Yesterday 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.
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.
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.
As a near life-long football fan, the world cup always comes round as a sort of speeded-up 7 Up documentary, forcing me to remember where I was in space and time every four years. I turn 50 in the coming weeks and I have memories of each of the last 10 world cups, each one bookmarking my life at regular intervals. All going well I”ll be in a cafe or bar somewhere in Rangoon on my 50th enjoying this year’s version with local football fans. With any luck I’ll find out the Burmese word for offside.
I’ve been alive for 12 world cups but England 1966 and all that passed me by as a two-year-old. And as much I desperately want to remember Pele and 1970, I have no recollection of what I might have been doing the day Brazil beat Italy playing football from the gods. My first memory of any football match is at my grandmother’s house in 1971 watching TV in black and white as Liverpool lost to Arsenal in the 1971 Cup Final. This defeat somehow turned a young Irish lad with no Scouse connections into a lifelong Liverpool fan. It probably didn’t hurt that Liverpool were successful in the years that followed.
In 1974 I was ten years old and looking forward to watching my first world cup in Germany. I was still in Waterford, Ireland but our new colour television seemed to put me touch with the action. My abiding memory is of a rainy German summer and Der Bomber Gerd Muller. I wanted West Germany to beat the Dutch despite the brilliance of Johan Cruyff. The day of the final was a Sunday and it was a beautiful Irish summer’s day. All my family headed to the beach at Woodstown but I was dropped off at my aunt and uncle’s house where we watched the final together (well, I can’t swear my aunt did.) English ref Jack Taylor awarded Cruyff a penalty in the first minute. It was an electrifying start to an electrifying game. The Germans came back and Der Bomber scored the winner. I probably went to the beach the following Sunday, rain or shine. I was happy enough for four years.
In 1978, I was 14 and old enough to be allowed stay up late for the games from South America. Der Bomber had retired and C
ruyff refused to play in Argentina for political reasons I did not yet understand. The Dutch still made it to the final without him but Mario Kempes imprinted his name in my consciousness with two goals in the final. Argentina had their first ever win and it was there I understood they were a proper football nation, whatever their politics.
Much had changed for me in 1982. Aged 18 I’d left Waterford and was earning money in Dublin. Free to my own barely adult devices I discovered booze and drugs (women were harder to come by) and Dublin’s dual night-life. I would spend the first half at some pub till they kicked you out before midnight and the second half was finding a party to kick on. Despite having no TV in the house I lived in, I watched almost all of this Spanish world cup. I left work early to sit in the pub next door and catch the late afternoon games over a pint of Carlsberg (I didn’t touch Guinness until after I left Dublin). I was particularly taken with England’s 3-1 over France. It was the first time I saw England playing in the world cup finals and I was a rare Irishman who favoured them because they were packed with Liverpool players. France was their high water mark and they went out without losing, outsmarted by the Germans, not for the first or last time, the Germans beating Spain when England couldn’t. A workmanlike Northern Ireland had qualified which annoyed me as a southerner while great players like Giles and Brady missed out again. I was further annoyed when Billy Bingham’s men did well also beating Spain as England couldn’t. 1982 produced two all-time classic games. Just saying the words Zico, Falcao and Socrates brings a smile to my face but Brazil somehow lost to Italy in the game of Paolo Rossi’s career. The French midfield was just as pleasing as Brazil’s but they were hunted down by the remorseless Germans in that most memorable of semi-finals. I watched from a Dublin pub, as Rossi had enough brilliance left in the tank to beat the Germans in a tense decider. The game cured my Saturday hangover and I went in search of a party.
In June 1986 I was 22 and had moved again, this time to London. Unlike the pubs in Ireland which were mainly just full of Irish, London’s pubs had the world inside them. I met many people from many nations that month. Because it was in Mexico, there were plenty of late night games and London, even more so than Dublin, liked to shut up shop before midnight. I was coming to the end of a nine month stint in Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire so I had long tiring days commuting to my home near Tottenham. There was a buzz about England again until it ran into Diego Maradona. Whether he was scoring goals with the hands or feet of god, he was an irrestible presence and the best player on the field by some distance (at least until John Barnes came on to almost rescue the game). The French beat Brazil but capitulated feebly to the West Germans again who seemed just makeweights to Maradona in the final. But on a warm summer’s day in London I watched the best world cup final of my life (so far). The Germans came back from 2-0 down with Lothar Mattheus marking Maradona out of the game. Well almost, one breathtaking shimmy, a pass and it’s 3-2 to Argentina. The little maestro didn’t score in the final but no one was in any doubt who owned the trophy. Around the same time, I got a horrible job in Swindon, the only time in my life where I’ve been sacked, but that’s not a world cup story.
Four years later my life was turned upside down in more ways than one. I was 26 and engaged to be married in Melbourne, Australia. But as part of the deal, I had a three month leave pass to travel back to Ireland and also see the 1990 world cup in Italy. It was Ireland’s first world cup and my blessed mother had scored me tickets for all of Ireland’s group games. It remains the only world cup I’ve attended in person. Ireland were drawn to play in Sardinia and Sicily and first up was England. It was the same match-up two years earlier in Euro 88 which I also attended. That 1988 game which Ireland somehow won 1-0 remains the most draining experiences of my life as a football fan. But Stuttgart, Germany was easy to get to compared to the south coast of Sardinia. It took three boats and several trains to get from Waterford to Cagliari. I stayed a lovely day in Olbia in the north and remember travelling down the spine of Sardinia with another Irish ex-pat who lived in Sydney. We talked of Sydney and Melbourne on the way down. To my horror I found my ticket was for the English end of the stadium (Liverpool support didn’t seem to matter much now) and I somehow conned a happy-looking English fan at the Irish end to swap after some persuading. This time they played out a draw, which was deserved and left us crowing “You’ll never beat the Irish”. As the tournament developed that proved true, but we couldn’t beat you either. Draws in hot Palermo (and dry, with few bars open any match day) against Egypt and Netherlands put us through. The Dutch paid for this by losing the coin toss and sending them to a death match with Germany while Ireland got the easier draw in Genoa versus Romania. The Romanians still had Hagi but had lost Caucescu – I remember their fans tore the hated symbol of his regime from the flag, but they few fans there. 30,000 Paddies made it feel like a home game and for once we made sure we found some bar open to celebrate after Ireland hung on to win on penalties. The quarter-final against Italy in Rome is the most intense game I ever witnessed and it felt like relief to lose. The Germans beat the English as usual and then won the tournament. I watched the dull decider against Argentina in a hostel in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in southern Germany where locals clapped their team politely to victory. I went home to Melbourne, Australia to marry.
In 1994 I was a married father of a two-year-old daughter and I watched USA94 from my Melbourne home. I snuck out of bed early one Saturday and had the tv on low to watch Ireland play Italy again to open their second world cup. My Australian wife didn’t really understand European football but there was no disguising the joy on my face as I told her Ireland had won, their first ever win over the Italians. The loss was Italy’s lowest ebb, they would reach the final while it was Ireland’s high point. They squeezed through the second round before being easily beaten by the Dutch. They in turn lost to Brazil who started the tournament brilliantly and slowly got worse. They were still just good enough to beat Italy in possibly the poorest final I remember, as at least 1990 produced a goal. I went back to sleep after keeping difficult hours watching my first world cup in Australia.
It was all change again for me in 1998. I was divorced but followed my ex-wife and two young daughters to Brisbane. This was my first winter in Brisbane and I was finding a very hospitable climate. The time difference for European football was 9 hours and in these pre-Internet days I would get up for the late game at 5 or 6am and watch it with the sound off, while fast-forwarding through the earlier game I’d taped. I had usually caught up before the end of the second game so could watch the last bit with the sound on. Ireland were missing this time but 1998 was all about Michael Owen before England imploded again. Hosts France with 10 brilliant midfield-defenders were slowly catching fire. Brazil were like Argentina in 1990, poor but still respected enough as holders to make the final. I got up at 4.30am to see them be taken apart by two Zinedine Zidane headers (not the last time his head would feature prominently in a final) and Arsenal’s midfield. Didier Deschamps lifted the trophy and I probably went back to bed for an hour.
I was getting used to this world cup in Brisbane thing by 2002 though it helped this one was in Japan/South Korea. Japorea was only two hours behind Brisbane so I could watch matches at drinking time for the first time since 1982. Ireland were back and doing dramatic draws again. Their comebacks against Cameroon and Germany both launched long boozy evenings. Again it was a case of you’ll never beat the Irish, they went out on penalties to Spain, undefeated. With the adrenalin rush of Ireland gone, it was time to enjoy the tournament. England’s Michael Owen was world class again and so was Beckham who got revenge against Argentina. But neither couldn’t beat Brazil. Ronaldo had the silliest haircut on the planet but there was none better at football and teammates Ronaldinho and Rivaldo were number two and three. I watched the final at the end of a big weekend at friends’ house in the Sunshine Coast hinterland at Kin Kin. None of my friends followed football but I enjoyed the game in what remains the only time Brazil have played Germany in the world cup. Brazil dismantled the Germans as Ronaldo put his 1998 demons behind him, if not his stupid hairstyle. I went to bed and got up four hours later on Monday morning to listen to the dawn chorus of Australian birdlife for the two-hour drive back to Brisbane and work.
2006 in Germany threw in a new variable. I was still in Brisbane watching matches in the middle of the night. But there was a good reason to do this publicly rather than in front of my own TV. Ireland were missing again (and they have yet to return) but their place ever since has been taken by Australia. As much as I hate the nickname “Socceroos”, Australia’s football team has scarred me forever. I was at the MCG in 1997 when Australia were 2-0 up against Iran and heading to France. Then that idiot broke the crossbar – I still haven’t forgiven the stupid bastard. That Aloisi penalty against Uruguay to secure qualification in 2005 was an outpouring of Aussie football emotion pent up over many variations of failure. The pub was packed for Australia’s opener against Japan and it was doom and gloom with 8 minutes to go with Japan 1-0 up. Then Tim Cahill took over and Aloisi chipped in again. I was covered in beer and dancing with strangers as the pub descended into mayhem. Brazil was the inevitable defeat but Kewell did his bit against Croatia to put Guus Hiddink’s well drilled side through to play Italy. The Aussies were good but Fabio Grosso was brilliant to draw the foul from Lucas Neill for the penalty. Italy did not look back. Zidane was past his best but somehow dragged France past Spain and Brazil. I went to a mate’s house for a 4.30am early start for the Italy v France decider. They couldn’t be separated but Zidane eliminated himself from the shoot-out with the most public head butt in history. Italy deserved the penalty win. I was grumpy, the extra time and penalties deprived me of a sleep-in before work.
Four years on in 2010, the tournament was heading to a new continent and I was in a new town too. While footballers dealt with a mild South African winter, I was in Roma on the western Queensland plain where overnight temperatures in June regularly went below zero. I was now an ambitious journalist of the newspaper there, having quit an adult life-time of IT a year earlier. With long hours to put in my paper and very cold nights I saw hardly any games. It didn’t help SBS had lost the rights to most matches and I had no access to Pay TV. I did have the Internet and I caught up with most matches, or at least the goals in the morning after. Australia were there but were poor compared to 2006 and made an early exit. I watched England lose to Germany yet again, or rather the important part. Germany cruised to a 2 goal lead before England scored. Then Lampard hit the underside of the crossbar and was ruled incorrectly no goal. At 2-2 it was anyone’s game, but at 2-1 and this injustice, England were psychologically gone. I went to bed and was unsurprised to wake up to a 4-1 result. For once Germany looked like the most exciting team in the tournament but they were worn down by Spain’s tiki taka. Their final versus the Netherlands seemed promising but I wasn’t up for it – literally. On a cold Monday morning after a late night working to deadline on Sunday, I slept it out and missed it all. I caught up with Spain’s dour 1-0 win on the Internet. I wondered if my love affair with the world cup was over.
Yet a few days out from another tournament in 2014 and here I am again excited. Partially it’s because I’ll spend the first couple of weeks of it watching games in Thailand, Cambodia and Burma. Then I’m back in Brisbane but still on holidays so will head north to warmer climes and Indigenous issues. Will they be watching the world cup in Palm Island or Yarrabah? I’m sure like Rangoon I’ll find somewhere. Despite the worst efforts of corrupt FIFA, the world cup remains a primal cultural experience, and one that is wonderfully global. Bring on Brazil, and likely, their sixth title.
I was coming from Roma St Station towards Kurilpa Bridge to the Queensland State Library yesterday thinking about my aboriginal studies with a final assignment due on Monday. I was trying to figure out how crucial dignity was to three Indigenous ambassadors from different times, Bennelong, Bussamarai and Noel Pearson. Suddenly, out of nowhere appeared two men with an Aboriginal flag.
The timing seemed extraordinary and they were heading the same way as me. I followed them to the Commonwealth law courts in front of Kurilpa bridge. Some Indigenous people were putting up signs and waiting outside the court, while others still got ready to do a traditional dance. There were television and other media present. There was the promise of a peaceful protest and street theatre. The State Library could wait, I thought, this was a media event and I was media. This was also Indigenous people acting out their own dignity. This was important, to them, and to me.
Across the forecourt, young men put up banners while others handed out kits to waiting media. I asked for a kit and read their story. The High Court case was about sand mining rights on “Straddie”. Straddie is North Stradbroke Island, or Minjerribah, to its Indigenous people. They were here to appeal to Canberra to stop Brisbane from making laws about their island without their permission. It is also political. Labor’s law in 2o11 permits mining to 2019 – with Indigenous consent – but the LNP introduced a new law in 2013 to push the end of mining to 2035 and also increase its size. But federal law says they should have consulted with the traditional owners and this is something the Queensland government didn’t do.
The constitution says that when State and Federal law clash, the latter should prevail. But not for the moment, and the unconsulted Straddie Aboriginal people had to take it to the highest court in the land. It was blatant lack of regard, something my reading of the history told me happened time and time again across the country since 1788. Straddie is close to Brisbane but bridgeless, much to the delight of most of its residents black and white plus most of the visitors that make the ferry. Visitors are not new. Straddie has been home to humans for over 20,000 years.
We don’t know their original name but their descendants became the Quandamooka people. The Quandamooka maintain a presence on the island to this day. Straddie was annexed by Cook in 1770 and again by Phillip in 1788 as part of New South Wales but the islanders remained blissfully ignorant of British rule for another 36 years. Reality struck when another penal colony was needed to punish the ones already here that needed further punishing. Moreton Bay (Brisbane) fit the bill.
The British felt no permission was necessary to establish this colony, enforced at the butt of a carbine. They first landed on Straddie, the same year – 1824 – as they landed in Brisbane. At a place the islanders called Pulan, they built a pilot station overlooking the strategic exit to the ocean. Whites later renamed it to Amity Point. By then Moreton Bay was opened to free labour and from 1859, Straddie would by ruled by Brisbane, not London or Sydney. An early church mission named Myora failed to win converts. And though Australia was formed in 1901, here as elsewhere, the Quandamooka people were not counted and at the mercy of their colonial government. The earliest Brisbane rulers were pasturalists who had good financial reason to support “the opening up” of territory for agriculture. Later regimes were heavily paternal, locking up Aborigines in concentration camps across the state where they could be kept under control. Many Stradbroke Islanders were sent to Cherbourg or Woorabinda or Palm Island.
It was Brisbane that decided the first sandmining on Straddie would take place in the 1950s. There was no consultation with Quandamooka or any other local peoples or no profits to them either. Mining came and nothing much changed until two groundbreaking events in 1993. The first was Mabo v Queensland (no 2) where, on the second attempt Mer man Eddie Mabo and his friends proved to the High Court they had customary title to the Murray Islands in Torres Strait. In response later that year Paul Keating pushed through a Native Title Act, a brave move that cost him much political capital (giving things to blacks remains electorally unpopular in Australia). Keating’s Act provided for a national system which would recognise and protect native title, but needed to co-exist with the “land management system”. For Straddie that meant co-existing with sand mining. Mabo had got them a seat at the negotiating table, and also overrode Queensland law.
The Quandamooka people lodged their land claims in two phases between 1995 and 1999. The Native Native Title tribunal registered both claims in 2000 (the second one three months before the first). The claims were slowed up by boundary disputes, needing a 2006 workshop of elders, lawyers and anthropologists to resolve the disputes. In the meantime, the main mining lessees expired in October 2007. Two days after the close date, Lessee Stradbroke Rutile Ltd (owned by Consolidated Rutile) applied for a 21 continuation of lease. In 2009 both companies were gobbled up by Belgian company Sibelco, a “raw material producer” for the world manufacturing market.
In January 2010, the Federal Court asked the National Native Title Tribunal to facilitate negotiations with the State Government, local government and other interested parties to finalise an Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA). Sibelco nominated its subsidiary Unimin to negotiate a separate ILUA with the Quandamooka. In mid 2010 Unamin’s “offer” to the Quandamooka involved the long-term operation of the mines until 2035 and another in 2050 and they also wanted their support in their lease negotiations with the state government.
The Quandamooka came back with a counter offer. They split the ILUA in two, firstly a complex one that would deal with future mining and might take many years to agree on, called “a Future Acts ILUA”, and the secondly a simple one to have greement on the ground once the Federal Court judges on the native title claim. They also refused to be the meat in the sandwich on the leases and advised Unamin/Sibelco to sort it out with the government and come back to them for consent.
In April 2011 the Bligh Labor government passed the North Stradbroke Island Protection and Sustainability Act (NSIPSA Act) which gave effect to key elements of the ILUA between Queensland and the Quandamooka. It approved mining on Straddie until the end of 2019 at which time full native title rights would return to the Quandamooka.
The ILUA was signed almost three years ago to the day, 15 June 2011. In what was proving a historic year, the Federal Court handed down its Native Title judgment in July 2011. For the first time, a court had recognised that Quandamooka law and customs had survived colonisation. Judge Dowsett said the Quandamooka were a “pre-sovereign society” who had maintained connections with Straddie and the adjoining sea (though not with adjoining islands or the mainland). He also noted Sibelco, Telstra and other big stakeholders were adopting the state’s submissions. The National Native Tribunal ratified the claim on 11/11/11 making it the law of the land.
But Judge Dowsett was too sanguine about Sibelco’s intentions. With a state election coming up in 2012 and a likely change of government they did as all good mining companies do and ran a political scare campaign to get their original position back on the table. They focussed their campaign in the crucial seat of Ashgrove where Campbell Newman was running to become premier from outside parliament. Labor environment minister Kate Jones held the seat but it was Newman’s scalp they wanted. Newman duly proposed to extend sand mining to 2035 if the LNP took power. During the campaign Newman told the ABC Labor had acted in “a unilateral and capricious way” by bringing forward the end of mining in its 2011 law which was “all about green preferences”. Neither interviewer nor Newman made any mention of the traditional owners and Newman had no contact with the Quandamooka before his announcement.
Sibelco’s PR company Rowland would later win a PR state award for excellence demonstrating “achieving environmental and economic progress in an island community”. Rowland’s other reward was another fat contract after Newman’s landslide election win. Without changing any laws, the new Mining Minister ruled mining would stay to 2035. Still the government had not contacted the Quandamooka. In October 2013 the government brought in the North Stradbroke Island Protection and Sustainability and Another Act Amendment Bill 2013. The new NSIPSAAA Bill offered Sibelco security to 2035 with fewer environmental provisions.
When the bill went to the agriculture, resources and environment committee, the Quandamooka could finally respond as the native title holders. The committee report admitted the government had not consulted the Quandamooka on NSIPSAAA, which breached the Queensland Legislative Standards Act 1992. Despite this, the Bill became law in Queensland’s unicameral chamber on 20 November. Without consent, it had changed a range of matters previously agreed with the Quandamooka.
In March this year, the fight-back began. Elders gave their assent for the Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation to launch a High Court Challenge to Queensland’s 2013 Straddie law. They say the law overturning the 2011 law contravenes Keating’s Native Title Act 1993. The section of constitutional law is S109 which says if a state law is inconsistent with a Commonwealth law the latter shall prevail and the former “shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be invalid”. The legal battle will surely be on the extent of the consistency between the two acts.
Whatever happens, the dignified Aboriginal elders outside the High Court yesterday won the moral battle. Their dancers performed a smoking ceremony where they blessed their own people and all other by-standers, including the media filming the ceremony. “It your job,” a Quandamooka dancer told them – us, me – “to tell the world”. These people are proving that dignity very much matters.
Finally caught up with Utopia, John Pilger’s simplistic but important documentary on Australia’s relationship with its Indigenous people. Nuance has never been Pilger’s strong point but pitching his film at his mainly British audience (“this is Canberra, capital of Australia”), he misses out on vast swathes of context. Pilger is good at capturing the injustices of colonisation but far less strong in dealing with issues of decolonisation.
The name of his documentary, Utopia, is a whitefella word. Thomas More’s 1516 book Utopia described an ideal society that could never be reached. Formed from Greek roots, it meant either ‘no-place-land’ or ‘good-place-land’. And while Utopian now means a perfect state, Utopia itself is ‘nowhere’. Such sophistry meant nothing to the people of Uturupa in northern Australia who were ignorant of all things European for hundreds of centuries. The first settlers came in the 1880s and unable to handle Uturupa, they called it Utopia, perhaps as Pilger suggested out of the irony of such a difficult land, for this no-place-land was hard on black and white alike. But it was the blacks who suffered most.
Pilger begins his film in modern Utopian settings. The Palm beach penthouse and the leafy suburbs of Canberra’s Barton are the drop-off point for Pilger’s polemicism starkly contrasting with Utopia’s poverty (though the warm sun basked poor and wealthy alike). Barton was named for Australia’s first prime minister Edmund Barton who ushered in the openly racist White Australia Policy keeping coloured people out, while the blacks who were already here were not counted.
Pilger’s first interview is with former Labor minister of Indigenous health and NT MP Warren Snowden. Snowden stupidly turned the interview in a defence of Labor’s record and got angry when Pilger suggests they should have done more. Of course, they should have; but successive administrations have been unable to solve Indigenous health problems, caused by a legacy of 200 years of hatred and neglect. After Indigenous people were finally counted in the 1971 census, successive Closing the Gap reports have at least identified where the problems are in comparison to the rest of Australia and it will be another 50 years or more before they can be fully closed. Not that Pilger with his “puerile questions” and demands for instant change, appreciates that.
The trouble with Utopia is that Pilger is like a kid in a toy shop rushing from one shiny bauble to another. Here he is in the Australian War Memorial bemoaning the lack of recognition of the Australian frontier war, there he is recollecting his own Sydney childhood watching poor Aboriginal people in La Perouse, then he attacking Howard’s history wars before heading out on the street for an Australia Day vox pop of white people on what Indigenous people think of the day. A minute later he is touring Rottnest Island’s grisly black penal history. All are important issues but glossed over in Pilger’s rush to create an atmosphere of condemnation.
He brings black brutality up to date with the 2008 arrest of Aboriginal man Mr Ward in Laverton, WA. This is a disgraceful case that demands greater attention. Arrested for drink driving and denied bail by the local JP, Mr Ward was remanded to appear in court in Kalgoorlie 400kms away. As far back as 1975 the WA Aboriginal Legal Service had complained prisoner transport vans were “ovens on wheels” and nothing had changed by 2008 except the service was privatised. Mr Ward was given a 600ml bottle of water for the four hour journey while temperatures rose to 56 degrees inside the van. When the driver checked his welfare in Kalgoorlie, he was dead on the floor with a large abdomen burn in contact with the hot surface. The coroner noted he had been cooked to death and the department and company (4GS) were later fined for their neglect.
The responsible minister Margaret Quirk was clearly genuinely distressed by the case which she told Pilger would haunt her for rest of her life. His cynicism at her suggestion of departmental cultural sensitivity training was unwarranted, as it was clear that many public servants simply have no idea what happens in remote Aboriginal settlements and the injustices they face on a regular basis. Pilger was right to point out the high indigenous incarceration rates but on less firm ground with his description of WA and NT as ‘apartheid states’. He need not have been so strident on the high moral ground. Quirk’s point is that there are structural issues across society that led to Mr Ward’s death and many like him, that one well intentioned Minister cannot solve alone. However state politicians can be rightly condemned for their ‘law and order’ posturing on mandatory sentencing which overwhelmingly affects Indigenous populations who are usually arrested on public order offences.
Pilger addressed the touchstone case of the 1960s Gurindji land rights strike. The strike was called when the government delayed equal pay by two years following a court case. However the net result was that white owners sacked their cheap black workforce rather than pay them equally. The Gurindji got their Watties Creek but lost their jobs. By the 1970s, a whole generation of stockworkers were unemployed and homeless, drifting towards the towns and the welfare system.
Welfare was a well-intentioned but deeply flawed aspect of decolonisation as part of the Whitlamite reforms of the 1970s. It led to large amounts of money spent on community programs that offered no real sense of achievement. It was ‘sit down money’ and led to the perverse situation described by Noel Pearson, Marcia Langton and Peter Sutton of dysfunctional societies twisted by easy access to alcohol and drugs while domestic sexual abuse was rampant. The Lateline case exposed by Chris Graham and noted in depth by Pilger may have been exaggerated but the problems identified by Little Children Are Sacred were not. The Howard Government had its own cynical electoral aims for the Intervention but significantly the Labor Government that followed did not dismantle it. As Pearson says, the left are strong on rights and the right are strong on responsibilities, but good Indigenous policy needs to be a mix of both. Pilger, in his faraway British eyrie, shows no sign of understanding this crucial point.
Nonetheless I applaud Utopia as an important conversation starter. The best white writer on Indigenous matters, the anthropologist Bill Stanner, identified as far back as 1968 the culture of deliberate forgetting that characterised Australian views of its Indigenous population. They were written out of the history and they had little say in the present as a voiceless 2% modern minority. Indigenous people did slowly find their voice through the freedom ride, the referendum campaign, the tent embassy, the Makaratta treaty campaigns, and the land rights battles of the 1980s and 1990s.
But what of the present where casual racism, like casual sexism, remains an open sore? Where is the Indigenous conscience in 2014? I agree with Pilger we need some form of constitutional recognition but it must be in tandem with responsibility. Post-Intervention, the Stannerite silence is returning and if nothing else Pilger’s work is deafening in the dark. Let’s hope he inspires a more informed conversation on what remains Australia’s deepest wound to its psyche.
The medieval theatre of the set-piece nonsense of lock-ups, Treasurer speeches and Opposition replies are over and now it’s down to the horsetrading to get the budget through. Until June 30, the balance of power in that unrepresentative swill of a Senate remains stubbornly with the Labor and Green alliance. The much vaunted elimination of the carbon and mining taxes still hasn’t happened and Labor-Green can afford the budget similar treatment, by simply echoing the Abbottesque-howl of “broken promises” and reject every negotiation between now and the end of June.
But if the budget remains in limbo on July 1, then the numbers in the Senate will change. Labor-Green will lose the balance of power and the government can look to six of the 10 independents and minor party seats to get their budget – and their broader agenda – through. The inconsistently brilliant operator Clive Palmer oscillates between acting magnificently contemptuous – including finding parliamentary theatre so dull that it sends him to sleep – and then revealing his hand with his willingness to ditch carbon pricing as well as demand retrospective payments for previous carbon taxing expenditure.
Sitting alone in the green chamber, Palmer can hold the stage but it is in the Upper House where his strength will be revealed when three Palmer senators and his patsy Ricky Muir will dance to his tunes. Perhaps this is what the current government is betting on as it launches its strange ‘war on everything’ budget. Of course, it is not war on everything, war itself is one of the few budget winners. But attacking such normally supportive vested interest groups such as pensioners, large families and motorists is expensive political capital being expended in the first year of government.
Fiscal prudence is a good thing, but to say Australia is living beyond its means is meaningless until we fully examine what those means are. Joe Hockey’s budget presumes a crisis but neither he nor Abbott can successfully say why this is so. Shorten exposed that with his facts and figures about what state Labor left the economy in September. But again it is Palmer who goes straight to the point and labels the emergency a fraud.
Where I draw a point of difference with Palmer, is that there is a genuine emergency. If say, the entire budget was put at the mercy of say, solving the problems of climate change, then there a Prime Minister would have a good case to sell to the nation. Such a notion still lies far outside Australia’s political Overton Window, the view vigorously policed by a media more willing to ridicule than to assist, and a host of Murdoch apparatchiks all too willing to impress the boss.
It is Murdoch’s flagship that wants to destroy the Greens at the ballot box. It is his journalists that are nitpicking Palmer’s career. It is his tabloids that built up Rudd to smash Gillard and then Abbott to smash Rudd. What is clear from all this is that we should be destroying Murdoch at the ballot boxes and launching campaigns NOT to vote for whoever they are recommending. What’s good for Murdoch, is only good for Murdoch.
The man he annointed, Tony Abbott, is now a rabbit in the spotlight, agonising over his every word between a mess of ums and ahs. I heard him described last week as first postmodernist PM (surely that was Kevin Rudd?) as someone who swaps ideologies and convictions at whim. It is hard to know what he believes in apart from three word slogans and being a weathervane. It is hard to imagine what influence he has in a heavyweight party room full of masculine ideologues other than getting the occasional “captain’s pick”. Quaint cricketing analogies worked for John Howard because he loved cricket. Abbott on the other hand sounds like a dill when he says it. And his “picks” like PPL, which on face value is a good thing, end up ditched hated by the left as inferior to childcare and by the right as too expensive. No wonder it barely featured in the budget that was a running sore of bleeding cuts.
The deficit was the excuse, but making government smaller is always an avowed aim of the Liberal Party. Apart from the innate belief that private sector will do everything better (excepting police and defence forces) and the downsizing of pesky organisations partial to inconvenient truths, they also want to reach into Menzies’ playbook to create a nation of “lifters” not “leaners”, a variant on the similarly catchy “hand up” not “hand out” philosophy. Despite the 1950s language, this is no bad thing of itself. In our most disadvantaged community, the Indigenous community, there are many voices saying that is precisely what they need. People like Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton are saying end the ‘sitdown money’ and instead give the communities the means to look after themselves.
This argument appealing to personal dignity, also works at the wider level where people who are not contributing to the economy should be encouraged to do so. The problem is that Hockey doesn’t leave those on the bottom with any dignity at all. His approach, is all stick and not a skerrick of carrot. The leaners are not given anything to lift. The government knows that motivating people by taking away their allowances rarely works, which is why it won’t bring in many new income-related taxes. But while it understands that wealth creation by the well-to-do needs a bit of leeway, it does not offer the same privileges to the less well off.
No one can honestly say how things will pan out when Palmer becomes kingmaker. The ultimate sanction of a double dissolution would likely only leave him in an even stronger position. The government may hope he is generally on their page as a former LNP member with similar economic outlooks. But as the actions of the similar disposed Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott showed, there can be much cantankerousness as well as honour and wisdom in independence. There will also be much bluffing to come. But Palmer is holding four aces and willing to gamble them to gain an even better hand.