Friday, February 27, 2009

Queensland election 2009: In a Galaxy Poll far far away

State elections are not everyone’s cup of tea. Andrew Bartlett hates the “too many photo ops and soundbites masquerading as policies”. The current Queensland election has these blights and is also taking a dangerously presidential turn. The focus is increasingly on the leaders Bligh and Springborg rather than their policies. The attached photo, which appears in the Brisbane Times, makes the two party leaders look like pugilists about to go 15 rounds with each other.

But as the picture shows, if state politicians are putting it on then so are the mass media. Channel Nine delights in presents an almost nightly litany of government blunders while Gary Sauer-Thompson notes that News Ltd is infatuated by “the LNP is gaining on Bligh” meme. The Courier-Mail Galaxy poll published yesterday bought into the horserace analogies so beloved of opinion poll analysis with its talk of “neck-and-neck” and “down to the wire”.

Yet despite Labor’s “10 point freefall”, they should still win the election thanks to its hold in the south-east. The size of the LNP’s task in Brisbane is graphically represented in this excellent map by Ben Raue at The Tally Room. There are 38 seats in the Brisbane metropolitan area and 36 of them are currently held by Labor. As Raue points out, with just 45 seats needed to form government, that already puts Labor “within spitting distance” of a majority.

However, it is likely that a number of these Brisbane seats will fall to the LNP. Assuming the Galaxy poll html is a reasonable point in time reflection of voters’ intentions and there is a 50:50 split in two party preferred, that would represent a 4.9 percent turnaround since 2006. There are 12 Labor seats that would fall if this is a uniform swing – but the stark reality of the numbers means that would still leave the government with a comfortable working majority.

Possum (Scott Steel) publishes the complete Galaxy poll data at Pineapple Party Time (the Crikey group blog devoted to the Queensland election). With a low sample size of 800 people, there is a significant 3.5 percent margin of error. However, apart from whimsically suggesting that the data marked “NFI” (No further information) actually stands for “No Fucking Idea”, Possum leaves the analysis of the poll to his stablemate William Bowe.

Bowe begins by turning to his home state of WA for comparison. He analyses a poll Galaxy published prior to the WA election last year and points out similarities and differences between the two states. While the WA Coalition lead on health issues was replicated by the LNP, Labor polled better on water, education and law and order in Queensland. They also did well in roads and public transport which were not included in the WA survey, However Bowe cautions the Queensland survey didn’t appear to include an important question that was asked in the WA one: “Has the decision to call an early election made you more or less likely to vote for the Labor Party?” In WA over a quarter of the respondents said the early election decision made it less likely.

As I’ve written before, an early election is Labor’s biggest danger. Malcolm McKerras predicted earlier this year Anna Bligh would be re-elected Premier (despite a 50:50 two party preferred vote) but he also cautioned she would call an early election “at her peril.” It is also likely many in the community would agree with the Queensland Greens who say Bligh’s decision to hold an early election is bad for democracy. They want fixed four year terms and want to stop governments from rigging elections “by calling them at a time that takes advantage of wavering public opinion."

And this election is all about how Labor could lose government, not how the LNP can win. As Brian Costar writes, Queensland is beset by serious infrastructure deficiencies in water, health and transport infrastructure. The advantages of incumbency have turned into the staleness of entrenched power. According to LNP supporter Russell Egan, Springborg has one huge advantage in this election: “he hasn’t been in government for 11 years and doesn’t have to explain why not a single inch of new highway or rail has been laid for 11 years, why our hospitals are clogged with elective surgery waiting lists and schools are being outgrown by our ballooning outer suburbia.” Three weeks tomorrow, the voters will get their chance to vent their anger. Bligh will be hoping she gets away with a bollocking, but not the sack.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Bangladesh mutiny is test of Sheikh Hasina's government

Long running complaints between branches of Bangladesh’s military has broken out into full scale mutiny in the last two days that claimed at least 50 lives. What began as a shootout in the capital Dhaka has spread to towns across the country. While the main reason for the mutiny is a pay dispute, it is also likely be a test of power for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who has only been in the job a month. Ranjit Bhaskar says the fact that the army had to be called out to quell the uprising just weeks after December's election is “an important reminder that the country's political situation remains complex and fragile despite the restoration of democratic rule”.

Nevertheless the most proximate cause is a pay dispute involving the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles (BDR). The standoff at the BDR headquarters began yesterday when troops took dozens of high-ranking officers and military brass hostage after a gun battle erupted between rebels and loyal police and troops that killed 50 people. The dead included passers-by who were caught in mortar fire when the violence spread to the nearby streets. Afterwards, the BDR had reportedly accepted an offer of amnesty from the prime minister and agreed to lay down arms earlier on Thursday. But the fighting resumed later in the day.

The BDR is the country’s border security and anti-smuggling force. Known by the grandiose nickname of “The Vigilant Sentinels of Our National Frontier”, the force was set up after partition in 1947 as a descendent of the British East Pakistani Rifles. In 1971 it fought for the liberation of Bangladesh from West Pakistan and emerged as the new country’s leading paramilitary force. There is confusion over exactly how big the force is. The BBC thinks it is 40,000. The Guardian today was reporting 42,000 posted across 64 camps whereas Al Jazeera claim there are “50,000 paramilitary soldiers”. Meanwhile, BDR’s own website says they have a total manpower of 65,000 troops.

Whatever the size, it is a significant security organisation that the government needs to control. According to police reports, BDR members had revolted in 12 border districts which represents a quarter of the zones where they are stationed. The initial revolt started in the capital Dhaka and then fanned outwards. One local police chief reported heavy fighting at a BDR training centre in the southeastern town of Satkania. Another talked of indiscriminate gunfire in the northeastern Moulivibazar district where the commanding officer fled the camp. Violence was also reported in Chittagong and Naikhongchari in the south, Sylhet in the north-east, and Rajshahi and Naogaon in the north-west.

Back in the capital, the soldiers initially agreed to surrender after the government said it would grant amnesty and discuss their grievances. But it was little surprise to hear that fighting had resumed later in the day. The mood was full of resentment about army entitlements as one rebel soldier told television reporters. Unlike the army, the BDR is under the Home Ministry and has a different pay scale. "Army troops are sent abroad to work in UN peacekeeping missions and they get fat salaries,” he said. “But they don't take border guard personnel for peacekeeping. That's discrimination."

A government spokesman said mutinous soldiers would be treated harshly. Bangladesh’s new Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Cabinet members met in an emergency session today as the Dhaka standoff entered a second day. Some diplomats in the capital speculate that an ulterior motive of the violence is to test Hasina. She succeeded a military-backed administration last month and is the daughter of Mujibur Rahman, who is considered the father of Bangladesh. He won an election in 1970 and led the country to independence one year later which earned him the nickname of Bangabandhu "friend of Bangladesh". However in 1975 his own army officers assassinated him and 23 family members. Hasana and her sister were away in Germany at the time, and were the only ones left to carry on his line.

Since Bangabandhu’s death, Bangladesh has been dominated by military dictatorships, either overtly or disguised by stooge leaders. Hasina inherited the leadership of her father’s party and suffered imprisonment at the hands of several Bangladesh rulers. She was elected Prime Minister in 1996 after two disputed elections and ruled for five years. She was defeated in a landslide in 2001 but continued to lead the party despite criminal charges of extortion and murder. The High Court dismissed all the charges last year and she returned from exile in November to fight the election which she won in a landslide. But defeated Premier Khaleda Zia rejected the result saying the poll was ‘stage-managed'.

Pranab Dhal Samanta writing in Indianexpress.com noted that the BDR is heavily penetrated at the lower and middle ranks by affiliates of Zia’s party. There are also links between Zia’s brother and a disaffected BDR general. It doesn’t take much to join the dots. Samanta believes the force is now being controlled by disgruntled military officers who are known affiliates of Zia’s party. “A spectre of instability coupled with suspicious battles within the Army…and a new government wanting to try 1971 war criminals could rapidly trigger an unexpected crisis in Dhaka,” he writes.

Max Factor: Pauline Hanson runs in Beaudesert

As noted in places as far away as Singapore, Pauline Hanson is standing as a candidate in the Queensland election. Appropriately for a walking headline, tonight’s Channel Nine News noted that celebrity agent Max Markson will accompany Hanson when she officially unveils her candidacy in the town (and seat) of Beaudesert next week. While Markson denied today he had encouraged Hansen to run, he admitted he was helping her out and handling her media affairs. However with neither an election website nor a publicly available phone number for Markson, it promises to be yet another unorthodox Hanson media campaign. The Brisbane Times speculated today Hanson will either sell her candidacy story to magazines and television or else make a pitch for a reality TV show.

The news came just a week after it was announced Cate Blanchett could play the lead role in a biopic about Hanson. Melbourne filmmakers Leanne Tonkes and Steve Kearney are calling the project "Please Explain" and starts from her time running a fish and chip shop and ends with her on Dancing With the Stars. The filmmakers claim it will be “wry, not vicious”. With a view to the American market, Tonkes compares Hanson with Sarah Palin. “She [Hanson] is naturally sceptical of what we are doing because we are part of the media,” said Tonkes, “but we need to find out the person behind the media front to make a compelling story.”

Hanson has always been a compelling story and she and the media have long been involved in a complicated dance. She began her public life as an independent Ipswich city councillor where she quickly found she possessed skills in communication and listening to people. However she was out of a job after just a year when elections were called after council amalgamations in 1995. She joined the Liberal Party and comfortably won preselection for the ultra-safe Labor seat of Oxley. Prior to the 1996 election she wrote a letter to the Queensland Times where she complaining about Aboriginal welfare. “I would be the first to admit, not that many years ago, the Aborigines were treated wrongly but in trying to correct this they have gone too far”, she wrote.

In some respects what she said was mild, compared to other Queensland Coalition candidates. The National candidate for Leichhardt Bob Burgess described citizenship ceremonies as “dewoggings” while then-fellow Nat Bob Katter complained about aboriginal funding and the influence of “slanty-eyed ideologues who persecute ordinary, average Australians". Both Burgess and Katter got re-elected with above-average swings.

Nor were they disendorsed before the election, unlike Hanson. When Ipswich Labor councillor Paul Tully brought The Queensland Times letter to national attention, she was promptly disendorsed by John Howard when she would not retract her position. But the public exposure backfired on Labor. The newly independent Hanson won the sympathy of the locals who saw her as a victim of political correctness. Though still listed as Liberal on the ballot paper she took the seat with a massive 19 percent swing.

By now, the media spotlight was firmly on her. Hanson became the focus of a race debate. Helen Dodd’s authorised biography questioned whether the media’s aim was to sensationalise the idea that racism was alive and well in Australia. Dodd says the debate never occurred among average Australians but that it was “written, orchestrated and performed by the media”. But Hanson herself bought into the argument. In September 1996 she stood up in front of an almost empty parliament to make her maiden speech. She spoke of money wasted on Aborigines, condemned the Mabo judgement, attacked economic rationalism, called for the abolition of multicultural policy and warned Australia was being “swamped” with Asians. She channelled Menzies Forgotten People speech with her call to represent "common sense and the mainstream".

It was incendiary stuff, and it connected with a lot of people. She proved a hit on television and talkback radio. Hanson had opened a Pandora’s Box of forbidden opinion. As a result, her approval rating soared and for much of Howard’s first term, Hanson controlled the political agenda particularly over the Wik judgement. While the Nationals recognised her as a threat, Howard implicitly condoned her and her anti-Asian attitudes were noted in Jakarta and elsewhere. In 1998 her newly founded Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party (significantly, the first Australian party ever to be branded with its leader’s name) contested the Queensland state election. They attracted 23 percent of the vote and won eleven seats with the help of Coalition preferences.

As Margot Kingston noted, Hanson had ruptured the stability of political discourse. Only then did John Howard realise how serious the phenomenon was becoming. He did a deal with independent Senator Brian Harradine to compromise on Wik and resolved to put One Nation last in preference voting in the impending federal election. But Hanson had to move to fight that election. A redistribution made Oxley unwinnable. She would have been a certainty to be elected to the Senate, but instead chose to fight in National heartland in the new seat of Blair. Placed last on the how-to-vote cards, she would have needed 40 percent of first preferences to win. Abandoning most media conventions and egged on by a massive press gallery, Hanson’s campaign (brilliantly chronicled by her unlikely ally Kingston in “Off the Rails”) went the way of the title of the book. Hanson fell just short with 37 percent and One Nation’s only victory was a Senate seat in Queensland.

The party didn’t take long to unravel without its raison d’etre in parliament. Hanson’s star was on the wane by 2001 and she narrowly failed in a Senate tilt. Nevertheless Howard was still learning from Hanson in that poll. Earlier that year Hanson outlined her policy towards boat people: "You go out and meet them, fill them with food and water and medical supplies and say Go That Way”. Howard was listening and he skilfully manipulated the fear and loathing generated by the Tampa crisis and wedged the Opposition whose lead in the polls quickly evaporated. Hanson rightly complained that the Coalition had stolen her refugee policy clothes. Hanson was gone but the views she left behind went mainstream.

In 2003 she was sentenced to three years prison for fiddling party membership numbers but had the sentence quashed on appeal. A year later she quit politics after another Senate loss. But she simply could not kick the habit. She was back again in 2007 with a new party again featuring her name “Pauline’s United Australia Party”. She recontested the Queensland half-Senate election that year and showed she still held substantial support by taking 4.16 percent of the vote across the state. There was little surprise when she announced her candidacy for this year’s state poll. As Jeff Sparrow puts it, “there's something of Mike Tyson in Pauline Hanson's return: battered and past her prime, she’s drawn inevitably back to what she knows best.”

She is an experienced campaigner now and her results over the years shows she has retained a loyal constituency. It is questionable whether much of it is in Beaudesert but Pollytics says her candidacy there has thrown a spanner in the works of the LNP’s hopes of retaining the seat. The current margin is 5.9 percent but sitting member Kev Lingard is retiring. 30 year old Logan City councillor Aidan McLindon is the new candidate. In 2005 McLindon was fined on a public nuisance charge. He barged on to the set of that year's final episode of Big Brother during the announcement of the winner in a protest against the show’s exploitative nature. Hanson has now made McLindon’s life more complicated. If she can poll 20 percent and her preferences exhaust, the seat “could become marginal if a large swing away from Labor doesn’t manifest.” Meanwhile Hanson can walk away from the mess with a pile of money from Max Markson and plan her next campaign with the proceeds.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

ASEAN ignores Burmese Rohingya refugee crisis

There seems little likelihood that the plight of Burmese Rohingya refugees will be discussed at the ASEAN leaders Summit this week. Rohingyas are victims of racial discrimination in their own country and their plight came to international attention after Thailand admit they had towed a thousand refugees out to sea. Vitavas Srivihok, Thai director of ASEAN Affairs Department, said talks about Rohingya would at best be marginalised to the “sidelines” of the conference and even then expects little by way of concrete outcomes. The conference’s contempt for Rohingya shows yet again ASEAN’s disinterest in human rights issues.

The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim community, with a long history, inhabiting Arakan province of Burma. Their ethnicity and religion has made them a target of oppression by Burmese military rulers. In a move reminiscent of Nazi discrimination against Jews, a Burmese 1982 law stripped them of their right to citizenship. Rohingya also endure restrictions affecting their movement, education, and freedom to marry. They are often forced into slavery, have their land confiscated and suffer arbitrary arrests, torture, and extra-judicial killings. Today the Rohingya have become increasingly landless and jobless forcing many to flee the country.

The Rohingya refugee issue is now an international problem affecting Burma, India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Indonesia. One thousand of them set off for Bangladesh in December and were detained and beaten when they landed in Thailand. But Thailand decided to export the problem. The refugees were forced back to sea in boats without engines or food. Hundreds died but hundreds more were rescued in Indian and Indonesian waters after several weeks at sea. On 7 January, 198 of them were found by Indonesian fishermen adrift at sea off Aceh, in northern Sumatra. Indonesian authorities say they have now rescued about 400 Rohingya migrants while Indian authorities at Andaman Islands have said they have also rescued hundreds of refugees. India plans to deport them back to Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, Thailand initially denied claims that its security forces abused the refugees. However in an interview with CNN last week, Thai PM Abhisit Vejjajiva admitted Thai security forces towed away the boats. Vejjajiva gave the unconvincing answer that he could not pinpoint which government official approved the practice, but claimed he was working on fixing the problem. "All the authorities say it's not their policy, but I have reason to believe some instances of this happened, said the PM. “If I can have the evidence as to who exactly did this I will certainly bring them to account."

But while the world should rightly judge Thailand harshly for its conduct in this shameful affair, Burma’s role should not be forgotten. Ye Myint Aung, the Burmese Consul-General at the Hong Kong consulate exposed what authorities really think of their minority in an extraordinary letter (pdf) addressed to the peninsula’s consular corps and media. In it, Aung denied Rohingya were Burmese. The Burmese, said Aung were good looking with “fair and soft” complexion. Rohingyas, by contrast had “dark brown” skin and were “ugly as ogres.”

Unfortunately, as New Mandala points out, the racism Ye Myint Aung shows against Rohingya is not unusual in Burma. New Mandala blames academics for stoking up “institutionalised chauvinism and historical memories built around communal conflicts from the last century”. Spurious research questioning their heritage gives people an excuse to distrust Rohingyas even though most have never met one.

But there are still groups around who are working to improve the Rohingya's lot. The Arakan Rohingya National Organisation wrote an open letter to the heads of ASEAN on the weekend which said that Burmese persecution of Rohingya people was a violation of the ASEAN Charter to respect human rights and international law. They called on the leaders to address the root cause of the Rohingya refugee problem and boatpeople crisis, pressurise Burma’s rulers to end human rights abuses and also urged Thailand to pay compensation to the families of Rohingya boatpeople who drowned.

The international peak political body for Burmese ethnic groups is also calling on the Australian government to push for the case for democracy in Burma. The Ethnic Nationalities Council represents seven ethnic Burmese groups Burma comprising 40 percent of the population. The Council's vice chair, Dr Lian Sakhong, told Foreign Affairs and Immigration officials that Australia should call for multi-party talks on Burma “to put pressure on the military regime so that we can have a dialogue.”

Sakhing said the talks should lead to a negotiated settlement to return Burma to democratic rule and also end ethnic oppression of Rohingyas and other groups affected by the 1982 citizenship laws. "We need to review the constitutions that are adopted by the military, so that we can have a compromise,” he told ABC’s Connect Asia. “If we don't do that, then the result will be another 50 years of civil war.”

written in the writs: Queensland goes to the polls

Australia’s largest electoral event of 2009 (unless Rudd goes a year early) will finally come to pass on 21 March as the state of Queensland goes to the polls. Labor defends a massive lead in this election but most pundits expect their margin to be considerably reduced on election night. It was all Labor territory that Anna Bligh passed through today on the way to the Governor’s office in Bardon to issue the writs, as Mark Bahnisch noted earlier today. But the question is now how many Brisbane seats will still be Labor in a month’s time and whether they will still be in power at all.

While there has been a noticeable absence of recent poll data, an LNP victory is still seen as an outside chance. According to SportsPunter.com a party called “Labour” are $1.50 to win while an entity called the “Coalition” are $2.55. Perhaps given their spelling and failure to keep up with the existence of the LNP, SportsPunter.com ought not to be trusted with your money. Nevertheless the odds are a fair reflection of what the LNP needs to do to win.

Springborg’s party need a uniform swing of 8.3 percent to take outright government. Of course, swings are rarely uniform and there will be variations within the mix that will make prediction difficult. Labor currently holds 58 of 89 seats, the LNP holds 25. Therefore the LNP needs to win 20 seats to form government. The One Nation seat will go to LNP; and of the independents, Dolly Pratt might lose to the LNP in Nanango while Liz Cunningham could lose to the ALP in Gladstone. The Greens hold one seat thanks to defector Ronan Lee in Indooroopilly but even a small swing will see LNP win that seat. Others to watch could be Morayfield (10.7 percent) and Kallangur (11.0 percent) which Labor could lose despite their huge margins due to retiring MPs.

Because of the electoral boundaries and redistributions a 50:50 Two Party Preferred Vote will not be enough for an LNP victory or even a draw. But as Pollytics reminded me today, Queensland has Optional Preferential Voting (OPV) so preferences often exhaust. This makes two party preferred polling estimates potentially misleading. But it can also be a devastating tactic in the real thing, Beattie used OPV in the 2001 election to destroy the then disunited opposition and again in 2006 in an attempt to marginalise the Greens.

However as the Brisbane Times points out today, what goes around comes around and Greens leader Bob Brown would not guarantee Premier Anna Bligh Greens' preferences. The online newspaper says the local Greens are likely to recommend a "just vote one" strategy because of the Bligh Government’s failure to back down on its Mary River Dam project. At least the Fairfax web paper had more of a finger on the pulse than the Courier-Mail. When announcing the election today, the latter came out with this gem: “Calling the election today will result in a 27-day campaign, one day longer than the usual minimum 26-day campaign favoured by her predecessor.” Let’s hope they come out with more incisive analysis than that over the next four weeks.

Another News Ltd apparatchik, Andrew Bolt, was a bit more controversial. He said today that Bligh is going to the polls “before voters cotton on to her economic crisis.” While that seems a harsh judgement, Bligh herself gives credence to the idea that the crisis is “hers” when she claims in her poll announcement video she would protect Queensland from the global financial crisis.

But John Quiggin says the government is going early precisely because the people do not blame them for the crisis. He says the fact that Bligh called the poll within a day or so of the credit rating downgrade “is striking”. Quiggin says the rating agencies are no longer trustworthy and the policies required to keep AAA “would have been economically disastrous”. This is a view shared by Nicholas Gruen and Joshua Gans. Gans, who writes at Core Economics, told Woolly Days today that Queensland cutting infrastructure spending “would be disastrous for the economy”.

Ultimately I agree with Quiggin that as the party in power “[t]his election will be won, or lost, by Labor.” But we have what promises to be an eventful campaign ahead to find out which way they play it.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Queensland state election confirmed for 21 March

Anna Bligh has finally ended weeks of speculation and has called an early election for 21 March. She made the announcement fifteen minutes ago on Twitter and backed it up with a Youtube video claiming Queensland faced "a clear choice on 21 March".

More details later.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Queensland loses AAA credit rating

Cross Posted at the new Woolly Days.

On Friday, Queensland became the first Australian state to have its credit downgraded from AAA to AA+. Ratings agency Standard & Poor’s (S&P) said the drop reflected the projected deterioration of the state's budgetary performance and increasing net financial liabilities. S&P said Queensland's balance sheet remains strong but the new rating reflects significant decline in the state's operating revenue due to global conditions and a large capital program. “Queensland's financial performance remains strong but is no longer consistent with an 'AAA' rating,” said the agency.

The announcement came after Queensland Treasurer Andrew Fraser announced the outlook for a $1.6 billion budget deficit for the current year, just two months after the government predicted a modest surplus. Economic growth in Queensland is also forecast to slow further into 2009-10. Fraser blamed the global downturn, rising unemployment and the flood emergency in North Queensland for the revision. He now admits that has said avoiding a recession will be "a close run thing".

Queensland is the only Australian state to lose its AAA credit rating so far. The most obvious implication is that Queensland will have to pay an extra 0.4 per cent in annual interest, equal to around $200 million. State borrowings will cost Queensland $3.2 billion in interest next financial year and total government borrowings for the next three years will be $74 billion. Anna Bligh's Government is forecasting job losses in the coming financial year and a growth rate close to zero. Writing in The Australian yesterday, George Megalogenis says Queensland's collapse is one of Kevin Rudd's darker nightmares because "a Queensland that does no better than the national average will, of itself, increase the risk of recession for the nation."

State Treasurer Andrew Fraser defended Queensland’s position in a press release on Friday. He said the government would “hold its nerve” and retain its economic strategy outlined in December’s Major Economic Statement. He said the infrastructure program will deliver almost 120,000 jobs and accounts for 1 per cent of Queensland’s overall economic growth. “The economy needs the stimulus of the infrastructure spend, to support activity, support demand and support jobs as private investment evaporates,” he said. “We are choosing to put the interests of Queenslanders facing unemployment ahead of the political sanctity of a budget surplus.”

With early election speculation mounting, opposition leader Lawrence Springborg was quick to pounce on the announcement. He said losing the AAA rating was a financial disaster which will cost “the mums and dads” of Queensland hundreds of millions in increased interest payments and will affect jobs. "Quite frankly Labor should be ashamed of putting Queensland behind an economic basket case like New South Wales, which still has its AAA rating,” he said. “We are now the only State in Australia that doesn't have an AAA rating. It's embarrassing.”

Embarrassing or not, Dr Nicholas Gruen thinks the downgrading could spread to other states. Gruen is the CEO of Lateral Economics and writes for Club Troppo and is a frequent contributor to the Australian Financial Review. He told Woolly Days today that although he was not across the specific budgetary details of each government, it seems likely there will be a trend given worsening budget positions. He also defended Fraser’s position saying that now is not the time to cut back on capital works. As Gruen wrote in the AFR in September (unfortunately no link, the article is behind a paywall) “the electorate likes to see governments investing in the future. And the alternative – arbitrarily restricting investment whilst commuters nurse their resentments in traffic jams or waiting for late trains – is a political road to nowhere.”

Meanwhile UQ academic and economist John Quiggin believes that an AAA rating is overrated and rating agencies are themselves part of the problem. He says the global crisis has exposed fundamental weaknesses in the way in which ratings are determined and adjusted. According to Quiggin, the likes of Standard and Poor’s and Moody’s have suffered credibility issues in the crisis and a need a lot of improvements to restore independence and transparency. “The privileged position held by these agencies can no longer be justified,” he writes.

In any case, downgrading is not a purely Australian problem. Both Spain and Greece were downgraded earlier this year. Now the Telegraph.co.uk reports that Britain too could be stripped of its AAA rating. The Telegraph says Standard & Poor’s have indicated it might downgrade Britain’s rating because of its asset protection scheme. The scheme provides insurance for so-called “toxic debt” but the Telegraph warns the scheme leaves “the taxpayer exposed to losses on billions of pounds of bad loans made by the banks.” Yet as the article itself points out, it is very unlikely the UK Government will ever default on its debt commitments. A credit rating downgrade is clearly not the end of the world.

Nicholas Gruen thinks credit ratings should be taken seriously but governments need to take risks in tough times. That means taking on projects and debts that the private sector is now shying away from. He says that an obsession with an AAA rating now stands as an obstacle to governments playing their rightful role in dealing with the economic crisis. “There’s a dynamic to fiscal responsibility and fiscal management,” he said today. “Had the Queensland Government invested more in the easy times, it would be worth more now.”

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Clutter's underbelly: SBS and advertising

I’m trying hard to enjoy the new second series of Underbelly on Channel Nine but am finding the number of ads are making it almost unwatchable. As a general rule, I avoid watching the free-to-air commercial channels live - their ad breaks are too destructive to the momentum of any program. So I pre-recorded Underbelly. But even then, I was annoyed by the number of times I had to fast-forward through the clutter of fifteen second ads. Ad buying in such numbers is huge business for broadcasters, but has the potential to destroy audience by over-saturation.

Advertisers themselves are aware of the problem. The dilemma is that few of them are prepared to pay premiums of up to 40 per cent to ensure fewer ads. Nine also admits there might be a problem but are hiding behind the early success of Underbelly’s 2.4 million audience. “We may need to take a position on the price of 15-second ads to reduce the clutter, “ Nine's network sales boss, Peter Wiltshire told the SMH. “But judging from Monday night's [ratings] performance, people are not too worried about it." The question, Peter, is whether 2.4 million will be still watching after another two or three weeks of this over-exposure.

Over at the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), the marketers are convinced high clutter ads are counter-productive. The state owned station has regulatory limitations on how much commercial airtime and claims this makes it attractive to advertisers. Last week they launched a trade press campaign called “avoid the clutter”. The campaign urges advertisers to switch to SBS because their commercial breaks are the shortest on Australian free-to-air (excepting ABC), and therefore, claims SBS, the advertisers will “get 83% better recall and an audience that’s 45% more engaged.”

The press release does not reveal where those percentages are sourced from, but it is a clever ploy to turn a necessity into a virtue. SBS has become a much savvier commercially-aware network under managing director CEO Shaun Brown. While his innovations since taking over in 2005 (most notably introducing in-program ads) have divided the station’s audiences, he has been steadfast in his desire to reposition the station. Under his leadership, ratings have become a critical measure of the station’s performance - though they remain stuck in the five to six percent region. Nevertheless, as his publicity manager Mike Field said of him, “Brown likes numbers”.

Brown first arrived at the station two years earlier as head of television. He told the authors of “The SBS Story” that when he started he found an organisation captive to the “Anglo arthouse” camp. He criticised the station’s focus on documentaries and foreign movies. “I’ve got no problems with any of those programs, but they are not exactly defining of our charter,” said Brown in the book. Instead he wants an emphasis on locally commissioned content and a shift away from international acquisitions to meet its charter obligations.

The problem is that a major point in the charter is the need to “contribute to meeting the communications needs of Australia's multicultural society.” Firstly with radio and then with television, SBS has become the key cultural institution for ethnic communities in Australia for the last 30 years. But while movies, documentaries and sport have long been core multicultural programming on SBS TV, that type of content has been threatened by the new delivery platforms of the 2000s. New competitors in the form of Pay TV, broadband Internet, DVDs and digital TV have led to a general decline in television viewing (particularly among the young).

SBS has responded in three ways; by programming more populist, imported English language shows (Mythbusters, Top Gear, South Park), enhancing the brand’s online presence, and most crucially, giving greater prominence to advertising. Brown defends these measures by saying the channel must become more relevant “for all Australians”. As he said in his speech to the Press Club in 2007 (attachment of speech opens in document format): “How can we be relevant, justify the public expenditure and meet our Charter obligations if only a fraction of Australians are tuning in?”

The question of public expenditure becomes relevant again later this year as SBS Triennial funding comes up for renewal. The review has re-opened SBS’s whole raison d’etre. A couple of years ago, Paul Sheehan ruffled feathers when he called the station “an indulgence we don’t need”. He said the international news, sport and entertainment pay TV channels didn’t exist when SBS TV was conceived in 1979. Sheehan said the Government could raise billions by selling SBS and its digital spectrum. “SBS is now standing in the way of quality,” he said.

Brown disagrees and argues the new SBS model creates quality content. He says the advertising revenue generated by programs such as Top Gear cross-subsidises innovative locally commissioned content. For him, commercialism enhances the station’s public service mandate. But there is a tension between the two that must be negotiated. SBS’s core principles of difference and diversity remain valid. In-program ads not only increase revenue but also allow for effective cross-promotion of other SBS programs. The problem is that the station may sacrifice its distinctiveness in the search for all-encompassing advertising revenue. Perhaps the clutter argument is an acknowledgement is that less is more for a public broadcaster.

Note: article cross-posted at my new Wordpress blog

Friday, February 20, 2009

Egypt releases Ayman Nour

Egypt is still coming to terms with the surprise release of former opposition leader Ayman Nour. Nour was released from a Cairo prison on Wednesday after Egypt’s attorney general announced late on Wednesday that nine prisoners, including Nour, had been released for “medical reasons.” The government rationale was challenged by Nour's appearance as he emerged from prison in what seemed like rude good health. He had served three years of a five year jail term on politically motivated trumped up forgery charges.

According to The Arabist, American media pressure is responsible for Nour’s release. It came just two days after the Washington Post said the new administration should not deal with Hosni Mubarak unless Nour was freed. The Arabist says the release signals a new intent in US-Egypt relations. Eight softly-softly years of the Bush administration had failed to effect any lasting change in the Egyptian polity and perhaps Obama’s new hardline stance might work.

Obama has been aware of Nour since August when he wrote a letter to the then-presidential candidate. Nour told Obama his real charge was that he was a competitor to Mubarak in the 2007 presidential elections. He said he threatened Mubarak’s dream to bequeath the presidency to his son. At the time of the election Nour was the leader of the Hizb el-Ghad party. In December 2005, he was imprisoned for five years on forgery charges. At the time, the Bush administration claimed it was 'deeply troubled' by his conviction but did little to seek his release.

Nour, a 44-year-old lawyer, was the main challenger to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt's first multi-party presidential elections in 2005. Officially he only took seven percent of the vote but no external monitors were allowed to check the results. Despite winning easily, Mubarak was not happy with Egypt’s brief experiment with democracy. He conjured up a charge that Nour faked signatures on petitions he had filed to create his party. Hundreds of riot police cordoned off the courthouse entrance as Nour was sentenced to five years’ hard labour.

According to the terms of his release, Nour is prohibited from seeking public office barring a presidential pardon. In a press conference yesterday he said would not resume his post as Ghad party leader but instead promised to rebuild it in a new role. Speaking at the party headquarters in Cairo (which was still a shell after being suspiciously burnt down in November), he said he would be responsible for organisational work inside the party. But few doubt he is preparing for another tilt at the presidency.

Nour faces a Herculean task to overcome the institutional bias in favour of the president who has ruled Egypt for almost three decades. Hosni Mubarak was sworn in on 14 October 1981, eight days after Islamist militants assassinated Anwar Sadat at a military parade in Cairo. Despite a low domestic and international profile, Mubarak consolidated power thanks to a period of domestic stability and prosperity. He has also kept the country under emergency law for his entire period in office which has proved convenient for keeping dissent to a minimum. But as he turns 80 this year, attention is focussing on his son Gamal who is being groomed to take over. Nour’s release may affect Gamal more than his father Hosni. “I am against bequeathing the presidency,” Nour warned yesterday. “I was against it before and I will remain against it.”

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Queensland election watch: Here for a long time not a good time

Led by feverish prognostications from the Opposition and News Limited journalists, Queensland has been on early election watch since the start of the year. As the only state in Australia to mirror the federal three year term, ALP Premier Anna Bligh must call an election by September. Though Bligh’s formal position is that she will not call an early election, most parties (Labor included) are already campaigning as if an election was imminent.

Despite the volatility of three year terms, Queensland has had remarkably stable government for almost a century. If Bligh wins, as the quantitative and qualitative opinion polls still predict, it will be Labor’s fifth successive victory in eleven years. And aside from Borbridge's two year hiccup 1996-1998, Labor have ruled Queensland for 18 of the last 20 years. Before that was the 31 year rule of the Nationals whose length in power was dragged out by the larger than life Sir Joh and his clever media adviser Allen Callaghan. Looking back even further, Labor ruled the state for 40 years from 1917 to 1957.

These results show that Queenslanders are conservative because they dislike change not because they dislike Labor. In 2007 the state played a two-hander with NSW in getting Labor (and their own Prime Minister and Treasurer) over the victory line. At a state level, most of their decade in power was under Premier Peter Beattie. Beattie was a consummate media performer who glided his way effortlessly through crisis after crisis to claim victory after victory. But by September 2007 his crash or crash through philosophy was taking its toll. Premier Pete could be tarted up no longer and he stepped aside to let Anna Bligh take over.

Bligh had two years to create a new image for Queensland Labor before she would have to face the voters. As she told the audience at last year’s ALP state conference, “I knew when I took on this job that the next election would be tough”. Surprisingly, this was the only reference to her date with destiny in the speech. But if she wins, she will create history as Australia’s first elected female Premier (both Lawrence in WA and Kirner in Victoria were defeated at the first time of asking). She remains favourite to do exactly that.

At the very beginning of 2009, psephologist Malcolm McKerras was one of the first to openly predict this outcome when he wrote in The Australian that “Labor will hang on in Queensland” He predicted that result even though he thinks the two-party preferred vote is likely to be tied 50:50 which represents a five percent swing to the opposition. The problem is that they need a swing of 7.6 per cent to get an equal number of seats.

McKerras says that thanks to a major exercise in seat abolitions and re-distributions last August, Labor should fall over the line to win the election. The conservative parties have lost out more in the Electoral Commissions rejigging of boundaries (pdf). One interesting re-distribution example that may not work for the government is Clayfield. McKerras noted that a redistribution of notionally Labor voters in Clayfield has made LNP’s sitting MP Tim Nicholls vulnerable. While I was directly affected by this re-distribution – and resent being typecast as a Labor voter – I agree with McKerras and expect Nicholls to hold just about hold on, mostly due to his high public profile after an unsuccessful run at Liberal leader in 2007.

But the LNP could do even better still if Bligh does not adhere to McKerras’s prediction caveat. “She will call an early election at her peril,” he warned, pointing at Labor’s shock loss last year in WA and near defeat in the NT. In both elections, large Labor majorities were lost when over-confident state leaders went to the polls early. But most observers now think that a late wet season election is exactly what Bligh intends to have (though Mark Bahnisch believes the window of opportunity for an early election is just two more weeks). If Bligh is gambling that Queenslanders won’t judge their government harshly by going early, it can only be because she thinks things are going to be a whole lot worse if she waits till September.

Whatever the date, the phoney war has started. Bligh dipped her toes into the digital election with the launch of Anna4Qld.com.au last week. Neither Andrew Bartlett nor Graham Young were impressed by the site. Says Young, “the site pretends to be Web 2.0 when it is so slick and spin-heavy that it shouts 'phony'". In my own view, the crucial point about the site was the re-branding of “Anna”. You had to look deep onto the homepage to find the word “Labor” in small font.

Meanwhile Lawrence Springborg is playing with his own shiny new brand. The Liberal National Party sprung into being last year and this election is its first electoral test. How will the new party perform? Behind the rusted-on marriage of Nationals and Liberals is the old Nationals party machine backed up by the cash of Clive Palmer. BRW says Palmer is worth $1.5 billion but the man himself thinks he has $6.5 billion which would make him the richest man in Australia. Whatever it is, it makes him wealthy enough to support vanity projects such as his son Michael’s tilt at a safe Labor seat and his fondness for defamation suits. However, it is also extremely likely he will also provide a strong war chest for LNP’s upcoming media campaign.

The problem is, as The Poll Bludger quotes Paul Williams: “Brisbane’s progressive Liberals will not vote for a party headed by a National.” Queensland’s own psephologist Scott Steel at Pollytics also succinctly defined Springborg’s problem as “Brisbane”. He says Springborg will face a third defeat as leader because he is unable to jump over the “rather large chasm that separates the Liberal and National party constituencies.” Steel believes Springborg’s anti-green attitudes will scare off urban Liberal voters who also have environmental sympathies.


Antony Green
also calls Springborg’s task “Herculean”. Majority government for the LNP requires 22 seats and a swing of 8.3 per cent. The last time Queensland saw uniform swings of that scale was in 1989 when the disgraced Nationals were turfed out of power. But Green also notes that 2006 was an overwhelming election victory at an election that should have been much closer. And also, perhaps more pertinently, he points out that the LNP has so far avoided serious internal dispute.

While Labor has no scandal on its conscience the size of the Fitzgerald Inquiry, it is looking tattered away from the shiny Anna brand. There are several members retiring and possibly more to follow. Tonight, the MP for the marginal seat of Chatsworth, Chris Bombolas gave his former employees at Brisbane Channel Nine news an exclusive to announce he was not seeking re-election due to health reasons. That same Channel Nine news used the story of the long-running flood in North Queensland to point fingers at the “inaction” of the government and show grumbling locals unhappy with the speed of a rescue operation. Last night the same station quoted Opposition frontbencher Ray Hopper who compared it to Bush’s Katrina moment.

While Bligh was quick to denounce Hopper’s statement as bad taste, the jibe may have served its purpose. The LNP might well capitalise on ennui and electoral distaste for an early election. Bligh aside, Labor are beginning to look like a tired government that are simply out of answers. They may also be victims of a reverse zeitgeist that sees Labor entrenched federally, and on the way out in the states. In some respects it doesn’t matter; Queensland is unlikely to be served well by a new government of either persuasion. The ALP and the LNP are both too consumed by a love of the state’s copious coal reserves. Either government will need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the new 21st century greenhouse realities.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

General strike escalates in Guadeloupe and Martinique

A four week old general strike has escalated into riots on the French-controlled islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Today a union representative was shot dead as he drove up to a barricade in Guadeloupe's largest city Pointe-à-Pitre, though it is not known who shot him. The Caribbean island had been brought to a standstill for nearly a month by strikes and demonstrations over high prices for food and other necessities. Yesterday protesters ransacked shops and torched cars in several towns across the island. The violence has also spread to the nearby island of Martinique. France has deployed over one hundred riot police to both islands and last night police used tear gas to disperse protesters. The president of the local regional council admitted Guadeloupe was "on the verge of revolt."

That island's mostly peaceful demonstrations were coordinated by an alliance of about 50 unions and associations. The collective goes by the name of "Liyannaj Kont Pwofitasyon" (LKP) which is local dialect for "Stand Up Against Exploitation." The LKP demanded aid and pay rises for workers struggling to survive on an island with a high cost of living. On 30 January they organised a protest of 60,000 people in Pointe-à-Pitre, which represents 15 percent of the island’s total population. LKP have shut down petrol stations, ports, supermarkets, banks and government offices and the strike has caused power blackouts and food and water shortages. The island’s main airport was also closed down yesterday after many employees failed to turn up for work.

With Martinique also now joining the strike action and riots, France sent its minister for overseas territories to the region yesterday for a second round of emergency talks. Yves Jégo left the Caribbean last week after promising €180m in aid to the poor. But France steadfastly refuses to meet the main demand for a monthly €200 increase in base salaries. Patrick Lozès, the head of France's umbrella group of black associations Cran, blamed racial discrimination for the government’s refusal to accede to Guadeloupe’s demands. "Is it normal,” he asked, “that, 160 years after the abolition of slavery, the descendants of colonists possess 90 per cent of Guadeloupe's riches, but represent only 1 per cent of the population?”

The racial theme is also important in Martinique where the mainly black demonstrators chanted "Martinique is ours, not theirs!" Whites dominate the economy of both islands despite representing only around one percent of the population. Both Guadeloupe and Martinique are French overseas regions in the euro zone. France acquired Guadeloupe in the 1630s and was developed for sugar plantations worked by African slaves who still form the vast majority of the population. The islands were disputed by Britain but awarded to France in petty recompense for the loss of Canada in 1763. Today Guadeloupe still depends on sugar and rum production as well as tourism. But both islands’ economy is topped up with support from France. Both Guadeloupe and Martinique were formally assimilated into the metropole in 1946 when they became two of the four departments d’outre mer (along with Guyane and Reunion) with elected departmental and regional councils as well as representation in the French parliament.

While none of the departments d’outre mer have their own currency, postage stamps or official flags, they are still considered second class French citizens in many respects. Unemployment is double that of the mainland and Guadeloupe is considered one of the poorest areas of the EU. France outlawed one major pro-independence group in Guadeloupe in the 1980s. But despite the implied racism of the colonial system, there is no great nationalistic passion in either island. Only a tiny percentage of people in either Guadeloupe or Martinique have ever voted for independence movements. No party in either department has been able to articulate how it would manage economic and social development without French assistance. Even today, the demonstrators on the islands want Paris to do more, not less.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Giles Ungpakorn flees to England to avoid Thai lèse majesté charges

Thai corrections department officials told Australian Associated Press yesterday that they have recommended Harry Nicolaides receive a royal pardon. The department’s Pardons Division is now finalising the evidence before making a petition to the minister and eventually sending it to King Bhumibol Adulyadel for his official signature. Nicolaides was sentenced a month ago for insulting the monarchy in his 2005 novel Verisimilitude. But while Nicolaides is likely to be freed in a matter of months, a local man charged of the same crime fled to Britain last week to avoid prosecution.

Giles (Ji) Ungpakorn was charged last month under the lèse-majesté law over a book about the country's military coup in 2006. Ungpakorn was facing up to 15 years in jail if convicted under the laws. He said he was targeted for political reasons because his 2007 book, A Coup for the Rich (full text in pdf format here), criticised the military for ousting Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The book said the coup's leaders claimed 'royal legitimacy' in order to hide the authoritarian intentions of the military junta. Last week he fled to Oxford where he sent an email to Associated Press saying there was no justice in Thailand. He also warned that "the regime seems to be inching towards a police state.”

A police spokesman denied the charge. Lieutenant General Wacharapon Prasatrachakit said there is no reason to believe Ungpakorn will not receive a fair trial. "We have to look into the complaint, like every other complaint, and give everyone their chance to defend themselves,” he said. “This case is no different.” However he refused to elaborate further on the circumstances of this case.

The 54 year old Ungpakorn is a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, Thailand’s oldest university. Ungkaporn is well known for his dissident socialism within Thailand and has made plenty of enemies with his anti-coup views. He claimed that the director of a university bookshop stocking his book had informed the special branch that it "insulted the monarchy". He received a police summons on 20 January on charges arising out of passages in the first chapter of his book deemed insulting to King Bhumibol.

He was given 20 days to respond before it was decided whether to prosecute him. He was due to report back to police on Monday 9 February but Ungpakorn and his wife left the country before the 20 days were up. “I was very worried that I would be detained at the airport,” he said. “My wife thought someone might try and kill me because she received death threats on the phone.”

The pair successfully fled to Oxford where they are now living with family friends. Ungkaporn holds British citizenship thanks to an English mother and a son. He studied at Sussex and Durham universities and the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He also worked as a lab technician for Oxford University for 12 years in the 1980s and 1990s and his son still attends school in Oxford. Upon arrival back in Britain last weekend, he told reporters that the real cause of the charge was about preventing discussion on the relationship between the military junta and the monarchy. "This is in order to protect the military's sole claim to legitimacy: that it acted in the interests of the monarchy,” he said. "There is a climate of fear."

While Ungkaporn’s speech may have been somewhat hyperbolic, there is little doubt Thailand is brutally cracking down on free speech. The government has been using the draconian measures in the 2007 Computer Crime Act to censor the Internet for ill-defined reasons of national security including lèse majesté. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) noted Thailand's Ministry of Information Communication and Technology closed down over two thousand Web sites last month for posting materials deemed offensive to the monarchy. The Justice Ministry has said it plans to seek court orders to shut down an additional four thousand Web sites for the same reason.

Last month the CPJ wrote a letter to new Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva outlining its concern at Thai media oppression. As well as Nicolaides and Ungkaporn, several others have been charged with offences under the lèse majesté laws. The letter expressed alarm at “the increasing use of lèse majesté charges, which restrict public criticism of the royal family, to intimidate journalists and censor the Internet.”

However the response has not been promising. Last week, Vejjajiva gave an exclusive interview to the Singapore Straits Times where he defended the laws. “A lot of countries have contempt of court laws, because the courts have to be neutral and respected,” he said. “The monarchy is a revered institution above politics and conflicts and therefore has no self-defence mechanism, that's why we have the law.”

Monday, February 16, 2009

East Timor presses charges against Jose Belo

East Timorese journalist Jose Antonio Belo has returned home from Australia where he was seeking support against an upcoming prosecution over his attempts to expose official corruption. Belo is the editor and founder of popular Timorese weekly newspaper Tempo Semanal. He is facing a six year jail sentence after being charged with criminal defamation. Last year Belo wrote an article that suggested Justice Minister Lucia Lobato had improperly awarded government contracts to friends and business contacts. The article was based on text messages the newspaper had received which suggested corrupt dealings by the government minister.

While the trial date has not been set, the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN) called on East Timor’s prosecutor-general to drop the criminal defamation charges against the paper and its editor. On 26 January, John M. Miller, ETAN’s National Coordinator said neither should have to face charges under an “obsolete and repressive law”. Timor’s repressive defamation laws were inherited from its old Indonesian masters. ETAN says the Timorese government had proposed decriminalising defamation under a new penal code. However the new code has not yet been enacted, although drafted several years ago. He now urges the state to drop the charges. “Rather than attack the messenger,” he said, “Timor-Leste's leadership should support freedom of expression and encourage a dynamic, investigative media”.

Tempo Semanal published the offending article entitled “SMS texts evidence: Minister for Justice Gives Herself And Friends Projects” on 12 October 2008. In it, Tempo claimed they had received SMS texts which were exchanged by the Minister for Justice Lucia Lobato and Timorese and international businessmen. The text messages were discussions for a tender to construct a new fence for the Becora prison, the acquisition of uniforms for prison officers, and the design, issuance and management of national identity documentation. The issue was that the million dollar discussions took place before these projects were sent out for public tender.

The minister argued Belo violated her privacy and journalists’ ethical code by publishing the text messages. The government served notice to Belo in December he was facing defamation charges. However the Office of the Prosecutor-General refused to give Tempo Semanal a copy of the charges claiming the relevant documents were confidential. On 19 January, the prosecutor’s office questioned him for three hours. Belo said he does not any money or any resources to fight the charges. “So we can't fight a person who has influence [and] who has money,” he said. “I presume it is very, very difficult to win this case in the court."

This is not the first time Belo has faced imprisonment. He was a member of the clandestine resistance movement against Indonesian rule and was arrested in 1995, aged 23, after being involved in a peaceful demonstration calling for the release of independence leader Xanana Gusmao. Belo spent the next 18 months in jail. Afterwards he fled to the mountains to join the guerrilla fighters. He was captured in 1997 and spent more time in jail. He was released before the 1999 referendum that voted for independence and he went on to report the subsequent Indonesian massacres.

Since then he has worked as a freelance correspondent and cameraman with Associated Press, the ABC, SBS and Channel Seven. In 2006, he founded Tempo Semanal with $500 of his own money, a $1000 donation and one computer. For the first six months, his staff worked without pay. But its circulation grew rapidly and he now employs 20 staff. Belo accuses the government of not genuinely wanting freedom of speech in East Timor. “They don't want the journalists to do some hard stories, that's why they go after me.” he told ABC’s PM this evening. “And if they get me then other journalists are not going to be brave to do the hard stories.”

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Spain demands talks on Gibraltar's sovereignty

A senior Spanish official has called for urgent discussions with Britain to discuss the question of Gibraltar. Socialist spokesperson in the Spanish Committee on Foreign Affairs, Senator José Carracao met British embassy official Andrew Whitaker yesterday and demanded (translated in English here) talks about Gibraltar’s sovereignty without further delay. Carracao said it is was a “bilateral issue” and called for greater police co-operation against smuggling operations and a greater Spanish economic presence in Gibraltar. The senator wanted to convene a mini summit of the Spanish government “to reflect on” the Gibraltar question.

His calls were not welcomed on the tiny 6 sq km Rock. Gibfocus.gi quoted Gibraltar’s Progressive Democratic Party leader Keith Azopardi who said Carracao’s attitude was a “blast from the past” and “a stark reminder of what Gibraltar must continue to struggle against.” Azopardi insisted on the need for Gibraltar’s citizens to be consulted before any decision is made about the Rock’s future. Spain must…accept that if we are really to move forward and enjoy a modern relationship with our neighbours,” he said, “Gibraltar’s sovereignty morally, legally and politically vests in its people.”

While there remains strong support on the Rock for a continued alliance with Britain, the 30,000 population itself is more diverse. The majority are European in origin but not necessarily British. Most descend from Spanish, Genoese or Maltese ancestors with a sizeable minority of North Africans. But its political system is resolutely British. Gibraltar’s constitution dates from 1969 and only the parliament in Westminster has the right to amend it. The governor is normally a retired military officer. He (and they have all been male since beginning in 1704) presides over the Gibraltar Council of a speaker, three other ex-officio members and 15 elected members. The colony enjoys a large measure of autonomy though its residents have right of abode in the UK.

Gibraltar occupies one of the historically significant strategic positions in Europe guarding the entrance to the Mediterranean from the Atlantic. Known in antiquity as the northern end of the Pillars of Hercules, it has long been vital outpost for defence and trade. In 711 Arabs crossed the straight to begin their conquest of Spain led by Tariq Zayad. He gave his name to the Djabal-al-Tariq (Tariq’s mountain) which became Gibraltar in Spanish. Spain briefly recaptured Tariq’s mountain in 1309 (before losing it back to the sultan of Fes) and took it again in 1462.

They held onto it until 1704 when a combined Anglo-Dutch force captured the fortress on the Rock during the War of the Spanish Succession. In 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht ended that war and awarded the “town and castle of Gibraltar” to Britain. It became a crown colony in 1830 ruled by a military administration. Their responsibilities were heightened after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The Rock continued to play a large role in the 20th century wars though its entire civilian population was evacuated in World War II. When they returned in 1945 they elected their first city council. In 1969 the new constitution enshrined the right to prevent the people of Gibraltar from passing “under the sovereignty of another state against their freely and democratically expressed wishes.”

Spain never accepted it had relinquished sovereignty in the Treaty of Utrecht. However their opposition to British rule remained symbolic until 1964 when Franco approached the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation about the Gibraltar question. Spain claimed it was a colonial anachronism and said Gibraltarians did not have a right to self-determination because they were an artificial population created by British imperialism. Franco closed the Spanish consulate in the colony, restricted passage across the border and closed Spanish airspace to British air traffic.

Britain retaliatiated with a local referendum on Gibraltar’s future. The result was unsurprisingly overwhelming. 12,138 voted to keep the link with Britain; just 44 people voted against it. Spain then closed the border completely, ending a ferry link, and cutting phone lines. The stalemate lasted until well after Franco’s death in 1975. Spain finally softened its attitude in line with its attempts to join NATO and the EC (now EU) and partially reopened the border in 1982. It offered Gibraltar autonomous status similar to Catalonia but conceded it would need the support of the native population.

However that support seems unlikely to arrive anytime soon. Opinion polls consistently show 90 percent oppose any change in the colony’s status. In the 1990s, the local government attempted to stimulate the local economy after the Royal Navy ceased using the shipyard for construction and repairs. Their lax tax policies attracted offshore banks and businesses. Tourism has expanded as has Gibraltar itself with a project to reclaim 300,000 sq m of land from the sea. However tobacco and drug-smuggling from Morocco has become a major policing problem. Every night dozens of boats leave Gibraltar for the Spanish coast mainly laden with tobacco and hashish causing Spain to complain it loses millions in customs revenues.

It is this problem that Carrasco wants to exploit in order to re-establish Spanish influence. But other than repeating claims to Spanish sovereignty, he does not offer any permanent workable solution to the colony’s future. And Spanish argument about colonialism is undermined by its own Moroccan-based enclaves Ceuta and Melilla. Among the options discussed in the past that might satisfy Spain is a British lease-back arrangement (similar to Hong Kong) but this is unpopular in Britain and unacceptable to the locals. No party seems to want total integration with the UK but total independence is equally unfeasible as Gibraltar would not survive without financial support.

There is also the example of other European micro-states such as Monaco and San Marino who delegate some sovereignty to larger nations however Spain would need to be convinced of the viability of this option. The colony’s chief minister Peter Caruana was also concerned the colony would become a victim of the warming relationship between Britain and Spain after the Iraq War. “We are delighted that Britain and Spain should get on well together” said Caruana in 2003, “but do not think [Spain] should expect any payoff related to Gibraltar and our British sovereignty.” This rock will long continue to be a hard place for British and Spanish relations.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Netanyahu still favourite to form government in Israel

Likud leader Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu is clinging on to his belief that he will be Israel’s next Prime Minister despite Tzipi Livni’s surprisingly good showing in Tuesday’s election. Final results released yesterday defied the opinion polls and confirmed that Livni's Kadima party has a one seat advantage over Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party. Kadima won 28 seats and Likud 27 in the 120-seat parliament leaving both well short of a workable majority. Nevertheless both sides have claimed victory. The Interpreter put the resulting confusion best with its headline of “Tzipi wins, Bibi leads and everybody is in government”.

But one of Tzipi or Bibi must take the spoils. Netanyahu maintains he should be given the first chance to form a government because of the broad right-wing make-up of the new parliament he says would back him ahead of the more centrist Livni. He can rely on the 12 seats of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party while the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party (who finished third with 15 seats) is also likely to back him. Its leader Avigdor Lieberman is angling to become finance minister in a Netanyahu administration. Meanwhile the Likud leader received a boost yesterday when the small Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party which gained three seats confirmed they also would support him. President Shimon Peres now has two weeks to decide who will get the chance to lead the horse-trading.

If Netanyahu does win, it will be his second coming as Prime Minister. He succeeded Yitzhak Shamir as Likud leader when the latter retired after his 1993 election loss. Netanyahu immediately cultivated the ultra-right in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords signed by the Labor government. He attended rallies organised by extremist groups where the mob called for the death of the “Oslo criminals” (Labor leaders Rabin and Peres) and compared them to Nazi collaborators by calling them “Judenrat”. Netanyahu played a key role in inciting the rising tide of hatred against Rabin. After one suicide bomb in Tel Aviv, he pinned the blame squarely on the Prime Minister, “I accuse you [Rabin] of direct responsibility for stirring up Arab terror…You are guilty. This blood is on your head”. Netanyahu’s feverish pronouncements led to their inevitable conclusion when a disgruntled right-wing settler assassinated Rabin in November 1995.

The tensions caused by the suicide campaign prevented Labor’s Shimon Peres from capitalising on Rabin’s death. And Netanyahu’s election in 1996 as Prime Minister spelled the end of Israel’s acceptance of the Oslo Accords, though he did not significantly change Israeli policy on the issue. Nor was his government’s stance on the Palestinian question radically different from that of Rabin’s before him or Peres’ and Barak’s after him. Both the Likud and Labor Prime Ministers believed in the imposition of a strong Jewish state dominating a small Palestinian protectorate. Netanyahu’s policy promise was what he called “the three no(s)”: no withdrawal from Golan, no compromise on Jerusalem, no negotiations with the Palestinians. However he broke that last promise in office and signed an accord with Arafat in 1997 to withdraw Israeli forces from Hebron. This was the beginning of the end for Netanyahu and he was defeated by Peres’ Labor Party in 1999.

Netanyahu’s hawkishness was marginalised after Ariel Sharon took power in 2001 and eventually broke away to form Kadima. But as Barry Rubin says, Netanyahu has himself moved towards the centre in recent years. He also states that in Israel he is now more acclaimed for his “brilliant handling of the economy” when he was minister of finance in Sharon’s government between 2003 and 2005. However Rubin concedes that it won’t be easy for Netanyahu to form government and his “ability to corral a half-dozen quarrelling parties is unlikely.”

The least complicated outcome might see Likud and Kadima forming a coalition government. While Lipni may be reluctant to serve under Netanyahu, Ha’aretz considers it a live possibility. The Israeli newspaper quotes a source saying Kadima would demand the key foreign and defence portfolios in a Netanyahu administration. The way might then also be open for Livni to inherit the premiership in a couple of years. Another advantage of this arrangement could see Likud do away with some of its more extreme (and potentially embarrassing) rightist and ultra-Orthodox allies. As a Netanyahu aide admitted to Ha’aretz, "such a government would be hard to govern and very unpopular with the general population.”