Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A mighty heart: The story of Daniel and Mariane Pearl

Mariane Pearl has dropped a lawsuit seeking damages from a Pakistani bank and Al Qaeda for the 2002 murder of her husband Daniel Pearl. Her lawyers said Habib Bank Limited and other defendants had not answered the suit filed in a US court in July. The lawyers have so far not elaborated on the reasons for the withdrawal but it is safe to assume the defendents woould never have appeared in an American court.

The victim Daniel Pearl was a Wall St Journal correspondent who was abducted and later executed in Karachi in the aftermath of 9/11. Pearl’s kidnapping and his wife'a search for his captors are the subject of a movie currently in general release in Australian cinemas. “A Mighty Heart” was directed by prolific British auteur Michael Winterbottom and stars Angelina Jolie in the central role of Mariane Pearl. Jolie puts in a mesmerising performance of a woman desperate to seek her husband’s safe return while negotiating a minefield of police, media and governmental interests.

Pearl was the Journal’s South Asia Bureau Chief. Mariane, his French wife, was also a journalist. She was five months pregnant and the couple were due to return to the US to have the baby. Although based in Mumbai, the couple were in Karachi to check out Pakistani links to Richard Reid, the UK born Muslim convert who gained infamy as the "shoe bomber".

Daniel Pearl was born to a Jewish family on 10 October 1963 in Princeton, New Jersey, and grew up in Los Angeles. He graduated from Stamford University in 1985 with a degree in communications. He worked for several small newspapers before joining the Wall St Journal in 1990. He met Mariane in 1998 and moved to Paris where they married. Pearl was appointed Mumbai bureau chief two years later. There he began to cover the growing “war on terror” with occasional trips to Pakistan.

His investigations were taking him into murkier territory with possible links between radical elements and the Pakistan security agency the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence). He was also looking at how the US trained the ISI during the 1980s Soviet war in Afghanistan. Many people including Pearl’s biographer Bernard-Henri Lévy have implicated the ISI in his death despite the indignant denials of Musharraf’s regime.

On 23 January 2002, Pearl arranged to meet Sheik Ali Shah Gilani, a respected spiritual leader. Pearl had found out that Richard Reid met Gilani in Karachi prior to Reid’s unsuccessful attempt to blow up an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami with a bomb hidden in the lining of his shoes. On his way to meet Gilani, Pearl was kidnapped by a group calling itself The National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty. The group claimed variously that Pearl was a CIA or Mossad agent and demanded the US release prisoners from Guantanamo in exchange for his release. Nine days later, Pearl was murdered and beheaded. His body was cut up into ten pieces and dumped in a shallow grave near Karachi. His captors released a video of Pearl’s death.

In March this year, alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed told a U.S. military tribunal he personally beheaded Pearl. According to the Pentagon transcript, Mohammed admitted he was responsible for a string of high-profile attacks including Pearl’s death. "I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan," he apparently held the tribunal. "For those who would like to confirm, there are pictures of me on the Internet holding his head."

Winterbottom’s film about Pearl’s death was careful to take a non-political line. It did not preach and tried to tell the story from the view of the protagonist without taking sides. Winterbottom has made two other films about the Muslim world, “In This World” (about refugees) and “The Road to Guantanamo” (about political prisoners) where he has been more explicit about his ideals. “A Mighty Heart” was different. Winterbottom said he didn’t want to build opinions into the film. "We were making a film about a journalist and felt we should try to reflect that," he said. “Why try to dramatise it? Tell it as truthfully as you can."

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Cristina Fernandez Kirchner: neither Evita nor Hillary

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has declared outright victory in the first-round election to succeed her husband Nestor Kirschner as president of Argentina. Fernandez took 45 percent of the vote and becomes the country’s first elected female president. Fernandez needed either 45 per cent of the full vote, or 40 per cent with a 10 point lead over the next nearest candidate, to win the presidency at the first stage. She met the criteria twice, avoiding the need for a run-off election.

Fernandez is a former Senator and a leading adviser to her husband during his four year reign as leader. She and Kirchner are now about to take each other's role. The swap between husband and wife has raised inevitable comparisons with the Clintons. And there are many superficially attractive similarities. Both couples met in law school, both men became presidents, both women became senators, and while Hillary is the favourite in the race to White House, Fernandez has now claimed Argentina’s equivalent, “La Casa Rosada”, the Pink House.

The second obvious influence are two former wives of Juan Peron. His third wife and Argentina’s only other female leader, Isabel Peron, inherited power from her husband Juan after he died in 1974. Peron was overthrown in a military coup two years later. Eva "Evita" Peron was Juan's inspirational second wife who died of cancer in 1952. Fernandez acknowledged a debt to Eva Peron in an interview with Time Magazine last month saying Eva was a “unique phenomenon in Argentine history”. Women of my generation owe her a debt,” she said. “When we came of age during the [military] dictatorship of the 1970s, we had her example of passion and combativeness to get us through.”

Nevertheless Fernandez has rejected comparisons with both Clinton (who has yet to ascend to the top post) and Evita Peron (who was never president). In a rare radio interview with Buenos Aires La Red last week, she said the similarity with Hillary did not stretch beyond the fact they were both senators, attorneys and presidential wives. “I don't want them to identify me either with Hillary Clinton or with Eva Peron, or with anyone,” she said. “There's nothing better than just being oneself.”

Many in Argentina are wondering exactly how Fernandez will go about “being oneself.” With no effective opposition, Fernandez was able to run a media-shy campaign. She said little by way of her policies were if elected and she spent a great deal of the last two months abroad. She refused to debate her opponents and only gave two interviews to local media in the final days before the vote. She did back her husband’s recent call for Argentina to reclaim the Falklands and South Georgia, a nationalistic move that remains popular.

Analysts believe that not much will change with the handover of power from husband to wife. She has pledged to maintain his high growth rates while keeping inflation under control. Nestor Kirchner had several impressive achievements in his reign. The poverty rate has fallen from over 50 per cent to 23.4 per cent and unemployment has dropped to a 15-year low. Under the constitution he could have run again, but instead announced in the summer he was stepping aside in favour of Fernandez as the leftist Peronist party candidate. The opposition Radical Party has been in disarray since it was blamed for the Argentine economic collapse in 2001-2002, so a Fernandez victory was assured.

The biggest issue facing Fernandez is likely to be inflation. It is officially measured at 8.6 per cent, but some economists say it could be twice as much. Trade unions leaders closely-allied to the Kirchners are pressing for wage increases, raising fears of a “wage-price” spiral that devastated the Argentinean economy in the 1980s. The country also has $20bn in defaulted debt, a problem that has to be resolved if the country is to have access again to international credit markets.

Cristina Fernandez, now 54, has been longer in the public eye longer than her husband. The pair married in 1953 when Fernandez was 22 years old. Trained as a lawyer she was elected in 1989 to serve as a deputy in the provincial legislature of Santa Cruz in Patagonia. Two years later Nestor was elected governor of the same province. Since 1995 Fernandez has represented Santa Cruz in the national senate. Finally in 2003 Nestor Kirchner, with the key support of his wife, emerged from the chaos of a financial bankrupt Argentina to win the Presidency. Nestor is now returning the favour as his wife claims the plaudits.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Mayhem in Mogadishu

The Somali capital Mogadishu remains chaotic after the latest round of fighting between Ethiopian troops and Somali rebels went into a second day. The violence began on Friday when a large Ethiopian convoy of reinforcements struck a landmine as it entered the city late on Friday. The violence escalated in Saturday when rebel Islamist fighters exchanged machine-gun and mortar fire with Somali Government and Ethiopian troops. At least 15 people have been killed so far.

Yesterday, hundreds of Mogadishu protesters demonstrated against the presence of Ethiopian troops in the city supporting the interim government. The crowd chanted “Down with Ethiopia! Down with the Somali government!" One protestor, Abdi Adan Somane told AFP "We don't need them on our soil. Ethiopia must leave otherwise its presence will lead to more bloodshed." His call went unheeded by the Ethiopians who opened fire on demonstrators killing three people in the crowd.

Elsewhere in the city, residents either cowered behind closed doors or fled Mogadishu as the mostly Ethiopian forces sought to crush the rebels. The UN says some 400,000 people have fled the violence in Mogadishu in the past four months. Civilians fleeing the latest spate of attacks loaded pick-up trucks and donkey carts with household items. Mogadishu resident Abdurahman Nure spoke to AFP from the back of a Land Cruiser as he left the city with his children. "No one can endure what is happening in Mogadishu,” he said “It's non-stop violence and it's taking hundreds of lives every week."

The UN- and Ethiopian-backed government ousted the Union of Islamic Courts from government in December 2006. The group of 11 autonomous courts had ruled the city since 2004. Despite the defeat, they remained popular with the mainly Muslim population for their successful campaign to impose Islamic law and rid Mogadishu of the warlords who ruthlessly controlled the city for the previous 15 years. Now the Islamists have slowly regrouped and have regained control of the western part of Mogadishu where they launch guerrilla operations.

Mogadishu’s mayor warned residents in some neighbourhoods to leave their homes because the government has "run out of patience" with insurgent groups. Mayor Mohamed "Dheere" Omar told a media conference that the community should avoid the market precinct of Bakara market where anti-government forces were massing. Dheere said Somali federal troops and Mogadishu police supported by the Ethiopian army were about to launch a military operation in the market area.

But there is trouble within the government ranks. President Abdullahi Yusuf and Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi have feuded ever since they came to power in late 2004. The two men represent the two largest clans in Somalia, the Darod and the Hawiye, respectively. Yusuf’s powerbase is Puntland, while Gedi’s clan rule Mogadishu. Yusuf blames Gedi for the continued unrest in the capital and their rift widened after they backed rival bids looking to exploit the Somalia’s potential oil resources. Last week Saudi King Abdullah invited both men for a reconciliation visit though there is no word if either the president or the prime minister has accepted his offer.

Somalia has been without an effective national government since 1991 when rival warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on each other. In 2004, Yusuf and Gedi established a weak transitional government operating mainly out of the southern city of Baidoa and neighbouring Kenya. After the rise of the Islamic Courts in 2006, Ethiopia launched a 15,000 strong invasion of Somalia with the full backing of the Bush administration, which worried by supposed and unproven links between the Islamists and terrorism. While the invasion was successful, terror remains part of the everyday experience of Mogadishu’s beleaguered citizens.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Motorists and cyclists: mixing oil and water

In last Thursday’s online Brisbane Times, journalist John Birmingham indulged in a 500 word rant about poor unfortunate motorists who have to share the road with nasty two-wheel types on bicycles. In particular, Birmingham reserved his wrath for a “stupidly, smug, selfish git” on a recumbent bicycle, which he claimed, was holding up morning traffic on Brisbane’s Story Bridge “at about 12 clicks per”. While it seems unlikely that the cyclist “and he alone” might have been the only cause of a traffic snarl in Brisbane’s morning peak-hour traffic, it seems doubly unlikely that a recumbent (which is actually faster than a normal bike) was the real cause of Birmingham’s angst.

Worse still was the chord Birmingham struck with the commenters to his blog entry with its litany of insults and ways of dealing with the “problem”. Cyclists were “major dickheads”, “selfish”, “cycle tools”, “wankers and wankettes”, and horror of horrors…“vegetarians”. One respondent, Simon Bedak, suggested that drivers should re-align their windscreen wipers to face sideways and “squirt at will” to “counter-annoy the cyclist and the pedestrian”. The comments reflect a worldwide trend of deep hostility between drivers and cyclists especially obvious at events such as Critical Mass.

Drivers condemn cyclists for running red lights, going the wrong way in one-way streets, take up a full lane, and generally holding up traffic. Meanwhile cyclists bemoan drivers who don’t indicate or yield to bikes, as well as dangerous overtaking, aggressive behaviour and general lack of consideration of cyclists needs. Verbal abuse is common on the road, and drivers and cyclists are equally guilty of it.

The argument becomes more perplexing as a large proportion of drivers are also cyclists while the vast majority of adult cyclists have driver’s licences. As of 2003, almost half (46.6 per cent) of the 1.5 million private dwellings in Queensland had at least one bicycle in good working order. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that 819,000 people rode a bike in Queensland in that year. 84.6 per cent of those cyclists aged over 15 years also had a vehicle licence (putting the lie to the common complaint that cyclists “don't pay to use the roads through registration”).

The hardened attitudes of anti-cyclist drivers is not officially supported by the State Government whose plan (pdf) is to increase the proportion of all person trips made by bicycle by an additional 50 per cent by 2011 and by 100 per cent by 2021. The government recognises five key areas in which bicycles are advantageous. These areas are transport (easing congestion on roads and minimal impact to road surfaces), health benefits (preventing coronaries and depression), economy (cheap costs & healthier cyclists taking less sick days), social equity (affordable travel) and environment (pollution free and carbon neutral). But even with a doubling of the number of trips the totals will remain low, varying as it does today between 3 per cent of all daily trips in Brisbane to 8 per cent in Cairns.

However the government’s words are not necessarily matched by its actions. The State Government has enthusiastically supported Brisbane councils controversial plan for five new road tunnels across the city. The cost of the North-South tunnel alone is now in excess of $3 billion. These tunnels will be off-limits to cyclists while calls remain unheeded to build another “green bridge” from Bulimba to Teneriffe for a fraction of the tunnel cost.

Nonetheless, advocacy groups such as Bicycle Queensland believe the real challenge lies in winning hearts and minds rather than creating infrastructure (though they acknowledge that is important also). The group represents 6,000 Queensland cyclists and attends about 170 meetings, seminars, consultation sessions and planning days annually with government agencies and private industry. Their 2006 annual report (pdf) talks about the need to encourage “significant behavioural and cultural change”. Birmingham's article shows it will be a long, slow road, and one desperately in need of a cycle lane.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

World Health Organisation backs use of DDT against malaria

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has endorsed the use of banned insecticide DDT in a new approach to controlling malaria in West Africa. Stephan Tohon, WHO’s focal point on malaria in West Africa, told a malaria evaluation meeting in the Burkina Faso capital Ouagadougou that the organisation no longer recommended the use of mosquito nets. Instead he cited the positive results of southern African countries with indoor house spraying using the partially banned insecticide DDT.

The endorsement of DDT (Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane) will be particularly controversial. The pesticide was used in World War II to control malaria with apparent great success. DDT is toxic and kills by opening sodium ion channels in insect neurons, causing the neuron to fire spontaneously. The Swiss chemist Paul Müller won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1948 for demonstrating DDT killed the Colorado potato beetle, a pest that was ravaging the potato crops in the developed world.

DDT contributed to the final eradication of malaria in Europe and North America and WHO’s program to combat malaria worldwide was based on the success of the drug. DDT was less successful in the tropics. Because farmers used it as a crop spray, insect populations began to develop resistance. It all began to unravel for DDT in 1962 when Rachel Carson published the hugely influential “Silent Spring” which showed the chemical resulted in reproductive problems and death in humans. The US eventually banned DDT in 1972.

With the failure of DDT, experts focussed their attentions on bednets impregnated with other insecticides. However the Stockholm Convention of 2001 which outlawed a dozen persistent organic pollutants left the door open for continued use of DDT as a vector control. Vector control works by reducing the levels of transmission and its method varies widely depending on local conditions.

Arata Kochi, head of the WHO's antimalarial campaign, is leading the charge to bring back DDT. In November 2006 he called on environmental groups to support the change. “We are asking these environmental groups to join the fight to save the lives of babies in Africa," Kochi said. "This is our call to them." Kochi is supported a group called Africa Fighting Malaria, who say that while there may be lab studies showing DDT could potentially cause cancer, no large studies show an actual increase in cancer in people.

While the jury remains out on DDT, there is no denying that malaria is one of the world’s greatest health problems. Approximately 40 percent of the world’s population, mostly in the poorest countries, are at risk of contracting malaria. Its intensity depends on local factors such as rainfall patterns, proximity of mosquito breeding sites and mosquito species. Every year, an astonishing 500 million people (one person in every twelve) become seriously ill with one of the four different types of the disease.

Malaria has serious economic impacts in Africa, slowing growth and development as well as perpetuating a vicious cycle of poverty. It mainly afflicts the poor who tend to live in malaria-prone rural areas in poorly-constructed houses with few barriers against mosquitoes. Malaria disease affects sub-Saharan Africa harder than anywhere else in the world and kills about 800,000 children younger than 5 each year. The disease also contributes greatly to anaemia among children, a major cause of poor growth and development. Malaria infection during pregnancy is associated with severe anaemia and other illness in the mother and contributes to low birth weight among newborn infants.

The cause of malaria is a parasite called Plasmodium, transmitted through bites from infected mosquitoes. In the human body, the parasites multiply in the liver, and infect red blood cells. Symptoms include fever, headache, and vomiting, usually about 10 to 15 days after the mosquito bite. If untreated, Malaria can kill by disrupting the blood supply to vital organs. The parasites have developed resistance to a number of malaria medicines and the field of malaria control has historically been dogged by problems with resistance. Each time scientists find a way to fight the parasite, the parasite finds a way to fight back. WHO says resistance can be limited if DDT is used carefully, and only where it's likely to be effective.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Moreton candidates forum at Griffith University

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) held a candidates forum at Griffith University’s Nathan Campus today to discuss higher education issues. The campus is in the marginal Brisbane seat of Moreton, held by embattled Liberal Gary Hardgrave. Hardgrave was invited to the forum, but did not attend. This continues a poor trend of Liberal no-shows to similar public events in Brisbane and as well as non-responses to interview requests by citizen journalist organisations such as Youdecide 2007.

Those who did turn up were Labor candidate Graham Perrett, Democrat Emad Soliman, the Greens' Emma Hine as well as the Senate candidates Larissa Waters of the Greens and Senator Andrew Bartlett of the Democrats. Graham Perrett spoke first. This is Perrett’s second time running for Moreton (which covers the Southern part of the Brisbane council area). Perrett is the favourite this time round and needs a swing of 2.8 per cent to take the seat.

Graham Perrett was born in St George in south-western Queensland in 1966. Perrett is a former teacher, solicitor and union organiser with degrees in English and Law. Prior to the election Perrett was a senior policy advisor to the Queensland government. He began his speech by saying he was “living proof” that Labor’s education policy was all about opportunity. He said that if it wasn’t for Gough Whitlam, he would still be a farmworker in St George.

Perrett went on to say that education was “the enabler of the economy” and a “building block for long-term economic prosperity”. He decried “the shameful legacy” of the Howard Government that saw spending in public education in decline and is now well below the OECD average. Perrett said there was “a skills crisis in education” and the Federal Governments own research shows Australia will need 240,00 more skilled workers by 2016 to ensure the country’s economic future.

Perrett said Labor would invest $450 million in early childhood learning which would give 4 year olds maths and science lessons. Labor is also planning to invest $2.5 billion in “state of the art” trade training centres in all Australia’s high schools. Perrett said this initiative would turbo-charge the education skills of the next generation of Australians. Perrett also lamented the introduction of Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) and the resultant de-funding of university campus services. He said Labor would not bring back the old “flawed” system but would soon announce a new “not out-of-pocket” policy in this area.

Greens local candidate Emma Hine spoke next. Emma is a PhD science student at the University of Queensland. Hine spoke about her $20,000 HECS debt which she hopes to pay off when she enters the workforce. She said she would also like to own her own home but it would be difficult to pay off a HECS debt as well as a mortgage. She also condemned the gradual reduction of resources in academic institutions. Teachers are spending more time doing administration work and less time in the classroom. Funding cutbacks are also impacting diversity of what is being taught.

Hine then handed over to Larissa Waters (an ex-Griffiths graduate) to outline the Greens’ education policy. Waters is the Greens Queensland senate candidate and with last Friday’s news that the Greens and Labor are moving close to a national preference deal, she now stands a very realistic chance of winning Queensland’s final senate seat. She said there was now “a good chance” the Greens would be the balance of power in the Senate and they would use that power responsibly. She said they would keep the government of the day “honest and accountable” and the party had 43 policies listed on their website on a range of issues.

She said the Greens supported a return to free education. The Greens would abolish HECS and HECS debts. “University education used to be free,” she said. “It still is free in Sweden, Norway and Argentina”. She said the Greens costed free education at $2.5 billion a year which wasn’t much compared to the $34 billion tax cuts announced last week by the government. Waters said the Greens would repeal the VSU legislation and she asked the question: what has happened to campus life? “Going to university is not only about getting a degree,” she said. “It’s about embracing a different culture”.

Local Democrat candidate Emad Soliman spoke next. Soliman was born in Egypt and has a degree in Computer Engineering. He visited Australia in 1991 and then worked internationally before settling in Brisbane in 1995. He is now working in an academic position at Griffith University. He began by saying that it was the “generosity of the education system” that attracted him to return to Australia. He said this was now being undone by the Howard Government actions. By shutting down funding for education, the Government was dealing with a threat from “enlightened minds”.

Soliman condemned the commercialisation of research and pointed out “30 years of achievements” in education by the Democrats in the Senate. He said the Democrats were in favour of (pdf) abolishing full-fee degrees for domestic undergraduates, removing VSU and HECS, and revising the indexation formula for university grants to accurately account for inflation.

Senator Andrew Bartlett, the Democrats Queensland Senate candidate spoke last. Bartlett would appear to be the likely loser if the Labor-Greens national preference deal goes ahead. But he is not going down without a fight. He said the Senate contest needs to be emphasised in its own right. He said that for higher education “the Senate result is crucial”. He said the VSU legislation got through the last Senate because the Family First senator “failed dismally in his judgement” and did not negotiate any sort of compromise.

Bartlett reminded his audience that the Coalition won the Senate that year by taking the last Queensland seat from the Democrats. Bartlett said the “large hike” in HECS fees prior to the 2004 election was also the fault of the independent senators who held the balance of power at the time. Bartlett hoped that if he did have to lose his seat, he would lose it to one of the minor parties. He said that if he lost the seat to the Liberals or Labor, then all Queensland’s seats would be with the major parties. But he believes he can still win. He said he was “effective and experienced and [has] delivered on issues”.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

South Australian Liberal defects to Family First

Former Liberal MP Robert Brokenshire has defected to Family First and will contest the Liberal marginal seat of Kingston. The South Australian seat is one of the tightest in the country with sitting Liberal member Kym Richardson winning by just 119 votes (a margin of 0.1 per cent). Brokenshire was a state parliamentarian in South Australia between 1993 and 2003 and his move to federal politics is a major coup for the minor party. Brokenshire says Family First is yet to determine whether his preferences will support Richardson this time around. "Preferences are something that are yet to be finally decided," he said. "Kym Richardson's worked hard in the seat, most people would agree with that, but it's not for me to decide ultimately where preferences go – that’s for the executive of Family First Party.

The seat of Kingston is in the southern outer suburbs of Adelaide and has always been a marginal seat changing hands no less than seven times in the last forty years. Richardson won the seat from Labor in 2004. A new Adelaide Advertiser poll shows that Labor will easily win the seat. The newspapers poll of 724 voters gave a swing to Labor of more than six per cent taking its two-party-preferred support to 56 to the government's 44.

While Brokenshire’s move to Family First may have some impact on the 2PP vote, it is unlikely to be enough to swing the seat in the incumbent’s favour. According to the 2006 census, 30.1% of Kingston voters stated no religion on their census form, the highest rate in the country. This seat, therefore, would not appear to be Family First core constituency. However South Australia is the party’s heartland and where it was founded in 2002 by Pentecostalist pastor Andrew Evans. After being rebuffed by Nick Xenophon, Evans campaigned under the new banner of Family First was elected to South Australia’s upper house in the state election that year with 4.02 percent of the vote.

Evans’s victory attracted much media interest as well as increased local support. Adelaide businessman Peter Harris was recruited to become chairman and the brains trust behind Family First. It was Harris who negotiated the preference deals in Victoria that saw Steve Fielding elected to the federal Senate in 2004. Fielding, a former industry super fund marketing manager, approached the party to run as a candidate and succeeded despite Evans’s reluctance to push the party outside South Australia.

Steve Fielding
polled poorly in the election and even got fewer votes than the Democratic Labor Party (DLP). But he got elected thanks to the machine men of the Victorian Federal ALP who wanted to punish the Greens by preferencing Family First. Fielding got in thanks to all the Labor voters in Victoria who voted above the line. Fielding has been an unpredictable voter in the Senate. He has voted with the government on many issues but was opposed to tougher asylum-seeking legislation and managed to bring it down with the help of rebellious Liberal senators.

Following in Evans and Fielding's successful footsteps, Dennis Hood won the party’s second seat in the SA upper house in 2006. The party claims not to be an overtly Christian party though it does have an underlying Christian morality. It prefers instead to talk about promoting “traditional family values”. It had attracted some major funding figures including Craig Winkler, chief executive of MYOB. Robert Brokenshire represents a coup for the party and a boost for their chances of picking up another Senate seat this time round.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Government defeated in Polish election

Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski has admitted defeat in yesterday’s general election, with exit polls predicting victory for the populist Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska - PO) party. His conservative Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość - PiS) polled about 31 percent, far short of its centre-right rival with 44 percent. Kaczynski’s defeat will see the 12th change of leadership in Poland in the 16 years since the end of communism.

Despite chilly weather, Poland had its best post-Communist election turnout with barely 55 percent of eligible voters going to the polls (only 40 per cent voted in the last election three years ago). Kaczynski called the election two years early after the collapse of a right-wing coalition. PiS had constantly bickered with its two minor partners and Kaczynski was eventually left bereft of supporters to form an effective government.

PO campaigned on a platform to bring Polish troops home from Iraq. They also favour lower taxes, less bureaucracy and market-oriented policies aimed at speeding up Poland’s entry into the Euro. It seems likely they will take at least 224 seats with their preferred coalition partners the Peasants Party taking 27 seats. Together this will be a comfortable working majority in Poland’s 460 seat lower chamber known as the “Sejm”.

PO is led by the Gdansk born but very unPolish sounding Donald Tusk. The country’s likely next Prime Minister is 50 years old and married with two children. Both his parents came from what was then the free city of Danzig and survived German slave labour camps. Tusk was involved in the underground early days of the Solidarity movement. In the later 1980s, he left Solidarity and became a Liberal. In 1991 he stood for parliament and his fledgling party got 7.5% of votes (37 places in the Sejm). In 2001 he set up PO and has grown the party gradually through the decade.

He now says that Poland needed to focus on the economic opportunities presented by membership in the EU. "It is Civic Platform's intention to make Poles feel much better in their own country than they have felt so far,'' Tusk told cheering supporters. "We are going to do huge work and we will do it well. You have the right to rejoice today." Although Tusk is believed to have a close relationship with Washington, his party has threatened to break the outgoing government's negotiations with the US on hosting a missile defence system on Polish soil unless offered sufficient security trade-offs.

Kaczynski’s defeat brings to end a unique situation where a country’s two key roles are filled by twin brothers. While Jaroslaw has been PM, brother Lech Kaczynski is Poland's president. Lech does not face a presidential election until 2010 but opposition parties together look set to get enough seats to override his power to veto legislation. The new government is likely to rebuild ties with EU partners such as Germany that have been badly strained by the Kaczynski brothers.

Both Kaczynskis earned a reputation of troublemakers with their nationalist agenda since coming to power in 2005. Despite Poland’s booming economy, the twins had ruled over a party cursed with constant infighting. Tusk’s party has successfully accused them of abusing secret services and undermining democracy with attacks on the judiciary and tight control of state media.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Australian election leaders debate: The tyranny of the worm

The experts are poring over the results of tonight’s leadership debate between John Howard and Kevin Rudd and the early view is that opposition leader Kevin Rudd “won” it. Although victory in the debate has not often translated into electoral success, it will be another pleasing indicator to the Opposition camp. Rudd has a lead in the opinion polls and faces a government in stasis after 11 years in government.

The two leaders debated for 90 minutes in the Great Hall of Parliament House framed by the giant backdrop of the words “The Leaders Debate”. It will be the only such opportunity for the pair to speak together with five weeks remaining of the campaign. While having just one debate is normally the prerogative of the incumbent administration determined to deny "oxygen" to the opposition, commentators as diverse as Richard Farmer of Crikey and Andrew Bolt of News Ltd have suggested that Howard, behind in the polls, would have been better off to accept Rudd’s demand of three debates.

Tax and the economy dominated the debate. Both sides released their tax policies in the opening week of the campaign and Howard’s $34 billion tax cut promises were mostly matched by Rudd $31 billion alternative. Howard claimed Rudd has voted against most of the government’s economic reforms and is a recent convert to the cause. Rudd quoted Reserve bank chair Ian Macfarlane to demonstrate his credentials and accused Howard as Treasurer of running mortgage rates at 22 per cent.

Rudd confidently answered all questions except for the ones related to climate change. Rudd waffled when asked what markers Labor would use to measure progress to its long term carbon emission targets to 2050. Rudd was so wrapped up in the detail of his immediate message to clearly enunciate his longer term vision. By contrast, the supposed climate unfriendly Howard impressed when he strayed dangerously close to making policy with his promise to compensate low income earners for rising electricity prices under policies designed to curtail emissions of greenhouse gases.

Nonetheless the pair mostly parried each others thrusts. The real story of the night was Channel Nine’s decision to ignore the government stipulation that the debate feed had to be “clean” (without the on-screen “worm” which measures audience reaction in real time). Nine were denied a direct feed but resourcefully pirated a feed to show the debate to the largest audience watching the debate under its banner of “60 Minutes”. Nine's director of news and current affairs, John Westacott, said the decision to cut the feed "blatant political censorship "It's not the preserve of the Liberal party to make editorial decisions for Channel Nine," he said.

But the worm was the real winner. Green’s leader Bob Brown was not invited to take part said the worm would “add a little something organic” to the debate. Left-learning blog Larvatus Prodeo agreed. They held a chatroom where people had the chance to live blog on the debate. The word “worm” appeared 240 times in the comments in 165 minutes (up to 10:15pm). With five weeks to go in the election campaign, it is difficult to know whether for all its importance, the worm has actually turned.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Battle of Algeria

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has protested the jailing of an Algerian newspaper editor for criticising the government. On Monday, a court handed out a six month defamation sentence to Dhif Talal, correspondent for the Arabic-language newspaper Al Fadjr in the north-central city of Djelfa. Talal was convicted for an article he wrote exposing poor administration practices in the Department of Agriculture. Another journalist faces charges next month for an article he wrote about the Education Department. The IFJ General Secretary has called on the government to “make a commitment to press freedom and to allow the media to work independently without fear of reprisals”.

Algeria has slipped quietly under the radar of world trouble spots since the 1990s civil war that followed the overthrow of its elected Islamist government. Yet the Islamic opposition have not gone away and anger over the 1992 coup remains deep. Pan Arabic elements are now infiltrating the local opposition. Last month, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika survived an assassination attempt that killed 22 people in a suicide bombing in the north-eastern city of Basna. Al Qa’ida’s Maghreb offshoot have claimed responsibility for this attack and also a bomb attack on a naval barracks in September 2006 that killed 32 people.

Outside interference is now threatening a fragile peace in a country that has long been at war with itself. In the aftermath of the 1992 coup, both government and opposition death squads routinely killed its enemies as well as innocent civilians. 150,000 died in the years that followed. The economy went into a tailspin and there were massive food shortages. President Bouteflika, elected in 1999, is credited with turning Algeria around. He negotiated reconciliation with Islamist fighters in 2005 as well as pacifying the Berber minority.

Bouteflika like all Algerian leaders before him has the support of the French President, now Nicolas Sarkozy. France occupied Algeria for 132 years and continues to be a hugely influential actor in Algerian events. Algeria was one of Europe’s earliest colonial incursions in Africa and one of its deepest in impact. Algeria was incorporated into metropolitan France and one million “colons” (French Algerians) crossed the Mediterranean to administrate a country of nine million Muslims. Algeria has long been an attractive proposition for invaders such as the Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs and Ottomans. The latter two inculcated the practice of Islam. But the French brought the iron rule of European law.

In 1830, French King Charles X dispatched a 37,000 strong army under the pretext of suppressing Algerian piracy and easily deposed of the Turkish Dey of Algiers. The tone of the invasion was set on the first day when the French looted 100 million francs from the Kasbah. The French immediately encouraged colonial settlement. By 1841 37,000 settlers had appropriated Algerian land and institutionalised their rule with routine violence and usurpation of all the country’s most productive property. The initial war of occupation would last 18 years and end with the capture of the eastern city of Constantine.

France established a two-class apartheid system where Europeans were “supercitizens” and Algerians were the “servile class”. The Grand Mosque of Algiers became the Catholic cathedral of Saint-Phillipe. Algerian anger at French occupation flared up again in 1870 after the Prussian defeat of France. A rebellion centred in the Berber region of Kabyle took over a year to suppress. In 1881 the French enacted the Code de l’Indigenat, a Native Code statute which had 41 laws that applied only to Algerians. The Code made it an offence to criticise the French Government, travel without a pass, teach people without permission, and gather in groups of more than 20.

Algerian nationalism rose in the period after World War I. A group of French-educated Muslim intellectuals founded the Young Algerian Movement in the 1920s. The first political party was the Algerian People’s Party (PPA) founded in 1937 with a motto of “neither assimilation nor separation but emancipation”. Nationalists took heart from the Nazi defeat of France and then the Anglo-American liberation of Algeria in 1942. After the war several pro-independence groups coalesced into the National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale - FLN).

While the French were divesting their colonies worldwide, there was more resistance, especially among the million colons, to the independence of Algeria. In theory Algeria was part of France itself. The FLN lost patience with French inaction and launched the Algerian war of independence in 1954. One of the great 20th century liberation struggles began in the early morning hours of the first of November 1, when FLN maquisards (guerrilla soldiers or “terrorists” to the French) launched attacks in various parts of the country against military installations, police posts, warehouses, communications facilities, and public utilities. The maquisards operated with a great deal of independence as FLN’s leadership, including future president Ahmed Ben Bella, was in exile in Tunisia and Morocco.

The war would last for the rest of the decade. The FLN supported the guerrillas with an army of 40,000 soldiers along the borders which used hit-and-run tactics to harass the French. It was a bloody war. Estimates of deaths on the Algerian side range from 200,000 to a million. While the French mostly prevailed on the battlefield, they lost on the streets back home. By 1962, the war had killed 25,000 soldiers and 3,000 colons and had put France on verge of bankruptcy. In 1958 the war brought down the Fourth Republic and Charles de Gaulle was brought out of retirement to fix the mess.

In 1962 De Gaulle negotiated the Evian agreements with the FLN. France withdrew from Algeria in exchange for military bases and oil and gas concessions in newly discovered fields in the Sahara. The last sorry chapter of the war was fought by a hardcore contingent of colon militants who formed the Secret Army Organisation (OAS) and killed 3,000 Muslim civilians in a campaign of terror aimed at destabilising the truce. Almost all of the one million colons fled Algeria within weeks of the new nation’s independence.

After the French left, the exiled faction of the FLN led by Ben Bella seized control. Ahmed Ben Bella had spent much of the war in a French prison. He quickly consolidated power in 1962. He declared the FLN the only legal party and co-opted trade unions and other organisations into the party. But Ben Bella promoted a personality cult and that, allied with erratic policy shifts, caused opposition to grow against him. He was deposed in a coup in 1965 by an army which preferred consensus rule to Ben Bella’s authoritarianism.

His replacement was Houari Boumedienne, his former deputy. Boumedienne completed the centralisation of state control and elimination of independent institutions. The military was firmly established as the final arbiter of disputes within the FLN. Boumedienne steered Algeria outside both the US’s and the USSR’s sphere of influence. His unexpected death in 1979 brought Chadli Benjedid to power.

Unlike the previous two leaders Benjedid was only a minor figure in the war of independence. However he was a competent administrator and continued Boumedienne centrist policies. But the first cracks were appearing in Algeria’s apparent mono-culture. Riots broke out at the University of Algiers over the predominance of French over Arabic in classes. The non-Arab speaking Berbers in Kabyle then protested against the growing Arabism. Thirdly, there rose an Islamic opposition initially dedicated to the imposition of strong Sharia laws. The FLN were also deeply worried by the success of the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

Benjedid dealt with this challenge by instituting a Family Code in 1984 which curtailed the rights of Muslim women. They could not marry non-Muslims, could not seek a divorce, and needed permission from husband or eldest son to work or travel. But while this move pacified the Islamists, Algeria continued to struggle economically, stifled by bureaucratic centralism and rampant corruption. The collapse of oil prices in the mid-1980s destroyed Algeria’s foreign income and left most of the country in poverty while the elite of the FLN lined their pockets.

Violence against the regime accelerated through the rest of the decade. By September 1988, labour unrest had spread around Algiers’ industrial belt and into the public service companies of the capital. The government cracked down brutally and massacred over a thousand people at a demonstration. The opposition redoubled their efforts and a panicked Benjedid was forced into a series of reforms. He liberalised the press and legalised political parties. By 1991, over 50 new parties were formed including the largest of all, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).

Initially created as a network of informal mosque groups (the only independent groups to avoid takeover by the FLN), they first stood for office in the 1990 municipal elections. They stunned the FLN by taking 54 percent of the vote, almost double the FLN total of 28. The FIS took control of 850 of Algeria’s 1,500 municipal councils. The FLN hoped the newcomers would blunder in their new power role and be a spent force by the time of the national elections. They also hoped the people would quickly find the FIS planned social restrictions distasteful. The FLN were wrong on both counts. The hated French support for the government didn’t help their cause either. In December 1991, Algeria went to the polls and the FIS again trounced the FLN in a violence-free election.

The result horrified the FLN elites who had ruled the country since independence. They quickly moved to secure power. In January 1992 Benjedid resigned and the army High Security Council announced the formation of a collective presidency known as the High State Council (HCS). The first act of the HCS was to declare the December election void. They also cancelled runoff elections scheduled for February. Their argument was that FIS was a sham-democratic movement which had theocratic ends. If it gained power, it would not surrender it, their description of the FIS was “one man, one vote, one time”. The FIS was stripped of its victory, declared illegal and its leaders jailed.

The announcement sparked war. The GIA (Armed Islamic Group) was a military offshoot of the FIS whose core members were known as “Afghanis” because many of them fought with the Mujahideen against the Soviets in the 1980s. In 1993 the GIA issued a challenge to the 100,000 foreigners in Algeria – leave or die. By the end of 1994, foreigners were frequent victims of the growing war. Women who failed to wear the hijab were also targeted by the militants.

The HCS crucially gained the support of France which was desperately worried by a mass refugee movement in the wake of an Islamist victory. The GIA took the war to France. In 1994, they bombed the Paris Metro, attacked the train network and hijacked an Air France jet. Meanwhile Algeria had descended into civil war which immersed the country for the rest of the 1990s. Estimates of total deaths range from 70,000 to 200,000.

Elected president in 1999, Abdelaziz Bouteflika was credited with ending the war. He released thousands of Muslim militants from jail and won support for a civil concord to offer amnesty to armed militants. Many of the rebels accepted and the violence declined. But Bouteflika has been a strong supporter of the US-led “war on terror” and that has led to stronger imternal Islamist opposition. Al Qaeda have now formed an alliance with the Salafist Group (GSPC). The GSPC is itself an offshoot of the GIA. In 2005, the GSPC singled out France as its "enemy number one" and issued a call for action against the country.

While Algeria deals with the international threat of GSPC, it has closed down criticism within its borders. IFJ General Secretary Aidan White says Algeria has been using its criminal law to silence critical voices. “Journalists continue to be victims of this repressive tactic,” White said. “We are calling on the government to make a commitment to press freedom and to allow media to work independently without fear of reprisals.”

Friday, October 19, 2007

Maori march against police terror arrests

Over a thousand people marched today in New Zealand’s north island in protest at Monday’s anti-terror raids when 17 Maori and environmental activists were arrested. Protesters gathered outside Whakatane police station where speakers accused police of using heavy-handed tactics in the raids in a remote mountainous region. Marchers angry about reports that police stormed a school bus, carried placards reading: "We are not terrorists, we've been terrorised" and "Don't point a gun at me, I'm under five".

The protests occurred as a result of Monday’s action when 300 police, including heavily armed special tactical response officers, in balaclavas and full riot gear, locked down the Bay of Plenty settlements of Ruatoki and Taneatua. According to NZ police the action was aimed at shutting down weapons training camps in the North Island. Police commissioner Howard Broad said participants were training for "military-style activity." Police say they seized napalm bombs, Molotov cocktails and assault rifles in the raids. Several of the group are former Vietnam War veterans.

Joint leader of the Maori Party Pita Sharples said the police action was a sad throwback to the darkest days in the country when colonial troopers stormed into Maori villages. Speaking at a conference in Queensland on Wednesday, he condemned the raids saying they set back race relations between Maori and Pakeha (White New Zealanders) by 100 years. "I can hardly believe that negative history is repeating itself,” he said. “This action has violated the trust that has been developing between Maori and Pakeha.”

According to the New Zealand Herald newspaper, the area was host to a 4,000 strong Maori-run paramilitary group called the Freedom Fighters which recruited for the camps. They interviewed a member named "Dave" who said the group ran monthly fitness camps, not guerrilla-style weapons training. "We are a very well-organised and well-disciplined organisation with up to 4000 foot soldiers,” he said. “We are focusing on racism, mental health and corruption in our Government."

Among those arrested was 55 year old Maori activist Tame Iti. Iti is a prominent Maori nationalist who was acquitted earlier this year on appeal of firing a gun at the New Zealand flag during national day celebrations in 2005. In the 1970s, he was a member of the NZ Communist Party and spent time with the Black Panthers in the US. Iti was remanded in custody in Rotorua on Wednesday and now charged with 11 firearms offences. His son Toi defended Iti’s actions. "My father is not a terrorist and the majority of the New Zealand public believe that,” he said.

The raids were the first to be carried out in five years since New Zealand passed its 2002 Terrorism Suppression Act. Despite the controversy, NZ lawmakers are pressing ahead with modifications to make the law even stronger. Opponents are worried by the changes include a new offence of committing a terrorist act which carries a term of life imprisonment.

Officially, the bill seeks to correct inconsistencies of the original act with New Zealand's UN obligations and the UN Security Council resolutions on terrorism. However the Maori Party's Pita Sharples is not convinced. Maori make up 15 percent of New Zealand's 4 million people but account for almost half of the nation's prison population. The Maori unemployment rate is also more than double the national average. "When it suits this country, it invokes the rulings of the United Nations,” said Sharples. “But when it comes to supporting the rights of indigenous people as passed by the UN, then it turns its butt."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Getup, stand up

Activist organisation Getup brought a lively crowd of 400 people to Bega, NSW on Sunday to hear the candidates of the key marginal Eden-Monaro constituency outline their policies. The meeting occurred as Getup geared up for the closure of the electoral roll in advance of the election. The movement's electoral director, Taren Stinebrickner, said its volunteers had handed out 5000 enrol-to-vote cards since August and had signed up 300 people this week alone on university campuses across the country.

This is the first federal election since the two year old Getup was founded. The issues based activist group sees this election as its most important campaign to date. They have grand ambitions and plan to coordinate grassroots action and voter engagement in every seat in every state. Its national profile is at an all-time high after raising $200,000 in a week to broadcast an ad during the AFL grand final that spoofed Government advertising on climate change.

Getup was founded in 2005 by two Harvard educated Australians, Jeremy Heimans and David Madden. The pair met while studying at the Kennedy School of Government. They were inspired by Move On, an Internet based activist political organisation that has raised millions for the Democrats. Heimans and Madden decided to found Getup when the Government won control of the Senate in the 2004 election. They adapted the Move On model for Australia. When launching the site, Heimans told the ABC that GetUp was a way to get ordinary people back into politics. These were “people who are tired of institutional politics,” he said “People who aren't happy with the direction this country's going”.

Both Heimans and Madden had to defend themselves against the accusation that Getup was a front for the Labor Party with Evan Thornley and Bill Shorten as foundation board member. Former Liberal Leader John Hewson was also on the first board but quit less than a month after its launch citing lack of time to make a commitment. Liberal MPs Malcolm Turnbull and Andrew Robb denounced the group and its initial email campaign as “little more than spam”. They were complaining about Getup targeted strategy of getting their members to send pro forma emails to government members.

According to its own website, Getup “does not back any particular party, but aims to build an accountable and progressive Parliament”. Within its first week, Getup claimed 17,000 members. This number has now risen to over 200,000 after two years. While Heimans and Madden remain on the board, the day-to-day running of the organisation is in the hands of executive director Brett Solomon.

Brett Solomon got his ideas for grassroots activism during his time working for Oxfam Australia where he was the co-ordinator of the International Youth Parliament (IYP). According to Solomon, IYP was an international forum where “hundreds of young people from over 150 countries exchange ideas, strategies and the implementations of their Action Plans”. He wanted IYP to give young people the tools to work with their peers from around the world and effect change at the grassroots level. Now 37, Solomon has taken this zeal to Getup and is one of three full-time staff at their Sydney headquarters. Under Solomon’s leadership Getup has become an effective issues based organisation.

In an interview with Monica Attard for ABC’s Sunday Profile in July, Solomon said Getup fills a void for people to have a say. Solomon also denied Getup was a Labor front. “The aim of GetUp is to build a progressive Australia and what that means is a country which has social justice, economic fairness and the environment at its core,” he said. “So, we tend towards having a membership which is progressive in that sense”.

As of May 2007, they were Australia’s most popular political website with 16 percent of the total traffic and about 200,000 hits each week. Their biggest campaign was to bring David Hicks back to Australia. They invited residents of Bennelong (John Howard’s seat) to write to the PM saying “I want you to bring David Hicks home”. 10,143 residents obliged, about one in eight voters. Solomon believes Getup’s campaign was instrumental in Hicks’s eventual return.

Beyond the election, the next step for Getup is international organisation. They have co-founded a new global political online community called Avaaz (which means 'voice' or 'song' in several Asian languages). Avaaz aims to "match the power and reach of global leaders and borderless corporations" and has big ambitions to tackle trans-national issues such as climate change, escalating religious conflict and corruption. Avaaz claims one million members across 192 countries "speaking with one voice".

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Senate candidates public forum in Brisbane

Last night, the Brisbane suburb of Mansfield held a Senate candidates forum at the Broadwater Road Uniting Church. The session was entitled “Your Faith, Your Vote, Your Voice” and was a community election forum organised by the local Uniting, Anglican and Catholic churches. It was moderated by ABC religious programming executive producer David Busch and featured senate candidates from five political parties: Liberal (Sen. Sue Boyce), Labor (Sen. Claire Moore), Democrat (Sen. Andrew Bartlett), Greens (Larissa Waters) and Family First (Jeff Buchanan). The five candidates all gave introductory speeches and then answered a series of questions from three panellists Rev John Parkes (Assistant Anglican Bishop of Brisbane), Sr Kathleen Tynan (Co-ordinator, Catholic Social Action Office) and Andrew Johnson (Uniting Church Justice and International Mission Advocate).

Aboriginal elder Aunty Jean Philips began the evening with an acknowledgement of the traditional owners of the land (interestingly, this was an acknowledgement reiterated by all candidates and panellists except for Liberal and Family First). After an opening prayer by the local Uniting church minister Bruce Johnson, Rick Sheehan (Chair of the Catholic Justice & Peace Commission) read a prepared paper about faith at the ballot box. The paper urged Christians to “take their democratic freedoms seriously and become involved in the political process”. It encouraged “people of faith” to include the test of the common good as well as their own interests when casting a vote and should ask who is the beneficiary of economic policies.

Larissa Waters of the Greens was the first candidate to speak. She began by saying she had noticed a “real shift” in the last election towards less compassion, more selfishness and less concern for the community – “not values I hold” she hastened to add. She spoke of the four key principles of Green policies to combat this tendency. They were: ecological sustainability, peace and non-violence, social justice and grassroots democracy. She said that if the Greens won the balance of power in the Senate, they would use tax cuts to finance clean, green, renewable energies – not “unproven clean coal or toxic nuclear waste". She also spoke in favour of public transport, dealing with poverty, free access to health and education, affordable housing and an end to our "pre-emptive strike" foreign policy.

Liberal Senator Sue Boyce spoke next. Boyce was elevated to the Senate in April to fill the casual vacancy left by Santo Santoro’s resignation after a share scandal. Because Santoro’s term expires in 2008, Boyce is up for re-election. She began by saying said one thing underpins everything else in this election: a strong economy. This allows the government to deliver universal medical care, education and equity. She said families have been better off under the 11 years of coalition government and only the coalition could effectively manage the prosperity to benefit Australia with new industries, road funding and indigenous programs. Boyce said the government have spent $660 million on climate change programs and said only they could deliver the innovation and choices needed to solve complex problems.

She was followed by Labor Senator Claire Moore, also up for re-election. She began by saying she was “one of those terrible union officials mentioned over the last few years”. She said the political system needed to be “valued and respected” and the need for a strong economy must be permeated by compassion and respect. Like Waters, Moore noticed a sense of division in the community and said politicians “must engage with people to ensure they are part of the future”. She noted this was anti-poverty week and we needed more compassion for those most disadvantaged in the community.

Jeff Buchanan from Family First spoke next. He said he was passionate about the family’s fundamental role in society and his values were informed by his faith and life experiences. He said he was the leader of Family First’s Queensland team and promised the party would be a voice in Canberra for families, farmers and small businesspeople. Buchanan said the party was objective and “no one’s lapdog”. He also said Family First doesn’t agree with WorkChoices and the loss of public holiday, overtime, penalty rates and redundancy entitlements.

Democrat Senator Andrew Bartlett was the last candidate to speak. He began by saying democracy wasn’t working well at the moment. He said that diversity was not being taken into account in the political process. Bartlett highlighted the disadvantages of Australia’s first people and our inability to listen to their problems. He said there was a growing gap between the country’s haves and have-nots. Bartlett believed that the Democrats have demonstrated “sensible economic policies” over the years with a balanced approach to workplace issues. He said more needed to be done to recognise those people who bear extra burdens such as volunteers and carers for those with disabilities. Bartlett said that climate change was not just an environmental issue, it was a moral issue and we needed to focus more on what he called “the common good”.

The panel then got involved and began by asking the politicians what contribution they could make to achieve balanced democracy in the Senate. Bartlett said this was a crucial issue and the Senate was not getting enough focus in the campaign. This issue was “core business” for the Democrats. Senator Boyce rejected the charge that the government had stifled debate in the Senate. She said “standing committees and enquiries produce worthwhile results”. Senator Moore lamented the lack of knowledge in the public about how the Senate works. She said the Senate worked best in a committee system where it had “the opportunity to listen to the community and make recommendations”. Larissa Waters said that since the government won a Senate majority in 2004 it had cut committees and guillotined debates. “The house needs to become a house of review again,” she said. Buchanan agreed that it was remarkable how little most people knew about the role of the Senate.

The second question asked what the ends to the economy were. Senator Boyce saw a strong economy as an effective strategy to reduce poverty. She said that she believed in the power of work to overcome the gap of haves and have-nots. She said a million people had genuine reasons why they could not work and the system would support them, but, she added “work underpins it”. Waters decried the $32 billion tax cut election promise announced by the government this week. She said it was “not a proportional response” when hospital waiting lists and the costs of education were sky-rocketing. She added action on climate change was also crucial. Senator Moore said that policies “must include compassion”. People who have no choice but to seek welfare should not be labelled for it, she said. Sen Bartlett noted that many roles in society are not properly valued. He said community work “doesn’t measure up right” as productivity. This, he said, was not the government’s fault but society’s. He said the social fabric was not recognised.

The third topic was IR laws and whether there was a way beyond what panellist Andrew Johnson called “the dichotomy” between employers and employees. Buchanan said Family First’s dictum was “work to live not live to work”. He said work-life balance issues needed to be addressed in Workchoices and they would work with the government of the day to fix this up. Senator Moore spoke about the “demonising” of workers’ rights and said they should share in the prosperity and not just be valued as a “unit of labour”. She said unions don’t want conflict and the country needs to work together to achieve results. Senator Boyce denied there was a dichotomy and said “as an employer, I give a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work”. But she said that without Workchoices, there was no flexibility to encourage those with better work ethics. The majority of employers were small businesspeople “not oligarchs of industry”, she said. Senator Bartlett said that the only reason Workchoices existed at all was because of the 2004 Senate result. He didn’t recall John Howard saying before that election the IR laws needed repairing. Bartlett said that the gap between reality and political rhetoric was “huge”. Waters said that most people were worse off under Workchoices and it didn’t take into account that “happy workers are productive workers”.

The candidates were then asked about their views on the environment. Waters said that Queensland was the Sunshine State but we were not doing enough with solar energy. She said coal was creating problems for the whole world. “Climate change is an ethical issue,” she said. “The impact is disproportionate on the worse off”. Senator Boyce said that since 1998 the government has spent $3.5 billion in climate change initiatives in clean coal, solar and wind energies. She hailed the Australian led Asia Pacific Partnership and the Sydney Declaration at APEC to set targets for 2020. Sen Moore said that Labor would announce its climate change policy “soon” and Labor would work closely with the state government to achieve results. She said Labor “would not walk away from coal”.

The next question was what qualities Australians needed to integrate refugees and asylum seekers. Buchanan said the asylum laws were tight enough but we needed to process them more quickly. Sen Bartlett disagreed about the laws and labelled them “a disgrace”. He said putting refugees and their children into prison is a deliberate strategy of “stress and harm”. “We have a responsibility not to demonise or play on prejudices,” he said. “For politicians this is particularly unacceptable”.

The final question was how each of the parties would deal with indigenous issues. Sen Bartlett said we needed to make it a priority and “listen more” to what they say. He said the Senate only had one day to examine the 500 pages of the Little Children are Sacred report and its authors were prevented from giving evidence to the Senate Committee. Senator Moore said the evidence that was presented was serious but she too was unhappy with the lack of consultation. She said “the idea that child abuse is [just] an indigenous issue is criminal”. Senator Boyce said that 350 people did give evidence to the tribunal and Minister Mal Brough consulted with many elders and tribal women. She said “Brough was desperate to help”. Waters said that sending the army into the Northern Territories doesn’t help. She said indigenous people needed representation and abolishing ATSIC was not the answer.

This was a useful forum to hear prospective Senate candidates air their views. Queensland currently elects 12 senators (5 Libs, 4 Lab, 2 Nats, 1 Dem). Six of these (2 Lib, 2 Lab, 1 Nat and 1 Dem) are up for re-election this time. While predicting the Senate result is difficult to the complexity of preference deals yet to be revealed. It is likely that Queensland will elect 2 Labor, 2 Liberal, 1 National and a sixth to be fought over by the Democrats, Greens, Family First and Pauline Hanson. In 2004, the Liberals won the 6th seat from the Democrats on the 175th count (pdf), giving them an overall majority in the Senate.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Dog of War Bob Denard is dead

Notorious French mercenary Bob Denard died Sunday in Paris, aged 78. The cause of death was not immediately clear though he had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Denard was the quintessential soldier of fortune and led several mutinies across Africa during the decolonisation era from the 1960s though to the 1990s. He was twice convicted in France for trying to overthrow governments in Benin and the Comoros. Yet Denard also had the support of the French secret service over the course of his colourful career in he was involved in a dozen wars and coup attempts in the Congo, Angola, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Benin, and the Comoros. He also worked for the Shah in Iran and the British in Yemen. Denard was the role model for Frederick Forsyth's mercenary in "The Dogs of War".

Bob Denard was born in 1929, in Bordeaux, France. His birth name was Gilbert Bourgeaud and Denard was one of a dozen aliases he assumed. His father was a non-commissioned officer in the French colonial army, and Bob followed his father into the military. In the 1950s he served in Indochina and then worked with Morocco's police force before the kingdom gained independence from France.

By 1957 Denard had joined the French secret service and was posted to Algeria where he worked in vain to stop the long-running Algerian War of Independence. By now he was working for Jacques Foccart, head of the Françafrique, the group set up by French president Charles de Gaulle to organise covert actions in Africa. It is alleged although never proven he also worked for the British MI6.

His mercenary activities began in 1961. The resource-rich province of Katanga led by Moise Tshombe was then attempting to break free of the newly independent Congo and mercenary leader Roger Faulques hired Denard to train his troops. Here Denard earned his reputation for ruthless efficiency when faced with poorly equipped, poorly trained African troops. He quickly earned the nickname for his band of former European soldiers as "les affreux" (“the horrible ones”). When the Katanga rebellion collapsed, Denard and his affreux fled to Portuguese Angola. Later that year Denard popped up in North Yemen where he supported royalist tribes people in a civil war against a newly installed Nasserist government.

Denard was a fervent anti-communist who worked for several dictators and monarchs. He returned to the Congo in 1963, this time fighting for the government side and Chinese and Cuban-backed communist rebels. In 1964, he was believed to be involved (but is not mentioned explicitly in US declassified documents) in the Belgian-American mission to rescue white civilian hostages captured by rebels in the Central Congo city of Stanleyville.

For the next ten years Denard criss-crossed Africa and Asia including a stint working for Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran. He suffered at least four serious injuries in battle, one of which, in Congo, left him with a limp for the rest of his life. In 1975 he made his first adventure into a country that was to shape the rest of his life – the Comoros. The East African island nation gained its independence from France that year and Ahmed Abdallah became the country’s first president.

Within a month, Denard ousted him in an armed coup. But barely three years later Denard reinstated Abdallah in another coup in response to the new government’s anti-French policies. Denard held true power behind the scenes, married a Comoros hotel receptionist (his sixth wife) and lived a lavish lifestyle for the next decade. In 1989 President Abdallah was assassinated in a dispute with Denard’s men. After weeks of turmoil, the French military sent in 3,000 men to seize control from Denard. He fled to South Africa, where he lived for three years.

In 1993, he faced charges for his involvement in a failed coup in Marxist-controlled Benin in 1977. He was found guilty but had his sentence suspended. In 1995 he was back in the Comoros for one more coup. He led 30 mercenaries in an overnight raid to topple the regime of President Said Djohar. However the alarmed French sent another force in remove him from power. He was captured and was taken to Paris and jailed while awaiting trial.

Finally in 1999 he was back in front of a French court to account for his long-running involvement in the Comoros. Denard was found guilty of the 1995 coup but acquitted of the 1989 Ahmed Abdallah assassination. "I was a soldier. I was never a killer," he told the court, teary-eyed. In his autobiography, Denard said that "often I didn't exactly have a green light from the French authorities, but I went on the amber." Denard was survived by eight children.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Kurds Turkey shoot

With Turkey on the brink of attacking Iraqi Kurdistan, one of the potentially great faultlines of the 21st century could be opened. There are 25 to 40 million people that call themselves Kurds. Their misfortune is to be scattered over rugged terrain in some of the most important countries of the Middle East. A Kurdish proverb says 'the Kurds have no friends but the mountains'. This is particularly true today when there is little enthusiasm in the wider world to support the merits of a separate Kurdish nation. The Kurdish nationalist party PKK is declared a terrorist organisation in the US, Europe and Australia.

While Kurds have some autonomy within Iraq, they remain a disadvantaged minority group in Iran, Syria, Armenia and Turkey. Although Iranian troops invaded Iraqi Kurdistan last year, it is the Turks who feel most vulnerable to the Kurdish threat. Turkey does not recognise its Kurdish minority and simply calls them “Mountain Turks”. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now seeking approval from his parliament to launch an “incursion” into Iraq any time in the next 12 months.

This is no idle threat. In May, Erdogan called for an invasion of Iraq to seek out Kurdish militants and take what the Turkish foreign ministry calls “urgent and resolute measures”. It was in response to a suicide bombing in Ankara which killed six people and injured more than 100. The Turks identified Guven Akkus from Turkish Kurdistan as the culprit and said his methods were similar to those of Kurdish militants. The PKK have copped much of the blame even though there is no link between it and Akkus and it denied responsibility. One Turkish commentator described Akkus as a “Communist”.

While Turkey may be looking for an excuse to punish Kurdish militia, locals have promised a tough reception if they invade. A Kurdish rebel commander told AP on Saturday Turkey would face a long and bloody conflict if it launched an attack. Murat Karayilan, head of the armed wing of the PKK, said an invasion would "make Turkey experience a Vietnam war." "Iraq's Kurds will not support the Turkish army," he said. "If Turkey starts its attack, we will swing the Turkish public opinion by political, civil and military struggle."

The PKK was founded in 1973 and gets its initials from its Kurdish name, Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (Kurdistan Workers Party). They first launched an armed independence campaign in Turkey’s southeast almost 25 years ago. More than 37,000 people have died in the ongoing violence with deaths spread evenly between the two sides. Turkey launched a major military crackdown in 1999 and captured PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan causing 5,000 fighters to flee to Iraq. The PKK is not entirely welcome in Iraqi Kurdistan. There are already two Kurdish factions in Iraq which exist in an uneasy power-sharing relationship. The PKK operates as a Pan-Kurdish organisation that rejects Iraqi Kurdish efforts to remain within Iraq.

The 25 million Kurds are not necessarily politically united. They are spread across eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, western Iran, and parts of Syria and Armenia. 12 million live in Turkey. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres which fixed Turkey’s border after World War I included the “possibility” of a Kurdish state but Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk rejected it three years later. From the 1980s, the PKK spearheaded a bitter armed resistance in Turkey's Kurdish southeastern provinces.

The PKK gained momentum in the 1990s with the rise of charismatic leader Abdullah Ocalan. But while his supporters call him "Apo" (Kurdish for "uncle"), the Turkish state calls him "child murderer" and "terrorist". Ocalan studied political science at Ankara university where he set up the PKK with fellow students. He left Turkey before the September 1980 military coup and remained in exile until 1999. He was controversially captured in Kenya, with the suspected help of Israel’s intelligence service Mossad. Turkey triumphantly paraded their prisoner in blindfold for the world’s media.

Since 1999, Ocalan has been held in solitary confinement as the only prisoner on Imrali Island in the Sea of Marmara, guarded by a thousand Turkish military personnel. He was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 2001. Ocalan appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. Turkey, mindful of the impact to its possible EU membership, agreed to await the court’s judgment. In 2005 the European Court of Human Rights decided Ocalan’s trial was unfair. However Turkey dismissed a retrial request last year.

While Ocalan festers on Imrali, his homeland is about to take a greater role on the world stage. Turkey has used the US congress stand on the Armenian genocide as an excuse to ignore calls for caution in Kurdistan. Now the price of oil has surged to a new record high of $84 a barrel as the crisis threatens some of the nearby oilfields. Analysts are worried that if Turkey attacks Iraq, the PKK will target the Iraq to Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. The “Mountain Turks” will soon find out how many friends they have.