Israel massacres peace activists in the Mediterranean

The Israel Defence Force has murdered at least 16 people after storming ships on the high sea bound for Gaza. The six ships of the flotilla was carrying 10,000 tonnes of aid and 600 human right activists from around the world determined to break Israel’s three year long blockade of the Palestinian territory. Israel had repeatedly said it would not let them in and IDF forces boarded the boat around 65km off Gaza before beginning their killing spree. Free Gaza Movement, the organisers of the flotilla said the troops opened fire as soon as they stormed the convoy despite the raising of a white flag.

With the flotilla carrying mainly medical and food supplies, most of the world’s governments have condemned Israel. Israeli police are on high alert across the country to prevent any civil disturbances. The Hamas government in Gaza held an emergency meeting chaired by premier Ismail Haneya, following the Israeli Television Channel 10 report 16 activists on the ships were killed and 30 wounded, including the Israeli-Arab Islamic activist Sheikh Raed Sallah.

The IDF version of events needs to be treated with caution but they said soldiers were attacked with knives and clubs as they boarded the six vessels. It said the violence turned deadly when an activist grabbed a weapon from one of the commandos. “The weapon discharged,” they said ambiguously not making it clear whether the activist fired it or if it went off accidentally.

The six ships of the flotilla sailed under Turkish and American flags and set off from Cyprus yesterday. Israeli forces said they would not allow them land and the flotilla deliberated slowed down so that any forced landing would happen in daylight hours to maximize the media exposure. Meanwhile at the port in Gaza City Hamas prepared a welcoming party with marquees and a buffet to greet the flotilla which was expected mid-afternoon today.

The first contact happened 200 kms off the Gaza shore. The IDF contacted the flotilla by radio and told them the Gaza Strip was a closed military zone. They offered them two options either follow the navy to Ashdod Port is Israel or else be commandeered by commandos. “If you ignore this order and enter the blockaded area, the Israeli navy will be forced to take all the necessary measures in order to enforce this blockade,” the IDF told them. The flotilla radar detected three Israeli ships in the area. After boarding the vessels and going on a shooting spree, the IDF towed the vessels to Ashdod.

The Hamas Government in Gaza said it considers the dead activists “as the martyrs of the Freedom Flotilla, adding “the world should put an end to the biggest country of pirates.” Gaza premier Ismail Hanaya called the attack an international crime and a political scandal carried out according to an Israeli military order. “I call on the Palestinian Authority to immediately suspend its negotiations with Israel,” he said. He also called for street protects and the Arab states to respond to “end the unfair Israeli siege.”

Israel justified its actions saying it already allows 15,000 tonnes of aid into Gaza each week. The UN said this is just a quarter of what the Gaza Strip needs. Between 35 and 60 percent of Gaza’s agriculture industry was destroyed by Israel’s three week long invasion in 2008-2009 which left the land contaminated and cratered. This is the ninth time the Free Gaza movement has tried to ship in humanitarian aid to Gaza since August 2008 but only five have been successful and none since Operation Cast Lead turned Gaza into a wasteland. The latest action confirms Israel is prepared to thumb its nose at international criticism as it lurches further into right-wing extremist nationalism.

Beneath Hill 60: Inside the circles of hell

There is a scene in the excellent Australian film “Beneath Hill 60” where two German soldiers are talking about the consequences after they realise the enemy is about to blow their position sky high.
“Why don’t we just move back,” said one, reasonably. “After all Europe is a big place, one hill is not going to make any difference.”
The other is mortally offended.
“Our High Command would never consider it. The place is filled with German blood. You simply don’t understand war,” he concluded imperiously.

Understanding war is difficult, particularly one as nasty, brutish and long as the First World War. The drab Hill 60 (too anonymous for a name) near Ypres in Flanders, Belgium was a senseless battlefield that changed hands several times during the war. One of those times was during the 1917 Battle of Messines. Based on the diaries of Captain Oliver Woodward, David Roach’s screenplay tells the stories of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company, miners and engineers cobbled together to dig passages under enemy lines. Woodward was a Queensland miner brought in specially for the task. The plan was to lay 21 mines with almost 500 tonnes of ammonal explosives underneath German lines deep in the blue clay 25 metres below the soggy upper-level soil.
The plan was the brainchild of Viscount Field Marshal Herbert Charles Onslow Plumer. Despite the Blimp-like name, Plumer was one of the finest army commanders on the Western Front. He had an infantry background and was not addicted to the futile grand charges beloved of many of his peers.

The idea for tunnels came from the Germans. When trench warfare was deadlocked in 1915 German engineers realised the possibilities of literally undermining British morale by building tunnels under their lines and detonating large charges of explosives. The British retaliated and began a rapid recruitment program of English and Welsh miners. Mine owners objected and the net was cast further wide to Canada and Australia.

For 12 months before the Messines battle, Plumer organised the digging of the mines to be detonated prior to a ground assault. The evening before the attack, he told his staff, “Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.”

Nineteen of the 21 mines exploded and according to British newspapers, Londoners were startled out of their sleep at 3.10am by the sound of the explosion. German defences shattered and their high ground defence disappeared instantly. The British advanced a few miles but poor conditions in the shell-torn terrain prevented them from following up the advantage.

Hill 60 was just another death-ridden pointless postscript to an endless war of attrition that destroyed a generation of young men. As foreshadowed by the American Civil War 50 years earlier, industrialised nations fighting with technologically advanced, mass-produced weapons enabled killing on an unprecedented scale. Twenty million people died and 20 million more were injured. The callous lack of regard for life led to another war to end all wars 20 years later.

Jeremy Sims’ film Beneath Hill 60 gives us a window into that world. It is a below-basement level window and the claustrophobia of the Australian tunnellers is deftly handled. Though set in the warmer months leading to June 1917, the weather is invariably cruel, wet and miserable. It is T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Sims takes us under the dull roots of the waste land to confront a human-engineered hell. The story contrasts spring fertility with the black and muddy stench of death. The Australian flashback scenes invert the seasons as well as tone of the film. The only Australian non-flashback scene in the film shows there is little redemption for those who have visited the circles of hell under Hill 60; the best anyone can hope for is a painful and memory-scarred survival.

No wonder so many survivors don’t like talking of their war experiences. War is the antithesis of life.

New Matilda falls asleep at the wheel

As much as I admire Marni Cornell and Rod McGuinness, there’s no reason for tears over the death of the online journal New Matilda. The site finishes up on 25 June but they will not be the first or the last such outlet to die.

It was no coincidence Cornell quoted Tom Fitzgerald, the founding editor of Nation. Its successor newspaper the Nation Review was in a print template for what New Matilda aspires to be on line. Like Nation Review it has apparently outlived its relevance, or at least its paying clients.

Owner Duncan Turpie gambled on stopping subscription shortly before it became fashionable again. Making it free brought greater numbers of readers but they were not followed by advertisers. Why weren’t there people with products to sell to the audience gained by New Matilda? Was it that their readers were no good for paid products or was it just those wise souls that read New Matilda pay no attention to the advertising that paid for the news?

While sad we’re about to lose a valued publication I feel certain that great content will continue to emerge somewhere. The available media will expand to cater for it.

Phil Gomes thinks the answer to a post-media future will have to be amateur but I think he is aiming too low. Certainly those still in charge don’t think so. Just witness today’s The Australian ads for itself on the ipad.

Where there is a wheel there is a way.

An Awkward Truth: the story of the 1942 Darwin bombing

Peter Grose’s engrossing An Awkward Truth (2009) examines the catastrophic Japanese bombing of Darwin in February 1942. The book opens up with an anonymous poem of soldiers’ doggerel Bloody Darwin with eerie parallels with John Cooper Clark’s 1980s British urban classic Evidently Chickentown. “This bloody town’s a bloody cuss/No bloody trams, no bloody bus/And no one cares for bloody us/Oh bloody, bloody Darwin.” The poem is apt as the story of Darwin’s first war bombing (it would be attacked a further 58 times) is one of official incompetence, wilful neglect, looting, desertion and failure of leadership that cast a dark shadow on Australia’s war record.

While Grose discusses what 1955 Territories minister Paul Hasluck called a day “of national shame”, he also uncovers stories of personal heroism and dogged counter-attack that deserve to be remembered. The force attacking Darwin on 19 February 1942 was the same as attacked Pearl Harbour two months earlier. Led by renowned “Tora Tora Tora” pilot Mitsuo Fuchida (who lived until 1976), they learned from Hawaiian mistakes and caused more damage in Darwin, taking more civilian casualties and sinking more ships.
At the time Darwin stood with Coventry as the two biggest air attacks of the war. The toll of 300 remains the deadliest single event on Australian soil. The villain of the book is not Fuchida but former NSW Country Party politician Charles Aubrey Abbott who dabbled with the extreme right. He was appointed NT’s administrator in 1937.
When war arrived in 1939, Darwin accepted it apathetically believing it was still half a world away. In 1941 Japan entered on the Axis side. and Darwin was suddenly a target. On 7 December Japan launched a double strike hitting out at Pearl Harbor while launching a large ground-based invasion of Malaya, supported by a bombing campaign from Hong Kong to Singapore. Disaster followed disaster. McArthur’s indecisiveness cost the Philippines, Guam fell as did Singapore.
Japan turned attention to its real target: Java’s oilfields. Across the sea in Darwin, authorities drew up evacuation plans. Abbott sat on the plans and argued a state of emergency would cause unnecessary panic. Women and children were eventually taken out by boat in a chaotic evacuation. Darwin’s port was transformed into a supply base for the defence of the Dutch East Indies. Ships piled up in the harbour where inefficient design and strike-prone wharfies made for painfully slow loading and unloading.
Including Royal Australian and US Navy vessels there was 45 ships in Darwin harbour at the time of the bombing. On 19 February, the Japanese Nagumo Force with four aircraft carriers rendezvoused in the Timor Sea south of Maluku, 350km north of Darwin. It unleashed 188 aircraft, five more than in the first wave at Pearl, which set course for Darwin. They flew southward between Bathurst and Melville Island before turning in a loop to approach Darwin from the south-east.
This had the double advantage of having the sun behind them and being the least likely direction of attack. They arrived in Darwin without warning around 10am. One group attacked the port while the other strafed the airfield. The bombers exerted maximum damage on the port locomotives, railway trucks and scattering oil lines which caught fire killing those who dived into water for safety. The town lay just beyond the port and suffered heavy damage. A direct hit took out the post office and communication building killing nine civilians.

Anti-aircraft guns returned fire but lack of practice and problems with shells in tropical heat meant they were mostly ineffective. At the airfield, the second force knocked out planes and communication equipment. Ships struggled to flee the carnage. The USS Peary sank with 91 dead. Fifteen died on the William B Preston, also sunk and 12 died on the hospital ship Manundra though it did not sink and continued to accept casualties. By the end of the raid, Darwin was a smoking mess.

The Japanese were not finished and 54 aircraft arrived for a second attack two hours later. They concentrated on the airfield dropping 13,000kgs of high explosives before flying off at 12.20pm. Neither Abbott nor the army commander took control of the situation. Abbott directed police away from rescue efforts to pack his valuable glass and china and take it south to safety.

The “Adelaide River Stakes” began, a mass exodus from Darwin as rumours filled the void of official information. A convoy of vehicles set off to Adelaide River 120kms south based on a rumour civilians had been ordered to leave town. Anything that could move did, and the road was jammed by drivers in the red dust. The Army neglected to start a salvage operation, blowing any chance of giving surviving aircraft a chance if the Japanese came back. Army units dispersed without orders to other parts of the Territory.

That left Darwin ideal for looting. Army personnel including military police took goods away by the truckload. By nightfall matters turned violent with drunken military personnel firing over the heads of crowds. There were no sanitary services and wharfies fled leaving surviving ships with no way of unloading. “The Administrator’s port, sherry and other fine wines were in safe hands,” Grose wrote. “Otherwise, Darwin was a mess.”

A day later the military took control. They took eligible men from Adelaide River and signed them up for the army. Non-essential people were evacuated and a week later the NT was placed under Army control. There remained the tricky problem of what to tell the world.

Unlike Roosevelt after Pearl, the Curtin administration didn’t trust Australians with the truth. Curtin was in a row with Roosevelt and Churchill about withdrawing Aussie troops from the Middle East. Journalists in Darwin had splashed the news of the attacks but the Government was keen to underplay it. They reported the death tally as 19 with minimal damage. Abbott also pretended in his communications Darwin was back to normal.

By the end of March the secret Lowe commission to investigate the attack reported 240 died but it did not make the papers. Curtin’s policy backfired as the Japanese attacked Broome, Wyndham and other towns but the “national interest” was used to avoid any further comment or scrutiny. Darwin disappeared from public gaze. As Grose concluded “The full horror of the attack on Darwin was [the government’s] best chance to jolt Australians out of their apathy. Unwisely it chose not to take it.”

Thai Government set for final showdown with Red Shirts

The city of Bangkok remains in a state of civil war as the three-day street riots that have killed 25 people continue. Authorities have declared a 4km radius of the Thai capital around Lumpini Park a “live firing zone”. The Pattaya Daily News reports the Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation is considering ordering a curfew for residents of the affected areas “allegedly so that the military are able to isolate ‘terrorists’ from the innocent civilians”. Around 10,000 United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (Red Shirt) protesters are on the streets demanding the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva step down. They claim Abhisit came to power illegitimately with the help of the army and have called for parliament to be dissolved.
(photo by thethaireport)
The roads in and around the main Ratchaprasong rally site have been barricaded by the military, with water and food trucks prevented from entering the site to force the protesters to disband. Police have also set up checkpoints on Sukhumvit road at Soi Udomsuk to prevent more red shirts from coming in from rural areas. Transport services have been suspended for two days and protesters have barricaded MRT exits with tuk tuks delivering tyres to barricade points across the city. The latest round of fighting in the two month stand-off began on Thursday as the army moved to isolate a fortified protest camp. Over the next two days 25 people were killed and another 215 injured as the two sides clashed on the streets with reports of army snipers picking off protesters.Both sides have heightened the rhetoric as more blood has been spilt. This morning an army spokesman announced some areas of the city would be subject to a curfew. Colonel Sunsern Kaewkumnerd said the curfew would be needed “so that police and soldiers can differentiate people from terrorists.” The army has not yet carried out its threat to move against the demonstrators’ main rally site unless they dispersed but the curfew is likely to a precursor to a full-scale assault. But as Al Jazeera’s Aela Callan said the threat has not fazed the defenders. “Some of the red shirts I have spoken to have said they’re not willing to leave,” he said. “They’re really hunked in there, they’ve set up their homes.”

More than 50 people have been killed and 1,600 wounded since the protests began in March. Tensions rose dramatically last week after the Red Shirts rejected Prime Minister Abhisit’s “roadmap” to an election on 14 November. Abhisit wanted anti-government protesters to accept his reconciliation plan and restore peace and stability. Not only did they reject that plan but Red Shirts demanded the prime minister and deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban hand themselves over to the Department of Special Investigations for their involvement in the deaths of 20 civilians following the April 10 clashes. On Thursday Abhisit ran out of patience and sent in the military.

Last night the Prime Minister made a public broadcast from the safety of an army barracks where he defended his decision to use force in the dispersal of the Red Shirts protesters. He argued it was the only resort after peace negotiations broke down with the key opposition leader Jatuporn Prompan promising to “fight to the end”. The end may well be near for Prompan’s forces but the enmity Abhisit’s actions have caused are likely to have long-term repercussions that may leave Thailand fatally split for years to come.

Iraq trapped inside the Hurt Locker

Iraq was reminded this week the country is still not entirely safe for civilians. Yesterday a bomb exploded at a football match in the northern city of Mosul killing 25 people and injuring 120. The carnage was caused by a car bomb quickly followed by a suicide bomber. The incident came four days after attacks in five cities killed 110 people in the bloodiest violence this year. Politicians blamed Al Qaeda as the country struggled to form a government two months after an indecisive general election. Stable government is a crucial step in ensuring US combat troops leave the country by 31 August – seven and a half years after the Bush Administration launched its invasion.

I was reminded of this as I went to watch The Hurt Locker last night. The film tells the story of a US bomb disposal team in the early years after the invasion. The title of the film refers to the place an explosion sends you to – a private world of pain. Though it was filmed near-location (Jordan) using many Iraqi refugees in minor parts, it fails to humanise anyone other than the three American participants of the bomb squad.

This is hardly unusual in American war films. But The Hurt Locker is a particularly disappointment given its positive critical reception. It was based on the Iraqi accounts of embedded freelance journalist Mark Boal, who also wrote the screenplay. Boal should have been honest enough to look at the conflict from both sides. But the film never rises above a depiction of Iraqis as “the other”.

Director Kathryn Bigelow’s desire was to immerse the audience into something “raw, immediate and visceral” and to some extent she succeeded. But ultimately her movie put us in the position of the “fourth man in the humvee” and not the women looking fearfully out the window, or the boys in the alley or the men at the mosque or the souk. One of few Iraqis to be named was the boy called “Beckham” for a footballer from a country also at war in Iraq. “Beckham” was a mask, and even as it was peeled off it was never fully resolved as the American protagonist mistakenly believes he is dead. All these native boys look alike.

The film reveals the massive problem the US faced in its invasion of Iraq and still does in its Afghan incursion. There is a lack of empathy with the people whose lives they have interrupted. Hardly any invader speaks Arabic (even less so Pashto and Dari), and none have cultural affinity with the places they serve in. Their job was difficult and they faced hostility but nowhere in the film does anyone ask what they were doing in Iraq. There is no political context and no hint of the role oil played in the invasion.

The Hurt Locker does a wonderful white knuckle job of getting into the day to day stresses of a bomb disposal squad. But it offered no insights on why the bombs were there in the first place. Saddam Hussein was a cruel and vicious tyrant but he was created in America’s image. When the Republican Guard crumbled in 2003, the US was unprepared for what followed. A county that had suffered continual war or sanctions since 1980 was on the brink of collapse and many desperate people had nothing to lose by declaring jihad on the invaders. “The poor man’s air force” hardened opinion against the invasion in Iraq and the US. The legacy is that many will remain attracted to the violence well after Obama has withdrawn the troops. Iraq has a long way to go to escape the Hurt Locker.

Estonia defies critics to join the euro zone

While it might seem bizarre given Greece’s troubles, other European countries are still keen to join the euro zone. This week the European Commission has given its blessing to Estonia to take up the common currency. The commission announced yesterday it would recommend EU governments let the Baltic country switch to the currency in January 2011. Estonia, which currently uses the kroon, would become the 17th nation to adopt the euro. The announcement was accompanied by a report showing eight other EU countries do not yet satisfy the conditions for euro area membership – Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Sweden.
(photo by tm-tm)
Estonia was also invited this week to join the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development alongside Israel and Slovenia bringing its membership to 34 countries. All three countries were reviewed by 18 OECD committees for compliance with OECD standards and benchmarks. OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría said Estonia has been receptive to recommendations on important issues. “The OECD accession process has delivered real policy changes and reform in all candidate countries,” Gurría said. “Once countries become members, this transformational process continues.”
Estonia has undergone an astonishing transformation in the last 20 years. After a 51 year absence, it returned to the world map in 1991 as an independent country during the collapse of the USSR. According to The Economist Estonia confounded its critics in the years that follow. It had a fast-growing economy based on flat taxes, free trade and a currency board. In 2004 it joined the EU and NATO. Despite property values collapsing last year, the economy stabilised with the help of flexible wages and prices. The Economist said Estonia was one of two EU countries (with Sweden) that met the common currency’s rules.

The European Central Bank has issued a cautionary note offering a more negative assessment of Estonia’s qualifications. It says while Estonia is well within the limits on government spending and debt, the country’s low inflation rates reflect mainly temporary factors. The ECB says Estonia has a history of high inflation that raises concerns. “Maintaining low inflation rates will be very challenging given the limited room for manoeuvre for monetary policy,” the ECB said. “Once output growth resumes, with a fixed exchange rate regime, the underlying real adjustment is likely to manifest itself in higher inflation.”

However the ECB did not explicitly say Estonia should be excluded and its opinion is not binding on the final decision makers, the EU governments. The New York Times said political leaders have form in brushing off central bank concerns in their eagerness to expand the zone. “Greece won admission even after the central bank reported in 2000 the country’s debt equalled 104 percent of gross domestic product, far above the limit of 60 percent in the Maastricht Treaty,” the NYT said. That decision has rebounded on the EU as it embarks on a $106 billion rescue of Greece’s wrecked economy in conjunction with the IMF.

Estonia has no such worries. Its inflation rate is 2.9 percent and its economy has rebounded out of the GFC with expected growth of 1 percent in 2010. BusinessNewEurope said judicious use of reserves accumulated during the boom years means government debt levels are currently the lowest in the EU. It also said the country’s pioneering adoption of a flat-rate tax system in 1992, combined with the “safe haven” label that membership of the Eurozone confers (Greece notwithstanding) “should make Estonia an interesting investment destination in the future.”

The Estonian finance minister has been playing down negative impacts of the euro to his country. Jürgen Ligi said there is no danger of the euro bringing major price increase to Estonia despite the temptation of traders to round prices up after the conversion. There will be parallel posting of prices in both euros and kroons for the obligatory six months before adoption of the euro. Ligi said the country’s planned sales tax might mess up things but general studies show that “we don’t have the room for price increases for anything substantial to take place”.

Estonia has two more hurdles to jump before it is confirmed as a member. An EU committee meets at the end of May to discuss the move, followed by a finance ministers’ summit in early June for final confirmation. By January next year they will join the 329 million people that use the euro every day, nearly two-thirds of the EU population.

Noynoy phenomenon takes another Aquino to Philippines presidential victory

Britain wasn’t the only country to get new leadership this week. In the Philippines Senator Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III is set for a landslide victory in the presidential election. His opponent former president Joseph Estrada has not conceded defeat but with 88 percent counted Aquino is five million votes clear with 40 percent of the vote. Fifty-year-old Aquino will not claim victory until Congress proclaims him the winner but said he was preparing to take over from sitting President Gloria Arroya who was constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.

The Aquino family has been involved in Filipino politics for generations. His father Benigno Aquino was an opposition senator in the Marcos era assassinated in 1983 as he stepped off a plane in Manila after returning from exile. Aquino senior’s death pushed his wife Corazon Aquino into the spotlight and she won the presidency when Marcos’s 20 year regime was ended three years later. Benigno, known as “Noynoy”, was wounded during a failed coup attempt in 1987 but steered clear of politics during his mother’s six year presidency. By 1998 the lure of getting involved in the family business was strong and Noynoy won a seat in the House of Representatives, Philippines’ lower house. He worked his way up in parliamentary committees and served the maximum three terms. In 2007 he moved to the Senate with his mother’s endorsement in TV ads. While his profile was increasing no-one spoke of him as presidential material until Corazon Aquino died on 1 August 2009 after a year long battle with cancer. The “Noynoy Phenomenon” took off as the country mourned his mother. He secured presidential nomination against party chief Senator Mar Roxas and his presidential campaign was propelled by the Noynoy Aquino for President Movement, a rainbow group of lawyers and activists.The Huffington Post’s Virginia Moncrieff said Aquino appears the most unlikely person to win an election by a landslide given his “penchant for badly fitting shirts, dorky hair style, and complete lack of personal charisma.” Moncrieff called Aquino the “comfort candidate” who campaigned heavily on a message of anti-corruption. “In a country where crooks, charlatans, film stars, sportsmen and nut jobs routinely stand for, and get voted into office, Mr. Aquino represented a steady and secure vote,” Moncrieff said.

Aquino’s victory was declared in remarkably short order. In a country with 7000 islands, it used to take weeks to tally the votes, but a new electronic voting system made his win apparent 16 hours after the polls closed. Aquino campaigned on pledges to investigate electoral fraud, corruption and rights abuses by the outgoing administration. He says he will investigate his predecessor Arroyo for corruption. “We need to have closure on all items like the fertiliser scam. Who is responsible for this? Let’s also look at the ZTE.” In both cases, Arroyo has been associated with allegations of overpaying for deals and diversion of funds.

News of Aquino’s victory has buoyed international markets with Moody’s saying it sets a favourable tone for the country’s credit fundamentals. Christian de Guzman, a Singapore-based Moody’s assistant vice president and analyst, said Aquino’s comfortable win removed undercurrents of political illegitimacy that hampered Arroyo’s policy agenda. “The success of the first fully automated polls in Asia on Monday is at this time of greater relevance than the result itself, implying a strong mandate to govern for the victor,” de Guzman said. Last year Moody’s upgraded the Philippines’ rating prompted by the country’s strong external payments position and stability in the banking sector. These conditions will continue to provide support to the Philippines’ rating over the next two years.

Wayne Swan delivers frugal budget in his own image

Wayne Swan launched his third budget as Federal Treasurer with a self-congratulatory speech that trumpeted “the highest standards of responsible economic management”. Aided by the continued economic growth of China and India, Swan was able to spend much of his budget speech talking up a speedy return to surplus and the government’s fiscal discipline before going through the spending highlights at the end. The highlight, unusually for an election year, is a focus on stability rather than a grab-bag of handouts. Labour has seized the mantle of economically responsible managers and will push this agenda all the way to polling day.

(photo: Glen McCurtayne)

Swan had some justification for his pride pointing out how far the country had come since this time last year. In May 2009 Australia teetered on the verge of recession and had lost $60 billion in export earnings. Without a budget stimulus the economy would have contracted by 0.7 percent in 2009 but instead grew by 1.4 percent. The forecast contraction of 0.2 percent in 2009-2010 proved pessimistic and instead the economy grew by 2 percent. Unemployment peaked at 5.8 percent and is now falling. The government is now predicting a budget deficit of $40.8 billion for 2010-2011 ($16.3b less than forecast last year and $5.5b lower than the midyear forecast) and a return to surplus in 2012-2013 three years ahead of last year’s schedule.

Swan said those looking for a big-spending pre-election budget won’t find one. The levers for a return to surplus, according to the budget papers (pdf), were the natural recovery of tax receipts plus the reining in of spending growth to 2 percent a year. The biggest tax initiative was the well-flagged Resource Super Profits Tax due to start on 1 July 2012. The RSPT is expected to raise $700m in 2012-2013 and will be used to create a new infrastructure fund and pay for a one percent drop in company tax to 29 per cent in 2013-14 and 28 per cent in 2014-15. Swan said the measures would boost competitiveness, expand investment and job opportunities. Small business would go direct to the 28 percent rate in 2012-2013 with write-off for assets costing less than $5,000 and a depreciation pool for other assets.

In the environment there will be a new $652 million Renewable Energy Future Fund. Funding will support the development of renewable energy projects including wind, solar and biomass. The Fund will engage with households, businesses and communities to achieve energy efficiency. The small amount of money saved in deferring the CPRS until 2013 will be used to support the Fund. The Ethanol Production Grants Program will not be continued after 2011.

There is also a $661 million for a new Skills for Sustainable Growth strategy aimed at creating 39,000 training places and 22,500 apprentices with a guaranteed entitlement to a training place for all Australians under the age of 25 years. In infrastructure, the Government announced a $1 billion equity investment in the Australian Rail Track Corporation to fund rail freight works and lift capacity along the Brisbane to Melbourne, Melbourne to Adelaide and Sydney to Perth rail corridors. There is $71 million towards an intermodal terminal precinct at Moorebank to alleviate congestion at Port Botany in Sydney.

The Government is also spending $2.2 billion on health over four years. $772 million will fund better after-hours access to GPs, upgrades to around 425 primary care clinics and 23 new GP Super Clinics. There is also a $523 million nursing training program, $532m over five years for extra capacity in aged care and a $467 million project to provide personally controlled electronic health records called the Individual Electronic Health Record system. The Federal Government said it will fund its increased responsibilities of the Australian public hospital system through a combination of the national Healthcare Specific Purpose Payment and an agreed amount of GST. $5 billion in funding will come from the 25 percent increase in cigarette excise.

In personal taxation, the effective tax free threshold has been increased from $11,000 in 2007-08 to $16,000 in 2010-11 through increases in the Low Income Tax Offset. The 30 per cent tax threshold will be lifted from $35,000 to $37,000 and the 38 per cent tax rate will be reduced by 1 percent for taxpayers with incomes between $80,000 and $180,000. Simpler tax returns are also on the agenda. There will be a standard deduction pack to replace the tax return from 1 July 2012 with an optional $500 in work expenses rising to $1,000 in 2013.

Wayne Swan finished his budget speech by saying the Government’s job now was to convert the economic achievements of the past year into enduring gains. “We have great advantages, and a spring in our step,” he said. “We face the future with confidence, but not with complacency.” Swan need not worry on the score of complacency; a hostile media and resurgent opposition will see to that. Having got the bad news out of the way before the budget, the coast is clear for a Labor election campaign on economic credentials, a debate the Government will win.

Lot’s lot: The Death of the Jordan

“You can almost jump across this river. In other places, you don’t need to even jump. You can just cross it. It’s ankle deep.” This was an Israeli scientist’s assessment of the dying Jordan River. Gidon Bromberg’s anecdotal evidence was backed by his team of Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian environmental scientists which says large stretches of the Jordan River could dry up by 2011.
(photo: Getty)
A report from the EcoPeace / Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) says the river is in danger from excessive water diversion and pollution as well as being treated as a backyard dump. An astonishing 98 percent of its fresh water is currently diverted while discharge of large quantities of untreated sewage is threatening to cause irreversible damage to the river valley. In 50 years, the river’s annual flow has dropped from more than 1.3 billion cubic meters to less than 30 million cubic meters and it has lost half its biodiversity in habitat loss and the high salinity of the water.

FoEME is an unique environmental peacemaking movement and a tri-lateral organisation of Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli environmentalists. FoEME say their objective is cooperative efforts to protect a shared environmental heritage. This has a double purpose, advancing sustainable regional development and the creation of conditions for lasting peace in the region.

The Jordan River is sacred to three religions. It is mentioned in Genesis: “And Lot lifted up his eyes, and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord.” A pillar of salt near Deir Ain Abata in the Dead Sea is said to be Lot’s wife, after she turned to watch the destruction of Sodom. The Jordan is also the traditional baptismal site of Jesus and many of Mohammad’s venerable companions are buried near its banks, making it a holy site for Muslims as well.

The Jordan Valley has immense ecological significance. The Valley is part of the 7200-kilometre Great Rift Valley and is at the centre of one of the most important bird migration flyways on the planet. Over 500 million birds migrate annually through this narrow corridor between Europe and Africa. The area is also an important Middle Eastern wetland; Birdlife International and Wetland International have declared the entire river basin a significant bird and wetland area, maintaining many globally valuable species that are regionally or globally threatened or endangered species.

FoEME’s Israeli co-director Gidon Bromberg took journalists on a tour of the region to tell them how much water is needed to save it and where the water would come from. Al Jazeera’s Orly Halpern said the river “was a narrow foul brownish stream that gurgled its way south”. Bromberg said the sewage from an additional 15,000 Israelis living in the upper Jordan Valley, 6000 Israeli settlers, 60,000 Palestinians and 250,000 Jordanians provides the Lower Jordan with most of its water. “No one can say this is holy water,” said Bromberg. “The Jordan River has become holy shit.”

In their water quality study released 3 May entitled “Towards a Living River Jordan” FoEME said the Lower Jordan needed 400 million cubic metres of fresh water annually to return to life. They suggest 220 mcm should be provided by Israel, 100 by Syria and 90 by Jordan based on historical usage of the water. The report said the river needed an annual minor flood event to flush out the salinity of the water. Israel and Jordan are building new waste water treatment plants to remove the pollutants but further action is required to allocate fresh water.

FoEME is pleased by the first steps. Earlier this year, the Israeli Ministry of Environment released the Terms of Reference to rehabilitate the river from the Sea of Galilee to Bezeq Stream at the border with the Palestinian West Bank. FoEME praised this as a “first step towards rehabilitation and encourages the international community to support Jordan and Palestine in the development of their own ToRs as partners to the rehabilitation effort.”

FoEME say a billion cubic metres of water could be saved if appropriate economies were introduced in Israel, Jordan and Palestine. “In the middle of the desert we continue to flush our toilets with fresh water rather than using grey water or even better – waterless toilets; and we grow tropical fruit for export,” Bromberg said. “We can do much better in reducing water loss and we need to treat and reuse all of the sewage water that we produce.”