Thursday 28 February 2013

Conroy vs the Murdochs, Part XVIII

News Ltd head Kim Williams (left) with
Lachlan Murdoch in 2010.
It seems that the battle between News Ltd and Communications Minister Stephen Conroy is as heated as ever. Today, the Australian has published a story that contains a heck of a lot of anonymous comment from somewhere in Canberra that deals with a mooted tie-up between Network Ten, the ailing free-to-air TV channel, and News Ltd, publisher of that newspaper. In a nutshell the latest stoush is about this:
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy is understood to have put ... proposals to Julia Gillard on Monday night in an attempt to stop the Ten Network from working with News Limited to produce a Sunday current affairs program.
Rupert Murdoch, who owns News Ltd through the US-based News Corporation, is the father of Lachlan Murdoch, who sits on the Network Ten board.

The story today also notes that the Greens are against the mooted program. Changes to ownership rules have been talked about before now in respect of new realities in the Australian media landscape but it is a bit surprising that Conroy should want to stymie a programming move that can hardly alter the media scene in Australia in a profound way. The story mentions the launch last year of a program on Ten featuring News Ltd columnist Andrew Bolt. It also spends a good deal of time talking about programming that has been aired on the ABC that was made by Fairfax journalists; Fairfax is a direct competitor for News Ltd. Sour grapes?

What is most troubling about the story, though, is the reliance it makes on unattributed sources. When the reporter approached the minister's media officer for comment, nothing was said about Conroy talking with the prime minister about blocking such programming, and instead it was merely noted that the minister was "considering the recommendations of the Convergence Review and Finkelstein inquiry", which makes sense. The reporter's suspicions that Conroy was trying to stop a free-to-air network from working with News Ltd might indeed be correct, but the story does not substantiate them.

The story also goes to some lengths to point out that the program, Meet The Press, only attracted about 74,000 viewers last weekend. The ABC's competing program, Insiders, had 99,000 viewers and Channel Seven's blander, less controversial program, Weekend Sunrise, had 362,000. The reporter's implication is, clearly, "What's all the fuss about?" Indeed. But given the total absence of credible sources in his story, the same question can be asked of News Ltd. Conclusion: it's a beat-up.

Brave Ben Quilty goes in to bat for our Diggers

A sketch Quilty made in Afghanistan.
Artist Ben Quilty was on TV news last night again, talking about his year spent as official war artist in Afghanistan. Today he's in the media talking about how sportsmen and -women get a free ride, subsidised by our tax dollars, while artists, teachers, nurses and other specially-trained workers must meet their own financial obligations. It's an interesting point of view as it lies well outside the routine. But this is dangerous ground for anyone to cover. It's certain to attract negative attention from some parts of the media, just like Hilary Mantel's comments on Kate Middleton did. Sport is a sacred cow in Australia; criticise it publicly at your peril! Quilty risks being seen as a younger version of Germaine Greer; now there's someone the shock jocks love to hate. Only the brave take on the 'burbs.

In his article, Quilty compares the cosseted Olympians who were forced to apologise publicly recently for their poor behaviour in London, with Australian servicemen and -women working in Afghanistan under very difficult conditions. Interestingly, Quilty last night on his news spot talked briefly about how their stories are absent from Australia's media. It's a good point because it's absolutely clear that the Defence Department goes to excessive lengths to keep stories out of the media here that could attract criticism. It's a form of damage control. And while it might make life easier for politicians, senior officers, and the Army's media office, it's not good for the soldiers. It's not good for them because silence on this front means they lack the kind of support that they should be entitled to. The rank-and-file in places like Tarin Kowt are being dudded by a hierarchy intent on saving face. It's a damn shame, so good on Quilty for raising the profile of the women and men we send out to face danger, and who will one day come home with the mental and physical scars of their difficult deployment.

If you read what Quilty says about the soldiers he met during his assignment it becomes stunningly clear how cowardly the chain of command is being. Let alone the fact that, as voters and taxpayers, Australians have a right to more information about how the deployment is proceeding in Afghanistan, it is clear from looking at the images that Quilty has made that there is a desire on the part of servicepeople to reach out to the broader community and to generate a meaningful dialogue with them. It is because of the real dangers of serving in places like Afghanistan that we are entitled to enjoying this kind of relationship with these young - and often not-so-young - people. More knowledge about their lives over there and the damage they fall prey to can also signally inform public debate at home about Australia's participation in wars. Is the risk of psychological damage, let alone physical damage, offset by any benefits that can accrue to Australia by participation in such campaigns? We need to know these things. We are ultimately responsible for government actions. It is our right to be informed.

The Australian War Memorial has a long history of sending talented artists to the front lines to chronicle the experience of war. Just go to Canberra and see the incredible paintings that Arthur Streeton made during his assignment in Europe during WWI. And there are many more than this. Quilty joins a long line of painters who have gone to see and witness the experience of Australians serving their country, and he is entitled to be listened to. When was the last time you listened to the thoughts of someone who has spent a year living within the arc of war? How often have you heard someone speak of the experiences of soldiers who daily face the real dangers of battle? We should all listen to Quilty because he has the mark of authenticity on his face. He has been fortunate to see things that we will probably never even dream of.

Sunday 24 February 2013

Book review: The Poet Who Forgot, Catherine Cole (2008)

In 1982 a young Arts graduate living in Sydney who had studied Australian literature wrote a letter to the renowned Australian formalist poet A.D. Hope, a resident of Canberra. The missive did the trick and the two met. Lots of people write fan mail to favourite writers and most get a reply but Catherine Cole got a lot more, over the course of the ensuing years, and clearly the poet did too. For why otherwise would he continue to respond to Cole in such a positive manner? They met many times in the course of time. Then, much later, Cole visited Canberra again with the goal of accessing Hope's letters, which had been given to the National Library of Australia, and which included many of her own sent to the poet, in pursuit of the larger goal of writing about the relationship that had blossomed for so many years, so many years earlier.

This book is the result, and it's a strange and often beautiful creation that sits somewhere between the genres of memoir, essay and collected letters. The book starts in an uncertain manner, something like the opening passages of Beethoven's 9th symphony, with short forays into narratives that are quickly abandoned as the author looks for the right tone and the right set of referents with which to address the problem of describing her relationship with the poet. Who was she? Who is she now? What did the correspondence with Hope, and the occasional meetings, mean for the younger woman? How did they translate into the maturing writer's achievements, goals and dreams?

Literature is of such importance to some people that a personal connection to an esteemed writer is attractive. Many people will be able to understand the younger Cole's impusliveness. Older people will be able to understand the reason why Hope responded the way he did. Other people again will "get" the relevance for an aspiring writer of a personal connection to a major literary figure.

The way the book proceeds you have a few letters and then there's a sort of essay/memoir within which Cole tries to look deeper at both who she was in her earlier years and at the nature of the relationship that adorned it. These interpolative passages often have a theme, such as love or old age or memory. Cole uses direct quotes to harness the writings of other people and in this way strives to make sense for the reader. But this highly literary method has a studiousness about it that can be slightly alienating. Instead of insights from Cole herself, we are given borrowed insights from writers far removed from Cole's central drama. And although Cole's prose is dextrous, allusive and stimulating it does not often rise past ordinary concepts, as for example in the poetry of Judith Wright which, while excellent as poetry, does not really reach far beyond the routine concerns of the world. I think that Cole might have better on occasion used indirect quotation to amplify her own thoughts. Her way of proceeding can verge on the academic, which is not the best prosodic medium, I think, for her material. Her material I think demands something more personal (although the sheer number of references Cole locates demonstrates how broad her knowledge of the world of letters is) and more immediate.

But it is easy to criticise what you have not yourself put the time into creating; this is a point that those who write about books should always keep in mind. In the final analysis Cole has made a fascinating work of non-fiction that bends genres and goes against so many conventions that it would be enough to talk about this aspect of the work alone.

In the final pages there is a slowing down that you feel in such poems as Tennyson's In Memoriam; a flagging of energy for the writer contemplating the final years of Hope's life. These moments make you realise how good Cole is at what she does. And in the end you come to think about the reason why Cole undertook the work. Because it's not just about Hope, it's about herself and who she has become and how she came to be where she is at the time of writing the book. And because Cole's experiences often cohere with those of the reader - at least they did with me - you are drawn into a story that spans the gap between the world of public concern and the world of private interests.

Friday 22 February 2013

It's not about good policy or effective government, it's about the "narrative"

This picture represents what Waleed Aly thinks is important for political parties to look like to the public. Aly published a clever piece today in the Fairfax media about how Labor has apparently "lost the plot" and the "narrative" ever since ... Well, ever since Hawkie's market liberalisations. Then Howard got in and stayed in because, well, he had a "narrative" didn't he. Then there was the Ruddbot who adopted the Labor Right's poll-driven flip-flopping and subsequently fell at the hands of that same power bloc within Labor. (Live by the sword ...) Then along comes Gillard who gets the independents onside after the 2010 election, beating Abbott squarely in the negotiation stakes, and proceeds to get passed through Parliament a huge quantity of legislation despite howls of protest from the Coalition, who think the political settlement is "illegitimate". Then Gillard announces the date of the 2013 election and her poll numbers crash faster than a shot galah and, suddenly, she's got no "narrative".

As if having "narrative" was what government is about. I thought it was about serving the public interest. Silly me.

The thing that Aly points to is the media's decision to turn against Gillard because she doesn't give them what they need: a consistent story. Gillard's pragmatism and consensus-style method of governing is too messy, too much like work, too short on conflict, too ... real. What the journos want is biffo, and if they don't get it from the PM they'll manufacture it, so two ministers resigning just after Gillard announced the election date becomes part of a wider problem within the Labor caucus. Signs of internal disaffection. That fits the narrative, which is ... Leadership change!

Gillard's success making laws does her no good; there's no "narrative". Don't be effective, be controversial. It's funny how if Labor is the middle ground politically, stuck firmly between the Greens on one side and the Coalition on the other, it "stands for nothing"? This all just seems odd, as if we hate pragmatism, hate ourselves. Hate our routine existence, one unleavened by the drama of explosive success, of revenge consummated, of foes cut down in a dramatic denouement. It's important to point out that it's not the media's fault alone, although you can justifiably accuse the practitioners in it of a certain lack of imagination. The fact is that these are the types of narratives we tell ourselves as we walk down the street, either clothed in fear or in excitement. They are what we recognise as stories, and journalists try to give us something that resembles them. But catering to this need has got nothing at all to do with government, good policy, accommodation, compromise. Giving ground is seen to be weak. Better for your image to take a polar position, but better for the country? Politicians are forced into these decisions by the community's expectations and mental habits.

Somehow, no matter how effective and useful you are, you have to be a bastard. You have to have something that people hate. If you're like Howard, you have something people hate but in such a way as nobody can touch you. The lesson for Gillard from all this is: be more of a bastard. Invite hatred. Welcome it. The punters won't like you unless they can hate you. The trick is in correctly choosing what you are to be hated for.

Terrorist convictions were in a closed London court?

Shadowy: clip from police car dashboard
video footage showing the arrest
of the terror plot suspects.
In what appears to have been a closed session of Woolwich Crown Court, near London, three British men have been convicted of plotting terrorist attacks in the UK, the Guardian reports. In the story we hear from four people: the judge in court, addressing the three men as he makes a summation of the allegations against them, a person from the Crown Prosecution Service, the assistant commissioner of West Midlands police, and the head of special crime and counter-terrorism in the Crown Prosecution Service. In the case of the judge it is clear that the journalist is actually inside the courtroom. But in the cases of the other three people interviewed for the story it appears that conversations were held at another place. There is no mention of a defense attorney or of a jury. Woolwich Crown Court "has been designed as a high security courtroom and so now is the preferred venue for [terrorist] trials", according to Wikipedia. The court was used for the trials of the 7/7 bombers and for the people involved in the 2006 transatlantic aircraft plot.

Information online shows that crown courts have a place for a jury to sit to listen to proceedings. But in the case under discussion it is evident from reading the story linked to above that the journalist herself was not inside the courtroom during the major part of trial proceedings, and was brought in at the end of them to hear the judge's summations. Interviews she held with the Crown Prosecution Service and with the police assistant commissioner took place elsewhere, probably somewhere inside the court precincts.

Another story on the Guardian's website discusses in some detail the motivations of MI5 in bringing the three men to court. There are no names of MI5 operatives included in the story, it is always "a source" or "one source" that serves for quote attributions, making it clear that the journalist spoke directly with MI5 operatives during the time she was collecting material for use in her story.

Sentencing of the three terror plotters, who "denied all the charges against them", has not yet occurred. In addition to the three primary convicts, there are other trials pending, which presumably will also take place in closed court with no members of the public or from the media witnessing proceedings. "A total of 11 men and one woman have been charged in connection with the plot." Four men who the three primary plotters recruited to their cause "have pleaded guilty to preparation of terrorist acts" and "Two other members of the cell ... have pleaded guilty to their role in the plot".

If you are interested in learning what MI5 thought was adequate justification for bringing the men to trial then you can read the second story linked to above, which deals with the evidence and with the surveillance program run by MI5 once it had decided that the men were worth watching. To me, the evidence is pretty flimsy and the three men who have now been convicted appear to have been clumsy and amateurish in their conduct. Nevertheless, it seems clear that they, and others who have been charged in connection with the plot, travelled to Pakistan and visited training facilities operated by al Qaeda in order to receive terrorist training.

But a closed court - if that is indeed what we are dealing with here - appears to me to make a mockery of centuries of British legal precedent, and more resembles the hated Star Chamber of Renaissance London than a place where justice can truly be served in a modern liberal democracy. It is crucial for defendants, evidence and witnesses to be placed under public scrutiny, otherwise justice cannot be seen to be done. And that is a key aspect of the system of justice in the world we live in today. Prosecutions such as this (the "Birmingham three"?) must take place in public or else you risk undermining the credibility of the entire justice system, from the police, to MI5, to the crown courts themselves. It is important to remember that the audience for judgements like this is not restricted to readers of the Guardian. The whole world is watching.

Thursday 21 February 2013

LNP 2013 campaign slogan

The LNP have never, are not and never will be even remotely comparable to the Tea Party. - Richard Clark, Young Liberal and "lover of freedom".

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Smart, creative Mantel exposed to the grubby tactics of Fleet Street

Novelist Hilary Mantel is apparently lying low after some comments she made during a speech given this month at the British Museum for the London Review of Books. The British prime minister, Teddy Silvertongue, had to interrupt official duties in India to comment publicly in defense of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, who Mantel had apparently insulted. The Guardian is all over this story, and has run a good analysis of the case, which of course involves those famous British tabloids that everyone hates but that everyone reads. The things is that the tabloids took a few comments out of Mantel's hour-long contemplation on the fact of royalty and blew them up into a scandal.

Mantel won the top prize for novelists, the Booker, twice, both times for historical novels that examine the life of Thomas Cromwell, a statesman in the court of the savage Henry VIII. So Mantel knows a bit more about royalty than your average punter. Looking at those comments in isolation they do sound harsh. Harsh comments aimed at the British royals will, of course, please some people no end. But to the doughty, patriotic, lower-middle-class tabloids anything that denigrates the House of Windsor is taken as a personal slight on behalf of every right-thinking Briton alive. The operation had something fantastic about it, as though the newspaper editors were intent on inserting some monstrous Amazonian butterfly into a test tube, alive. Mantel's speech is long, thoughtful, interesting, and intellectually challenging. Which is natural because Mantel is a smart, educated, creative woman. To bring such a thing into contact with the grubby tools of Fleet Street is to guarantee some sort of damage, so Mantel is currently, as I said, lying low. If you have a free hour, listen to Mantel talking. It's worth it. It's not worth reading the stories that caused all this trouble, but check out the bottom link above as well, because he said first what I wanted to say. There you have it.

Liberal-Nationals are the Tea Party Down Under

Nothing's more Australian than boiling the billy around the campfire after a hard day's work. A nice cup of tea for the assembled folk. A true Australian Tea Party, which is not far off reality when you look down the track at how things will eventuate after a Liberal-National victory in September. Tony Abbott has been at pains (when he's said anything at all; are you there, Tony?) to stress that his coalition will be pursuing a purely Australian agenda, but to read Paul Kelly's op-ed piece in todays' Australian about George Brandis' plans for the Australian Human Rights Commission you would think that the Minutemen were about to land at Sydney Cove with drums and pipes sounding. In Kelly's article the words "freedom"
and "freedoms" appear 13 times in what is accurately described as a sustained attack on Australian institutions. Brandis shows himself to be a true culture warrior, so what other plans does the L/NP have for Australia's institutions? What about the ABC? Are we going to get commercial advertising on Aunty? What else, George? Where are your policies?

Australians should be worried. The middle class in the US is poorer today than it was 30 years ago. The US has slipped low in quality-of-life rankings, and the number of poor is increasing. At the same time, the plutocracy is doing fine, as wealth moves away from employees into the bank accounts of the richest few. These people manage to pay lower taxes than regular folk, so federal revenues shrink, putting pressure on governments to cut essential services. As this happens there are calls for more privatisation of public services, with the result that more of the money available goes into the pockets of big business. It's a vicious cycle. Do we want to Thatcherise Australia, and go down the path toward an unsustainable future? Do we want to Reaganise Australia and push more and more people into poverty?

It's worthwhile keeping US realities in mind in the run-up to September, because it's pretty clear that the L/NP has aspirations that align it with the Tea Party: the part of the Republican Party that ensured a loss for the GOP last November. Americans are sick of the lies and the bluster. In Australia, we're about to find out what they're talking about.

That article is the possibly the worst thing I have ever had the misfortune of reading. - Richard Clark, Young Liberal and "lover of freedom".

Position vacant: watcher watcher

Striking Fairfax journos, April 2011; via ABC.
The media. Bleagh. Yuck.

(I've got a friend I talk with on Facebook who always goes "blur, blur, blur" when she wants to say "blah, blah, blah". In the present case I think her version of the spelling is most appropriate because we're dealing with blurred boundaries, the interstices between entities, the liminal, the uncertain, the new.)

The media landscape is changing. Plummeting share prices. Very low revenues. Bad management decisions dating back over a decade. Loss of revenue to online ad services. Staff layoffs. Restructurings. Sub editing contracted out to third party companies. Blur, blur, blur.

But remember that we hate the media. So who cares? Funnily enough, a lot of people seem to care because stories from mainstream media are the links most often shared in social media. So, yeah, well we read it but it's still shit. And we won't pay for it.

But that's not true either. New data shows that revenues from digital subscriptions in Australia are rising strongly even as print sales plummet. The Financial Times, the pink-coloured UK specialty newspaper, sees this year revenues from subscriptions overtake revenues for ads for the first time; FT was way ahead of the curve, putting up a paywall in 2002.

But still people grumble about the media. I suspect that newspaper editors are inured to this kind of criticism. Old hands. Skin like a rhino's. Gnarled. But the media is not like other businesses, being crucial for the proper functioning of democracy. In countries like Australia, the media predates democracy as a public institution by decades. Habermas. Public sphere. Contested space. Blur, blur, blur.

But there are sustained criticisms that are attracting attention, most notably David Horton's Watermelon Blog and Andrew Elder's Politically Homeless. Elder also contributes occasionally to the ABC's The Drum website. And then there's Mumbrella, the site that looks at Australia's media and marketing industries on a regular basis. Wouldn't it be great if Mumbrella could start talking to some of those ex journos with a view to telling people in the community more about the media business? I think a lot of the dissatisfaction within the community can be set down to a lack of understanding about how news gets made. These are real opinions from real people, and many of them voice their dissatisfaction online, although most do not do so with the consistency of an Elder or a Horton. Mumbrella is uniquely positioned in that liminal space between the media and the readership.

I'd love to see regular interviews on Mumbrella with people who used to work in the media, with the interviewer focusing on some of the complaints that regularly come from the community. What an interesting column (or video) series that would be. And where are all those hundreds of people working now? Are they in corporate communications, public relations, copywriting? How do those clever, talented people earn their crust now that they don't work for Fairfax or News Ltd? Updates, please!

Trust an issue for Aboriginal Australians who seek sovereignty

Sovereign Union spokesperson; via SBS.
For many Australians the passing in Parliament of the Act of Recognition of Aboriginal people with bipartisan support was hardly a big deal. A lot of people will not even have noticed that it happened. But for Aboriginal Australians the event was noteworthy, although many will not have approved of it. Representatives of the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples (NCAFP) who were present on the day voiced their approval of what had taken place but they view the event as just a step toward constitutional recognition, the only way, they believe, to achieve "substantive" rather than "symbolic" recognition of Aboriginal people. Their goal is a change that "protects rights and prohibits discrimination". But they were not alone in Canberra. Representatives of a body that is unknown to most Australians, the Sovereign Union of First Nations Peoples in Australia (SUFNPA) were also present, and they were there to "serve" the Governor-General with "papers" with an aim of securing a treaty with Buckingham Palace.

Such an action might merely be laughable in the context of the efforts of mainstream Aboriginal organisations such as the NCAFP, were it not for the passion that underlies it. While the NCAFP is content to go through a process of accommodation that includes the Australian Parliament as the representative of the will of the nation, the SUFNPA and those who support it are determined to bypass what the majority of Australians see as the legitimate legal authority of the land, the Parliament, and take their suit directly to what they see as the ultimate authority of the "colonial" government, Queen Elizabeth II.

"The ultimate goal is for us to sign a treaty, on our terms, with the colonial government, in order to form a meaningful partnership," wrote one participant in a discussion thread on Facebook that emerged shortly after the Act was passed. "It has nothing to do with needing the support of non-First Nations people. It's as simple as us asserting our rights to establish our own sovereign state (as per the UN declaration on the rights of Indigenous People, to which the Australian Government is a signatory to) and going from there."

This kind of view seems to be widespread in some sectors of the Aboriginal community. Given the lack of media coverage, or else the lack of trust in the media such individuals have, we hear nothing in the mainstream about goals that so closely touch on the personal interests of all Australians. The Facebook discussion went on over several days, so I will quote some more of what transpired.

"There never was any British sovereignty over this country. The British sovereign only had jurisdiction over British subjects. You, and others on the Reconciliation bandwagon, have been specifically utilised to sell a hollow, insulting agenda. By the way, your insinuation that First Nations people need Australians to approve of our assertion of our sovereign rights, is another of your misleading, inaccurate statements."

These statements are in direct conflict with what mainstream Aboriginal bodies like the NCAFP are saying in public, so it's not clear how influential such people, or such views, are within the ongoing debate surrounding the status of Aboriginal Australians. But it's troubling that there are many people in the Aboriginal community who think it's fine to just bypass Australia's legitimate legal body and appeal to the symbolic head of state. It's frankly insulting to most Australians, who participate in the Commonwealth in good faith, and many of whom support Reconciliation and the removal of discrimination against Aborigines. Bodies like SUFNPA and individuals like those I spoke with on Facebook want to short-circuit the democratic process mainly, I feel, due to a depressing lack of trust in its operation. The counter-culture feel to their comments suggests a real fear of engaging in the mainstream via the media, and during our discussion it felt that merely to disagree was taken, in bad faith, as a sign of disrespect.

I think what needs to happen, in the short term, is for Australia's mainstream media to engage meaningfully with the SUFNPA - and therefore with those who support it - so that the issues it wishes to raise can be more broadly discussed publicly.

Tuesday 19 February 2013

Labor loves mining

This is about as close as most people get to the mining industry: an oversize truckload of heavy machinery rumbling down a country road. First you see the police car, and maybe a hand stuck out the window waving you over to the left. Then the advance warning car moving slowly down the two-lane highway. After a bit around the corner comes a massive truck with a trailer, and on the trailer is a huge piece of equipment constructed in Sydney or Melbourne, or imported to one of those cities with an overseas point of origin. The brief stop delays your journey by a few minutes. There's nothing holding back the mining business.

When Paul Howes came out in favour of coal-seam gas he was simply coming in behind the workers who service mining. You might see them when you're driving in the country. You stop for the day at a motel in a small country town. Just as dusk falls the motel, which had earlier seemed quite deserted, starts to fill as heavily-loaded utility trucks pull into the carpark and men in high-visibility gear step out and into their rooms. These are the worlers Paul Howes has in mind when he comes out in favour of CSG. You almost never see them, but there are tens of thousands of men and women in the bush who work on gas wells, service mining equipment, work in the mines, or are otherwise employed in this huge industry. It is to them that Howes is speaking.

But when Howes asks the Minister to make sure there is enough natural gas reserved for domestic use he is talking to another set of workers: those employed in manufacturing. Tens of thousands of Australian workers are employed in industries that use natural gas as a feedstock in their manufacturing processes. These are valuable jobs for Labor, as well.

People who complain that Labor is deserting a cause by backing mining are just deluding themselves. Labor and mining are well and truly in bed together. If you think that Labor wants to shut down CSG or stop coal mining, you are simply misinformed. Labor is 100 percent behind the mining industry. What they want from the mining industry is a fair share of the wealth that mining extracts from sovereign land, in the form of non-renewable resources. This enables Labor to secure the approval of another demographic: the urban voter. Labor's stance vis-a-vis the mining industry is not surprising, and those who are unable to see how Howes can say the things he has said today need to look at where Labor's voters work. Labor is very much intent on receiving the votes of workers in the mining industry.

I'd like my Murakami well-done, please

Murakami on a street in Japan, in his
native environment.
Well, it can't be with hollandaise sauce. Hollandaise sauce goes on eggs Benedict, whereas a new Murakami must be more in the line of a good, solid wagyu steak, rippling with threads of soft, luscious fat. Fat that ensures a delicious taste experience, delivering those precious molecules of verbal protein to the tongue/ear/mind in surprisingly juicy ways. And no, I don't think I'm overplaying this trope. Just have a read of the short little piece from the Guardian on its website today about speculation among avid Murakami fans about the promised next book. The word "breathless" comes to mind in a most inappropriate way since the publication has a solid reputation for accurate, informative journalism. But in this case that word appears to want to align itself with "bimbo". Which is actually a Japanese word imported into English with returning American troops after WWII. It means, simply, "poor", but in our argot it has acquired additional meanings. We're not wrong, but it is always interesting to learn the etymology of words.

The story linked to above contains nothing of interest. It just says that lots of Murakami fans worldwide are excited about the news of a new novel by their favourite author. And so? And cats, womens' ears? What do such things mean within the scope of Murakami's poetics? The Guardian won't tell us, and fans seem to have no idea. They just like the books. A lot. And isn't it a pity that we can't read Japanese so that we can hear every single item of interest regarding the upcoming book launch. I suspect that Murakami himself gets puzzled by all this vacuous chatter; here's a man who writes and jogs, all money matters being handled by his wife. So deep inside his own dark, shifting world resides the author that twitterings from the public must sound like mere rainfall outside in the night. We know that Murakami jogs because he finds that it's the only way to keep himself strong enough to deal with the mysteries that he discovers as he writes his complex novels. The word "vision" comes to mind when I think about Murakami. The word "dark". The word "bimbo" is nowhere near the periphery of my thinking when thoughts of Murakami, who has given us so much pleasure, enter my mind. Why can't we return the favour in kind? It's fine to pay him money for the books he writes, but it might also surprise and please him if we try to engage - on his terms - with the worlds he creates out of thin air, sweat, and dull time.

There is so much else that could be talked about, such as the other Japanese authors writing today. What about Okuda Hideo or Kenzaburo Oe? We know that Murakami is well-versed in Western literature, especially writers like Fitzgerald, the American classics. What does it mean for a Japanese writer to spend so much time looking outward? How can this facet of Murakami's personality inform us with respect to the novels he writes himself? What about the apparent twin phases of his output: the early novels and the later ones. Why don't we talk more about this aspect of his oeuvre? Cats and women's ears? How does Japan itself appear to foreign readers who have read Murakami? What can someone like Murakami tell us about the country that nurtured him, and where he still lives today? What does Japanese high culture look like? Who else is practicing art or literature there, today, whose work can inform our understanding of our idol, Murakami? If you are curious about these things do not go to the Guardian, where they're more interested in the chattering of the fans, than in uncovering the secrets behind the man.

Monday 18 February 2013

Book review: The Land's Meaning, Randolph Stow (2012)

When Randolph Stow died in 2010 he was living, as he had done for decades, in England. Few Australians would have learnt of his passing. Clearly, John Kinsella did. Kinsella edited this collection of poetry and also wrote the introduction to it. For some Australians a major retrospective such as this book is a matter of great interest, but the book disappoints. The rambling and often off-point introduction does the volume no favours, for a start. I'm not sure why Fremantle Press thought Kinsella was up to the job; presumably long acquaintence serves as a recommendation. In this case, it was misguided. There is some history of Stow in the introduction, and this is what most people will be looking for as many will not know anything about Stow, but a lot of odd material enters these pages and in any case the piece is far too long.

In the body of the text there is one poem, an Elizabethan sonnet, about the Burma railway which caught my eye because it held together very well. The rest of the poetry did not, in my view. I shouldn't be unfair by calling undue attention to Stow's main point of artistic reference - Rimbaud - but my reaction to the poetry overall was negative, and so it would not be surprising if I were to label Stow's attempts basically derivative. And so it is. There is not a great bulk of work here, and I get the feeling that Stow did not spend enough time developing an adequate vehicle in language to link his ideas to the page, and to the reader's mind. Most of the poems, although they have length, do not have development. It felt like a series of lines of words bumping along with little idea of where they would go next, and consequently, as there was no apparent destination, there could be no opportunity to surprise the reader.

It appears to me that Stow was an educated and intelligent gentleman in a way not untypical of his generation. The appearance in the poems, despite Kinsella's assurances, of lots of classical references, made me realise how unremarkable Stow was in terms of his artistic vision. You can find the same in dozens of other books by poets of that generation. There are also attempts to assume a diversity of voices, but given Stow's debt to Rimbaud these are not strong enough to overcome the writer's lack of purpose. When he mimics he sounds like he's airing a grievance, but there is no force to it and you can clearly see the figure of the poet standing behind the words.

I read up to the libretti then stopped. Those later poems about the Tao are ludicrous and possess no strength or sense of purpose - no vision. By this time in his life Stow was apparently more intent on pushing a barrow than on creating something unique and beautiful. There is evidence of such an ambition in the earlier poems but ultimately Stow lacked something essential, and it was probably just a matter of application. Stow's juddering syntax and strange word choices promise something that he just did not have in him. The prosody fails to support the ambition, which is shackled too tightly to Stow's models and cannot fly.

The book is worth the money if you are a true devotee of Australian native poetry. It is also interesting as a historical artefact, showing as it does what a young Australian with artistic aspirations was capable of in the 50s and 60s. But Stow's success in novels is not able to be replicated in poetry and his abandoning his native country for the softer delights of East Anglia cannot be much of a recommendation to those who seek something that truly reflects what Australia was during those years of cultural upheaval and artistic transition.

Saturday 16 February 2013

Authorities wait for Zygier story to die

Spies can be anywhere.
New information on the Prisoner X case and Ben Zygier's death seems to have dried up. In a long and informative wrap-up, Fairfax Media's Ruth Pollard discusses what's known so far in the Zygier case, but there's no new facts to leaven the material. Over at Rupert Murdoch's Australian, it's reported via quotes from "a senior Israeli official" that fresh inquiries from Australian authorities would not be likely because the Gillard government "already had detailed knowledge of the case".
"Every day that goes by you see how deeply involved they were," the official told The Weekend Australian.
"They interrogated him, they suspected him, they knew many things.
"It is clear they were in the know long before he died.
"Then when the coffin was returned to Australia, they knew he was not some backpacker who got lost trekking."
But apart from these details, which come from an anonymous source and are, in any case, mostly speculation, no new information enters the story. Both Australian authorities and Israeli authorities are keeping tight-lipped and are just waiting for public interest to wane, which will see media attention falter and cease. In addition, members of Zygier's family are not talking to the press. News Ltd tried additionally to talk with family members of other Australians whose passports were used by Mossad, but came away with nothing.

What seems clear is that attention from Australia's domestic spy agency, ASIO, and an approach by a Fairfax journalist brought Zygier to the attention of Shin Bet, Israel's domestic spy agency. After this it appears that he was incarcerated in Ayalon prison where he would die 10 months later, in December 2010. ASIO was alerted to Zygier because he kept on changing his legal name in Australia, resulting in the issuing to him of multiple passports, a red flag for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Most people watching the case will assume that the use of passports like Zygier's by Mossad in the Dubai assassination of a senior Palestinian figure would have been enough to make Israel imprison Zygier if he was suspected of passing such information to people outside the agency. The question of whether in fact, and for how long, Zygier worked for Mossad remains uncertain.

What is certain is that both governments are keen to maintain the thick blanket of secrecy that surrounds their intelligence agencies, and so they are stying mum. It's a waiting game for them. I don't expect much new material to be released in the near future, unless a journalist is able to make another anonymous connection with someone with inside knowledge.

Friday 15 February 2013

Was Zygier involved in a toxic operation?

Zygier's gravestone.
A new participant in the global discussion about the death of Ben Zygier is Warren Reed, a former operative in Australia's overseas spy agency, ASIS. Reed writes today on the ABC's The Drum website about the use of passports by spy agencies in a technologically advanced world and it's an interesting piece that seems to suggest that Zygier, if he was involved in Mossad activities, was probably a small cog in a much larger machine. Supplying Mossad with passports is not exactly the same as spying, but of course if he were just doing this then how could he have come to possess information of such importance that we had to be jailed in a high-security prison? Possibly just knowing the name on the passport, and threatening to leak it to the media, would have been reason enough for the Israeli authorities to turn on him.

But Reed also points to another aspect of the case that makes it stand out: the publicity that has resulted from at least one leak. Reed writes:
The case also raises questions about possible dissatisfaction within Mossad.
An overwhelming majority of men and women who work in spy services like Mossad are just like people in the street. They're paying off mortgages, educating their kids and they all have their own ethical and moral standards like we do.
The fact that someone seemingly in the heart of the agency was moved to leak details of such a hyper-sensitive case like Prisoner X is highly significant.
Almost certainly that person's act (which was very dangerous for him or her) would be fairly reflective of a broader sentiment inside the agency: that corners may have been cut and things haven't been handled the way they should have been.
Some people will recall that Jason Koutsoukis, a Fairfax reporter at the time based in the Middle East, received information from "an anonymous source with connections to the intelligence world" about Zygier and some other people who were involved with Mossad. There is also the question of who informed the Israeli media that Zygier was being kept in Ayalon Prison. So there are two leaks associated with the same individual, which certainly does suggest that someone inside the agency, Mossad, was not happy with how things were being conducted.

There have been suggestions that passports sourced from people such as Zygier may have been used for operations involving the assassination of enemies of Israel in foreign countries. The case of the Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, killed in Dubai by Mossad agents, has been brought up by others. If people in Mossad were not happy with this way of dealing with national defense problems then it may be that Zygier was involved in some sort of attempt to make contact with someone outside the agency about the practices that made them possible. It's all very murky and I think many people are waiting for more information from the authorities, as Reed mentions, that will shine a light on the truth.

What militates against such a hope is the overarching mentality of secrecy, imposed also through legislation, that constrains people working in spy agencies from having active recourse to what Reed calls "their own ethical and moral standards". Just how strong those standards are is a cogent question. Noone forces these people to work where they do, but they function under a thick blanket of secrecy that denies the electorate access to information that can be critical when it comes to judging the performance of the government that serves them. Lack of information is bad enough even where secrecy provisions by law do not operate. In a real sense, considering Bob Carr's lack of awareness of relevant details at the beginning of this expose, we are dealing with an extra-legal organisation, one that prioritises situations and performs its essential functions independently of the elected government. Or so it appears.

Thursday 14 February 2013

Zygier "suicide" now being reported as fact

Still shadowy: Zygier.
As the stories attached to "Prisoner X" - named as Ben Zygier, an Australian allegedly working for Israel's spy agency Mossad - continue to surface throughout the global media certain things become "fact", such as the suspicion that Zygier suicided while being detained in Ayalon Prison. In early stories doubt was cast over the way Zygier died but today suicide is being stated as a fact, although no comment has been received from Mossad or any other Israeli government agency. Some facts are beginning to surface, other things remain debatable.

One newspaper has stated as fact that Zygier was, as the time he died, under investigation by Australia's spy agency, ASIO. When confronted with such a suspicion by a Fairfax journalist, Zygier is reported to have been incredulous. It appears that ASIO was interested in Zygier because of suspicions that passports he held were being used by Israel in covert operations. Use of Australian passports in this manner is a crime in Australia.

In another story published this morning, Zygier is alleged to have been detained due to suspicion of treason. This story is paywalled.
After a heavy media blackout on the case, Army Radio, the official radio service of the Israeli Defence Forces, broadcast bulletins yesterday naming Zygier as the deceased prisoner and putting treason as a possible motive for his incarceration in solitary confinement.
Surprising amid all of this media scrutiny is the silence of Zygier's Melbourne family, which is prominent in the Jewish community. No media organisation has so far been able to extract new information from any of its members.

You wonder how Zygier's mother or father reacted, in 2010 when the death occurred, when they were informed of the death. Having secured assistance from the Australian government to repatriate Zygier's body, the family held a ceremony, one suspects, and buried the story along with the son. Did anyone in the family know that Zygier was involved with Mossad? Didn't they ask why he had been imprisoned? What did the Israeli government tell them about Zygier's death? What questions did they ask? How did they feel about their son dying in an Israeli prison?

As for the nature of the death, in early stories about Zygier attention was paid to the secure design of the cell in Ayalon Prison where Zygier had been incarcerated. A prison cell designed especially to house people accused of grave crimes would surely have presented a prisoner with a challenge if he or she wanted to commit suicide. But such questions are now being glossed over amid speculation about other things. Which is a shame because it appears to me essential to the case to ascertain beyond a doubt the truth about how Zygier died.

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Aboriginal reconciliation is a two-way street

If it wasn't for the jersey ...
Today is the 5th anniversary of Kevin Rudd's Apology to the Stolen Generations, a point in Australia's history that is important for all of us. And so there are media stories about future moves, including the mooted recognition of Aborigines in the Constitution. Meanwhile the news stories about alcohol abuse and child abuse in remote communities continue to appear. I want to talk about my experience with Aborigines and to suggest that Reconciliation has to be a two-way street if mainstream Australia is to come on-board more generously. The Labor government has said it will not move to stage a referendum on constitutional recognition of Aborigines in this Parliament. The reason why is because it is not a big issue for most Australians. And they are turned off it because of continuing reports of social dysfunction in communities where Aborigines constitute the majority of the population.

The issue of constitutional recognition for Aborigines surfaces from time to time. For me personally I have to negotiate my relationship with Aborigines each time there is an event, such as the screening of Redfern Now by the ABC. I didn't watch it but there's a reason, one I haven't talked about here before. The event I'm referring to happened in about August 1992. It was a social evening for me. I had driven out to a friend's house in Darlington to have dinner and after the meal my friend and I decided to go down to the convenience store to buy icecream. We got in his car and drove down to Redfern, parked, and went inside. There was a group of young Aboriginal people inside the store but my friend and I merely picked up a tub of icecream, paid and left. But they followed us outside. One of them, a young man, asked me for a light for a cigarette as I walked down the pavement to the parked car. Feeling uncomfortable, I said I didn't have one. As I opened the car door, the young man, who had followed close behind me, grabbed my handbag and pulled, trying to take it away from me. It was a robbery, pure and simple. I held on and went to sit in the car, which was when he punched me in the face, breaking my nose.

My friend, who was to drive, got out of the car at this point and started to come around to the kerbside to help me. I had kept hold of my handbag and was now sitting in the car but he was now outside getting punched and generally assaulted by a group of young Aboriginal men and women. It seemed like forever before he extricated himself from the melee and got back in the car. Blood was coming from my nose. As we drove off the youths threw an empty garbage can at the accelerating car, hitting the rear windscreen, which luckily did not break.

Now let's fast-forward to 2008 and to an evening on TV with the ABC's First Tuesday Book Club, an episode that featured a book about the Myall Creek massacre. I didn't just write about it at the time, I got in the car one chilly Friday afternoon after work and drove to New England, which took about seven hours. That was 2008 and I went back to participate in the Myall Creek memorial ceremony in 2009, 2010 and 2011 as well. I had work in 2012 that prevented me from going, but I plan to go this year. I go because I think that Reconciliation is important. Nevertheless, I didn't watch Redfern Now because I always remember that night in August 1992 when I was mugged by a pack of young Aborigines. Nobody ever apologised to me for the trauma it caused. It's why when I see a young Aboriginal man in the street, I am wary. And it's unquestionably why many people simply turn off when they read about consitutional recognition of Aborigines. Added to my experience, which is not unique, there are the stories of social dysfunction in Aboriginal communities. For me, reconciliation has to be a two-way street. The street violence has to stop. The robberies have to stop. The alcohol abuse has to stop. The child abuse has to stop. It's not enough to simply rail at the mainstream. It's about personal responsibility.

Why I stopped publishing poems on this blog

For the past two months I have been publishing poems I have written, here on the blog. Most commonly, I would take each poem down after a day or so. I put the poems up on the blog so that I could share them using social media. The problem is that there are magazines that publish poetry but they will not do so if a poem has been published, including on the internet. So if I want to get my poetry published in a magazine I have to think about how the poem reaches the public.

I have taken all poems written over the past two months down, with the exception of one. That poem is about Aaron Swartz and I left it up because it fits in with a series of blog posts I did about this man who tragically took his own life last month.

There's a pressing reason, also, impelling me to remove poems from the blog, which is that I received a request from the National Library of Australia, located in Canberra, to archive and publish my blog's contents in perpetuity. If I leave poems up here then they will be scraped, along with all the other posts, and published where I have no control over the display of them. I was glad to have the NLA make their request because what happens to my blog after I die is definitely something that I have thought often about. But I think that if people want to read my poems then they should buy a book, and not get them for free on the internet.

The reason I have been writing so much poetry is because I was at a bit of a loose end. In July I stopped pitching story ideas to magazines because journalism was taking up too much time and I am looking after my elderly mother. That was in wintertime, and she was having to go to the doctor every two days or so due to a serious bout of flu. As she isn't driving much I had to take her each time. So that was taking up more and more time. As she gets older there are more things for me to think about and look after. Unlike journalism, poetry is remarkably liberating. You do not need anyone else to do it. You do not need to set up interviews, make phone calls, or deal with other people in the world. All I need to write poetry is word processing software and a keyboard and screen, I do not need to talk with another person at all. So I had been writing poetry for about six years, on and off. It was something that I had some capability in and something that I enjoyed doing. But with no magazine stories to pitch I started getting a bit antsy, so I went back to writing poems with a bit more application. I have completed over 30 poems so far this year.

Some days I might write one poem, other days I might write two. I did five in one day not so long ago. Some days I write none at all. I have also been reading more poetry, and also reading studies by specialists in the work of other poets. This is all interesting and, I think, useful. Reading how a specialist analyses a poet's work, in fine detail, along with their recounting the major components of the poet's life, enables you to make assessments about the type of poetry you also would like to write. This is a fulfilling passtime, and one which I plan to continue.

For readers of this blog who have been interested by the poems that I've been publishing here, if you want to provide encouragement, please leave a comment with your views on the poems. Readers will notice that the poems I write are formalist works, and they may have a view on the relative merits of reading such rhymed, metrical verse as opposed to the more commonly-found free verse that you see in quality magazines nowadays. I am interested in your views.

I should add that I will be upgrading my personal website so that it can accommodate my poetry, so some poems will in future be published on the internet. Those who are interested should keep an eye out here for news of that happening, as I will blog about the new site pages when they are complete.

Friday 8 February 2013

Another one bites the dust: Jemima Khan drops Julian Assange

Clip from the New Statesman story by Khan
on the website of the publication.
The way I see it, it's essentially a clash of cultures. Jemima Khan, a prominent Brit who is the associate editor of the publication New Statesman, as well as a writer, has published a piece in that journal criticising Julian Assange. As many, including Khan herself, will be happy to point out the list of those who have abandoned support for Assange is not getting any shorter. The falling-out seems to have hinged on a few instances of non-communication Assange has been guilty of when Khan has asked Assange to comment on a number of issues. Khan also says she wants Assange to stop avoiding the Swedish extradition warrant, and go to Sweden to answer the allegations that are active there. There's also a film Khan was involved with that WikiLeaks supporters attacked.

Most damningly, it appears, Khan accuses Assange and his camp of subscribing to the Dubya-era tenet: "with us or against us." Khan wants more shades of grey. She wants questions answered. She wants to make up her own mind. She finds Assange's apparent aloofness puzzling. So she attacks him.

But she fails to understand the culture of the world in which Assange grew up and developed both his ideas and his persona. The hacktivist culture Assange comes from is extremely harsh when it comes to taking a strong position on a subject deemed important enought to warrant it. Defending a position, in that culture, is a matter of the deepest honour, and any means necessary to do so are adopted. The tone of debate is extremely harsh and personal attacks are routine. Because most communication takes place via the written word in chat rooms and in social media, the people involved have developed highly effective communication styles. They are logical, ruthlessly so. And indeed it can appear that "with us or against us" is the rule by which they live.

It's necessary, of course, to acknowledge that WikiLeaks supporters daily have their hands full on this count parrying the (sometimes) outrageous attacks of persons who hate their cause. They get so used to fighting fires, one imagines, that any person who questions motives or challenges facts just risks getting caught up in the maelstrom of verbal activity that plays out minute by minute on the internet.

Khan, for her part, has been involved for many years in journalism, where there is (in the best cases) a fundamental requirement for objectivity. In a sense, it will be those journalists who hold to this ethical requirement of professionalism who will be most easily alienated by a hacker like Assange, especially one who believes that there are, indeed, "dark forces" at play in his case. I don't think that Khan appreciates how stressful Assange's work has been, and I don't think that Assange - who oddly enough professes to be a journalist (and whose supporters take it as fact) - understands enough about the way that truth is arrived at in journalism. If you question a stated fact from a hacker or question their motives, then of course their first reaction is going to be to recoil and attack in turn. But if you avoid questioning by a journalist then the journalist's first reaction is to presume that you have something to hide, or that your motives are not entirely pure.

It's sad that Khan has taken the position that she has, and in such a public manner. But I understand her motivation. It's also sad that Assange continues to plug away at the "journalist" myth, which is of course something of a defence for him especially regarding US law and legal precedent, while obviously knowing very little about journalism itself. And it's sad that the two cultures - hacktivist and journalist - are being polarised in the case of WikiLeaks, since it would always have been ethical journalists who would be the most useful defenders of Julian Assange and his extraordinary digital creature.

Thursday 7 February 2013

On reading a critical study of the poems of R.S. Thomas

I'm reading Daniel Westover's critical study titled R.S. Thomas: A Stylistic Biography (2011) that I bought on Amazon a week or so ago, and it's very interesting reading. The reason I decided to take this course is because I'd been reading poems by Thomas published in a volume titled R.S Thomas: Collected Poems, 1945-1990 (1993) and I had been completely baffled as to why Thomas seemed to attract praise from so many people. Recently, also, I have been reading Kenzaburo Oe's Somersault (2003) in which poems by Thomas make an appearance. Oe is a writer I admire and he may even have been the reason for my buying the book of Thomas' poems in the first place. I can't remember.

I'm at page 27 of Westover's study. Most of this early part of the book deals with Thomas' early poems, which were metrical and rhyming. But I'm troubled by Westover's acerbic words aimed at these poems, many of which appear to have been influenced by a group of poets Westover calls "Georgians" due to their work having been published, in the first two decades of last century, in a series of anthologies titled Georgian Poets. Their poems are unsatisfying for Westover because they are "lyrical", "on nature" and somehow over-sweet, and it is Thomas' poetry that follows this framework that Westover most substantially criticises. As though sweet, lyrical poetry about nature were somehow an inadequate response to the modern world. There's a triumpal tone which deeply prefers the thematic and stylistic choices that would later become the province of Modernism, which, as we know, was the dominant aesthetic mode of the 20th century. Thomas, it appears, according to Westover, eventually came to his senses and decided to write dark, complex, disturbing poetry rather than light, lyrical, simple and sweet poetry. Good for Thomas, hooray. At last.


I think however that we're not necessarily better off for the success of Modernist informality, and of its thematic preferences. There is scads of really poor, dull and uninspiring verse being published today that seems to owe its justification to the triumph of Modernism, but that seems to have forgotten the reason for poetry itself, which is to enable us to see things in a new light, as though for the first time.

Anyway, I'm going to press on with Westover because I think that Thomas is at least an interesting poet - if not a great one - and because I simply want to know what all the fuss is about. Trouble is, I've been so intrigued with Westover's discussions of Thomas' early, rhyming, metrical poetry that I've almost become side-tracked. In fact, the poem I wrote this morning, 'A nature poem written not long after the big wet, in which a slightly uneasy observer ironically chides himself', aims to address Westover's misgivings about Thomas' early poetry, and to show that it is possible, using rhyming, metred verse, to convey highly complex and nuanced ideas to the reader. It's a response to the critical appraisal from Westover, which is in itself symptomatic of a broader bias. Being symptomatic and not entirely original, Westover's approach merits a critical appraisal itself. This I have, I think, succeeded in giving it.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

God made a farmer? God made gays, too

From the Budweiser ad.
The 2013 Super Bowl commercials are legendary. They are high-quality, the time slot is expensive, and they are usually more interesting than ads appearing at other times of the year. All eyes are on them. This year, two ads focus on farmers: a Budweiser beer ad and an ad for RAM, an auto brand owned by carmaker Chrysler. The Bud ad did make me teary. It's a schmaltzy ploy for an emotional reaction, and hinges on the notion of loyalty. A refreshing affirmation of irrational certainties in an otherwise confusing and polarised world. But the RAM ad hinges on something a bit more angular and manipulable: the words 'God made a farmer'. It's nicely made and features a gruff male voiceover reciting what sounds like poetry - words apparently issuing from the small, wooden rural church we see early in the ad - which elencates the sterling qualities of farmers. What is involved in being a farmer? Listen to this, we're told. But the overt religious appeal of the ad was certain to rub people like me up the wrong way. So we're talking about monotheism? Well, I thought as I watched the ad, there are religious loonies in the Middle East as well, so big deal. And then I thought that the murder scene from Ang Lee's majisterial movie Brokeback Mountain (2005) should be screened alongside the RAM ad, just to show how small-minded, bigoted and evil farmers can be. Smothering your ad with the cloying matter of monotheism, RAM? Bad move if you care about what secularists think of your brand. As for beer, I prefer Stella Artois.

Will Tony Abbott bring ads to the ABC?

Wil Anderson.
It looks pretty certain that the Coalition will win the federal election in September and so there's one thing that I want leader Tony Abbott to make clear early on in this long campaign: will he push for TV commercials on the ABC? Commercials destroyed SBS when they were introduced, and the station is now not watchable. ABC chief Mark Scott appears to be softening up the audience by packing the time slots between regular programming with self-referential ads, including those goofy ones where large, soft, white balloons explode and release bundles of coloured balls. We also get bunches of ads promoting future programs. Wil Anderson of Gruen Planet brought up the issue of ads on the ABC at least a year ago on the show, but it appears that since then the number of ads on the ABC has increased. Everybody knows that the Coalition hates the ABC - they worked extremely hard to control it during the Howard years - and so it seems reasonable, if not perfectly logical, to ask what plans its leaders have for dear Aunty now that the political scales have shifted so startlingly in favour of the Right since PM Gillard's election announcement last week. Fess up, Tones: are you going to take the ABC commercial?

Saturday 2 February 2013

Twin-engined toxicity of Labor scandals will hamper Gillard leading up to September

Gillard recently.
It looks as though Tony Abbott isn't coming out of the naughty corner yet, but there's a good reason why he should stay there. With the election just called for mid-September, Abbott might best be advised to sit back and just watch while the Labor Party implodes. This was the O'Farrell strategy in NSW in 2011. Abbott might just concievably convert his stint in the dog box into a wise move.

And while opinion polls show Labor and the Coalition pretty closely tied at around 50% 2PP each, it should be remembered that noone anticipated the calamity that the 2012 election in Queensland was for the Bligh government. The Greens are advised to sit back and watch as well. They are sure to pick up a fair swathe of disaffected Labor voters, especially those annoyed by Gillard's proposed anti-discrimination laws and the other law that says that religious institutions that are employers - and these institutions are massive employers in Australia - would be able to discriminate on a number of questionable grounds against prospective employees.

Then there are the scandals dogging Labor to worry about.

The day after the election was called Labor MP Craig Thomson was arrested by the police. The saga promises to provide abundant entertainment for Australian readers throughout the remainder of the year coming up to the election. Meanwhile, in NSW, the ICAC hearings into shonky "insider trading" deals that allegedly benefited the erstwhile Labor MP Eddy Obeid and members of his family, rolls on relentlessly. This saga is making fodder for News Limited AND Fairfax journos on a daily basis - so that Western Sydney is being kept well-and-truly up to date.

On top of Thomson and the Obeids we've had two high-level resignations in the past few days, with Chris Evans stepping down from portfolio duties and, before that, one-time AG Robert McClelland informing the country that he would not contest his lower-house seat in 2013. Oh, and Roxon is stepping down from AG duties too, apparently - this just in this morning. Rats? Sinking ship?

PM Julia Gillard, for her part, has no option but to push on with the enormous policy introductions she's shepherded into existence. In addition to the carbon tax there's the education thing and NDIS, as well as the NBN. Gillard has shown an extraordinary talent for getting things done. It is almost miraculous how she has managed to push so many big pieces of legislation through the hung Parliament. While eight and a half months is an extremely long time in politics, the twin-engined toxicity of the Thomson and Obeid scandals promise to make her job just that little bit harder. As 2010 showed, it doesn't take much to make a winner these days. And don't forget about Queensland.