's Tourettes week in Blogsville.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

QT QTies

The initial purpose of Question Time was to allow the legislature to keep the executive accountable. By the asking of incisive and relevant questions, the logic went, parliamentarians would be able to ensure that the ministers were properly scrutinised. In practice, though QT is far from its initial intention. Questions Without Notice has become a shadow of it's intended purpose. One can't help wonder if it's due to the fact that Question Time is now broadcast - either live or on delay - across the Wide Brown Land, and so the need to perform, rather than simply ask and answer, is heightened.

Though many metaphors can be used - and journos like Matt Price have tried just about every one of them - the metaphor I'd use to characterise it is that of a tightrope walker... perhaps a team of tightrope walkers, each walking simultaneously across parallel intellectual tightropes, forgive my acrobatic digression. The objective of the Opposition is to destablise the minister/tightrope-walker, whilst the government members seek to provide as much support, and just as importantly confidence, to the minister. Invariably, most tightrope-walking ministers manage to make it to the other side, although just occassionally there will be a struggle.

On Tuesday I watched QT from the cushy comforts of the Speaker's Gallery. There was a definate lack of focus amongst the ALP MPs, with the questions scattered across a number of ministers, most of whom revelled in the opportunity. At one stage, Handy "John" Andy, the esteemed deputy Prime Minister and Transport Minister, seemed a little out of his depth, struggling to justify how it was that the first time he was aware of an internal Customs report into security weaknesses in Australian airports was when he read about it on the cover of that morning's Australian newspaper. Ando has plenty on his plate, keeping a gaggle of Nats quiet, being the deputy PM, remaining a Gay Icon and being a Minister. Perhaps he's not quite as on top of his brief as one of Her Maj's Ministers should be.

A few quick snapshots on other ministers copping questions on Tuesday:

- Kevin Andrews, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations is a smooth operator who will be well placed to sell a difficult message come July 1. The changes to IR are monumental, particularly the hostile take-over of responsibilities from the States, and Andrew seems like the right, largely non-antagonistic, salesperson.

- Warren Truss, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, is looking a bit long in the tooth. Look for Truss to be pushed aside in a Costello ministry.

- Gary Hardgrave, Minister for Vocational and Technical Education, looks and sounds like a salesman. Hardgrave had a background in TV, and there's some of the Eddie McGuire style charm still evident in his presentation skills. Did some beautiful verbal gymastics in managing to bring a totally unrelated question back to the ALP's refusal to pass the tax cuts. Charming but not slimy.

- Peter Dutton, Minister for Workplace Participantion, is one of the young turks in the Ministry, and needs to stop sounding like a traffic cop scalding an errant motorist. Perhaps his days as a Queensland cop are harder to shake than he realises.

Just a quick observation about the seating arrangements in the House of Reps. Immediately behind the Labor dispatch box are two of the youngest and most attractive members of the House since Bronwyn was a girl. When the cameras are aiming that way, it is hard to miss the new member for Adelaide, Kate Ellis, and the Member for Ballarat, Catherine King. Both are significantly more attractive than your average Labor backbencher, and both project and image of youth and vitality in a way that their older (and, let's face it, male) colleagues fail to. A clever little move by the ALP.

Dick AdamsKate EllisKim Wilkie
Which Labor backbencher would you most like to stare at? (I do, of course, acknowledge my gross hypocracy in all this. Checking out my mug-shot at the top of the page, I look a heck of a lot more like Kim than Kate.)

Friday, June 03, 2005

Canberra: the Gold Coast for Intellectuals

Alas, I can't claim that cute little description as my own. Peter from Canberra told it to me me, and he admitted that it'd come from someone else. Still, funny is funny.

Our national capital really is a lively city if you know where to look. The cliches might be spouted from rev-head Sydneysiders and Melburnians, but Canberra is only boring to boring people. With a bit of imagination, you can find a thriving cafe culture, some fascinating historical sites, and a palpable sense that This Is Somewhere Important. Oh yeah, and bring a suit and tie. You never know when you'll need it. Over the next couple of posts I'll be sharing some details from the trip.

Arrived on a Virgin flight early on Tuesday morning. Virgin really does give you the shits after a while. On board they must be the perkiest airline staff in the world, and given that the sun had barely popped up over the horizon, it was a considerable effort. Being aboard a Virgin flight is like being at 80s night at a Carrum Downs disco. The music is painfully dated, the hostesses have too much make-up on, and it doesn't take long before you're hearing bad pick-up lines. There were grumblings a couple of years ago from female business travellers who felt that the airline was becoming a look-but-don't-touch-brothel that served only to massage male egos. Not much has changed, with plenty of flirty banter filling the announcements and a clear preference for young, attractive women in the hiring policy. Still, it's not all bad. The announcement as we were getting close to Canberra had people chuckling: "We are now approaching Wagga Wagga airport...."

By 10am I'd made my way to the big house on the hill. Parliament House is swarming with burly looking security guards trying to justify their existance. To get to the Senate Estimates hearing involved this conversation:

Ari (smiling, in suit, tie and a twinkle in the eye): Hi, I'm looking for the Senate Estimates hearings. You wouldn't have a running sheet would you, you know, times, places, rooms, that sort of thing...
Burly Security Guard Trying to Justify His Existance: Pfff, running sheet... don't have anything like that.
A: (gives 'wind taken out of sails' look)
BSGTJHE: I tell you what, if you tell me which committee you want, I can tell you which room it's in.
A: (does best bit of James Bond work and reads paper in front of BSGTJHE): Aaaah, Department of Employment and Workplace Relations?
BSGTJHE: (Look of damn, he got me'.) Yeah, it's in room 2S3.
A: Family and Community Services?
A: (on a roll) Department of Finance?
BSGTJHE: (looking totally defeated) 2R1.
Game, set and match A.
Finally, I made it to Senate Estimates for the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations. This is the first time I'd seen Estimates live, and it certainly is a highly-charged atmosphere. Lined up at one end are a team of Senators from a variety of parties, and facing them are a team of senior public servents, with their minister - in this case the slightly mad Senator Eric Abetz - in the middle. In the public gallery is a significant number of Important Looking People. It would later emerge that they are mostly employees from the department, there either to observe procedings, feed advice to the senior public servents being questioned, or to answer questions themeselves later on in the day.

The undoubted highlight of the couple of hours of questioning I saw was a sustained attack by lively Labor Senator Penny Wong. Clearly Wong had been well briefed. The incident in question was the case of a private Job Network Provider promising a wage subsidy to employers who took on unemployed people on their books (a well-accepted legimate technique) but who would then renege on this promise (a technique known in the trade as 'lying'). Given that public money is paid to the JNP for each unemployed person who it finds work for, this amounts to fraud.

To paraphrase the questioning:

Was the department aware of any examples of this?
Could the department reveal which state it was in?
What was being done about it?
An investigation was underway.
Did the Job Network Provider know it was being investigated?
Probably not.
Watch this space!