Monday, February 27, 2006

Bringing competition to politics

It's preselection time again, and the intensity of the battle seems a little stronger than usual. Here in Victoria half a dozen sitting Labor MPs (Corcoran, Crean, Jenkins, O'Connor, Sercombe, Vamvakinou) are facing carefully orchestrated challenges. There are plenty of commentators tut-tutting it, dismissing it as a source of disunity and observing that many of the challenges are merely the result of the shifting sands of faction politics.

I, for one, would like to stand up for the challengers.

Free markets are wonderful things. Healthy competition keeps all players on their toes and requires them to strive for quality and innovation to survive in a Darwinian marketplace. The same is true of members of parliament. Without the threat of competition, MPs can become self-absorbed, slothful and lazy and do little more than, quite literally, occupy a seat. It's bad for them, it's bad for their constituents, and it's bad for their party.

Given that many Labor MPs find themselves in seats with such healthy margins that they face no realistic challenge at the ballot box, it is necessary for them to have some internal challengers before they get there. One of the reasons for the ALP's malaise over the past 10 years has been the substandard performance of many of its MPs. Check out this list here, and keep a straight face while you tell me it's a galaxy of stars. The Liberals have done much better in recent years and have attracted a more talented selection of backbenchers, which has put upward pressure on the performance of members further up the hierarchy.

There's nothing inherently meritorious about the challengers. Some of them will no doubt end up being just as lame as those seatwarmers they seek to replace. But the mere fact that the incumbents have had their chances and done little with them is reason enough to think positively about the challenger.

Rather than trying to limit the number of preselection battles, the interests of democracy says we should be encouraging more. At the moment it is mostly factionally-fuelled battles in one party, in one state. Let's open up debate nation wide, across parties. Solid, hardworking MPs should be left alone, but there are plenty of others who would benefit from some healthy competition. Though the US Primaries perhaps a tad too divisive, they do offer a glimpse of what could happen here if we encourage democracy and competition in party preselection.

This time around, some of the challengers will get up and some of the sitting MPs will survive, but you can be sure that the mere threat of a challenge will force whoever gets the nod to improve their performance over the next three years. And for that, we should be thankful.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Ari's on the Beat

It may have taken 1001 issues, but I've made it into the hallowed inky printed halls of Beat Magazine (no, not this one) as a freelancer. Eager beavers can pick up the free streetpress mag all around town (page 28, up the top), or enjoy its fruits in the comfort of your own seedy internet cafe, right here, right now. Though the finished product was editted a little, here's the original. For what it's worth, the Latin American Film Festival is most definately worth a look if you're in Melbourne this weekend:

Festival: Melbourne Latin American Film Festival 2006
By Ari Sharp

Australians first flocked to see Latin America on film several years ago when the Buena Vista Social Club hit our screens. With a sumptuous mix of cool Cuban beats, lively but ageing rockers and a romanticism of Castro's socialism, the film provided a window on a part of the world that otherwise remained mysterious and distant. Though it was seen through the discerning eye of German director Wim Wenders, the film whetted our appetite for Latin American film making, an appetite which has remained unsatisfied due to the dearth of films from the region which have reached Australian audiences.

There is one event, though, which is doing its bit to change that. In late February, Melbourne plays host to the Latin American Film Festival. In its third year, the festival screens films from central and south America, most of which would not otherwise be screened in Australia. Most of the films reflect the recent history of the region, filled with equal parts chaos and excitement, whilst they confront the reality of poverty which is the inevitable product of rival dictatorships. The festival is the biggest project of Melbourne Filmoteca, a group of local cinephiles with an interest in all things Latino.

One of the highlights of the festival is a series of public appearances by acclaimed Cuban director Juan Carlos Cremata. Cremata has two decades of film making to his name, although tellingly a search of the Internet Movie Database reveals just three listings. Instead, Cremata's output has remained mostly in his home country, where he has directed for TV and short films. In recent times Cremata has directed two feature films, both of which are being screened at the festival.

Both Viva Cuba (2005), which is screening as part of the Opening Night Fiesta, and Cremata's earlier film Nada (2001) focus on the plight of ordinary Cubans, torn between the fading dreams of socialism in their own country and the prosperity possible abroad. In a country where political freedoms are few and loyalty to Castro a necessity, any attempt to confront this question is a brave and worthy endeavour.

Another director of note whose work will appear at the festival is Pablo Trapero. At just 34 years of age Trapero is a veteran of the Argentinian film industry who tells stories with grit and humour. Screening this year is his 2003 drama El Bonaerense, which tells the story of a country locksmith who decides to make something of himself by joining the Buenes Aires police force. A beneficiary of nepotism himself, it is here that he witnesses the bumbling corruption that afflicts the force. Trapero delights in using a handheld camera. At times it works, helping the audience connect intimately with the characters. Sometimes, though, it just leaves the audience nauseous. As with most things in film making, it's a fine line.

Like with so many of the ethnic film festivals which grace our cities and our screens, it can be tough to work out what to see. It’s a smorgasbord (well, tapas, in this case) of new names, new styles and a fresh way of thinking about film. Perhaps it’s best not to think too much about what you’re going to see. Pick a night, grab some friends, and head down to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Excitement awaits.

The Melbourne Latin American Film Festival runs from 23 to 27 February at ACMI. Visit the website at

Sunday, February 19, 2006

As you do...

Two very different responses to the Mohammed cartoons.

Firstly, the Muslim population of Nigeria demonstrate why it's offensive and absurd to suggest they might be prone to violence, and why those of us who make the suggestion should be flaggelating as we speak:

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria -- Nigerian Muslims protesting caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad attacked Christians and burned churches Saturday, killing at least 15 people in the deadliest confrontation yet in the whirlwind of Muslim anger over the drawings.

It was the first major protest to erupt over the issue in Africa's most populous nation. Mobs of Muslim protesters swarmed through the city center with machetes, sticks and iron rods. One group threw a tire around a man, poured gasoline on him and set him ablaze.

Rioters burned 15 churches in Maiduguri in a three-hour rampage before troops and police reinforcements restored order, Nigerian police spokesman Haz Iwendi said. He said security forces arrested dozens of people in the city about 1,000 miles northeast of Lagos.

No doubt the prophet would be pleased to hear that his followers defended his name by killing local Christians. That sure showed them.

Secondly comes this response from the smartarses at Boomka, who are showing that a bunch of pesky Iranian nutters aren't going to outdo them in the humourous anti-Semitism stakes:

Israeli group announces anti-Semitic cartoons contest!
A Danish paper publishes a cartoon that mocks Muslims.
An Iranian paper responds with a Holocaust cartoons contest -
- Now a group of Israelis announce their own anti-Semitic cartoons contest!

Eyal Zusman (30, back from anonymity) and Amitai Sandy (29), graphic artist and publisher of Dimona Comix Publishing, from Tel-Aviv, Israel, have followed the unfolding of the “Muhammad cartoon-gate” events in amazement, until finally they came up with the right answer to all this insanity - and so they announced today the launch of a new anti-Semitic cartoons contest - this time drawn by Jews themselves!

“We’ll show the world we can do the best, sharpest, most offensive Jew hating cartoons ever published!” said Sandy “No Iranian will beat us on our home turf!”

The contest has been announced today on the website, and the initiators accept submissions of cartoons, caricatures and short comic strips from people all over the world. The deadline is Sunday March 5, and the best works will be displayed in an Exhibition in Tel-Aviv, Israel.

Sandy is now in the process of arranging sponsorships of large organizations, and promises lucrative prizes for the winners, including of course the famous Matzo-bread baked with the blood of Christian children.

Now get crackin' - and a hat tip to Polly for pointing me toward the second bit.

Deregistered Democrats?

Of late I've received some news on the fate of the party of which I was once a member and election candidate: the Democrats. In this case, the Victorian division. It seems that the Victorian Electoral Commission are mounting an audit of the membership of the beleagured party, and are seeking to determine whether it has the 500 members required to be a registered political party.

As the VEC explains on its website:

To be eligible for registration, a political party must have at least 500 members who are Victorian electors, are members in accordance with the rules of the party and are not members of another registered political party or of a party applying for registration.

According to one source, the cut off time for the audit is sometime in June, but the party is well short of the 500 required and so is unlikely to make the grade. Democrats internal structures are notorious for being highly bureaucratic and labour-intensive, with various committees and sub-committees used to govern the party. Inevitably, with a drop off in membership, these committees are struggling to function effectively.

Another source indicated that lapsed and resigned members are being approached to rejoin the party in time for the audit. With no physical office in the state to manage a last-gasp recruitment drive, it seems likely to be in vain.

The potential deregistration of the party comes at an awkward time, with a state election scheduled for November 25. Without registration, the party would be unable to run candidates under the party banner and would instead be forced to run them as independents. It's rather ironic that after years and years of pushing for proportional representation in the Victorian upper house, the party is deregistered just months before the first election conducted under PR.

Still, deregistered or not, the party's candidates are unlikely to be competitive in November. Five years ago, a quota of 16.6% would have seemed achievable in several regions in the state and intense preselection battles would be expected. Instead, it's a very different battle being fought.

This isn't the first time the party has faced deregistration: In January, the Tasmanian Electoral Commission deregistered the party, making it ineligable to run in the March 18 election. It looks like Tasmanians might finally be trend-setters.

Anyone who wants to stop the rot and is feeling particularly charitable can head here to sign up as a member. Whilst I applaud you, I won't be joining you.

UPDATE, 21/2 5:45pm: Another source has got in touch and said with confidence that the party will pass the 2006 VEC audit, as it did the 2005 audit. Perhaps so. Or perhaps not.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Speed thrills

Finally, a cheap and easy way for me to chrome speed at my own convenience:

Free Image Hosting at

An energy drink, as purchased in the blink-and-you-miss-it town of Metung. Where, incidentally, three of the fifteen shops in town are real estate agencies, so when the property bubble bursts, it may well start there. I guess the speed might come in handy.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Holocaust: A real side-splitter

The question has been posed about what my position is on the holocaust cartoon competition being run by the Iranian newspaper, Hamshahri, and whether I would consider publishing the cartoons. My position on this one is unlikely to make me many friends. I will defend the right of a newspaper to publish a cartoon, regardless of how offensive it might be. If a bunch of anti-Semites in Tehran decide they want to deny a basic fact of history, then it is their right to do so. Naive as a might be, I have enough faith in the integrity of the horrific stories of the holocaust that I believe they can withstand a fringe of raving loonies.

As to publishing them, in the interests of free speech and public debate, I would. If I could get a copy of them. Thus far, it has proven a little tricky. I've found a few of them through this site here, although it's not clear if those are actual entries, or just generic examples of holocaust denying cartoons. Perhaps I should cut out the middle man and just look here.

UPDATE, 19/2 1:15am: I don't normally take the bait when it comes to comments, but there are a few things worth clearing up.

Firstly, thanks to Cameron for his sanctimonious lectures in the past few posts on the need for cultural sensitivity and the need to abstain from causing religious and racial offence. This is the same Cameron who gave me a farewell present prior to my Korean trip of a guide to greyhound dogs, which he oh-so-tactfully referred to as a 'Korean restaurant menu'. Bad taste, but kinda funny, Cameron - just like the Mohammad cartoons.

Secondly, PB wants me to apologise for/clarify my insinuation that Leunig is a holocaust-denier. The comment I made in the post was coy and playful, and should be interpreted that way. Having said that, Leunig does get agonisingly close to being a denier, if you look as him drawing an equivalence between the slaughter of six million and the Israeli anti-terror policies (the "'Work makes free' and 'War makes peace'" cartoon that set the ball rolling). I hardly think Leunig deserves any sort of apology.

UPDATE, 20/2 1:30pm: Okay folks, seems like there's a bit of terminology confusion here. The phrase 'holocaust denier' does not simply refer to only those who outright deny that there was any atrocity in Nazi Germany. Instead it covers a much broader scope of views, including those which seek to downplay it, recontextualise it, reassign blame etc. Have a look at the Wikipedia entry. To my mind, an attempt to draw a parallel between the actions of Nazi Germany and the actions of the Israeli government (as the Leunig cartoon does) gets close to a form of denial, namely of the scale of the holocaust and the intentions of the perpetrators. Having said that, I didn't label Leunig as a denier, merely attempted some black humour. I know: hilarious.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Books: Blowback / Electronic Whorehouse

Oprah might have got herself into some hot water with her book club, but I'm prepared to give it a shot. As I mentioned at the start of the summer, since November I've had a chance to be unusually bookish. Rather than keeping my brilliantly thought out response to these books all to myself, I figured I ought to share them with the rest of the world. Not reviews, as such. Just a few musings.

Image Hosted by
Thanks to Wen Jie Li in allowing me to scandalously breach copyright in using this caricature which is near completely irrelevant to the post.

Blowback, by veteran American Asia-watcher Chalmers Johnson, was hailed as one of the few texts which offered anything close to a prediction of September 11. With a bit of a stretch of the imagination, there is some truth to the claim, and a new prologue is there to help you with the stretching. Johnson takes hackneyed left-wing anti-Americanism and gives some substance to it. Covering examples as diverse as the horrors of Reagan's CIA in Central America, the US military base in Italy and US insensitivity on Taiwan, Johnson constructs the argument that the US empire is both overstretched and counter-productive. Johnson lists a litany of cases where the US military presence has harmed local communities and generated anti-Americanism: the 'blowback' of the title. He does pose a question worth addressing: why has the US done little to wind back its overseas presence since the end of the Cold War, given that repelling the Russians was it's raison d'etre.

The problem with Johnson's argument is that while he puports to assess the costs and benefits of the US overseas presence, he makes little attempt to assess the benefits, and simultaneously oversells the costs. There's little doubt, for example, that the US presence in Taiwan and South Korea has repelled China and North Korea from taking over territory by force. Similarly a US military presence in Europe puts it in a good position to intervene as necessary in the Middle East. Still, it is true that a massive Military-Industrial complex lives on in Washington, and the sooner this muscular excess in reined in, the better. Given the massively superior technology that the US possess, it seems fair to say that it is the mere threat of US military involvement, rather than an on-the-ground presence, is what is needed to keep the North Koreas of this world from taking action.

Next book up is rather more lowbrow: a collection of flotsum and jetsum by former SMH writer Paul Sheehan grouped together under the banner The Electronic Whorehouse. Sheehan has taken a rather schizophrenic approach to this, his second book. Some chapters loosely resemble the work of gangland thugs, marching up to easy targets and belting them around the kneecaps with a literary cricket bat. David Marr, Robert Manne and Gerard Henderson (who, incidentally has chosen a terrible photo of himself on his website) all cop an Andrew Symonds-style walloping. Alongside all this, however, is a thoughtful collection of essays encapsulating a calm and rational conservative approach to sensitive issues such as asylum seekers and the Stolen Generation.

If you can look past the bitterness and anger, Sheehan has a valid point to make: the liberal, and occasionally radical, perspective has become the sole legitimate point of view of much for the mainstream media establishment. So ingrained is the bias that its proponents don't recognise it as a bias at all. Reading his thoughtful and intelligent defence of the status quo in Australia's refugee program, for example, it was startling to realise that this line of argument struggled to make it into Fairfax or the ABC, although a far more hysterical version found its way into the Murdoch and Southern Cross media outlets. Sheehan has made a name for himself as a bit of a headkicker: his first book, Among the Barbarians, stirred up plenty of controversy when it tackled obssessive political correctness. The approach kind of works, but then again, much like Andrew Bolt, Phillip Adams and Robert Manne, the shtick is getting just a little tired.

Monday, February 06, 2006

"I'm on the road again..."

AOTW is hitting the road for a week, and will be appearing in small country towns in eastern Victoria. Any readers in Lakes Entrance (Where the Lakes meet the Sea) or Bairnsdale (Gateway to East Gippsland) should drop me an email, since I'm heading in your direction.

While I'm away, I urge you all to immerse yourself in the Flash-loving, frame-using, angelically lit homepage of The Hon Paul J. Keating. Not a spoof, my friends: is the real deal.

Who da man?  He da man.

Who da man? He da man.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Publish and be fatwa'ed

How pathetic to see the whipped up controversy in Muslim countries around the world. So deluded are these poor people about their own circumstances that they are too busy burning Danish flags and boycotting Haagen Dazs to realise the real source of their ills. Rather than obsessing over what appears in a foreign newspaper, there are much more fundamental concerns that are deserving of protest: the inability to speak freely, to vote in and vote out governments, to move around safely and to live without fear of domestic violence. For a start.

It appears that there are strange parallels between the manufactured rage over the Danish cartoons and the Chinese demonstrations against the Japanese last year. In both cases, ordinary folks with strong legitimate grievences against their own government have their anger turned outward by those governments toward a foreign enemy. That way, using the uniting force of a foriegn enemy, a national government can entrench its authority and blunt any internal criticism. Though the idea might have its roots in Marxism, it's an idea with some merit.

So whilst the Arab Street continues to seeth over what is essentially a non-event, its women continue to be raped, its freedoms continue to be curtailed and its governments continue to be corrupt and nepotistic. All without fear of protest.

For what it's worth, here are the cartoons which have whipped up a storm. You're all mature people (most of you, anyhow) and I trust you can all view the following without the need to rape and pillage:

The offending cartoons

And thanks to Wikipedia, here's what we're looking at:

After an invitation from Jyllands-Posten for around forty different artists to give their interpretation on how Muhammad may have looked, twelve different caricaturists chose to respond with a drawing each. These twelve drawings portrays Muhammad in different fashions. In the clockwise direction of their position in the page layout (I've rearranged the order so it matches what you see. -AOTW):

Muhammad as a peaceful wanderer, in the desert, at sunset. There is a donkey in the background. This is presumably a reference to Don Quixote.

Muhammad standing with a halo in the shape of a crescent moon.

The face of Muhammad as a part of the Islamic star and crescent symbol. His right eye the star, the crescent surrounds his beard and face.

Another drawing shows an angry Muhammad with a short sabre and a black bar censoring his eyes. He is flanked by two women in burqas, having only their eyes visible.

Muhammad standing on a cloud, greeting dead suicide bombers with "Stop Stop vi er løbet tør for Jomfruer!" ("Stop, stop, we ran out of virgins!"), an allusion to the promised reward to martyrs.

An Oriental looking boy in front of a blackboard, pointing to the Farsi chalkings, which translate into "the editorial team of Jyllands-Posten is a bunch of reactionary provocateurs". The boy is labelled "Mohammed, Valby school, 7.A", implying that this Muhammed is a Danish second-generation immigrant rather than the man Muslims believe was a prophet. On his shirt is written "Fremtiden" (the future). According to the editor of Jyllands Posten, he didn't know what was written on the blackboard before it was published.

One shows a nervous caricaturist, shakingly drawing Muhammad while looking over his shoulder.

A police line-up of seven people, with the witness saying: "Hm... jeg kan ikke lige genkende ham" ("Hm... I can't really recognise him"). Not all people in the line-up are immediately identifiable. They are: 1) A generic Hippie 2) Politician Pia Kjærsgaard 3) Possible Jesus 4) Possible Buddha 5) Possible Muhammad 6) A generic Indian Guru 7) Journalist Kåre Bluitgen, carrying a sign saying: "Kåres PR, ring og få et tilbud" ("Kåre's public relations, call and get an offer")

An abstract drawing of crescent moons and Stars of David, and a poem on oppression of women "Profet! Med kuk og knald i låget som holder kvinder under åget!". In English the poem could be read as: "Prophet! daft and dumb, keeping woman under thumb"

Two angry Muslims charge forward with sabres and bombs, while Muhammad addresses them with: "Rolig, venner, når alt kommer til alt er det jo bare en tegning lavet af en vantro sønderjyde" (loosely, "Relax guys, it's just a drawing made by some infidel South Jutlander". The reference is to a common Danish expression for a person from the middle of nowhere.)

The most controversial drawing shows Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, with a lit fuse and the Islamic creed written on the bomb.

Another shows Kåre Bluitgen, wearing a turban with the proverbial orange dropping, with the inscription "Publicity stunt". In his hand is a stick drawing of Muhammad. An "orange in the turban" is a Danish proverb meaning "a stroke of luck."

UPDATE, 11/2, 2:00am: I've been copping a bit of heat in the comments section over my decision to publish the cartoons. I think it would be useful for me to explain why I did decide to publish them. For starters, I don't necessarily agree with the message of the cartoons. I do, however, defend people's right to make up their own mind. One of the problems with the public debate over the cartoons is that only a handful of people have actually seen the cartoons and so can offer an informed opinion: broadening their circulation can aid people in constructing their opinion.

There have been many attempts to find parallels with other potentially blasphemous examples. Look at the response to Monty Python's Life of Brian, a similarly blasphemous portrayal of Jesus Christ. To true believers it was offensive, but to most of us it was quite amusing, but there was never any serious suggestion that the film be banned, let alone any potential for bloody riots. (At least, by the way, both Life of Brian and the Mohammed cartoons are understood by all viewers as clearly fictionalised. Unlike the documentary-style presentation of Protocols of the Elders of Zion which appears on TV in the Arab world.) Similarly comedic represenations of the Holocaust, such as Life is Beautiful, might not be enthusiastically embraced, but are certainly not deserving of censorship.

Difficult as it is to see now, I think the whole controversy will be a good thing for the Arab world. The reason for the difference in response between democratic and non-democratic societies is the difference in the extent to which those socities are exposed to the exercising of free speech. As is so often the way, the first attempt to challenge taboos (whether it be Graham Kennedy or Deep Throat or Chris Masters) is greeted with uproar, however it is only through these groundbreakers that followers can speak freely. One can easily imagine that in the future, cartoonists and writers in the Arab world will feel more free than they otherwise would to speak their mind on sensitive subjects.

For a really perceptive commentary on the topic, check out the wonderful Irshad Manji, published in The Age.