Thursday, January 31, 2008

Apology to the Stolen Generations: not a moment too soon

Around the traps a few voices are saying Kevin Rudd is being overly hasty in making an apology to the Stolen Generations the first order of business of the new parliament on February 13. He should have consulted more widely, seems to be the criticism, and he should have made the apology something more than just a feel-good statement backed by nothing much else in terms of future commitments to indigenous Australians.

My gut feeling is that an apology is so long and painfully overdue, by at least 10 years, since the foundation of the National Sorry Day Committee, or a year earlier, in 1997, when the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission handed down its shocking report, that it is entirely apt that the apology takes place at the earliest opportunity in the life of the new Parliament. It is an opportunity not to be missed.

I know many indigenous and non-indigenous people, understandably, are cynical and unmoved by the prospect of an apology by the Australian Parliament, or at least by the ALP and Greens MPs (frankly, I doubt that many Aboriginal people, who all agree an apology is at least overdue, will give a toss about what the Liberals do or don't do on the day).

But it would be wrong, too, to underestimate just how important the apology will be to Aboriginal people, when it finally comes, including to the many who strongly support it being accompanied by other measures such as compensation to the Stolen Generations, an end to, or at least review of, the Northern Territory intervention, and the establishment nationally of means of genuine engagement with Aboriginal communities and more serious and properly funded efforts to meet the most pressing economic and social needs of indigenous Australians.

Canberra is definitely going to be the place to be on February 12, the first day of Parliament, when Matilda House the much-loved and indomitable Ngambri-Ngunnawal elder leads the Welcome to Country ceremony in the forecourt of Parliament House.

Please Rudd, make it a really good speech, at least. Think Keating's 1992 Redfern Park speech. It's going to be a very emotional day — a time of mixed and deep emotions — for so many of us.

I wish I could be in the forecourt on the Tuesday and in the public gallery to bear witness to the apology on the following day and be surrounded by all the people, dead and alive, who've ached to see such a day, who lost hope, or who didn't, or who never even dreamt that such an act was remotely possible.

It was possible and it will happen.

Only 13 more sleeps.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Politics at the end of the bayonet: Suharto and the media

You have to search for accurate commentary about the life and times of Suharto, the late former dictator of Indonesia, and the Australian daily media are not the place to look.

Suharto was responsible for about 1 million deaths in the coup d'etat that brought him to power in 1965, probably 200,000 deaths in East Timor, probably 100,000 deaths in West Papua, and tens of thousands more in Aceh.

You won't find any but the most coy reference to all that in Greg Sheridan's paean in The Australian, Farewell to Indonesia's man of steel. One has to note the irony of that title, given Sheridan's writing over many years against the original "man of steel", Stalin.

Joseph Djugashvili first used the pseudonym Stalin (based on the Russian word for steel and meant to imply that he was a man of steel, or hard bastard) about 1912. More recently the term has been used by US President George W. Bush about Australian Prime Minister John Howard, and now by Sheridan about Suharto. Bush, of course, can't be expected to have any historical knowledge, but Sheridan should.

In the case of Suharto, the term is historically appropriate, in that Suharto was a murderous dictator, although Sheridan probably wouldn't agree. Ratna Sari Dewi Sukarno, widow of former Indonesian President Sukarno, goes further, calling Suharto “Indonesia's Pol Pot”, which also is accurate if the main measure is murderous unconcern for other human beings, leaving aside ideological commitments. John Roosa, in a careful and well researched piece of writing in Inside Indonesia, recounts Suharto's soldierly statement in 1948: “My politics are at the end of the bayonet”.

Sheridan eventually can't avoid dealing with Suharto's stature as one of the great mass murderers of the 20th century, but he brushes over that point quickly after extensively praising the dictator's economic achievements. The equivalent in the 1930s might have been those who praised Mussolini for making Italy's trains run on time. For an accurate assessment of Suharto's crimes, it's necessary to look elsewhere. John Passant's Suharto: war criminal and John Pilger's Suharto, the model killer, provide essential background.

John Roosa demolishes the claims for Suharto's economic success:
The economic growth of the Suharto years was largely accomplished by wildly selling off the country’s natural resources. It was a predatory, unsustainable type of growth. The leading sectors were oil and timber. Both were terribly mismanaged because of the corruption. Today Indonesia is an net oil importer and its forests are rapidly disappearing, cut down by loggers or burned up by palm oil plantation owners.

The truth is out there on Suharto the mass murderer, but don't expect it to land on your front porch with the morning paper.

Other links: Ghosts of a genocide

Monday, January 28, 2008

What's feminist about Hillary Clinton?

It's interesting to watch the US media's coverage of the campaign by Hillary-there's never-been-a-war-I-didn't-like-Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination. While her ambition and steadfast course towards DP endorsement and the presidency is old news and while it would be remarkable if either Clinton or Obama were to become US president, it's worth reflecting on how extraordinary and at the same time dismal is the fact of Clinton's candidature.

In the facile world of MSM electoral reportage, factors such as the age, relative physical attractiveness or personal charm of candidates inevitably become the most prominent and discussed aspects of political campaigns — even on purportedly serious blogs!

Indeed, sometimes you need to remind yourself that these contests are political campaigns, not celebrity popularity contests or gladiatorial love- or hate-fests, or opportunities for public humiliation of the great and powerful, staged for the entertainment of a distracted and otherwise uninterested populace. But when the political information available to the citizenry is dominated by 15-second soundbites on television news, the alleged relative charmlessness and "aggression" of the seasoned and well-within-the-range-of- political-normalcy ruthless Clinton is a sadly predictable feature of media coverage of this possible first-ever female candidate for the US Presidency.

You'd have to say both the media's role in showcasing electoral contests in the way they do, particularly in the US, and the electorate's willing suspension of disbelief when confronted with politicians' manufactured, insincere, smarmy, glib one-liners and policy vagueness, says a lot about the health of the entire body politic. The question always needs asking: why does anyone take politicians' pretence at face value and tolerate their evasions in the way so many obviously do? And why do people put up with the media's facile spin, including in the case of Clinton, its misogyny couched in terms of her lack of desirable femininity?

Despite its self-image (or that of its government and ruling class) as the world's foremost liberal democracy, the participation of US women in formal politics is abysmal. The growth of female membership of the US Congress has been excruciatingly slow since the explicit, active opposition of both the major political parties to women candidates halted in the 1970s, largely as a result of second-wave feminism.

Even so, until the 1990s, parties in the US made only desultory efforts to recruit female candidates and are still relatively unsuccessful in doing so at all levels of government. In 2008, women hold only 16.1 per cent of the 535 seats in the US Congress. This percentage has grown by only six per cent since 1992. At that rate it will be at least a century before Congress is composed equally of women and men.

When Geraldine Ferraro ran as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate with Walter Mondale in his 1984 bid for the presidency, groups such as the National Organisation for Women thought the Democrats could capitalise on the attachment of women and feminists to the party. But the incumbent Republican President Reagan won with 59 per cent of the popular vote including that of the majority of women.

Since the decline of the mass, politically independent, grassroots US women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s, it would appear there has been a corresponding and related decline in effective civic and political engagement by feminists and their supporters. The ability of a candidate such as Clinton to wage a campaign that seems to make little reference to the needs of women for full equality and how that might be achieved is certainly symptomatic.

This is even more so the case when state support for US women in the form of secure access to abortion and reproductive healthcare, childcare, equal educational opportunity, wage and job equality and other economic rights, remains limited, even stagnant. The decline of the old mass-based traditional organisations of the working class, especially the trade unions, and of women's organisations, removed crucial organisational venues for the discussion of feminist issues, the development of policies and campaigns and the formation of strategic alliances.

It is in this context that Hillary Clinton's campaign takes place. It's hard to see how anyone can take seriously the claims of her supporters that success for her will be in any way whatsoever a victory or advance for women.

What is feminist about her campaign? What policy differences does she have from Obama that would encourage women, especially feminists, to vote for her over him? Exactly how would a Clinton Democratic presidency improve the material conditions and lives of US women?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Merchant bankers' mate

I doubt that Mick Costa reads much. The day the Australian Stock Exchange suffered its biggest crash since October 1987, Costa was talking up the glories of handing over the electricity system of New South Wales to corporate raiders.

Perhaps Costa hasn't heard that the inability of the US to provide affordable housing to a goodly chunk of its population has caused a global credit crisis, and the days of cheap money are over for quite some time to come. As a result, even if a buyer can be found for the NSW electricity system there's a fair chance the buyer won't be able to find a lender to provide the necessary credit.

Even if the buyer does find a lender, the credit is likely to be so expensive that the buyer will demand a bargain price for the public assets of NSW. As well, of course, electricity users should be prepared for very steep price rises.

Costa is the Treasurer in Premier Morris Iemma's NSW Labor government, and an enthusiastic right-winger. He was on the left for a while when he was younger, briefly a member of two Trotskyist groups, firstly the Socialist Labour League (now Socialist Equality Party) and later the Socialist Workers Party (now Democratic Socialist Perspective).

Costa got himself into parliament by way of a stint as a railways union official and then head of the NSW Labor Council (now Unions NSW), and one of his passions in office has been building freeways at the expense of investment in rail and other infrastructure. No doubt he said thanks and goodbye to the railways employees who helped to bump him into parliament.

The fact that Costa is a member of the Labor Party seems to be purely accidental. His present politics would more naturally place him in the Liberal Party — and not necessarily its liberal wing.

Costa may be the purest example in Australian parliamentary politics of a true extremist: someone who swings whichever way the breeze is strongest. If it's to the left he's far left, and if it's to the right, he's all the way in that direction. This is not meant as a reflection on any section of the left, but on Costa's weird political gyrations.

With a bit of luck Costa's boat will run aground way out there on the far right and, like so many other Labor politicians, he'll take the money and run — straight into the arms of the merchant bankers and other corporate creepy crawlies he has represented so well in his time in parliament.

That's a strong possibility, as he's unpopular in the Labor Party, unlikely ever to be top dog, and there are strong rumours that he won't stay in politics for very long after he clocks up 10 years in parliament, at which time he will become eligible for a very generous lifetime pension and other lifetime perks of office.

It must be a fair bet that he will eventually join the growing ranks of former politicians, Liberal and Labor, on the staff of Macquarie Bank or some other corporate raider.

The outcome of the NSW government's attempt to sell the electricity network is by no means certain. The NSW Labor Party rejected a previous attempt, by the Labor government of Premier Bob Carr, to privatise electricity. This attempt will go to a NSW Labor Party conference, and plenty opponents of the privatisation are working hard, as Greens MP John Kaye points out.

Other links: Privatise Costa, not services, Hundreds target Costa over electricity privatisation, Privatisation news, Iemma is too stupid or too proud, Public power not private profit, Critique of the project to privatise and marketise electricity, Montana's public power movement, Power sell-off will lose NSW billions, The baseload myth

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Rants in their pants

Right-wing ranters brighten my day. No one takes much notice of them so they're pretty harmless, but they're usually good for a laugh while reading the paper over breakfast, and it's good to start the day with a laugh.

For today's chortle, thanks are due to James Allan, professor of law at Queensland University, who gets his knickers in a twist over, wait for it, bumper stickers, or more precisely people who dare to express their political opinions publicly in anything less than a PhD thesis.

The great thing about being a right-wing ranter must be that you can pour out any old tripe into a word processor, or at least have a secretary do it, and The Australian will print it.

Anyhow, back to Prof Allan, and remember, this man is a professor of law, so he knows about logic. He gets himself in a bit of a dudgeon about people who "plaster Save the Whales stickers on the back of their car".

There's an irony in this, the legal eagle says, because: "it's an upmarket Toyota to which they're attaching the thing".

For a moment I thought I was missing something, why should people who drive Toyotas not care about whales? This is a law professor, so he must know what he's talking about and there must be some subtle logic hidden in there somewhere.

Then the penny dropped: people who want to save the whales must be anti-Japanese, just as people who oppose the Iraq war must be anti-American, according to the cruder of Prof Allan's fellow op-ed writers for The Oz.

After this masterly piece of analytical complexity, Prof Allan goes on to whinge about people taking simplistic approaches to political issues. Well, okay Jimmy, if you say so, you're the law professor, although I think your gripe is really with people who have opinions that differ from yours.

Over the years I've driven a Toyota a few times but I've never owned one, but I did own an old Datsun for a few years, so maybe that counts, and I have to say I don't feel the least bit hypocritical about opposing the Japanese whale hunt.

This extraordinarily complex position has emerged over a lifetime of opposing the actions of governments without equating the people of a country with their government. I oppose many policies of the Australian government, but that doesn't make me an anti-Australian self-hater. I guess they don't teach that sort of complexity at law school in Queensland.

If there is one government in the world I have opposed more than any other over the years, it's the pack of scoundrels that usually infest Washington DC, capital of the Land of the Free.

This den of thieves and murderers first came to my attention about 40 years ago when my government suggested that I might join the army and go to fight in Vietnam alongside our "American friends". I wasn't to have any choice in this: my birthdate was to go into a barrel and if it was drawn out I was in the army.

This prompted me to find out a bit about the Vietnam War, and I became an opponent of it. Then came Chile, and the slaughter of 20,000 people in a military coup that installed a dictatorship backed by the US government.

I've opposed a lot of US government policies over the years and never for a minute have I been anti-American. In fact there are some Americans doing very admirable things in world politics at the moment. Hugo Chavez, president of Venezula, and Evo Morales, president of Bolivia, come to mind. They're not US citizens, but they are undeniably American.

I've met many US citizens, including a few distant relatives, who substantially share my opinions, and I've never detected even a hint of anti-Americanism in them either.

We choose our friends, and my American friends are not the ones my government wanted me to go and kill Vietnamese for all those years ago. I have higher standards.

So, for the benefit of Prof Allan and other simplistic ranters, opposing the whale slaughter is not the equivalent of being anti-Japanese.

Prof Allan's column went on to explain why he didn't think global warming was very important, but I only skimmed that bit. A bit of a laugh over breakfast is great, but too much right-wing idiocy is bad for the digestive system. I pity the law students at Queensland Uni if Prof Allan's thoughts on bumper stickers are typical of the standard of scholarship there.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Wildflowers Australian Alps December 07

The high country of the Australian Alps was traditionally occupied by two Aboriginal groups: the Walgal and the Ngarigo. Although the Aboriginal history of the Kosciuszko region is poorly known, the ceremonial feasts held to coincide with the summer arrival of Bogong moths have been well-documented by early European travellers.

In contrast, the early European use of the Alps is particularly well documented. Always on the look out for new pastures, graziers first moved into the high country with their stock in the 1830s. The alpine herbfields became staple summer pastures. Naturally, this had severe impacts on the alpine biota. Since 1958 when grazing on Kosciuszko was discontinued a fascinating recovery of the flora has occurred.

A feature that never fails to amaze summer visitor is the plants’ delicacy of appearance combined with their ability to withstand extreme exigencies of the climate without fading or tearing. Many of these wildflowers look as though the merest breath of wind or lightest touch would mar their delicate beauty, yet they stand unsullied through days of bitterly cold strong winds and fierce sun. Fleeting in their display they are something to be cherished for they are unique as well as beautiful and once lost they will be gone for ever.

Today, the most serious and insidious threat to the alpine biota comes from climate change.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The rage of Greg Sheridan

Look out, Greg Sheridan appears to have been into the cooking sherry again! I'd suggest something else, but it can't be, because Shero frequently declares his loathing of anything that entered popular culture between about 1959 and 1975, including the dreaded weed and other mind-altering substances.

This morning's Review section of The Australian carries a positively deranged rant against the 1960s and anyone who wasn't a decent, god-fearing supporter of continuing to slaughter Vietnamese in those tumultuous times.

The flimsy pretext for this extraordinary outpouring is that our new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, is a lukewarm devotee of a 2000-odd year-old crucifixion death cult surrounding a Palestinian carpenter. This, it seems, is some consolation for a ranter whose world is in ruins after the revelation in the recent elections that hardly anyone takes much notice of what Sheridan and his mates write in their sinecures as columnists for Australia's duopolised daily print media.

The closet Liberals of the Quadrant supplement of The Australian (laughingly referred to by some as the op-ed page) campaigned with all their might for Howard's Liberals in the recent elections, and the silly voters ignored them.

Now, as a result, we must suffer the rage of Greg Sheridan against what really gets his goat: the fact that when it has really mattered, all his life, he has been on the wrong side. He supported killing Vietnamese in the name of the American Century, he was against the liberation of women from domestic servitude, he thought it was impolite to reject mindless subservience to arbitrary authority, and the list could go on.

For a while, during the ascendancy of the neoliberals and neocons, it looked like the tide had finally turned, and the crowing of Sheridan and his mates became almost deafening, but now it's all coming undone. The US occupation of Iraq has turned into a disaster and the neocons are out of favour, the world capitalist economy is sinking into one of its periodic crises and the neolibs are looking a bit green around the gills, young women show no signs of wanting to return to the days when the kitchen sink and the bedroom defined the boundaries of their lives, it's no longer possible to rely on conscript armies to slaughter misguided opponents of imperial grandeur, and above all no on thinks much of the greatness of John Winston Howard and his good friend George W. Bush.

Promoting the latter was the highlight of Sheridan's sorry life. Howard was said to be the greatest PM ever. Sheridan's hero was the man whose government left desperate refugees to drown (SIEV X), set up concentration camps for other refugees, lied to us about the reasons for going to war in Iraq against majority opinion, stripped away protection for the wages and working conditions of millions, and much more.

And this tawdry propagandist presumes to deliver lectures on morality. He's got a nerve.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Signs of struggle

Snow gums are now flowering in the Kosciuszko National Park for the first time in about five years. They have always been one of my favourite trees. I missed seeing them in flower on my visit there in mid-December. But I can’t complain because I did get to see the wildflowers also in bloom across the park, reportedly the best display in as many years because of unusually good rainfall in the preceding months. An incomparable treat.

The massed displays of wildflowers in the Australian Alps during the summer months are well-known and highly valued for their aesthetic appeal to park visitors, particularly from overseas. As well as being stunningly beautiful, the exquisite alpine meadows with their bogs, and sphagnum moss species, fens and sedges, heaths, and sod tussock grasslands provide habitats for the endangered mountain pygmy-possum (Burramys parvus) and the corroboree frog (Pseudophryne corroboree).

At about 1500m, the sclerophyll forest of the lower, drier slopes of the Great Divide gives way to a more open subalpine woodland of twisted snow gums. These trees survive to about 1830m in elevation where they surrender to the dwarf alpine vegetation characteristic of the alpine meadows that cover the very crest of the Great Divide.
In the northern end of Kosciuszko National Park much of this woodland community has been burnt in recent decades and extensive areas of dead snow gum stems now dominate the subalpine landscapes of the park.

The contorted forms of ancient snow gums provide a striking contrast to the stands of severely upright Alpine Ash and also to the mosaic of heaths, herbs and grasses that grow in the numerous frost hollows and on the exposed mountain tops and ridgelines.

Roger Deakin in his last book, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees says that it is through trees that we hear and see wind.

“Woods are the subconscious of the landscape. They have become the guardians of our dreams of greenwood liberty, of our wildwood, feral, childhood selves. The Chinese count wood as the fifth element and Jung considered trees an archetype. They signal changes in the natural world. They are our barometers of the weather and the changing seasons.”

If ever a tree were, as Deakin claims, “a river of sap: through roots that wave about like sea anemones” it is the snow gum.

The bark of snow gums (Eucalyptus pauciflora) is smooth and white, with grey strips, but may turn shades of red or olive-green.

But it is their twisted shapes that makes you stand in awe and feel humbled, moved, and inspired by their resilience and determination to survive and thrive. No matter what.

The Snow Gum
Eucalyptus Pauciflora Niphophila

by Ian M Johnstone

Its tortured look reminds us
of a bonsai written large.
Its uniform of cream-green-grey
could teach us camouflage.
In its trunk there’s signs of struggle,
as if distorted by some pain,
Like legs bent down to lift a weight,
it’s strong to take the strain.
It twists and casts dead branches,
it compromises and survives.
Rugged beauty’s forced upon it,
and we see in it, our lives.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Why we're still talking about 1968

A few days ago Gerard Henderson, bought and paid-for propagandist of the status quo, had yet another bash at one of his obsessive themes, the left of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This time the excuse was the 40th anniversary of 1968.

Henderson's view is that nothing much happened in '68, and certainly not what the so-called left thinks happened.

If nothing much really happened, it's interesting that Henderson has spent much of the past 40 years talking about it. Has he spent the past 40 years writing about nothing much? Well, actually, he has, much of the time. Like his mercifully now-retired partner in crime Paddy McGuinness once did, he writes the same few columns over and over, presumably familiar with the tried and tested propaganda technique of repeating a few simple ideas often.

In the case of 1968, however, there really is something worth talking about 40 years later. Henderson's talking about it because that was the year ordinary people around the world shook his beloved status quo to its foundations.

Students and workers took over the streets of Paris and brought down the government, Vietnamese national independence fighters gave the most powerful army the world had ever seen a swift kick up the khyber, mass demonstrations against the war in Vietnam startled the rulers of Britain, Germany and the US, and the people of Czechoslovakia stood up to Moscow's tanks with nothing but their own bodies, supporting an alternative vision of socialism. Tariq Ali provides a more extensive description of the year in the article that prodded Hendo into his semi-automated response.

Some people, from a distance, equate 1968 with fashion and mind-altering substances, but those are not the reasons people are still talking about that year. Every time has fashion and drugs. Unfortunately, every time doesn't have very large numbers of people questioning the way their society is being run and deciding to get involved and change things.

That's what Henderson and his paymasters hate about 1968. It scared the daylights out of them, and that's why they're still talking about it.