26 February 2007

Oscars 2007

The Oscars for this year have been awarded. Congratulations to the winners. Here is a list of them (and the other nominees).

A few comments:
  • Best Foreign Language Film: Having seen each of them in the last 10 days I thought that Pan's Labyrinthwas a better film than The Lives of Others. IMO both were worthy nominees but the Spanish film had an emotional and imaginative richness which the German one lacked. The depiction of the captain in Pan's Labyrinth is a masterly portrayal of evil while the fantasy world into which Ofelia escaped was brilliantly realised. The German film explored the moral dilemmas faced by the main characters but I thought that the Stasi agent and central character Wiesler was just a little too good to be true (and his superior just a little too stupid to let him get away with what he did for so long).
  • After viewing The Queen and The Last King of Scotland I thought that it would be hard to beat Helen Mirren and Forrest Whittaker for the best actress and actor awards, and so it proved.
  • Martin Scorsese's Best Director Oscar was a fitting tribute to a craftsman with a substantial body of good work under his belt. Like may of his other films, The Departed features some excellent acting (eg Leonardo Di Caprio) though the whole is overlong and lacks the zippiness of its source Infernal Affairs.

Outback 'ungoverned'

Tucked away on p 7 of today's printed Australian but not, as far as I can tell, online, is an article by Victoria Laurie reporting a speech given on Saturday by former WA governor John Sanderson to the Order of Australia Association. He drew attention to governance problems in the outback, and the report quotes him as saying:

A large part of this continent is increasingly neglected and, for a significant number of our rural people, governance is weak and intangible...Government is receding from the country to what I describe as pockets of indulgence and indifference in the southeast and southwest corners. Over the past three or four decades, possibly as a consequence of market forces, we have seen a steady withdrawal of the presence of both the public and the private sector from the remote regions of the continent.

Some of this is in code (eg for "significant number of our rural people" read aboriginals) but, as a regular traveller to some of the regions he mentions, I agree that the matter should be raised and debated. The government is always banging on, often with good reason, about Australia's security, yet doesn't seem to realise that it is important to secure our own territory. Weak and intangible governance throughout much of inland and northern Australia is a major security risk.

PS Today another report Dropping Off The Edge: the distribution of disadvantage in Australia has been released. It identifies the most disadvantaged areas in Australia, several of which eg East Kimberley (WA) and Anangu Pitjantjatjara Lands (SA), meet Mr Sanderson's criteria.(Today's Australian has a story about this on p3 but once again it's not online).

24 February 2007

Hicks could face years of litigation says Major Mori

Today at Adelaide University there was another meeting or "rally", as most of the media reports I've seen described it, about David Hicks. Anyone who's ever been in a Napier Building lecture theatre (the venue) will know how inaccurate the latter term is. That aside, the indefatigable Major Mori spoke to those present. His comments have been reported in the media, including News.com.au("Hicks will 'be in court for years'"), The Age ("Hicks could face years of litigation"), The Australian ("Hicks will spend years in court: Mori") and Yahoo!7 News ("Hicks facing years of litigation:Mori").

I wasn't at the meeting as I was visiting a friend in the nearby Royal Adelaide Hospital. I did by chance bump into Major Mori as I was walking along North Terrace afterwards, so I was able to tender my apologies, shake his hand and tell him to keep up his good work.

US Vice President Cheney, who is still visiting Sydney (which is not the same as a"tour of Australia", as some eg the ABC have described it) has been quoted by News.com.au as saying that "Hicks is near the head of the queue":

Mr Cheney said Hicks had now been charged and the US Defence Department was now deciding whether a military commission would be convened to try Hicks. "Mr Hicks is near the head of the queue," Mr Cheney said. "We can't interfere with that process.It's a judicial process. We can't influence it. That would be a violation of the procedure.But I do expect that in the not too distant future that ... will get resolved. I can assure you we will be doing everything we can to deal with these matters in as expeditious manner as possible."

Mr Howard said while he did not sympathise with Hicks, he did stress to Mr Cheney his concern about the amount of time it was taking for him to be put on trial. "I have asked ... that the trial be brought on as soon as humanly possible and that there be no further delay," Mr Howard said. "I have put that very plainly and I have put that in the context of direct speaking of close friends."


23 February 2007

PM looks rattled but tries to defend Vice-President Cheney who has troubles of his own at home

When even The Advertiser has, as it did today, a lead editorial "PM falls out of step with opinion"(print version)/ "Mr Howard must fall into step"(online) , stating that Prime Minister Howard "appears increasingly isolated and out of step with the electorate on issues of key community concern", this is further evidence that the public mood is changing.

On issues as diverse as Australia's continued military commitment in Iraq and Afghanistan, the detention of terror suspect David Hicks and global warming, Mr Howard has given the appearance of being inflexible and unyielding.


On almost the same day Mr Howard pledged to send 70 additional military trainers to Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced the immediate withdrawal of 1600 troops.

Mr Howard's protest that it was not a withdrawal, merely a reduction in troop numbers, was at best hollow.

The Labor states are refusing to endorse Mr Howard's $10 billion River Murray plan – the centrepiece of his Government's environment policy – Hicks remains in his cell and, to add to the Government's discomfort, Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens hinted that interest rates could rise again this year.

To magnify Mr Howard's Iraq dilemma, U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney is in Australia.

Normally the opportunity to host the U.S. vice-president would be an advantage for the incumbent government. Yet, for Mr Howard Mr Cheney's visit could not have come at a worse time.

It's far too premature to be predicting a Coalition election defeat. Mr Howard is a superb political campaigner and strategist.

But to be assured of a fifth term in office, Mr Howard's political luck and political judgment will have to change.

It's good to see at least some parts of the News Corp media (another is Tim Dunlop's Blogocracyat News.com.au) not automatically endorsing the government's position.

Speaking of News.com.au, I see that on its website it quotes Mr Howard as saying, contrary to The Advertiser's view, that Vice-President Cheney's visit here "isn't a political liability".

"It's never a political liability, ever, for the Prime Minister of Australia to have a good relationship with the president and the vice-president of the US," Mr Howard said on Seven News today.

"That is an absurd proposition, and I reject it completely."

Mr Howard said he respected Vice-President Dick Cheney even though they didn't always agree.

"People should look beyond their personal prejudices and understand how fundamental the American alliance is to the security of Australia in our own region," he said.

Mr Howard did not meet Mr Cheney at the airport last night, nor attend his major speech to the Australian American Leadership Dialogue in Sydney today. The pair will meet tomorrow.

Mr Howard's increasingly inflexible opinions have in the last two weeks made him (and, by implication Australia) look foolish. The swift and effective riposte of Senator Barack Obama, in response to a some ill judged comments by the PM (including some Beasleyesque befuddlement over dates) and his being caught napping by Mr Blair's announcement of troop reductions (and what ever you might want to call them, they are reductions) of British forces in Iraq have made Mr Howard look out of his depth.

He should also be aware that a considerable body of opinion in the USA is turning against the policies of the Bush - Cheney administration. See for example a piece by Jeffrey H Smith in The Washington Post.

Smith is a former CIA employee who now represents some Kuwaitis who are detained in Guantanamo. He says:

In November, Americans voiced their frustration with the war in Iraq and gave control of Congress to the Democrats. The voters rejected the president's swaggering, go-it-alone approach and the administration's contemptuous attitude toward the Geneva Conventions, which led to the abuses at Abu Ghraib, actions that so damaged our credibility that other nations are much less willing to cooperate in the war on terrorism. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and her able legal adviser, John Bellinger, have pushed for reforms that have begun to reverse this trend -- but much more must be done....there are three things Congress should do.

First, Congress should reconsider the detainee legislation passed last fall. Last-minute changes rammed through by the White House watered down many of the bill's key provisions. On the treatment of detainees and interrogation techniques it created two standards -- one for the military and another for the CIA. The standards for the military are in an Army Field Manual, but the CIA standards are to be enumerated in a presidential executive order. Rumors suggest that the White House is struggling to develop those rules. Congress should relieve the president of that task before he makes a bad situation worse.

If Vice President Cheney has his way, a good dunking may be among the approved CIA techniques, even though "waterboarding" is prohibited by the Army Field Manual. Cheney's October remarks that dunking a detainee was " a no-brainer" were irresponsible and added to the confusion in the field (and around the world) about the rules for treatment of detainees.

It is not clear why the military and the CIA should have different standards for the treatment and interrogation of detainees. All U.S. agencies should use the techniques best able to elicit information that is vital to our security. And why should the CIA once again be asked to take risks not knowing whether, when the political winds change in Washington, its officers will be left facing charges that they violated the law?

Hearings should be held to determine which interrogation techniques have produced useful intelligence. Lawmakers should review the recent report of the government's Intelligence Science Board, which concluded that there was no scientific evidence that coercive techniques produced good intelligence. Congress should also consider the requirements of international law and develop a single standard that will apply equally to all agencies.

Second, Congress should repeal the provisions that stripped detainees at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere of the right of habeas corpus and that instead gave them an extremely limited right to challenge their detentions. A federal appeals court, interpreting lawmakers' last effort, ruled Tuesday that detainees do not have the right to use a habeas petition to challenge the basis of their detention. The case will surely be appealed to the Supreme Court because detainees must have the right to argue to a federal judge -- not a military officer, as in the current law -- that the factual basis on which they are being held indefinitely and without criminal charges is not accurate. Detainees' right to habeas corpus could be limited, as was suggested by Sens. Arlen Specter and Patrick Leahy, to prevent frivolous lawsuits over conditions at Guantanamo. But detaining men with no hope of a fair hearing ensures that, if they weren't terrorists when they were detained, they probably will be when they are finally released.

Third, Congress should also examine the practice of "rendition," or sending detainees to countries for trial or detention where, it is alleged, they can be mistreated or tortured. Before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, rendition was a valuable but selectively used tool of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Since Sept. 11 it has been used extensively, and its continued viability has been questioned. Congress should establish a solid legal footing for renditions, including measures to ensure that anyone sent to another country is not mistreated.

The administration should listen, really listen, to the American people and to those in Congress and the military who understand that adhering to international law and our core values will help us win the war on terrorism. It will take years to get out of the hole we're in, but if Congress leads and the president understands, we can begin climbing out.

If you think that Smith is a lone voice look at this New York Times editorial "American Liberty at the Precipice".

In another low moment for American justice, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday that detainees held at the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, do not have the right to be heard in court. The ruling relied on a shameful law that President Bush stampeded through Congress last fall that gives dangerously short shrift to the Constitution.

The right of prisoners to challenge their confinement — habeas corpus — is enshrined in the Constitution and is central to American liberty. Congress and the Supreme Court should act quickly and forcefully to undo the grievous damage that last fall’s law — and this week’s ruling — have done to this basic freedom.

The Supreme Court ruled last year on the jerry-built system of military tribunals that the Bush Administration established to try the Guantánamo detainees, finding it illegal. Mr. Bush responded by driving through Congress the Military Commissions Act, which presumed to deny the right of habeas corpus to any noncitizen designated as an “enemy combatant.” This frightening law raises insurmountable obstacles for prisoners to challenge their detentions. And it gives the government the power to take away habeas rights from any noncitizen living in the United States who is unfortunate enough to be labeled an enemy combatant.

The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which rejected the detainees’ claims by a vote of 2 to 1, should have permitted the detainees to be heard in court — and it should have ruled that the law is unconstitutional.

As Judge Judith Rogers argued in a strong dissent, the Supreme Court has already rejected the argument that detainees do not have habeas rights because Guantánamo is located outside the United States. Judge Rogers also rightly noted that the Constitution limits the circumstances under which Congress can suspend habeas to “cases of Rebellion or invasion,” which is hardly the situation today. Moreover, she said, the act’s alternative provisions for review of cases are constitutionally inadequate. The Supreme Court should add this case to its docket right away and reverse it before this term ends.

Congress should not wait for the Supreme Court to act. With the Democrats now in charge, it is in a good position to pass a new law that fixes the dangerous mess it has made. Senators Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, and Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, have introduced a bill that would repeal the provision in the Military Commissions Act that purports to obliterate the habeas corpus rights of detainees.

The Bush administration’s assault on civil liberties does not end with habeas corpus. Congress should also move quickly to pass another crucial bill, introduced by Senator Christopher Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, that, among other steps, would once and for all outlaw the use of evidence obtained through torture.

When the Founding Fathers put habeas corpus in Article I of the Constitution, they were underscoring the vital importance to a democracy of allowing prisoners to challenge their confinement in a court of law. Much has changed since Sept. 11, but the bedrock principles of American freedom must remain.

Are our core values and the "bedrock principles of Australian freedom " that different from those of the USA ?

18 February 2007

David Hicks update

In the last few days there have been several media items about David Hicks, including two from Channel Nine's

  • The cover story "Caged Animal, David Hicks, A Nation's Shame"and whose website features a computer generated image based on reports from recent eyewitnesses: to see it click here.
  • An interview with Foreign Minister Downer, which included this among several other equivocal statements:
LAURIE OAKES: Some newspapers are reporting this morning that John Howard is working to get David Hicks home before the Federal election, is that true?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, what we are trying to do is ensure that the trial takes place as quickly as possible so assuming that the trial goes ahead on schedule, then whether he's – whether David Hicks is convicted or he's acquitted, and we obviously make no judgment about that - but he should be able to come home to Australia before the end of the year. That is, if he's convicted we've made an arrangement with the Americans which was confirmed to me 10 days ago by the Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, that David Hicks will be able to serve his sentence or the remainder of his sentence in Australia. If he's acquitted, of course, he'll be allowed to go.

On ABC TV's Insiders Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Robert McLelland not surprisingly doubted Mr Downer's claims.(Transcript is not available at time of posting - promised for later - but item can be viewed using Windows Media/ Real Player.)

Development opportunity?

One of my favourite places is the southern coast of the Fleurieu Peninsula, where I've walked many times. I took this photo last November looking westward from Waitpinga, near Victor Harbor. In the far background is a property called Balquhidder, which , as The Weekend Australian's Property Section reports, is up for sale, and may be divided into as many as 76 different lots. The print version (at Prime Space p8) is illustrated with a very good photo, similar to but not identical to this one of Blowhole Beach at Deep Creek Conservation Park, which is nearby. If you're not familiar with the area Balquhidder is about halfway between Deep Creek and Waitpinga on this map.

One of the most attractive sections of the long distance Heysen Trail passes through the area, but at present detours inland to avoid several properties including Balquhidder whose owners have not given permission for walkers to traverse their land. It would be very good if enough of the new proprietors were to allow a re-route or loop trail which stays closer to the coast and allows walkers to experience more of the magnificent combination of beaches and cliff tops.

Images of Singapore

16 February 2007

Chaos at Perth airport

Here are some photos which I took at Perth airport on Monday during a baggage handlers' stoppage, or strike, as this ABC News item described it.

The photos show both a significant quantity of unattended baggage left lying around (there was even more elsewhere in the terminal) and the stoic resignation of many affected passengers, who from my observations, included several elderly people and at least one unaccompanied child.

The ABC report's comment: 'Qantas says it is disappointed with what it calls the "total disregard staff have shown to customers."' overlooks the inept handling of the customer/passenger aspects of the situation by Qantas management. The airline essentially washed its hands of responsibility for transit passengers like me, leaving us, once most flights east had been cancelled, to make our own arrangements for overnight accommodation. It should have been relatively easy for staff to conduct internet searches on behalf of the stranded passengers.

Several people purporting to be Qantas staff had no ID, while there were two queues at different points of the domestic terminal, one for rebooking cancelled flights, the other for baggage and other matters.

When I and several other Adeaide bound passengers had found accommodation the check in counter staff could not locate our checked baggage. They undertook to deliver it to where we were staying overnight but did not do so.

We were not offered an emergency pack (which includes a t shirt and unisex underpants) until the next day, when we returned to the airport to resume our journey.

Whatever the causes of the baggage handlers' action, passengers were treated abominably by the airline, mainly because there was no leadership or effective communication from Qantas management on the spot.

I hope that Qantas conducts a review into this schemozzle. I've contacted them and will wait to see how long it takes them to respond.

05 February 2007

Travellers responsible for Melbourne public transport woes?

See this, by Christopher Scanlon, from The Age ,which takes its cue from a new Connex advertising campaign: "Don't hold others back, help our trains stay on the track":

That message, despite the spiffy-looking website and expensive TV ad campaign, was never particularly convincing. In fact, it's looking decidedly worse for wear amid the recent crisis around the braking system of Siemens trains.

As the repeated references to "Siemen's trains" in the media implies, though, Connex still isn't responsible. Rather, it's that pesky German electrical engineering giant with its unreliable brake system that's to blame. This overlooks the small fact that Connex should have thoroughly tested the trains before putting them into service.

So, should we conclude that Connex is to blame? As tempting and satisfying as it might be to lay all the blame at Connex's feet, it would still be mistaken. While Connex certainly bears a good deal of the responsibility for the crisis in Melbourne's train system, the real problem isn't Connex — or any other private operator, for that matter. Rather, the real failing is privatisation itself.

The problem with privatisation, as many opponents foresaw, is that it permits — even encourages — shifting the blame between different parties. This is the great unspoken benefit of privatisation: it allows governments not only to outsource the delivery of a service, but also to outsource the blame if and when anything goes awry.


If Victoria's experience is anything to go by, the lesson of privatisation is that it puts the State Government at the mercy of the private operators who can leverage more and increasingly generous subsidies from the public purse by threatening to walk away from running the public transport system.

The record shows that private operators are quite happy to use this leverage. As University of Melbourne transport expert Paul Mees has documented, in February 2002 the State Government forked out $1 million in extra subsidies to the three private rail and tram franchisees when they threatened to walk away from their franchise agreements.

The extra money still wasn't enough to keep National Express, the UK company that formerly operated three of the Victorian franchises, from walking away in December 2002. In 2004, the two remaining private operators, Connex and Yarra Trams, negotiated a further deal to run Melbourne's train and tram network for five years, receiving about $1 billion in extra subsidies.

When the Bracks Government came to power in 1999, it reviewed the contracts signed by the previous Kennett government with contractors for privatised services. The report outlined a series of objectives that the Government would hold private transport operators accountable to. These included improving the quality of services, ensuring high safety standards were met and, crucially, transferring the risks involved in operating a public transport system to the private operators.

Recent years, and the last month particularly, have shown that the private operators have failed to deliver on these objectives — even with massive injections of public money. As much as commuters might love to hate Connex, though, the private operator is not the problem. Rather, Connex is being used as the whipping boy for the State Government's unwillingness to sort out the dog's breakfast that is Victoria's expensive experiment with privatising public transport.

Unless Connex's franchise is extended (or another party takes a turn at being the whipping boy), at 3am on November 30, 2008, Melbourne's trains and trams will revert to public ownership without the State Government having to pay a single cent of compensation to private operators. It's time for the Bracks Government to admit that privatisation has been a failure and begin preparing to once again run a public transport system.

Sound familiar? Remember this?

04 February 2007

Advertiser takes strong stand against pokies

Yesterday's Advertiser came out with a strong editorial against poker machines: "The pokies gamble has failed SA"

For more than a decade, poker machines in hotels and clubs have been the antithesis of Robin Hood – taking from the poor and giving to the rich. The major losers are people in lower socio-economic areas of the metropolitan area and country districts where, coincidentally, the largest number of poker machine hotels and clubs are concentrated. The winners are a select group of multiple-hotel owners – individuals and corporations – and the State Government.

Gambling Minister Paul Caica must begin a serious program of initially reducing the number of poker machines in hotels, and ultimately phasing them out. If the Government fears that people will flood across state borders to feed their craving to gamble or that bans will trigger compensation claims, then perhaps the Federal Government should take national control of poker machines in the same way it is seeking to control the Murray-Darling river system.


Figures obtained by The Advertiser this week suggest that in the current financial year, South Australians will lose more than $800 million on poker machines. The State Government's tax take is likely to exceed $300 million for the first time, while poker machine operators will pocket almost $500 million. These are shameful, reprehensible figures. In a community which has unacceptable levels of poverty, deprivation and homelessness, they are unconscionable...As a community, we have a clear choice – live with the appalling social and economic damage caused by poker machines, or take radical and perhaps politically painful steps to eliminate them. In the end, there is no choice.

These are strong words, with which it's tempting for me to concur as I don't patronise pokies. However, I'm not in favour of removing all pokies unless it can be proven to me (beyond reasonable doubt) that such a step is necessary to reduce problem gambling. There's also the likelihood that reducing gambling outlets will drive the problem, like others, outside the law and thus create another set of problems and consequent need for resource allocation . I'm old enough to remember the days when SP bookies were common.: they were generally considered to be harmless, but the spotlight in those days was rarely turned upon the consequences of their activities.

Anyway, I'll be interested to see if there's much of a debate on the topic. The winners mentioned in the editorial would be a formidable collective adversary to significant attempt at reform.

Fresh charges against Hicks "drafted"

Fresh charges against David Hicks have been drafted by the US Office of Military Commissions as The Age and News.com.au report. The charges are (1) attempted murder and (2) material support for terrorism.

They have to be approved formally and a hearing date set, all of which will take time, so we shouldn't expect much movement for a while, even if, in a Press Conference yesterday Prime Minister Howard has claimed that his "deadline" has been met :


Details of the charges against David Hicks have now been released how are you responding to that?


Well they are welcome. I’m glad that the charges are being laid and that the deadline I set has been met. They are very serious charges and that is why we believe they should be dealt with as soon as possible. The delay of the last five years has been very regrettable. Some of that has been due to objections by people including Mr Hicks’ advisers, but a lot of it has been due to the slow process in the United States and I am glad that it has finally come to a situation where charges are being laid. And I would encourage, in a very public way, and we’ll be doing it privately, for the trial to be brought on as soon as possible so the serious charges against Mr Hicks, and they are serious, they allege that in the full knowledge of what happened on the 11th September, he rejoined the Taliban (inaudible) involved through Al Qaeda of course in the attack on the 11th September.


But the charge of attempted murder when it’s been acknowledged by the prosecution that he didn’t fire a gun, isn’t that extraordinary?


Look you and I can’t try it, we can only observe they are serious charges, and that is why it should come on and I don’t intend to get into a debate about the substance of the allegations.


Not everyone, for example Tim Dunlop at Blogocracy and me, agree with him.

This morning the Kelvin Thomson, the Shadow Attorney-General challenged the validity of the second charge, claiming that it is retrospective. This afternoon the PM appeared to have reverted to washing his hands of the matter:

Mr Howard says what America decides to do is a matter for them.

"I don't equate what the US is doing with the passage of a retrospective criminal law in Australia, making offences that were not criminal offences at the time David Hicks did the things he's alleged to have done, crimes when they weren't at the time," he said.

There has also been speculation that the matter could be resolved by a plea bargain. Another possible solution suggested by Neil James Executive Director of the Australia Defence Association is for Hicks to be brought back to Australia and placed under a control order:

Mr James, a former army interrogator, says everyone in the Hicks debate in Australia had lost track of the reason he was being detained in the first place - "to make sure he does not rejoin the war".

"Because of the constant delays, bungling and breathtakingly bad record in explaining their position, the US authorities have effectively forfeited the option of trying Hicks by a military commission and probably even by a standard court-martial or civil criminal trial," he said.

Releasing the Adelaide man under a control order was the most practical solution, Mr James said.

"It's a win-win situation. Hicks comes home, the Americans get off the hook, the (Australian) Government gets off the hook, the Opposition gets off the hook, the lawyers shut up. There are no losers in this option."

BTW the ADA website has a detailed (if maybe not up to date) summary of how it sees many of the legal issues relating to Hicks' status.

And of course, as Mike Steketee in
yesterday's Weekend Australian reminds us, there is also the issue of Hicks' mental health to be considered.

Despite Mr Howard's claims I'm sure that we'll continue to hear more of the issues.

PS I find it interesting that of all the Australian media Andrew Bolt and Piers Akerman (the latter only on the Adelaide Now website) seem to have received the most detailed information about the charges. They both refer to, and Bolt quotes at length from, them. I'll wait to see if anyone else makes much of them.