Friday, May 30, 2014

Thais different - so democracy doesn’t matter

Facing mounting criticism from abroad and continuing anti-coup demonstrations on the streets, the leaders of Thailand’s military junta are adopting a defiant attitude, saying that even ‘symbolic’ demonstrations against its rule will be supressed and those who take part detained.

Deputy Army Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Chatchalerm Chalermsukh, lectured foreign journalists about their reports critical of the army takeover, accusing them of not understanding the Thai mindset. “Thais have a different way of thinking; they are brought up differently,” he said.

Over the years I have heard this kind of excuse used many times in many places - Westerners do not understand us; the situation is different here; pure democracy simply doesn’t work; it has to be ‘guided’ – all too often at the point of a gun.

I don’t buy the “different” argument. A blow over the head with a baton hurts just as much in Bangkok as in Beijing or Brisbane. I suspect a good number of Thais are just as opposed to being told what they can say or do by people in uniform they don’t know and haven’t had a say in appointing, as the average Australian on the streets of Sydney.  

In Thailand the military’s trump card is that Army Commander-in-Chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha visited King Bhumibol Adulyadej and received his endorsement for the coup. The King, a constitutional monarch, nevertheless has great moral authority and is revered by most of the population. His picture can be seen all over Bangkok, from huge posters on the side of buildings to little shrines kept by street sellers.

But the picture, showing a man in vigorous middle age, is 40 years old. The King is 86, frail, reportedly has a weak heart and is suffering from Parkinson’s disease. This may not affect his mental facilities, but I would suggest that when an octogenarian in ill-health is confronted by the country’s most senior military figure, putting only his side of the argument for a coup that is a fait accompli anyway, then the General might find it easy to get the answer he wants.  

In any case we will never know for certain what passed between them. The official recording of the ‘audience’ shows only the General kneeling before a picture of the King – the same picture that is the standard representation of the monarch throughout the country.

It now seems the military is settling in for a long period of rule. Questions about an eventual return to democracy are deflected, international demands for its immediate restoration ignored.

Seizing power in Thailand is easy – the military has done it many times before - governing a stumbling economy where gross domestic product is declining, tourists are staying away in droves and recession is looming, is going to be a far more difficult task.

General Prayuth is gathering around him the usual suspects as advisers, mostly veterans of the 2006 overthrow of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, which is really where this current crisis began.

They are all staunch royalists, united in their hatred of Thaksin. Whether that will be sufficient to bring stability and good governance to South East Asia’s second-largest economy remains to be seen.        


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Palmer attacked for standing up to China

Palmer United Party leader Clive Palmer is coming under increasing attack as the day approaches when his senators will have the ability to do damage to the Government’s dream of remaking Australian society though its far-reaching Budget measures.  

The latest salvo comes from the Rupert Murdoch-owned Australian newspaper which carried a front page lead story on Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett’s complaint that the billionaire iron and coal magnate was harming the nation’s relations with China.

According to Barnett, Palmer’s decision to take his Hong Kong-based partner, Citic Pacific, to court in a dispute over the $10 billion Sino Iron project “has hurt Australia’s economic interests and its reputation in put it bluntly, the Chinese hate Palmer”.

The Sino Iron project at Cape Preston, 100 kilometres south west of Karratha in Western Australia’s Pilbara region, is a joint venture between Citic and Palmer’s Mineralogy company. It is processing magnetite iron and is expected to generate for than $100 billion for the Australian economy and $5.5 billion in royalties to the State Government.

However, the parties are in dispute over the amount of royalties owed to Mr Palmer and are engaged in a contest over control of the project.

As a result, while Sino Iron is now producing, it is years behind schedule and, by some accounts, $6 billion over budget.  

There are rights and wrongs on both sides, but if no mutual agreement can be found, then it is inevitable that the matters will go to court. Citic will certainly not be backing down, so Barnett’s position would apparently be to give it all it wants without any legal examination.

The Premier himself admits that Palmer has not acted improperly but “unfairly” and is “trying to scrounge out every last dollar” from the project. Of course the Chinese are paragons of fairness and would never dream of pushing to get the maximum benefit for themselves.

In a recent article, Ky Krauthamer, an analyst for listed just a few of the leading Chinese companies and leading business executives currently under investigation in a corruption crackdown launched by President Xi Jinping.

“One of the biggest fish was netted in September when officials announced that China National Petroleum Corporation’s former chairman, Jiang Jiemen, was under investigation,” Krauthamer writes.

CNPC is the largest integrated energy company in China.

Krauthamer lists another seven top executives under investigation, while a further three, from Sichuan Star Cable, have “disappeared” and a fourth either fell or jumped to her death.

Dealing in that kind of business and commercial climate, it is no wonder that Palmer is guarding every dollar – and yet another reason why Australia needs to diversify its trading links.

Lazy business practices have led to an unhealthy Australian reliance on exports to China, currently running at $101 billion a year – more than double that of its next largest partner, Japan, while India, with its vast potential for growth under a new economically progressive government, is a poor fifth at $11.4 billion.

Perhaps Clive Palmer will see the possibilities even if the China-blinkered Barnett does not.


Monday, May 26, 2014

Grim outlook for Nigerian schoolgirls

The fate of the abducted Nigerian schoolgirls is still not known after the country’s mercurial president, Goodluck Jonathan, backed down from a deal with their Boko Haram captors to swap them for some of the group’s jailed members.

Meanwhile, the world’s interest in the incident is waning. Other matters, such as the coup in Thailand and Ukraine’s presidential election are grabbing the attention of the media.

Diplomacy grinds on. Jonathan was in Paris at the weekend to discuss the crisis with Foreign Ministers from Europe, the United States and Israel. US Secretary of State John Kerry grumbled that it seemed to be left to the Americans to do the hard yards in helping Nigeria locate the hostages. However, its drones and a small band of 30 ‘civilian and military specialists’ seem helpless to break the deadlock.

Kerry is wrong – other countries have so-called ‘experts’ in the field, but what they are doing, and whether they have achieved anything is far from clear.

Internally, the schoolgirls issue is becoming a political football, with the country’s opposition parties blasting Jonathan for his inaction and apparent inability to bring law and order to large parts of the north of the country. Jonathan’s supporters hit back claiming some opposition leaders are secretly sponsoring Boko Haram because they are in sympathy with the group’s aims of introducing Islamic Sharia Law throughout the country.

So what happens next? That would seem to be up to Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau. At the very worst he might decide to start executing the girls one by one, releasing videos as he does it. That would certainly regain international attention but at terrible cost.

Jonathan could restart the negotiating process, but after this breakdown, which involved the respected Nigerian journalist Ahmad Salkida putting his life on the line to act as a go-between the Government and Boko Haram, there must now be a significant, possibly unbridgeable trust deficit on both sides.  

Western nations could do more, to the point of putting boots on the ground to bring some order to the lawless north of the country, but their involvement would be resented and probably obstructed by the Government in Abuja.

What is likely to happen is what Shekau has threatened to do all along – sell the girls into marriage either in parts of Nigeria under his control or in neighbouring countries. Money from hostage deals and raiding banks are Boko Haram’s main source of income, which it needs to fund the purchase of its sophisticated weaponry.

Some girls will manage to escape – at least two have reportedly died from snakebites. The fate of most will probably never be known.

Then Boko Haram will revert to its main activity of burning villages, terrorising populations that do not bend to its will and continuing to impose its perverted idea of Islam on as much of Nigeria as it can. Salkida is ignoring social media outrage as irrelevant as, of course, it has proved to be.  

Outrage is useless without action to back it and in the last few days both the Nigerian and Western governments have proved they have no answer to the tactics of those who preach insurrection and terror in the name of Islam.  



Thursday, May 22, 2014

Thailand’s military the problem, not the solution

So in the end Thailand’s military has come clean and announced it has performed yet another in its long sequence of coup d’├ętats. Its declaration of martial law two days previously was just window dressing and once again it is in full charge – grim-faced generals giving orders, journalists shoved around on the streets, political meetings banned, curfews, radio and television stations taken over.

To Western observers used to their armed forces staying out of sight until needed for overseas peacekeeping projects or support in natural disasters, Thailand’s coup culture – 18 either actual or attempted since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932 – seems surreal, almost laughable if it were not such a problem for the Thai people. Repercussions are certain to follow.

In general the international community has a great distaste for military governments. Burma, the standout in the region, is gradually shrugging off the generals’ shackles. ASEAN will not be happy with uniforms instead of suits speaking for Thailand in its councils.

The military will claim its right to depose civilian governments is enshrined in a century-old law framed when Siam (as it was still called then) was an absolute monarchy and designed to protect the king from the anti-royalist movements of the time, such as Bolshevism.

But the world has moved on and in the words of Australia’s Ambassador to Thailand, James Wise, the democratic gene is out of the bottle. The Pheu Thai Party Coalition Government, which draws much of its support from the rural and urban poor in the central, north and north-east of the country, has a 100-seat majority in Parliament and clearly reflects the will of most of the Thai people.

This enrages the supporters of the Democrat Party, the nation’s oldest, which traditionally has its power base in Thailand’s south and among Bangkok’s educated middle-classes and aristocratic elites. It also has close ties to both the military and the Royal House. The party once dominated Thailand’s politics but since 2001 has increasingly seen its support eroded by the populist policies of Pheu Thai and its predecessor Thai Rak Thai.

Its leaders, backed in the streets by the People’s Alliance for Democracy, more commonly known as the Yellow Shirts, maintain that Pheu Thai used pork-barrel politics to buy votes. They despise former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, himself deposed in a coup in 2006, since convicted of corruption and living in exile.

But so popular was Thaksin among his constituency, largely outside the capital, that when democracy was fully restored his sister, Yingluck, was elected at the head of the revamped Pheu Thai Party; that is until she was toppled by a decision of the Constitutional Court, charged with negligence after she backed a flawed scheme to inflate the price of rice to benefit poor farmers.

Pheu Thai claims it was simply trying to remedy years of neglect among citizens looked down upon by the aristocratic Democrats. However the Democrats’ Yellow Shirt supporters have been able to disrupt the capital with months of civil disobedience and have welcomed the military’s intervention.

This will not solve anything. An election held tomorrow would see Pheu Thai returned with its majority intact. The alternative can only be a full-blown military government or a propped-up puppet Democrat administration which would result in international condemnation, sanctions and isolation.

As Pravit Rojanaphruk, a columnist for Bangkok’s English-language newspaper, The Nation put it: “The cycle of military intervention, with 18 coups in eight decades, has to end for Thais to grow up and learn to take responsibility for themselves.”

It needs the opponents of the government, in Parliament and on the streets, to stop acting like spoilt children and work towards becoming a democratic alternative that is attractive to all Thais rather than elite, sectional interests.

Finally, the military has to realise the age of government by the gun has passed. By staging the coup it is not the impartial referee calling time out, but a partisan force which essentially supports a select minority faction among the Thai people.

Its endless interventions into Thailand’s political life are stunting democratic development and will eventually do far more harm than good to the nation.      


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Might not right in South China Sea

China is taking big risks by allowing the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) to move its most advanced drilling rig into Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone, less than 300 kilometres off the country’s coast.

The outraged reaction from Hanoi and the street demonstrations in major Vietnamese cities were only to be expected. Thirty-nine years after the end of the Vietnam War, this move may push the country closer to its old enemy, the United States. The possibility of reopening the Cam Ranh Bay Naval Base to the US is being openly discussed.

The rig, located near the Paracel Islands which both Vietnam and China claim, is being protected by a large number of vessels, including warships, while Vietnam is sending some of its own forces into the area. An all-out confrontation with China is unlikely, largely because it is one that Hanoi could not possibly win, but a protest to the United Nations over Beijing’s violation of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea is on the cards.

A further, though somewhat unlikely possibility, would be for Vietnam to accept CNOOC is drilling in its area, but try to sue it through the courts for unpaid taxes and duties – a move that Beijing would almost certainly ignore.

China refuses to recognise the right of any third party to intervene in this dispute claiming its sovereignty over the Paracel Islands and surrounding waters comes from centuries of fishing in the area. Its claims are outlined in what is known as the Nine Dash Line, a series of dashes on the map of the South China Sea that extend from the tip of Taiwan, running parallel with the Philippines and Borneo coasts, before turning back up towards and along the coast of Vietnam.

The line encloses about 80 per cent of the South China Sea and is vague enough to take in even more should Beijing arbitrarily decide to join up the dashes.

The fact that Chinese claims in the area are now being backed by naval force is a significant escalation of what is rapidly becoming a major crisis. The Philippines is already locked in dispute with its giant neighbour over the Spratly Islands, and Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore are becoming progressively more alarmed.

Ha Anh Tuan, a PhD candidate in politics and international relations at the University of NSW, says that China can no longer claim its military build-up in recent years is purely for defence and that it will not undermine regional security.

He believes the country may be creating yet another hurdle to its efforts to restructure its economy and sustain its growth.

“Beijing is facing severe domestic challenges, among them deterioration of the environment, an ageing population and separatist movements in Tibet and Xinjiang,” Tuan says.

“In the last few years, terrorist attacks by separatist forces have occurred in major cities, threatening China’s social stability. In addition, Chinese economic growth has shown signs of slowing.”

Tuan says Chinese leaders need a stable international environment so they can concentrate their resources on internal challenges.

Instead, he predicts that concerned South-East Asian nations will seek protection and alliances with countries they will see as a buffer against Chinese expansionism, notably the US, but also Japan and India.  

For years China apologists have been claiming its rise will be peaceful, but its claims for sovereignty over areas that in some cases are almost 1000 kilometres from its mainland suggests a more traditional expansionist policy familiar to anyone who has studied the history of the previous century.   

Thursday, May 15, 2014

A cheer for democracy on this happy day

As I write some of my final reports on the Indian elections – an exercise in democracy unprecedented in its scale – I cannot help thinking of an incident that took place many years ago in this nation’s equally giant neighbour, China.

I was in the country to write about China’s technological and industrial success and the Australians who were involved in it. As part of the research I spoke to some university academics in one of the country’s inland industrial cities.

This involved an invitation to dinner during which there were many toasts and the atmosphere became quite convivial. On the drive back to my hotel I asked how much influence the Mao Zedong era still had over Chinese thought and policies.

To my surprise one of my companions burst out: “I hate Chairman Mao; I despise him for what he did to my father and my family."

 It was a conversation stopper, and the rest of the journey was completed in heavy silence.

Only later, as we were saying goodnight, did another of the academics take me aside and ask that I did not report his colleague’s remarks. He explained that the man’s father had suffered during the Mao-inspired Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.

A history professor who had tried to teach his students something about the country’s imperial past, he was accused by the Red Guards of ‘revisionism’ and forced to parade through the streets to publically repent his ‘crime’. He was not allowed to return to his work and died of a heart attack shortly after.

I did not report this incident then and will continue to protect the identity of those academics and their university, but I could not help thinking of the contrast between the closed, fearful society that the Communist Party has created in China and the robust, sometimes rumbustious scenes I have witnessed over the past few weeks.

Terms such as ‘madman’, ‘privileged prince’ and ‘terrorist’ have been slung at candidates in this poll. One even declared he would like to take a knife and cut up Opposition Leader Narendra Modi. It’s par for the course in Indian polls – a five-yearly lifting of the lid on the national bubbling pot in which everyone has a chance to slag off their opponents, or praise their heroes.

Of course things do get out of hand, and there have been violence and some deaths, but the toll is low compared to some of the bloody elections of the past, a significant number of the casualties are among security personnel trying to protect the poll from those elements who have no wish to see it succeed.

In a few hours the result will be known, and if the predictions are correct the country will have a change of government and Modi will be Prime Minister. It has been a monumental task, but in the end it is the people of India who have made the decision and that is how it should be.

Winston Churchill once said that although democracy was a poor form of government, all the others were so much worse. There are many powerful people in the world who disagree with this; who see their citizens, not as partners in society, but as pawns to be manipulated for a vision of the nation that is handed down by its leaders. Who believe democracy is inefficient, corrupt and wasteful.

And democracy can be all of these things; India is certainly not free from any of them. But democracy is also flexible, open to new ideas, and inclusive of talents. In this election it has allowed a man who used to sell tea to railway passengers to rise to the cusp of political power.

So let the free people of the world pause to applaud India today. Democracy is alive and will prevail.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Exit polls grim news for Congress

With the last votes now  in for India’s month-long election, a flood of exit polls are predicting what most commentators have been saying all along – an alliance led by Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will form the next  government, sweeping aside a decade of Congress-led power.

It appears that Congress, which has been in government for much of the  67 years since independence, will suffer its worst-ever performance, with the possibility it will win less than 100 seats in the 543-seat Loc Sabha (Lower House of Parliament).

Estimates for the BJP ranged from a massive 340 seats to 261. Even the lowest total would see it easily able to pick up enough support from regional and minor parties to form government.

The anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party, whose leader, Arvind Kejriwal, reportedly gave Modi a run for his money in the seat of Varanasi, is likely to win only six or seven seats. It would certainly have suffered nationally by the amount of resources it put in to supporting Kejriwal, but may well have set the stage for stronger performances in the future.

While exit polls have not always been reliable in India – for instance they missed the result completely when Congress defeated the BJP in 2004 - the likely margin of victory has encouraged BJP Deputy Leader Ravi Shankar Prasad to give some “unsolicited advice” to Congress Leader Rahul Gandhi, urging him to “get used” to sitting on the opposition benches.

In a swipe at the Nehru-Gandhi family – Rahul’s father, grandmother and great grandfather have all been prime ministers of India - Prasad said Congress had paid the penalty for “flaunting your inheritance and achievements of your forefathers attained 20 to 30 years ago. People are asking questions on what you have to say about the present.”       

Counting will begin on Friday, with the result expected to be announced over the following few days.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Why we have given up on world affairs

In a recent angry interview, Lauren Wolfe, director of the American-based Women Under Siege organisation, demanded to know why the media initially ignored the snatching of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls by the Boko Haram terrorist group.

She agrees the incident is now front-page news and the lead on many television bulletins around the world, especially as it has been followed by further abductions and an hour-long rampage by Boko Haram forces in the village of Gamboru Ngala which resulted in the death of more than 150 people.

But Ms Wolfe has a point when she says that the extent of Boko Haram’s atrocities was only revealed by social media spreading out from Nigeria, across Africa and eventually to the attention of the West. Traditional news outlets have been playing catch-up ever since.

Why is this so? I believe the answer lies in people’s changing demands for news and the media’s efforts to satisfy them.

When I began in journalism almost half a century ago, my first ‘local’ paper had extensive national and international coverage; that has shrunk to almost nothing.

When I joined the Canberra Times in the early 1980s, the responsibility of the deputy editor was almost solely to oversee the newspaper’s international coverage which extended to two to three broadsheet pages of news supported by comment and extensive weekend features, often by the paper’s own correspondents or ‘stringers’.

Every month a report was circulated to the international sub-editors desk, analysing the previous month’s coverage with such comments as “strong reporting and analysis of the European summit, but very little from South America”.

Today the Times’ coverage has shrunk to a single page on some days, almost exclusively sourced from wire services. Analysis and follow-up are virtually non-existent.

In his book, The Great War for Civilisation, Robert Fisk notes that in 1997 a group of Palestinian sympathisers based in Scotland decided to mark the 50th anniversary of the partition of Palestine by publishing a day-by-day account of events in the region drawn largely from the pages of the Scotsman newspaper at the time.

They were able to piece together a comprehensive account using news reports and background stories including “from a Special Correspondent recently returned from the Middle East”.

While the Scotsman’s website still purports to report on international news, it is mainly of the superficial ‘cookie-cutter’ type provided by the agencies. Very little ‘Special Correspondents’ report to even the larger local papers these days.

I don’t want to be too critical of the media, which is going through a difficult period of transition. Research has shown that consumers have apparently become more parochial, interested mainly in what goes on in their local communities and in national affairs only when it is likely to have a direct impact of them.

Today international affairs in all but the largest media outlets consists mainly of agency contributions heavily weighted towards  sport, celebrity gossip and the occasional odd ‘man bites dog’ story. Even natural disasters have to be on a massive scale if they are to be more than one-day wonders.

So it should really be no surprise that it was the efforts of those most immediately affected taking to Facebook, Twitter and the like to express their outrage that finally persuaded traditional media to bring their resources to bear on the Nigerian abduction story.

World leaders have also reacted. Offers of help are flooding in – from the United States, United Kingdom, France and China among others. Hopefully this will be the beginning of the end of Boko Haram which for the last five years has been thumbing its nose at the inept efforts of the Nigerian Government to control it.

It’s a tough and dangerous world out there. Too often we try to ignore it by burying our heads in our own comfortable little piece of sand. 


Thursday, May 8, 2014

Pakistan in front line of polio resurgence

When I was a child in the United Kingdom my mother told me about “the poor lady” in the house at the corner of our street who had “infantile paralysis”. I had not the faintest idea what that meant, but I did occasionally see her moving painfully about her garden using two sticks.

I don’t think she ever got beyond that overgrown piece of dirt, a breeding ground for slugs and snails that meant we had to be constantly on the watch for the migrating pests among our own neat rows of cabbages and beans. 

Outbreaks of infantile paralysis, or polio as I later learnt to call it, were a feature of my youth. An England international footballer, Jeff Hall, was stuck down by the disease, dying within a month of playing his last game. I remember having to miss several sessions of Saturday morning kids’ films because cinemas and dance halls closed in an effort to stem the spread of the highly infectious disease. 

In more recent times we thought we had polio beaten. With vaccinations now easily available, country after country was able to declare itself free of the disease, including, earlier this year, in India where thousands once died or were crippled by it. But now it is making a comeback and in a move that seems to belong to another era, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared the disease a public health emergency.

The problem is purely political. In countries such as Syria, Somalia and South Sudan, vaccination programs are disrupted by degraded infrastructure and warfare, but the epicentre is in Pakistan, where insurgent groups, most notably the Pakistani Taliban, are vehemently opposed to vaccinations and regularly attack and murder health teams trying the carry them out.

Religious extremists among these groups say that vaccinations are un-Islamic as they interfere with the will of God. There are also rumours, happily spread by the insurgents, that the vaccinations are really a Western plot to sterilise Moslem children.

Some Islamic clerics have even proclaimed polio sufferers “martyrs” for refusing the Western drug. Other claims are the vaccinations contain traces of pig fat and alcohol, both abhorrent to pious Muslims.

These falsehoods gain credence though allegations the United States Central Intelligence Agency gained access to Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden’s family under cover of a bogus hepatitis vaccination program; the DNA thus obtained confirming his presence in Pakistan and laying the groundwork for the operation to kill him.

As a result, polio cases are on the increase in the country – 91 in 2013 from 58 in 2012 – with the majority in the country’s northwest where insurgency is at its greatest. The porous border in this region means Afghanistan is at risk with the potential for infections to spread further into the Middle East and beyond.   

In reaction to WHO demands on restrictions on Pakistani travellers, the Government in Islamabad has announced mandatory immunisation for anyone leaving the country, with counters being set up at airports, seaports and border crossings.

The campaign carries few details – even whether it applies to everyone or just those who have not received vaccinations in the past – while the greatest danger lies in the virtually uncontrolled borders in the northeast.

Even so, it is a step in the right direction, and one that must be taken if this deadly scourge is ever to join smallpox in the history books.          

Monday, May 5, 2014

Greste symbol of journalism’s dangers

Peter Greste may be languishing in an Egyptian jail, but he has managed to do journalism a service by focusing Australians’ minds on the problems faced by the profession in reporting the news overseas.

The fact he was back in court with his Al Jazeera colleagues on World Press Freedom Day (May 3) gave a welcome boost to the event, which usually rates just passing references in newspapers and television bulletins. Journalists are generally uncomfortable about making rather than reporting the news, and as a result a great deal of the difficulties and dangers in what they do are undocumented.

While I was in the Middle East a number of journalists were defying a Syrian Government ban on reporting the country’s civil war by slipping over the border via rebel-controlled crossings. It meant they had to rely on the protection of the various insurgent groups; falling into the clutches of government forces would have meant jail or worse.

And yet, without their reports and the contacts they made, the world would have had to rely on propaganda, unconfirmed claims, grainy images from the cell-phones of combatants and the statements of interested parties often far removed from the battlefront.

It is a desperately risky business. My colleague Martin Bell had to be airlifted home from the Bosnian Civil War after being hit by shrapnel; Robert Fisk’s account of the horrors of reporting the war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s can be found in his book The Great War for Civilisation – and they are the survivors.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has listed 70 deaths in 2013 involving reporters and camera people, caught in the crossfire, beaten by mobs or murdered. The total so far this year is 14.   

Freedom House claims that Eurasia is now the most difficult place from which to report – worse even than the Middle East. The organisation’s Vice President, Arch Puddington, says 97 per cent of the people living in the region (mostly the countries of the old Soviet Union) have no access to a domestic free press.

“The cumulative impact of 10 or 15 years of pressure on journalism in that region has created a really unique situation by post-Cold War global standards where there’s not a free press in the whole region. There are only partly-free presses in Georgia and Moldova,” Puddington says.

Which makes it all the more difficult to report from those regions to the free presses that do exist, as the recent detention and beating of reporters in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine testifies.   

Freedom of the press does not simply mean freedom to report on wars and unsavoury governments. It means freedom to resist pressure from overbearing officialdom, freedom from laws, possibly well intentioned, which can be manipulated by those who have something to hide.

Even freedom from media barons themselves who pressure their journalists to report in ways that do damage to the truth in order to promote their interests.

The campaign to free Greste and his colleagues must be pressed to its fullest extent, both for their sakes and the sake of the profession to which they belong.



Thursday, May 1, 2014

Education – the unkindest cut of all

Most of the early anguish resulting from the Australian Commission of Audit’s recommendations for cuts in government spending has centred on health - perhaps not surprising as we all want to live long and healthy lives. I would argue, however, that the recommended reductions in spending on education will be the most dangerous and, if carried though in their entirety, the most devastating for the future of the nation.

A day before the commission issued its findings I read a report from the right-wing think tank, The Centre for Independent Studies, authored by Jennifer Buckingham, in which she argued that students of well-off families should pay fees if they send their children to government schools.   

She would also like to see grants (she suggests $10,000) given to low-income parents who send their children to non-government schools, and an end to maximum class sizes.

Dr Buckingham supports these and other recommendations in the report by stating that steady increases in school funding over the past 25 years have not resulted in higher levels of student achievement.

“Current and future funding for schools must be reviewed. Australian governments seeking to reduce public debt cannot quarantine school education budgets from their efforts, especially since history shows that increased spending at the system level is likely to yield only minimal benefits,” she says.

Dr Buckingham has made her career in education research. She has been at the Centre for Independent Studies for some 15 years and spent a short while as schools editor for the Australian newspaper. Nowhere do I see in her CV that she has had any practical experience in the classroom.

If she had, she might have factored in a few more reasons for the lack of academic progress, other than a failure of the education system – increasing restrictions on teachers that make it ever harder for them to maintain discipline in the classroom; lack of parental support and, in some cases, a tendency of parents to take the part of the child against the teacher; a failure by some parents to place limits on their children’s access to social media and television which results in them coming to school tired and unmotivated to learn.

It is true, as Dr Buckingham states, that there is an over-supply of people with teaching degrees. One reason for this is that teachers are increasingly dropping out of the profession when they come face-to-face with the difficulties of actually delivering lessons to disruptive and unmotivated students.

Certainly it would help, as she suggests, if more teachers were among the top 30 per cent of school graduates. However, if the recommendations of the Commission of Audit for higher fees and increased interest on student loans are adopted, there may be fewer people interested in pursuing tertiary education and greater competition for the services of those who do.

To return to my original argument: in a world of constant change, Australia’s wealth depends far too heavily on the exploitation of mineral resources and primary produce. The nation needs a highly educated and entrepreneurial workforce where scientists, engineers, designers, IT professionals, artists etc. are given free rein to their talents.

As old industries, such as vehicle manufacturing, are transferred to low-wage nations closer to mass markets, we must literally invent new industries to replace them. That will involve more resources placed in primary, secondary, tertiary education, research and development – and certainly not the casual abandonment of the concept of universal free education.  

Our future lies in doing things better and doing things first. Everything else – our health, social systems, our quality of life, depends on it.