Monday, March 30, 2009

Anti-Bikie laws and moral panic

State and territory governments across Australia are rushing new and dangerous laws onto the statute books to combat what has been deemed the latest public enemy: motorbike gangs. Australian media have been keen to play up the perceived problem with “spates of shocking violence” while governments across the nation rub their hands in glee with the opportunity to enact “tough anti-bikie laws”. However, there are justifiable concerns that these draconian new laws are open to abuse and are effectively the equivalent of anti-terrorism laws for domestic uses.

South Australia was the first state to introduce anti-bikie laws nine months ago based on similar Canadian laws. There gang membership can attract a prison sentence of five years. Announcing the laws in 2007, Premier Mike Rann said at the time they were designed to disrupt criminal activity, dismantle organised crime networks and discourage others from trying to set up in South Australia. Among the law’s powers are: giving courts the power to control with whom gang members can associate with, issuing Public Safety Orders to ban gangs from specified places, prohibiting the possession of hydroponic equipment such as high intensity lights and carbon filters, confiscating “unexplained wealth” and introducing a presumption against bail for gang members charged with serious or violent offences and breaches of control orders. Rann said there were eight known criminal bikie gangs with bases in South Australia with about 250 hardcore members.

The Biker Forum called the SA laws “the toughest anti-bikie laws in the world”. The writer was keen to make a distinction between motorcycle gangs and people who love motorbikes. The Queensland based “grotbag” said there are thousands of Gold Coasters who love to ride motorbikes. “Let's never confuse them with motorcycle gangs, those groups of mainly men whose illicit drug trafficking, standover tactics, extortion, money laundering, weapons trade and public disturbances have earned them a fearsome reputation,” he (or she) wrote. “Annual hospital toy runs on one day of the year don't make up for their criminal behaviour on the other 364 days.”

However Monash University academic and bikie gang expert Dr Arthur Veno said South Australia is undergoing a “moral panic attack” and called for the establishment of an independent commission against corruption. Veno said the SA legislation, implemented as part of the Serious and Organised Crime Act, was draconian and did not have any basis in fact. He said the Rann Government had labelled outlaw motorcycle clubs as public enemy number one despite the facts not supporting the assertion. “Crime attributable to bikie gangs as a proportion of total crime is extremely low - less than one per cent,” he said. “No one is saying that these clubs are criminal free, but the Rann Government and the South Australian Police are basically wasting taxpayers' money to target an element of society which is responsible for a miniscule amount of crime."

The new law has several problems. They provide the Attorney General with wide discretionary powers to deem organisations 'criminal'; they don’t adequately define organised crime; and they provide no appeals process for those organisations branded under the legislation. As well, the guilt by association provisions are a deep concern. Under the act, anyone who associates with “persons of a prescribed class” (a member of an outlawed organisation) can be convicted if they meet six or more times in 12 months. Though there are provisions for family members and employers, they can be overruled and a conviction carries a maximum period of imprisonment of five years.

There are reports that NSW’s proposed new laws are tougher still. Sydney Airport was the scene of the most prominent bikie attack recently when a man was killed at the domestic terminal on 22 March. Under Premier Nathan Rees’ new laws, motorcycle gangs would be outlawed, the type of employment bikies can seek would be restricted and police intelligence networks would be expanded. Once again it is a draconian solution to a noisy but, on the whole, tiny problem. As Arthur Veno says “in NSW, all gang crime accounts for 0.6 per cent of total crime. Now, how much resources do we want to pour down that tube?”

But the public (read: media) clamour “to do something about it” is proving too difficult for politicians to resist. On the weekend, the Northern Territory Police Commissioner called for similar legislation to outlaw bikie gangs. Commissioner Paul White claimed the groups would “stop at nothing." And were involved in murder, intimidation, violence, and stand-over tactics. This seemed to be a lot of activity for a small group. Even White admitted there were “only a dozen Hell's Angels members in the Territory.” Nevertheless he got his wish today. Attorney-general Delia Lawrie announced new laws saying she not want bikie gangs arriving from other states. The laws allow streamlined court orders so gang clubroom fortifications could be dismantled, place and membership restrictions, and a declaration process to outlaw certain gangs.

The Not In My Backyard attitude is now likely to spread to Queensland. As are the meaningless slogans. The State Government doesn’t want the Sunshine State to become a "safe haven" for outlawed motorcycle gangs while the cabinet met today in order to consider its own “crack down”. Newly re-elected Premier Anna Bligh accidentally left the cat out of the bag why the legislation was being fast-tracked. "New South Wales has decided it needs to act quickly, and I don't believe Queensland should be exposed in a context where New South Wales is acting,” she said. While Bligh meant legal exposure, her issue is media exposure and avoiding a reputation of being soft on crime. While governments prefer to deal with perception, the real bikie problem will only be driven underground. Meanwhile, we can fully expect the scope of the laws to be broadened to cover the next panic du jour, whatever that might be.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Christian Science Monitor moves online

The Christian Science Monitor (CSM) has joined the growing litany of newspapers that is stopping its daily print run. On Friday it published its last edition. The 100 year old paper’s editor John Yemma announced the move saying, “as of today, we are shedding print on a daily basis.” The editor said it was necessary to keep the paper relevant and to move toward financial sustainability. The paper is currently posting net losses of $18.9 million a year on $12.5 million in revenue. The CSM, in common with almost every other newspaper on the planet has been suffering decreasing readership and reduced advertising revenues.

Yemma said that in to order to survive in today’s business environment, newspapers everywhere were “taking radical steps”. Some were decreasing print frequency, some were web only. Others still have shut down or gone into to receivership. Common to all of them is the collapse in classified advertising which is moving towards free web platforms. Yemma’s own hand was forced as circulation dipped below 50,000 (from a high water mark of 223,000 in 1970). “Saying goodbye to daily print closes an era,” he said. “But the Monitor itself…is becoming more daily than ever.”

The paper is not totally shutting down the presses - there will still be a weekly print edition which will commence operation on 12 April. Unlike most newspapers the CSM mainly relies on mail subscribers. The 44-page weekly edition (the daily edition ran 20 pages) will cost $89 a year to subscribe (down from $219 currently) and this move will reduce costs by $10 million. The editorial team has reduced from 97 to 80 in the last year and there may be other layoffs. But Yemma says the paper’s core value won’t change. “We are putting on new clothes for a new era, but we are the same Monitor, committed to the same objective we have adhered to since we were launched a century ago: `to injure no man but to bless all mankind,'” he said.

The CSM is a Boston-based non-profit publication. It wants to lessen its reliance on subsidies, which totalled about $20 million last year. Of that figure, $13.3 million came from its owner, the First Church of Christ, Scientist and another $6.8 million came from an endowment fund. The paper was started by the Church's founder Mary Baker Eddy in 1908. Despite its name and ownership, the Christian Science Monitor is not overtly religious. However its church ownership, allied a public-service mission, and commitment to covering the world has given the paper a strong independent voice in journalism. As Business Week says, its strong suit is sober analysis, not breaking news.

Consumer advocate and serial presidential candidate Ralph Nader is a former reporter for the CSM. He said received the news of the paper’s print closure with “special sadness”. The paper launched his freelance writing career after he graduated from Harvard Law School. He wrote for the business, travel and foreign affairs pages and was paid $75 an article. “I'll always remember the Monitor as a liberator, a polite agitator, an open-minded newspaper that gave voice to many writers in many places around the world,” he said. “It is only a small stretch to describe this newspaper as an early successful experiment in "open-source" journalism.”

The new move to digital follows a similar move by the high profile Seattle Post-Intelligencer recently. But as Jeff Bercovici warns, going digital is no guarantee to salvation. The business model is unproven and the advertising revenue is not yet there to make general interest journalism pay for itself. No one is exactly sure how to turn the online advertising audience into revenue. Other newspapers such as The Ann Arbor News and the Rocky Mountain News could not take that risk and shut down completely. Yemma himself admits the strategy is risky: "I feel like this is a high-wire act that we're all doing."

The scale of that high wire act is acknowledged in The State of the News Media 2009 released earlier this month. The sixth such report, it is also the bleakest and says some of its numbers are “chilling”. Newspaper ad revenues are down by a quarter in the last two years. Some papers have gone bankrupt while others have lost three-quarters of their value. Nearly one out of every five journalists working for newspapers in 2001 is now gone, and 2009 may be the worst yet. It says the combination of the Global Financial Crisis and the migration of the audience to the web is proving fatal. “The problem facing American journalism is not fundamentally an audience problem or a credibility problem,” it says. “It is a revenue problem—the decoupling…of advertising from news.”

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Earth Hour revisited: Critics and symbols

One of most popular page on this website is the post I wrote exactly a year ago called “Earth Hour: 60 Minute gimmicks”. The title is a bit of a giveaway; I disliked 2008 Earth Hour’s gimmicky nature and its purely symbolic meaning (as science has yet to show the event saves emissions). But as this years event approached today, I was also increasingly uneasy about my role in criticising it. As someone who generally speaking, trusts scientists when they say the world is going to hell in a handbasket, was I really “resort[ing] to sabotage” as my commenter “am” pointed out last year? And as most of the people who read the article got here via searches such as “Earth Hour critics”. I wondered was I really the Earth Hour detractor (fifth in the search) Google painted me out to be?

I began by checking the four pages ahead of me. First, as usual was Wikipedia. It was a typical NPOV (Non Point of View) Wikipedia article but did suggest last year’s Earth Hour actually resulted in a net increase in energy usage. And MonstersandCritics was fourth (handy when the search string is part of your name). M&C said the Hour appears to be flop statistically speaking, but environmentalists are mostly in favour of it as an awareness tool.

Blogger Damien Tan was second in the search because he put critics in the title (just like me, now). But he himself is arguably not a critic. He offers a very balanced account of the problem. He is able to see the rights and wrongs of the event, but decides to support it anyway. He reasons: “I support Earth Hour because despite its drawbacks, it’s doing something no global warming roadshow, blockbuster movie or NGO has been able to do - create real excitement and buy-in around a cause, on a global scale.”

More predictably FoxNews was also there and equally predictably it was the least balanced of the four. They acknowledged the global scale of the event but headed their story with a critic of the event. Before he was identified, the “critic” announced he was unimpressed with the UN’s involvement and used my word “gimmick” to put it down: “U.N.'s participation in the event is a "self-serving," thinly guised "gimmick" to sway public opinion ahead of the U.N.-led conference in Copenhagen in December at which world leaders will seek to approve a new global warming treaty,” he said.

But who was he? He was later identified as Thomas Kilgannon, president of Freedom Alliance, a Virginia-based non-profit organisation founded by Oliver North. Sourcewatch calls them a 501c3 (tax exempt) "educational and charitable foundation" founded in 1990 by Lt.Col. (Ret.) Oliver North, who "now serves as the organization's honorary chairman.” Ah, Ollie North - no wonder Foxnews was quoting it.

Freedom Alliance, according to their own blurb, is working to "keep America strong, keep America prosperous, and keep America free.” They are not fans of a global approach to cutting carbon emissions. “A United States bound by global law to reduce greenhouse gas emission levels and forced by the United Nations to send tax dollars and technology to poorer countries, is a country that has lost its will to lead the world,” it trumpets. With opinions as severe as that, it is little wonder they dislike Earth Hour.

But that didn’t describe me. It was just the symbol I didn’t like, not what it represented. I wondered whether other critics disliked Earth Hour for similar reasons. Tim Blair is one of those more fervent critics. He is an “ultra-orthodox” adherent of the Hour of Power established in opposition to the event. I asked him whether the purely symbolic nature of the event could overcome whatever shortcomings the hour might have in terms of actual electrical power saved. His opinion wasn't entirely ultra-orthodox. He doubted if any electricity was saved at all but agreed “every protest, action or ‘awareness raising’ about climate change is purely symbolic.” He said if Australia was to shut down everything, the effect would be so minimal as to be symbolic. “Symbolism is all the anti-carbon movement has,” he said.

Blair has a point, but the event does now have something more to go along with the symbolism. What is changing most rapidly about Earth Hour is its growing international flavour. The event started in Sydney in 2007 with two million taking part. Now just two years later it is a widespread global event with a potential audience of a billion people. As I said earlier, the UN is behind Earth Hour and urging people to “demand action on climate change”. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the event was “the largest demonstration of public concern about climate change ever attempted" and a "clear message" that people want action on climate change.

And what has changed in 2009 is that Earth Hour is increasingly a clear message. I agree with Earth Hour’s FAQ (pdf) that climate change is the greatest threat to life on Earth. Earth Hour is no longer getting hung up on how much emissions are actually saved in the hour. The question really is one of awareness, done in “an enjoyable, yet powerful way.” And so one of the climate change issues that Earth Hour has successfully promoted is about land clearing which is the second greatest source of carbon emissions in Australia. My state of Queensland is the worst culprit and WWF and Earth Hour are to be praised for putting it back on the agenda.

Other issues I wrote about last year are still relevant. There are the obvious greenwashing issues as 99 out of Australia’s top 100 companies take part. Earth Hour encourages this and has a 4.1 MB corporate pack you can download from the site. There is also the vexed matter of ownership. It is not Earth Hour it is “WWF's Earth Hour”. The Australian concern is also partially owned by Fairfax (who have a vested interest in talking it up) and ad agency Leo Burnett. Between the three, there is very slick marketing going on to get the brand out to a wide audience.

But that is the nature of the way the World Wildlife Foundation operates. They are not hippy tree-huggers - they cultivate alliances from within the elites of the society they want to change. What I’ve changed is my mind. I probably used to agree with Tim Blair when he told me it was about "middle-class slumber parties and candlelit dinners." But Earth Hour is not just a gimmick: it’s a very powerful symbol of change that is seeping into the political, corporate and social culture with astonishing speed. Earth Hour is one of the primary movers in making the green movement mainstream. Like it or hate it, it looks like it has weaved itself into the fabric for keeps.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Israel bombs Sudan

The New York Times has revealed Israeli warplanes attacked a truck convoy in Sudan in January. There are also unconfirmed reports of a second attack in February. The Times says the first attack occurred to block a suspected arms delivery to Hamas in Gaza. Depending on which report you read, anywhere from 39 to 800 people were killed in the two attacks. The Times’ sources are two American officials privy to privy to classified intelligence assessments. They say Iran was smuggling weapons to Palestine via Sudan. Sudan has admitted the attacks took place but Israel has yet to formally take responsibility.

The story broke in the most unlikely way. The little known Mabrouk Mubarak Saleem, Sudan’s minister for highways, claimed earlier this week that a “major power” had carried out two previously unknown air strike inside Sudan – one on 27 January 27 and another on 11 February. His comments were reported by the Egyptian newspaper Al-Shurooq on Tuesday. They found a local angle saying “a major power bombed small trucks carrying arms” headed towards Sudan’s border with Egypt.

On Wednesday, the Iranian English language PressTV reported that America had carried out the attacks from a base in nearby Djibouti. It said Sudan had confirmed reports that the US Air Force conducted the January strike. It said 39 people were killed in the attack which occurred in the desert northwest of Port Sudan, near the Mount Al-Sha'anoon. It quoted Saleem’s claim that "major power bombed small trucks carrying arms, burring all of them. It killed Sudanese, Eritrean and Ethiopians [passengers] and injured others."

Today, Sudan changed its tune and said Israel was probably responsible. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ali al-Sadig said the Sudanese were still gathering evidence at the site, and would not react while the investigation was ongoing. He claimed that the convoys were likely smuggling goods, but not weapons. "We contacted the Americans and they categorically denied they were involved," he said. "We are still trying to verify it. Most probably it involved Israel."

There are conflicting reports on casualties. The New York Times story repeated Saleem’s figure of 39 but they also quoted a second government spokesman who said more than a hundred were killed. However, the Los Angeles Times reported yet another Sudanese government source, Fatih Mahmoud Awad, a Transport Ministry spokesman, who said as many as 800 people died in the two attacks. He said each convoy had more than a dozen vehicles. It is possible that the reports are not conflicting and that the major casualties occurred in the February strike. However, very few details have emerged yet about the second attack.

Both the US and Israel had the motive to carry out the attack. Earlier this year Israel signed an agreement with the US in one of the last acts of the Bush administration. On 15 January, then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni flew to Washington to sign a memorandum of understanding to marshal an international effort to prevent arms from reaching Gaza. Under the terms of the agreement the US would organise “like-minded” countries to use methods such as interdiction to prevent arms from reaching Gaza.

The Sudanese strikes appear to be the first examples of interdiction. Israeli analysts called it a comfortable strike against a distracted enemy. Israeli security specialist and writer Gad Shimron said Sudan was a “pro-Hamas hostile state”, but was in no position to respond. They're in over their heads with Darfur; the last thing they need is further complications,” he told the Jerusalem Post. Shimron was with Mossad when they entered Sudan in the 1980s for Operation Moses to airlift Ethiopian Jews to Israel. "The air force knows this place [eastern Sudan] well. It flew at low altitudes there during Operation Moses," he said. "It's logical to assume that the weapons were tracked from the minute they left Iran.”

Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert refused to confirm Israeli involvement but gave a strong hint overnight when there was "nowhere in the world" that Israel cannot reach. Speaking at a conference at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, he said Israel operates everywhere where we can hit what he called “terror infrastructure”. These were to be found “in close places, in places further away, everywhere where we can hit terror infrastructure,” he said. “We hit them and we hit them in a way that increases deterrence.” It is the closest yet that Israel has admitted to an act of war on Sudan.

Below is very brief footage Al-Jazeera acquired of the first bombing aftermath.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

China bans Youtube again

China blocked Youtube again this week after several videos were posted that showed Chinese police violently assaulting Tibetans. On Tuesday, a Chinese news organisation noted what it called a "fabricated" video in which police beat Tibetans during a riot in Lhasa last year. On the same day a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman repeated the mantra of Premier Wen Jiabao when he said "we encourage the active use of the internet but also manage the internet according to law." He also claimed that China was “not afraid of the internet" however, he was afraid of a straight answer and refused to confirm if YouTube had been blocked.

According to the BBC, the graphic video was released by Tibetan exiles and shows hundreds of uniformed troops swarming through a Tibetan monastery. Some of the footage is available here and the full set of three movies can be found at tibetonline.tv. In one scene troops with batons assault a man while in another scene several more men (one of whom is a monk,) are lying on the ground while being beaten, kicked and choked. Some of the men have their hands tied while others are possibly unconscious. Tibetonline.tv says that one of the beaten men later died.

Youtube’s California head office confirmed their service had been blocked after posting the footage but had gotten no explanation from the Chinese authorities. Scott Rubin told AFP the service had been blocked since Monday for unknown reasons and they were working with authorities to restore access. Presumably that means an agreement to pull down the offending videos. In the meantime, Chinese users trying to access YouTube get the following message: "Network Timeout. The server at youtube.com is taking too long to respond."

This is latest in several incidents where China has banned Youtube. The most recent case occured in March last year when Youtube showed graphic images from Tibet, including videos of burning vehicles and monks being dragged through the streets by Chinese soldiers. The videos forced Youtube’s owner Google to choose between losing business opportunities or fighting censorship. And Google’s response is somewhat ambiguous. Robert Boorstin, Google’s director of policy communications says it is a situation that all Internet companies will be facing across the world. "At all times, our goal is to maximize the amount of information available to citizens around the world,” he says. However Google’s own Chinese search service censor its search results to comply with Beijing's strict limits on access to information.

According to Kaiser Kuo, the Chinese government’s censorship policies, often render news and political reporting formulaic,staid, and not reliably objective. He says China’s Internet is more “entertainment superhighway” than “information superhighway” as the local 250 million Internet users typically devote most of their time to downloads, chatting with friends, playing online games, and watching online videos. However, the Internet is developing into the country’s first public sphere; a virtual space, says Kuo where a huge range of ideas are openly expressed.

But censors continue to listen in on the public conversation and Tibetan violence was not the only thing China blocked this week. A video of a seemingly innocuous mythical alpaca-like animal known as the “Grass Mud Horse” complete with its own jaunty children’s song has attracted the ire of authorities because of its double meanings. In Chinese the phrase grass mud horse (Cao Ni Ma) sounds remarkably close to “fuck your mother” and the song is replete with other phrases that sound like either swear words or reference to censorship. As a result the authorities have banned both the video and the song. Judge its seditious intentions for yourself below:

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Hartigan apologies over fake Hanson photos

News Ltd’s Australian CEO has admitted his newspapers were wrong to publish nude photos they falsely claimed to be Pauline Hanson. Speaking at an Australian Right to Know coalition conference in Sydney, John Hartigan said there were two tests of judgement the editor had to make when publishing the photos. Firstly, were they in the public interest and was it an invasion of her privacy. And secondly were the photos genuine. “Regrettably, it failed the test,” he said.

I assume by that last remark, Hartigan means it failed the second test. However, without seeing the transcript of the speech, I am not sure if he addressed the News Ltd failings on the first point. Because even if the 30 year old photos were genuine (which they are not), it is arguable that they were a strong invasion of privacy. And as lawyer Helen Dale argues, this matter could be the test case which has the potential to lead to the development of a tort of invasion of privacy in Australia.

The photos, published on 15 March, also failed the public interest part of the test. Why is it important what Hanson was doing when she was a teenager? The initial News Ltd answer to that question was “That's for our readers to tell. That will be determined by the number of people that buy the paper.” The speaker, Helen McCabe (deputy editor of the Sunday Telegraph) had made the old mistake of confusing the public interest with matters of interest to the public. The impact of titillation on circulation had trumped ethical responsibility.

But while the boss was apologising yesterday, Hartigan’s minions were muddying the waters about who was responsible for the mess. The News Ltd stable was claiming yesterday that doubts had “emerged” about Jack Johnson’s credibility. They were also blaming the middleman who put Johnson in touch with the Sunday Telegraph. According to this week’s Media Watch, Johnson began his move into the public eye a few weeks ago when he was searching for someone to buy his photos. The man he found was Sydney’s most notorious paparazzo Jamie Fawcett.

Fawcett met Johnson and showed interest in the photos. He commissioned veteran British tabloid journalist Frank Thorne to interview Johnson and write a story to sell with the pictures. Johnson had demanded anonymity from Fawcett but Thorne told him [Johnson] this was impossible. During the interview Johnson also made the ludicrous claim he had destroyed compromising photos of Therese Rein. Thorne was becoming suspicious and tried to tell Fawcett of his concerns. But Fawcett went ahead anyway and emailed the fake Hanson images to News Ltd, which they published a day later without checking any of the key facts. Fawcett promised Johnson $10,000 for selling the photos.

A day later, Hanson denied the photos were of her and the story quickly unravelled. In an interview with Sydney’s 2UE radio breakfast program last week, Sunday Telegraph editor Neil Breen said: “I knew on Saturday when I had those photos and I knew that if I published something like that and they're wrong then I'm in huge trouble.” They also withheld payment of the $10,000 to Johnson until he could provide them the original slides. Johnson has not yet obliged.

This week, the Sydney Sunday Telegraph took a very late decision to admit it was in the wrong. Neil Breen spoke directly to Hanson: I’ve said all week that I’d be the first person to apologise to you if you if it were proven the pictures we published last weekend were not of you. I am now convinced we have the proof they were presented to us as part of an elaborate con. So Pauline, I am sorry. We should never have published them."

The Sunday Herald-Sun also printed an apology. They say the paper was conned by Johnson and Fawcett but admitted “that does not absolve us of responsibility for the decision to publish the photographs.” The paper called it a serious error of judgement and accepted they did not check basic facts about the photographs and Johnson’s background prior to publication. “We acknowledge Ms Hanson was right all along - and we were wrong,” said the Melbourne paper.

But in the same edition, the Herald-Sun launched the counter-attack against Johnson. They said Jack Johnson not only offered the faux-photos of Hanson to “paparazzi agent Jamie Fawcett”, but also offered similar photographs of Kevin Rudd’s wife Therese Rein in exchange for cash. Rein was supposedly posing in lingerie next to the Sultan of Brunei - a claim, says the paper, “that was plainly ridiculous”. They painted Johnson as a loser: “a desperate figure who lives on a public-housing estate in western Sydney”.

The Sunday Telegraph went further and plastered a picture of Johnson on their front page. They also said that Fawcett did not disclose the information about the supposed Rein photos to The Telegraph. “If he did,” they said, “the paper's approach to the pictures would have been quite different.” But my guess is that the paper didn’t want to investigate too hard. They were happy knowing they were onto a circulation winner once they combined the themes of “Hanson” and “nude”. Johnson is now a convenient whipping boy for their gamble.

Andrew Landeryou is also keen to blame Johnson for the debacle. On Vexnews he claims the fake Hanson pictures are sourced from a 1982 Danish porn magazine. The female’s name is not known but she apparently appeared alongside an actor whose stage name was “Long Dong Silver”. While the provenance of the name is obvious, Landeryou coyly suggests he would “rather not know.” However he is more straightforward in defending the Telegraph for printing the photos. “Those keen to denigrate the Sunday Tele…should consider carefully whether it is the criminal who is to blame in a fraud case or the victim of the fraud,” he said. “The newspaper’s mistake should be kept in proportion.” No, Andrew - the mistake is perfectly in proportion; it is, like Long Dong, a whopper.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ada Lovelace

Today, 24 March, is Ada Lovelace day; an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. And who better to write about than Ada Lovelace herself, a 19th century woman who vies with Grace Hopper as one of the great female pioneers of computing.

Lovelace was born Augusta Ada Byron in 1815, the daughter of Lady Annabella Byron and the British Romantic poet Lord Byron. Ada never knew her “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” father (the description given to him by his lover Caroline Lamb). The impetuous Byron and the logical Annabella were an ill-matched couple. He called her the Princess of Parallelograms and they parted on bad terms. He died in Greece in 1824 when his only daughter was just eight years old.

By then it was clear that Ada was extraordinarily talented. She could solve difficult maths problems and was intrigued by numbers, equations and calculations. She was also fascinated by the mystery of flight and was determined to create a set of human wings in an involved process she called “Flyology”. Her worried mother invited three unmarried female friends to live with them in Mortlake hoping they would be a good influence on her brilliant but wayward daughter. But Ada hated the three chaperones as interfering busybodies and spies who watched her every move.

The first love of her life was William Turner who was employed to teach her shorthand. Ada was now 16 and just two years younger than her new tutor. They got along well despite the overbearing chaperones and she accepted William’s proposal of marriage. The pair eloped but were quickly caught. William was banished from the house and never seen again. Ada decided that from then on she would keep her love for numbers.

Aged 18, she was introduced to Charles Babbage at his house in London’s Dorset St. She was among a crowd of visitors to see the inventor’s latest creation the Silver Dancer. The Dancer was a lifelike clockwork toy which did a never-ending cycle of pirouettes. Young Ada was fascinated by the Dancer and wanted to know more about its strange creator.

Babbage was the original nutty professor. He had invented shoes that could walk on water, a method of delivering messages by overhead cable, a machine that played noughts and crosses, a means of checking the condition of railway tracks and lights to enable communications bete ween land and sea. But his lasting claim to fame was the Difference Engine. After being entranced by the Silver Dancer, Ada then spotted the Engine which was the size of a large trunk and resembled a giant clock. It contained hundreds of cogs and wheels which were numbered from 0 to 9. Ada labelled it the Thinking Machine.

The Engine was incomplete and Babbage never finished it in his lifetime. But he did show Ada how it worked and soon it was spitting out numbers 8,10,12,14 and so on, each time adding 2. Babbage and Ada quickly struck up a partnership and she signed on to help him build the next stage: an analytical engine. She spent two years making the necessary calculations and solving complex problems for the prototype of what was the world’s first computer. But Babbage could not afford the tubes needed to complete it.

Aged 20, she met and married a Warwickshire man Lord King who was also known as William Lovelace. They had three children: George, Annabella and Ralph. But Ada was not a great mother. She became ill unable to eat or sleep. But she continued to work with Babbage. The inventor had adapted the punched cards used by Jacquard, the French silk weaver. The cards would be used to feed in the information to the Engine to make the calculations. It would be Ada’s job to describe how the Thinking Machine would work based on the translations of the Italian philosopher Luigi Menabrea. After two years she published “Menabrea: Sketch of the Analytical Engine”.

The book was an immediate sensation and Ada became as famous as her late father. She was 28 and at the height of her powers. But illness and death were not far away. She suffered bad stomach cramps and headaches and made it worse by a dubious magnetism cure. In 1851, a uterine examination revealed “a very deep and extensive ulceration of the womb”. She died a year later of cancer, aged 36. But her legacy to the computer would live long after her.

In May 1979, Commander John D. Cooper came up with a name which the US Department of Defence’s High Order Language Working Group (HOLWG) could accept for their new programming language: It was to be called “Ada”. HOLWG contacted Ada’s descendent Lord Lytton for permission to use the name. Lytton was enthusiastic and pointed out that the letters “Ada” stood “right in the middle of radar”.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Chavez-Vous? Hugo dances with democracy

If the Western media is to be believed, Hugo Chavez is making a strong application for membership of the axis of evil. In the last 48 hours alone, he “seized control” of Venezuelan ports, announced a visit to Iran, nationalised cement companies and called Obama a “poor ignoramus”.

Yet while the media denounce him as a Bolivarian socialist, many US right-wingers might agree with the assessment of Obama. A larger proportion of fiscal conservatives still would also applaud another one of his announcements to reduce government spending by 7 per cent to avoid recession. And his nationalisations are being copied by Western leaders frazzled by the failure of their financial systems.

Chavez may sound like a mass of contradictions but of one thing there is little doubt: he loves power. He has been in power for ten years, won two elections, and last year he won a referendum eliminating term limits which opened a way for him run again as president in 2012 and beyond. Here are the actions of a president-for-life.

As such, he is now keen to eliminate opposition. On Thursday a prosecutor called for the arrest of Manuel Rosales. Rosales is the mayor of Maracaibo, Venezuela's second-largest city, and is a leading opponent of President Chavez. The 56 year old Rosales ran off against Chavez in the 1996 election and lost in a 3:2 margin but established himself as the leader of the Opposition in the process.

The prosecutor Katiuska Plaza said she was seeking the custody order for Rosales on the basis of accusations of corruption levelled in the national assembly (parliament) against him. Rosales could face 3 to 10 years if proven guilty of the charges. Rosales called the charges as “an order from Chavez” and said it was “a way of criminalizing politics and also to crush those of us who have dissident voices in this country”. Rosales was referring to 2007 when Chavez shut down one of those dissident voices when he took over a private TV station. Chavez annexed Telesur in revenge for supporting the 2002 coup against him.

In a strange but absorbing interview, writer Tariq Ali (whom the interviewer Jorge Sotirios called “the thinking woman’s Omar Sharif') defended Chavez's stance on Telesur. Sotirios noted how Ali is no stranger to South America and was once detained in Bolivia for his likeness to Che Guavara’s offsider “Pombo”. Ali said the government takeover of Telesur wouldn’t change the station which has always taken a Latin American view. He says the network is similar to the BBC and the CNN. While the British and American stations defend the “Washington consensus”, they defend the opposition to the “Washington Consensus”. And, says Ali, they are very open about it: “If we act in concert, we can do lot more things for our people, instead of constantly seeing ourselves through a mirror lifted up by the United States.”

But while this is a laudable aim, Chavez’s control of the media is making it easier for him to be always seen in the mirror. In their annual report for 2008 Reporters San Frontieres says Chavez now controls nearly all the country’s broadcasting - a score of radio stations, the state-owned TV stations Venezolana de TelevisiĆ³n, Telesur, Vive TV, Asemblea Nacional and Tves, as well as the national phone company CANTV.

Yet there is still hope. Venezuela still enjoys a vibrant public debate in which anti-government and pro-government media are equally vocal in their criticism and defence of Chavez. One can ask for little more in a democracy – even one where a long-term government is looking to change the rules in their favour; just ask Queensland Labor. The Chavez paradox shows little sign of unravelling.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Queensland election and the media

The dust has settled and Anna Bligh’s Labor has comfortably retained power in a Queensland election almost everyone thought would be much closer. While the opinion polls were erroneously calling a 51:49 split in favour of the LNP, the bookmakers were closer to the mark with Labor always firm favourite to win (even if it was mostly early money that made up their minds). Labor has now won their fifth victory in 11 years and all the plaudits belong to Anna Bligh. Defeated LNP leader Lawrence Springborg said she had done “an outstanding job” in the campaign and Labor Treasurer Andrew Fraser called it a “tremendous affirmation” of her leadership. "There is one reason we won this election campaign and that's Anna Bligh,” he said.

This morning Prime Minister Kevin Rudd also praised Premier Bligh on Channel Nine’s Today program calling it a great day for Queensland women and Australian women. “This is the first elected woman premier in the country's history and I think that point needs to be marked in history as well,” he said. The weekly Laurie Oakes interview is one of Channel Nine’s increasingly rare forays into politics. Their coverage of the Queensland election was generally abysmal apart from a daily sniping about Bligh’s government in the nightly news. The other commercial channels showed even less interest in the affair leaving substantial coverage to newspaper and online media.

Far and away the best coverage of the election was to be found online. In particular, the ad hoc Crikey collaborative effort Pineapple Party Time offered copious astute, timely, and relevant updates that covered all aspects of the campaign. The blog had a pleasing blend of talents which combined the psephological knowledge of William Bowe with the statistical wizardry of Possum (Scott Steel) rounded off by the penetrating analysis of Mark Bahnisch. Possum also was first to call Labor’s victory at 6:13pm Queensland time based on Auspoll’s exit poll which also successfully predicted the 2007 Federal election.

But while the reputation of online pundits has grown, Brisbane’s only daily newspaper The Courier-Mail has been left with egg on its face after campaigning strongly with a series of anti-Labor stories throughout the election. Last week its editorial endorsed the LNP (unlike its Sunday Mail stablemate which supported the government) saying Labor was “out of touch and out of time”.

The paper was forced to release a more conciliatory online editorial at 11pm last night. This time they gave grudging credit to Labor’s win while still questioning the wisdom of the electorate. The paper called Bligh’s victory a remarkable result and she deserved congratulations. But they also said that now she must deliver and claimed the people of Queensland “have been remarkably forgiving of a catalogue of failure, miscalculation, short-sightedness and, sometimes, sleaziness over the 11-year Labor rule.”

But while the Courier-Mail seems to be on an irrevocable course of irrelevance, the impact of an article in Thursday’s The Australian on Labor's win cannot be discounted. The article by Peter Van Onselen stated that leaked internal Labor polling showed that the LNP were on track to win just two days out from the vote. While nowhere in the article does Van Onselen say how he obtained the poll results, it is difficult not to believe they were deliberately leaked by Labor to shore up its base vote. Van Onselen also noted that Labor strategists targeted electorates under threat, using interstate resources, “in a last-minute attempt to turn around local fortunes.” It would appear that both of these late Labor strategies worked.

Over at Fairfax, the Brisbane Times did a reasonable job of coverage in the first Queensland election since it was founded. They reported several stories daily with occasional useful analysis such as that last weekend by Cosima Marriner. However the publication remains handicapped by a severe shortage of journalists and most of their reportage originated from other Fairfax outlets (particularly the Sydney Sun-Herald) and the wires of AP and AAP.

Lack of journalists is not (yet) a serious problem at the ABC and they can be commended for their coverage of the election. As always Antony Green’s election site is a goldmine of information about the seats, the candidates and the issues. And the weekly Friday night Stateline program has been an excellent resource for dispassionate argument about the policies and ideas that mattered in this election. Program host Jessica van Vonderen is a talented young journalist who did an excellent job in tandem with Green and the vastly experienced Kerry O’Brien in the tally room on Saturday night. The ABC continues to justify its existence with its superior political coverage, unmatched by any of the other broadcasters.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Labor retains power in shock easy win in Queensland

Accepting victory in Brisbane tonight, Labor leader Anna Bligh says: Queenslanders, Thank you.

Her gratitude to the people is because the ALP has won the election in surprising comfort with a margin of what is now looking like 17 seats. The 3.5 percent swing against them was not nearly good enough for the Liberal National Party in its first outing and defied the swing predicted by the polls. Labor has a 2PP (Two Party Preferred) lead of 51-49 - most recent polls predicted the other way round. LNP leader Lawrence Springborg has conceded defeat in a third straight election and says he has walked off the stage for good.

Retirement may or may not prove an exaggeration for a man who is 41 years old. However what is certain is that the history books will remember the state of Queensland elected Australia’s first female premier today, Anna Bligh.

Congratulations, Anna.

(picture is the name of the six-pack building across the road from where I voted today. It sums it up for me)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Has the Australian Government banned Wikileaks?

Australia’s descent into authoritarian censorship seems to be taking a new draconian turn with its treatment of the international whistleblower site Wikileaks. The British tech site The Register claimed overnight “some pages of Wikileaks have been added to the blacklist of websites which Australians are not allowed to look at.” It said some pages were blocked after Wikileaks published a list of websites banned by the Danish government. It is impossible to confirm or deny this and The Register offers no proof of their allegation. However on the same day that the secret Australian version of the list was also leaked, the entire Wikileaks site is unavailable in Australia at the time of writing.

I am reluctant to say it has been banned outright – and it appears it is not just an Australian issue. Following the issue on Twitter, it seems Wikileaks is currently unavailable in Germany also. Both @Jase88 and @Sam6 claim that Wikileaks is not blocked but has crashed due to high traffic, presumably due to the Australian censorship controversy. @drylight said it may be as simple a matter to fix as someone rebooting the Wikileaks server. But whatever has happened, this is not the first time Wikileaks has offended a jurisdiction. A Californian court ordered it be taken down in February last year after the site posted documents revealed that a bank was involved with money laundering and tax evasion.

Wikileaks survived that episode and should bounce back from its bout with the Australian Government too. Earlier today Communications Minister Stephen Conroy condemned the publication of the Australian banned list as “grossly irresponsible”. This was despite the fact that he also claims the list was not the actual ACMA blacklist. Conroy muddied the water by claiming the list undermined efforts to improve cyber-safety and create a safe online environment for children. He also warned chillingly that anyone involved in making this content publicly available would be at serious risk of criminal prosecution. I rang the media contact on Conroy’s press release for a comment on whether Wikileaks (or parts of it) has now been banned but he has not yet returned my call.

The banned list of 2,000 websites showed up some glaring inconsistencies. While there are a large number of child pornography sites and other illegal material, most of the websites listed have no obvious connection to criminal activity. There are online gambling sites, Christian and other religious sites, satanic sites, euthanasia supporters, and straight and gay pornography. Bizarrely the list also includes such recidivists as a Queensland dentist, a tour operator, a firm of “Tuckshop and Canteen Management Consultants" and a Maroochydore kennel boarding company.

The original offending Wikileaks article (now probably banned) from yesterday was a secret censorship list for Denmark. The case is a bit artificial as it was sent to the Australian Communications body ACMA as bait by an anti-censorship group in order to test the "slippery slope" theory. When a commenter posted a link to an anti-abortion website from the list on the discussion forum Whirlpool, ACMA threatened them with an $11,000 a day fine because the site also appeared on the list of websites banned in Australia. Whirlpool promptly deleted the link. It would now appear the slippery slope has turned into a black downhill run. It is no coincidence that the first line in the Wikileaks article is: "The first rule of censorship is that you cannot talk about censorship."

Libertus.net says preventing information flow, communication or the exchange of art, film and writing on the internet is “a task only King Canute would attempt”. Yet, stopping the internet tide is exactly what the Australian Government seems to want to do. Most people are aware of the ongoing “clean feed” controversy however Australia has had Internet censorship laws since 2000. The laws were strengthened in January 2008 to enable a broader range of content unsuitable for children to be ordered taken down from Australian hosted sites. Similar overseas hosted content are added to ACMA's blacklist of prohibited content. And because the list is secret no one knows what is on it. There is no accountability.

QUT academic and privacy expert Anthony Sherratt told Woolly Days there was "some absolutely terrible stuff out there" but the problem lies in who gets to define what is unacceptable. "Putting it under a catch-all of illegal is certainly not the way as society needs to be able to challenge and debate laws," he said. "Life is organic and changes by definition." Meanwhile Guy Rundle says there is no bigger issue than net censorship as it is a fundamental attack on free speech. I agree totally. Rundle concludes his impassioned article thus; “And now someone will tell me that the proposed filter won't be able to blacklist pages like Wikileaks, or whatever. But I won't believe them ... who would...?”

UPDATE (20/03/09): Wikileaks has not yet been censored. It is back on the air and the Australian list can be viewed here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Google’s EPIC fail: privacy group wants cloud computing safeguards

A privacy group has requested the US Federal Trade Commission shut down Google mail, docs, Picasa and other services because they don’t adequately safeguard the confidential information that they obtain. The stunning request was made by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and outlines the risks of Google’s cloud computing services. The request is far from frivolous and could have profound consequences for the industry in general, and Google in particular.

EPIC, who describe themselves as “a public interest research organization”, have requested the FTC open an investigation to determine the adequacy of the privacy and security safeguards. They also want them to assess Google’s claims about the service. In a letter to the government regulatory body, EPIC suggest they “enjoin
Google from offering such services until safeguards are verifiably established.”

According to Wikipedia, Cloud computing is where dynamically scalable and often virtualised resources are provided as a service over the Internet. As that rather dense definition shows this is not a simple concept to grasp. The word “cloud” acts as a diagrammatic metaphor for a complex computer network. Thankfully then, users of the services don’t need to have knowledge of or control over the technology infrastructure "in the cloud" that supports them. The problem from a privacy perspective is that the data is held by third party servers, which is managed by private firms who provide remote access.

Google currently provides an extensive array of Cloud Computing Services. These include unlimited free email (“Gmail”), online document storage and editing ("Google Docs"), an integrated desktop and internet search ("Google Desktop"), an online photo storage ("Picasa Web Albums") and a scheduling program (“Google Calendar”). And the number of people who use these services is growing. As of September 2008, 26 million people use Gmail.

While Google are quick to advertise the security safety of their products, EPIC say there are several known flaws with their cloud computing service. They noted a bug found in 2005 where Internet Explorer exposed web surfers' hard-drive data to malicious web sites. And as recently as last week, the Wall Street Journal disclosed Google had shared “a very small number” (0.05 per cent) of online documents with users who weren’t authorised to see them. The bug hit users who changed their sharing settings on multiple presentations and documents at once, causing Google to make those documents available to others whom the owner had shared a document before. The Journal says the bug shows systems for managing file access permissions can break down, causing documents to end up in the wrong hands.

IT Security expert Greg Conti says Google is a particularly vulnerable target because of the amount of data it has. However Conti qualifies his remarks by saying the problem is endemic. ”It almost impossible for you, your employer, and online companies to provide impervious protection against attack”, he says “therefore, your data is at risk.”

Therefore EPIC backs up its case by pointing to Google’s false advertising. It quotes the Federal Trade Commission Act which regulates unfair and deceptive trade practices. The act allows for three factors that support a finding of unfairness. The practice must cause substantial injury, not be outweighed by countervailing benefits and the harm is not reasonably avoidable. EPIC says Google’s inadequate security policy fails all three tests. They say Google's advertising is deception likely to mislead customers. EPIC also quote several test cases which it believes give precedence to act against Google.

EPIC says the popularity of Cloud Computing Services means that data breaches pose a heightened risk of identity theft. It says the FTC should hold purveyors accountable, “particularly when service providers make repeated, unequivocal promises to consumers regarding information security.” They want FCC to open an investigation. They also want Google to revise its terms of service, make their information security policies more transparent, take Cloud Computing off the market until safeguards are established, and contribute $5 million to support research on privacy enhancing technologies (I presume it's five million as the document talks about a strange number called “$5,000,0000”). Google has not reviewed the complaint in detail but says “it has policies in place to ensure data is protected”.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Africa hardest hit by global recession

A new report by anti-poverty organisation ActionAid has found that developing countries are hardest hit by Global Financial Crisis. The report "Where does it hurt? The impact of the financial crisis on developing countries" (my thanks to ActionAid media officer Lindiwe Tshabalala for providing me a copy - unfortunately it not on the website at the time of writing) says Africa will suffer a drop in income of $49 billion in the two years from the start of the crisis in 2007 to the end of 2009. This represents a 13 percent drop in financial inflows to the continent. The report says the benefits of financial liberalisation have been oversold and that countries with the most open economies have suffered the most.

ActionAid say there are actually two problems – a financial crisis and a recession. The financial crisis impacts bank lending, investments, bonds and interest rates while the recession impacts trade flows. While both problems are the fault of the rich north, they are both are hitting developing countries the hardest. Africa is predicted to lose $22b due to the financial crisis while losing another $27b to earning exports, aid and income from rich countries in recession. This latter problem also impacts money sent home by relatives working in rich countries.

Of the money flowing into developing countries, bank lending has suffered the most. The international association of financial institutions known as The Institute of International Finance (IIF), estimates that foreign lending to developing countries in 2008 was just 40 per cent of the 2007 level. It gets worse this year when the drop is predicted to hit 100 percent. This means that more money will be leaving the continent to overseas banks than will be paid out in loans.

There will also be a negative flow on to equity markets in developing countries as their stocks are deemed too great a risk by international traders. The IIF predicts an 82 percent downturn in equities while foreign direct investment will also dip by a third. The crisis has also pushed up the costs of raising money by issuing bonds. Poor countries suffer disproportionately (despite not being responsible for the crisis) as lenders look for less risky places to put their money.

Trade losses from the recession that follows the crisis will also be severely felt in Africa and the global south. Most countries in ActionAid’s survey will expect a drop in export earnings of over 10 percent with Nigeria hardest hit at 25 percent. The combination of impacts on local economies is likely to lead to a worsening of poverty and ActionAid predicts “terrible consequences for individuals”. They are not alone in believing the worst. The World Bank’s chief economist for Africa predicts that 700,000 children under the age of one may well die over the next few years as a result of the financial crisis and the ensuing recession.

The survey results show that vulnerability to the crisis is directly proportional to a country’s exposure to international trade. The biggest factors are export revenues, level of concentration of exports, trade balance and reserves. Many countries have also increased foreign direct investment and private bank lending despite their being no provable correlation between financial integration and growth. In 2008 Rodrik and Subramanian found that on the international front, the benefits of financial globalisation were hard to find, even leaving financial crises aside.

The report concluded that domestic generated development was best. It needed to be shored up by diversified financial flows, controlling risk, a commitment to transparency, regulated financial markets, and the importance of involving developing nations in global market decisions. The report also made several recommendations to the G20 summit next month. They involved controlling risk, improving transparency and developing regionally based financial markets. The report also recommended assistance to countries who cannot afford their own stimulus packages.

ActionAid’s head of policy, Claire Melamed said the report showed there was a large risk that development will start to go backwards in many countries as the money dries up. “The recession will lead to worsening poverty and terrible consequences for the men, women and children caught in its grip,” she said. "Although developing countries didn't make this crisis, it has become all too clear that they are in the firing line when it comes to suffering its worst effects.”

Monday, March 16, 2009

Queensland election: stumbling to the finish line

The final Galaxy Queensland election poll released Saturday show the Liberal National Party steadying with a 51-49 lead over Labor on two-party preferred. The two-point margin represents a 5.9 per cent swing to the LNP and would leave them just short of government if this swing is applied uniformly across the state on Saturday. The closeness of the race forced Labor to swallow its pride last week and agree to a preference deal with party defector Ronan Lee in Indooroopilly in exchange for Greens preferences in 14 key seats.

The major parties are now pulling out all the stops as the campaign enters its last week. Bligh and Springborg fought out a leaders’ debate on Friday. In the debate Bligh attacked Springborg's decision to impose a 3 per cent efficiency dividend by not filling public sector job vacancies so that the government would "live within its means". Labor used research from academic John Wanna to show the dividend would impact on front-line services. Springborg, meanwhile, attacked Labor on its health record. “[A]fter 11 years of Labor in Queensland there are 35,000 people in this State that continue to languish on our hospital waiting lists,” he said.

The two major parties formally launched their campaigns yesterday (how do parties, state and federal, get away with this sham of having “launches” at the end of the campaign?). The launches became pork auctions with the LNP promising 10,000 new jobs only for Labor to gazump them with a promise of 100,000. The banal similarities persisted as Kevin Rudd introduced Bligh while Malcolm Turnbull did the honours for Springborg. Just as in the polls, there appeared little difference in the launches.

However, the polls are showing some contradictions. While Bligh still has a commanding lead over Springborg as preferred premier (50 to 36), some analysts are saying she is Labor’s weak link. Writing in the Brisbane Times on Saturday, Cosima Marriner says Bligh has become a liability. Marriner says she has struggled to control the agenda and has been constantly on the backfoot. Similarly in The Australian, Sean Parnell criticised her negativity on matters such as the Moreton Bay oil spill and government cutbacks. “Everything Bligh is saying might be correct,” says Parnell, “but she looks like someone trying to defend the indefensible.”

Pollster Graham Young thinks the problem lies with Bligh’s presentation. He says she comes across as “too harsh, too shallow and too reactive” and Labor’s attack ads are not helping. And there are other smaller signs that Bligh is not a great natural campaigner. Yesterday Ben Grubb at TechWired caught out the Premier's office deleting Twitter updates. When Grubb queried whether Kevin Rudd’s Twitter depiction of the Queensland Opposition as “the other bloke” also included the Greens, the person behind @anna4queensland responded with “they’re certainly not an alternative government” before deleting the offending Tweet.

But regardless of whether Anna or “the other bloke” wins on Saturday, there is a definite sense of gloom in the electorate. Jason Wilson tapped into that mood today as he used the environmental disaster from the MV Pacific Adventurer oil slick as a metaphor for Queensland’s current woes. Wilson says that because its economy that relies on mining and tourism, the state is particularly susceptible to recessions. “Under the circumstances, Queenslanders' apparent lack of interest in this strange, irrelevant, funereal state election campaign is understandable,” he writes. On both sides, as Mark Bahnisch says, the vision is barren.

Luckily there is always the curious adventures of Pauline Hanson to cheer us up. She launched another one of her trademark anti-media attacks today after News Ltd Sunday papers published nude photos yesterday. The Brisbane Sunday Mail claimed the photos were of Hanson when she was 19 years old and they paid $10,000 to obtain them from her boyfriend of that era, a man called Jack Johnston. Today, the would-be Beaudesert MP denied she had ever posed nude and said she had never heard of Johnston. Hanson said she was fighting the charge because the media didn’t check the story with her. "They just got these photos, presumed it was me, made it public, and have embarrassed me greatly and I've had enough,” she said. “I'm just not going to take this anymore.”

Other than noting the irony of Pauline Hanson channelling Peter Finch, I agree she has been treated poorly in this episode. Perhaps worryingly, I find myself agreeing with Andrew Bolt for the second time in three days. While the photos were a clear breach of privacy, the whole brouhaha won’t do Hanson a jot of harm. The more the media harass her, the more she becomes a symbol of resistance for the political underclass.

I’m not sure what it is about the redoubtable Hanson but today she also united Tim Blair and Pure Poison in condemnation of the publication of the photos. The Herald Sun dubiously claimed the 30 year old photos had news value because public people are public property. “[E]very bloody time you stand, Ms Hanson,” shrieked the Herald Sun in unconvincing defence, “we will ask the tough questions.” Who exactly, is kidding who, here?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Peter Costello: Walking in the overshadows

Picture credit: Tandberg.

Happy Birthday to Larvatus Prodeo, which turns four on the stroke of midnight or thereabouts. Consistently Australia's best group blog over the last few years, it is also a model of (mostly) civil and intelligent discussion in comments. Here's wishing many more years of good debate from LP.

While this post is entitled “Peter Costello”, the subtitle is partially about the birthday blog and one of its commenters, so bear with me.

I am also grateful to Peter Black who inspired another part of the title. “What a great opening sequence to Insiders, wrote Black this morning, ‘beginning with "Peter Costello went for a walk"’.

It was indeed a great opening. There were plenty of other things going on in Australian politics, but the plot was thick with Costello talk. The ABC's Chris Uhlmann agreed with Barrie Cassidy's suggestion that the former Treasurer was “up to no good”. I was enjoying his analysis when my ears really pricked up at a sentence he used. “Costello of course I think should be dubbed The Overshadow now,” said Uhlmann, “because no matter what he does he seems to have an effect on the party.”

The Overshadow. It seemed as if Uhlmann was claiming the dub for himself but I knew that Uhlmann was not the first person to use it to describe Costello. I thought I heard it through Larvatus Prodeo so I decided to check it out.

Firstly, I went to Factiva and ran a search for mainstream media articles that had Costello and overshadow in the last three months. The first article of interest was from the ABC. On 17 February, Hayden Cooper reported on the aftermath of the Julie Bishop demolition from the role of Shadow thus: “Hockey's elevation overshadowed by Costello speculation.”

In this scenario Hockey was the shadow and speculation was the overshadow. Nevertheless - the speculation was close enough to Costello for someone to make the right connection.

That someone was Paul Burns. By 7:06pm on the 17th, Burns had either read the article or listened to it on The World Today. Over at Larvatus Prodeo he was ready to comment about Hockey's promotion. He prefaced his statement with a grumble. “Occasionally the RW troglodytes who’ve taken over the ABC get it right.”

Just a bit of LWRW point scoring so far. But by channelling Cooper he was ready to deliver the knockout blow.

“Peter Costello = The Overshadow”.

In one mathematical equation Burns nailed the nebulous Costello.

Of course, he is. A perfect Overshadow. QED.

Naturally enough Mark at Larvatus Prodeo agreed: “It says it all, really.”

An overshadow in its most basic sense is something that blocks light from above. But it has a second meaning: something that “exceeds in importance”. Costello has certainly had no shortage of self-importance, he does smug in spades. And he has never been able to shed the negatives of his upbringing in a way that his brother Tim can.

Others sense this about Peter. When Mark Latham wasn’t dissing out his colleagues in the Diaries, he was fruity with Opposition figures too. In the introduction to the book, he agreed with Costello that all politicians indulge themselves in politics and as a result, families suffer. But that was about as good as it got for Costello from Latham. By page 50, he was wishing a pox on Costello and his then boss Howard for “their stinking rotten budget”. It was 1996, and it was the newly elected Abbot Howard and his apprentice Costello who were acting, said Latham, like the Bourbons on Bastille Day: “Self indulgent and arrogant.”

It is fair to say that first budget was not pretty. There was Treasurer Peter Costello, the youngest ever Liberal MP commissioned to deliver a Budget of non-core promises to the people that elected his party. He was fortunate that the odour of the meanness and the trickiness stuck on his boss.

Nevertheless Howard had the numbers and the loyalty of a whole bunch of politicians who grew up in power and who didn’t mind the smell.

For the next ten long years Costello stuck to his Bourbon tradition and let Howard eat cake. Costello was seemingly content to wait around for World’s Greatest Treasurer to become an Olympic sport. But when it became obvious in 2007 that the time was up for the Big Man, Costello wouldn’t move against him. Just like in 1994, Costello hadn’t the numbers or wasn’t prepared to take the big chair. Rudd torpedoed the Libs in November 2007 and Costello went down with the ship.

Except he didn’t. The big offers from private industry didn’t come, so he hung on tight in his Higgins liferaft. Costello’s margin in Higgins is 14 percent. It covers the mostly leafy south-east Melbourne suburbs of Prahran, South Yarra, Toorak, Armadale, Malvern, Glen Iris, Camberwell and Ashburton and has always been held by Liberals.

(Pic: The Overshadow). Costello whiled away the days writing his memoirs and taking valuable column inches from Brendan Nelson. Castaway in his backbench boat, he watched as Nelson’s column was toppled. As Nelson fell on his sword, he used the one weapon at his disposal to damage Costello. The timing of his leadership spill took most of the media coverage away from Costello’s book launch.

But once again The Overshadow hung around. Turnbull inherited the Party leadership. But Costello refused to go on honeymoon with Turnbull and turned down a position on the front bench. Turnbull was more solid than Nelson but still could not lay a glove on the Government. And the Liberals allowed themselves to be wedged on the stimulus as Turnbull forgot the basic rule: never get between the voters and a bag of money.

The Australian has now jumped on the bandwagon with an editorial on 12 March that said Costello knows the next election will be fought on his issues. “Turnbull must embrace the Howard agenda,“ pontificated the Australian, “If he declines to do it, the party should look for a leader who will.”

A leader who will? Despite all the wind and noise about Costello over the years, one basic fact needs repeating: Peter Costello has NEVER contested for the Liberal leadership. Maybe he never had the numbers to make a run at the federal Liberal leadership. Maybe he simply "never had the balls".

But there is maybe one thing that Costello has learned from his Faustian pact with the Howard agenda: In politics, longevity is everything. Unless he is challenged for pre-selection in Higgins, Costello will sit tight until the party comes begging for him. And if that date happens to be 2009 or even or 2012, then so be it. But then the Liberals must accept they will not regain the agenda until he comes out of the shadows.