Tony Fitzgerald’s challenge to Queensland

On Tuesday Tony Fitzgerald returned to Queensland for the 20th anniversary of his landmark Inquiry to make a powerful statement about patronage and power. Fitzgerald’s extraordinary 1987-1989 “Commission of Inquiry into Possible Illegal Activities and Associated Police Misconduct” set new legal standards for commissions of inquiry. By giving indemnities in return for evidence, it not only exposed a corrupt police force, but also toppled the 32 year reign of the National Party Government. This week Fitzgerald was back in Brisbane to point the finger at Labor’s two decade domination of Queensland.

Yesterday the Courier-Mail was only too happy to repeat his speech in full in their long-running campaign against the government. “Dirty Dozen” ran their page one headline (article not online) saying Fitzgerald’s speech “savages Labor’s 12 years in power”. Brisbane’s only daily newspaper somewhat missed the point he was making. Fitzgerald was not gunning for the government; he was issuing a warning based on the history of the last 20 years in Queensland.

He began by praising Labor’s reform agenda in the early 1990s. The political program outlined by the Inquiry was pushed through by Premier Wayne Goss and Attorney-General Matt Foley. It was enthusiastically administrated in the revamped public sector by Glyn Davis and Peter Coaldrake (and by fellow horsemen Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan). As Peter Beattie would later say Fitzgerald’s Inquiry was Queensland’s Berlin Wall. “It washed away an old regime and heralded in a new era.”

The new era didn’t happen as fast as many would like. Fitzgerald did not mention the timidity of the first term in 1989-1992 when Goss moved to the right to shore up the vote. Although he grew more confident in the second term the voters misread it as hubris. Like everywhere else in Australia, Queensland swung to the right in the mid 1990s. Under state secretary Mike Kaiser, Labor hung on in the 1995 election by one seat. But the Court of Disputed Returns ordered the Mundingburra by-election in Townsville in February 1996. Labor lost that seat and with it their majority. To the surprise of most, Goss immediately resigned saying hoped “he’d left Queensland a better place.”

The new National government was uncomfortably similar to the corrupt one who lost in 1989. After it was revealed Rob Borbidge had struck a deal with police to repeal many of the Goss reforms, they were turfed out at the first time of asking. Goss’s replacement Peter Beattie cobbled a majority with the support of independents. He also moved to the right to gain more certainty as premier. Beattie shut down the examination of the past and made peace with Joh Bjelke-Petersen. As Fitzgerald said, Queenslanders were encouraged to forget the repressions and corruption and the social upheaval in eradicating those injustices.

Labor’s return to power also marked the end of Fitzgerald’s influence in Queensland. In 1998 he resigned and he moved to Sydney. Beattie claimed today  the real reasons Fitzgerald quit was because he missed out on chief justice and because he was annoyed by Beattie’s friendship with Joh.

Queenslanders forgot about Fitzgerald and reform, aided by the resources boom. China was eager to import as much coal as Queensland could provide. With ample funds in the exchequer and a tyro leading the opposition, Beattie won a landslide victory in 2001 and repeated it in 2004 and 2007. The sins of the past were forgotten in the largeness and largesse of victory. Fitzgerald says younger Queenslanders “know little of that era and are largely ignorant of the possibility that history might be repeated.”

While Peter Beattie’s own personal probity was never an issue, he was let down by faction-appointed ministers. Many advisors migrated out into business where their connections with power were highly valued. Fitzgerald described the consequences. “Access can now be purchased, patronage is dispensed, mates and supporters are appointed and retired politicians exploit their political connections to obtain ‘success fees’ for deals between business and government,” he said.

None of the scandals of the era touched the Teflon Premier. But after nine years in the job, Beattie had enough and quit in 2007. His wife Heather called him a “tired, exhausted, man with bags under his eyes”. He handed over power to his deputy Anna Bligh.

Bligh hung on in this year’s election but the Gordon Nuttall prosecution and the CMC (Crime and Misconduct Commission) report into renewed police misconduct have weakened her position. Bligh acknowledged the state of affairs in her own speech leading up to the Fitzgerald Inquiry anniversary. She said Fitzgerald’s Inquiry was the reason she entered politics. She hailed the $43m CMC and its broad mission to oversee and investigate allegations of public sector misconduct and major organised crime. There are also new FOI laws, a Lobbyists Register, new political donation laws, and laws banning ministers from holding shares or company directorships.

Bligh says the fact the problems have been found shows the system works. “The drive for reform is never over,” she said. As Mark Bahnisch says, openness and transparency are not just the responsibility of the government. He reminds us the media also have a role. The Courier-Mail and ABC local radio have gone tabloid, the state 7.30 report has gone weekly and “there’s no new Quentin Dempster to put the pollies and coppers under the microscope.” Fitzgerald is saying we cannot afford to wait for new Quentin Dempsters to put probity under the microscope. “[E]ven if we cannot rely on politicians to voluntarily curb their excesses or tell the truth,” he wrote, “a well-informed community that is committed to doing so can influence the way it is governed.”

Over to us.

Robert McNamara: strange mists

In each decade of his long public life Robert Strange MacNamara was at the centre of the world’s most intractable problems. In the 1940s, he dealt forensically with fascism. In the fifties he used market research to put sense into the booming car culture. In the sixties he was on the front line of the Cold War and in the seventies he ran global finance at the World Bank. Towards the end of his busy life he campaigned against nuclear arms and worked to reduce poverty.

His death at 93 this month robbed the world of one of its great technocrats and fiercest thinkers. Every obit focused almost exclusively on the 1960s and the flawed nature of his leadership of the war in Vietnam. His seven year role as a Kennedy-appointed Defence Secretary was also central to the documentary SBS showed in his honour tonight. The Fog of War is Errol Morris’s Oscar-winning 2003 documentary about “11 lessons from McNamara’s life”.

The “fog of war” was coined by 19th century Prussian military thinker Carl Von Clausewitz. In his magnum opus On War, Clausewitz warned about the uncertainty of data. It was a peculiar difficulty, he said, because all action is “planned in a mere twilight, which in addition not infrequently—like the effect of a fog or moonshine—gives to things exaggerated dimensions and an unnatural appearance.” McNamara could identify with the chaos of war as seen by those immersed in it.

Much of McNamara’s time as Defence Secretary (1961-1967) was immersed in war fog. His recollections to Morris were an attempt to view the fog through the clarity of hindsight. McNamara was happy enough about the title but didn’t like the 11 lessons subtitle which Morris put in late in the editing process. McNamara complained bitterly, “these are not my lessons; these are your lessons”. But Morris would not take them out, he was making a movie and was determined to paint the story as he saw fit. “It’s a Horatio Alger story, Morris told Tom Ryan, “the story of a man who comes from relatively humble origins – his parents didn’t finish high school – who becomes this incredible achiever”. Morris called it a very powerful story about a man who believes in rational solutions to economic, social and political problems.

McNamara had to deal with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassinations of Ngo Dinh Diem and Kennedy within a month of each other, the difficulty of doing business with Johnson, the Gulf of Tonkin incident which escalated the war in Vietnam, and the authorisation of the deadly herbicide Agent Orange. He rationalised his way through these difficult decisions. But in one of the lessons of Morris’s film he admits “rationality will not save us”.

There was little evidence from the rest of McNamara’s life he had abandoned rationality. His 13 year reign as President of the World Bank transformed the stuffy cautious institution. The Bank began to address problems of income disparity and poverty. It diversified into sectors where progress was inevitably slow and unspectacular. It was also taking more interest in the economic and social conditions of its borrowers. McNamara called the bank “an innovative, problem-solving mechanism…to help fashion a better life for mankind in the decades ahead.”

Though McNamara still had two decades of his own life to shape after 1981, Vietnam continued to haunt him and dominated public discourse about his legacy. 25,000 Americans and a million Vietnamese died during his time as Secretary of Defence. He claimed his role was to soften President Johnson’s hawkishness. But he told biographer Deborah Shipley he was never sure enough of his doubts about Vietnam to act on them.

McNamara had a tough reputation to defend. But defend it he did using Shipley, Morris and other proxies to tell his story. He also wrote his own memoir, In Retrospect in 1995. Morris probably got his “lessons” idea from this book which was subtitled “The tragedy and lessons of Vietnam”. McNamara claimed it was a book he planned never to put on the public record. He did not want to “appear self-serving, defensive, or vindictive” and found it hard to face mistakes. “But something changed my attitude and willingness to speak,” he wrote. “I am responding not to a desire to get out my personal story but rather to a wish to put before the American people why their government and its leaders behaved as they did and what we may learn from that experience.”

Noam Chomsky witheringly noted McNamara did not have much of an idea of what was going on around him, neither then nor now. McNamara has always been embroiled in the fog of war. But Chomsky does not deny McNamara was at the centre of major decisions and confronted by the uncertainty of his data. He may not always have been right, but he could always plausibly justify his course of action.

Making Health better: Bennett’s call to arms

(Photo “Health Dept” by Kate in Sydney)

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd put off the decision for six months whether to implement a $16b public health revamp suggested by the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission. Rudd says he is not frightened to tackle the issue but will consult with the public and health professionals before taking recommendations to the COAG meeting later this year.

The revamp was outlined in a report released today by commission chair and BUPA Australia chief medical officer Dr Christine Bennett. The executive summary is available here (PDF). The report had five recommendations in indigenous health, mental illness, rural issues, dental care and access to public hospitals and suggested moving full funding of the system transfer from the states to the Commonwealth.

Though more funding is problematic, the transfer of powers is not as big a deal as it sounds. The federal government already runs the health system at a macro level. As Medicare Australia says, Canberra has the primary role of developing broad national policies, regulation and funding.

It also does much of the spending. The department’s 2007 factbook (pdf) revealed Canberra spent 46 percent of the total health budget with states responsible for 22 percent (individuals spend 19 percent with “other private” bodies on 13). The states have primary responsibility to deliver and manage public health services. NSW, Victoria and the rest also maintain direct relationships with most health care providers, including regulation of health professionals and private hospitals.

Bennett is less interested in taking power from the states as giving it to individuals. Her motto is “wellness begins with you” and the document’s aim is to ensure the Department of Health lives up to its name rather than being a Department of Sickness, Injury and Death. This is reflected in the name of the report: “A healthier future for all Australians”.

The report had five major recommendations. The first was improving health outcomes for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders (ATSI). It recommends a new authority to run ATSI health. The new body will be better funded, target nutrition, and train up an indigenous workforce. A holistic health plan must take into account the impact appalling imprisonment rates are having on ATSI life expectancy.

The second priority is improved care for the mentally ill. It wants more “sub-acute” (a stage of illness between acute and chronic) services in the community with 7 x 24 “rapid response outreach” teams to provide alternatives to hospital treatment. The third priority was support for people in remote and rural areas. This concept of universal service obligation (USO) is borrowed from telecommunications. This is often impractical in a country the size of Australia. To address the shortage of doctors, nurses and facilities in remote areas, the report suggests top-up funding to match communities who have better access medical, pharmaceutical and other primary health care services.

(Photo by flickr_b3rn)

The fourth recommendation is improved access to dental care. One in three Australians put off expensive dental visits and there are 650,000 people (3 percent of the total population) on the public waiting list. The report recommends education of dentists and schools and a new universal scheme called Denticare Australia where basic services can be paid by private health insurance or the public purse.

The fifth recommendation is improving timely access to public hospitals. Large public hospitals should have emergency beds available at all times, and extra funding to reduce waiting lists beyond the budget allocated to 2010-2011 (Health’s $52b annual budget is scheduled to be halved in 2011-2012). It suggests a national access target to measure whether people are getting access to health services when they need it.

The report is talking about fundamental re-design. Bennett wants to embed prevention and early intervention, connect and integrate health services, and move to what it calls the “next generation of Medicare” to review comprehensiveness, the USO and safety nets. Crucially it will also examine what pharmaceuticals and services get onto the lucrative Medicare benefits schedule which is five percent of the total health spend.

The report says COAG needs to agree on a Healthy Australia Accord to realign roles and responsibilities for health. This talks for the need for “one health system” under full Commonwealth funding control of primary health care, as well as dental, aged and ATSI care. The Commonwealth would pay the states “activity-based benefits” for public hospital care to share the risk caused by increased demand and provide an incentive for better care. It will start at 40 percent of cost of every public hospital admission and will eventually rise to 100 percent at which time the federal government will be in de facto control of Australian public health.

It suggests a timetable for the Accord to be 2010 and says the reform plan will cost between $2.8b and $5.7b with a further $4.3b to $7.3b in infrastructure. The Denticare plan will cost an additional $3.6b which could be offset by a 0.75 percent increase in the Medicare levy. This tax will be difficult to sell. But as Bennett says in the report “[governments], the community, health professionals and health services are…ready to embrace reform”. Let’s hope COAG sees it that way.

Citizen Byte conference part 3: Political blogging in Australia

This is the third and final post about Friday’s “New Media and the Informed Citizen” symposium at Brisbane’s South Bank. See links to parts one and two.

In his book Blogwars (2008), American academic David Perlmutter says too many news and information blogs read like reporters’ notes prior to going to press. Washington Post publisher Philip Graham said journalism was the first draft of history. Blogs, said Perlmutter, could now be considered the first draft of journalism. But where exactly blogging and journalism intersect has always been a thorny subject in the Australian political and media landscape and this was a topic Graham Young touched on in his speech to the Citizen Byte forum.

Young is qualified to speak having vast experience across blogging, the media, and politics. He blogs at Ambit Gambit, conducts online polling at What the People Want and is also the chief editor of one of Australia’s most important Internet journals, On Line Opinion. In the 1990s he was vice-president and campaign chairman of the Queensland Liberal Party. He was successful too – the Liberals’ last election victory in 1995 occurred on his watch. But Young was always too iconoclastic to be a Liberal hero and is now outside the fold.

He discussed how the Internet was affecting Australian politics. He quoted the 2007 Nielsen Internet Technology Report which found the technology was pervasive and that 72 percent of all Internet users use it for news, sport and weather updates. However despite the thousands of political blogs, online users were consistently turning to existing media organisations for their news. The most accessed were (with Alexa ranking in brackets) Nine MSN (9), (11), SMH (14), ABC (21) and The Age (26). The exclusively online organisations were well down the ladder with the biggest Crikey at 40,977 and Young’s On Line Opinion further down at 142,137.

The message, said Young, was “tyrants rule” in Australia. Existing brands count as do the number of resources at their disposal, their national presence, and the fact Australia is such a small and competitive marketplace. The few successful exclusively online operations serve niche markets. Young also found geographical proximity counted on the Internet and 30 percent of On Line Opinion’s users were from Queensland.

This accentuation of the local was repeated in the Youdecide2007 citizen journalism project which Young was also involved. This 2007 federal election site was an initiative of the Creative Industries faculty at QUT, funded by the Australian Research Council, and supported by On Line Opinion, SBS and Cisco. The intention was to provide hyperlocal news and information on a seat-by-seat basis. The project was run from Brisbane and audiences and stories from Queensland predominated (including the site’s one ‘gotcha’ story crategate).

Young also noted how Australian “para-parties” use the Internet. In the last election, 200,000 people joined the union-based Your Rights At Work campaign to fight the then-Governments Workchoices legislation. Activist group Getup! has an even bigger membership with 325,000 people. Young disputes these are “members” in a traditional sense. He see Getup! as a harvester of e-mail addresses which it then targets fundraising and single-political issue campaigns. According to AEC returns Getup! raised $1.2m in the election year of 2007 and campaigned heavily (with mixed success) in the seats of Bennelong and Wentworth against Liberal heavyweights John Howard and Malcolm Turnbull.

The mainstream political parties haven’t embraced the Internet as much as the “para-parties”. Young says there is a good reason for this – old fashioned methods still work. TV ads and direct mail remain the most successful media campaign techniques. According to Young, Liberals used the Internet the most (with 44 percent of candidates having websites) with Labor 30 percent. The minor parties such as the Greens and the Democrats were well behind, preferring to use scarce funds on traditional advertising. Despite apparent net-friendly credentials, these parties were aware of the real priority when it came to spending money. This is not a unique Australian problem; Perlmutter notes in his book that despite being an adept blogger, Iowa Democrat governor Tom Vilsack dropped out of the 2008 presidential race because didn’t have the money to buy television time.

Young turned his attention to the problem of “the failure of the blogosphere”. He gave his version of an a-list of blogs he called “the domain” which included Larvatus Prodeo, Jennifer Marohasy, Homepagedaily, John Quiggin, Club Troppo and Henry Thornton. Young said that with the possible exception of Thornton who writes a fortnightly column in The Australian, none have successfully made a breakthrough like US blogs. Possible reasons for this include their point-of-view, a competitive market, the unwillingness of the MSM to interact, and the lack of a sustainable financial model. Young conceded polling blogs have impacted the agenda but this was hardly a mainstream interest. He also suggested the highly educated people that ran most of the “domain” blogs may not be talking about issues relevant to everyday Australians.

Because in the mainstream, he said, “brands count”. Media companies rely on audience inertia acting against change. Commercial television stations know the 5.30pm slot is the most important because if they can lock in viewers prior to the high cost ads of the 6pm news, the likelihood is they won’t change the channel. Other issues affecting the ability of blogs to impact on politics include the central control of party funding and candidate selection and the fact Australia, generally speaking, is well run. People don’t need to think about politics in daily life – they have more exciting things to do. The reason almost 100 percent of people voted in Iran’s recent election, said Young, was because there was a burning desire to fix a problem. The same desires don’t exist here. The blogs have their community but have not crashed through to a greater public. According to Young, “the days of the Interknight errant never arrived”.

Citizens bite: Part 2

“Everyone, from journalists to the people we cover to our sources and the former audience, must change their ways. The alternative is just more of the same” – Dan Gillmor (We the Media).

Speaking of changing ways, I must begin with a correction. I gave the impression that Brisbane media did not attend the Citizen Byte new media symposium in Brisbane yesterday. That wasn’t true. Graham Young (OnLine Opinion, Ambit Gambit, What the People Want) was an invited speaker and there was also and Woolly Days. I have since found out that other journalists and academics would have attended with more notice. The proceedings were filmed and I hope will be available in the public domain soon.

Citizen Byte is a community research project to “examine what the implications of the new media environment are on politics and the political sphere both in Australia and in Malaysia.” New media is having a bigger impact in Malaysia than in Australia. Yesterday I discussed keynote speaker Steven Gan. The editor of Malaysiakini is the “new media” go-to person for the White House and the New York Times and he has transformed a small online venture into Malaysia’s most popular news site. Tonight I discuss some of the other Malaysian wisdom on offer at the symposium. Tomorrow I will conclude with some great observations by the conference’s only Australian speaker, Graham Young.

Not the least wisdom came from a member of Malaysia’s media elite: Datuk Azman Ujang. Datuk Azman is chair of the Malaysian Press Institute and editorial adviser at national news agency Bernama and broadcasting arm Bernama TV. He took up the latter two jobs having retired as overall GM of Bernama. Datuk Azman is an experienced powerful insider who can call a spade a spade in the corridors of power. He said the government admonishes him for being “too honest” but does not dare censure him further. Yet even he was disturbed by the last election result which was a wake-up call for the media as well the government. Datuk Azman said entrenched government support within the media has resulted in biased news for 50 years. The arrival of new media suddenly made credibility a marketplace issue for urban voters. Malaysiakini took up the challenge and inspired other news portals. Opposition politicians began blogging in numbers to enhance their appeal with younger audiences and crash through their lack of coverage in the MSM. They also used the world’s highest mobile penetration to spread viral political messages.

Most villages don’t have the Internet or mobile phones and the government won the election overall 60:40. Poorer states, particularly East Malaysia voted for BN. Entrenched corruption in Sabah and Sarawak has survived for half a century which KL turns a blind eye to. The government uses regulation of the broadcast spectrum and annual licensing of newspapers to keep the media in check. Datuk Azman said “unwritten laws” depended on the circumstances, mood and attitude of the government at a particular time.

Mohd. Zulkifli was the next to speak. Zulkifli is a content manager at Media Prima Berhad. Media Prima Berhad is Malaysia’s largest media company with four free-to-air TV channels. Zulkifli is bringing the power of new media to bear on many of those assets. He said audiences had to register to the websites but the content was free. 838,000 Malaysians have signed up.

Zulkifli says their biggest differentiator is video content but they are also providing Tweetdecks, SMS alerts (with video alerts starting next month), streaming content on mobiles, and interacting with television shows in innovative ways that would please fan theorists like Henry Jenkins.

Their websites are full of blogs and online discussions with network stars and there are discussion rooms where audiences have their say and affect the plots of soap operas. There is also an “Indie showcase” channel that deliberately attempts to “push the boundaries of censorship”. In 2007 Berhad released Malaysia’s first made-for-web drama. “Kerana Karina”. KK tells the story of overnight pop star Karina in 20 four-minute episodes. Though he didn’t mention it in the speech, Zulkifli wrote the lyrics to the KK theme song.

What he did mention was Berhad’s investment in new media (including 60 staff) is paying off. The most popular site gets 41 million hits each month. His job is to keep the revenue high otherwise, he said, he “wouldn’t be here next year”. Zulkifli says that social media is the big challenge of the next couple of years. Somehow, I don’t expect him to fail this challenge – Mohd. Zulkifli is definitely not “more of the same”.

Malaysiakini editor speaks in Brisbane

When Barack Obama’s campaign team and the New York Times online editor were scouring Asia-Pacific for innovative ways to harness the power of new media, they avoided Australia. There was little going on here they did not already know. Where they did go was Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, home to some of the most cutting-edge use of media in the world. The person both organisations sought was journalist and editor Steven Gan. Gan is editor of Malaysiakini (MK) an online citizen news service that has become the most trusted media organisation in the peninsula. MK publishes in Malay, Chinese, English and Tamil and has expanded into video.

Today, Brisbane was fortunate enough to host Gan and other key Malaysian new media players at an all-day symposium called “New Media and the Informed Citizen” at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music at South Bank. The conference outlined the vibrancy of the industry in Malaysia in front of audience of about thirty people. It was a shame more people in Brisbane didn’t get to listen to how the media is being shaped in new directions in our part of the world.

“Malaysiakini” means Malaysia Now and celebrates its tenth anniversary in November. Up to 1998 the Malaysian Barisan National (BN) government (which has ruled since independence in 1957) had a monopoly on news in cyberspace. But after visiting Silicon Valley, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad introduced the Multimedia Super Corridor (now MSC Malaysia) to kickstart local IT industry. Bill Gates and others told Mahathir he should not censor the Internet. While Mahathir had misgivings (particularly over pornography) he saw the business benefit and agreed. Malaysiakini exploited the loophole, starting up with just four journalists.

Despite liberal censorship rules (by Malaysian standards) the new publication still attracted unwelcome attention. In January 2003, police raided MK offices looking for details of an anonymous letter writer who satirically compared a politician to the Ku Klux Klan. Gan refused to divulge his source. Police seized four servers and 15 central processing units from its office and interrogated Gan and senior staff. The move provoked an outcry with spontaneous protests outside the office and led to a coalition of groups condemning the raid. Police never formally raised charges and returned the now obsolete boxes two years later.

MK attacks on government corruption attracted a new readership unhappy with the servile nature of Malaysia’s mainstream press. In 2006 they broke the Petronas story over lies the oil company boss told about activities in Sabah. The following year they took on Abdul Taib Mahmud, long-term corrupt leader of Sarawak, over logging kickbacks to Japanese shipping firms. Last year MK played a pivotal rule in the general election (where the MSM supported the government) and BN had its worst result in 50 years, losing control of five states.

MK employs 30 journalists and has moved into video at They have also trained up citizen journalists and provided them with video cameras to report on local news across East and West Malaysia. MK grew steadily with a subscription only model (the advice Gan gave the NYT) and a large bed of content.

As the 2008 election got closer, Gan made an important decision. He opened up the site for free for the entire period of the election. By the time of the 8 March vote it had overtaken The Star newspaper as Malaysia’s most popular political site. Gan called the election a tsunami that almost completely overturned Malaysia’s political system (a later speaker said it wasn’t a new chapter in Malaysian politics – it was a new book).

Thanks to a corrupt government and the biased MSM, Malaysiakini established itself as the most trusted media brand and brought in thousands of new subscribers after the election. The badly shaken BN government admitted they lost the Internet war and have begun to negotiate with MK and other online outlets.

MK is now a thriving media organisation that has made a profit in each of the last four years. Gan says they were lucky they started their subscription model early. After the election he said big advertisers started to take notice. He described one of his proudest moments as a video they released of a “nude ear-squat” form of prisoner punishment the government claimed had not been used in decades. The video scandal caused a Royal Commission to be set up to investigate the affair. “A half minute video changed practices that were going on for years,” he said.

Muphry’s Law and Sarah Palin’s resignation letter

As an Irishman I know Murphy’s Law only too well. I have often been bitten by it and occasionally made bitter by it. If anything can go wrong, it surely will – and usually at the worst possible moment. Yet Murphy has to be admired as an unbending issuer of Rhadamanthine justice who cautions you to be wary that a serious snafu is always just an ill-timed moment away.

Yesterday I found Murphy’s literary cousin has a similar rule. Called Muphry’s Law, it states if you are going to correct someone’s grammar or spelling you will undoubtedly foul up the correction. This post is another attempt at breaking that important rule.

I learned about Muphry in the comments of a wonderful article in The Punch. “Mind your language if you’re making a parse at me” was a “lucethought” from JJJ journalist and news reader Lucy Carter. Carter described herself as a rarity amongst her peers: “a 22 year old who adores a well constructed sentence.” In ‘mind your language’ she tells the story about how her flirting with a barista went off the rails when she automatically corrected his grammar.

Because as she ruefully admitted, “nothing says ‘we should go out’ like a grammar check”.

Amusing, but Carter was making a serious point. She was discussing our education system – a subject NSW is making laws to stop you talking about. Carter says the loss of grammar in the curriculum means she cannot “parse” sentences like her mother could. What Carter was realising was grammar is a useful tool for deconstruction.

This was demonstrated by the article’s comments thread. The first commenter “Allan Cox” said the article restored his faith in “gen-yer’s” but also suggested this group were more analytical than they were letting on – particularly when it came to money.

The second commenter was BD who introduced me to “Muphry’s Law”. Anybody who writes about poor grammar will make at least one grammatical error. BD sternly picked apart several mistakes in Carter’s copy and gave the mark “must do better”.

The third commenter, The Punch’s own Tory Maguire, pointed out the pot-kettle moment when she mentioned BD’s own mispelling of the “fist letter of University”. Maguire keep her own fist out of her mouth – she posted just one sentence which was grammatically correct. Muphry’s magic ended temporarily. It would appear again in later comments.

Muphry is an unavoidable consequence of large-scale correction. In Vanity Fair‘s story about Sarah Palin’s Alaskan governor resignation speech, the magazine’s executive literary editor and research and copy departments unpicked the speech line by rambling line. They took to the task with gusto and red, green and blue pens scrawled hundreds of corrections. It was great editing. My only quibble was the pictures weren’t easy to read and Vanity Fair did not provide a cleaned up version. Palin may have taken notice. Another report what she actually said had some of Vanity Fair’s corrections.

I felt compelled to write out my own post-Vanity Fair version of the farewell speech. I found just one Vanity Muphry (marked with ‘sic’) but there may be others. It almost certainly has fresh Muphry-ness introduced by me.

The communications question is: is this remashed version still identifiable as Palin’s speech?


Thank you all for coming here today to Lake Lucille. You are a source of inspiration for my family and me. And I’m thankful that Todd flew in last night from commercial fishing grounds in Bristol Bay to stand by my side as always.

It is the eve of our celebration as a nation a time to remember those souls who sacrificed selflessly so that we might live in freedom. From the shores of Maine to Texas and California, to the tip of Barrow, we live in peace because 233 years ago so many brave men and women fought for something far greater than themselves, and so many continue to fight for us today. Therefore I say God bless our military on this eve of Independence Day.

People who know me know that except for God and family, nothing is more important to me than our beloved Alaska. Serving her people is the greatest honour I can imagine. I want Alaskans to grasp what can be in store for our state. We were purchased as a territory because a member of President Andrew Johnson’s cabinet, William H. Seward, heard of this great land’s hoard of vast riches and beauty and recognised its strategic placement on the globe. He boldly looked to the future but later endured ridicule and mockery for his vision. His adversaries called his great dream “Seward’s Folly”.

Seward however, secured Alaska realising that Alaska could help secure the United States.

Alaska is strategic as a crossroads of the world and a gatekeeper of the continent. Seward and other early visionaries saw that Alaska would play a key role in America’s destiny.

That destiny includes developing the natural resources of the land, its wildlife and minerals, its oil and gas.

Serving this important state is a humbling responsibility. I trust you know me by now, I promised four years ago I would show independence and put an end to politics as usual. My administration’s accomplishments speak for themselves.

We created a Petroleum Systems Integrity Office to oversee safe development. We held the line on Point Thomson. And now with our co-operation you’re seeing drilling up there for oil and gas.

[Alaska Gas Inducement Act] AGIA, the gasline project was a massive and bi-partisan victory. The vote was 58 to 1. Like many other projects of its kind, this one is very competitive perhaps the largest private sector energy project ever achieved in this state.

[Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share] ACES, another bi-partisan effort is working as intended to work and industry is publicly acknowledging its success. Alaskans will no longer be taken advantage of. ACES provides incentives for new exploration and development. It also provides for new jobs unlike the system under a monopolised North Slope Oil Basin.

We ushered in bi-partisan ethics reform and we slowed the rate of government growth. We worked with the Legislature to save billions of dollars for our future. I made no new lobbyist friends with my hundreds of millions of dollars in budget vetoes. Living beyond our means today spells chaos for tomorrow.

We took the dairy business away from the government and put it back into the hands of the private-sector where it belongs. We provided support for education. We finally filled long-vacant public safety positions, including the doubling of Police academy recruits. We built a sub-cabinet to deal with climate change. We took heat from special interests for what I believe are our biologically sound practices to deal with wildlife management and predator control.

We broke ground on the state’s new prison.

We eliminated such luxuries for government employees such as jets, chefs and personal entourages. The lieutenant governor and I said no to pay raises. For our success in this first term I am proud to take credit for hiring the right people. Our goal was to achieve a gasline project, more fair oil and gas valuation, and ethics reform in four years. Thanks to our group’s astounding work ethic, we are well on the way in just two. I wish you would hear more from the media about your state’s progress and how we tackle the special interests and bodies that would stymie our state and force the heavy hand of federal government into our communities.

I have taken criticism for exercising my veto when I knew it was the right thing to do but I’m convinced it is better than being popular. I felt that some of those special interest dollars would harm not only Alaska but also America. I turned down those dollars because they would add to the obscene national debt we’re forcing on our children because of today’s big Government spending. It is not just immoral, it doesn’t even make economic sense.

Our Department of Law protected state’s [sic] rights. In just the last two weeks U.S. Supreme Court reversals came down against the liberal Ninth Circuit, deciding in our state’s favor over the last two weeks.

You don’t hear much of the good stuff in the press and some say things changed for me on August 29 last year, the day John McCain tapped me to be his running mate. It was an honour to be his running mate. It was an honour to stand beside a true American hero. But I say others changed and let me elaborate on that for a minute.
Political operatives descended on Alaska digging for dirt. The ethics law I championed became their weapon of choice. Over the past nine months I’ve been accused of all sorts of frivolous ethics violations from holding a fish in a photograph to wearing a jacket with the logo of my husband’s snow-making sponsor on it while answering reporters’ questions. Most of these ethics complaints have been dismissed. We won but it cost us. The State has wasted thousands of hours of your time and shelled out nearly 200,000 of your dollars to respond these attacks. That’s money that won’t be going to fund teachers or troopers or safer roads. Because of this politics of personal destruction Todd and I are looking at more than half a million dollars in legal bills to set the record straight.

And what about the people who brought up these silly accusations? It doesn’t cost them a dime so they’re not going to stop spending the public’s money in this game. It’s insane. My staff and I spend most of our day dealing with this stuff instead of working for our state.

If I have learned one thing, it’s that life is about choices. You can choose to engage in things that tear people down, or build people up. I choose to work very hard to build up this state and our great country.

Life is too short to waste time and resources. Though it may be tempting to listen to those who tell you to stay in line and shut up but that’s the quitter’s way out. I think one big problem in our country today is apathy and I refuse to just hunker down and go with the flow. We’re fishermen so we know only dead fish go with the flow. Productive people know where to put their efforts and how to utilize precious time. There is such a need now to build up our state and fight for our country. I’ll work hard for those who believe in free enterprise, smaller government, and strong national security, who want to support our troops and protect our freedom.

I will support others who willing to serve in or out of office inside or outside of Alaska. I don’t care what party they belong to.

But I won’t do it from the governor’s desk. So for the sake of my family, I have chosen not to seek re-election as governor.

As I thought about this announcement, I also thought about how much fun some governors have as lame ducks. Many politicians travel around the state and other states, maybe even go overseas on international trade missions. But then I thought, that’s wrong just to hit the road and draw a paycheck. I’m not going to put Alaskans through that.

I am not wired to operate under the same old politics as usual. I promised you that four years ago and I meant it. It’s not what is best for Alaska.

Therefore I’ve decided it’s best to transfer the authority of governor to Lieutenant Governor Parnell so that this administration, with its positive agenda and its accomplishments can continue without interruption to achieve administrative and legislative success.

We know we can effect positive change outside government at this moment in time and actually make a difference for our priorities. So we will, for Alaskans and for Americans.

Let me apply an analogy that seems comfortable to me and that’s basketball. You’d be naïve if you didn’t see a full-court press picking away right now. A good point guard drives through that full court press, protecting the ball, keeping her eye on the basket. She knows exactly when to pass the ball so that the team can win. That is what I’m doing – keeping an eye on the ball that represents sound priorities. Those include energy independence, smaller government, and national security. And I know that it’s time to pass the ball for victory.

I have given you my reasons candidly. My last day won’t be for another few weeks so the transition will be smooth. In fact, we will look forward to swearing in Sean Parnell up there in Fairbanks at the conclusion of our governor’s picnic at the end of the month.

I don’t want to disappoint anyone with my decision so all I can do is ask you to trust me.

Maybe some Alaskans don’t mind wasting public dollars and state time but I do. I cannot allow all that time and money go to waste just so I can hold the title of Governor. Some people are going to question the timing. Let me just say that this decision has been in the works for a while and only comes after much prayer and consideration.

I polled the most important people in my life – my kids – and they were unanimous. I asked them do you want me to make a positive difference and fight for all our children’s future from outside the governor’s office. It was four yeses and one “hell yeah!” That “hell yeah” sealed it.

For the kids, their approval had to do with the kids seeing their baby brother, Trig, mocked by mean-spirited adults. I only wish folks could understand how much we learn so much from someone like Trig. I know he needs me, but I need him even more. The world needs more Trigs.

My decision was fortified by my trip to Kosovo and Landstuhl, to visit our wounded soldiers overseas. We can all learn from our selfless troops. They’re bold and they don’t give up, and they know that life is short so they choose not to waste time. They choose to serve something greater than self and to build up our great country. These troops are where the worthy causes in this world can be found today. And that is where our public resources should be spent, instead of wasteful political bloodsport.

We’ve got to put first things first. For me, that means Alaska. It hurts to make this choice but I am doing what’s best for Alaska. My parents have a little magnet on their refrigerator that says “don’t explain: your friends don’t need it and your enemies won’t believe you anyway.” But I have chosen to give you my reasons. I’ve had my fill of usual.

I’m taking my fight for what’s right for Alaska in a new direction. However, I don’t want to dissuade any Alaskan from entering politics after seeing the real climate change that began last August. We need hardworking, average Americans fighting for what’s right. And I will support you because you can effect change, just as I can, too, outside the political arena.

We need more people who will respect our Constitution, resist big government takeover and protect individual rights, who will have the good sense to know when conditions drastically change and who will pass the ball when it’s time so that the right team can win! That is what I’m doing here today.

Remember, Alaska, America is more than ever looking north to the future. God bless you. You have my heart. We’re all going to be in the capable hands of our lieutenant governor, Sean Parnell. Lieutenant General Craig Campbell will assume the role of lieutenant governor. And I promise you that I will be standing by, ready to assist. We have a strong, positive agenda for Alaska.

Take the words often attributed to General MacArthur, “We are not retreating. We are advancing in another direction.”

Again I say thank you, and God bless you, Alaska.

ACF calls for public to oppose Olympic Dam uranium expansion

The Australian Conservation Environment wants Australians to challenge BHP Billiton’s uranium expansion plan at Olympic Dam by making public submissions in the next two weeks. The proposal will represent another difficult decision on uranium mining for Environment Minister Peter Garrett. Having approved the new Four Mile mine last week, he must make the final decision on BPHB’s Environmental Impact Statement. The ACF says Australia should not become the uranium quarry to the global nuclear industry. “Our uranium exports fuel unacceptable nuclear risks and unresolved nuclear waste management around the globe,” it says.

The ACF call is supported by indigenous groups who have labelled the expansion “environmental genocide”. Rebecca Wingfield is a Kokatha custodian and an international human rights campaigner for Aboriginal people. She is also a traditional owner of the land around the Olympic Dam site. Wingfield disputes the claim of the SA government and BHPB there is no scientific research proving the environmental harm of uranium mining. She also referred to the Manila Declaration signed by Indigenous organisations from 35 countries which says mining exploitation without consent has led to “the worst forms of environmental degradation, human rights violations and land dispossession and is contributing to climate change.”

BHPB’s Olympic Dam is already a massive copper, uranium, gold and silver mine. It’s situated south of Lake Eyre in remote northern South Australia, five hours’ drive from Adelaide. According to the Draft EIS, Olympic Dam is the world’s largest known uranium deposit and world’s fourth largest reserve of copper. The massive 11 year expansion project involves a new open pit mine, an upgrade of the smelter and new concentrator and hydrometallurgical plants to process the additional ore. There is also a desalination plant at Whyalla, a new rail network, a new airport, a new port at Darwin, a new barge landing facility at Port Augusta, and 270kms of electricity transmission lines from Port Augusta.

The company town 14km from the mine will also be expanded. Roxby Downs was established in 1988 by Western Mining Corporation. BHPB bought out the mine in 2005 and with it the town. According to the 2006 census 4,054 now live there with continued growth expected. It is a young population – only 150 are over 55 and the town’s cemetery is empty. It is supplemented by a fly-in/ fly-out workforce which brings the population up to 5,000. The local council claims the most affluent postcode in the state: in 2006, the median individual weekly income was $1,103, more than double the national average.

Not everyone is interested in BHPB’s plans. The blog Stories from a Communist Lemon Factory reported the company held an EIS information session at the Roxby Downs leisure centre in May. Hardly anyone from the community attended. But the town won’t escape the development. The expansion will double the workforce to 8,000 and new arrivals will need homes, shops, schools and other infrastructure.

Pro-development South Australian Premier Mike Rann says the expansion will have big flow-on effects for the Roxby Downs community. “From the childcare to the local school, to a big increase in the size of the police station, particularly to do with the construction camp that will be part of the process of shifting a million tonnes of rock a day,” he said. Rann has already given a go-ahead for a $10 million police station for an extra 30 officers to be operational by September.

The ACF does not dispute the economic growth but says uranium is not the only option. ACF Nuclear Free Campaigner David Noonan says the mine should expand with copper. “Setting out a path for Olympic Dam to process all its copper products in South Australia, instead of processing a bulk radioactive copper concentrate in China, would boost local jobs and be much better for the global environment,” he said. Noonan says the risks associated with uranium are too great. He says the EIS must explain how BHPB will manage the expanded mine’s bulk radioactive tailings waste for the 10,000 years they remain a radiological hazard. The writer at Communist Lemon Factory had similar concerns. “I have to wonder if Olympic Dam will become the next Woomera, forever haunted by its relationship with radiation,” she said.

Public submissions on the EIS must be in by Friday 7 August.

Liberal Rules OK?

SBS has been heavily promoting Liberal Rule: The Politics that Changed Australia, a three-hour retrospective on the Howard era of Government. This was always compulsory viewing not only because of the subtitle’s claim but also because many Liberal politicians and staffers contributed: John Howard was in it as was Fraser, Costello, Downer, Reith, Staley and Sinodinos.

This morning, anticipation was lifted up another notch when Gerard Henderson in the Sydney Morning Herald called the documentary “a shocker and a disgrace”. Henderson is a Howard supporter and plainly didn’t like the authors’ “layers of subtext” which he saw as code for left wing. He sportingly said the left got “free kick after free kick” and then played the man not the ball when he said Norm Abjorensen’s book John Howard and the Conservative Tradition has sold fewer than 100 copies in a year.

Henderson should be on the SBS marketing payroll. By publicly bagging the program, he was drawing attention to it. And it was a program he was in. He left out discussion of the layers of sub-text of his segment which suggested the filmmakers treated him fairly. Henderson was more accurate than SBS in one respect – he got the time of the show right. SBS were sending out online ads all day saying it was on “SBS One Wednesday 8.30pm”. But it was aired at 8.30pm tonight (Tuesday).

The SBS mistake undermines the fact Liberal Rules is likely to become good history – assuming the quality does not dip in the next two episodes. It did not interview Labor or National politicians and overcompensated with leftwing critics such Abjorensen, Judith Brett and Mark Davis (whose praise appeared on the blurb of the ad with the wrong day). But so what. In three hours of television, there will be a wealth of great historical material to choose from the political interviews.

This is a necessity the filmmakers turned into a brilliant virtue. Joint filmmaker Garry Sturgess had brought his skills as a senior researcher on ABC’s Labor in Power to do a similar job on the Howard era. Sturgess found it difficult to open old doors. He and partner Nick Torrens struggled with sibling rivalry on the public purse being refused access to ABC’s news archives. Ex-SBS employee Alan Sunderland denied the request on the grounds that their “primary responsibility is to make programs for the Australian public.”

Sturgess and Torrens stacked the program with talking heads. This is difficult to make exciting and they wasted no time showing the questions or questioners inanely nodding. Audiences had to work out what was going on from the guiding of the anonymous narrator, the taut editing of the film, and the surprisingly candid answers.

Howard and the other Liberals agreed to take part because they knew this would be a film about legacy and they were keen to shape it. From Menzies to Turnbull, leadership is central to the party’s identity. Liberal philosophy changes with the winds unburdened as it is by any -ism. What was most of interest was how Howard and the rest approached their decision making.

Peter Costello was brutally honest about the spoils of power. He would go to meetings where there might be 15 or 16 or people. The difficulty of getting them to do something for him was that all of them there were appointed by Howard. All that is, except him. “I was the only one elected”, he said. Ever since he backed Downer for the leadership in 1993, it was clear Costello always preferred to be the message rather than the messenger.

What mattered was not who did things the best, but who announced them best. John Howard was always better at that than Costello. Howard was more ruthless and served a tougher apprenticeship for the top job. In the 1970s, he was a young and generally hopeless Treasurer. In the 1980s, he wrestled with Peacock for the right to lose to Bob Hawke. In the early 1990s, he watched as Hewson and Downer were gobbled up and spat out by the “street brawler” Paul Keating. Downer resigned in 1995 as the party stared at a sixth election loss. Costello was kept as deputy but it was Howard – battle-hardened at 56 – who was chosen. He came out by Costello’s side to tell the media he had been appointed “unanimous leader”. His body language suggested supreme confidence he was going to be the next Prime Minister and he crushed Keating at the election a year later.

Howard was the master of the small agenda but his inability to look up almost made him a one-term premier. In trouble in the polls, he turned to his tax agenda and decided to run hard on a mandate for a Goods and Services Tax. While this overturned an election promise, he got away with it because Labor though an election could not be won selling a tax. Despite the fact his victory over Beazley was narrow, it was a turning point. Howard would have to reach into his bag of tricks again to find another issue to win in 2001 but the GST election that cemented his place in the party’s pantheon.

After that second win, he had carte blanche to do what he wanted. Howard used the twin drivers of the mining boom and a trillion dollars worth of personal debt to get the government in the black. He increased public spending on favoured projects and dished out largesse in the budget much to the chagrin of the economic rationalist Treasurer. Neither did much on climate change.

Henderson says the left have won the victory of ideas because unlike the Liberals, they take history seriously. Henderson took the example of Opposition frontbencher George Brandis who complained in The Spectator Liberals are not celebrating the 100th anniversary of the formation of the inaugural Liberal Party. “But Brandis could have arranged such a celebration himself,” Henderson said. As Malcolm Turnbull and the others before him showed, the Liberals are not about ideas, they are about actions.

Arias appeals for more time to end Honduras stalemate

(Picture: Zelaya in the stetson in conversation with Arias in less stressful times.) Costa Rica President Oscar Arias has asked for more time to resolve Honduras’s political stalemate and warned civil war was possible if the three-week crisis isn’t ended soon. Arias has met separately with ousted president Manuel Zelaya and his replacement Roberto Micheletti in the Costa Rican capital San Jose but has been unable to get either to agree to the seven-point solution he presented on Saturday. “I want to take 72 hours to work more intensely,” said Arias. The alternative was “civil war and bloodshed that the Honduran people don’t deserve.”

Arias may be grandstanding but he does have form as a peacekeeper. He won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in getting five central American presidents to sign the Esquipulas peace accord in Guatemala. His seven point plan for Honduras calls for the formation of a national reconciliation government to be led Zelaya. It would also move forward elections a month to October and offer political amnesty. Neither the old nor the new leader have been particularly helpful. Zelaya threatened to resort to other means if he did not get his way while Micheletti repeated his demand that Zelaya not return to power before he agrees to stand down.

The Council for Hemisphere Affairs says negotiation fatigue is evident after three weeks of deadlock. The crisis started on 28 June, the day Zelaya scheduled a controversial non-binding plebiscite to determine if citizens should vote in November elections to change the constitution. Zelaya claimed the plebiscite was a merely a survey, but his opponents saw it as a means of giving him a second term of government when his term expires in 2010.

Zelaya had sacked the head of the armed forces who refused to give logistical support for the vote. The Supreme Court overruled him, saying the army chief should be reinstated. On the morning of the vote, 200 troops arrived at his home and ordered him to surrender on pain of death. They drove him to the airport and put him on a plane to Costa Rica.

Later that day, Congress produced Zelaya’s letter of resignation. Speaker and second in line to the presidency, Roberto Micheletti, was sworn in as interim leader. The new government issued arrest orders against Zelaya on 18 charges including betrayal of the country and failure to fulfil duties. Protests against the coup began immediately with pro-Zelaya supporters gathering near the Presidential Palace in Tegucigalpa. On 2 July, workers, farmers and citizens marched to deliver a message of gratitude for support for democracy at the UN office. After two days, Congress approved a decree to enforce a curfew and declare a “state of exception” which banned meetings, curtailed travel, justify search without warrants and imposed restrictions on the media.

Zelaya has the support of the OAS (Organisation of American States) but is no closer to getting home. On 5 July he tried to fly back home but his plane was blocked from landing. While Zelaya is a wealthy land-owning cattle baron and timber merchant he derives most support from Honduras’s poorest people. Almost half the population survives on $2 a day or less with one in five considered undernourished.

Honduras is hopeless corrupt, one of the least transparent countries in Latin America and is extremely dependent on US and multilateral organisations for financial support. The US suspended a significant amount of aid to Honduras in support of Zelaya but has been reluctantly to get involved in the crisis. President Obama called on all sides to respect democratic norms and the rule of law. “Any existing tensions and disputes must be resolved peacefully through dialogue free from any outside interference,” he said. The coup government has interpreted this as a green light to continue its rule.