Friday, 31 July 2009

Review: Penelope Goes West, Tim Bowden (1999)

I had surmised that Tim Bowden was either a cheap liar or an unreformed scribbler. It was an either or situation, clearly. But I was finally forced to admit - and I should have suspected it as he is a journalist of repute - that the latter was true. I found on page 193 that he kept a diary during the trip.

In the introduction to the book, Bowden asserts candidly that the idea for the book came during discussions with friends he’d been regaling with his anecdotes about the recent road trip (with caravan) from Sydney to south-east Western Australia along the Great Australian Bight.

The diary is evidence of foresight, at least.

One photo included in the book shows Bowden hunched over a nifty, old-school word processor (note the publication date, above) with a screen the size of a cigarette packet while wearing protective headgear like that worn by beekeepers. This last item is not, I guess, intended to ward off dead galah blood (the book contains stories from local areas, like the one about galah culling in South Australia).

What the book does do is demonstrate that any berk on a road trip can manufacture a memoir simply using a set of quick aide-memoirs sketched down en route plus whatever national history has been consumed over the preceding 40 years.

But Bowden’s history knowledge is both impressive in its depth and stimulating in its deployment. And his humorous, often tongue-in-cheek recounts of daily events on and off the beaten track are an excellent counterpoint.

Drawing on the old, hoary favorites - Eyre and Flinders - he weaves the old-time sagas into the woof of his present-day adventures along the roads that stretch across the southern half of the Australian continent.

There is a lazy comicality about Bowden’s journey. Deprivations suffered by early explorers engaged in intrepid acts of discovery, resistance and ingenuity compare with modern concerns, such as leaving all fruit and veggies at the Western Australian border as required by law, and fastening the trailer-home properly on the towing ball. It’s a tough trip and requires a well-serviced car but it’s not to be compared with foot-slog over unimaginably vast distances and severe water shortages.

While Bowden and Ros, his wife, must jetison their Tasmanian honey, Eyre witnessed the death of his lieutenant amid the savage wilderness above the Bight.

The intimacy Bowden generates by talking to each individual reader is possible because he doesn’t stint on detail. The stories of old and the anecdotes in the present are delivered with a journalist’s eye for the telling fact. The author is enjoying his craft, we feel, just as he enjoyed the trip across the largest island in the world.

He also gives us an enlightened perspective. Not only does the book end on a note of caution that Steve Irwin would applaud, but we see Bowden searching for an internet connection (again, see publication date) so that he can stay in touch with colleagues back in Sydney. More remarkable is that the author is at the time in his 60s.

Notch up another big tick for journalists. By the time you finish reading the book you want to add dozens more. By the end you are likely to have scored him, with marks in neat groups of five, a solid 60 for ambition, persistence, attention to his surrounds, and historical knowledge.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Activists in China are fighting for transparency while journalists are routinely imprisoned and harrassed. It seems the country has a free speech problem that is directly linked with its poor international image.

Back in March, two months before the anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake, renowned artist Ai Weiwei's blog started to feature lists of children killed when inadequate school buildings collapsed during the 5.2 earthquake. He has enlisted the help of 50 volunteers to log each child's death.

"Once you have the basic facts, you know who is responsible for those kids," Ai recently told CNN. "Thousands of people died in this earthquake and is it necessary for them to die, or is it caused by some mistakes or wrongdoings in the construction of buildings?"

The blog also includes a section to record run-ins with officials.

Ai’s blog also hosts "investigator diaries," in which the volunteers log their run-ins with local officials, among other things. (Ai says that his team made some 150 calls to Sichuan officials trying to get a list of the dead, to no avail.) One volunteer posted a transcript of a call in which a bureaucrat told him, "Why do you care about the list if you don’t have a special purpose? This is none of your business."

Censors routinely delete lists from the blog but the feisty artist, whose international standing almost guarantees that he'll be left alone by irritated authorities, just reposts them.

Now, Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer in Tokyo for talks with government heads, has asked Kevin Rudd, Australia's prime minister, to sponsor calls for a United Nations mission to investigate the truth about the unrest that took place in China's Xinxiang province in early July.

"The Chinese government is so afraid the truth will be found out that they label us as terrorists," Ms Kadeer said in Tokyo yesterday after talks with officials of Japan's governing Liberal Democratic Party.

"It is shameful for China to tell such lies," she said of allegations in the Chinese media of WUC links to al-Qa'ida groups.

But China says Kadeer is a convicted criminal and has asked the Melbourne International Film Festival not to screen The 10 Conditions of Love a documentary about Kadeer and her husband's "struggle for real autonomy and religious freedom for the mostly Muslim Uighurs in their Xinjiang homeland".

In a statement issued on Wednesday, the Chinese Embassy said: "Facts have proven that the violent crime" that occurred in Xinjiang "was instigated, masterminded and directed by World Uighur Congress headed by Rebiya".

"We urge the international community not to provide any form of support or even encouragement for her separatist activities," the statement said.

"Rebiya Kadeer is a criminal convicted by the Chinese judiciary authorities for committing crimes that jeopardise national security and major economic crimes," it said.

Can we handle the truth?

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Review: Balibo, Jill Jolliffe (2009)

In 1973 Gough Whitlam repealed the White Australia laws introduced 72 years earlier, opening up a new era of engagement with the world and with non-Anglo citizens and residents of Australia. But there was a darker side to this switch from fear to accommodation. Appeasement of undemocratic and proto-democratic neighbours such as Indonesia has resulted in an enduring legacy of shame and illegal acts.

The book chronicles one aspect of the criminal incorporation of East Timor into Indonesia that started on 16 October 1975. On that day, five journalists -- two Australians, two British and one New Zealander -- were killed by invading Indonesian military forces eager to hide their involvement in what had been, up to that point, a civil fracas. The big guns had come out.

Jolliffe was there at the time. Over 30 years later she, and the families of the Balibo Five, are still seeking justice. While Joliffe was smart enough to get out of Dili before the invasion, the five pressed on, in an heroic effort to get a good story. Their TV coverage of the Indonesian forces swarming over the border from West Timor, supported by gunships offshore, would have been a major embarrassment to the Indonesian government. This book is a testament to the courage of the young journalists from Channel Nine and Channel Seven.

It is also the record of a very long journey for Jolliffe, who points with greatest ardour at Yusuf Yosfiah and Christoforo da Silva, named in 2007 by the Glebe Coroner's Court as the main protagonists in the case of the dead journos. Supporters are hoping that the deputy coroner's findings, having been handed to the federal police, will result in a war crimes tribunal.

There are many other guilty men. Jolliffe estimates that 10,000 East Timorese were tortured as a result of the Indonesian take-over. Over 180,000 died. She is also scathing about successive Australian governments' handling of the case. Due to the eagerness of senior bureaucrats and ministers not to rock the boat where Indonesia is concerned, the decades have passed for bereft families in a kind of dead silence.

While Timor veterans of the Indonesian armed forces have flourished in the reformasi era, the families of the Five, and that of Roger East, killed while trying to cover the story of the death of the Five, have suffered quietly. Some have committed suicide and others have died of age or sickness. None are satisfied with official conduct of the case.

Jolliffe's book goes some way toward appeasing the ghosts of the dead. It also sets the record straight on the 1975 invasion. After taking Balibo and killing the journalists, the Indonesians paused, waiting for official Australian reaction to the news. There was none. As a result of the Whitlam government's silence on the issue, the soldiers pressed on to an easy victory.

But the deaths mounted over the following decades. And after Timor, Aceh. And after Aceh, Irian Jaya.

The thugs are in the palace, they are wearing suits and ties. When will the lies end? When will the rapes and murders and torturings be redressed by open justice?

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Review: The Noosa Story (1979), Nancy Cato

As a Noosa Heads resident, Nancy Cato experienced first-hand the overdevelopment of her domicile during the 1960s and -70s. As a writer and activist she was alert to its tenor and texture and was capable of framing it, in prose, in such a way as to generate disaffection in others.

But the story is flawed by the same curious double standard I have found while reading histories of Queensland. While the author deplores the way aborigines were forced off the land and killed indiscriminately for being "cheeky", she nevertheless applauds the resilience and fortitude of the early settlers in their efforts to tame the environment and make a living from the same land.

So you have the situation where, from the point of view of the aborigines the White Man was the aggressor but from the point of view of the development era of the 1970s the early settlers and their living descendants are the ones being disadvantaged because their intelligent stewardship is being eroded by capital. Cato wants to have her cake and eat it too.

NIMBY luvvies are thick on the ground, now, in 2009. If this book had been written in recent times it would just appear to be an unmediated gripe about the evils of development. But it was published in 1979, an era when concerns about global warming and aboriginal rights were the province of an elite few.

Cato was one of the elite. But she was also a dedicated Noosaite, an old-school radical surrounded by beauty and greed, rapacious developers and the great-grandchildren of the men and women who first settled the area in the mid-19th century. She inhabited Noosa Heads but her outlook was global and national. She was one of the elect, a soldier in the trenches of the evolving struggle for the hearts and minds of the blind majority. This book is part of her manifesto.

Cato was awarded an order of Australia in 1984 for services to literature and the environment. She also participated in the Jindyworobak Movement, which sought to promote aboriginal poetry. The movement started in Adelaide, Cato's home town.

Cato's love of the bush, of unsealed roads and fish-filled estuaries, is a refreshing wake-up call for Sunshine Coast residents sick of endless rows of white, 20-storey apartment blocks perched like refrigerators on foreshores all along the coast. Her sometimes-strident account of the bad ol' days of the 1970s, when Bjelke Joh sat, like a bloated cane toad, in George Street, oozes appeal.

This once remote and beautiful area, populated by a few fishermen and farmers, has deteriorated visually and aesthetically. However it is not only tourism that is to blame. It is our own apathy, our seflishness and greed, our indifference to what is happening to our environment, that have led to the rape of Noosa.

But the book is more than a partisan diatribe. It tells us that Noosa Heads has always been a resort area, initially servicing the rich and powerful of the Gympie goldfields: engineers, bankers and merchants. They set up holiday retreats in Noosa and Sunshine Beach. The main economic centre, until quite recently, was Tewantin, a town a couple of kilometres up-river with access to a rail spur on the Gympie line.

Noosa was developed earlier than more-southerly Maroochydore, possibly because its river was fully navigable from the sea, whereas the Maroochy River mouth is clogged by sand bars that make it navigable only for small craft like runabouts and dinghies. At Noosa, trees logged further upriver were floated downstream and loaded onto ships for transportation to Brisbane and other ports to the south.

The book also contains plenty of photos that help to chronicle the past, and highlight the changes that have taken place since Noosa started to be viewed through the gimlet eyes of Southern developers. It is a valuable book to have if you're interested in the history of this lovely area, this Noosagatta.

Monday, 27 July 2009

'Ignore this message and you will die'. Is the Brisbane text scam a response to the horrific killings in Sydney that claimed the lives of five members of the Lin family of Epping?

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) warned Australians earlier this month of the sinister scams, although it appears overseas scammers are now targeting Brisbane business owners within the Chinese community.

Police from the Asian Specialist Crime Unit are investigating the complaints as part of Operation Bionic and are examining links between the phone calls and text messages.

"The offenders ring and make demands for large amounts of money. Some attempt to explain why they need the money, but all end with them threatening very serious harm if the money is not paid," Superintendent Hogan said.

Min Lin, his wife Yun Li, their sons Henry (12) and Terry (9) and Mrs Lin's sister Irene Yin were found a week ago in their house, bludgeoned to death beyond recognition with a blunt object. Police do not believe the deaths were motivated by mere robbery and have reassured neighbours that they were "targeted".

In an interview with the grandparents of the surviving daughter, Brenda, who was on a school excursion in New Caledonia at the time of the attack, they said that Min was not involved in gambling. The family had had dinner at the grandparents' Merrylands home the night of the attack. Min had left the house at about 9pm and Yun Li followed an hour later with the boys.

There is no evidence of note at the crime scene and police have appealed to the public for information. News reports are thin. Today The Sydney Morning Herald announced blithely that police had taken DNA samples. Hardly surprising, let along noteworthy.

In the light of this vicious attack on a well-repected Chinese-Australian family, today's news of threatening SMS messages targeting Chinese Australians is not surprising. The Epping deaths will be on everyone's mind. It is a community ripe for this kind of callous exploitation.

If The Lin family were "targeted" by criminal thugs then who is next?

In addition to the phone calls, police have received complaints from six Queenslanders who have received text messages containing death threats.

The messages and phonecalls are intended to frighten recipients into providing money, credit card details and personal information to the scammer.

Perhaps Min Lin refused to cave in to a similar extortionist, someone wanting protection money for the favour of not robbing his Epping newsagency?

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Staff at Currimundi Special School on the Sunshine Coast have voiced their frustration at the lack of information about the death of 13-year-old student Cameron Todd, who died last Monday. I asked similar questions last Sunday on this blog.

A staff member at a Sunshine Coast high school said many parents had phoned after learning of the death of a boy, 13, wanting to know if the student attended their child's school.

The staff member said the school was frustrated with EQ after it refused to release details of the case, citing privacy concerns.

An EQ spokesman said under the Protect Phase, QH was no longer routinely following up all confirmed cases of the disease.

"The protect phase recognised that Human Swine Influenza was not as severe for the general population as originally envisaged," he said.

"Most people are making a rapid and full recovery."

But the Parents and Citizens Council of Queensland says that rather than relying on government guidelines, school principals should be charged with deciding whether to release details of cases of swine flu at their schools to parents.

Cameron’s mother, Gold Coast nurse Rebecca Casey, now wants to know why parents weren’t information about the disease earlier.

"They (authorities) are obviously not doing enough. He got it. He wasn't taking risks with his health. He was so well looked after. It's really serious and people have got to start taking it seriously.

Cameron was evidently staying with Anna Miletic on the Sunshine Coast so that her son could attend the Currimundi Special School, where Miletic’s own son is also enrolled.

Miletic also wants answers from authorities.

Mrs Miletic said she was disgusted Queensland Health did not advise Currimundi Special School officials that Cameron Todd, who died last Monday, had contracted swine flu.

“It’s unbelievable. It’s criminal negligence,” she said.

“I was horrified and terrified when I read in the paper the child that died from swine flu was a student at the Currimundi Special School.

“What happens if another kid gets it? Someone has to be held responsible.

“This shows a total disregard and a breach of duty of care to the health of Sunshine Coast residents, especially the kids attending the school.

“All the kids at the school are considered in the high risk category of catching swine flu.”

Mrs Miletic said the oversight by health officials made her “mind boggle”.

In another Sunshine Coast Daily story yesterday, titled ‘Flu victim’s family requests privacy’, no words from Cameron’s family requesting privacy are found. A Queensland Health official says that details of the boy’s underlying health condition, which contributed to his death, were not released due to privacy laws.

Yesterday Kevin Hegarty, chief executive officer of the Sunshine Coast-Wide Bay health district, said the boy did have an “array of other complex health issues”, but would not confirm the teen suffered from cerebral palsy.

Nor would Mr Hegarty release the name of the boy’s school to “ensure the family’s privacy”.

“The boy’s medical history is protected under legislation,” he said.

“He was admitted to the Nambour General Hospital several days before he passed away.

“Our sympathy goes out to his family, who are managing their son’s death as they see fit.”

Clearly the government has a case to answer in terms of informing the public about health liabilities associated with swine flu deaths. Cameron’s mother, a clinical nurse, was not aware of the dangers to her son, and never imagined he would be struck down.

Ms Casey said she is a clinical nurse and worked in the community and thought swine flu was a "beat-up".

"When they said it (was swine flu), I was dumbfounded. Had he not have gotten it he would still be here," she said.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Singapore academic Dr Thio Li-ann compares anal sex to "shoving a straw up your nose to drink".

She has a record as a fierce anti-gay rights campaigner in her country. After students and teachers at New York University, where she had been scheduled to teach human rights law this year, petitioned to have a “town-hall style“ meeting to discuss her appointment, she withdrew her involvement in the curriculum.

Enrolments in her courses were so low that, on top of the petition, Thio “pulled out” before consummating the relationship (the National University of Singapore has an exchange programme with NYU).

Agence France Presse reports:

Singapore's Straits Times said NYU students were outraged after learning that Thio had said in a parliamentary debate in 2007 that repealing a colonial-era law making sex between men a criminal offence "would subvert social morality, the common good and undermine our liberties."

More than 800 members of the NYU community signed a petition against Thio after gay rights activists circulated copies of her speech, it said.

NYU OUTLaw posted on its blog to make its position clear before the semester started, as it felt that the story had developed sufficient momentum that the administration should be starting to have concerns for the viability of Thio’s appointment.

Other GLBT websites picked up on the story and made their feelings known by selective quotation.

To explain how someone who's so against institutional oppression and human suffering could also be against extending rights to gays and lesbians, you'll have to understand Li-ann's position: "A moral wrong cannot be a human right."

She must be feeling slightly sheepish now, I would imagine, and was not available for comment when AFP tried to contact her. NYU OUTLaw never got a chance to face off with Thio, despite trying:

We still have questions for the administration, as we are sure many of you share, and the answers to which have implications for the entire NYU Law community: Were Dr. Thio's statements known to those responsible for the decision to hire her? How virulent must homophobic remarks be to disqualify a scholar from employment at NYU Law? Would the administration similarly hire a scholar who, in her capacity as a legislator, advocated for the imprisonment of those who engage in certain religious or cultural practices?

Accordingly, we have asked Dean Revesz to hold a town-hall style meeting, so that more voices can join the discussion and, hopefully, some of the important questions can get answered. Even though we realize it is difficult to schedule a meeting in the summer, we believe this matter is sufficiently pressing (it is getting national and international press coverage) that the discussion needs to happen as soon as possible, before the semester starts.

But for that, we need more support. First, we are asking groups, students, journals, alumni, faculty, staff, etc. to write Dean Revesz (richard.revesz@nyu.edu), urging him to hold such a meeting. Second, if such a meeting is to be successful by any standard, we need all those concerned to attend, to ensure the representativeness of the public.

In an email with Inside higher Ed. magazine, Thio condemned the students’ actions as “imperialist”.

"I think certain Americans have to realize the fact that there are a diversity of views on the subject and it is not a settled matter; there is no universal norm and it is nothing short of moral imperialism to suggest there is,” Thio wrote. “Correct me if I am wrong, but there is no consensus on this even within the U.S. Supreme Court and American society at large, even post Lawrence v. Texas."

Friday, 24 July 2009

A church that has an “inclusive Christian ministry to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities”, the Metropolitan Community Church, is behind Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art’s (GoMA) bible defacing scandal.

Wikipedia says the denomination was founded in 1968 to cater for this emerging demographic. The first congregation was founded in Los Angeles. The Edinburgh congregation, which in the past has lobbied for the right of gay couples to marry, “proposed” the exhibit at GoMA where visitors have an open invitation to write in a copy of the bible placed alongside a container of pens, according to a story on The Times website.

“If you feel you have been excluded from the Bible, please write your way back into it.”

The exhibit, Untitled 2009, was proposed by the Metropolitan Community Church, which said that the idea was to reclaim the Bible as a sacred text. But to the horror of many Christians, including the community church, visitors have daubed its pages with comments such as “This is all sexist pish, so disregard it all.” A contributor wrote on the first page of Genesis: “I am Bi, Female & Proud. I want no god who is disappointed in this.”

Whoops.

While church bodies in Europe have condemned the activity (“a Christian lawyers’ group said that the exhibition was symptomatic of a broken and lawless society”), The Punch journalist Leo Shanahan asks how the exhibit can be considered controversial and dares the artist to use a Koran instead of the Christian’s holy book.

But given the role and shape of Islam in the world at present, maybe it should be just as much a target of artistic critique in the west as Christianity often finds itself?

His reason for the suggestion is that the current art installation is, to put it bluntly, quite tame.

Another point to be made here is that exhibitions like this cater to a rather middle-class undergraduate sense of what it is to be shocked (“let’s like rip-up the Bible guys”), and if churches choose to handle these incidents with more maturity and tolerance themselves in can serve both as the best advert for their faith and best rebuttal to their critics.

It is possible that the Metropolitan Community Church of Edinburgh proposed the exhibit as a way of improving the size of its congregation, which has dwindled in recent years as a result of internal ructions.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

News that a British scientist working, at the time, at Tidbinbilla in Australia, came up with the iconic line used by Neil Armstrong on stepping onto the moon in August 1969 appeared here first on the website of Melbourne’s Age newspaper, dated 5.44pm.

The story is by-lined AAP.

By 6.13pm the story had migrated to the website of Brisbane‘s The Courier-Mail, which neglected to by-line AAP making it look as thought they had generated the story themselves. This is more than slightly dodgy at first blush, although they may have an agreement with AAP to handle their stories in this way.

But the story itself is dynamite. Naturally a NASA spokesperson callowly denies there is any truth in it.

The scientist is named Gary Peach and he’s now retired in rural seclusion in England. According to Peach, he was asked by a Mr Monkton, who Peach describes as his boss on the Apollo project, to recommend something for the first astronaut who touched moondust to utter on the occasion.

“One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” replied Peach.

The words emerged almost unchanged from Armstrong’s lips when he planted his booted foot on the lunar surface.

A much longer story appears on the Times Online website, written by Simone Bruxelles. This is the original story. Calling Armstrong’s error “tautological” because ‘man’ and ‘mankind’ are synonyms, Bruxelles shows that Peach was right when he expressed concern about entrusting such important words to an ex-fighter pilot.

Armstrong fluffed the line.

Asked about the words for an oral history project, Armstrong demonstrated his fundamental inability to place together meaningfully more than three words at a time.

“I thought about it after landing and, because we had a lot of other things to do, it was not something that I really concentrated on but just something that was kind of passing around subliminally or in the background.

“But it, you know, was a pretty simple statement, talking about stepping off something. Why, it wasn’t a very complex thing. It was what it was.”

He added: “I didn’t think of it as being as important as others. I didn’t want to be dumb, but it was contrived in a way and I was guilty of that.”

He didn’t want to be dumb…

Peach says he gave the words to Monkton when the latter entered his lab one day asking if everything was OK.

“I replied no technical problems, but I am concerned about the historic moment when the first man sets foot upon the Moon. In the excitement, knowing the Yanks as I do, it’ll probably be something like ‘Holy chicken s**t look at all that f***ing dust’.

“I said I felt that would not be a suitable thing to be quoted in history books until eternity.

“He asked: ‘Well what would you say?’” Mr Peach, who had been mulling it over for several days, replied: “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”.

He says Mr Monkton said “we didn’t think of that” and left the room in a hurry.

Peach’s version sounds a lot more convincing than Armstrong’s, don’t you agree?

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Review: Big Shots, Adam Shand (2007) ... 

I didn't know what to expect when I bought this study by an old school mate. Was it going to be a grizzly, hard-bitten look at the Melbourne gangland killings? If I thought this I would have been disappointed. Big Shots is far more nuanced and less sensational.

Using the time-honoured literary journalistic technique of total immersion, and placing himself as a character in the drama, Shand uncovers a softer side of mafia-style life, where drug barons, hit men, standover men and the women in their lives attempt to maximise profits at the same time as minimising the likelihood of death. It's a sad world.

It's saddest when Shand is showing how his subjects strive to fight off the inevitable hit. Because the way they lead their lives makes such an outcome almost certain. Once a young man is drawn into the sexy arena of crime, quick money, fast friends and neverending suspicion - the land outside the law next to which ordinary citizens live their lives - it becomes a matter of when, not if, someone will try to kill them.

Shand's main players are Carl Williams and Andrew Veniamin, a couple of hard boys from Melbourne's Western suburbs who begin to make a lot of money by manufacturing and distributing amphetamines. In the process of chronicling their adventures Shand also comes into contact with dozens of other hard men on both sides of the law.

Possibly the high point on Shand's narrative occurs when he attends a funeral in the suburb of Sunshine. The setting is a Greek Orthodox church. The cast includes family members of Andrew Veniamin, who has just been killed, as well as friends and 'associates'. Sitting there in a pew, Shand notices that a lot of people are starting to give him some strange looks. Unnerved, he leaves the building. The drama continues outside, on the street.

Having engaged himself in the lives of the hard men, Shand has become a player, as this episode dramatically demonstrates. You can't just observe something without influencing it.

What we don't get a lot of - because these criminals don't choose to show Shand - is much detail on the processes involved in manufacturing and distributing drugs. Like Hunter S. Thompson in his famous expose of a California chapter of the Hell's Angels, we only see what the hard men choose to show Shand.

In this sense, the book is a disappointment. Nevertheless there is more here than just a bunch of unpleasant men and women badmouthing each other and killing. The killings are the easiest parts for Shand to describe: they're on the public record. What Shand does well that might not have been done well by a less-skilled reporter is show the internal dynamic of fear behind the bravado of the high-toned words we'd expect thugs and gangsters to use in their daily lives. There is a softer side to them and it's by way of this aspect of these individuals that we are allowed to sympathise with them.

Because they are more than just criminals. They are people who have aspirations and dreams, like Roberta Williams with her kids attending a private school and a sign on the door asking visitors to remove their shoes before entering the house.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Watching Japanese politics is as difficult as keeping track of a school of fish in a swiftly-moving stream. Thirty minutes after I started to search for definitive results of the Tokyo metropolitan assembly elections - and what these mean for controversial governor Shintaro Ishihara - I'm still puzzled. No two stories are the same and no journalist thinks it's important to concisely describe the political situation in the country's - and the world's - largest metropolis.

The best coverage comes from Taiwan, a major trading partner of Japan's. The Taiwan News reports that:

Out of the 127 seats, the DPJ snared 54 seats (up from 34), while the LDP dropped 10 seats to 38 seats and New Komeito boosted its delegation by one to 23 seats, while the JCP dropped five seats to eight with other smaller groups splitting the remaining slots.

This means that the main national threat to Taro Aso's LDP - which has ruled Japan almost uninterruptedly for the past 50 years - won the election but failed to win an outright majority. As a result it will have to rule in a coalition with other parties.

Ishihara, the governor of Tokyo, is elected in a separate poll, so his position will not be materially altered except inasmuch as the amount of heat emanating from his newly-elected assembly will increase. Nationalistic programs he launched, such as the 84-per-cent government-owned Shinginko Tokyo Ltd. (a bank) will probably be sold to private interests.

But there is no story anywhere about which coalition parties the DPJ will be working with in the new assembly. All eyes in the past week have been focused on whether and when Japan's prime minister Taro Aso would dissolve the lower house of the national Diet.

This happened today.

"I have decided to dissolve the lower house," Aso said at a cabinet meeting, according to Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura.

"Dissolution is necessary in order for us to gain more understanding and cooperation of the Japanese people," Aso said, Kawamura told reporters.

In risk- and conflict-averse Japan the DJP's victory on 12 July was a watershed that will have not only politicians but housewives and salarymen throughout the country scratching their heads. Pundits will predict dire consequences in the event of change.

The time has come, it seems, for a national cleansing. Some news stories describe the change of leadership in terms of the current party - the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) - "stepping aside" as though they were expected to perform ritual suicide (hara-kiri) in the face of an hysterical, angry populace.

As for Ishihara, we'll see. I expect that the infamous rightist will eventually fade into the obscurity that such characters deserve, with only a whiff of saltpetre and gunsmoke to usher him out the doors of power.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Is Queensland's government still too cosy with business?

A few days after former state health minister Gordon Nuttall was found guilty on 36 counts of receiving a corrupt commission, premier Bligh has questioned the ethicality of 'success fees' being received by ex-government employees working on behalf of business.

But that's not all. A couple of days ago a story ran in BrisbaneTimes.com.au detailing property speculation conducted by a company in which the wife of Ipswich-based federal member for Oxley Bernie Ripoll had made a quick and substantial profit dealing in land that was subject to state government zoning decisions.

Journalist Tony Moore reports:

A search of Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) records shows FFR Developments Pty Ltd was registered on March 28, 2008.

On April 1, 2008 FFR Developments bought two residential blocks of land in Bowen, one in Gregory Street for $269,000 and a second at Gordon Street for $230,000.

The State Government declared an Abbot Point State Development Area, on industrial land about 20 kilometres to the north of Bowen, on June 19, 2008.

Mr Ripoll said his wife's company had borrowed for the entire project and had put through a development application to build six units on the Gordon Street property.

That property is back on the market with a price tag of $395,000, after it was originally bought for $230,000. Mr Ripoll said there nothing untoward about the arrangement.

Ripoll bridled when questioned, saying that "it is a good idea and no-one should ever be excluded from doing that, if that is what they wanted to do". He suggested that the investors had not only employed a property expert but had consulted Google when making their decision.

Bowen is a regional town located halfway between Townsville and Mackay. It is situated near the Whitsunday Islands. Hayman Island and Hamilton Island are popular tourist resorts featuring high-end developments.

Ripoll insists that "anyone" who had done the same research as FFR Developments Pty Ltd would have come to the same conclusion.

According to the website of the Department of Infrastructure and Planning, state development areas are created under Section 77 of the State Development and Public Works Organisation Act 1971.

They are designed to:
  • provide guidance and development certainty to industry
  • control development in a way that is considerate of existing industry and surrounding development
  • protect environmental values in the region
  • ensure an effective development assessment process.

They "represent a significant investment by the government in the long term planning and development of strategic land assets". In other words, they represent an area - in the case of the one in Bowen measuring about 12km by 20km in size - that is set to benefit from high levels of funding for roads, sewerage, electricity, communications, power and other infrstructure.

In the case of Bowen, the SDA includes both industrial and residential areas adjacent to the existing Bowen town area.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Reporting on swine flu in Australia, where it is now winter, seems a little basic. More information is needed. In major metropolitan centres, where most of the country's broadsheets operate, stories have to compete for space and exposure against a large number of others.

In regional areas there may be more room for more details to emerge.

Thirty-one people have now died in Australia from swine flu. But information about the demographics of the death count is scant. We have been told repeatedly that younger people are more likely to contract the disease. There are also over 190 people in hospital, in Australia, after contracting swine flu.

These things we know. But what about those "underlying health conditions" that we're repeatedly told are a major factor contributing to deaths from swine flu? What kind of 'conditions' are we talking about? Why are we not getting more information?

Perhaps if someone died on the Sunshine Coast, where I now live, we'd get more details.

In a recent story that follows up on an earlier story about a swine flu case reported at a local childcare centre, we're told that staff were told "in a threatening manner ... not to say a word to parents about the swine flu case".

The story caused a storm here. The childcare centre, operated by ABC Learning, rejected the media claims. However, in today's story, the claims are reiterated by another staff member.

Rowan Webb, the chief executive officer of ABC Learning, said in a statement the company rejected claims made in yesterday’s Daily that staff at the centre had been barred from telling parents of the swine flu case.

However, another source came forward yesterday confirming the claims.

“We were told in a threatening manner by the director of our centre we were not to say a word to parents about the swine flu case,” she said.

“All of the staff were disgusted with the decision and when we tried to voice our concerns for the children in our care and their parents we were told the decision was final – that was the way it was.”

This kind of coverage is unusual. It is mostly found, I suggest, in regional areas where there is more room in the news agenda for in-depth reporting of serious incidents. A month ago, when I first moved here, there was the case of a staff member at a major local hospital having contracted the disease. Huge headlines blanketed the tabloid's front page as the news spread, and stayed there for many days.

If all news is local, a major national story hitting in a local area will be latched onto by the local press and dragged, kicking and screaming, onto the kitchen tables of the populace.

And I suggest that it's a good thing.

Today also saw another type of national scandal with a particular relation to the local press. A Sunshine Coast Daily story about a proposed hospital development, printed half a decade ago, caused the state leader to report misconduct to the relevant authorities. Their subsequent digging into the personal activities of the health minister resulted in his conviction of accepting illegal commissions from two Queensland businessmen. He will serve at least two and a half years in prison.

All due to dogged efforts to achieve accuracy and comprehensiveness by a regional journalist.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Review: Hell's Angels, Hunter S. Thompson (1966)

This book is not gonzo. I think it is important to state this at the outset as Hunter S. Thompson's reputation is stapled firmly to the label. In the recent documentary on his life, the filmmakers showed the erection of a giant gonzo symbol in the Colorado landscape: a fist clenched around an arcane symbol. The gonzo symbol is the product of Thompson's mature mind. In the beginning, things were very different.

If we think back to the film, we recall that Thompson, in the years leading up to the publication by Random House of Hell's Angels, was a struggling journalist. Eager to put food on the table for his family, the young Thompson found an ideal object of scrutiny. A confirmed news junkie, Thompson focussed his attention on a modern phenomenon, one that was partly a product of popular culture, and that arose in the years following demobilisation after the Second World War.

It is salutory to remember that Hell's Angels appeared in the same year as Turman Capote's In Cold Blood. Unlike Norman Mailer, who would model his aspirations in writing The Executioner's Song on Capote's success, Thompson was doing it off his own bat.

For Hell's Angels is a straight exemplum of the literary journalism genre. The freakish, unexpected and feather-ruffling hi-jinx of later, 'gonzo', pieces is just not to be found here, except in a rudimentary form. In this sense, the book can be considered an early example of gonzo, but it lacks the ethereal fire of true gonzo, the head-spinning, self-referential, blazing sallies of the later format.

The book takes a long look at the San Francisco area in the early 1960s and particularly that aspect of it that had the bikie gangs at its centre. The Oakland chapter of the Angels, headed by Sonny Barger, are a world away from the crim-minded, modern type of bikie gang. There was no money. There was no glory. There was only the membership, loyalty, unquestioning allegiance, and a dogged resistance to 'straight' social norms.

Clearly, these elements of the Angels appealed to Thompson the man. In fact, in the absence of similarity of purpose, the book would not have been written. There are a lot of things about what the Angels do that Thompson does not condone. But the fundamental likeness of tendency marking out the space between where the journalist stood in relation to his (willing) subjects is of salient interest to the modern reader.

Thompson displays an enormous ability to conquer large amounts of information as he sketches out where the Angels stood in relation to the law and general society. He also whoops it up (inside) as he accompanies the bikers on their forays into the California countryside. He treads uneasily and carefully around the clusters of Angels slumped over their beers. He yelps in amazement at their resilience and capacity for fun. He wallows in the same muck but there's a diffference: Thompson always has a pen in his hand, a recorder taping, a line emerging in his forebrain.

The book is a monument. It sits up there alongside The Origin of Species as an artefact that all people should acquaint themselves with. It stands as a marker on the road to gonzo. It stands for all time as a celebration of the individual against mass-mindedness.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Review: Kingdom of Fear, Hunter S. Thompson (2003)

Published two years before his death by suicide, this autobiography contains a series of sketches written in the author's trademark gonzo style. We'll have to wait for the earnest paper-shufflers out of the Iowa Writing School for run-of-the-mill versions, compendious autobiographies filled with reminiscences and footnotes, and designed to inform rather than entertain.

Subtitled 'Loathsome Secrets of A Star-Crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century', this autobiography can claim authenticity. It also contains a lot of facts. But chopped up as the narrative is into short sequences of related stories and anecdotes, these facts do not amount to much more than your average English undergraduate already knows.

What Thompson gives us, instead, is an honest self-appraisal. As to be expected, he doesn't regret much. But rather than self-congratulatory, he seems more puzzled and abashed by the seemingly relentless set of ungovernable escapades he has been involved in - and involved himself in - in his adult life as an acclaimed writer.

He does not go into much detail about himself before fame struck him, as we know it did in the wake of the publishing of his new journalistic expose, Hell's Angels. I bought this book today in a regional shopping centre. I paid for it. I did not pay for the Penguin copy of the autobiography. My mother paid for this. We bought it at the bookshop attached to the Queensland State Library in South Bank.

I think Thompson would have liked Brisbane, especially the way young people wear T-shirts in the dead of winter and the way office workers generally eschew the respectability of the full suit-and-tie in favour of the more wearable zipped jacket and open-collar shirt. He would have loved South Bank but no doubt would have had some unexpected adventure there involving the three-dimensional rendition of the culture precinct which is mounted on a stand in the library forecourt and a pair of Chinese university students. The kids corner of the Gallery of Modern Art - where you are invited to draw with paintbrushes and pots of water on a group of grey granite stones - would have had him in stitches.

But there you go. Thompson will never visit Queensland and we are deprived due to this manifest lack of meaningful engagement with an Australian cultural icon.

But we get plenty of other things, including a love story. In the final segment of the autobiography a girl he has picked up in California says he has "the soul of a teenage girl in the body of an elderly dope-fiend". I feel it's not quite fair to end on this note, as it could cast an unattractive light on the author, who is not meant to congratulate himself excessively.

Had he visited Queensland he may have had other ideas. Had he visited Queensland with the girl - whose name was Anita - he may have been celebrated. The premier and the chief executive officer of the state library would then have congratulated Queensland for bringing a cultural icon to Brisbane while - chuckle - New South Wales missed out.

I seem to recall that Thompson married Anita. Are there any English undergraduates who can help me out here? I seem to have lost my memory back on page 158.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

It also rains on the Sunshine Coast. Not just the heavy downpours that fight for supremacy with intermittent bursts of steamy sunshine, where you can fill a cup with water if you place it on the roof of your car. But also the drizzling, cold, clammy rain that shuts up the rozellas and makes them take refuge in the dripping park's paperbark trees.

The horizon is shut in with cloud. Mount Coolum disappears behind a curtain of grey wetness. In fact, the entire two-thousand kilometre stretch of Queensland ceases to exist. Roads and houses, fields and forests, beaches and palm trees collapse, fragment, dwindle into nothing.

You dawdle and dither, trying to find something to do. The cold is not so bad. It's the absence of light that gets you, causes a struggle inside you. You've become accustomed to the light and the deep warmth of the sun streaming through the blinds from the north. You are quiet and lazy, waiting for something to spark you off.

You sit down and write a blog post. In two days you will be driving south away from the sun. Into the broad expanses of New South Wales where she is waiting.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Brisbane's CBD is not just a scaled-down version of Sydney, with its proximity to water, city gardens close by and classical Old Parliament House within walking distance. It's a far more usable city centre. And there are nowhere near as many dark, corporate-looking suits!

The old has survived much better here than in the southern capital. Massive post-modern skyscrapers sit comfortably beside buildings constructed 100 years ago. And because there are not so many tall buildings you can actually see the old buildings, which are not bookended amid towers of concrete and glass, as they are in Sydney.


The City Hall building, constructed in the mid 1920s, offers a curious blend of styles. Its stripped classical exterior is married with some proto-Deco elements. But it is the gothic architraves of the entrance hall that really knock you off your feet. You walk through the stone doorway and are confronted by three white vaults set with gold-painted hollows. It's an architectural dream, a folly, a fine statement of independence.


You can see more right here, than you can in Sydney. The Queen Street mall gives you plenty of opportunity to stand unmolested in the middle of the carriageway and gaze contentedly down surrounding streets. In the photo below, taken where the mall ends, you can see a gothic apartment building nestled against a heavy concrete building built within the last 30 years.


Across the river, to the south, lies a cultural precinct that is, I believe, unrivalled in Australia. The Queensland Art Gallery, built in the 1980s, is now partnered with the Queensland State Library and the Gallery of Modern Art - both completed in 2006. The precinct offers visitors a handy method of spending the day immersed in freewheeling relaxation without the necessity of moving from parking place to parking place, or walking from spot to spot, as is the case in Sydney. For $14 you can park all day here!


The Gallery of Modern Art sits serenely above the Brisbane River, a brown, sluggish stream often girded by banks of tall apartment buildings. New pedestrian bridges will enable future generations of Brisbanites and happy visitors to easily cross from the bustle of the CBD to the more relaxed environs of South Bank.


If you walk down Edward Street toward the river you pass through lovely, trendy streets - all named after queens - and eventually reach the City Gardens. Walk through here and you can see the modern collection of buildings that form the Queensland University of Technology. Mixed among them are the Old Parliament House building - a classical gem - and the imposing Parliament building - a Victorian pile of epic proportions.

If you pass along George Street in a northerly direction you reenter the CBD and have plenty of opportunity to sit down and sample a cup of Brisbane's fine coffee. This is an excellent way to finish your short tour of the Brisbane CBD!