Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The death of journalism?

By Graham Cooke

Is journalism dead? No, but in its traditional form it is dieing, and it will not be long before the last rites are held.

I stress 'in its traditional form'. Journalism as a whole will not die. People will still want information; they will want to know about things going on around them - we are by nature inquisitive, and that's a good thing.

But the kind of information we access, and the way it is brought to us, is changing and the concern is whether the new-style journalism that is also evolving, is up to the task.

A recent survey conducted by the Media Trust in the United Kingdom surveyed the state of regional journalism in that country and its findings make bleak reading.

It found that newspaper closures and job cuts were having a 'devastating' effect on the quality of news in local areas, with job insecurity and commercial priorities limiting journalists' ability to question and analyse.

Reporters were stuck at their desk, cutting and pasting media releases, scarcely finding time to lift a phone and call contacts, let alone get out into the community and find stories.

The internet, instead of becoming a valuable additional tool for research was becoming the be-all-and-end-all; media officers and publicity companies were increasingly dictating what appeared in the news pages.

As traditional journalism sinks into this malaise it is being replaced by a new breed of 'citizen journalists' - untrained amateurs using mobile phones and emails to tap into the media, providing information on everything from the local Rotary Club meeting to potholes in the road outside their homes.

It is a development that is enthusiastically embraced by media owners - free news from an army of unpaid reporters and photographers. Many actually encourage the practice by running prizes and give-aways for the best news tip or photograph of the week.

Meanwhile, the increasingly diminishing pool of trained journalists are put to work knocking the often semi-literate contributions into shape.

In parallel with this is the growth of so-called celebrity journalism. What might have once been material for gossip columns is increasingly represented as hard news. Again media owners will argue that its popularity demonstrates that is what the public wants. Maybe, but is it all it wants? And does this represent a demeaning race to the bottom?

A free and unfettered media is a cornerstone of all democracies. The paradox is that with the exception of government-financed television and radio channels this essential service is provided by commercial interests. For most of modern history the hybrid system seemed to work reasonably well, and it is only in the last decade or so that it has been showing signs of breaking down.

If professional journalists are chained to their desks, and 'citizen journalists' do not have the training or experience to seek stories other than those right under their noses; if we become obsessed with the latest B-grade starlet's sex scandal to the exclusion of all else, then who is left to uncover dirty dealings at City Hall?

As one frustrated journalist, writing in response to the Media Trust report put it: "There's no time these days to cultivate contacts, go out and cover stories and give your work any thought - it's just like bagging spuds. Do one, on to the next one.

"It's heartbreaking."

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Is this Gillard's biggest mistake?

By Graham Cooke

The decision by Julia Gillard to head into an election campaign less than a month after becoming Prime Minister is beginning to look like the biggest mistake of her political career.

As well as Australia's first woman Prime Minister, she is in serious danger of becoming one of shortest-lived.

At the time of writing the Tony Abbott-led Coalition, while not exactly having the Government on the run, has certainly seized the initiative. There is still plenty of time for Labor to pull back the lost ground, but any thoughts of a comfortable cruise into a second term have evaporated.

The early election strategy revolved around two major factors: Capitalising on the honeymoon period a new Prime Minister normally receives and enthusiasm for the fact a woman held the office for the first time.

It seems the honeymoon has failed to survive the blistering spotlight of an election campaign, while the expected support for a woman PM among woman voters has not crystallised - at least not yet.

Instead, the man she deposed, Kevin Rudd, has become a factor, with many potential Labor voters turned off by the ruthless way he was deposed in the wake of significant, but far from catastrophic falls in his popularity rating.

Add to the number of leaks and counter-leaks springing from the Labor camp and the Opposition is successfully portraying Gillard as an opportunist who doesn't have the full confidence of her own party, let alone the electorate.

Hindsight is wonderful, but had she waited until later in the year - the end of November or even early December - the Rudd 'assassination' would have faded in the public's memory.

As I said, Labor can still turn it around. A key factor will be Rudd, and how he conducts himself when he returns to the campaign trail after his gall bladder operation. Unqualified support for Gillard and a willingness to campaign for her nationally, will be a major plus.

But as things stand the Coalition must be seriously contemplating a return to government that would have been unthinkable less than a year ago.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Grey power needs to organise

By Graham Cooke

The call by the Council on the Ageing for a Minister for Older Australians to be part of the next Government deserves support. This is a segment of the population that is increasing in size and, potentially, influence and ought to be given due recognition.

We already have a Minister for Early Childhood and for Youth. There is a Minister for the Status of Women and for Indigenous Australians. It is true that Justine Elliot holds the non-Cabinet position of Minister for Ageing, but her portfolio is wrapped up in health and biased towards aged care rather than the broad spectrum of issues that concern the over 55s.

Ageism is the last of the 'isms' to be properly addressed in Australia. Legislation exists, but it is weak and largely ignored. It has also failed to keep pace with the ambitions and aspirations of older people.

Today's seniors are healthier and more active than at any time in history. An Australian reaching the age of 55 in 2010 can, on average, look forward to another 25 years of life. For many it is much longer than that.

So it is no wonder that many people do not want to spend this length of time sitting on the porch or playing golf, yet outlets - especially in continuing employment - are significantly limited compared to any other age group.

COTA says a Minister for Older Australians should have Cabinet clout and be responsible for reviewing all current legislation that might have inbuilt discrimination against seniors. That would be an excellent beginning.

However, there is one theory going the rounds as to why both sides of politics can ignore the demands of their older voters.

It is that by the time they reach their 50s people have locked into support for a particular party and rarely change, meaning the concentration must be on the swinging voters in the 18-to-34 age group where elections are won and lost.

This is a view put forward by the highly respected Chief Executive of Newspoll, Martin O'Shannassy, so it should be given some weight. In which case it is high time older Australians began to organise themselves around the issues rather than simply following long-standing emotional attachments.

Politics today has become as brutal and back-stabbing as it was during the schemes and plots of Regency England, and if the views of Australia's older citizens are not to be trampled in the day-to-day rucks and mauls they had better organise themselves and learn how to play the game.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Top cop has every right to speak

By Graham Cooke

What on earth was all the fuss about Victorian Chief Police Commissioner Simon Overland giving a speech at the school his son attended?

Commissioner Overland's planned address to a $100-a-head fund-raising night for the private Xavier College gave the Herald Sun apoplexy, with a front page lead story continued inside the newspaper and a leading article condemning his actions.

The newspaper was outraged at the fact the Police Commissioner was favouring his son's alma mater and demanded to know whether he would perform the same service for other, less privileged educational establishments.

What a ridiculous beat-up. Of course Xavier College has the right to ask a prominent citizen who has a significant link with it to assist in its fund-raising. It happens the world over and is a perfectly acceptable practice.

Certainly it was an expensive night out for those who attended, but that is the nature of fund raising. Presumably Xavier College knows its constituency and what that constituency can afford.

Whether Commissioner Overland would do the same for other schools is irrelevant and he was quite within his rights to refuse to answer that question.

The Herald Sun quoted Victorian Council of School Organisations President, Nicholas Abbey as saying it was "unfair the way some schools were able to raise more money than other schools".

Well Mr Abbey, life isn't always fair and schools without the resources to hold $100 dinners can always find other ways of raising smaller amounts more frequently through sausage sizzles, fetes and so on.

Much more sensible was the quote buried at the end of the article from the President of Schools Victoria, Elaine Crowley who said that she "did not find it unreasonable that [Commissioner Overland] is going to speak there given his child went there".

If this article discourages other prominent citizens from lending their name to school fund-raising activities, the Herald Sun will have done education in Victoria a grave disservice.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Gillard caves in to reactionaries

By Graham Cooke

The Australian Labor Government's new policy on asylum seekers is a bitter disappointment.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has caved in to reactionary forces and produced a position that is little different from what existed under the previous Howard Government.

Instead of the Pacific Solution we have the Timor Sea Solution.

It is to be hoped that the proposal will be roundly rejected by the Government of East Timor and that it will not give in to the financial inducements that will inevitably be offered to allow a 'Regional Processing Facility' to be set up on its soil.

In a prime example of the spin employed by governments of all persuasions these days that Gillard has attempted to dress up this objectionable plan as a way of halting the people smuggling trade, while trying to hide it behind the announcement that processing will begin again on asylum seekers from Sri Lanka.

The Coalition and Labor are now engaged in a disreputable race to the bottom, with eyes firmly fixed on how their pronouncements play out in the opinion polls. The concept that governments provide leadership on the important issues of the day is dead.

The sad fact is that this is really a non-issue. As the prominent lawyer, Julian Burnside, has pointed out, even at the current rate of arrivals, it would take 20 years to fill the Melbourne Cricket Ground with boat people.

The problems existing in some of the outer suburbs of our major cities are real, but they are caused by poor planning and incompetent local authorities, not by asylum seekers arriving by boat.

We are entering a new and dangerous era in Australian politics where opinion polls and the pronouncements of populist media shock jocks form government policy and, therefore, the way we live our lives.

A not so brave new world.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Football needs the video referee

By Graham Cooke

The farcical sending off of Brazilian Ricardo Kaka for a supposed foul on Ivory Coast's Abdelkader Keita in the World Cup of football has finally convinced me. Video evidence must be introduced into the game at this level.

For years I have resisted this call, but things are getting out of hand. Top players are increasingly becoming cynical cheats; the game is now too fast and the cheats too cunning for a referee and two assistants to monitor.

At the same time, technology has never been better. We can view an incident from a dozen different angles. A top-quality referee, sitting in front of a screen, would know immediately which angles to check, a decision could be delivered to the man in the middle within seconds. A cheat revealed will see the red card rather than the opponent he was trying to sucker.

And the fact players know this this will very quickly end the play-acting, rolling about on the ground, stretchers being brought on. We might actually save time in games.

I know the arguments that will be brought to bear against using video evidence: It will create two classes of football because obviously video technology will be too expensive for all but the top leagues; it will change the way the game is played, interrupting its rhythm and turning it into a stop-start spectacle rather like American football; the referee in the middle will lose authority with players demanding he consult the video referee at every turn.

It will certainly change the game, but what's wrong with that? The game is constantly changing, and you don't have to go back to the days when the goal uprights were joined by pieces of tape rather than a crossbar and referees in tweed jackets officiated from the sidelines using a pocket watch.

Check out a few grainy black-and-white videos from the 1950s and 60s to see how the game has changed. Watch the incident in the 1958 FA Cup final when Nat Lofthouse shoulder-charged goalkeeper Harry Gregg and the ball into the net for Bolton's second goal against Manchester United. A modern Lofthouse would have been sent off for that.

Check out the 1966 World Cup and the cynical fouls that put Pele and Brazil out of that tournament. Those were the days when no substitutes were allowed. Remember the four-step rule for goalkeepers or the days when only one match ball was allowed? Remember when football on Sundays was a total no-no? How many times have we changed the offside rule?

Football changes. It has to change to meet the demands of a fast-changing world. The fact it has done so is part of its continued success - and we are now in the era of instant and ubiquitous communication.

And yes, it will mean that top-level football is governed by video evidence while 95 per cent of the game will have to carry on as before with just the referee and his assistants to make the decisions. It was ever thus. Can we honestly say that the officials at the local recreation ground are of the same quality as those in the English Premier League; that playing surfaces are of the same standard; that players have the same support services? Of course not.

Football always was a hierarchical game, and at its top level it is now too much of a showcase to be governed by the same process of refereeing decisions as exist in the Victorian League Division Four. Top games deserve top treatment

Embrace video technology, use it to stamp out phantom fouls and dives in the penalty area. The game will be the better for it.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A sad story from another time

By Graham Cooke

I have just received a communication from the National Gallery of Australia. Nothing unusual in that, I am a member and attend many of their functions and exhibition previews.

I have also been contributing to their Masterpieces for the Nation Fund, under which members contribute small amounts - whatever they can afford - which are put together to purchase an artwork of significance for the NGA. The latest campaign is for a work by Robert Dowling - Miss Robertson of Colac (Dolly).

The picture is of a young woman with a rather wistful expression on her face, sitting, rather uncomfortably, bolt upright in a garden chair, a book in one hand and a tea service and plate of cakes within easy reach. A dog looks lovingly up at her.

But it was not so much the painting, as the accompanying background notes that stirred me. Dolly, or Elise Christian Margaret Robertson, to give her full name, was the daughter of a wealthy Victorian grazier, William Robertson.

The attractive Dolly - she was in her late teens at the time of the painting - had already attracted a number of suitors, but her father had forbidden them all, saying they were not good enough for her. She never married and died in 1939.

Reading this I felt overwhelmed with pity and anger for this long dead lady, denied the opportunity of married life by her overbearing father.

I rather suspect that William Robertson's real reason was to ensure his daughter stayed at home to take care of him in his old age - this was often considered a duty for one unfortunate child in large Victorian families. However, if this was the case Robertson was rich enough to have employed servants and nurses to look after him.

There is no doubt that Dolly bridled against this restriction on her life. She originally wore a white dress for the siting but asked Dowling to change the colour to dark brown because, as the story goes, "if I am never to marry , then I will be in mourning for the rest of eternity".

And what of Dowling's thoughts in this? The painter was in his late 50s and close to the end of his life, yet there are hints in the painting that he was very much on Dolly's side. The tea service was her favourite as were the vanilla slices. The faithful dog was added later.

There is also just a hint of eroticism in the way her foot protrudes ever so slightly from beneath her long dress, a suggestion that she was a tall, leggy lady.

Perhaps Dowling was a little in love with her, although in those times, and in that society, he would have kept such thoughts very much to himself.

So I will be contributing towards Miss Robertson of Colac (Dolly). Denied her right to seek happiness in life, she should at least be displayed to be admired by us in these more liberal, enlightened times.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Thank you John Howard - for gun control

By Graham Cooke

Two incidents that made the Australian news this morning involved firearms. First there was the case of a religious cult, Agape Ministries International. Police raiding its Adelaide headquarters had found a shipping container stashed with prohibited weapons, slow-burning fuses, detonator cords and around 20,000 rounds of ammunition.

In Melbourne an obviously disturbed young man who attacked a bus driver and tried to steal his bus, was subdued when a police officer shot him in the chest after he produced a knife and capsicum spray had failed to subdue him. The offender is currently in a stable condition in hospital.

I do not wish to comment on the specifics of either incident, but it occurred to me that it is because I live in Australia that I know so much about them

They are news because they are so unusual.

How much would I have learnt about these stories if I had been living in Los Angles or New York?

The fact of a religious cult stashing weapons might have raised a headline or two, but probably not the blanket coverage it has received on radio, television and in newspapers here. As for the police shooting incident - well the guy's not dead, he didn't kill anyone, no one was even injured. No story.

How fortunate are we that firearms are so rare in this country that their use, even by the police in the legitimate pursuit of arresting a suspect, is news. Let's give thanks that we will never have situations as does happen in the United States, where a simple incident of road rage results in handguns being produced with multiple deaths and injuries.

When future historians look back on the Howard Government - and I really mean look back, much as we do today on the 19th century with all the main players long dead and only the bare records of the day and their consequences as a guide - I believe they will list its greatest legacy as not the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax, or its economic management, but its strict firearms control legislation in the wake of the Port Arthur Massacre.

We are now an effectively disarmed country. Those who wish to practice the art of pistol or rifle shooting can do so under strictly controlled conditions on registered ranges. A few individuals, such as farmers, are allowed to keep registered weapons for use on the land.

There will always be illegal ways for sophisticated criminal elements to acquire firearms - witness the active gangland environment in Melbourne - but the old American catch-cry: 'if guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns' is largely irrelevant here.

We live in a society which is generally safe and which has considerable respect for human life. Thank you, John Howard for that.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

British election - what next?

By Graham Cooke

At the time of writing, just about the only certainty in the British General Election is that Prime Minister Gordon Brown is doomed.

With just over 100 seats still to be declared his Labour Party is trailing the Opposition Conservatives by around 60. Overtures to the Liberal Democrats will not help him, as the third party has, at this point, polled just 40 seats, a surprisingly poor performance after so much was expected of them.

And anyway, the price of Liberal Democrat support for Labour in the House of Commons would have been the immediate departure of Brown.

That seems to be increasingly irrelevant as the Tories power on, probably to a position where they will be just short of an absolute majority.

So the question is what happens next? Convention has it that the sitting Prime Minister always has the first shot at trying to form a Government if the result is not clear-cut.

This means Brown will probably spend the next day or two going through the motions of talking to the Lib-Dems and possibly the Welsh and Scottish Nationalists to see if some unlikely deal can be forged.

Assuming that is impossible, he will advise Queen Elizabeth to call on Opposition Leader David Cameron to form a Government. This Cameron will do, possibly trying to shore up an absolute majority by seeking the support of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland.

However, the price of DUP is demanding - outlined in the weeks leading up to the election - of cordoning off Northern Ireland from any Tory spending cuts, is simply too high.

In which case Cameron will try to go it alone with a minority Government.

The last time that happened under Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1974, the Government lasted six months. However, at the subsequent election, Wilson managed a tiny majority.

Labour strategists will be mindful of this and may conclude it would be to their advantage to let Cameron's inexperienced team stagger on for a year or two in the hope the public quickly become disenchanted and switches back to them. Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats may take a similar view.

All of which suggests that Britain may have a continuing political crisis to add to the economic one it is already facing.

Interesting times lie ahead.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Why the cheque book should not rule

By Graham Cooke

At risk of turning this blog into a sports column, I am again entering the debate over the Melbourne Storm rugby league saga, this time to reject the assertion, made in a British-based magazine dabbling in Australian Affairs, that the salary cap is a hindrance to the development of the sport and should be scrapped.

The view of the magazine is that the cap is anti-free market, anti-competitive and unfair to players whose careers are necessarily short. "No other industry operates according to a bizarre set of rules that punishes the successful in such a manner," it states.

To compare the National Rugby League with industries outside sport is equally bizarre. Rugby League exists on competition. If there were no competition there would be no sport and no source of income for the players, coaches, officials etc.

The public, apart from those who are shareholders, does not care whether PricewaterhouseCoopers is doing better than Minter Ellison, or if Woolworths is more successful than Coles. If a company finds its performance is declining, it reforms or goes out of business. There is no wooden spoon and a chance to do better next season.

The business of all rugby league clubs and indeed all sports teams is to do better than the other fellows and win a championship, but if those results and wins become too predictable the sport itself suffers. There are already signs that the early success of the English Premier Football League, which does not have a salary cap, is beginning to stall as fans tire of repetitive outcomes.

It's worth remembering that in the days when the English Football League ran the show, a significant proportion of the revenue generated by the top clubs was filtered down to those in the lower divisions. The elite thought they should keep all the money and with the connivance of the Football Association, resigned from the EFL and formed the Premier League.

Just a handful clubs have won the title in the 20 years since. Pick the winner in 2010-11? Any one from Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea? Got it.

Meanwhile dozens of smaller clubs have struggled to survive, going in and out of administration. Once quite successful teams like Luton Town and Oxford United have disappeared into non-league football.

The salary cap operates as a brake on the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. It's not the only possibility - a draft system where the bottom club in the just-completed season gets first pick on the new crop of young players coming into the game works well in other codes.

The aim, as it must always be, is to keep the competition reasonably even, ensuring that qualities other than fat cheque books are the criteria for success. A free-for-all, while it may have some initial attractions, would ultimately be to the detriment of the sport.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Why the NRL got it wrong

By Graham Cooke

Does the Australian Rugby League really have the health of its competition at heart or are its officials and administrators simply incompetent?

That was the question I asked myself after hearing the list of punishments meted out to the Melbourne Storm for its failure to keep within the mandated salary cap.

The Storm deserves to be punished - and the punishments should be severe. This was no bureaucratic bungle, no error of bookkeeping by a slipshod financial officer who didn't understand the rules. This was a deliberate and cynical rort. It is amazing that Melbourne Storm would have been able to assemble such a group of high-quality and obviously high-paid stars without arousing suspicions before.

So agreed there should be sanctions; agreed that the premierships and minor premierships should be stripped away - although the game's historians will be the only ones seriously perturbed about the blank spaces in the record books - agreed prize money should be returned and agreed there should be a monetary fine on top of that.

What I can't stomach is the decision to bar the team from accruing any points during the current season - even though it must keep on playing.

This is an unfair and devastating blow to the playing and coaching staff. For all the brave words currently being bandied around in the dressing rooms, the effect of playing week after week for no reward against teams that still have the incentive of taking two points will eventually sap the players' will to put in 100 per cent effort.

Why risk injury in a futile exercise? Team performances will decline, crowds will drop off and players and their agents will start to look elsewhere. I am afraid I join the increasing numbers of commentators who believe the Storm will not survive.

And if the AFL thinks it can just plonk in another franchise as a replacement it had better think again. League has a perilous enough toe-hold in the AFL stronghold as it is, and what fans the Storm does have will not easily forgive the code for treating it with contempt.

I believe rugby league's administrators missed the obvious solution to this part of the club's punishment - one that has worked well enough in the English Football League.

Instead of simply being told it cannot accrue points this season, the Storm should have been fined points, for argument's sake let's say 50.

The eight points already won this season would go towards the fine, reducing it to 42, and from then on the Storm would be playing to reduce the deficit further - every time it won the fine would be reduced by two points.

With 24 game in the regular season the total number of points available is 48, so there would bound to be a carry-over into the next season, but the storms incentive would be to have as few owed points as possible left at the end of the year, so it would start in a reasonably competitive position in 2011. In effect it would be playing for next season's premiership, while still having the ignominy of finishing at the foot of the table in 2010.

With the season continuing it is probably too late for a re-think, but in its haste to get sanctions into place the NRL may well have dealt the Storm - and the future of rugby league in Victoria - a fatal blow.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Dictatorship false path to prosperity

By Graham Cooke

Nouriel Roubini is an interesting character and it’s worth taking a look at the website of Roubini Global Economics www.roubini.com where he claims to understand and promote ‘the logic of the global economy’.

Professor Roubini is an economist pure and simple. Political and social issues do not concern him, except when they get in the way of his theories for economic growth, in which case they should be brushed aside.

As an example, one his writers currently argues that dictatorships have served Brazil well at times in the past - benevolent dictatorships admittedly, but the problem with that they inevitably end up serving the needs of the dictators and their cronies rather than the people over which their authoritarian rule is exercised. Something about absolute power corrupting absolutely.

China is certainly one major economy that would enthusiastically embrace Professor Roubini’s theories, while the professor himself is an unabashed admirer of the way the mandarins in Beijing conduct their affairs.

For instance, he predicts the Chinese yuan will usurp the United States dollar as the world’s reserve currency sometime in this century because of its large current account surplus, focussed government and few of the economic worries that the US faces.

He tends to overlook that its current account surplus is built on the backs of the low wages and appalling conditions faced by its lowest strata of workers – an average of seven miners die every day for instance – that allows it to flood the world market with under-priced goods.

The policy makes a few people very wealthy, promotes a strong middle class of several hundred million, while leaving perhaps half a billion others in conditions that a medieval peasant would recognise. Far from being the communist utopia, China today represents the unacceptable face of capitalism.

There might be more sympathy for a yuan-based world economy if the Chinese Government allowed it to float and find its own level, instead of being artificially pegged in order to ensure China's exports remain riduculously cheap.

Professor Roubini is known as ‘Dr Doom’ for his continuously bleak prognosis of the West’s economic health. What he fails to see are the social problems that China is storing up for itself by retaining an iron grip on its population and giving no outlet to the aspirations of so many of its people.

China is a pressure cooker with no safety valve. It is something the leadership will have to deal with in the years and decades ahead or face a social explosion of its own making.

Professor Roubini and his cohorts may be enchanted by dictatorships, but history demonstrates that dictatorships don’t last for ever, and often end in unpleasant circumstances.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Expenses scandal costly for UK's main parties

By Graham Cooke

British Opposition Leader David Cameron is making 'Change' the catchword of his campaign in the British General Election, now fixed for May 6, but if the country's recent history is anything to go by, he may find it difficult to get an enthusiastic response from the voters.

Only once in almost 31 years has the electorate stirred itself to toss out an incumbent government. That was in 1997 when Tony Blair's New Labour image ousted a tired Conservative Party led by John Major after 17 years of unbroken Tory rule. Since then Labour has won two more elections by handy margins and has itself chalked up 13 years in power.

For most of the last three years it seemed the electorate was ready to turn to the Conservatives again. The Cameroons, as the supportive Tory media is calling them, were presenting a fresh, new image, finally shaking off the sleaze that dogged the Major administration during its last days.

It is true that Cameron had to face up to his establishment image - he was educated at Eaton and Oxford, a well-worn path for the sons of the 'ruling classes', but the electorate appeared so tired of the dour, colourless Gordon Brown, the Prime Ministerial successor to Blair, that for once it seemed it would swallow their class prejudices and vote for the 'Tory Toff'.

That scenario began to unravel when early last year, the Daily Telegraph, a die hard supporter of the Conservative Party, broke the MPs' expenses scandal. For weeks the British public were presented with stories about MPs cheating on their expenses - and therefore cheating the taxpayer.

One Member claimed on the cost of cleaning the moat around his country house, another charged for a mortgage that had already been paid off; yet another for a London flat that was actually being used by his daughter - the list went on and on.

To the public is seemed that everyone was on the fiddle - Labourites, Tories and the third party, the Liberal Democrats, were all tainted by the scandal. The Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, tried to play things down and was forced out of office as a result.

In the 12 months since, what had been a massive Conservative lead over the Government has slowly been whittled away. At the start of the election campaign it is still a handy four per cent, but close enough to suggest there will be a contest. Many political pundits are predicting a 'hung parliament' with the balance of power being held by the Liberal Democrats and a plethora of minor nationalist groups.

Another disturbing possibility is the breakthrough of the far right British National Party whose anti-European, anti-immigration stance has so far limited its success to local elections and, ironically, the EU Parliament.

Anything short of a clear Labour victory could prove curtains for Brown with the Liberal Democrats hinting they would not prop up a minority Labour Government while he was still leader.

In the end it might be apathy that wins the day. With non-compulsory voting it is quite possible that a majority of the electorate will take the position of a 'plague on all your houses' and stay home. In those circumstances almost any result is possible.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Responsibility needed this flu season

By Graham Cooke

I suppose it must be the chill in the air this Easter weekend, the hint of brown among the green in Canberra's leafy suburbs, but suddenly the stories about the flu season are making their appearances in the media again, along with grim predictions about how Australia is unprepared and the likelihood that a virulent outbreak could overwhelm the health system.

It is difficult to know how much more prepared Australia could be. We have more than enough vaccine stored to combat a repeat of last season's swine flu outbreak, and if the virus has mutated in the meantime, what can we do, we have scientists, not magicians.

That hasn't stopped Professor Peter Collignon, described as a Canberra infectious diseases specialist, who claims to have found a litany of problems with Australia's response to the previous winter's outbreak of swine flu.

The good professor acknowledges that the 191 associated deaths with swine flu in Australia last year were well below the regular 3000 deaths linked to ordinary strains of influenza, that year and every year.

However "there may have been additional influenza-associated deaths that were not diagnosed by laboratory testing," he says.

Maybe, maybe not. Whatever the case, we were not exactly burning the bodies in the streets.

And, of course, the media is to blame for it all. The 'disproportionate fear' generated by their reports leading to people crowding into medical practices and hospital emergency departments when all they needed was a couple of days at home in bed.

Of course the media always loves a good doom-and-gloom story - that's why Professor Collignon is getting coverage - but isn't it time people took more charge of their lives instead of fleeing into the arms of the professionals at the first hint of a sniffle?

I have a friend who travelled to Taiwan and China during the height of the swine flu 'emergency' last year and came back with an undeniably heavy cold.

Instead of running off to her doctor or the nearest hospital, she got on to the well-publicised flu hotline and discussed her symptons with the nurse at the other end. The nurse asked her if she had a fever - she didn't - so the fast-track diagnoses was that it was very unlikely she had any kind of flu, let alone swine flu, and to take a day off to recover.

That was spot on. The cold cleared and she was back at work without wasting the time of medical professionals at clinics, surgeries or hospitals.

If a few more of us took this sensible and responsible course then there would be no danger of Professor Collignon's dire predictions about health system overload coming true.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Nothing to fear from increased migration

By Graham Cooke

Bob Birrell is at it again. One of the great scaremongers on Australia's immigration policies has the audacity to accuse others of scaring the baby boomer generation into supporting migrant intakes in order to ensure there are sufficient workers to look after them in their old age.

He goes on in an article in Policy magazine to insult aged care workers by implying migrants brought in to fill positions in this occupation would be "second class" doing "dirty work".

Birrell lays a series of horrors at the door of continued migration and population increase: The environment swamped, ghettos created, cities unlivable, sporting culture destroyed, the English language diluted.

All of this because of a projected rise in Australia's population from the current 22 million to a projection, supported by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, of 35 million by 2050.

What is so catastrophic about an increase of 13 million over 40 years? Australia had just seven million inhabitants in the immediate post war period, and I would suggest the country is now a better place following a more than tripling of the population over 60 years.

The United States does not have that much greater land mass than Australia, but manages comfortably with 300 million; even India, with more than a billion people manages to preserve some wilderness areas.

Birrell expresses great concern over Australia's carbon footprint. The solution to climate change - if indeed one can be found - has to be a global one. If the migrants are not in Australia contributing to greenhouse gases, they will be pumping it out elsewhere. There may actually be a better chance of them cutting back on their personal emissions in Australia, where technology and strict controls are going to significantly reduce our greenhouse output in the years to come.

Birrell presents a picture of high-density, inner city living as a kind of enforced hell, while ignoring the fact that increasing numbers of Australians are deliberately choosing that lifestyle. A recent survey of the Brisbane CBD found both young professionals and the over 50s were moving there in significant numbers, the latter forsaking long-established homes in the suburbs. The days of the white picket fence surrounding the quarter acre block are in decline and maybe that is not a bad thing.

As for sport, Birrell should take a look at the 'foreign' names gracing team lists in the AFL, rugby codes, netball, tennis, cricket and a score of others. Migrants have adopted the Australian love of sport which, in any case, is not really the preserve of Australia. I know of few countries that would deny they have a passionate sporting culture. Sport is one of the great unifying influences in the world today.

Language is a problem for new migrants, not for the nation as a whole. There are certainly some older people from non-English-speaking backgrounds who struggle, but their children almost always adapt very quickly. The few thousand migrants who have difficulty coming to terms with a new language are a problem, but a manageable one.

Australia has always been a nation of migrants. It is our destiny and we have done remarkably well from it. Populations are more mobile today than they have ever been in human history and to deny this, or to try and reverse this trend, is Canute-like naivety.

Migration has and will continue to change Australian culture, along with technology, political initiatives and social attitudes, because culture is not something to be frozen in time and stored in a museum. History can teach us that. An Australian of the 1930s would be shocked at the differences to be found in the nation of the 21st century, just as a mid-Victorian inhabitant of the colony of NSW would find it difficult to come to terms with 1930s Australia.

Perhaps Birrell would not agree, but I believe most Australians are prepared to admit that Australia is a better place today than it was 70 years ago. There is no reason to believe it can't be an even better place in the future - even if there are 35 million people to share it.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Let Shakespeare rest in peace

By Graham Cooke

Two more books about William Shakespeare have been published in the last few weeks, adding to an ever-growing collection that seeks to discover the secrets of the man behind the plays.

I am delighted that James Shapiro in Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare explodes some of the downright stupid myths and conspiracy theories surrounding Will, while in The Final Act of Mr Shakespeare, Robert Winder produces a part-documentary, part novel of the last part of Shakespeare's writing career.

In a delightful bit of fantasy, he suggests that Will regrets his character assassination of Richard III and decides to write a play about Henry VII revealing the Tudors for the greedy usurpers they really were, only for the authorities to get wind of it, forcing him to can the project.

That's the great thing about Shakespeare - we have his words but know so little about his life. so we make inventions and assumptions. Writers have made their careers out of trying to prove that Shakespeare did not write a single line - it was Bacon, it was Marlowe, or some obscure aristocrat who couldn't publish under his own name because writing plays was not what gentlemen did. Four centuries after his death Shakespeare keeps his literary descendants in work. He should be pleased.

Did Shakespeare really write Hamlet, King Lear, Measure for Measure and so on? Probably, but does it matter? Did he have help? Almost certainly, so what? It detracts not a jot from the magnificence of the words he used; of his ability to have audiences splitting their sides at Falstaff or looking on in horror at the blinding of Gloucester.

I think that sometimes we are guilty at looking at Shakespeare through modern eyes, forgetting he was a child of the late Elizabethan era. We are used to the idea of compartmentalised theatre - the playwright writes, the producer produces, the director directs and the actors perform.

Things were very different in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. There were acting companies where everyone mucked in. Shakespeare was first and foremost an actor; an actor with a bit of a talent for writing admittedly who was an an asset because audiences of the day wanted a regular diet of new material. So Will got time to write, but sometimes the deadlines got on top of him, which meant others in the company and perhaps friends and associates like Marlowe helped out.

What could be more natural - and does anyone have a better explanation?

Of all the books and newspaper articles I have read about Shakespeare, nothing was more entertaining than a novel by alternative history master Harry Turtledove, who wrote of Shakespeare in an England where the Armada had succeeded and England is occupied. In his account, Shakespeare is caught up in a successful revolution against the Spanish and is rewarded with a knighthood.

Fanciful nonsense? No more, I would suggest, than the vast quantities of suppositions and inventions which have been produced under the guise of scholarly investigation over the past 50 years.

Let Shakespeare rest - the words he wrote (or may have written) will live forever.

Monday, March 22, 2010

History will judge Obama's health reforms

By Graham Cooke

When United States President Barack Obama signs his landmark Health Reform Bill into law he may pause to ponder the words of one of his predecessors, Lyndon Johnson, at a similar turning point in American history.

As Johnson put his signature to the Civil Rights Bill on July 2, 1964 - legislation initiated by the assassinated John F. Kennedy but which he single-handedly bullied through a dubious Senate, he is reported to have remarked to an aide "this will lose us the South for a generation".

He was overly-optimistic. Although he won a landslide election victory later that year, before the enormity of the changes had sunk in, Johnson's Democrat Party produced only one president in the next 24 years, and it was only with Obama's election in 2008 that there were serious signs voting patterns in the states of the former Confederacy had begun to shift.

But the Civil Rights Act, and the later Voting Rights Act, ending discrimination which for almost a century had prevented most southern blacks from voting, remained on the statute books and over the course of time changed America, and changed it immeasurably for the better. Johnson, whose name is still associated with, and to a great extent besmirched by, the Vietnam War, will nevertheless eventually be remembered as one of the great reforming presidents.

There is every indication Obama may be heading down the same track. He has the tail-end of an unpopular involvement in Iraq and the seemingly endless war in Afghanistan to deal with, while his health care reforms have been labelled as 'socialist' by some opponents. It is an accusation considered laughable in Australia and most other Western developed countries, but which has powerful resonance in the United States.

Unfortunately for Obama and the Democrats, the 30 or more million Americans who will benefit the most from these reforms also tend to be non-voters, while those who face a rise in taxes to pay for them, will certainly be casting their ballots in the November mid-term elections and again in 2012.

The legislation still has some hurdles to surmount as the grimly opposed Republicans take their arguments probably all the way to the Supreme Court, where its constitutionality will be challenged.

However, it is now probably inevitable that a century after a Republican president, Teddy Roosevelt, first advocated it, the United States will finally have a universal health care system in place.

Health will always be a contentious issue. Conservatives in Australia will continue to rail against the perceived inefficiencies and fiscal waste of Medicare and seek subtle ways of watering it down when they have the chance, but they would not dare abolish it; Britons complain incessantly about the National Health Service, but no one seriously suggests it should be dispensed with.

As time passes the same will happen in the United States. A service as fundamental as universal health care, once offered, can never be withdrawn.

I certainly do not wish to see it, but there is a very real chance the Democrats are going to face another long period in the wilderness and Barack Obama will be a one-term president as a direct result of health care reform.

If this is so, I believe that history will eventually judge the sacrifice to have been worthwhile.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Cyberspace no substitute for hard cash

By Graham Cooke

Australia's independent Senator, Nick Xenophon, is well known for his combative style. He hates poker machines and seeks to have them limited at every opportunity, and has pursued a relentless campaign against the Church of Scientology which he accuses of a range of abuses including coercing its members into having abortions.

These are issues which should certainly be explored further, but whether Xenophon is going about it the right way is open to question. However, there is one issue on which I will back him to the hilt.

In a recent Senate debate on financial legislation, Xenophon sought to introduce an amendment making it illegal for banks or any other organisation or institution to charge their customers a penalty fee for paying their accounts with cash.

Neither of the major parties were interested, reasons ranging through irrelevance to the legislation being debated to the precedent of telling organisations how they do business.

There was a general feeling the move away from cash transactions was inevitable. One senator pointed out the controversy that erupted when employers started insisting their workers should have bank accounts into which their wages and salaries could be paid, rather than receiving their remuneration in cash.

The senator said that as everyone accepted bank payments now, the same would be the case with penalties for cash payments.

This completely misses the point. No one should have to pay for the right to present the coin of the realm in order to settle an account for items or services purchased. To do so is a violation of conventions governing transactions that go back hundreds, even thousands of years.

The fact that legal tender has such a long history is the reason why there are no rules protecting its acceptance. Until now they have never been considered necessary.

Organisations have a vested interest in pushing their customers towards non-cash transactions. Payments made over the internet involve fewer staff, fewer processing steps and therefore higher profits. Front counters no longer have to manned, banknotes and coins do not have to be counted and reconciled at the end of each day.

Instead of difficult-to-manage banknotes and coins, dollars and cents become simply 'units of exchange' shifted around in cyberspace.

There may come a time when this is universally acceptable. Young people today conduct virtually all their financial transactions online and presumably will continue to do so throughout their lives.

But as of now there are still many people who grew to maturity in a world before the internet and still find it difficult to handle. A recent survey found that only one in five Australians over 65 was 'online'.

These people should not be punished for taking their bills into a shopfront and paying over the counter in the time-honoured way with notes and coins.

I hope that Senator Xenophon pursues this issue with the same zeal he has shown with poker machine operators and suspect religious institutions.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Keep the skilled migrants coming

By Graham Cooke

Bob Brown is one of the most energetic members of the Australian Parliament.

Whenever there is an issue, there's the Greens Senate Leader, whether its whaling, logging, political advertising, anti-corruption, or the possibility of eucalyptus pathogens in Tasmania's water supply, there you'll find Bob.

It's a wonder that the leader of the party supposedly most friendly to the environment doesn't pause occasionally to count the trees he is killing as newsrooms throughout the country print the media releases he churns out.

There are other members of the Greens Party in the Senate but they are practically invisible. Brown dominates proceedings, speaks in all the debates, asks all the questions. He seems to have an opinion on everything.

But on one issue at least, he is totally wrong.

Brown recently tried to move a motion calling on the Government to establish an independent national inquiry into Australia's population in 2050, claiming that this country cannot support the projected figure of 35 million people by the middle of the century.

Up to now this is good Greens territory, but he went further, saying that Australia should slash skilled migration and instead increase the number of humanitarian refugees.

He claims migrants with skills should put them at the service of their own countries rather than bringing them to Australia.

Then of course the populist sop: Invest more money in training Australians for the skilled vacancies.

Governments of both persuasions have been busting a gut trying to get Australians into training. When I was national media adviser to the Housing Industry Association every second media release I wrote was on the subject of encouraging Australians to get into trades. So far its success has been limited.

And it's not only on the construction sites and down the mines that Australians come up short - doctors, nurses, other health professionals also have yawning vacancies in their ranks. Prime Minister Rudd would not have a health system to reform if the legions of overseas workers had not been allowed to come here.

Australia needs skilled migration. If it were stifled our economy would falter, demand-push inflation would accelerate, and we would all be a great deal worse off than we are today.

By all means have a sensible, managed immigration system. By all means take in more refugees. The number coming to Australia, legally or by boat, is still tiny compared with those in Europe and the United States.

But to suggest would-be migrants should be denied because they have a skill that Australia actually needs is Alice in Wonderland politics.

Bob Brown should stop trying to take his party down the road to some kind of socialist utopia the socialists gave up on decades ago. Logging and whaling are far safer subjects for him.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

By Graham Cooke

Actress Noeline Brown was in Canberra recently promoting the message as Australia's official Ambassador for Ageing that healthy living means a longer, better life.

The Rudd Labor Government created the position and Ms Brown is an inspired choice. Now in her 72nd year, she leads a schedule that would leave women - and men - decades younger breathless, combining a rigorous program of engagements with her acting commitments, which are hardly less demanding now than when she was a regular on one of Australia's most popular television programs, the Mavis Bramston Show, in the 1960s.

Officially Ms Brown has a range of duties including the promotion of positive and active ageing, taking part in community activities that boost respect for older people, and encouraging older people to plan for the future. The main reason she is out there promoting these messages is, however, starkly obvious to anyone who looks at the country's demographic profile.

There are currently around three million Australians of Ms Brown's generation - 65 and older the age when most will be in retirement. Within 40 years that figure will swell to 7.2 million, a quarter of the nation's population.

Australians, in common with many other nationalities around the world, are living longer. When the aged pension was introduced at 65 for men and 60 for women, the average lifespan was still the Biblical three score years and ten. Today the average male Australian can expect to live to 79 and a female to 81. Instead of having to pay for five and 10 years, the Government is forking out for 15 and 20.

Add to that the fact that people who do live longer often have many and varied medical conditions which require expensive treatment, and often need specialist care in nursing homes, and it is understandable that the greying of the nation is seen in some quarters as a problem, verging on a crisis.

Any demographer or statistician could have foretold this situation 30 years ago, when the birthrate began to decline after the end of the post-war 'baby boom', but governments being governments hard decisions have been put off until the last moment.

Now with the Baby Boomers about to retire in large numbers, something has to be done.

The hard-working Ms Brown is, of course, not the answer. In many ways she is simply preparing older and not so old Australians for the hard decisions down the track - keep yourself fit because it might not be so easy to access medical care; keep yourself active, because you might have to continue to earn a living if pension funds dry up.

The retirement age has already been raised to 67 for workers now in their 40s, and will also be progressively raised for women to eventually reach parity. It's a racing certainly that there will be further increases, probably to 70, before many more years have passed.

This will probably not be unwelcome to some of the more active members of the population who look on two decades or more of playing golf, gardening and reading books, with some trepidation. However, provision will have to be made for those in physically demanding jobs who may simply be unable to continue to perform them in their later years.

I believe the question of older people working longer should be addressed with a little more carrot - tax incentives, part-time work, flexible hours etc - rather than the stick of an ever-increasing retirement age.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A tale of two schools...

Mention 'Islamic School' in the Australian context and most people will think of the affair at Camden, on the outskirts of Sydney, a couple of years ago when the local council unanimously voted against the establishment of an Islamic school for 1200 students.

Councillors cited environmental concerns - and they probably had a point, it was a large school for a semi-rural location - but they were obviously relieved at finding an excuse in the face of fierce local opposition based very much on racism and xenophobia.

Whether or not the school is ever built at Camden or elsewhere is beside the point. Rather like the Cronulla riots of 2005, the Camden incident revealed an unpleasant aspect of the Australian psyche that lies not far below the veneer of laid-back tolerance and 'fair go'.

Most of the fear about these schools lies in the belief they are breeding grounds for militant fundamentalism and terrorism, halfway houses on the road to Al Qaeda training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And of course the occasional oddball Imam who talks about Israelis secretly poisoning bananas in Muslim children's lunch boxes is always destined to grab a headline.

For every Camden, there are dozens of Islamic schools operating around Australia, all adhering to the policies of the various education departments, and in many cases, topping league tables for academic excellence.

I recently attended a ceremony to mark the birth, or rather the re-birth, of the Islamic School of Canberra, moving from its current site to a much larger one tin the suburb of Weston in order to satisfy local demand. With the ability to add high school age children, its enrolment is expected to more than double to around 900.

The move was being made with the support of the ACT Government, which had identified the site. Of course there were objections to be overcome, but all planning conditions were met and a sale price agreed.

ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope said the Islamic School of Canberra had made a positive contribution to the diversity and quality of education in the ACT.

"The Government is committed to supporting the establishment of an expanded Kindergarten-to-Year 12 Islamic School in Weston that will cater for future needs of the ACT and regional Muslim community," he said.

Contrast that with the silence of the Camden councillors, not one of whom was prepared to go on the record to state that, all other things being equal, they would have been in favour of the school.

I do not wish to be seen as an apologist for religion. Too many have died in its name throughout history, but for significant numbers it remains a relevant, even dominating factor in their lives. The freedom to practice it in accordance with the laws of a free and just society is a fundamental right we should all do well to uphold.

- Graham Cooke

Friday, March 5, 2010

The accidental tourist

Stephen Smith is currently on his third Ministerial trip to India - no Australian Foreign Minister has visited that country so often in such a short time.

What a shame it has taken a crisis in Australia-India relations caused by the senseless assaults on Indian nationals living in Melbourne to spark this long-overdue interest. Our relationship with the world's largest democracy deserves better.

However, if nothing else it has demonstrated the importance of the country as an economic partner. Just one sector is threatened - overseas education, but it is of sufficient weight to have Smith and other Government Minister beating a trail to New Delhi.

Let's look at some of the facts - by 2030 India is expected to overtake China as the world's most populous nation. More importantly, there are predictions that India will be the world's third largest economy by 2025.

That's just 15 years off, but the importance we place on India, compared to the obsession with the Chinese market, is laughable.

China is a totalitarian country. For the moment its rigid authoritarian system coupled with an aggressive opposition to democratic movements both at home and in many of the countries it trades with, is suiting it well. The Chinese people split into two categories - the growing middle classes dazzled by their new spending powers and intent on acquiring all the material possessions which for so long were beyond their reach, and the rural and urban poor - by far the largest segment - for whom life is still a day-to-day struggle for survival.

How long will it be before the upper strata of Chinese society begins to think of all the other things their counterparts in Western nations enjoy - freedom of speech, human rights, the ability to change the government if enough of them disagree with it?

And when that happens they will find plenty of footsoldiers among the poor and downtrodden who might see this as a chance to grab a bit of the wealth for themselves, not to mention oppressed Tibetans and Muslims in the Western provinces.

India also has many of these problems, but the difference here is that governments, national, state and local, ignore them at their peril - because poor people in India have the vote and exercise it regularly and vigorously.

Add to that a turbulent media sector, always looking for a good sensation ,and you get the feeling that India's surge to economic greatness, if far from perfect, is going to be spread far more evenly among its population.

I am currently reading the Daniel Lak book India Express which illustrates this point with a simple story about Ram, the press wallah who for years conducted his trade ironing the clothes of his clients from a ramshackle shed in a suburban street in Chennai. So good was this low cast Hindu at his work that he built up a great following among the middle classes, too busy making money to do their own ironing and pressing.

One day he had a request of his clients. If they would lend him the equivalent of $50 each to put his two sons through computer school, he would repay the loans with interest at some future date. Some 19 clients agreed to this although none expected to see the money, with or without interest, again.

But they were wrong, Ram stepped up his work rate, his sons got computer diplomas and joined one of the IT companies that were fuelling the country's technological revolution. Eventually, some years later, the money was repaid, with full interest.

It is hard to imagine Ram's story being repeated in China, where suffocating bureaucracy stifles upward mobility and those who do leave the land find themselves consigned to hell holes working in unsafe mines or factories.

Australia's relations with India are strengthening with a 50 per cent increase in bilaterial trade in the past year, but it is off a relatively low base; more needs to be done.

It is good that Mr Smith has made three visits to India; not so good that he is there primarily because of a few unsavoury incidents among Melbourne's low life. He needs to be something more than an accidental tourist.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Chinese push into Pacific paradise

Fiji remains the holiday destination of choice for many Australians. Flying into the international airport at Nadi, they are whisked away to their chosen resort for a week or fortnight luxuriating by hotel pools, scuba diving, surfing and enjoying the carefully managed display of local culture.

But all is not what it seems in paradise.

By following this well-worn tourist route, holidaymakers avoid the noise and bustle of the capital, Suva, where military dictator Frank Bainimarama is gradually tightening his grip on the leavers of power.

After deposing the democratically-elected Government in a 2006 coup, Bainimarama, who takes the title of Interim Prime Minister, has steadfastly refused to return Fiji to democratic rule in the near future, naming 2014 as a possible date, but leaving enough doubt about detail to suggest he will probably stay in power indefinitely.

He has turned Fiji into a pariah state in the eyes of the West, with suspension from the Commonwealth and the Pacific Island Forum - Bainimarama does not care, he has a powerful new friend.

Since the coup China has poured money into the country, stepping in o more than fill the gap left by its previous beneficiaries, Australia and New Zealand. Loans, grants and straight-out aid are virtually there for the asking - and China does not ask questions about the legitimacy of the people it is dealing with.

What does Australia make of this? It can be summed up in a barrage of weasel words from the former Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Duncan Kerr, during a seminar in Canberra last year.

"We welcome China's increased presence in the Pacific," Kerr said in answer to a question. "It is inevitable that China is a growing economic presence in the region and will have a growing economic footprint in the Pacific."

On China's increasingly cosy relationship with the Bainimarama regime: "I think it is very important for me not to respond in any way which might even be privately thought that we take a view of China is, in a sense, fermenting a difference between our position and the rest of the international community on Fiji.

"I do not fall into the cast of those who are warning against the dangers of China's presence in the region. We see broadly China's investment footprint as positive. We expect that an expanding economic power will expand also into the Pacific."

In other words, Kerr, on behalf of the Rudd Government, was playing the three wise monkeys rolled into one.

Australia has urged China to assist in efforts to return democracy to Fiji - talk about putting the vampire in charge of the blood bank. China's attitude to democracy can be summed up in a passage from the book of historian Yuan Wu chronicling the country's recent involvement in Africa.

"[Western Nations] in their customary deceitful fashion made democratic progress a condition of financial aid...Fortunately the scurrilous machinations of the West, which have caused so much tension within African nations, have been foiled, and the waves of democratisation on the continent have started to weaken since 1995."

China claims that its aid has no strings attached - a complete misrepresentation by a nation that measures every action by the advantage to its own interests. Beijing wants a blue-water navy with global reach and Fiji will prove a useful platform for an extension of that reach into the South Pacific.

And while Australia can still shovel its mineral wealth out of the ground and ship it north, there will only be more weasel words from Canberra.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Better Day begins - right here

Hello and welcome to you, wherever you are in the world. Let's make it a better place.

I promised a new blog for a new decade and if nothing else it will be new to me, because it is something I have not done before. This is, perhaps surprising seeing that I have earned my living for more than four decades by writing, but the blog is something that has crept up on me - like it has for many of my generation - and left me behind.

So I am trying to catch up because I am convinced the internet will have an increasingly important part to play in the way we communicate, seek information and, quite simply, find out more about each other.

What am I going to write about? My speciality is international current affairs, but I have also written about business, property, science, politics and sport, so my subject matter is going to cover a wide gamut. I have views on all these subjects that I will not be afraid to put across. They will almost certainly offend some people, others will have fundamental disagreements, but I like a good arguement.

I also intend to write about social problems as they emerge, especially from the point of view of a sixty-something, strong, healthy, active male who believes his age is of more interest to demographers and statisticians than it is to him. Because I live here, there will be an Australian bias in some of my postings, but I have travelled and seen much of the world and believe the world to be the most obvious and logical single unit for humanity.

This blog is not a retirement hobby. I am in full-time work and intend to stay there for some time to come. I am a member of a number of organisations and I keep in touch with many of the people you will see on television standing in the background at international gatherings - people whose names are rarely in the media but who often know a great deal more about their subjects than the principals they support. Because of my circumstances I will not be showering you with blogs. I expect two a week to be the average, although there may be more if there are subjects worth commenting on.

I believe there are many people out there who share a vision of a better world and who are in a position to contribute towards it. We must find them, among acamedia, business, the arts, the professions and yes, even among our leaders because they are there - men and women with a mission who have to be sorted from the sycophants, time-servers and incompetents.

Finally, there is a very personal reason why I am embarking on this journey now. All I will say is that in the middle of 2009 I experienced a life-changing event, something that was not pleasant and left a wound that will never heal. It was entirely my fault and I will live with the consequences, but the time for selfish introspection is past. I am ready for new beginnings.

The good old days were not that good; the best times are now, but better times lie ahead if we are prepared to work for them.

Good luck and goodbye for now.