21 years of living next door to Anzac

My first Anzac Day in Australia was in 1989 and it brings back happy memories purely because it was an unexpected long weekend and a first chance to visit Adelaide. When in the city of churches I paid no attention to Anzac Day ceremonies and probably spent the day either on Glenelg beach or in the Barossa wineries. Even when I got Australian citizenship a few years later, I didn’t think my love for living in Australia would ever cover its military history or traditions. (picture: 2010 dawn service at Muckadilla, Western Queensland)

The first 20 years of my life in Ireland left a strong legacy of distrusting institutions with links to British imperialism and the culture around Anzac Day fitted that bill. I was also inclined to view it through the prism of the senseless slaughter of the First World War. Its religious overtones held little appeal. My anti Anzac Day sentiments were shored up by Peter Weir’s Gallipoli and the angry lament of the Pogues’ version of “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”.

Eric Bogle wrote that song in 1971 but Anzac Day would eventually prove him wrong. Although the numbers of the original diggers shrunk to nothing, there were enough veterans of other military conflicts and overseas engagements to take their places. The size of the march began to increase again and so did the audience for the services and parade. The young people stopped asking “what are they marching for” and began to wear their grandparents’ medals with pride. Gelibolu Yarimadsi became a compulsory stop on European tours.

Thanks to Hawke and Keating government funding Anzac Day was well on the mend in Australia by 1996. Through a collection of circumstances I was awake and in the centre of Melbourne for that year’s Anzac Day dawn service. I shivered through a crisp autumn morning at the city’s massive war memorial on St Kilda road but was fascinated by the formal solemnity of the ritual. Lit by fires under the dramatic dawn skies, the ceremony fused elements from church services, funerals, concerts, orations and military display in pervasive sombreness.

About a month earlier, John Howard was elected Prime Minister, the times finally suiting him. The invented tradition of Anzac Day chimed perfectly with his more strident view of Australian white history and the British tradition it sprung from. He also tapped into a growing nationalism and the primacy of the flag. Anzac Day became bigger than ever.

I resisted most of these strains. Yet Gallipoli was growing on me. I read Les Carlyon’s history of the campaign and what struck me most, apart from the catalog of errors, was the number of Australian deaths. 643 in the first week, 1,805 through May, 265 in June, 143 in July, 2,054 in the August offensive with another 572 in the last four months. All across Australia that winter, people would have heard about the death of a father, brother, son, cousin or friend. This was Australia’s first major national tragedy since Federation in 1901 and it was communal grief Anzac committees tapped into as early as 25 April 1916.

The Anzac experience was compounded by events in Western Europe. Thousands more Australians would die in hell holes at Ypres and the Somme. Over 400,000 Australians enlisted in the First World War – almost two in five of the adult population between 18 and 44. 61,513 of them died (easily the largest of any conflict) and another 170,000 were injured or taken POW. In a country of four million people, most were affected by this catastrophe. Anzac Day was a way of honouring the memory of this harrowing experience.

This year, my job as a country reporter took me to two dawn services, the first in Roma and the second 40km away at Muckadilla. I hadn’t been to a dawn service since that one in Melbourne in 1996 though I had attended a few parades. The formal part of the Roma and Muckadilla proceedings had not changed. “Shortly after 2am, three battleships, the Queen, the Prince of Wales and London reached their sea rendezvous off Gaba Tebe and stopped to lower their boats,” began the narrative of 95 years ago. The flag was lower and raised, the Ode was recited followed by a minute’s silence, the last post and the national anthem.

Beyond the symbolism lay the meeting of real people. 250 people turned up in Roma, 42 in tiny Muckadilla, easily doubling its population. A bigger crowd still congregated back in Roma for the parade and another service. It wasn’t the ritual that was important. It was what those people did and said to each other before and after the ceremonies that gave the day its power. It brought people together for a common theme and common purpose. I asked people what Anzac Day meant to them. Almost all the answers were thoughtful and complex. Most remembered the deaths of family members or friends or people they knew about. The Anzac tradition concentrates the mind about mortality, and that for a day is no harm.

Time to ditch the Salary Cap

The fallout continues from the latest Australian rugby league salary cap breach which has seen champions Melbourne Storm hit with the largest punishment in the code’s history. The Storm were stripped of their 2007 and 2009 premierships, not allowed to compete for points this season, forced to return $1.1m in prize money and fined $500,000. Their breaches included $1.7m in salary over five years for the News Ltd owned team. News Ltd CEO John Hartigan has distanced himself from the fraud and former club president and now Melbourne Rebels rugby boss Brian Waldron has fallen on his sword as the supposed “architect” of the rorts. (photo:Getty)

As many commentators have pointed out, the case brings into question ownership of Australian sporting teams. There are also conflicts of interest between News Ltd as owners and media reporting on the issue. It’s difficult to believe senior administrators such as Hartigan are as innocent as they say especially as News Ltd does not have a “satisfactory explanation” what the players’ agents knew and when. But questions must also be asked about the salary cap system. None of this would have occurred if there was no salary cap and it has been of dubious benefit in keeping the competition open and clubs from falling into financial ruin. The cap is an American import. US sports administrators first brought in salary caps in the 1980s to avoid the ruinous escalation of player salaries and competitive imbalance leading to boring games. The positives also include the ability of smaller clubs to keep star players.Some experts have viewed salary caps as a collusive resort to maximise league revenues by controlling labour costs at the expense of less competitive balance within the league. Although European football also has competitive imbalance and financial instability it never followed the American example. As the University of Zurich noted in a 2008 paper, the labour relations approach employed by the hermetic American major leagues is not feasible within the European association-governed football pyramid. Another key difference is European clubs are treated as win-maximisers and not as profit-maximisers in sports economics literature: Kesenne and Jeanrenaud argue the most important divergence between the USA and Europe is that American clubs are business-type companies seeking to make profits, whereas the main aim of most European clubs is to be successful on the field. In recent years UEFA and the clubs have begun exploring options due to the general perception competitive balance in European club football is declining and a large number of clubs are accumulating ever-increasing debt.

Like European football clubs, Australian sporting clubs were also considered win-maximisers for most of their existence. Matters began to change in the late 1980s as first Australian Rules and then Rugby League began to move to national competitions. In 1987 the then Victorian Football League (renamed to AFL in 1990) brought in the cap as the Brisbane Bears and West Coast Eagles joined the competition. Up to then the biggest Melbourne clubs Carlton, Essendon and Collingwood had dominated the competition and the salary cap was seen as an equalisation policy (as well as a means of ensuring the poorer Melbourne clubs would survive in a national setting).

The NSW Rugby League competition (renamed NRL in 1995) also brought in a salary cap in 1990 after the Brisbane Broncos, Newcastle Knights and Canberra Raiders took the league beyond Sydney suburbs. Unlike the AFL, the NRL has to deal with the problem of players leaving to play in lucrative overseas markets but the league believes this is an acceptable price to stop richer clubs dominating. It does not completely stop that domination. In the last 12 years, Melbourne and Brisbane have won three times each – and both clubs are owned by News Ltd.

In both AFL and NRL codes the salary cap has been most honoured in the breach. The Sydney Swans breached the VFL cap in their first season and were fined $20,000 for doubling the cap. In NRL there have been 13 known breaches in 20 years involving multiple clubs. In AFL there have been at least 16 breaches in the 23 years of its existence and there have also been breaches in the next level down including most recently in the South Australian SANFL when Norwood was fined $50,000 and excluded for 12 months from registering any players outside its promotional boundary zone after a serious breach of the 2008 cap.

The salary cap is prone to the law of unintended consequences. As sport becomes big business, its owners and controllers will stop at nothing to achieve success. It is easy to avoid scrutiny and the Storm debacle was only uncovered by accident. In my view, it is time to remove the cap. It won’t affect lower income clubs who can barely reach the cap ceilings, it will drive more honest behaviour in the big clubs and patrons will get to judge exactly how much their stars are earning. As in every other occupation, the market should be best judge of salaries not the administrators.

Australian Government refuses to implement a Human Rights Act

The Australian Government finally issued its Human Rights Framework today after considering a consultation committee report for over six months and ending a process that started in December 2008. The Government is calling it a “framework” because it has gone against the recommendation of the national human rights consultation panel to introduce a new human rights act. Attorney-General Robert McClelland said a human rights framework (pdf version) is more appropriate than legislation. “The Government believes that the enhancement of human rights should be done in a way that as far as possible unites rather than divides our community, and the framework is designed to achieve that outcome,” he said.

The head of the consultation panel, Jesuit priest and law professor Frank Brennan, was disappointed with the decision. He said he doubted if politicians will be sufficiently faithful to framework obligations without judicial oversight. The Australian Human Rights Commission also criticised the Government’s response saying while it included important steps to improve the understanding of human rights in Australia, it had missed the opportunity to create an adequate national system of protection. “The Government has missed the opportunity to provide comprehensive human rights protection for everyone in Australia through adopting a national Human Rights Act,” President of the Australian Human Rights Commission Cathy Branson said. Branson urged the Government to revisit the Act as part of its 2014 review of the Framework.
According to The Australian, McClelland refused to include a Human Rights Act because of a rebellion in his party. It said this was one of two contentious issues (along with introducing rules for judges requiring them to interpret legislation in a way they believe is in accordance with human rights) but did not reveal who in the party room was against these measures or why they opposed them.

Opposition spokesperson for legal affairs George Brandis called it a “humiliation” for McClelland. He said the Rudd Government wasted $2m in promoting an idea which never had community support and only appealed to “a self-regarding elite of legal academics and activist judges.” Brandis said the Opposition opposes the bill of rights as “a dangerous and foolish idea”, which diminished parliament’s authority of Parliament and politicised the judiciary. “It would have been a Trojan horse to impose a left-wing social agenda on Australians without democratic legitimacy,” Brandis said.

McClelland’s media release said the framework was based on five key principles. These are: a commitment to human rights obligations; the importance of human rights education; enhancing domestic and international engagement on human rights issues; improving human rights protections, including greater parliamentary scrutiny; and achieving greater respect for human rights principles in the community. McClelland said the Government would spend $12m on education initiatives and establish a Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights to scrutinise legislation for compliance with international human rights obligations.

In the blogosphere, reaction was mostly scathing. Classical Liberal Andrew Norton agreed with the decision not to include a charter but said it would have focused attention on which freedoms deserved to achieve semi-constitutional status and which were matters of ordinary political debate. Instead, he said, human rights would become subject to undemocratic treaties. Guy Beres said McClelland’s assertion an Act would be divisive was risible given how divisive the lack of one was. Kim at Larvatus Prodeo said the Act had been squibbed by the ALP’s “authoritarian streak, which seems particularly prominent in NSW.”

This was political compromise of an ugly kind. While most Labor MPs were philosophically in favour such an Act (its lack contributed to the worst excesses of the Howard administration), no one in Rudd’s kitchen cabinet was prepared to die in the trenches of marginal seats for it in an election year. It has been replaced by feel-good phrases, a rubber-stamp committee and an education campaign with “failure” written all over it. Taxpayers are lucky just $12m will be wasted on it. We will have to wait until the 2014 review of a likely third-term Labor Government before something better is offered.

Federal Court to rule on The Australian’s terrorist leak source tomorrow

The Federal Court will reveal tomorrow whether it will allow Victorian Police name the source of the leak to The Australian’s journalist Cameron Stewart over last year’s Melbourne terrorist arrest operation. On 4 August 2009 The Australian printed Cameron Stewart’s exclusive. The article quoted Australian Federal Police commissioner Tony Negus saying the AFP had disrupted a “terrorist attack that could have claimed many lives”. Four men were arrested in Melbourne in Operation Neath after 400 police raided homes in the city’s northern suburbs. The four were said to have been inspired by Somalia’s Islamist Al Shabaab and about to attack a military base using semi-automatic weapons.

A great story, and Stewart had the inside scoop. The Australian learned of the operation a week before it occurred and agreed to hold off on publication until the morning of the raid. But Victoria Police were incensed to find out the details of the operation hit the streets for the first run of the paper in the early hours of this morning and criticised it for jeopardising a series of early morning raids, calling it an “unacceptable risk”. The Australian rejected the claim, saying the story was held up from early editions while the raids took place. According to the paper’s editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell, “only papers that were sold at newsagents after the raid, and those destined for home delivery, had the raid story on page one.”

The online outlet Crikey found out the edition with the story in it was available in some retail outlets at 1.30am, three hours before the raid started. While few if any papers were purchased, thefts of papers outside agents are not uncommon and those that buy papers at that time include taxi drivers, which was the occupation of some of the suspects. The integrity of the operation could well have been jeopardised by The Australian’s actions. But the operation should have been brought forward as soon as the AFP realised secrecy was compromised.

On 9 August the police corruption watchdog got involved. In a media release Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity commissioner Philip Moss announced they would investigate an alleged security breach relating to Operation Neath. The announcement said the ACLEI investigation was part of a coordinated response by State and Federal law enforcement and integrity agencies, including the Office of Police Integrity (Victoria). “ACLEI’s focus will relate to the involvement, if any, of members of the Australian Federal Police in the alleged security breach,” the release said.

In March, Stewart won the Gold Quill for outstanding journalism at the Melbourne Press Club’s annual Quill Awards dinner. In his acceptance speech Stewart said he couldn’t speak about the incident due to legal confidentially. He painted the case as one of press freedom and said the lack of shield laws for sources and journalists was a disgrace. “What none of you know here is that it’s been a very, very difficult and ugly legal battle behind the scenes,” he said. “But let me tell you that it is a real fight in this country for press freedom because it is a very ugly battle that we face and I hope that every single person in this room does what they can to stand up for it.”

As a result of the ACLEI / OPI investigation, a Victorian policeman was identified as Stewart’s source and suspended for leaking the information. When ACLEI and OPI drafted a report into the source of the leak, The Australian won an injunction prohibiting its publication. The case currently before the courts attempts to overturn that injunction. However the two police forces involved have broken ranks. Margaret Simons in Crikey said last week court documents show ACLEI has cut a deal with The Australian and has agreed not to publish any of the information they have obtained about the newspaper during their investigation and will also allow The Australian to review any report that refers to the paper or its employees.

The Victorian agency is unhappy with its federal counterpart and going ahead with the request to overturn the injunction. Simons has been covering the case from the courtroom for the last few days using the Twitter hashtag #ozleak. The case puts into question dodgy practices in the media and police. Simons and Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes have publicly questioned whether Stewart deserved a high journalism accolade for his work on a story that could so easily have gone drastically wrong. Was it great work in the interest of the public’s right to know or merely “a policeman blabbing to a journo about a legitimate terrorist investigation” as Holmes put it? Stewart may find nasty repercussions if he is ever forced to confirm the source in a criminal investigation.

West and Third World disagree on legitimacy of Sudan elections

International observers have disagreed on whether Sudan’s first multi-party elections in 24 years were free and fair. Western observers and media say the election falls “far short” of international standards, but African and Middle Eastern observers say it was successful despite defects. The vote was held over five days last week and results have not yet been formally announced but President Omar al-Bashir and his National Congress Party are expected to win comfortably.
(photo: AFP)
Al-Bashir, who took power in an Islamist-backed coup in 1989, is hoping to legitimise his rule ahead of war crimes charges from the international criminal court. The country’s national election commission said the election results due tomorrow would be delayed further. An election official told AFP they could not set a definite date because the count was a “complicated process”.Counting of votes began on Friday amid logistical snags and charges of fraud. The Sudanese National Elections Commission said 60 percent out of 16 million voters cast ballots. The election was marred by an opposition boycott and the withdrawal of two presidential candidates, the Umma party’s Sadiq al-Mahdi and the former southern rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement’s Yasser Arman. The NCP dominates the north of the country and rules alongside the SPLM as part of a peace deal that ended civil war in 2005, but there are significant tensions between the two parties.

The head of a 130-member EU observer mission criticised the poll, saying there had been “significant deficiencies”. Veronique de Keyser said the organisation of elections represented a complex challenge. “Unfortunately…deficiencies in voters’ lists and weak organisation hindered the voters’ participation,” she said. “I am also concerned that polling was affected by intimidation and threats”. De Keyser said although the elections paved the way for democratic progress, it is essential shortcomings are addressed to achieve a genuine democratic environment for future elections.

The EU’s position was endorsed by monitors from the US Carter Centre, run by former US president Jimmy Carter. A statement from the centre said it was apparent the elections will fall short of meeting international standards and Sudan’s obligations for genuine elections. “Unfortunately, many political rights and freedoms were circumscribed for most of this period, fostering distrust among the political parties,” the statement read. “Ultimately the success of the elections will depend on whether Sudan’s leaders take action to promote lasting democratic transformation.”

Arab League observers said the election was a “big step forward” and will become “an example for other African and Arab countries”. The head of the African Union observer’s mission, Kunle Adeyemi said it was not a perfect election but a historic one. “Looking into the fact this is a country that had not had a multi-party election for almost a generation…to say they are free and fair, to the best of our knowledge we have no reason to think the contrary,” Adeyemi said.

UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon was also upbeat about the election. He welcomed efforts by the ruling parties in Sudan to enter dialogue with opposition candidates and parties. The UN said polls closed across Sudan today without major violent incidents, although there were reported cases of irregularities and opposition boycotts. In a statement, Ban said he “encourages all political actors in Sudan to tackle issues in a spirit of dialogue, towards a peaceful electoral outcome and ongoing implementation of the CPA [the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the north-south civil war]”.

That war is heading towards its inevitable conclusion next year. This is likely to be the last time Southern Sudan voters vote in the Sudanese election. In January 2011 Southern Sudan votes on a referendum on full independence which most observers expect will be carried. However Juba, which is set to become the world’s newest capital city, has no landline telephones, no public transport, no power grid, no industry, no agriculture and few buildings. Growing fears over a post-Sudan split is leading Southern Sudan to build new trade routes. One ambitious plan calls for a high speed railway line from Juba to Tororo in Uganda which would cost $7 billion. This railway line could facilitate the movement of goods and people to and from Juba to any part of the wider East African region including Mombasa, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti.

Cameraman takes the rap for Nine’s shoddy practices

On Wednesday last week, Channel Nine Melbourne sacked news cameramen Simon Fuller after a street incident with a man named Gad Amr on 1 April. On that day Gad’s son Omar Amr, 19, was released by Melbourne Magistrates Court on strict bail conditions after a riot in the suburb of Oakleigh last month where drag-race fans trashed a Bob Jane T-Mart store. Amr and fellow defendants Hussein Alameddine and Aziz Elbayehare are due to reappear in court on 27 July.
(photo: ABC)
The cause of the Oakleigh riot was the cancellation of an Easter drag race at Calder Park sponsored by Bob Jane T-Marts. On 19 March disappointed fans took to the street to protest but became violent at a Bob Jane T-Mart store in Oakleigh. The store was torched and looted and the owner was lucky to escape with minor injuries. Hundreds of drag racing fans trashed the store, broke windows and stole car parts from inside, forcing bystanders to flee for safety. Although the three charged on 1 April were all middle-eastern, there was no suggestion the riot was racially motivated. However the Amrs felt unfairly treated by Channel Seven and Nine camera operators who followed them down the street after their court appearance. The camera operators’s behaviour may be unedifying, but is hardly unusual. The pedestrian parade is a staple of TV news court reporting often with the suspect / victim covering their face as they walk away from court. It was Simon Fuller’s job to follow the Amrs out of the court room and grab footage of Omar for that night’s Channel Nine news.When Gad Amr asked him to stop filming, Fuller’s reply was “I’m just doing my job”. Fuller was doing his job but the question is whether he was “just” doing that. In the footage of the incident dissected by Media Watch, Jonathan Holmes said “at most he needed a couple of shots of the pair. You’d think he’d have got enough by now.”

So why did Fuller keep shooting? It would appear from that moment on, it became personal. Amr came close to Fuller as if threatening (this was the only footage of the incident shown by an opportunistic Channel Seven whose own camera operator was also following the action). Fuller became defensive saying “You don’t touch me” and “You don’t touch people” before retreating to his Nuremberg Defence of “We’re just doing our jobs.” As Holmes said “You don’t touch people. But it’s fine, apparently, to stick a camera in their faces for minutes on end while they walk down a public street.”

The argument degenerated into a swearing match. The son Omar called Fuller “a fucking knuckle” to which Fuller replied “you fucking terrorist”. It is likely this insult cost Fuller his job. After Media Watch got hold of the footage and contacted Channel Nine, they were told Fuller was “stood down pending the completion of an investigation”. Two days later he was sacked.

Fuller was a scapegoat though he did wrong. He filmed the Amrs for too long but probably figured his employers would love the image of the aggressive middle easterners attacking an “innocent” media person. (This is exactly what Channel Seven and Ten did with the footage while Nine did not show any of it.) His racist attack of “fucking terrorist” was provocative though the Amrs’ own behaviour (particularly the son Omar’s) was aggressive also. Fuller’s obscenity was heat of the moment stuff that could have been dealt with a rebuke and a personal apology to the Amrs.

Fuller is now unemployed because his behaviour was publicly revealed. He besmirched Nine not because he overstepped the mark but because he was caught making a racial slur. Individuals need to be responsible for their actions, but their employers must be clear about what is expected of them. Fuller is a scapegoat for rotten corporate practices. Nine will feel good about themselves but they will continue to harass members of the public in the interest of news ratings.

For a vigorous rebuttal of my take on this, I am indebted to Jo White, an American-based Australian journalist, critic and researcher who goes by the online name of Mediamum. When I called Fuller a scapegoat on Twitter, White said he got what he deserved and it was people like him that gave journalists such a bad reputation. “What he did was unethical, reprehensible and about as bad as journalism gets,” wrote White. “He should have been sacked fifty times.” White said Fuller got involved in the story, abused his position and the “terrorist” slur was not a heat of the moment offence. “The problem is each journalist should take responsibility for their own actions and not hide behind employers,” she wrote. “Sacking Fuller won’t solve the problem. But it gets rid of one albeit small representation of it.”

Obama gets a good start in Nuclear Security Summit

The Washington Nuclear Security Summit ended yesterday after two days with a 12 point communiqué and an agreement to meet again in 2012 in South Korea. The 47-nation summit agreed to lock up the world’s most vulnerable nuclear materials within four years to keep it out of terrorist hands. The communiqué said nuclear terrorism was one of the most challenging threats to international security and strong nuclear security measures were the most effective means to prevent “terrorist criminals or other unauthorized actors” from acquiring nuclear materials. The conference also celled on all nations to work collectively “to strengthen nuclear security and reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism.”

The conference follows the recent US-Russia agreement to reduce nuclear weapons. The outcome will see an renewed role for the International Atomic Energy agency who will inspect sites where fissile material is stored (including in the US). Other positive outcomes include Chile, Ukraine and Mexico agreeing to ship out their entire stock of highly enriched uranium, which can be used in weapons. The Guardian judged the summit a reasonable success, partly thanks to a narrow focus on a field more technical than political.However, the Christian Science Monitor said while the conference objectives were reassuring, a “global reality” will make the goal difficult. It said worldwide production of highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium is going to increase in coming years as civilian nuclear programs grow. Experts such as David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington see contradictions in the approach. Albright said France blocked limiting the production of separated plutonium, which is a core element of the French nuclear energy industry. But there were also successes including the US/Ukraine agreement to secure Kiev’s stockpile of highly enriched uranium and the North American agreement to remove Mexico’s supply of highly enriched uranium to the US for conversion to low-enriched uranium.

This was Obama’s first major international conference on home soil and he brought his personality to bear on events. He held 15 bilateral meetings with regional leaders. Several European diplomats told the Washington Times the large number of attendees reflects Obama’s popularity abroad. Nuclear weapons were not a huge issue for many of those leaders and Obama’s challenge was to make them care about securing the military sites, research reactors and universities where nuclear materials are stored. “Coming into this summit, there were a range of views on this danger,” Obama said. “But at our dinner last night, and throughout the day, we developed a shared understanding of the risk.”

In his closing speech Obama outlined four major planks to the agreement. Firstly he declared nuclear terrorism to be one of the most challenging threats to international security. To stop this threat, Obama said, requires action to protect nuclear materials and prevent nuclear smuggling. Secondly he said the conference endorsed the US position to secure the world’s vulnerable nuclear materials within four years. Thirdly the conference reaffirmed the fundamental responsibility of nations to secure its nuclear materials and facilities. Lastly it acknowledged international cooperation was required to maintain effective security.

Security was effective at the conference itself with almost 50 world leaders in attendance. However not everyone was happy with Dana Milbank in the Washington Post complaining of excessive media management. Most sessions were closed to the press, foreign media were given short shrift and no questions were allowed in bilateral meetings with only anodyne readouts available. It wasn’t until the end of the conference that Obama allowed tough questions from his own media corps, including pointing out the nonproliferation agreements weren’t binding, the failure to curb North Korea’s weapons, and the notable absence from the conference of nuclear rogue state Israel.

The most notable questions were about Iran. According to Tony Karon in Time the goals of the summit were so modest it could hardly have failed. Karon says the real action took place off the main stage with Obama doing one-on-one lobbying with world leaders over sanctions against Iran. Neither Russia nor China seem prepared to support the US. China as Iran’s largest energy partner is reluctant to support measures such as shutting down investment in the energy sector, blocking access to international credit or punishing companies associated with the Revolutionary Guard. China and Russia’s veto powers seem destined to defeat any significant move to hobble Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Centre-right has landslide win in Hungarian election

The centre-right Fidesz Party has won power from the ruling Socialists after winning over half the vote in Sunday’s Hungarian parliamentary elections. Fidesz performed as well as opinion polls predicted and won 52.8 of the vote which translates to a healthy majority of 206 seats in the 386 seat legislature. The socialists were routed and ended up with just 28 seats barely two more than gained by the far right Jobbik Party. The Greens also passed the threshold to get into parliament, securing five seats. A second round of voting follows on April 25 to elect another 121 members but Fidesz already has the numbers to rule outright.

The second round of voting is important as they are in sight of a two-thirds majority it needs to push through vital reforms. The victory will see Fidesz party leader Victor Orban take the prime minister’s job for the second time. The Oxford educated Orban is a veteran of Hungarian politics despite being just 46. He was a foundation member of Fidesz (an acronym of FIatal DEmokraták SZövetsége which means “Alliance of Young Democrats” ) in 1988 at the end of the Communist era. He took over the leadership of the party two years later in the first free elections and became Hungary’s second youngest ever Prime Minister in 1998 after he led a Coalition to victory. He oversaw Hungary’s admission into NATO but was beset by scandals which saw him lose office in 2002. Fidesz were defeated again in 2006 but with his leadership secure Orban was in a position to capitalise this time round on electoral dissatisfaction with the Socialists’ savage budget cuts.With unemployment at 11.4 percent and an economy contracting by 6.3 percent in 2009 Orban faces a massive task to avoid the same fate despite his strong mandate. Fidesz campaigned on cutting taxes, creating jobs and supporting local businesses but was hazy about how to deliver a promise to create a million jobs in 10 years. Fidesz has also said could double the deficit target set by the IMF and EU as part of a rescue package by slashing local government and implementing efficiencies in health care and education.

The election’s other big talking point was the rise of Jobbik. The anti-semitic and anti-gypsy party came from nowhere in the last four years capitalising on discontent with the major parties. Led by 32-year-old history teacher Gabor Vona, the party tapped into nationalist sentiment of shame over Hungary’s reputation as a sick economy. Jobbik campaigned on a platform of blaming Jews and the Roma for Hungary’s ills and their rise brings back uncomfortable memories of the Nazi era. Much of their support was in poor rural areas with high unemployment and they were helped organisationally by the Magyar Garda (Hungarian Guard) a paramilitary group with black uniforms similar to that worn by the Arrow Cross, Hungary’s original Nazi party. Though the Guard was disbanded by court order last year for breaking association laws, it continues under an assumed name. Vona is a founding member of the Magyar Garda.

Orban has said he is deeply unhappy with Jobbik’s rise and has no plans to bring them into a coalition. He will be relying on an improvement in the economy to curb their growing appeal. Orban said good governing was the best defense against the far right. “I am convinced that the better the performance of the government is, the weaker the far right will be in the future,” he said. However it is also likely Orban will restrain Jobbik’s influence by embracing its social conservatism and family values and adopting its tough attitudes on law and order.

Bartlett should accept McKim’s Tasmanian Coalition offer

A Tasmanian Green media release today confirmed what most people understood as the Green position in the Apple Isle: they would prefer a coalition government but won’t support a no confidence motion against the Labor Government. In the absence of a negotiated settlement or outright malfeasance by Labor, David Bartlett will be able to serve out a second term as Tasmanian Premier. Greens leader Nick McKim continued to offer to negotiate with either party and said they would still hold all of their pre-election policies including opposition to the proposed Gunns pulp mill, fighting to save Tasmania’s high conservation value forests, and rolling back the government’s education reform program “Tasmania Tomorrow”.

These latter three policies are likely to be major sticking points and make Bartlett’s long-term survival hopes tenuous. Bartlett could strengthen that position by sitting down with McKim but he has shown little sign of wanting to negotiate an obvious centre-left coalition between Labor and the Greens. In the poisonous world of Tasmanian politics, Labor might have been better served seeking a Coalition with the Liberals. Prior to the election, Bartlett said he had no level of trust in McKim.The election under the Hare-Clark rules on 20 March left Tasmania with a lower house of 10 Labor seats, 10 Liberal and 5 Greens. While such a result is common in Europe and leads to workable coalitions, here the result was greeted with consternation. Both the major parties stuck their collective heads in the sand and said working with the Greens was impossible – working with each other was simply the beyond the realm of thought.

Because the Liberals took 39 percent of the vote to Labor’s 37, Bartlett initially held to his campaign promise that he would hand over power to the Liberals in the event they outvoted them. Bartlett began to pull back from that promise in the weeks following the election. He was bolstered by McKim’s offer of support despite having making no efforts to woo the Greens. On 9 April, Tasmanian Governor Peter Underwood offered the Premiership back to Bartlett. Underwood still retains the possibility of offering the job to the Liberals’ Will Hodgman in the event it doesn’t work out. Only then would Tasmanians face another election.

Hodgman bitterly protested the decision and slammed Bartlett for going back on his promise. But this was never Bartlett’s decision to make. As Tasmanian lawyer Greg Barns said, “Underwood correctly applied constitutional convention, which is to say he asked himself which party could provide stability and saw that the answer was clearly the ALP. End of story.”

ABC election analyst Antony Green believes Bartlett and McKim are finally discussing the possibility of coalition government with the possibility McKim and fellow Greens MP Tim Morris may be offered ministries. Former Premier Paul Lennon is also pushing for Bartlett to offer McKim a ministry. How they deal with the decision on Gunn’s Tamar Vale pulp mill will be an early test of such an alliance, nevertheless they are talking and the Greens may find it harder to oppose from inside the tent. Australian politicians don’t take easy to compromise but it is the mark of mature governance and often the only way things get done in a democracy.

Refugees as election pawns: Labor’s immigration shame

In the minute or so it took to issue an infamous media release, the Rudd Labor Government blew away all the goodwill from its previous attempts to undo the shabby Howard era treatment of refugees. On Friday, Labor went back to the future and tore shreds out of Australia’s already battered international reputation on the humane treatment of refugees.

The release began ominously with the words “effective immediately”. These two words had a double meaning. Firstly it showed Labor were not going to give anyone time to prepare, and secondly it was showing it was going to hide behind management-speak. The instruction itself was a knock-out blow “the Australian Government has today introduced a suspension of the processing of new asylum applications from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.”

What did the unfortunate people of Sri Lanka and Afghanistan do to deserve this sudden treatment? Apparently, according to the breathtaking insouciance of the Government, there are “evolving circumstances” in these countries that “will mean that it is likely that, in the future, more asylum claims from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan will be refused.”

Looking through Asian politics with glasses so rose-tinted it matches their shameful embarrassment, the Labor Government has somehow concluded that wartorn Afghanistan is now safe for Hazaris and post-war Sri Lanka is safe for Tamils. Afghans will be surprised to hear about the “Taliban’s fall” and “durable security” (admittedly only “in parts of the country”). Meanwhile lucky Tamils have “hopes for further improvement and stabilisation in conditions.” Based on this flimsiest of evidence, the Australian Government has suspended the processing of new asylum claims by Sri Lankans for three months and Afghans for six months.

This is a breathtaking assumption the facts on the ground simply do not support. In 2009, the worsening humanitarian crises caused by the American occupation and “surge” in Afghanistan and the Sri Lankan army’s brutal crushing of the Tamil independence movement has led to more desperate boatloads of Hazaris and Tamil refugees arriving. They will now be detained for three or six months as political pawns in an Australian game.

The blame for this shameful announcement can be shared equally between three pollyannas – Immigration Minister Senator Chris Evans, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor. Nevertheless the release has the fingerprints of their boss all over it. Kevin Rudd is enough of a foreign policy wonk to know this message about “evolving developments” is complete rubbish. But this announcement has nothing to do with the political situation in Afghanistan or Sri Lanka – even a cursory glance at either country would not support this spurious nonsense spouted by his three stooges Evans, Smith and O’Connor.

The real reason is opinion polls are showing 64 percent of Australians are afraid of the refugee boats and want them “stopped”. These numbers are dangerous but not yet near Tampa territory and the last thing Kevin Rudd wants in an election year is an issue Tony Abbott can wedge him on. So his solution is breathtakingly efficient and hypocritical – park the issue for six months until the election is over.

According to Evans et al’s presser, the Australian Government believes “asylum seekers should only be granted the right to live in Australia if they are genuinely in need of protection.” This has nothing to do with evolving circumstances and everything to do with treating every case on its merits. But hysterical media reaction to a few dozen boats arriving on our northern shores has dusted off fears that always seem to lie just under the surface of Australia’s fragile settler mentality. According to the UNHCR’s 2009 report, Australia / New Zealand had 6,500 asylum claims last year out of a worldwide total of 377,200 – barely 1.6 percent of the world’s refugees.

This data is conveniently glossed over in the asylum “debate”. Nor is the truth of conditions on the ground in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan of any local interest. The agenda is set by dangerous stupidity from politicians such as Barnaby Joyce and fuelled by talk show hosts and tabloid editorials who speak only in the xenophobic language that panders to the fears of their readers and listeners. This is a human tragedy and not just for the asylum seekers. Kevin Rudd is to blame, but we are all indicted.