The news of the otherworld: Wrecking the RET

A sure sign the Warburton Review into the Renewable Energy Target was flawed was the lavish praise for it in yesterday’s editorial in the Weekend Australian. It was the second of two editorials with the main one bemoaning the lack of decision making in the “national interest” which in the Weekend Oz’s case is code for “Murdoch’s interest”. Murdoch’s interest applauds the Abbott Government for its foreign affairs stance, fiscal consolidation and market-based reforms but castigates it for the way it sells its economic messages, as well as taxing high earners, introducing a “gimicky” medical research fund and bringing back knights and dames. Rupert Murdoch, after all, remains doggedly republican.

It doesn’t mention climate scepticism but it is no secret Rupert is not convinced of the science. Like me, his pride and joy The Australian is now 50 years old – a month younger than me – and we are both seriously showing our age. I’m reasonably confident I’m still in control of my faculties but I’m not so sure about the Oz / Woz. This sorry excuse for a broadsheet is becoming more unhinged by the day, especially when it comes to dealing with climate science. Take, for example, the page 5 exclusive yesterday from “environment editor” Graham Lloyd. The quotes inside “Records detail heat that ‘didn’t happen'” are a giveaway that it is climate change the Oz headline writers think “didn’t happen”. The story itself is muddled junk which took forever to get to its debatable point the BOM are fudging their figures to over-egg increasing temperatures. Lloyd’s sole “proof” is old written records of the weather at Bourke in northern NSW. There is also a dubious-looking graph which show local temperatures are heading downwards over 150 years. The graph seems to ignore its own spikes in the last 20 years. The lede is buried in the last sentence from a man who rescued the old records: “At the moment they (BOM) are saying we have a warming climate but if the old figures are used we have a cooling climate”.

Lloyd didn’t interview anyone who might gainsay that remark. Instead his only expert quote is from another sceptic “Queensland researcher” Jennifer Marohasy who agreed temperatures were warmer earlier in the century. At no point does Lloyd mention that Marohasy’s views are not widely shared. Lloyd has form with kooky climate theories and his employers are only too delighted to push them prominently. Dissenters to climate science interpretation like Marohasy and Bjorn Lomborg are always likely to get a good run in the op eds. Not so, those who push the need for climate change action. On Friday many such bodies and companies reacted negatively to the results of the RET review released a day ealier. Whether their complaints were legitimate or not, there were  completely absent from the Weekend Oz news pages. There was not a single article on RET not was there any op eds, leaving the only discussion to His Master’s Voice in the editorial.

The editorial began by attacking its favourite enemy Christine Milne for her petulence in throwing the review in the bin ( I agree it was stupid amateur dramatics) before calming down calling the review a “balanced, rational assessment”. Those looking for proof of this would be disappointed to find that most of what followed was a direct copy and paste from the review itself. This did mean, however, that the Woz had to admit that the review was very positive about the RET. As Lenore Taylor emphasises, the RET did exactly what it was designed to do: it pushed investment from fossil fuels into renewables.

The Woz skirts around this problem by saying it was too expensive and heavy subsidies were ultimately lowering productivity and national income. But the key statement in the review was picked up by Peter Martin which was the RET was helping the “transfer of wealth among participants in the electricity market”. This line is pure Dick Warburton, who led the four-person review and a man of commerce who prefers the hands of the market to move invisibly.

Warburton was the perfect choice to lead the review to a particular outcome, a successful businessman who doesn’t think climate change was caused by humans. When appointed chair of the review in February, Warburton told the Australian’s Sid Maher he was not a climate sceptic. Because the Australian was willing to give him the balance of that doubt, we never find out if Warburton believes climate change is real and if so, what is causing it and what we should do about it. Either way, he would have been unlikely to have any sympathy to this particular kind of market intervention. As Taylor said, the result of the review only made sense if the intention was to deny the problem it was trying to solve.

The Australian quotes the review’s statement that the jobs the RET created were at the expense of other industries. It claimed removing “inefficient subsidies” would free up investment for research into more efficient renewable energy sources. But with no carbon tax or any other market mechanism to support it, it would just as likely lead to more investment in fossil fuels. The RET exceeded its 20% target, generated a large surplus of electricity and lowered prices which all sounds like good things but not if the Review and the Woz are to be believed.

The scheme would cost $22b to its end point in 2030 (less than $1.5b a year or about 15 Super hornet planes) which sounds like a small tax price to pay for for a good outcome. But the review didn’t see it that way. It was “distorting investment decisions” (again, doing what it was designed to do). the low prices were “artificial” while the cost of the scheme meant it was still adding 4% to those prices, though that figure was trending to negligible. By that logic the Warburton Review said it was not generating any new wealth just transferring it to other players in the market. As Martin picked up, the big losers are the mining companies who backed Abbott’s axeing of both taxes (carbon and mining).

The RET helps reduce carbon emissions by an additional 300 million tonnes by 2030, the equivalent of 100,000 cars taken off the road. But cars aren’t coming off the road, they are increasing as is the impatience of those who rely on them, paying an increased price in transport and electricity. Warburton said the cost of abatement was too high but that cannot be proven. The Government’s response the increasingly hollow sounding “Direct” action has no modelling or explanation how it might achieve its (low) targets. It is also unlikely to pass an increasingly feisty Senate that Abbott has managed to alienate, despite it containing many philosophical fellow travellers.

Abbott was able to “axe the (carbon) tax” but not do much else other than clear the cupboard. He dismantled the Climate and Science ministries, gutted CSIRO and abandoned the Climate Commission. Removing the hated RET is simply the next step in the ideological agenda that undersells the problem of climate change and leaves dim-witted Australia well behind the eight ball in solar, wind and geothermal research. Murdoch’s rags are only too willing to help to put the boot in as it calls in commercial and political favours. The Government meanwhile continues its brutal search and destroy mission of all legislation enacted between 2008 and 2013. If this is evidence of the “adults in charge” then for god sake bring back the children.

August 31, 2014 at 11:54 am Leave a comment

Three lives Part 3 – Pearson’s mission

By the 20th century, Queensland was in white hands and Indigenous survivors lived in shanty-towns or missions. At Hope Vale in Cape York, German missionaries were successful because they learned the local language. Many Indigenous people were killed in the 1870s Palmer River goldrush and the Guugu Yimithirr people were grateful to Lutheran pastor Schwarz who provided an alternative to a fringe-dwelling existence. As in missions across Australia young strangers developed an Aboriginal identity of their own. Noel Pearson’s father was a stockman who grew up at the mission and shared its Lutheran faith and Noel was born there in 1965, two years a “constitutional alien” before the referendum was passed. Noel enrolled at a Brisbane Lutheran school, and studied anthropology and archaeology at the University of Queensland.

A great influence was Charles Perkins, another mission boy whose political fearlessness and strong sense of Aboriginal dignity saw him lead the freedom ride and later clash with numerous prime ministers. Pearson got his first taste of politics with what Marcia Langton called the Goss Labor Queensland government’s ‘nasty games’ on land rights. Pearson was excited by the 1992 Mabo decision saying native title showed the capacity of British common law. He described Keating’s Redfern speech as ‘the seminal moment of European Australian acknowledgement of grievous inhumanity’ to Indigenous people. But after Howard won power in 1996, Pearson adjusted his political radar.

Pearson was beginning to understand the problems of decolonisation. On western Cape York, Peter Dutton exposed the devastating state of Aurukun describing it as the end of the liberal consensus on Aboriginal issues. In Pearson’s Hope Vale, alcohol, drugs and gambling dependencies were rife. He saw ‘sit down money’ as a long-term corrosive and began to take ‘once unmentionable’ issues to a national audience. Pearson saw the political left was strong on land rights but weak on personal responsibility while the right was the opposite. Pearson became a ‘radical centrist’ and following Amartya Sen, he spoke of the illusion of singular identity and began understanding Australia as country shared by two peoples. His goal is to see Indigenous people recognised as “peoples” with cultural distinctiveness and “populations” who can be measured against health and education outcomes against other Australians. Pearson’s speeches speak to an ever-evolving sense of self, grounded by the dignity of his upbringing and his Aboriginality.

Bennelong, Bussamarai and Pearson are separated by time and circumstance but united by the need to take control of their lives. All faced massive challenges and all were scarred by proximity to colonialism. Bennelong was arguably Indigenous Australia’s first and only ambassador, but was discarded when Britain had no more use for him. By Bussamarai’s time colonisation was in full swing across Australia, a war on many fronts. His ‘opera’ was similar to Bennelong’s spearing of Phillip: the mark of a strategic thinker with a sense of drama.

Bussamarai was killed and victors wrote him out of the history. Today, an Indigenous man is re-writing history and imposing his own dignity on a white world. Noel Pearson is educated enough to understand the scars of colonisation but he is also honest enough to see the problems of decolonisation. His speeches are the mark of an iconoclastic intellectual, black and brave yet also human and universal. Pearson is using dignity to serve new ends for a people that have survived invasion and want to flourish on their own terms.

See also Part 1 and Part 2.

July 19, 2014 at 11:00 am Leave a comment

Three lives Part 2 – Bussamarai’s opera

Forty years after Bennelong’s death (see Part 1), equal terms between black and white were forgotten as white Australia pushed out from the coast. Encouraged by British demand for Australian wool, pastoralism provided the impetus for territorial expansion. Legally the justification was terra nullius. Chief Justice Forbes called Australia an ‘uninhabited country’ but it was the settlers who were making it uninhabitable for the blacks. Squatters, blinded by profits, simply stole the land and when Aborigines fought back they were killed. Their mere presence was enough for them to be shot or poisoned – men, women and children. This was true in southern Queensland’s Maranoa as elsewhere, but there a Mandandanji resistance leader would put on a show that was just as elaborate as Bennelong’s spearing of Phillip and just as meaningful.

In April 1850 white settlers near Surat were invited to a corroboree, what Gideon Lang would later call an ‘opera’. The conductor said Lang, was ‘Eaglehawk’ (Bussamarai) who sat behind a choir of black women while men on stage acted out an elaborate play. With astonishing mimicry the actors played cattle grazing in the fields. Next they became black warriors sneaking up to spear cattle. Then others playing ‘manufactured whites’ starting shooting the ‘blacks’. To the great joy of the mainly non-white audience, the ‘blacks’ overwhelmed the ‘whites’ at the end of the opera. Bussamarai’s message was he could combine five local tribes to drive the whites from the country. The lessons the whites drew was equally clear: bring in the native police.

The history is scant on Bussamarai/Eaglehawk, two of his four names along with Old Billy and Possum Murray (Bussamarai may simply be a backward formation from Possum Murray). The first squatters searched Mandandanji lands around 1842 when Finney Eldershaw and others scouted the Maranoa and Balonne Rivers. Thomas Mitchell came through in 1846 and he was a close friend of NSW parliamentary secretary and fellow Scot William Macpherson. William’s son Allan had a property in New England and Macpherson junior was excited by Mitchell’s diary entry for the Maranoa: ‘fine open country, and from the abundance of good pasturage around it, I named it Mt Abundance’.

Armed with Mitchell’s maps, Macpherson capitalised on a March 1847 Order in Council possibly drafted by his father which granted frontier squatters 14-year leases. Macpherson claimed 400,000 acres of ‘the most beautiful land that ever sheep’s eyes travelled over’. But within a week the blacks appeared, frightening his men ‘into convulsions’. The fear was mutual, the natives dreading Macpherson’s double-barrelled carbine and horse. While Macpherson was away, they killed two shepherds and stole a thousand sheep. Macpherson was forced out after two years of ‘sundry conflicts with the hostile blacks’ and while he believed the grass was no use to them, he admitted ‘they no doubt thought they had a better right to the land than we did’.

While Macpherson showed conscience, other quieter settlers who followed did not. These men like Thomas Hall, Henry Dangar, Robert Fitzgerald and Joseph Fleming were in the Gwydir wars, and a ‘social destructive group’ with a ‘single-minded quest for wealth and status’. Hardened by the Myall Creek massacre and subsequent hanging of seven whites, they had a new unwritten law: ‘death by stealth’. In 1859 drover William Telfer heard about the slaughter that occurred after Macpherson’s time. Telfer was a witness to the Waterloo Creek killings and Telfer’s Wallabadah manuscript describes several massacres in the Maranoa including a ‘fight’ on Fleming’s property with a ‘Cheif [sic] who was shot with about fifty others’.

Bussamarai was also active killing settlers at Dulacca until a posse tracked his mob down to the Grafton Ranges. There they captured “a powerful man”. Though later released, Bussamarai did not forget his humiliation and forced Blyth to evacuate his station in October 1848. The absentee Gwydir landlords allowed 20 or so ‘insubordinate and lawless white workers’ to kill 80 Mandandanji in two years. The elusive Bussamarai’s talents got grudging tribute. Hovenden Hely, in the Maranoa in 1852 to search for Leichhardt, described Bussamarai as ‘the head and prime mover of all the depredations and murders committed there’ but admitted he was a ‘chief of great repute’. However with squatters agitating for native troopers to come, his time was up. Native Police Sergeant Skelton recounted the end after a fight in November 1852 “they [Bussamarai and another] were both shot in the attempt to apprehend them”.

Bussamarai’s death was one of hundreds in the violent Maranoa frontier war from 1846 to 1856. It was a war that moved up from the Gwydir and across from the Darling Downs and would later move north towards the Dawson River. The ruthless competition for land that led to Bussamarai’s death was forgotten and buried under pioneer legends. Through storytelling, the frontier was transformed into a battle between (white) humans and nature. But until it is accepted the frontier was a war zone, reconciliation of the past with present will continue to be an elusive goal.

July 8, 2014 at 12:28 pm 1 comment

Three lives: Part 1 – Bennelong time

bennelongHuman dignity has always played a key role in political action. Dignity is a central tenet of Christianity yet Protestant England and Catholic France established colonial empires by force because they rated the dignity of Asians and Africans lower than their own. The dignity of Australia’s Indigenous people is grounded in culture and religion but for two centuries Europeans stripped them of dignity, calling them ‘savages’, ‘wild myalls’, ‘ignorant blacks’, ‘niggers’, ‘coons’ and ‘drunken Abos’. Restoration of dignity is now central to Indigenous peoplehood. When Bob Maza was attempting to create Koori awareness in the 20th century, his appeal was based on dignity: “The white man can look back with pride and honour at the history of his people. So you who are black must also search and find that pride and dignity which lies in your ancestry.”

The next three posts examine how dignity shaped the lives of three Indigenous Australians from different eras. First is Bennelong from the period of encounter, who leapt across the frontier to lead an ‘Australian’ and ‘British’ life. Second is Bussamarai, a Mandandanji warrior from colonial times. This little known frontier fighter was an impediment to the British land grab for 10 years and had startling ideas for communicating with Europeans. The third is Noel Pearson, a complex modern day warrior for postcolonial times and his Guugu Yimithirr people. Pearson sees dignity as an important tool of peoplehood, ahead of a day he hopes the vast majority of Australians will agree to the ‘unfinished business’, a constitutional treaty with its Indigenous people.

There was no talk of treaties when Cook took possession of New South Wales in 1770. Cook saw fires along the coast as a ‘Certain sign that the Country is habitated’. His naturalist Joseph Banks saw fishers who ‘scarce lifted their eyes’ at their strange visitors. Cook and Banks started a tradition of an inoffensive people that hinted at innate weakness. Banks told a 1779 parliamentary inquiry NSW was a good place for a colony, because it only housed ‘naked cowardly savages’. Banks was wrong. Indigenous people have lived in Australia for 60,000 years and had plenty of time to develop a sophisticated lifestyle. They quarried for stone and ochre and mastered firestick farming which transformed the landscape. Bradley in the First Fleet saw how they had sophisticated fishing techniques and while they also used mathematics to make calendar calculations. They traded with ‘sea gypsies’ – Muslim trepangers from Sulawesi and other islands. Possibly 750,000 people lived in Australia in 1788 networked by songlines, kinship, reciprocity and law. Most needed five hours daily to gather food. That left time for rest, sociability, spirituality, and development of dignity.

Britain’s conquest was unrelated to the ‘natives’: it was a claim against European powers and the colony would absorb, in Colonial Secretary Evan Nepean’s words, ‘a dreadful banditti’. Governor Arthur Phillip wanted Indigenous relationships but had no instructions for a treaty and offered none. Echoing Dampier a century earlier, John Hunter thought the Eora, smeared with animal fat and covered in dust and ashes, “abominably filthy”. Watkin Tench was sympathetic but trusted British guns: ‘Our first object was to win their affections and our next to convince them of the superiority we possessed,’ he said, ‘for without the latter, the former we knew would be of little importance’.

Anthropologist Bill Stanner said the seeds for the unequal relationship between black and white were sown during Phillip’s ‘muddy and incoherent’ rule. The Eora mistook Phillip’s missing front tooth as a sign of initiation and offered respect but kept their distance. Just as the Dutch did in northern Australia in the 17th century, Phillip resorted to kidnapping to establish communications, claiming it necessary to swap languages so ‘redress might be pointed out to them if they are injured, and to reconcile them by showing the many advantages they would enjoy by mixing with us’. His first victim Arabanoo died of smallpox. Judy Campbell says smallpox swept down from the north coast but it seems an extraordinary coincidence it arrived within 15 months of the First Fleet. Whatever the cause, it decimated the Eora and left an infant colony facing starvation.

Phillip kidnapped again and snared Bennelong, who stayed for five months and would become a ‘personage’ in the colony. Bennelong recognised how clothes marked status and swiftly adopted British manners. Tench judged Bennelong as ‘of good stature and stoutly made, with a bold intrepid countenance which bespoke defiance and revenge’. His casual violence towards women shocked the British. Bennelong laughed while telling Tench of a wound gained while he beat a woman ’till she was insensible and covered in blood’. Bennelong’s escape was likely due to the need for sex but it also allowed him time to plan revenge for his kidnapping. Phillip’s spearing at Manly beach was a ritual payback punishment for Bennelong’s abduction. Inga Clendinnen says Bennelong directed an elaborate performance as the ‘hinge man’ for proper compensation from ignorant invaders. Bennelong would insist Phillip visit him ten days later, despite Phillip’s serious injury. As the first Indigene to formally “come in” to Sydney, he insisted his house be built on what would become Bennelong Point. It was a de facto Eora embassy where people came as they pleased to the bewilderment of the British. Tench said Bennelong had become a ‘man of so much dignity and consequence that it was not always easy to obtain his company’.

Bennelong used reciprocal obligations and kinship to manage the British, calling Phillip ‘father’ and insisting wife Barangaroo have her baby at government house. Bennelong would accompany Phillip to England as someone ‘very attached to his person’. After three years abroad Bennelong was homesick. Hunter described his condition: ‘He has for the last 12 months been flattered with the hope of seeing again his native country… but so long a disappointment has broken his spirit and the coldness of the weather here has so frequently laid him up that I am apprehensive his lungs are affected’.

On his return Bennelong’s fell on hard times as his 1796 letter to England reveals: ‘another black man took [my wife] away… he spear’d me in the back, but I better now”. He died in 1813 and his Sydney Gazette obituary noted his insubordinate drunkenness and damned him as a ‘thorough savage’. The Gazette was uncharitable. Bennelong was a dignified ambassador for his people and the first to offer a glimpse of how Europeans and Australians might exist on equal terms.

June 30, 2014 at 2:34 pm 2 comments

Franz Ferdinand and the end of the 19th century: a time for thought

Archduke FerdinandYesterday 100th anniversary of the death in Sarajevo of the heir to Austria-Hungary’s throne Franz Ferdinand provides an apt moment to consider the turning points of history. His death effectively ended the 19th century, and led to the great carnage and chaos of the First World War. There is a good primer up on the ABC on who Archduke Franz Ferdinand was, why he was killed and why his death was so important to history.  It contains a quote from Britain’s Duke of Portland of which I was unaware. Ferdinand was visiting Portland in November 1913 and the pair were shooting pheasant on the latter’s estate. One of Portland’s men loading the shotguns tripped over and accidently discharged the guns narrowly missing the two dukes. Portland later said, “I have often wondered whether the Great War might not have been averted, or at least postponed, had the archduke met his death there and not at Sarajevo the following year.”

Portland musings make for a delightful counterfactual but as even his own ‘postponed’ clause hints, the First World War was always coming and Franz Ferdinand’s death was merely the excuse, not its cause. German militarism had been on the rise for 20 years, the delicate European balance of power was tottering and individual leaders were reckless and stupid. There was also the rising demon of European nationalism which the great powers could no longer control, to which Franz Ferdinand, as an imposed Hapsburg leader of a patchwork of Slav nations, was especially vulnerable. There were six assassins waiting for him in Bosnia on the day of his death. They almost failed that day, but sooner or later, some Slav nationalist would take their grievances to him or another Hapsburg. And the inevitable consequences would be that the delicate house of cards European monarchs built to spread the colonial largesse evenly would coming crashing down.

It was fitting that an Austrian’s death would bring the 19th century to an end, as it was another Austrian, Prince Metternich who started it one hundred years earlier in 1815. European was emerging from the chaos of Napoleon’s wars and his attempt to become a European hegemon. Metternich hosted the Congress of Vienna where diplomats could decide borders in salons not on European battlefields. As Europe industrialised and a growing middle class became prosperous, the patchwork peace enabled the major powers to concentrate on building colonial empires in other parts of the world.  Occasionally those powers would get together again in genteel surrounds as they did in Berlin in 1878 to re-adjust the borders of the world on European terms.

The fate of Bosnia was a key plank of that Berlin Treaty. Still a de jure part of the tottering Ottoman Empire, the major powers agreed it would be de facto part of the Austria-Hungary Empire which occupied and administered Sarajevo. Bosnian Slavs were unhappy to have their masters changed without their say, especially as the Treaty also recognised the independence of next door Serbia. For its part Serbia had its own designs on Bosnia, conscious of its strong Serb minority. When Bulgaria declared its independence in 1906 from the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary moved to formally annex Bosnia. But as the Ottomans displayed more symptoms of the Sick Man of Europe, the Balkan powderkeg erupted again in 1912, as Montenegro, Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria formed the Balkan League to end the empire’s interests in continental Europe. An alarmed Austria-Hungary pushed for what would have been an earlier start to a World War but the German generals on whom they relied said they were not ready to be mobilised until the summer of 1914.

So it was inevitable that the Balkan region of the Austria-Hungarian empire would be where the match for war would be lit. However, Fukuyama wrote of another “intangible but crucial factor”, the dullness and lack of community in European life in 1914. The Archduke’s assassination was greeted with frenzied pro Austrian demonstrations in Berlin despite Germany’s lack of skin in the game. Modris Eckstein’s Rites of Spring captured the mood in Europe in the summer of 1914 and Eckstein quoted a worker in the Berlin crowds who said they were all seized by one earnest emotion “War, war and a sense of togetherness”. Eckstein quotes anti-war German law student who was drafted when hostilities broke out in September. The war was “dreadful, unworthy of human beings, stupid, outmoded and in every sense destructive,” the student said. Yet he willingly enlisted, understanding duty as a moral imperative regardless of the dubious reasons. “The decisive issue,” he said, ” is surely always one’s readiness to sacrifice and not the object of sacrifice.” This notion of “Pficht” was echoed across Europe and across British dominions around the world as a sense of duty and excitement for action proved a potent brew.

If the Archduke’s death was the end of the 19th century, then the First World War was a bloody interregnum, where as Churchill wrote, the life-energy of the greatest nations were poured in wrath and slaughter. The 20th century, as Hobsbawm argues, began with the 1917 Russian Revolution and ended with the storming of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But it could also be argued it effectively began with the Peace of Versailles, a treaty just as cynical and plundering of the world’s riches as the Congress of Vienna 100 years earlier. France’s Marshal Foch accurately summed up Versailles: “This is not Peace. It is an Armistice for twenty years.” Similar hopes for the end of all wars were held in 1946 and institutions like Bretton-Woods seemed to keep an entente cordiale at least in the western world. Then when the Wall fell, hopes again rose of ending all wars.

Writing in 1991 Fukuyama following Hegel and Marx, hailed what he called “the end of history”, a period where the dignity of democracy would rule triumphant. The real history shows the ‘new world order’ didn’t last long at all. China and Russia adopted capitalism without the democratic trimmings while Versailles creations like Iraq began to fracture. Bosnia and the Balkan map looks familiar again to Franz Ferdinand while 1930s style ultra-nationalism has returned to a frightened and lost Europe. Religious zealotry has made many parts of Asia and Africa no go zones for moderates. Now more than ever it is crucial to seek answers from the past, to understand our present. Arnold Toynbee may be right in saying history was ‘one damn thing after another’ but that is no reason not to understand its consequences.  Anniversaries like Franz Ferdinand’s death provide a time for thought we should not miss.

June 29, 2014 at 11:34 am Leave a comment

Peter Greste is not guilty but Al Jazeera is

As a fellow Australian journalist I am outraged by the imprisonment of Peter Greste and his colleagues in Egypt who are manifestly innocent of the charged they were convicted on. However, the same cannot be said about their employers Al Jazeera whose three employees are paying a heavy price for the Qatari media organisation’s gross meddling in Egyptian politics. Reporter Peter Greste, bureau chief Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and producer Baher Mohamed are unfortunate victims of Middle Eastern energy politics, pawns in a long game between Egypt and Qatar with significant roles also for Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.

It is not easy to criticise Al Jazeera, who I admire for having broken the back of western dominance of world news reporting and who have a deservedly formidable global news reputation branching out in every direction from its foundation of excellence in Arab affairs. But Al Jazeera has a major blind spot, one that is becoming more significant as the network becomes more important. Founded in 1996 with a charter to overcome censorship, Al Jazeera is bankrolled by Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who was the emir of Qatar until he abdicated in favour of his son Tamim in 2013.

Qatar’s massive oil and natural gas reserves has turned it into the richest country in the world per capita, wealth it is now pouring into influence across a multitude of world affairs. Al Jazeera is one of Al Thani’s pet projects and despite its own growing influence it  has been unable to turn a profit independently. Therefore it dares not bite the hand that feeds it. And as the Qataris flex their increasing financial muscle, there will be many more matters off limits to Al Jazeera such as the 2022 world cup or Qatar’s place in Gulf politics. The relationship between Qatar and Egypt is particularly problematic and Al Jazeera are not just reporters of that relationship but players.

This dangerous game dates back to former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak who was backed by Saudi government. He viewed the Qataris and their Al Jazeera news network as regional troublemakers. Following the Arab Spring, Al Thani put a lot of Qatar’s billions into the new governments that emerged. Mubarak was toppled in 2011 and replaced in elections by Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Qatar immediately swung into action to prop up Morsi.

Qatar not only supplied Egypt oil but also with liquefied natural gas (LNG) Egypt needs to fulfil export contracts. Egypt has state-run energy companies but allows foreign firms to exploit its gas reserves which the government subsidises for the domestic market. The foreign companies recoup their costs by exporting some of the gas for higher prices. But as Egypt’s demand increased and supply declined, there was less gas for the foreign market. Qatar filled the gap, selling the gas to Morsi’s foreign clients. Qatar also signed a deal to deliver a much needed LNG import terminal. This was a powerplay against not just the Saudis but also fellow Gulf state UAE, both of which had a long standing enmity to the Brotherhood and both of which supplied energy to Mubarak’s economy. Al Jazeera also enthusiastically threw their weight behind the new Islamist regime much to the disquiet of many of its own journalists
Matters changed again when the army deposed the Brotherhood government in 2013, much to the quandary of the west, who found their hatred of coups take second place to their hatred of elected Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood once again became officially Egyptian public enemy number one, but Qatar became number two. Those few Brotherhood officials and powerbrokers who escaped the crackdown mostly ended up in Qatar. Al Jazeera was not just an idle spectator, it is alleged to have paid for hotel suites in Doha for the exiles.

Meanwhile Egypt’s new master Sissi was left with a big problem of how to replace Qatari energy. He once again turned to the Saudis, UAE and Kuwait. Those countries have showered Egypt in petrol and diesel products but it still left Sissi with a serious problem as almost all its power plants run on LNG. None of the other Gulf states have the gas capacity of Qatar, and Egypt is in debt to the tune of $8 billion to the oil companies. Sissi has also been forced to increase the domestic price. But with natural gas supplying 70% of the local electricity, cutbacks are inevitable, possibly leading to more domestic discontent. Sissi has moved to end possible blackouts by contracting  Norwegian HOG-Energy to anchor an LNG unit in the Red Sea but that won’t be online until autumn well past the critical month of Ramadan when people fast during the day.

Sissi does not want to risk becoming the third leader deposed in three years and management of the message is crucial to his success. He closed down several Islamist news channels in 2013 including Al Jazeera’s Egyptian station Mubashir Misr. Greste, Fahmy and Bahar were arrested at the end of December last year accused of “damaging national security.”  The government said the journalists had held illegal meetings with the Brotherhood which had been declared illegal the previous week.

Greste’s letters from prison admitted he knew the dangers and had discussed them with Fahmy but they decided to press ahead anyway. He said they was only doing what journalists across the world do: “recording and making sense of unfolding events with all the accuracy, fairness and balance that our imperfect trade demands.” This is admirable but perhaps a little naive. Greste said he did not support the Muslim Brotherhood which is perfectly believable. But nowhere in the letters does he acknowledge Al Jazeera’s role in Egyptian politics. Greste, Fahmy and Bahar are scapegoats and cause celebres for press freedom. Telling the truth is not terrorism – but the truth is rarely simple. Greste and his two colleagues deserve our support, but they of all people should know this is also about geopolitics as it is about the right to report. Worldwide pressure should be applied just as much to Doha as it is to Cairo.

June 27, 2014 at 4:26 pm Leave a comment

Thailand’s long dance with democracy

Democracy Monument, Bangkok. June 17, 2014

Democracy Monument, Bangkok. June 17, 2014

It’s easy to believe democracy is overrated when you walk the streets of post-coup Thailand. Business is brisk, the place is flourishing and there is nary a sign of crisis. You have to hand it to the Thais, they really have perfected political coups. They have been doing it for the best part of a century, usually with little more than a stern finger-wagging from the rest of the world, before going on as normal. And it was striking how normal this latest iteration felt, as I found out this past week in Bangkok and elsewhere. You couldn’t call the atmosphere peaceful – nowhere this hot, busy and intense could be called peaceful – but the army were invisible and there was a quiet sense of people getting on with the repair work of their lives after all the fun and distractions of months and years of street protests. There seems to be very little anger, and almost some palpable relief that this particularly party is over. Bangkok runs so fast perhaps they need a coup every now and then to slow it down.

On a couple of days I walked past Democracy Square with its towering four-piece monument the epicentre of colour-coded street protests for five years or more. Thaksin’s red shirts gathered here when their enemies were in power and here too the yellow shirts roared when Thaksin’s mob got back in, Neither side accepted the validity of the other’s governance and there was no solution in sight acceptable to both sides. Perhaps inspired by events in Ukraine, matters deteriorated this year with yellow shirt protesters threatening to take power by force. That was a step too far for the army and they moved in May, sacking the government and ending all protests.

Any military worth its salt can seize power from its own civilians at gunpoint, the question is how do you govern afterwards. Sacking a government means sacking not just the prime minister but replacing ministers across the 30 or more government ministries. Luckily the Thais are practiced at this. In the 1890s Englishman H Warington Smyth was hired to run the newly created Department of Mines. Smyth recognised there were many Bangkoks including underground ones of stealing, drinking and gambling but of these, he said, it was officialdom that was all-devouring. That all-devouring officialdom was in evidence at every ministerial office I saw, all bristling with uniforms and guns.

Elsewhere it was the market that ruled. The signs have been removed from Democracy Square and the centre cordoned off. Instead of tanks, there are taxis, trucks and tuk tuks. Food stalls have returned to the square selling their wares in Thai and English and next door the lotto sellers do a thriving trade with hundreds of people desperately scanning newspapers to see if their numbers have come in. And all around are giant pictures of the king Bhumibol, a bespectacled mild-mannered man who has been on the throne longer than Elizabeth in Britain.

Politicians are fair game in Thailand but the king is not, and along with love of parents and love of religion are the three taboo things you can criticise in Thailand. In the 1930s the dictator Phibul led the first coup and dismantled the absolute monarchy. Yet he kept the trappings of the king. Phibul had the power but could see that the value in royal reverence, something today’s leaders also understand.

Thailand was one of the few countries in Asia and Africa to avoid colonisation and it was the power of the venerable monarchy that kept the western powers out. The Burmese did invade and destroyed the ancient capital of Ayodhya. The Siamese kings built a new capital downstream on the Chao Phraya. Founded in 1782, just six years before the birth of Sydney, they called it Krung Thep ‘the city of angels’ but the Portuguese seeing something a little more earthly gave it the more earthly name Bangkok.

The new capital was left alone as the west was beset by wars. But after defeating Napoleon in 1815, the Europeans started making demands to open the Thai economy to which the kings warily agreed. Most were well-educated with a deep knowledge of the west but also suspicious of the intentions of ‘farangs’ (foreigners). The farangs made their intentions clear in 1855 when Victoria’s government sent Hong Kong governor Sir John Bowring to Bangkok in her name. Bowring had a good hand of cards but not good enough to make direct threats. Instead he and the king signed an early free trade agreement the Anglo-Thai Treaty of Friendship and Commerce which became known as the Bowring Treaty. Bowring was so struck by his hosts, he eventually switched sides and in retirement represented the Thai king in British and European courts.

The Treaty pushed Thailand towards Europe and led to similar agreements with France and Germany. But they also fortified the capital against possible invasion. King Mongkut (who met “I”, British nanny Anna Leonowens) corresponded with the Pope, Queen Victoria and Napoleon III, but ruled absolutely until his death by malaria after seeing a total solar eclipse in a disease-ridden rainforest. His son Chulalongkorn had to deal with the French as they raided through Indo-China. Their navy blew up two forts at the mouth of the Chao Phraya and landed at their Bangkok consulate. To get them out, he gifted them the region around Angkhor Wat. The French, like the British before them, still respected the Siamese monarchy and 14 royal families from across Europe were represented when the next king was crowned in 1910. Attendee Prince Wilhelm of Sweden put his finger on why Siam had survived “I have never seen a crowned head sustain his dignity better than Maha Vajiravudh (Rama VI)”

Rama VI was educated in Eton, Oxford in Sandhurst and was an ardent Anglophile but sensibly steered clear of World War One. By 1932 his son Rama VII was struggling to keep Thailand out of the world depression. His ministers were themselves well educated and getting tired of absolute royal rule. The Wall St crash had reduced government and military salaries and the middle class were showing disgruntlement in newspapers, magazines, books, films and cartoons. British barrister Gerald Sparrow was in Thailand when the coup rumours festered but the king insisted on moving out of town for the summer. While he was away, the army acted and imprisoned the entire royal family. Field Marshal Phibulsonggram, known as Phibul, emerged as the strongman but a puzzled Sparrow asked the chief justice why Phibul agreed to keep on the king. The chief justice thought a minute and said  “everyone behaved a little better when the King was there.”

But Rama VII, addicted to divine power, wanted all or nothing and he got nothing. He went to London and abdicated in 1934 (predating Britain’s own abdication two years later). Phibul was completely in charge but still anointed 10-year-old Prince Ananda as king. Ananda was safely out of the way in Switzerland studying and a World War would keep him there to 1945. Ahead of that war, Pribul changed the name of the country from Siam to Thailand “land of the free”. When Prime Minister Winston Churchill looked at a new map of Asia in 1941, he asked why was Siam buried under the name of Thailand. He was told it was a market device for Thai nationalism. The Siamese kings ruled over Thais, Burmese, Malays, Karen and all others within their borders but Phibul was making a statement for a single ethnic identity known as the Thai.

That nationalism faced an existential threat from Japan but Phibul quickly ordered an armistice. He signed a military alliance that included a secret protocol to aid Japan in their war in return for territories lost to the Europeans including Cambodia. Somehow Phibul escaped retribution from the west at the end of that war. Also in 1945 King Ananda returned to Thailand to a joyous reception from his people. But within a year he was murdered in mysterious circumstance. He was found dead in the palace with a single gunshot wound to the forehead. The official version was accidental death but three palace employees were executed. A veil drew down over the incident which has yet to be lifted. The winner was his younger brother Bhumibol Adulyadej who came to the throne. He remains there today.

Bhumibol is venerated (and failing to do so is a crime) but the real power is firmly with the oligarchy of the generals and the police commanders. Phibul dominated until 1957 and he was firmly on the side of the Americans in cold war politics. It was Phibul who built the Democracy Monument in a moment of 1939 fascistic optimism but as his version of democracy deteriorated into authoritarianism, his monument became an embarrassing reminder of what might have been. In 1973 students inspired by western events gathered around the monument to protest military rule. Troops fired on them from helicopters and scores were killed. Bhumibol used his power to intervene and there was a brief interregnum of democracy. But the soldiers returned and the students were back in the square in 1992 to protest an unelected prime minister. Once again the troops opened fire and democracy flickered out once again.

But what value is democracy in Thailand today? The Chinese have proved that authoritarian rule is no barrier to economic success. Thailand has recovered from the 1997 “Thaitanic” economic collapse and feels like a nation in a hurry towards prosperity. Perhaps party politics is not a necessary part of that equation. Modern capitalism prefers political stability over choice. The generals have proved that yet again. But looking again at the ever-present pictures of Bhumibol, you are reminded he is approaching his 90s. His eventual death may cause a crisis that even the army’s M-16s cannot solve.

June 22, 2014 at 4:43 pm 1 comment

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