Archive for August, 2009
photo by wilbanks
As expected, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) have won a landslide victory in elections ending half a century of almost unbroken rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The DPJ is likely to end up with 308 of the 480 seats in parliament almost tripling their representation from the last election in 2005. Incoming Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s work will be cut out as he has made many election promises that don’t sit well with Japan’s troubled economy. The 62-year-old US-trained engineer called the victory “the starting line” but won’t announce his cabinet until he is officially elected prime minister by a special session of parliament, expected to be in about two weeks.
The outgoing Aso government crashed to defeat despite asking many legitimate questions about the DPJ’s ability to pay for its expensive campaign promises. These included a $300 a month child allowance to push up the birth rate (ageing is a principal cause of Japan’s stagnation), income support to farmers and heavily subsidised schooling. But the LDP’s own record was in tatters after the collapse of Japan’s bubble economy and they have stumbled with a succession of mediocre Prime Ministers since the charismatic Junichiro Koizumi (who won the last election) resigned in 2006.
The Nikkei-225 share index reacted well to the DPJ victory going up two per cent to an 11-month high earlier today. But there is a lot of catching up to do. Its stock market contracted by a massive 45 percent between July 2007 and February 2009. Japan was devastated by the GFC and the economy contracted by 0.7 percent in 2008 and is predicted to contract by another 2.5 percent this year before reaching a modest expansion of 0.6 per cent in 2010. Over the medium term, economic growth in Japan is expected to recover to about 1.8 per cent a year. However, exports, the main driver of the country’s economic growth, have been declining rapidly, turning the country’s trade surplus into a deficit earlier this year.
Japan has the largest fiscal deficit (as a share of gross domestic product) among the OECD economies, with public sector debt forecast to reach around 174 per cent of gross domestic product by the end of 2009. This wasn’t helped by the Aso Government’s introduction of a 10 trillion yen (US$111 billion) fiscal stimulus package in December 2008. Any further fiscal stimulus package will only worsen that situation. But after a long period of minimal growth and then severe recession there is now a strong political incentive to pursue economic growth polices. What remains to be seen is whether the DPJ can deliver. The signs are not promising. In the election campaign, Hatoyama proclaimed what The Economist called a “mushy-sounding concept, yuai, that mixes up the Chinese characters for friendship and love”. He calls it fraternity and says tariff sectors such as agriculture will be even more protected than they already are.
Another major challenge will be the environment. Japan’s Kyoto target is 7 percent reduction by 2012 on the 2000 figure. But even with recession, they are tracking at an 8 percent increase. Japan has also been criticised for its 2020 targets which is a modest 15 percent reduction using 2005 as the base year (not 1990 as Europe is using). In June the then environment minister Tetsuo Saito outlined the LDP goals for Copenhagen. Saito claimed it was following the lead of the US by starting the clock from 2005 and said the country has invested $10b in the “Cool Earth Partnership” with developing nations aimed at reducing emissions by 50 percent by 2050.
A key part of the DMJ’s election manifesto was green reforms that went much further than the LDP’s targets. They promised to lift Japan’s 2020 target to reduce greenhouse emissions to 25 per cent below 1990 levels. Hatoyama has also promised to create a mandatory domestic emissions trading scheme, again something the LDP were opposed to. While green groups are obviously pleased with these outcomes, others have issued a warning. Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director at the US Natural Resources Defence Council, said the DMJ would have to deal with deep-rooted opposition in the bureaucracy and business sector. “You won’t see a wholesale switch,” he said. “They will still have to deal with concerns of industries and with [strong] ministries that have very different views on climate change”. Hatoyama will need every seat of his huge mandate to overcome such bureaucratic inertia.
Australian politicians and media have adopted a typically hostile and defensive pose in response to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ considered statement on Indigenous issues released on Thursday. The hostility was uncalled for. James Anaya, the UNHCR special rapporteur on indigenous issues, has issued a thoughtful report which civilly applauded Australian efforts to improve human rights and conditions in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) communities while saying much more needed to be done.
Anaya, an American legal scholar, released his statement after spending 11 days in six states and territories. He met with Government authorities, representatives of indigenous communities and organisations, and other stakeholder groups. He said he was impressed and inspired by the forward-looking “strong and vibrant” nature of indigenous culture he saw despite having endured tremendous suffering due to “historical forces and entrenched racism”. He said those forces are still relevant today with Indigenous people still lagging far behind in quality of life indicators such as life expectancy, basic health, education, unemployment, incarceration, treatment of children, and access to basic services.
Anaya also praised the “close the gap” federal initiatives and said these programs needed to be improved and expanded. But he also noted some serious concerns. The biggest problem, he said, was with the Northern Territory Emergency Response with its income management regime, imposition of compulsory leases, and community-wide bans on alcohol consumption and pornography. Anaya said these measures overtly discriminated against aboriginal peoples, infringed their right of self-determination and further stigmatised marked communities.
Anaya conceded that affirmative measures were necessary but said they needed to take due regard of self-determination and to be free from racial discrimination and indignity. He said there needs to be a holistic approach to address Indigenous issues nationally. He quoted Prime Minister Rudd’s apology speech and said governments needed to form partnerships with Indigenous people “based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.”
It was only with the aid of local partnerships that issues of alcoholism, domestic violence, health and education could be addressed in culturally appropriate ways adapted to local needs. He said some government programmes fail to take into account local initiatives or duplicate local services undermining Indigenous institutions. He welcomed ATSI social justice commissioner Tom Calma’s call for the government to appoint a new ATSI representative body but said that indigenous groups must strengthen their own organisational and governance capacity.
Anaya also called for constitutional change. He said there needed to be recognition of ATSI rights in a charter of rights to be included in the Constitution. He also urged continued land rights, fixing housing needs and said the Native Title Act should be amended to include UN recommendations on racial discrimination. He said the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples should frame legislation, policies, and actions that affect ATSI people. The declaration, he said, “expresses the global consensus on the rights of indigenous peoples and corresponding state obligations on the basis of universal human rights.”
But despite the reasonableness of Anaya’s suggestions, it was met mostly with hostility this weekend from media and politicians alike. The Weekend Australian’s editorial claimed he missed the point and went on to indulge in a bit of silly UN-bashing. Former Liberal indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough said Anaya was “pontificating about human rights” while former health minister Tony Abbott bizarrely called him an “armchair critic”.
The stupidity of the response was matched on the Labor side of politics. Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin used the feeble excuse of protecting children to reject the main findings of the report (despite the fact that Anaya specifically justified affirmative measures in this area). Former national president Warren Mundine said the report should be binned and claimed that although racism exists in Australia, “we are actually in Australia working towards resolving those issues.”
It is difficult to see how exactly those issues can be resolved when “we” cannot even treat the considered opinion of an unbiased outsider with respect. It also shows yet again an Australian inability to deal constructively with criticism. Both Labor and the Liberal have thrown out Anaya’s baby in a childish tantrum because they didn’t like the look of his bathwater. Greens’ Indigenous affairs spokesperson Rachel Siewart is one of the few to come out of the affair with any credit. She said she was not surprised by his findings. “It is good to see an independent outside voice that brings a wealth of international experience of Indigenous development airing such strong criticisms of where this ill-thought-out top-down intervention has gone wrong,” she said. “This may ultimately result in the Government listening.”
We can only hope, Rachel.
(Photo by Arenamontanus)
Perhaps the most terrifying phrase in the English language is “all bets are off”. This is the panicky moment where regret about actions and inactions is inevitable but momentary. Perhaps Rupert Murdoch felt that fear when he announced that News Corp was going to start charging for online content from 2010 onwards. Necessity is the mother of this action – News Corp posted a $3.4 billion loss in fiscal 2009. Change is difficult, but as a businessman Murdoch understands how evolution works. The alternative is death. Change has no moral charter however, and the jump from Charles Darwin to World War I took just thirty years.
The notion of objectivity journalism arose in the early 20th century to report on the complexities of the times. A hundred years on, faithfully reporting the facts remains the key to influence in a media-crowded environment. More than ever journalism is a crucial component of democracy and its first loyalty is as always to citizens. It is now easier that ever for those citizens to spread their own messages. The Internet has provided the means of production to the masses. But it must be understood it is not a free entity. It owes as much to Adam Smith as to Marx. People who are horrified about paying for content on the Internet don’t seem to complain too much about paying for access and equipment.
It is important to understand how much the market will bear the costs of Murdoch’s content. But it will also be useful to observe how people will exploit the new niches left vacant in the attention economy. There is plenty of information waiting to fill the gaps that will be left to those who want to find their news, opinion and analysis in a frugal fashion. Announcing a new millennial culture for the 21st century The Cluetrain Manifesto hailed the power of the networks and how hyperlinks subvert hierarchies. It is an anarchic age where information has gone from being scarce to being hyperabundant.
Citizens are gathering a larger part of the puzzle. When the shooting of two London policemen occurred earlier this month, Sky News found the ideal picture to accompany their report on the Twitter picture service Twitpic. A man named Joe Neale had snapped a picture of the scene as he walked to a meeting. But Sky did not seek Neale’s permission to use the photo nor did they realise that Neale was an ex-employee of Murdoch at Myspace. Neale used Twitter’s terms of reference to shame them in to not only giving him attribution but also payment. It was a piquant Neale who pointed out the consequences of their actions. “Rupert Murdoch has announced people will have to pay to access his sites from 2010, meantime he doesn’t seem to mind not paying for material and happily infringes on other people’s work” he said.
Rupert Murdoch may not have fully considered the hyperlocal consequences of having to pay his suppliers but he will have considered that he can drop audience and still turn a buck. His personal wealth dropped from $7.9 billion to $3.4 in the last 12 months, but he was far from alone to suffer carnage from the GFC. And he does have the industry in his blood. Michael Wolff’s feature on the billionaire publisher in Vanity Fair portrayed him as “the last mogul standing who truly loves print”. Australian journalist Frank Devine, who had a working relationship with him from 1983 up to his death last month, was probably closer to the mark when he said Murdoch was motivated less by money than by the intrigue of business. He said Murdoch finds “near total fulfilment” in constantly telephoning, travelling on whims, out-thinking rivals, balance sheets, and calculating risks”. Murdoch will have a fair idea of just how risky this is.
But he will also know the benefits. In The Sociology of News, journalism academic Michael Schudson set his readers the following riddle: When should a profit-seeking newspaper seek fewer readers? His answer was “when the readers it loses have, on average less income than the readers it keeps”. Newspapers make 80 percent of their income from advertising and for advertisers the perceived quality of a publication’s readership is as important as its quantity.
Sale price is almost unimportant by comparison. The crucial metric is instead demographic. As a Bloomingdale executive allegedly once told Murdoch, his store did not advertise in the New York Post because “your readers are our shoplifters”. News Corp is now going for the non-shoplifting reader so they can bring guaranteed wealthy eyeballs to advertisers.
Isolation is a reasonable a business plan, but News Corp ring-fenced content would look even more attractive to an audience if they thought it was difficult to get elsewhere. His wooing of the New York Times, the Washington Post and Hearst media has been compared to “Vito Corleone calling for a meeting of the Five Families”.
In Australia, his only other serious private rival Fairfax (who themselves lost $380m last year) is interested in getting behind the paywall. Fairfax Media managing director Brian McCarthy announced he would be “happy to talk” to News Ltd about charging for online content. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has said it is watching for anti-competitive or collusive behaviour and has warned News Ltd and Fairfax to consult with it before entering into any paid online content arrangement.
But perhaps the ACCC is being a little too precious. Even if a news cartel can form a working paywall, will it really usher in a two-tiered era of the information rich and the information poor? The Internet has long interpreted censorship as damage and may treat large paywalls the same way. Would Australia be losing much if News and Fairfax hid their content much of which is vacuous? There are plenty of other ways of getting overseas information and ABC is left as master of the local unfenced field. Trusted bloggers who do not charge may find their influence expanding as well as their audiences.
It is also likely there will be significant leakage of material of paywall content into the public commons and with it new legal quagmires. Associated Press have announced they will charge for content at $2.50 a word but re-publishers may claim fair use privilege. Copyright law will be sorely tested too. What any judges who may be asked to decide on such matters must realise that, as Terry Flew says, information is a metapublic good. It generates the most positive benefits to a community when it is freely available. It is the miracle of the knowledge economy which as Charles Leadbeater says exists on thin air. Those with the best images and ideas are quicker to adapt than those weighed down by assets that have outlived their usefulness.
The question will be whether Murdoch has absorbed that lesson with his new plans. He is a flying a flag for those who believe the era of free on-line content is over. They argue pay per view is necessary to support quality journalism.
But others say that death of quality journalism was caused by the profit motive of the late 20th century newspaper where budgets were reduced, and journalists were asked to write more stories per day and were given less time to check facts. Wired editor Chris Anderson argues that the age of information abundance is leading instead to the rise of freeconomics driven by the underlying power of the web. Everyone with the skills to become a journalist may find unexpected advertising possibilities opening when News Corp turn off the Google juice. All bets are off.
The inaugural Media140 conference in Australia is on in November in Sydney. As a totally Twitterised wannabe journalist, I’m looking forward to attending. There will be lots of great speakers and good discussions there, I’m sure. Interestingly, the event’s flyer barely mentions Twitter, the technology that inspired the 140 idea. That’s a pity in some respect because sometimes a little technological determinism doesn’t hurt. No matter what it is called, Twitter is a reforming technology.
Its name may be for the birds, but Twitter is usually imagined as a stream. Right now, it is a raging current is rushing towards some eventual ocean of communication. The channel is known but it might be more difficult to work out who is saying what to whom and for what effect.
At first glance Twitter seems anchored and orderly with a precise naming system. There are hashtags denoting issues and an honest sounding at-sign denoting voices – My voice is @DerekBarry. But the information in the sign may not be reliable as it seems it is at.
Fakes about on Twitter. The real fakes acquire a fixity over time channelling another personalities. Tiny Buddha spreads 140 character wisdom, Marcel Marceau spreads a similar amount of silence. Nietzsche may have killed God but he cannot stop him/her from tweeting.
If there is genuine in the fake, there is also as much fakery in the genuine. Last week, “Media-more-than-140” gleefully published research that headlined 40 percent of Tweets are pointless babble. They were wrong to call it Twitter twaddle; the figure grossly underestimates the need for phatic conversation as a part of social bridge-building. But whatever the true ratio of signal to noise, the question has validity. It implies there is a discrete judgement about each individual communication.
Discrete communication Twitter may be, but discreet it ain’t. Yes, there are backchannels where you can sometimes privately engage in conversation via the deep and meaningful DM. But most of Twitter’s output is in the public sphere where followers can see directly and a network of others can indirectly. Twitter is a 21st century agora and a marketplace of ideas. It exists in mostly equal fashion across the Internet though there is manipulation. China and other countries can switch it off from time to time and the US can keep it on the air in an attempt to update Mohammad Mossadegh’s Iranian fail whale story.
As the State Department found out, Twitter is useful. It is a vibrant source of news, stories, information, jokes, links, music, arguments, gossip and goofs. There are leads, information, signposts, arguments, diary entries, story, contact, and laughing. There are many expressions of boredom. It is how taste is transferred; a sort of Bourdieu on Big Brother.
Much of this milieu is familiar to other modes of communication. But there is also joy in the technology itself. Like Google, it is simple. But unlike Google there is a restriction. Twitter’s most ingenuous factor is the creative motif of denial. The need for brevity is paramount. The 140 character limit concentrates the mind. Every letter of every word must be scrutinised to ensure it is working for the cause. Driven by the limit, Twitter is a 21st century telegraph on steroids. But it is digital, so what goes on in the Vegas doesn’t necessarily stay there.
Because there is an organic search engine. Twitter search has its faults as it doesn’t keep a great history, but it is right up to date with the present. Anything new, interesting, informative or important will cascade quickly through its networks in the form of an accelerating power law. It can go from 0 to 140 in under ten seconds. Google might be able to tell you what something is, but Twitter can tell you what it is right now.
The celebration lawn at Brisbane’s Roma Street Parklands was transformed into a riot of colour and sound on Sunday as thousands gathered to celebrate Krishna’s birthday festival.
The festival is the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere and celebrates India’s rich cultural contribution to Australia.
The tent for the main stage was the place to be on an unseasonal scorching hot winter’s day.
There the audience was treated to a mix of music, dancing and drama while many others were tempted by the free yoga classes and the rich aromas from the wide variety of food stalls nearby.
The festival was organised by the local Hare Krishna movement.
Event co-ordinator Taracha Sticha said Krishna’s birthday has been celebrated for almost 40 years in Brisbane dating back to 1971.
“We’ve always celebrated it at our Graceville temple but this is the first time we’ve moved it to the centre of Brisbane”, she said.
Ms Sticha said there were 40,000 Indian-born residents in Queensland, 85 per cent of whom lived in the south-east.
Councillor David Hinchliffe attended on behalf of Brisbane city council and Ms Sticha said he was impressed by what he saw.
“Mr Hinchliffe advised us to apply for grants and we did a lot of fundraising ourselves,” Ms Sticha said.
The festival celebrates the birthday of Krishna Janmashtami which is an avatar of the Hindu deity Vishnu.
In India, Krishna’s birthday is a public holiday which is always held between mid August and mid September.
Ms Sticha said she was pleased with the turn-out at Brisbane’s celebration and hopes to repeat it at Roma Street Parklands again next year.
“I just hope it’s not too hot!” she said.
The federal Government 2.0 taskforce roadshow rolled into Brisbane today as part of its series of open forums in all the state capitals. The federal government sponsored taskforce’s aim is to increase public sector information and online engagement. About hundred or so people came along to 175 Eagle Street in central Brisbane to give input to taskforce about making governance more democratic and accountable. In attendance was chair Nicholas Gruen and three other members Brian Fitzgerald, Lisa Harvey and David Solomon
While the “2.0” in the name suggests the use of web 2.0 read-write tools, the biggest task for the government (if it is serious about it) will be engendering cultural change in a public service that is used to zealously guarding information. The cultural nature is shown in the taskforce’s terms of reference which are to make government information more accessible and usable, make government more consultative, participatory and transparent, build a culture of online innovation within government, promote collaboration across agencies, and identify and trial some initiatives.
The roadshow was a roadmap of how they might approach the task. Gruen ran the proceedings. Nicholas Gruen is the CEO of Lateral Economics and a former economics adviser to two Labor governments in the 1980s and 1990s. He also writes for the Australian Financial Review and blogs at Club Troppo. He began by saying the taskforce had to engage skeptics and show that Government 2.0 was a way of delivering on the mission of agencies that was better than the way they do it now. He then threw the session open to suggestions from the floor.
Most of the first hour of the session got a bit bogged down on records management. Several members of the audience wanted to know how governments would manage public access of intermediate documents, and whether people would have the opportunity to give feedback on unfinalised documents. Gruen said government agencies had an obligation to consult on policy development and spoke about using blogs and date/time stamped wikis that can track changes to ensure a transparent history. But he also noted there was a difference between public and private spaces for conversation. He said some requests for FOI such as a recent Daily Telegraph request for the butchers’ paper of a government conference was “frivolous”.
Gruen then passed the baton to Lisa Harvey who is an IT specialist working in the not-for-profit sector. She said the government’s role should be one of “facilitation, feedback and watching”. What she wanted to see was a conversation between constituents about the issues that mattered to them. One audience member then asked about how this conversation would be moderated given the likely divergence of views and the possibility it could spin out of control. Gruen said we needed to be more libertarian about it. He said that on his blog (Troppo), he does not tell commenters what to do. The one rule there is: “use your common sense”. But he admitted he would have difficulty convincing governments of this.
Gruen was of the view that as much as government information as possible should be in the public domain so that citizens could comment on it. In his words, it equated to the open source mantra of Eric Raymond that “enough eyeballs make all bugs shallow”. But as almost everyone in the room agreed, it was more a matter of culture change than technology that was required. He wanted to give the government a forum where they could openly say “we stuffed it up” and look for help to fix problems.
The last day for submissions to the taskforce was yesterday. It will provide a final report on its activities to Lindsay Tanner, the Minister for Finance and Deregulation by the end of 2009 at which time the taskforce will disband and hand over to a government-appointed information commissioner. The challenge will be to show this is not merely technological determinism where society adapts to new technologies to avoid complex questions about their impact or who controls them.
What it needs to do is meet head-on the hoopla that greeted Tanner’s announcement of the board in June. “We have to accept that when we open ourselves further to public discussion…we won’t always like what we hear,” he said at the time. “But if the new technologies and ways of using them mean that government is in closer and deeper contact with citizens it serves, and is harnessing their best ideas, the government will only benefit.” Roll on, the day.