Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Svalbard stories

The Norwegian Arctic archipelago of Svalbard is likely to be the only place in the world where road signs exist warning of the dangers of polar bears. The island is home to 3,000 bears and just 2,300 people who between them share a space twice the size of Belgium. That means it’s usually big enough for them to stay apart. People tend to live on the milder west coast warmed by the Gulf Stream while the bears roam the colder east coast. But meeting between the species are a common enough hazard. There are two “beware of the bear” signs in Norwegian posted on roads that lead from the main settlement of Longyearbyen. The signs are there to remind people to carry a rifle when heading out bush. Meanwhile bears are drawn into populated areas drawn by the smell of seal meat used to feed dogs. Longyearbyen’s kindergarten is protected by a high-wire fence, just in case there’s a bear in there.

But while bears have accounted for just four humans on Svalbard since 1970, the ledger has not been so positive on the other side. Between 1998 and 2005 alone, 24 overly curious or hungry bears were killed. And the very existence of polar bears in the archipelago is being seriously threatened by climate change. The ice is receding on Svalbard at a rapid rate. In the wake of the opening of the North West Passage last Summer, the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) is predicting that this year could see a completely ice free North Pole. And what ice there is dangerously thin, young ice that has only been around since last autumn.

Svalbard’s islands are among the closest land masses to the North Pole and they are bearing the brunt of climate change. A 2007 study found the spectacular glaciers on the three main islands of Spitsbergen, Nordaustlandet, and Edgeøya are melting faster than researchers believed. As well, the rate of melting has accelerated over the last five years with the glaciers now losing over 16 cubic kms of ice each year. Meanwhile Longyearbyen receives record summer temperatures and snowfall has declined. Some peninsulas have become islands as the ice retreats. As a consequence Svalbard has become a significant contributor to the world’s rising sea levels.

One thing that climate change in Longyearbyen won’t affect is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. This is the recently created frozen "doomsday" vault buried inside mountain. The vault will become the world’s seed bank where millions of seeds will be stored to safeguard against wars or natural disasters wiping out food crops around the globe. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso called it “a frozen Garden of Eden” (though he may have been getting his Genesis references mixed up with Noah’s Ark). It will contain 4.5 million crop seeds from all over the world housed in silvery foil containers artificially chilled to 0.4.degrees below zero which should keep them fresh for a thousand years.

What future Svalbard itself will have in a thousand years remains debatable. It will require international co-operation to keep its current pristine state. Under a 1920 treaty, Svalbard is an international zone under Norwegian sovereignty that requires no tourist or resident visas. The treaty allows Russia and a number of other countries to establish settlements and impose local laws. For instance the town of Barentsburg is a Russian town with 500 mostly Russian citizens and a Russian owned coalmine. The Norwegian government is nervous about uncontrolled development on the archipelago and has clashed with Russia over fishing rights. However it has also admitted it cannot stop other countries from continuing to develop industries on the islands.

This is likely to be grim news for the island’s polar bears. The bears have been a protected species (apart from self defence) since 1972 which as caused bear numbers to triple. However scientists now say PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls) levels in the polar bears of Norway and western Russia are two-and-a-half to seventeen times higher than those in North American populations. PCBs are damaging their immune and endocrine systems and making over one per cent of them hermaphrodite. The news is also not good for those who survive PCB with their sex organs undamaged.
According to a report issued in November 2004 by the Arctic Council and the International Arctic Science Committee, polar bears could become extinct by the end of the 21st century if present warming trends continue in the Arctic. The Longyearbyen signs may need to be changed to read “beware of the lack of bears”.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Nigeria's oil issues causing worldwide ripples

An oil workers’ strike in Nigeria could push record oil prices up another five dollars a barrel by the end of the week. President of Massachusetts-based Strategic Energy & Economic Research Michael Lynch made the prediction to Bloomberg after crude oil rose to a record $119.93 a barrel overnight. A strike at Exxon Mobil’s Nigerian workers and a series of pipeline bombings has seen that country’s output by 50 percent in recent days. “As long as there are disruptions of high-quality crude supplies, prices are going to move higher," said Lynch. “If the Nigerian strike isn't settled, we could easily see oil rise to $125 by the end of the week.”

However, AllAfrica.com reported today that there were “strong indications” the strike could be called off today. Acting Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, Alhaji Abubakar Lawal Yar'Adua has stepped into the dispute. Yar’Adua called to the workers’ patriotism in the world’s eighth largest oil producing country. He told the strikers that the industrial action was not in the interest of the nation and asked them to resolve the issues through dialogue.

That dialogue is continuing with the oil company, Exxon Mobil. Company spokesman Adeyemi Fakayejo said representatives met workers yesterday. He said negotiations were aimed at ending the walkout by white-collar workers seeking better pay and benefits. Fakayejo would not speculate on how much oil production Exxon Mobil (Nigeria’s second largest operator) had lost in the strike however analysts have estimated they have shut nearly all of its Nigerian oil production, totalling around 770,000 barrels per day.

Even if the strike is resolved, Nigeria may not easily get back to its full capacity of pumping crude. The country is significantly down on its 2006 capacity of 2.5 million barrels a day due to a series of pipeline bombings that show no signs of easing up. Niger delta rebels said their 24 April attack had shut down 350,000 barrels per day of production by Royal Dutch Shell while a previous bombing raid had hit 169,000 bpd of Shell's Nigerian output.

The rebels’ activity has turned the Niger Delta into a high risk area for Western oil companies and their staff. Kidnapping is common and workers are ferried from their electric-fenced compounds in convoys of minibuses protected by armed paramilitary escorts. Expatriates are living as virtual wealthy prisoners too afraid to leave their compounds with restaurants and bars off-limits. A western contractor in the Delta’s main city Port Harcourt said things were going from very bad to very much worse. “When we're not at work, we're on lockdown,” he said.

The harassing of contractors and the string of pipeline attacks are the work of MEND - the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. MEND are the largest of several local opposition groups that have protested since the 1960s against the deliberate exploitation of the delta region by corrupt central governments with no concern for sustainable environmental management. Their ultimate goal is to expel foreign oil companies and non-indigenous people from the region and they have operated with seeming impunity from the Nigerian army since 2006 when they declared “total war” on all foreign oil interests.

Their latest campaign has forced Nigeria’s largest operator Shell to shut down a total of half a million barrels of oil a day. In a statement they released to the Nigerian press yesterday, MEND claimed Shell was concealing the true extent of the problem on the orders of the government “to avoid panic and embarrassment.” Analysts believe MEND’s campaign is aimed at stepping up pressure on the government to end the secret treason trial of the movement’s leader, Henry Okah.

Okah was arrested last year for trying to illegally buy weapons in Angola. He was also accused of trying to engineer a coup in Equatorial Guinea. Despite an Angolan court throwing out his charges after five months imprisonment, it is believed Okah was secretly extradited to Nigeria in February this year. MEND then called on the Nigerian Bar Association and the International Community to intervene and compel the government to release him. When this call was ignored, MEND stepped up the pressure with its ominously titled Operation Cyclone aimed at crippling Nigerian oil exports. While Nigeria is in the eye of this cyclone, the outlook remains stormy for oil prices in the rest of the world.

Monday, April 28, 2008

How the West was WAN: A Tale of two Stokes

On Thursday a media billionaire named Kerry Stokes missed out on ownership of the unfashionable West Australian newspaper. Two days later, a goal for Hull against Crystal Palace denied a football team from unfashionable Stoke gaining automatic promotion to the billion-dollar English Premier League. While they are both disappointed in their unrelated ways they haven’t quiet got what the wanted, it seems likely that both Stokes will eventually achieve their ambition sooner rather than later.

Stoke is one of England’s poorer cities. Your house is less likely to be robbed than elsewhere in the UK but “violence against a person” is almost twice as likely in Stoke as elsewhere. The reasons for this may or may not be explained by the fact that while men are just 47 per cent of the population of Stoke but they are 52 per cent of those under twenty. 30 percent of all children in Stoke are likely to live in families on out of work benefits. The unemployed rate is slightly higher than the national average and you are one and a half times more likely to be disabled or permanently sick in Stoke but there is nothing special about the number of retirees.

However if you believe the “Jobs and Careers” section of the City of Stoke-on-Trent’s website, the council is “leading the transformation” of “a rapidly changing city that has a proud past and a very exciting future”. But the reality is this Staffordshire town halfway between Birmingham and Manchester remains neither here nor there, neither Northern fish nor Southern foul and relies on its football team to provide a bit of passion and pride in the city. Championship team Stoke City’s 1-0 win at Colchester on Saturday leaves them just a point away from football in England’s top flight and the kudos that brings.

For a team over 20 years out of the top division – and never in the money-rich Murdoch era – this is a return to the brief glory years of the club. Stoke City have never won the league but was at its strongest in the early 1970s. They pushed the then mighty Arsenal to two successive cup semi-final replays and in 1972 they won their only ever trophy, the League Cup. Things went bad in the eighties and they were relegated from the old First Division in 1985 with a then record low points (about to be demolished by Derby). With a succession of bad management, they have languished in the lower division until their unlikely breakthrough this season.

Western Australian Kerry Stokes has rarely been associated with bad management and he also is unlikely to be a Stoke fan despite the name. His Seven TV network is more associated with the power of AFL rather than football. Stokes built his media career in the West of Australia buying a station in Bunbury. He then established himself in the national capital Canberra before Stokes bought stakes in the major networks in Adelaide (Seven) and Perth (Ten). His blessing was to get out before the 1987 crash when he sold his assets to Frank Lowy. In 1996 a cashed-up Stokes acquired one fifth of Channel Seven in the five major capitals. He slowly grew that to half a stake and bought a third of Sky news. With almost total penetration through his TV interests, Stokes has now become a very powerful player in the Australian media scene.

In his home town of Perth, Stokes wanted to go one step further and buy out the city’s only newspaper, the West Australian. Stokes already owns 19.4 per cent of WAN hampered in the past by Australia’s fairly stringent cross-media laws that didn’t permit a TV owner to control a newspaper. But after the former Communications Minister Helen Coonan loosened the laws under the Liberal administration, the way was clear for Stokes to gain a monopoly on media opinion in his home town.

Early this year, Stokes made his move on the West. In February he announced he was appalled at the lack of leadership in the current board. He announced he expected to win two seats on the board of West Australian newspapers. But the board doesn’t want him to take over, not because of concern over media ownership but because the canny businessman in Stokes doesn’t want to pay a premium for the price of owning the news outright. If Stokes meets the board’s asking price, he will take over.

In the meantime, there is shadow play. When the current board said they would rather resign en masse rather than allow Stokes control it, he called it “suicide pact theatrics”. He is probably correct. The board is bluffing against Stokes' ambition. Kerry Stokes has made no secret of why he wants the West. He said the paper has “always been the central point of conveying on news and current affairs to West Australians”. Stokes went on: “It holds a very special place because it’s a monopoly and a responsibility,” he told the (Murdoch owned) Australian on 17 April. He went on to say why the responsibility of owning a monopoly attracted him: “I find that near and dear: to be able to perform in the manner in which it should”.

For now, Stokes won’t be able to do that. Despite wanting to invest $500 million in the company, the majority of the Western Australian News’s shareholders voted on 23 April that the board should remain intact. 60 per cent of the vote went against Stokes. However as much of that 60 percent was tied up in interests belonging to WAN chairman Peter Mansell, it may not take much to change the outcome. Mansell came out of the shareholders’ vote to say "We have a 20 per cent shareholder, we're going to try very hard to work with him, we are going to try to find the accommodation.”

It is debatable to say how soon Stokes will be accommodated at WAN. Stokes may not match Mansell’s asking price before Stoke City win promotion to the Premier League this weekend. They just need to avoid defeat at home to Leicester City this weekend or hope Hull fail to beat Ipswich. Then it’s the nirvana of Murdoch’s big money in the Premier. Stokes is after Murdoch’s money too, outright victory in Perth, Australia’s most vibrant capital economy, will provide a severe jolt to Rupert’s desire to own the Australian media outright.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Bundaberg Days 2

Woolly Days is home and tired after an exhausting five hour drive to Brisbane today. I took advantage of the long ANZAC weekend to catch up with friends in the city of Bundaberg, about 370km north of Brisbane. Apart from relaxing with friends and enjoying a dawn walk on the deserted beach at Elliot Heads, the two most notable events of the weekend were Friday’s ANZAC parade and a visit to the Bert Hinkler museum yesterday.

The local march commemorating the 93th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing took place in glorious weather on Friday morning. There were several hundred marchers including veterans from most Australian military campaigns since World War II, several local bands, and students from most of the local schools. A good five percent of Bundaberg’s 50,000 population turned out to cheer on the parade. At 9am, soldiers from each of the four branches of the military service gathered round the war memorial in the heart of the city at Bourbong St before a convoy of jeeps carrying veterans set the parade in motion.

The highlight was perhaps the gleaming white brigade of sailors from HMAS Bundaberg. The Bundaberg is the second ship named for the city. The original Bundaberg was a minesweeping corvette commissioned in 1942 and was assigned to operational duty as a convoy escort vessel on the east coast of Australia between Melbourne and Brisbane. In the later part of the war, it escorted convoys to Milne Bay and took part in action off the coast of New Guinea. After the war, it remained in naval reserve in Sydney until 1961 before being sold for scrap.

The second and current ship of that name is a patrol boat commissioned just last year. Based in Cairns, the Australian Navy's 14 patrol boats are used for fisheries protection, immigration, customs and drug law enforcement operations. It was fitting that the ship was in port at the city that gave it her name for ANZAC Day. They led the naval portion of the processing and were followed by veterans from campaigns in World War II, Korea, Malaya, Borneo, Vietnam, the Gulf War and East Timor. It never ceases to amaze that for a generally peaceable nation far from most of the world’s military hotspots, Australia has been involved in most of the great conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries.

While the Air Force did not feature as strongly as the Navy in the march, aviation remains close to Bundaberg’s heart due to the activities of the city’s most famous son. That man is Bert Hinkler (1892-1933). Hinkler was one of the great early aviators and the story of his adventures is told in the Hinkler House Memorial Museum in North Bundaberg. The house is his English home “Mon Repos” (named for the beach near Bundaberg where he learned his flying skills). After the house was threatened with demolition in the early 1980s, it was dismantled in 1983 and then taken brick by brick from Southampton to Bundaberg. It was formally re-opened as the Hinkler Museum in 1984 by then Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen and Southampton’s Mayor Dorothy Brown.

Herbert John Louis Hinkler was born in 1882, the first of four children of a Prussian-born stockman and a Brisbane dressmaker. From a very early age, he was fascinated with flying and studied the ibis birds which flew near his home. At Mon Repos beach, he built his first glider then aged just 17. He became a local celebrity and worked for a Sydney mechanic who ran exhibition flights. But although he had some success, Hinkler knew he had to move to England to further his flying ambitions. Hinkler’s timing was perfect. Within months World War I had broken out, and he enlisted in the Royal Naval Air Service.

For three years of the war, Hinkler was an air gunner in the Flanders campaign for the newly formed Royal Flying Corps. It wasn’t until 1918 that he formally trained as a pilot and he was posted to Italy where he took part in the war against the Austrian Empire. Hinkler was disillusioned by the horrors of war he observed and was happy to be demobbed and find work at aircraft builders AV Roe & Co. In 1920, Hinkler made the first of his record flights. He flew non-stop London to Turin in a 35 horsepower Avro Baby. This 1,000 km flight was a record for a light aircraft and Hinkler followed it up with a 1,500km flight from Sydney to his home town the following year.

The exhibition flying established Hinkler’s reputation but didn’t earn him much money. He went back to England to work again for AV Roe for five years. By 1928, he was ready for his next big adventure – the first solo flight to Australia. He flew solo in a Avro Avian G-EBOV from England with numerous stops in Europe, Egypt, the Middle East, India, the Malay Peninsula before landing in Darwin to great acclaim. Hinkler ended the journey in Bundaberg after 15 days of flying. Both he and his machine were paraded around the town in celebration.

In 1931 he flew from Canada to England in a very circuitous route that crossed the South Atlantic between Bahia, Brazil and the then British colony of The Gambia. The journey in a Puss Moth was done in mostly atrocious weather. His was the first South Atlantic crossing and he was only the second aviator to cross the Atlantic anywhere after Charles Lindbergh four years earlier. For this intrepid feat Hinkler won the second ever Segrave Trophy for outstanding contribution to British transport (fellow Queensland aviator Charles Kingsford Smith had won the inaugural award a year earlier).

In January 1933, Hinkler set off for another solo trip to Australia in the trusty Puss Moth. His intention was to get there in less than eight days and beat G.W.A. Scott’s record. But after just one day Hinkler disappeared off the radar. Nothing more was heard about him for three months until forest workers in mountains of Tuscany found the wreckage of his plane and Hinkler’s nearby body at Pratomagno Mountain. Hinkler had survived the initial impact but died shortly afterwards, presumably on the day after he left England. He was buried, on Mussolini’s orders with full military honours, in the protestant cemetery at Florence.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

OPEC looks to increase oil production

OPEC (Organisation for Petroleum Exporting Countries) announced plans yesterday to boost oil production by 5 million barrels a day by 2012. OPEC General-Secretary Abdalla Salem el-Badri said its member states will spend $160 billion in four years to increase production capacity from the current level of 32.3 million barrels a day. With oil currently at an all-time high of a $118 a barrel, el-Badri would not speculate if the increased production would bring down the price. "This conference has nothing to do with oil prices,” he said. “This conference is only a platform for producers and consumers to talk about many issues.”

The conference he was referring to is the International Energy Forum which finished up in Rome yesterday. Speaking on the final day, el-Badri said oil prices were decided by the market not by OPEC whose members produce 40 per cent of the world's oil. He blamed the weak US dollar and the actions of speculators for soaring oil prices. The price has risen by $57 in the last 12 months. Last night, the New York price closed at a record-high of $119.37 blamed on “a tumbling dollar, unrest in Nigeria and OPEC's reluctance to increase output”.

According to Turkish analyst Metin Gezin, OPEC is well within its right not to increase supply in the short term. He says OPEC members are trying to maximise the net present value of their reserves. If the market expects the price to rise, then there is an incentive to hold off on production increases until they get the best price. The chief economist of the International Energy Agency believes that oil prices will remain high for the foreseeable future due to rapid increases in demand from the huge developing economies of India and China.

But there may be a larger problem. Russian oil production is waning while its domestic demand is outstripping supply. Similarly Indonesia, Mexico and Iran are all either already at, or close to, being net importers of oil. OPEC itself has admitted that the prospect of Peak Oil may not be very far away. In 2006 Dr Shokri Ghanem of Libya’s National Oil Corporation said it could happen as soon as 2010. “It could take place sometime within the next decade or so,” he said, “Which in fact means that there is not much time left for a world economy to be driven largely by oil.”

What such a future would mean to OPEC members is anyone’s guess. By 2010 it will be a middle-aged organisation celebrating its 50th birthday. OPEC was created at the 1960 Baghdad Conference with the objective of co-ordinating petroleum policies among oil producing nations, keep a stable price and supply, and act as a wedge against the power of the major oil companies. It started with five founding members Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Eight other countries have since joined. They are Qatar (1961), Indonesia (1962), Libya (1962), United Arab Emirates (1967), Algeria (1969), Nigeria (1971), Ecuador (1973 although its membership was suspended between 1992 and 2007) and Angola (2007). Gabon joined in 1975 but left again in 1994. OPEC’s initial headquarters were in Geneva but since 1965 has been housed in Vienna.

In its initial decade of existence, the big oil companies ignored OPEC. The organisation did not gain worldwide prominence until the 1973 Oil Crisis. By then US oil production was on the wane while its energy demands increased. The October 1973 crisis was engineered by OPEC as a protest against the Yom Kippur war between Israel and its Arab neighbours. OPEC decided they would no longer ship oil to the West in protest at the US and its allies support of Israel. The producers raised the price of oil by 17 percent and cut production by 25 percent. By 1974 the price of oil had quadrupled from $3 to $12 a barrel. While the crisis had eased by then, the West was now acutely aware of the power of the new oil cartel.

However, the influence of OPEC diminished greatly since those heady days in the early 1970s. New oilfields were discovered in the North Sea, Mexico and Russia which undermined its muscle. As a result OPEC changed its stance to ensure market stability through its price range mechanism. But OPEC’s position is changing again as non-OPEC output declines. Some analysts see parallels between today’s problems and what happened in the 1970s. Now like then a mixture of a poor US economy, high inflation, supply problems a long and costly war threatens to return control of the oil industry to OPEC. El-Badri’s $160 billion announcement will look very cheap indeed if that happens.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Sark raving mad

Last week, the tiny Channel Island of Sark changed its centuries-old law to introduce democracy becoming the last European territory to abolish feudalism. For the last 450 years, the island was a fiefdom under the rule of the Seigneur of Sark. That changed on 9 April this year, when Britain’s Privy Council approved a Bill that will see a parliament of landowners (called the “Chief Pleas”) replaced by a 28-member assembly elected by universal suffrage in December.

The island’s 600 inhabitants (known as “Sarkees”) have been ruled by the Seigneur of Sark since Queen Elizabeth I handed down the laws to the island in 1565. The Seigneur appoints the judiciary and has until recently been entitled to a cut from any property bought and sold on the island, and even to the ancient system of tithe levies. The Seigneur maintains his own private army and is entitled to a chicken a year from each of his subjects. Among the island’s other eccentric customs is the fact that the Seigneur is the only person on Sark allowed to keep pigeons or an unspayed bitch dog.

The island was originally divided into forty landholdings known as tenements. Each owner or (more correctly “tenant” as the Seigneur retains freehold title over all of Sark) had, by right, a seat in the Chief Pleas forming a majority of the assembly with just 12 other elected people’s deputies. However Sark signed up to the European convention on human rights thirty years ago and as The Guardian pointed out, signing the convention “seemed a good idea until islanders realised that feudalism did not sit well with human rights”.

However the new assembly is not a simple victory of democracy for the majority of oppressed Sarkees. Instead, it is the outcome is the result of a conflict between two billionaire newspaper magnates and supporters of the island’s feudal old guard. The magnates are the 73 year old twins Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, the owners of the Ritz Hotel and Telegraph newspapers who own the nearby smaller island of Brecqhou. Their supporters say the Barclays are fighting against the feudal regime while pumping millions of pounds to revive the island’s sagging economy. But other Sarkees see the twins as megalomaniac powergrabbers determined to take over the island.

The Barclays are not entirely happy with the Privy Council’s decision. They are likely to challenge the decision in court because it allows the Seigneur to retain a power of veto over legislation and he will have the right to appoint many public office holders. The island's only judge, known as the Seneschal, will be appointed for life by the Seigneur and will remain as the parliamentary Speaker, with tight control over its agenda and debates. Legal counsel for the Barclays described the plan as “half-baked” and complained about the lack of separation of powers between the legislature and the judiciary.

As well as pushing for democracy, the Barclays have been buying up much of Sark’s land and hotels. The brothers paid £2.33m for the island of Brecqhou in 1993. Because Brecqhou falls under the jurisdiction of Sark, they were forced to pay their “treizieme” (one thirteenth) - £179,230 – to the Seigneur. Some traditionalists fear they are turning the place into a holiday resort for the rich. They say the new system of government may make it easier for them to carry out their plans. On the other hand, supporters of the brothers argue that they are creating jobs, especially for young people who would otherwise leave.

Sark is the smallest of the four main Channel Islands situated 10km east of Guernsey and is barely 5km long and 2km wide. Cars are not allowed on the island and the only way to get around is by horse and carriage, tractor or bike. The island’s most famous resident was writer Mervyn Peake (author of the Gormenghast trilogy) who lived here for a couple of years in the 1930s. The island’s rugged scenery made its way into Gormenghast which he started writing during his time on Sark. His friend Gordon Smith told the BBC the island became a part of his mythological landscape. Peake came back to the island after the war and drew inspiration from the scenery for his illustrations and writings. Now at the end of its feudal days, Sark itself has become the story.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Lugo's election win ends Colorado Party's long reign in Paraguay

A former Catholic bishop has ended Paraguay’s 60 year reign of one party rule by the right-wing Colorado Party after elections on the weekend. The electoral tribunal has declared 56 year old leftist Fernando Lugo Méndez the winner with 13,000 of the 14,000 ballot stations counted. Lugo, from the Patriotic Alliance for Change, took 41 percent of the vote, ten points clear of Colorado’s Blanca Ovelar who had hoped to become Paraguay’s first female president. Local analysts are putting down Lugo’s victory to a mix of poor policies and division within the Colorado Party and Lugo’s own personal charisma.

Lugo joined 80,000 of his supporters who rallied in the “Pantheon of Heroes” central square of the capital Asunción to celebrate his victory. The scenes of joy are captured in videos captured by the Spanish language Ultima Hora (Asunción’s main newspaper). Supporters lit firecrackers while cars clogged streets honking their horns. One Lugo supporter said "We are confident he will govern with hand of God. He represents hope ... something new for our country." Another supporter had gone to the polls fearing his vote would not be respected, but he was more certain about what he though Lugo could deliver. "Many things ... jobs, health, education ... not for me but for the future of my three children," he said. Lugo himself said "Today we can affirm that the little ones can also win.” But the real hard work will begin after the celebrations end.

Despite ruling since the 1940s, the Colorado Party have not brought prosperity to go with their electoral stability. Paraguay is one of the least developed nations (see pdf report) in Latin America with 43 percent of its 6.5 million population living in poverty and the gap between rich and poor still rising. Paraguay is a landlocked agrarian nation relying on soybean, cotton and other farm exports. More than a quarter of its population have been forced to emigrate to earn a living. Ninety percent of the nation's land is owned by less than two percent of the population, and drug trafficking, crime and the black market are rampant. Periodic political unrest and chronic economic malaise have continually shaken its fragile democracy.

The country endured a victorious but unsatisfactory Chaco War (a territorial dispute with Bolivia) in the 1930s and then a Civil War in the 1940s before General Alfredo Stroessner took power in a military coup in May 1954. He was re-elected president seven times ruling almost continuously with support from the military and the Colorado Party. During his 34-year reign political freedoms were severely limited and opponents of the regime were persecuted in the name of national security and anti-communism. In 1989 Stroessner was overthrown in a military coup headed by General Andres Rodriguez. Presidential and congressional elections were held on May 1 1989. Rodriguez easily won the Presidency as the Colorado Party candidate with a reform agenda.

While a succession of Colorado Party candidates (Wasmosy, Cubas, Macchi, and retiring incumbent Nicanor Duarte) followed in Rodriguez’s steps as president, none followed up his reforms. For the 2008 election, the Patriotic Front for Change emerged as a pluralist coalition of about 20 Indian, peasant and union organisations. They range from leftist groups to the conservative Radical Authentic party, Paraguay's largest opposition group. Lugo himself has tried to distance himself from the more leftwing elements of his coalition "The world 'leftist' is being used lately in Latin America and possibly with mistaken concepts," he said. "I believe in the self-determination of the people, in recovering one's sovereignty and independence."

Lugo was ordained a Catholic priest in 1977 as a member of the Society of the Divine Word. He was appointed Bishop of San Pedro in 1994. Lugo gained a reputation as “Bishop of the Poor” became renowned for speaking out on behalf of Paraguay’s lower classes. In 2005 he announced his desire to pursue his political ambitions. His actions prompted a warning from the Vatican which said his candidacy was “in clear contrast” to his responsibilities as a bishop and threatened suspension. Lugo stood down from his religious role but also still had a congressional impediment to confront as Paraguay’s constitution banned members of the clergy from seeking political office.

But after decades of rule by the Colorados enriching the wealthy at the expense of the indigenous population and poor Paraguayans, Lugo was ready to ride the winds of change. In 2006, over 50,000 demonstrators including unions and indigenous movements took over the capital, Asunción, to protest against Colorado rule. Lugo, who is from one of Paraguay’s poorest areas and who has often spoken out forcefully against poverty and inequality. Opinion polls since then have kept Lugo consistently 10 percent ahead of his rivals. Speaking after his victory last night, Lugo said the result showed this was the Paraguay he had dreamt about - a country for everyone. "I invite Paraguayans of all political types, even the ones who don't share our ideals, to help this country that was once great be great again,” he said.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

2020 Summit wraps up: the closing speeches

Kevin Rudd has ended the 2020 Summit final plenary session with a call for action after confessing he didn’t want the “angst” of waking up in 2020 having not done enough to change the country. He will hope that the initial report he was presented with this afternoon will give him a good night’s sleep in the years to come. Tax overhaul, a bill of rights, streamlining state-federal regulations, incentives for renewable industries and a dusting off of the republic referendum were some of the key ideas that emerged in the summit’s report. Rudd said the summit was about “energising democracy” and it was characterised by good humour, mutual respect and Australian directness.

Certainly delegate James Houston showed that directness when he briefly invaded the main stage this morning before being ejected. Houston complained his ideas at the rural session were not treated seriously yesterday. But today Rudd said the summit had lived up to the three tasks he set for it. It produces plans for the long term, generated new ideas and directions, and explored new approaches to governance.

Despite Houston’s antics, the defining image of the summit may well be the one of Rudd photographed through a sea of legs, seated on the floor of the economics session and listening intently. The Australian Financial Review’s chief political writer Laura Tingle told ABC2 it was great to have the Prime Minister listening to all these ideas. “And him sitting on the floor - you never saw John Howard do that” she said. She said the great thing about this summit was that it “wasn’t just about men in suits” before apologising to her suited ABC male interviewer.

The interviewer wasn’t the only troubled media personage at the summit. Co-chair Glyn Davis introduced the closing session with a lament from the media about their challenge to convey to their audiences that the summit was worthwhile. One media executive complained to Davis and asked him “can’t you get them to move around or something…they’re just sitting there talking.” But of course that was what it was all about, and while it was never riveting television, it was very useful policy work and has generated a number of new ideas while polishing up old ones that the Rudd administration can now work with. The initial report is now available in either word or pdf format.

The closing session featured a brief rundown from the ten stream leads and their political counterparts. The first to speak were the leaders of the productivity agenda, Warwick Smith and Julia Gillard. Smith said that the Prime Minister’s idea of opening "one-stop-shops" for children where immunisations, child care and other services could be delivered had plenty of merit. He called it the “parents and children’s centre”. Their other big ideas included “learning for life” lifetime accounts, and promoting the idea of “golden gurus” using the skills and capacities of older Australians. Smith concluded by saying that one national curriculum would be “major achievement”. Gillard briefly noted that education can change the nation’s life. “It isn’t an optional extra,” she said. “It isn’t something we should do its something we must do”.

Next to speak were the Indigenous challenges chairs, Jackie Huggins and Jenny Macklin. Huggins said she was buoyed by the national apology and now wanted to see formal recognition so they could go on to have parity with other Australians. She wanted a new bipartisan dialogue, a new independent organisation with “accountability and service delivery for government” and a focus on education especially in early childhood. Macklin agreed that early childhood learning was crucial. She supported alternative schooling arrangements such as hostels and boarding schools. She wanted an Aboriginal healing fund that “recognised the horror of alcohol and drug abuse”.

David Morgan and Wayne Swan then spoke for the economics session. Morgan said Australia needed to create a national economy supported by seamless regulation. He said we needed to change the 19th century federal model and he proposed a federal-state compact with reformed regulation. There would be the first holistic review of taxation for fairness in 25 years. He said there needed to be more streamlined regulations and a reduction of the patchwork of overlapping administrations. He proposed a commission to drive federal reforms, a harmonised and progressive tax system. Swan said that as a country economy we must “get the fundamentals right to create wealth”.

Then Michael Good and Nicola Roxon spoke for Health. Good said their aspirations were to close the infant mortality gap, structure the industry around individuals, more focus on prevention, become a world leader in R&D and promote a unified health system. The session's big ideas included a health equality commission for all groups but focussing on indigenous health, creating a national prevention health agency focussing on alcohol, cigarettes and junk food. There would also be an Asia Pacific regional health partnership to tackle infectious diseases, a plan to make healthy food choices easy using traffic light rating on food. One contentious item was to bank junk food ads and introduce “fast fruit” into schools. Good also promoted the idea of a “bionic eye” (2020 vision by 2020) and an internet “healthbook” modelled on Facebook to share info with trusted people such as doctors, dentists, family and friends. Roxon added they also wanted to introduce the idea of a wellness footprint similar to carbon footprinting to measure impact of lifestyle on health. She also wanted first aid training to all children by volunteers by 2020, an opt-out system for organ donation, health impact statements from other government portfolios and a mandatory half-hour activity in every sedentary job.

Future security and prosperity was then discussed by Michael Wesley and Stephen Smith. Wesley’s ambitions were to foster Australia’s reputation as a effective global citizen, reinvigorate relations in the Asia Pacific region and make the regions major languages and culture familiar to mainstream Australia. Their ideas included a regional literacy program, closer relations with the Pacific microstates and developing energy security forums the major regional economies, and examining emerging security threats such as pandemics, climate change and transnational crime. Smith said he was optimistic Australia could do more as a nation state in the world and could be “effective as a global player, a good international citizen, more engaged in international institutions, [and] observe the international rule of law”.

Roger Beale and Penny Wong presented the ideas for sustainability and climate change. Beale said their brief was to act now to safeguard future prosperity and the ecological environment. We needed to decrease ecological footprint while grow economically. We have Enormous assets, he said, to turn to the challenge of climate change. He wanted the agenda to look a ‘whole of government’ policy, with results backed by audit. We need a national sustainable cities program driving water efficiencies (with pay per use) and supporting public transport and we need to transform our footprint while supporting lower income households. He wanted all new buildings by 2020 to be carbon neutral. Wong said there was an overriding sense of urgency we must act now. There was a brief window of opportunity as a nation to respond, she said.

The future of governance in Australia was presented by John Hartigan and Maxine McKew. To huge applause, Hartigan said their first idea was an Australian republic with a two-phase plebiscite. There would be a new online portal to search for government information and interact with powerbrokers which he called “ourgov.com.” (New Mexico already has the rights to the domain!) Hartigan recommended a bill or charter of rights and open and accountable government. He wanted to strengthen FOI laws and reduce time to release government records. McKew reiterated all this with a vision of what parliament might look like to a new member of Bennelong or “Hartigan” in 2020.

Tim Costello and Tanya Plibersek presented the Strengthening Communities findings. Costello said economies exist for communities not the other way around. He wanted to see an inclusive society that was accessible, supportive, and embraced indigenous social inclusion which he called a “linchpin to a buoyant society”. He wanted a human rights charter or national action plan for social inclusion with key measures he described as a “national development index” which the news could report on the same way as they report the financial news today. He wanted Community hubs and a national co-ordination body for communities. He said we could run the Treasury but “a Costello running treasury might not be such as good idea”. He wanted to fix homelessness by 2020. There would be a voluntary taxing of alcohol to treat services. Plibersek said there needed to be a partnership between government, the community and business to “make us a better nation”.

The rural communities session chairs Tim Fischer and Tony Burke spoke next. Fischer’s rather rambling speech mentioned the need to foster food security in remote and rural regions. He said we needed harmonised regulations to remove wrinkles that add to cost burden to all Australians. There needed to be a response to climate change problems and we need to “chase the water in the north”. There should be updated soil and hydrology studies. Infrastructure must be approached from a national perspective and he recommended people take their holidays in Australia rather than abroad. Burke said we needed to understand the climate change challenges, the export opportunities and be part of a global response to the world food shortages.

The creative Australia session chairs Cate Blanchett, Julianne Schultz and Peter Garrett spoke next. The luminous Blanchett said it was a “dense and galvanising two days”. She said that by 2002 creativity should be central to the nation. She wanted double the creative output by 2020 with a sustainable creative sector, and integration between indigenous and settler perspectives. Schultz praised Blanchett’s ability to be there at all barely days after giving birth. She said Australia needed to boost creativity capability create lifelong learning and commit to new investment models. The industry need financial viability. Creativity in art, she said, was no longer the icing on cake but a key ingredient. She said we needed to bring art into schools, expand mentoring programs, bring visual and performance arts into the national curriculum and create a National Endowment for the Arts. Garrett said it was inconceivable to think of a world without music literacy and the arts and they all build cohesiveness in the community.

Finally Glyn Davis presented the initial 38 page report to the Prime Minister who responded by calling the summit an “extraordinary event”. He categorised the weekend as a “very Australian gathering” filled with “overwhelming optimism”. He cautioned for the need to take command of the future and said the federation needed to be fixed. There needed to be more open government and he highlighted climate change as the “overarching challenge. But as Summit cynic Glenn Milne said today, Rudd’s most immediate challenge will be to cut the “ideas monster” down to size. Nonetheless it was hard not to feel the weekend was useful and if nothing other than to create networks with a thousand of the country’s most talented, it can be judged an immediate success. Whether it has any bearing on the long road to 2020 remains to be seen. But as a rare effort to at least engender some longer term thinking, it must be applauded.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The trial of Gordon Wood

Rene Rivkin’s former chauffeur Gordon Wood has been granted legal aid for the murder trial of his girlfriend Caroline Byrne. The news comes six weeks his application for aid was rejected on the grounds his mother was funding his defence. Legal Aid NSW have now told Wood's solicitor, Michael Bowe that his client would now be funded "in a limited way." The former jetsetter Wood is alleged to have thrown Byrne off a cliff in Sydney’s Watson Bay in 1995.

The sordid story of Gordon Wood is one of the narratives which features strongly in Neil Chenoweth’s Packer’s Lunch, an extraordinary tale of the channels of money and power in Sydney in the 1990s. Wood was a minor player associated with the financial machinations of the mercurial stockbroker Rene Rivkin who was central to Chenoweth’s narrative. Chenoweth’s investigations sparked inquiries by several authorities, including ASIC's probe into the failed telco One.Tel and an ongoing examination of Swiss bank accounts and related business deals. It also touched on the long running saga of the inquest into the death of Caroline Byrne and the affairs of her boyfriend Gordon Wood.

Wood was born in 1962 in Bath, England and emigrated with his family to South Africa. In 1978 the Woods moved to Queensland. Gordon moved south to NSW where he gained a Bachelor of Economics at the University of Sydney. After graduation he had a variety of small jobs including bit parts in television, a stint as a ticket seller at the Opera House before becoming an aerobics instructor at Club World of Fitness in Sydney’s Castlereagh St. He also doubled as a personal trainer at nearby City Gym.

Wood’s tall, blond physique made him popular with female patrons. But while most people thought him good looking, some thought he was more interested in men than women. A colleague who worked with Wood later in the decade told Chenoweth he was very fastidious and always commenting on what the men wearing were wearing and never the women. Nevertheless Wood charmed the blonde model Caroline Byrne in 1992. She introduced her new boyfriend to her family on Christmas Day as a fitness instructor. Nevertheless, Byrne was cautious about Wood and insisted he take an AIDS test.

The relationship lasted until September of the following year. She complained to her father that Wood spent his time doing nothing and going nowhere. “There’s no future with Gordon,” she told her father. “He lies in bed until lunchtime [and] apart from a few gym classes he doesn’t work.” Although Wood was initially distraught over the break-up he quickly began a new relationship, this time with a man – Polish baker and part-time model Adam Baczynski.

Wood’s big break arrived a month later. Through his contacts at the gym, he heard that millionaire stockbroker Rene Rivkin needed a replacement for driver and gopher George Freris who was leaving to set up his own tattooist business. Wood got the job. It wasn’t a total surprise as he already knew Rivkin. Rivkin used Joe’s Café as unofficial office and the gym crowd also hung out here. The millionaire had taken half a dozen of them, including Wood, with him on a North Queensland holiday. Despite his rich appearances, Rivkin was deep in debt at the time to Rodney Adler’s FAI Insurance.

Rivkin’s “lucky break” came with the fire at the Offset Alpine printing plant in Sydney’s Silverwater after the Christmas Eve staff barbeque. The fire totally destroyed the premises, owned by Rivkin. Police found no evidence of accelerant or any sign the fire had been deliberately lit. The plant had been insured at replacement value ($53.2 million), more than three times its purchase price, and the share price skyrocketed from 70 cents to $1.85. As Kerry Packer (former owner of Offset Alpine) commented later, it was “a very good fire” for Rivkin.

A rising tide lifts all boats and Wood did well out of the affair also. With Rene’s advice, he successfully wooed his old girlfriend again and spent a second successive Christmas with the Byrne family. Once again the cautious Caroline insisted he be tested for HIV. The couple spent this New Year’s house-sitting the Rivkin mansion in Bellevue Hill while Rene and his wife were out celebrating.

Throughout 1994, Wood wrote a series of tacky love letters which were eventually published by Woman’s Day in 1998. In the letters, Wood described himself as “the packet of Tim Tams that never runs out” and called her “Miss All-Time Greatest and Most Beautiful Woman”. Rivkin also said he knew much Wood loved her. According to Rivkin, Wood “called her ‘Chicky Babes’ and she called him ‘Gordy’”.

Between them, Gordy and Chicky Babes had eased into the moneyed society of Eastern Sydney. Byrne resumed her modelling career and represented Australia in the Miss Asia-Pacific Quest in Manila. Meanwhile with the help of Rivkin, Wood was making his own foray into big business. He carried a share price pager and bought into the rejuvenated Offset Alpine at preferential rates. Wood told Byrne’s father the fire was a set-up and also had inside information the insurers would pay up, causing the share price to rise again.

He also convinced Rivkin to put down a ten percent deposit on a $270,000 apartment in Potts Point. He persuaded Tony Byrne (Caroline’s father) to lend him $150,000 with Rivkin then to provide the balance. But the affair went sour when Rivkin thought he was stumping up the 150 grand with Byrne providing the balance. This was an important distinction because if Wood got behind in payments it was the second lender who would lose out. Rivkin blamed Byrne who wanted nothing further to do with the deal and the whole thing fell through.

Eventually Wood persuaded Rivkin to provide sole finance so he would not lose his $27,000 deposit plus stamp duty. But Wood was now getting in very deep with Rivkin. The stockbroker was driven to despair as ASX investigators began to circle round him. Caroline worried that the failed deal with her father had influenced his mood. Several times Byrne complained to her father that Rivkin was trying to drive a wedge between the pair and said Rene wouldn’t come to the wedding if they got married. Rivkin was also worried by Wood’s possible indiscretion if his murky financial affairs were ever a subject of investigation.

In May 1995, both Rivkin and Wood received Section 19 notices from the Australian Securities Commission (ASC) requiring them to present for questioning. While Rivkin was grilled in depth, Wood’s interview was over within minutes. He claimed to know nothing of Rivkin’s Swiss shares and said nothing about the Offset Alpine fire being a set-up. Meanwhile Caroline was depressed and seeing a psychiatrist. She gave up her modelling and did not enjoy her new job in sales at a modelling agency. On Wednesday 7 June 1995, Wood rang her boss to say he was taking her to a specialist and she would not be in work the following day. This was the last day of her life.

Wood later told police Caroline was asleep at 1pm when he returned from work to take her to lunch. He said he noted five or six Rohypnol sleeping tablets missing from the bathroom, though an autopsy found no trace of the drug in her body. Wood left alone after ten minutes and met two friends for lunch. Wood never got to eat his meal. At the table, Rivkin phoned him and ordered him to pick him up immediately. However two Watson’s Bay restaurateurs would later claim they saw Wood and Byrne in their area at 1pm and again at 3pm.

Wood then told police he picked up his boss and his lunch partner and drove them to Rivkin’s office. The other man was former Labor powerbroker Graham Richardson. Wood then said he got a bite to eat and went home briefly at 4pm to find Caroline had left the house. He came home again at 7pm and fell asleep in front of the TV. He says he awoke at 12.40am concerned for Caroline’s whereabouts. Their car was gone so he took one of Rivkin’s and drove to the Byrne residence where there was no sign of the car. He then drove to Watson’s Bay where he spotted their car parked in a lane. The spot was near The Gap, a well-known Sydney cliffside suicide location.

He told police he ran towards the nearby clifftops calling out his girlfriend’s name. Earlier two fishermen who passed by Caroline’s car testified they heard a female piercing scream shortly after 11pm. They then said they saw Wood come by, asking if they had seen a young woman. When they told him about the scream, Wood said to them “Oh no, she’s done it, she’s done it” and ran off. Their timing of the incident does not align with Wood’s.

Tony Byrne received a call from Wood saying his daughter was missing. Byrne said he took the call around 1.30am. Wood picked up Byrne and Caroline’s brother and the three men returned to the cliff top using the fishermen’s torch as a searchlight. Wood thought he could see shoes at the bottom of a cliff. They called police who couldn’t immediately confirm the find. Eventually a rescue team spotted her body from a helicopter. Caroline was found nine to ten metres out from a thirty-metre drop. Her skull was shattered after she landed on a rock crevasse.

The death was initially written down as suicide. There was family history as her mother had also suicided in 1991 with an overdose of sleeping tablets after botched breast surgery. Caroline herself had taken an overdose that year. There was also the evidence she was due to see a psychiatrist on the day of her death. But there were also problems with this conclusion.

Firstly there was the conflicting testimony of the two restaurateurs who saw Wood and Byrne together near the site of her death that afternoon. Wood’s ability to spot his girlfriend’s body with a feeble torch was also noted as was the fact that he actually found her car at all in such a remote location. Wood would later claim he found the car due to a “spiritual communication” he had with Caroline.

Police also noted to the coroner how far out her body was from the cliff. Given that there was a fence on the clifftop, it would have taken a long jump of more than 2.5 metres in an onshore wind to land in that unlikely position. Sydney University experiments later concluded it was impossible for her to have jumped so far and they concluded that she was thrown by two men.

Wood told Rivkin the news of her death at 7.30am. Rivkin asked “who killed her?” and Wood replied that it was a suicide. In a police interview with Wood, they made the assertion that on the day of her death she had caught Wood and Rivkin in the act of sex. Wood said this was “absolute lies”. When the suggestion was reported by the Sydney Morning Herald and Channel Seven, Rivkin initially won $150,000 of damages from Seven. But when a jury dismissed libel against the Herald, the case ended up on appeal before the High Court which ordered a partial retrial. Rivkin finally dropped the action in 2004 after the extent of his Swiss frauds were exposed.

Three years after her death, the NSW coroner reopened the inquest into Caroline Byrne’s death. In a preliminary hearing Wood revealed his side of the story. At this point Neil Chenoweth revealed in the Financial Review that Byrne’s death occurred a day after Wood and Rivkin had been questioned by the ASC over a $40 million slush fund linked to politicians. Police canvassed the idea she was murdered because of what she knew about a financial deal. Days later Rivkin attacked Byrne’s character in a newspaper article saying she was “not a little angel” and was having an affair at the time of her death.

In 2001 Rivkin told Nine’s 60 Minutes he thought Wood might have been on the clifftop with her but suggested it was still more likely to have been an accident. He was also unable to shed light on Wood’s alibi that the two men were together that lunchtime. Graham Richardson also denied he was lunching with Rivkin that day and his diary had him elsewhere at the time.

Meanwhile Wood was trying to rebuild his life abroad out of sight of the media. He landed a $400,000 a year job at NatWest bank in the UK complete with a fictitious work history as a financial adviser. Wood got the job through an accountant named Glyn Harris who would not reveal who had recommended the Australian for the job. Wood got the reputation as a “shitkicker” and a “real bastard” and bought a chalet in the French Alps for one million pounds. But when he flew home to Australia for the millennium celebrations he was found out by the media forcing him to flee the country.

Detectives were closing in Wood after his Richardson alibi was found to be false. He disappeared in 2000. In 2004, the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions recommended that Gordon Wood be charged for murder. The Australian newspaper tracked him down to the French ski resort of Mageve. He was arrested in 2006 and extradited to Australia where he was formally charged with the murder of 24 year old Caroline Byrne. The trial is now expected to last three to four months.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Ogaden: the world’s most forgotten conflict

A rare incursion by outside journalists has lifted the lid on Ethiopia’s secret war against its remote Somali Ogaden province. Photojournalists from Al Jazeera showed the devastating effect of the decade-long war on its civilian population. While war rages between the central government and local rebels, locals endure a living hell with shortages of drinking water and food while their homes are destroyed in “security operations”.

At a simplistic level, they are the silent victims of a war between a federal government dominated by Orthodox Christian Tigrayans and Amharans and a Somali Sunni Islam minority based in the far west of the country. The Somali separatists in the Ogaden have been battling Addis Ababa for over 13 years. However news has been slow in getting out to the wider world due to the onerous travel restrictions the government has placed on the region. There are very few journalists in the vast and sparsely populated region that borders Somalia, and therefore there is no accurate picture of the frequency of the fighting and its death toll. According to Al Jazeera, simmering resentment among young locals is driving them into the arms of the separatists.

The low-level war took a significant turn for the worse last year when it claimed foreign casualties. Ethiopia launched an assault on the Ogaden National Liberation Army (ONLF) after they attacked a Chinese oil exploration project in the Ogaden in April 2007. 65 Ethiopians and nine Chinese workers were killed in the attack. 200 rebel fighters launched the attack which lasted more than an hour and destroyed the exploration facility and kidnapped another seven Chinese workers. Human Rights Watch say that civilians bore the brunt of Ethiopian retaliation with villages destroyed, public executions and many instances of torture.

The separatists’ ultimate aim is not exactly clear. For some the desire is simple autonomy from the central government. Meanwhile others want independence and there are those who hold the historic dream of a "greater Somalia". The prize is a thousand kilometres of sparse scrub and desert wastes where the UN says up to 4.5 million people could soon face famine-like conditions. These claims are denied by Ethiopia who blames Islamists in neighbouring Somalia for spreading the war.

The seeds of the conflict date back to 1896 when Britain, the imperial power in Somaliland, signed an agreement with the Somali Ogaden chiefs to preserve British external control of the area while allowing internal sovereignty to the chiefs. However barely a year later, Britain signed a contrary agreement with the Abyssinian Empire which recognised the Abyssinian claims on Harar on the edge of the Ogaden. According to Ahmed Ali of the pro-Somali site Ogaden Online, the next hundred years would see the Ogaden become a “no-man’s land where Abyssinian successive regimes practice their military power and slaughter innocent civilians.”

In the mid 1970s Somali leader Mohamed Siad Barre used the recent overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie to launch an assault on Ethiopia. Somalia gave support to Ogaden separatists and the Somali army invaded in July 1977. The Ogaden War proved to be a dilemma to the Soviet Union which initially armed both sides in the conflict. After several months of fighting, the assault finally collapsed when the Soviets threw their undivided support behind the Ethiopians. By March 1978, the last Somali soldiers left the country. But the new Mengistu regime in Addis Ababa did not trust its westernmost province. The region remained farflung, ignored and suspiciously Somali.

The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) was founded in 1984 with the goal fighting against Mengistu’s Derg (junta) of creating a separatist state. Matters changed again in the early 1990s with the fall of both Mengistu’s and Barre’s reign as old Cold War alliances collapsed. The ONLF looked towards a political solution to their problems. It now claims it uses only “defensive combat” to defend itself against Ethiopian militias. Ethiopia sees the ONLF as a “behind the lines” enemy as it launched its own adventurism with its invasion of Somalia last year to oust the Islamic Courts government in Mogadishu.

The atmosphere remains tense in the Ethiopian capital and matters were not helped yesterday by two explosions which killed three and injured 15 others. The attacks occurred just a day after local elections where 26 million people went to the polls. Both attacks occurred at petrol stations where locals were queued up to buy kerosene. While no one claimed responsibility for the bombs, and the Government has not explicitly blamed the ONLF, the Sudan Tribune reports the administration saying the attacks were “the act of the desperate who are dying to obstruct the efforts of the nation to build up democracy.” However there is very little evidence that Ethiopia is keen to let much democracy build up in the Ogaden.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Beppe Grillo's V-day salute to Berlusconi

As predicted here two months ago, Silvio Berlusconi has comfortably won the weekend election in Italy to become Prime Minister for the third time. Berlusconi’s latest comeback was at the hands of the distinctly uncharismatic centre-left opponent Walter Veltroni. But with Italy’s deepening problems in the areas of faltering competitiveness, unsustainable fiscal deficits, broken governmental services, corruption and a bloated bureaucracy, Berlusconi’s most implacable opponent may turn out to be an almost sixty old comedian and actor who has the ear of many everyday Italians, and increasingly, a large worldwide audience.

That man is Beppo Grillo. Grillo is famous not for his comedy or his thespian abilities but for his blog. In it, his acerbic writings strikes at the heart of Italy’s biggest scourge: rampant political corruption. Grillo is no fan of fellow media tart Berlusconi. In his blog, he has called him the "psychotic dwarf" and "asphalt head”. The English language version of his blog can be viewed here. As of 16 April, Technorati ranks Grillo’s site as the 13th most popular in the blogosphere worldwide with over 9,000 incoming links in the last six months.

Guiseppe Piero Grillo was born 60 years ago in the small Ligurian town of Savignone. He was educated as an accountant and he became a comedian by chance improvising a monologue in an audition. He was discovered by television presenter Pippo Baudo and he began to appear on Italian TV shows. As his success rose, he launched his own show called Grillometro where his particular brand of satire began to offend Italian politicians. He condemned the then ruling Socialists for corruption. As he created more enemies, his appearances on television became rarer.

In Time magazine’s first annual blog index released last month, the Blog di Beppo Grillo was voted the most interesting political blog. Time noted Grillo’s popularity to the “international language of outrage”. Their nomination concluded that “America could use a political satirist fuelled by this sort of outrage, but for now, there's Beppe”.

The most successful of Grillo’s stunts was his September 2007 rally across 300 Italian cities and towns for his “Il Giorno del Vaffanculo” (“Fuck Off Day” in English). Fuck Off Day was designed to encourage citizens to forcibly remove from office members of the Italian Parliament who have criminal convictions. Hundreds of thousands turned up for the rallies. The campaign was so successful he has arranged to follow it up with V2-Day on 25 April to protest against the subservience of the press. Grillo promoted the idea during his election tour of the country which attracted great crowds but was studiously ignored by the Berlusconi-dominated media.

While Grillo has not yet put himself forward as an electoral candidate, he has allowed the few candidates he likes to use his “Lista Grillo” (Grillo’s List) symbol as an endorsement. Grillo has publicly stated that no-one with a criminal record should be allowed to stand for office – that immediately rules himself out as he was convicted of manslaughter after a 1980 road accident in which three passengers died in a car with Grillo at the wheel. But Grillo prefers to be a catalyst rather a protagonist. The New Yorker magazine described Grillo accurately as a “distinctly Italian combination of Michael Moore and Stephen Colbert: an activist and vulgarian with a deft ear for political satire.”

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Age of Nefarious

Fairfax senior management has come down on the side of The Age’s editor Andrew Jaspan in a serious argument with his journalist staff over his decisions to allow commercial partnerships to compromise editorial independence. In a letter to the Melbourne broadsheet’s journalist representative Greg Baum yesterday, Fairfax chief executive and publisher Don Churchill said he was "completely satisfied" that Jaspan had not contravened the "fundamental values of independent journalism". And in a warning sure to infuriate Age journalists further, he warned commercial partnership deals were here to stay.

Crikey broke the story last week after Age editor Andrew Jaspan held a “clear the air” meeting at the paper attended by 235 journalists. At the meeting, the journalists voted unanimously for a motion accusing Jaspan of “degrading their ability to produce independent journalism.” The meeting produced many displays of anger with Jaspan openly accused of lying. The frank exchange was captured on tape which was subsequently leaked to Crikey.

The meeting produced a motion (pdf) which was unanimously agreed to by all journalists present. The motion expressed alarm at “recent developments” that showed that the church and state separation between the paper’s commercial and editorial departments had been undermined by pressure to favour organisations with which the newspaper has struck commercial and sponsorship arrangements. The motion condemned these developments and said they contravene the MEAA code of ethics and the Age’s own code of conduct.

The journalists released a statement of support which outlined six recent examples of where they say The Age transgressed the commercial / editorial boundary. The first of these was Earth Hour (partially owned by Fairfax). Support for the event meant that the corporate partnership not editorial judgement dictated news coverage. Reporters were pressurised not to write negative stories and instead “to promote a campaign being waged by external interests, and write stories that had self-interest rather than news values at their heart”. Last week’s Media Watch also reported that story suggestions from Earth Hour’s Melbourne Project Manager were including in the paper without criticism.

The other five issues raised were a) sport coverage compromised by increasing commercial emphasis on special relationships and partnerships, b) the decision of Jaspan and his deputy editor to attend the 2020 Summit, c) the “R Walker” letter in the Age (that did not identify the writer as Fairfax chairman Ron Walker), d) special treatment given in coverage of the Melbourne Grand Prix (where Walker is also chairman), and e) the issue of bay dredging in which journalists say Jaspan “has pursued an undeclared campaign” which has been “aggressively directed to reflect the view that the dredging is a mistake”.

After the details of the spat between The Age and its journalists were revealed by Crikey and ABC’s Media Watch, Sydney-based Fairfax CEO wrote the letter to Age staff referred to at the start of this article. In it he reaffirmed his support for Age Managing Director Don Churchill. Kirk said he was “disturbed” some staff members had taped editor Jaspan’s remarks to the meeting and distributed them to other media. Kirk said these “discourteous actions hurt the paper and I think they also do the staff no favours”.

Kirk then went on to attack what he called Crikey’s “unremitting criticism” of Fairfax Media. Kirk was referring to Margaret Simons' piece in Friday’s Crikey in which she sheeted home blame for the problems not only to Jaspan but to his superiors: Churchill, Kirk and the Fairfax Board. In a scathing article, Simons said there were two issues which have damaged The Age. Firstly there is the blurring of the line between commercial and editorial, which she acknowledges is a problem at all media organisations. Secondly, is the fact senior management have knowingly allowed someone to remain as editor who is incapable of getting the respect or confidence of his staff.

The Age independence committee said today in its response to Churchill, that there is an urgent need to address the documented instances of infringements on editorial independence. The committee’s mission is to protect the integrity, independence and quality of the newspapers. The committee endorses The Age Charter of Editorial Independence which was conceived in 1988 as a campaign to prevent Robert Maxwell taking over the newspaper after Warwick Fairfax's financially disastrous purchase of the Fairfax group in 1987.

The committee has since been active in 1990 (when Fairfax went into receivership), 1997 (during the aborted Packer takeover bid) and 2005 (when the Howard government brought in its new media laws). Now it faces its most serious fight yet as the editorial management team has changed sides and fights with the commercial arm. The stakes are high. Victory for Jaspan, Churchill and Kirk will consign the quaint notion of editorial independence to a twentieth century media museum.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Nepal: Maoists sweeping towards victory

A Maoist insurgent is now odds on to become Nepal’s first elected president as results begin to flow in from last week’s election. After four days of counting the Nepal Maoist Party have won most of the 160 seats declared of the 601 seat parliament. The Maoist leader, Prachanda, said that he is willing to work with other parties for the sake of democracy but the landslide win has stunned the establishment Congress Party who were expected to win. The victory is likely to lead to constitutional change that will abolish the country’s 240 year monarchy.

Barely two years ago, Prachanda’s Maoists were at war with Nepal’s establishment and considered criminals and terrorists by the Nepali government. But after the two sides signed a peace deal in November 2006, the UN Security Council gave its seal of approval to a pact that would see the constitution re-written. Both sides agreed that “autocratic monarchy” was the main hurdle in realising a “free and sovereign Nepal”.

Now that monarchy is about to be ended. King Gyanendra has led the country since the extraordinary events of 2001 when Crown Prince Dipendra killed eight members of the royal family before committing suicide. Gyanendra hastened the monarchy’s end by disastrously deploying the royal army against the Maoists. He proved to be an unpopular leader and his effort to seize total power rebounded against him. In December 2007 the major political parties agreed to abolish the world's last Hindu monarchy as part of a deal to bring the Maoists back into government. The deal stipulated the monarchy would be eliminated once a special assembly charged with rewriting the nation's constitution is elected.

Now the game is up for Nepal’s last king. Publicly, Gyanendra has professed “satisfaction” at the widespread election participation despite the result. With the 2065th Nepali New Year to start on Sunday, he used his New Year speech to praise the people’s “firm resolve not to compromise the nation's existence, independence and integrity under any circumstance”. But with the Maoists now in power, it is likely that the first post-election meeting of government parties will abolish Gyanendra’s position.

The Maoists are led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal whose nom de guerre Prachanda means "fierce" or "terrible". The 54 year old Prachanda remains a controversial figure having led a ruthless war from exile in India that claimed the lives of 13,000 people in ten years. But others see him as a hero who represented millions of downtrodden people in one of the poorest countries in the world. The Maoist insurgency began in 1996 with a 40-point set of demands on then Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba. Prachanda wanted to end the “domination of foreign capital”, the “feudal system” of land ownership and “discriminatory treaties” that favoured India. Prachanda’s power base was Western Nepal and he made that part of the country unmanageable for the Kathmandu government who eventually were forced into a deal.

Once the deal was signed with his former enemies, Prachanda went into campaign overdrive. He used his charismatic powers to address campaign rallies everywhere, and his face appeared on posters across the land. Prachanda's metamorphosis from terrorist to political bigwig has worried some of his own supporters who complain that leaders are getting top medical care, live in posh houses and ride expensive cars captured in wartime. Having survived a ten-year insurrection, the hard part is just beginning for Prachanda. Leading his country and treading a path that satisfies all of his people, will be the true test of the man’s abilities.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Cocaine: Squaring the ledger

A Los Angeles news agency is the subject of a lawsuit that alleges they supplied Heath Ledger with cocaine before secretly filming him using the drug. The suit filed on Friday accuses two paparazzi employed by the Splash News & Picture Agency of paying for cocaine so they could secretly videotape Ledger snorting the drug on the night of the Screen Actors Guild Awards. An unnamed freelancer who brought the suit has sought unspecified damages for fraud, distress and privacy violations. Victory would also mean the revenue generated by selling the videotape should be forfeited under a California state law forbidding paparazzi from profiting from illegal activity.

Worldwide media outlets paid more than a million dollars for the grainy footage. The footage shown after Ledger’s death went a long way to creating the impression, the actor was a cocaine addict. However while clips included a confession by Ledger he was a long term user of marijuana, they do not show him snorting cocaine. What scanty evidence there is, comes from untrustworthy British tabloids who reported a former personal assistant of supermodel Naomi Campbell’s claim that she saw Ledger indulge in several cocaine binges with Campbell. With cocaine the traditional favourite drug of the rich and famous, these rumours are easy to believe and grist to the media's mill.

Cocaine is made from a substance extracted from the leaves of coca plants native to Bolivia, Peru and Colombia. These three countries remain the primary source for the coca leaf and finished cocaine hydrochloride. The earliest inhabitants of the Andes chewed the coca leaves for its stimulating effects. Each leaf contains 2 percent of the active substance that makes cocaine so powerful. It was released by slowly chewing for an hour and its sensation it helped them survive the bitter cold of the high mountains. The Spanish conquistadors tried to outlaw the practice as they thought it encouraged immoral behaviour and laziness. But eventually economics won out and officials took over the production of coca leaf.

Cocaine itself was invented in 1855. German scientist Friedrich Gaedke devised a way of extracting and purifying the active substance from the leaf. His compatriot Albert Niemann improved the process a few years later. Both men were interested in the drug for its medicinal properties as a pain reliever. At the time, anaesthetics were ineffective and surgery was an agonising process for its victims. It wasn’t until 1880 that Russian doctor Vasili von Anrep discovered how to use cocaine as an anaesthetic and word quickly spread about its value.

One of cocaine’s earliest enthusiasts was Sigmund Freud. He published “On Coca” in 1884 which was the first study of its effects. He took the drug himself and prescribed it for his friend Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow to overcome his addiction to morphine. This was not a successful treatment. Fleischl-Marxow became addicted to cocaine and suffered a cocaine-induced psychosis. The results chastened Freud and thereafter he regarded the drug as dangerous.

Around the same time, processed cocaine was making its way in to many products including syrups, tonics, wines and lozenges. In 1886 a pharmacist in Atlanta, Georgia named Doctor John Pemberton concocted a new drink which he released under the name of “Coca Cola”. Pemberton marketed the drink as a tonic. The name of the drink was inspired by two ingredients in its secret recipe: cocaine-laced syrup and caffeine from kola nuts. Under the aggressive marketing by Pemberton's friend Asa Candler, Coca Cola quickly became one of most successful soft drinks in America.

By 1900, negative publicity about cocaine’s side-effects was spreading. But Candler could not totally eliminate it from the formula without threatening the trademark status of the drink’s name. So Coca Cola began to slowly remove the drug from its formula. By 1902 it was as little as 0.25 per cent of a grain of cocaine for 30 grams of syrup. Coke did not become totally cocaine free until 1929.

By then there was a worldwide consensus to illegalise narcotic drugs. In 1924 the Second International Opium Conference agreed to make laws to control drugs. Over the next few years many countries outlawed the production, sale and possession of heroin, cocaine, opium and cannabis. In 1946 the UN assumed the drug control functions formerly carried out by the League of Nations. They established a control body, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) which attempts to control production and distribution of narcotic and psychotropic substances worldwide.

The cocaine industry was driven underground. Due to the difficulties in importing and refining it, it became extremely expensive and the preserve of wealthy people. Cole Porter’s 1930s song “I Get a Kick out of You” refers to those who “get a kick from cocaine”. But the drug had a fairly low profile until new forms of the drug emerged in the 1970s. Crack and freebase brought cocaine to whole new socio-economic groups. These products were easy to make but highly addictive. But newspaper reports tend to overdramatise cocaine use in the wider public.

Although a 2000 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare survey (pdf) on drug usage showed that cocaine use was on the rise, it also found it was one the lesser used drugs on the Australian scene. Just 4 percent of those surveyed had ever tried cocaine and 1.4 percent had used the drug in the previous 12 months. However cocaine use had increased by 1 percent in the decade since 1991. NT and NSW had the highest percentage of cocaine users with 5.6 and 5.0 per cent respectively. The survey also found little support for the legalisation of the drug.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (pdf) support these findings. In the 1990s, they estimated that 180 million people (or 4 per cent of the world’s population at the time) consumed drugs of which cannabis was easily the most popular. Cocaine users made up just 14 million users worldwide (0.3 per cent of the world’s population). The majority of cocaine users are white males between the age of 16 and 24. The 28 year old Heath Ledger was probably a cocaine user. For media organisations to set him up to snort it so they could then film him using it, is outrageous hypocrisy. Instead of a war on drugs, we would be better served with a war on media exploitation.