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Tuesday, 31 August 2010

This artist impression of an "infill" development for St Ives, a suburb in Ku-Ring-Gai Council, in Sydney's north, could also be a vision of the future for Perth since Western Australia authorities announced their new planning initiative, 'Directions 2031 and Beyond'. St Ives is on a rail line, as are a number of other suburbs where infill development has taken place in recent years. Municipal authorities with suburbs on suburban rail lines in Perth must be getting nervous.

The new plan echoes 'Melbourne 2030', an initiative launched along with the Urban Development Program by the Bracks Government in Victoria in 2002. While there's been a lot of public brawling associated with the New South Wales government's assumption of planning rights, with municipal leaders trashing the "undemocratic" measures taken by the state government, Melbourne's efforts in this arena seem to have generated a bit less heat. The Bligh Government in Queensland announced in May that it had established Growth Management Queensland to oversee infill development (among other things; but this issue will always be the main focus for governments keen to rein in expenditure on expensive infrastructure like railways and roads).

Brisbaneites have started to see what infill really means. There has been a fair bit of angst expressed by local residents over a planned residential development in the inner-city suburb of Milton. From the Brisbane Times in April:

The Queensland government has used controversial powers to take over planning approval for a high-rise development at Milton, in Brisbane's west.

Infrastructure and Planning Minister Stirling Hinchliffe confirmed today he had "called-in" the proposal for a 31-storey building at Milton train station on the grounds that it was in the state's interest.

In 2007, New South Wales Planning Minister Frank Sartor got caught up in controversy - controversy that is implicitly referenced in the above clip - when he fought a very public battle against Ku-Ring-Gai Council over the assumption of planning laws. Sartor was replaced as Planning Minister following the leadership change last year which saw Kristina Keneally become Premier. Tony Kelly is now Planning Minister in NSW.

Western Australia Planning Minister John Day is playing down the future potential for friction, as WA Today reported yesterday:

"The legislation which has gone through Parliament recently does give the state, through the planning commission and the Department of Planning and the minister, the ability to act to require local governments to do certain things in some cases or to ensure that we can put in place the planning arrangements over and above local governments where that's appropriate to do so," he said.

"There will be a lot of consultation, including with local governments, before we make these sort of decisions but the state is now in a much stronger position to act and to respond to the needs of the community than has been the case in the past."

Monday, 30 August 2010

Review: Manhattan to Baghdad, Paul McGeough (2003)

Look at the date, now look at the book cover. Look at the book's title, now look at the scene depicted on the cover of the book. Look at the subtitle ('Despatches from the frontline in the War on Terror'), now look at the faceless young Afghani men riding on that truck in the dusty wasteland they call home. They're not riding on a horse, and at no point in this book do we see Paul McGeough (it's pronounced "McGO") ride a horse, a donkey or a ruminant.

This volume of short reports is the "director's cut" vis-a-vis the reports that appeared with his by-line during 2001 and 2002 in The Sydney Morning Herald, McGeough's employer at the time. And so, in a sense, this is the literary journalistic take on the same events that were described in those reports which are, of course, not included here for the reader's convenience. But it's not really material. The important thing to note is how early so much was known about Iraq (there were no weapons of mass destruction writes McGeough in his 2002 reports, both the ones herein and the others, those he feverishly wired back to Sydney for inclusion in the next day's newspaper).

Iraq is not the only target of McGeough's focus. There's also Afghanistan and Palestine. The man casts his net wide in his search for the definitive briefing on known, and controversial, troublespots in the Middle East. He's Johnny-on-the-spot. He's in the hot seat. He's got the good oil. But did his readers listen to him? No doubt some did. But there was, of course, that other Johnny - John Howard, the Australian prime minister at the time - who was passionately, repeatedly and deceitfully petitioning Parliament in Canberra for the right to send troops to serve, alongside those from the US, on the frontline in the Mesopotamian desert, along the banks of the mighty Tigris, and within the confines of the ancient Persian city whose name translates as "the fair garden".

As McGeough was traipsing around what was purportedly a chemical-weapons factory and finding nothing, Howard, Blair and Bush were doing their utmost to convince the lawmakers and citizens of their countries that the reports like those he sent back from the frontline were wrong. There were WMDs. They were ready to deploy within 45 minutes. Their targets were Israel and possibly Europe. All McGeough got from his visit to the plant were images of run-down fertiliser and oil production facilities. He describes them in his reports. The reports are ignored by politicians and readers. Years later, the US finally admits that there were no WMDs as they hunker down for a long struggle against a determined foe who uses improvised explosive devices and suicide vests to wreak havoc in markets and on streets the Western politicians will never have to visit. The term "collateral damage" comes into common use. McGeough never anticipated the guerilla warfare that would ensue as he raced, half-asleep, across the desert in Iraq's west toward the Jordanian border.

In Jordan he buys jewellery as a present for his wife before flying back to New York and the comforts of life in the extraordinary metropolis that serves as his base station. The first report in the book is from Ground Zero in 2001. The final report is from the same place a year later. We forget the level of emotion people operated on in those days, the high drama of foreign attack on Western soil, the tributes to firefighters, policemen and office workers - over 2750 of them - who perished in the rubble of the collapsing Twin Towers and from illness resulting from the destruction.

McGeough also visits Afghanistan, where US forces are fighting against the Taliban. After almost getting shot while riding on the back of a truck, McGeough is soon off again on another frontline adventure. But before he leaves he tells us about his fellow journalists, many of whom he has met beforehand, in other theatres of war. The same men and women travelling around the world filing quick reports from various hot-spots, hopping aboard dusty cars, boarding creaky aircraft, searching out viable power points with which to recharge their trusty laptops. It's an intimate and unforgettable tableau, and is most definitely more memorable than the action they are there to talk about. This sense of being "insiders" in an unfolding drama has an unquenchable appeal for the reader.

More important, perhaps, would have been to have stayed longer to do a sustained report that would make the reality of the fighting stronger on the page, and in the offices and homes back in the West. Harder to justify, naturally. Back home, McGeough's editors are ever hankering after the most up-to-date and topical information to serve up to their readers. And the overall impression from the book is a sort of impotent detachment. McGeough has important things to report, no doubt. There's the seeming invincibility of the Afghani Taliban, for one. There are also the empty "weapons" factories he enters and describes when he's in Baghdad. Then there are the quietly-suffering Palestinian families living near the Israeli border inside Gaza. The journalist's reports are all accurate and interesting, but the most compelling elements of the book are those that deal with his colleagues, with the logistics of transport and supply, with his encounters with armed men who could suddenly become dangerous to life and limb.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Review: The Most Revolutionary Act, Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall (2010)

While self-published in the US, this interesting memoir opens and ends in New Zealand, the country Bramhall chose to reside in after experiencing decades of what she understood - and understands - to be a sustained and potentially lethal campaign of harrassment by shadowy US secret services. Intriguingly subtitled 'Memoir of an American Refugee', this is a fascinating account of struggle on the part of an activist in the face of perceived interference by forces unknown, unnamed and, unfortunately, possibly somewhat imaginary.

I received the review copy in the mail from New Zealand after Bramhall identified this blog as a potentially sympathetic vehicle for her book. When I asked why she chose it, she said it was due to what she perceived as my politics, which is something that may on occasion be perceptible in the writings here. I have never declared my preferred voting intentions, however. But you know that you can fool some of the people only some of the time... .

What Bramhall describes is of interest to those who, like me, do not participate in activism. Bramhall's activism targeted a number of causes in her home town of Seattle, the capital of the Pacific north-west state possibly best known for producing the Starbucks coffee chain, Microsoft Corp. and the late-90s 'grunge' style of rock'n'roll. But the white, middle-class image the city enjoys is not globally applicable. Bramhall chose to support the establishment of an African American museum and cultural centre, for example, after a fellow citizen decided to occupy a disused school building in an inner-city suburb. Then there was the "single-payer" health insurance scheme she yearned for - as a practicing psychologist Bramhall saw first-hand how some US social elements are disenfranchised by dominant private health-care providers. For the record, "single-payer" means that there is a single pool of funds - donated, say, by individuals, the government, or private companies - from which reimbursements are made after health care services are delivered.

Because of her participation in these causes, Bramhall says she had to cope with agents trying to infiltrate and destabilise the movements, but also crank calls (for years), theft of property, break-ins, poisoning, and attempts to kill her while she was driving her car in the streets.

Most interestingly, Bramhall chronicles what appears to have been a psychotic episode as a result of which she was briefly hospitalised. As a medical professional she has an obligation to ensure that her mental state does not adversely affect her patients, as ill health would certainly do. She was strongly encouraged to commit herself into the care of a psychiatric unit by a colleague, who threatened to have her struck off as a practitioner if she didn't comply with his request. Bramhall fiercely resents this action, and attributes it to the same malevolent causes as the other meddlings in her life.

But what is so interesting for the reader is that she recounts the process leading up to her hospitalisation in enormous detail, and the prognosis is strongly in favour of psychosis. Why? The level of "interference" she describes could not have been orchestrated by any government body as it was too unlikely that it was so. She describes receiving messages from her television while watching cable news, for example. After leaving the house, she describes receiving messages from homeless people in the street. A particular visual input would "suggest" to her to behave in a particular way.

What Bramhall describes are "ideas of reference". During psychosis, the subject remains mentally fixed on a certain idea, or complex of ideas. All sensory inputs begin to reference this in some way. So that a TV advertisement, if it is shown, say, several times in quick succession, can make the subject feel that she has to do something in order to avert some sort of disaster. The universe, as it were, "speaks" to the subject. It "comes alive". This can be by turns pleasurable or frightening, as published accounts have clearly shown. Bramhall's book contains a particularly vivid account of psychosis, and she talks about the pleasure she felt as she wandered about the city following the indications expressed by her world.

Going to hospital to get emergency help was, without doubt, the best thing she could have done under the circumstances she found herself in. Of those who don't do so, a number die when their ideas of reference bring them into violent physical contact with civil authorities. We know this, because it gets reported in the news with depressing regularity.

Other interference was probably true rather than imagined. It is not surprising to read that an activist group becomes infiltrated by an agent who is bent on defeating its aims. What Bramhall describes in this case is a sustained campaign to create chaos in the groups she worked for, and prevent them from reaching their goals. As for the crank calls and break-ins, these are even more sinister. They may be tied to the same cause. For the single mother of a young child, they must have been frightening to experience. What is striking about Bramhall's account, however, is that it is so detailed and complete.

It is also rapid and unrelenting. The drawback of this style - though the prose is admirable and eminently coherent - is that conclusions the author makes are not necessarily shared by the reader, who is occasionally confused due to the rapidity with which the narrative proceeds. While Bramhall could have been kinder to her readers, she is without doubt a skilled prose stylist, and one able to sustain a complex story over hundreds of pages. Because the implications of the book are so compelling - secret government agents meddling in the life of a law-abiding individual - the reader is drawn to complete the book.

Before being allowed to board the flight to New Zealand, Bramhall describes being personally searched by an airport official. In tears, she leaves her country to embark upon her new life in a kinder, more liberal place.

Bramhall's suspicions about the US government are complex and broad-ranging. They include, for example, the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963, which she chose to become expert in and to teach at a community college in Seattle. Then she ascribes initial interest on the part of the secret services in her case to her involvement in the notion that AIDS cures were already available in the 1980s and that they were prevented from being dispensed to carriers of the virus by malevolent elements in government. But also, she suspects that AIDS was developed in a military laboratory in Maryland.

So she also has a low opinion of the mainstream press, which she accuses of being a dupe. She is an indefatigable questioner, a seeker, a square peg. And, she says, she had always been like this. It wasn't until she decided to become involved in activism that she began to realise her true potential as an individual. As such, the book charts the psychology of activism. Why do some people find it necessary to question the very foundations of society? Why is it that the only way they can be happy is by participating, with others akin to them, in activities that reach far beyond their own, individual interests? It is a fascinating area of enquiry, and this extraordinary book gives the reader much to think about and ponder.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Review: Travels with Herodotus, Ryszard Kapuscinski (2007)

What would this strange beast resemble? Consider, first, that it's a memoir by a retired foreign correspondent reflecting over his life's travels. In addition, the journalist talks about a particular book he has always enjoyed reading. The book is by a Greek traveller who, says Kapuscinski, invented reportage during the 4th century BCE. The Polish author has a high opinion of the Greek's work. If the ancient writer was not a good one why, then, would he, Kapuscinski, spend so much time reading - and reflecting upon - the product of the man's life of wandering around Asia Minor, north Africa, and the Mediterranean?

Kapuscinski goes farther afield than this, of course. He starts as a cub reporter by getting himself despatched to India following the post-WWII rapprochement between that country and Poland, an Eastern Bloc state that was trying to find itself following the exhausting conflict just over, but which still finds itself under the sway of Russia, its gigantic Eastern neighbour. With no knowledge of English, the young Kapuscinski buys a Hemingway novel in order to improve his chances of gleaning information from the locals. Needless to say, he doesn't get very far in his earnest quest. But, as they say, from little things big things grow.

China is the young man's next destination. It wasn't that he wanted, he says, to visit any particular country. That was never his plan. His initial desire, he says, was to "cross the border". Picking up a copy of Herodotus' The Histories (the title is a misnomer, he avers) results in the writer crossing yet another border, this time the one that separates us from the past. It also seems to stand, for Kapuscinski, as a citadel inside which a man's dreams may be discovered if he has the tenacity required to cross the threshhold and venture inside.

Kapuscinski quotes liberally from The Histories, a book which reports in especially rich detail on the various wars fought between the Greeks and the Persians. Here he stands in a position something akin to the ever-present narrator in a TV documentary about the Middle Ages, say, or the Baroque period in European art and culture. He is a witness first, then a guide. We trust him to provide a truthful account of Herodotus as well as interpret the meaning of this unusual - unique, even, if we are to believe him - ancient text.

As in a TV doco which only runs for a few hours, there is no clear pathway to understanding Herodotus. We rely completely on Kapuscinski to carry our attention along through the thickets of meaning that are buried in the book. Herodotus touches on the relationship between the despotic East and the democratic, argumentative, messy West. And his particular attention to ancient wars seems to carry with it a judgement of another kind, especially when it is married with other narrations - the ones where the Pole enters a country like the Democratic Republic of Congo which was, in the 1980s when he was there, riven by civil conflict.

Kapuscinski spent a lot of his time reporting from Africa, which is a place most of us have never visited and probably never will. So Herodotus' book may be considered a sort of proxy ledger of pains and judgements. And so the rapid de-colonisation of African states in the 1960s resembles in its trajectory a domino effect, with one state's independence, internal conflict, struggle for governance, and military coup leading to those of the next. Throughout this process of self-realisation, Kapuscinski can be seen scampering here and there - on foot, on donkeys and horses, in cars and on the back of trucks - searching, always, for a reliable wire service that will allow him to transmit his reports back to Poland via London, and so justify the expense of his upkeep in one foreign country after another.

The style and structure of the book are loose, resembling an elderly individual's rambling conversation. It's as though he were so confident of his command of his material that he gives himself considerable latitude, and forgives himself sections that appear to be very inexactly anchored to the rest of the narrative. At times, I felt that the book might be a masterpiece. At other times, I sensed that he just didn't care enough to make it truly good, as though, in his seniority, he could afford not to care any more whether his final, extended, report was worth reading at all.

It is, of course. For fans of his writing, like me, the book has the trademark Kapuscinski "feel" about it, in its unhurried digressions, its pinpoint-accurate accounts of events and places and people, its studied casualness of tone. It's most basically an account of a friendly relationship - a soul-mate relationship, even - between one writer and another, long dead. And there's also a link of familiarity between the dead Polish author and the living blogger, who writes this post knowing that he will, one day soon, take up an already-read Kapuscinski so as to find out something about the world that he didn't already know.

Friday, 27 August 2010

In the polymorphous Other of Paris a polyglot career diplomat and sometimes-secret operative named James Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) lives his life of shadows and deceit. From his point of view, it's too staid out here in Froggie-Land. A French fiancee and the occasional undercover operation? These are not enough to satisfy his bounding ambition. Able to speak a half-dozen languages fluently, he wants yet more. He wants to be a member of the elite, the sworn special-ops agents that America - and every other country, it seems - stations overseas to do the undisclosed for their faceless masters.

Enter Charlie Wax (John Travolta), a bull-headed, nimble-handed, iconoclastic and well-armed pawn in the great game our politicians tell us to love: counter-terrorism. It may be a strange and forbidding world out there in mainland Europe, but America has an equally strange and even-more forbidding weapon in its arsenal of intercontinental policing. And he's here, in Paris, with a bag full of soda cans and some grievous attitude.

The cans are what get Wax in trouble with French customs. Reece arrives, slaps a diplomatic sticker on the gear and the two bravos roll out into the dark continental streets in a big black car. But before Reece can get the bearings of his new role, Wax has him pull up at the kerb in front of a Chinese restaurant. By the time they leave there will be a mass of dead bodies, a shitload of spent cartridges, and a blue ceramic vase a quarter-filled with high-quality cocaine. Reece spends half the film carrying the vase around as they track down their quarry: a cell of Pakistani terrorists who use the drugs to fund their nefarious enterprise of death.

With these terrorists, we're a long way away from the well-liked local boys who gathered one day back in July 2005 to create fear and death on the London metropolitan railway. In From Paris With Love (dir Pierre Morel, 2010), there's a slumland apartment that has been turned into a specialised laboratory for making explosive vests to be worn by the hardened jihadis that screenwriters Adi Hasak and the well-known filmmaker Luc Besson have devised in order to entertain a blue-and-red blooded American audience.

There's an intimate feel to the movie, too. It's got a cartoon simplicity that is underscored by the fact that the baddies are all Chinese or Pakistani. And then there's the fact of having selected John Travolta to play the rough diamond, Wax. We're regaled with references to the actor's famous role in Quentin Tarantino's 1997 blockbuster Pulp Fiction when his suited minders appear out of the darkness bearing a bag with take-away hamburgers from a local McDonalds. 'Royale with cheese' is a commonplace in film language, nowadays.

Oh, well. But the simplicity, which will be of service to its intended, small-town American audience, does not make the film into a silly pastiche. The campness is light and not overbearing. There's a lot of knowingness involved, as well, as when Reece's fiance catches a glimpse of the pair in an elevator in one of the seedy quarters of the city they land in. Reece explains to Wax that he has to talk to Caroline (Kasia Smutniak) as he's relieving a prostitute's unfortunate customer of his mobile charger. Wax just laughs and tells him to watch the shop across the road as he dallies with the girl they've procured from the pimp in the laneway below.

There are a lot of laneways, unkempt streets, rooftops, stairways and highways in this movie, where modernity's favourite conveyance, the automobile, is accorded a precedence it has undoubtedly deserved and that storytellers love to use to engage us with. The two men are always on the way to someplace else. Equally, the filmmakers have deliberately given Paris a waystation feel. The forces of international terrorism exploit the city by staging there exchanges of drugs for money, and money for high explosives. Another thing that's exchanged in the city is the ideology of submission to God's will that allows a young woman to strap on a belt holding a lethal device and go to a meeting of African diplomats and American politicians.

Amid all this uncertainty and movement there's little stability. It comes from an unlikely quarter. On the one hand you've got Wax, whose propensity for sudden movement is inexhaustible but who loves Frank Sinatra. On the other hand you've got the handsome, lovelorn Reece, who anchors the viewer in the story because he's just like one of us.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Did you ever wonder what a film would look like if it showed the way suburban cynicism bumped up against urban sleaze? It wouldn't take the form of savage expressions of disbelief from an ordinary, aspirational and law-abiding couple sitting around the breakfast table of a morning and reading about the latest examples of inner-city crime and governmental corruption in the New York Post. No. If you really wanted to explore how the 'burbs related to the other place - the place where high-rise apartments are nestled among high-end bars and other places of entertainment - you would turn your friendly neighbours into James Bond and Mata Hari.

To give Date Night (dir Shawn Levy, 2010) credit where it's due, I did reach the end of the film. That's actually not trivial.

Steve Carell plays Phil Foster, an accountant, alongside Tina Fey as real-estate agent Claire Foster. They're run-of-the-mill thirty-somethings with two kids, a mortgage, jobs that pay the bills, and a flagging relationship where sex has become an optional extra amid the unending grind of modern living. Their usual dinner-out schtick is to eye off couples at nearby tables and report to each other in hushed tones what they think is the real situation there. But on this night, after taking another couple's booking at an upscale restaurant ("Claw, you're welcome," is the telephone greeting by its uber-snooty front staff, who are very funny) they are approached by a pair of goons who want to talk about "Mr Mileto"'s missing flash drive.

It's an unlikely scenario for two people of their ilk but the are drawn into the mayhem despite their incredulity and protestations of innocence. Claire doesn't even know what a 'flash drive' is - "You mean the computer sticky thing?" she asks disbelievingly.

Particularly fun in the film is Holbrooke Grant, a buff, shirtless bravo who runs special ops internationally and lives in a sleek loft apartment in central Manhattan. Claire knows him because she showed him some properties once. They visit him because they need to know the real identity of the Triplehorns, the couple whose table booking they snaffled.

Meanwhile, the cops are on their trail. It turns out that the two goons are, also, cops - bent ones on the payroll of corrupt district attorney Frank Crenshaw. The Fosters make a rapid escape in Holbrooke's white Audi convertible, a car they proceed to trash in an unlikely chase through the crowded streets of New York's heavily-populated island centre. Two cars locked by their front bumper-bars tooling along at high speed through the streets of downtown? Yes, it's unlikely. But it fits with the general goofiness of the plot, which also finds the Fosters fronting up to an exclusive strip club posing as workers, not customers.

They know that Crenshaw is inside and they want to talk with him, get the goons off their case, and return home to their two adorable munchkins so they can pay the babysitter and get on with their weekend.

It's all a whole lot of fun and Carell and Fey are excellent as the disbelieving duo from New Jersey who suddenly find themselves involved in some particularly nasty municipal dealings. Lives are never at risk but there are moral and political issues at play here which are worth exploring. The relationship of the outer suburbs to the grimy centre is one of distrust and fear in a lot of cities in the developed world. This film takes all the cliches - drawing them haphazard from film and other popular culture products - and injects a heavy dose of unreality so that the suburban world view comes out firmly on top.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

KatWinShott - the three party-busting cowboys from regional New South Wales and Queensland: Bob Katter, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott - are turning the big house upside down by placing a different set of demands on the table before declaring which of the major parties they will support in the wake of the recent election.

Note how the evening news has changed. There's no longer a reliance on mind-numbingly dull press conferences where the relevant leader tries as hard as possible to score points against the other group. No more sound bites and repetitious slogans (tick). What we see instead are shots of party leaders sitting around tables, talking (tick).

The three have the power to give government to either the Labor Party or the Liberal-Nationals Coalition. In addition, there's the newly-elected renegade Nationals MP from Western Australia, Tony Crook, who wants to sit on the crossbenches as well. And then there's the likely winner of the seat of Denison, in Tasmania, the independent Andrew Wilkie. He has not declared his hand either but refuses to sit with KatWinShott, which he says is a de-facto party with three factions. And then we have the Greens' Adam Bandt, who has declared for Labor.

The demands KatWinShott have made are of a different order from what we're used to. Already, commentators have expressed frustration at the new paradigm that is ruling Australian politics (at least temporarily). The knives are being sharpened.

But the three are armouring themselves with mildness and conciliation (tick). They want to talk with portfolio holders - the ministers and shadow ministers current in the caretaker mode administration. They want costings to be released to them. They want to reform Question Time, political donations, TV advertising rules. (Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.)

They're asking to be allowed to do something to address the voters' dissatisfaction with 'the system', and these requests are part of that push to increase transparency and to make Parliament more representative of the People.

They want private members' bills to be given more space in Parliament, for example (tick). After all, there's no mention in the Constitution of political parties but it is the parties that are the major focus of the status quo. KatWinShott says this is a perversion of the system.

Rob Oakeshott also says that multi-party governments are the norm elsewhere, so why not here?

So while the punters continue to watch the polls carefully and the party leaders continue to make conciliatory noises on and off, let's slow down a little and listen to the voice of reform. It might just be that the result of all this negotiation is a system that better represents what we want, rather than feeding a machine that has clearly come very close to rusting up completely.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Although the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) doesn't tell you this, there are 146 seats that are now clearly assignable to one party or the other. The Coalition and the Labor Party are trending close to two-party-preferred parity.

Labor nominally has 72 seats and the Coalition nominally has 70. We already know that there are three independent MPs and there is one Greens MP.

Of the four remaining electorates - one in Western Australia, one in New South Wales, one in Victoria and one in Tasmania - the Coalition seems to be ahead on the count in three. Labor is leading on the count in the Tasmanian seat of Denison against a successful-looking independent, Andrew Wilkie.

But since postal votes can legally be accepted up to two weeks after polling day, indecision looks set to continue into the near future. In the meantime, the three independents have travelled to Canberra - or are now on the way there - to start discussions with the major parties about setting up a Parliament.

Stability is key. Tony Windsor from the seat of New England said so many times last night on the ABC's Q & A program and Rob Oakeshott from the neighbouring seat of Lyne echoed the notion. There's no point in establishing a government that will collapse in three weeks' time, to paraphrase Windsor.

Windsor also said that broadband would not be the main thing to sway him either to support the conservatives or to support Labor. But Oakeshott said that, given a choice between the Coalition's policy and Labor's he would of course choose Labor's more expensive one as being best for the bush. Bob Katter hasn't appeared as much as the others, but there's little doubt that he would follow suit with similar remarks, given the chance.

All three of the independents used to be National Party MPs before jumping ship. But those who desire to see a Coalition minority government get up should keep in mind that, as Annabel Crabb wrote in her The Drum piece, 'The String Bag and the Octopus', there are never such bitter rivals as erstwhile confederates.

The 'real' situation is actually even less stable, with the AEC saying that there are five undecided seats.

There are, as Windsor said last night, so many permutations and possibilities that those who remain unaligned - the Greens' Adam Bandt has called for the Labor Party already - would be unwise to declare their intentions in terms of aligning themselves with one party or the other at this stage in the negotiations.

Elsewhere, the tally counters on The Australian and the Fairfax masthead websites have finally come into synch, removing a source of confusion for the average punter. That person might have drawn some solace from the sight of a crocodile snatching a piece of meat hung under a picture of Julia Gillard on the weekend - a wink at Paul the Octopus and his tentacled prognostications for the World Cup in South Africa.

Whichever way this turns out it's pretty clear that the electorate has cursed both major parties. The Greens increased their share of the vote in both houses and will have massive power after 1 July 2011 when the current batch of newbies enters the Senate. There's a lot of agreement over the reasons for Labor's defeat and the most-remarked of these - the back-down on the carbon tax and the political assassination of Kevin Rudd - are signs of a lack of courage, as Luke Wallage has shown on The Drum.

Anna Bligh has spoken of the "NSW disease" in reference to poll-driven, focus-group policy-on-the-run as practiced by the faceless men of Sussex Street. It's time to see how conviction politicians of the likes of Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott, Bob Katter and Adam Bandt function in a Parliament that would be - as Oakeshott said last night on the ABC's Lateline - "one by-election away from disaster".

Monday, 23 August 2010

Review: War at the Wall Street Journal, Sarah Ellison (2010)

Ellison says that Rupert Murdoch failed to honour his pledge to maintain editorial independence at the Wall Street Journal after purchasing it.

The assertion comes late in the book, after the negotiations are complete and the deal is done. She doesn't say so in so many words, of course, but knowledge of this important fact would not come as a surprise to those who regularly read any websites or newspapers published by this highly-visible newspaper proprietor's media assets.

What is surprising, though, is how entertaining the book is. It can't have been easy to write. Ellison discloses her sources at the end of the book. She had access to senior editors of the newspaper and to members of the owning Bancroft family. But she also had access to senior players on the Murdoch side as well.

Starting decades before mention of the deal became public, Ellison demonstrates how it all transpired. Small rifts within the family - many of whose members believed strongly in protecting the newspaper in perpetuity by holding onto their shares - grew and then blossomed once Murdoch's offer to purchase the property became known. The share price of the Wall Street Journal was flat, and had been flat over many years, when Murdoch said he would pay $60 per share for the paper. Given the breadth of the shareholding and the willingness of some family members to get more value out of their prize property, it was only a matter of time before the sale went ahead, Ellison tells us.

It's not an easy book to read. There are a lot of active players, for a start. But with a little effort and concentration this crisply-written book comes to life and I found it hard to put down once negotiations got under way. It seems as though Ellison was privy to every important meeting of family members, the bankers who rallied to speed the deal, the lawyers working on both sides of the negotiation, and News Corp executives working on behalf of their fanatically-driven boss.

We're taken to places we've never been. We hear conversations we could never otherwise overhear. And we're presented with a modus operandi that would have seriously embarrassed Murdoch had such details become public at any time during the deal's gradual closing.

This is an impressive book and, for those who are interested in how this prominent man operates his media properties, essential reading.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Election results are rarely as tight as this one and it's fairly certain that despite the rumblings from Coalition leaders about their having won the overall largest number of votes nationally, the Governor-General will be faced with a difficult decision come next week when she has to decide which leader to ask to form a government.

At the moment it looks as though there will be three rural independents (Rob Oakeshott, Bob Katter and Tony Windsor) plus one Left-leaning independent (Andrew Wilkie) in addition to the new Greens MP for Melbourne, Adam Bandt.

All of these MPs will be in favour of the National Broadband Network, which the Coalition has campaigned strongly against.

On other issues, the rural MPs would be likely to side with the Coalition, especially on such issues as gay marriage. On such issues, Wilkie would most likely favour a more progressive stance than the current Labor policy allows for. Needless to say that Bandt would favour gay marriage if it came to a vote in the Lower House. Ditto on all counts for a carbon tax.

It's early days, yet, however. There remain about 1.8 million pre-poll votes to count, including over 800,000 postal votes. These votes will be critical in determining the final constitution of the Lower House.

Even if the Coalition is asked to form a government, the Upper House will be dominated by the Greens. The result in practical terms will be centrist legislation designed to appeal to a broad cross-section of society. In the medium term - given an inability to pass legislation through both Houses - it is also possible that there will be a double dissolution - a measure that Kevin Rudd is not doubt wishing he had availed himself of a year ago when his climate bill was refused a second time in the Senate.

Both the Labor Party and the Coalition will now be shopping ideas to the five oddly-matched winners.

In Tasmania recently, we saw the Governor ask the Labor Party to form a government despite the fact that it won fewer votes than the Coalition in aggregate. This was because the Greens publicly said that they would not block supply in the Lower House. This declaration was enough to convince the Governor that a Greens-Labor coalition could work. So far, it has worked.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

This movie (The Burning Plain, 2009) takes you further than the classical Romeo & Juliet scenario because it examines what happens to the survivors of the original deaths. And it's got other things to recommend it, too. Kim Basinger (in pic with Joaquim de Almeida) plays Gina, a small-town US housewife with too many children and a husband who doesn't give her the attention she craves since her mastectomy.

But Nick Martinez does. They are passionate lovers: gentle, aware, concerned, susceptible to the smallest change in tone and ready to give it air before the next kiss. It's a bravura performance by both actors and, alone, makes this strange little movie a must-see.

In Sylvia (Charlize Theron) we see the effects of partaking too deep of a bitter harvest. As a young girl using her real name, Mariana (played by Jennifer Lawrence), she took the ultimate revenge against her mother by torching the remote trailer in which the two lovers were enjoying one of their regular trysts. Her reaction is odd. Instead of helping to perpetuate the feud that has sprung up between the two families in the wake of the deaths, she seeks out Nick's son, Santiago (JD Pardo).

They become lovers in a touching series of scenes where youth combines with Mariana's odd experience to forge a deep bond that survives exposure. When it comes, the two lovers flee despite the fact that she is already pregnant. Mexico beckons and they respond to its call by driving south in a battered pickup truck.

The plot then shifts forward 12 years and across thousands of kilometres to rainy seaside Orgeon. Sylvia now works as the manager of a high-end restaurant and takes revenge on her younger self by getting into a series of destructive relationships with men she doesn't care about. The curse of buried hatred follows her even here and she cannot escape its tendrils.

When Santiago's crop duster crashes and he is hospitalised, he asks his friend Carlos (José María Yazpik) to find his daughter's mother in America. With the 12-year-old in tow, Carlos makes the voyage north and confronts Sylvia, who is initially troubled by their appearance and rudely rejects them only to change her mind upon reflection. Finally, the sensible daughter breaks the chains of the curse and the three return to Mexico and to Santiago's bedside in the hospital.

It's a complicated plot and it takes a good three-quarters of the film to link everything together because the director (Guillermo Arriaga) treats the two strands of the story - Nick and Gina with young Mariana; Sylvia and Carlos with young Maria - separately, as though they were completely unconnected narratives. When we finally make the Sylvia-Mariana connection the story suddenly morphs into a morality tale and we appreciate how it could apply to many other situations in the world. Relations between nations, for example. The sins of the fathers are, indeed, visited upon the sons.

There is strong acting in this unconventional and, unfortunately, mainly invisible film, primarily from Basinger and Theron but also from de Almeida and Robin Tunney (who plays Sylvia's friend Laura). Together with fine directing these performances serve to generate a feeling of expectancy that is rewarded by fine cinematography.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

If fish could vote, the Liberal Party would be thoroughly battered at the election to be held on Saturday. Crumbs! Just think - if this little guy looks angry imagine how he'd cast his vote if he had the opportunity to do so.

Last week, for example, Tony Abbott was in central Queensland, with one of his daughters, where he could be seen filleting barrumundi and promising to block any more marine parks along Australia's seemingly-endless coastline. It's a blatant stab at the Greens and must feel like a dagger held at the heart to our finny friends, like this little guy. Thank Log they can't make out much of what happens this side of the molecular divide.

The Australian Marine Sciences Association can, though, and they tell us that the country's exclusive economic zone consists of 11 million square kilometres. It's the third largest in the world. And Australia, furthermore, has obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity to establish, by 2012, a network of marine protected areas.

The convention settled on a figure of 10 percent of the world's ecological regions in 1992, when it was ratified by 192 states and the European Union. So "at least" 10 percent of our globe must be set aside for conservation of species, including fish. Time's running out.

Others are asking the two people who are competing for our votes this week to step up and declare measures, including marine parks, to protect biodiversity. A group of 142 scientists has signed an open letter to Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard "stressing the importance of networks of marine protected areas, and their strong scientific basis".

The email landed in my inbox this morning. And it's not just a couple of aquatic nerds out begging for a bit of promotional oomph in a lame attempt to get some undeserved media air. It's a well thought-out plea for more consideration by the two prospective leaders not to destroy the small gains achieved under the current government.

It also makes good sense.
Scientific studies have confirmed several ‘common sense’ outcomes. Where areas are effectively protected (and that does mean that compliance measures must be in force) harvested species (fish, for example) tend to be older, larger and more abundant . In a few cases statistically significant evidence of a beneficial effect of marine reserves cannot be found largely because of inadequate data, or insufficient time for effects to clearly manifest, not because there are actually no effects. This is particularly important because, unlike many land dwelling vertebrates, larger females tend to be more effective breeders (often much more effective).

Monday, 16 August 2010

Review: War, Sebastian Junger (2010)

The grunts in Battle Company think that Pakistan is waging a war against America in Afghanistan, so when a higher-up orders a retaliatory airstrike on a position across the border - Battle Company, where Junger is embedded, is located in Konar Province hard up against the Pakistani border - they cheer loudly. "Finally," they think.

Junger gives us access to many - usually invisible - elements of the American campaign, including Prophet, a signals feed that constantly monitors radio transmissions in the Korengal Valley. But he doesn't tell us in what language the insurgents are talking, Pashtun or Arabic. We get the impression that there are a lot of foreign fighters coming across the border from Pakistan, but we don't learn much more about them. So it's hard to corroborate details gleaned from this book against information from other stories, some in the news, that are current or have been current.

I imagine single figures exiting cover, as seen from a vantage point across the narrow valleys that characterise this part of the globe. They flit across open spaces, all the time watching for signs of life in the distance. They don't carry guns - the American terms of engagement stipulate that you can't fire on an unknown person unless they're carrying a gun. The figure passes behind the trees. A few minutes later, another figure appears, looks around, disappears.

Junger gives you this kind of access to the secrets of battle and he has taken the hard road to wisdom by going to a part of the theatre of war that is more often attacked than other parts. He's in the thick of it, and his stories show the strains on the soldiers of the constant anxiety.

Surprisingly, however, there's also the constant fight against boredom. Not fighting can be as hard on morale - if not harder - than fighting itself is. Not fighting might be the result of a slow local economy: poor crop yields may mean no money for ammunition. What Junger is able to show is the human, intimate, side of war. It is fought by men and women, not by generals sitting in offices in far-removed central command posts with press attaches and hot coffee on-call.

Of course, they are the ones who gave Junger access, but they feature rarely in the book. When the Army bureaucracy does feature at all it seems to be too detached and alien. The drama of fighting the enemy has nothing to do with broader logistical or political issues, and everything to do with the men you live - and die - with.

The high-altitude outpost Junger often inhabits is named Restrepo, for example. That was the name of a senior soldier who was killed in action. It may be an ugly and uncomfortable place to live in, but there's no point complaining. Camerarderie demands cohesion. Proximity breeds camerarderie. You fight for your mates, not your country.

And this is the point: the broad-focus analyses of the policies and politics behind the Afghan war disappear amid the humdrum details of quiet days when the enemy is absent and the savage intensity of mortal combat when the enemy engages - usually without any preliminaries to allow you to get comfortable with the idea. The men with clean uniforms are displaced from our field of attention by the men who shoot their machine guns while dressed in their underpants. The White House press conference is replaced by the silence of the forest in the pre-dawn dimness as Battle Company prepares for another day of reconnaissance and, possibly, conflict.

It's a good book with a lot to say about the stupidity and logic of war, but also about its allure. And Junger doesn't pull his punches. He shows us how the troops haze a newly-arrived commander, the practical jokes they play on one another, the frenzy of weathering an attack. It's this intimacy we become privy to that removes the plasticised cognates of the official "line" that we normally get through the press, like removing a fake fingerprint with a pair of tweezers. With the new set of cognates he provides - fixed firmly in place - we are able to enter a new realm where different principles are important.

It's the things of this realm that we're asked to remember when, at annual remembrance ceremonies, we are persuaded to observe a minute's silence. The rhetoric of powerful men and women who are engrossed in geopolitics fade away like a bad dream. So, what is a better vision for the future? Parhaps, this: in Afghanistan men and women died fighting because they were told to go and serve. They served - and their comrades served with them. Let us not forget them.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Great. Now Tony Abbott is asking for another town-hall style debate against Julia Gillard. You sort of wonder why, since it happened that in the wake of the last such effort - which Abbott ostensibly won hands-down - Gillard's personal ranking soared and Labor's overall ranking lifted significantly too, I believe, against the Opposition.

It was big news at the time (like, two days ago).

Now Abbott's "moved on" and he intrepidly desires to come face-to-face once more with a barrage of probing questions unleashed by the disgruntled punters of one of our big cities' outer (read, "marginal") seats.

No use looking at The Australian's addictive Newspoll graph (just scroll down the page a bit below the fold - there it is). The last poll was a week ago and the raw numbers for the most recent poll are not showing up when you mouse over the vertical - as they're supposed to do.

They say a week is a long time in politics. For the political junkie, an hour can seem like a week during the run-up to a federal election, which is a time when we scan the headlines for signs of good tidings and of poor outcomes. It's a time when the websites scream most angelically, especially if your party's got a wire-thin lead and the overall trend for your crowd is up.

At these times, watching the usual suspects on the nightly TV newscast can be especially pleasurable and compelling. They're all there, in the Pack, and while they're honing their two-minute spots to perfection like a bunch of crazed footpath spruikers on a rainy Wednesday night in Kings Cross you're staring glaze-eyed at the LCD display on the entertainment cabinet like an owl with a firm bead on a soon-to-be-dead mouse.

They're the Insiders. Does that make you an Outsider?

A curious choice of words, mused Jay Rosen, a New York University academic and a trusted resource of information and commentary on the health of the media in modern society, during Thursday night's Lateline on the ABC. Today, he tweeted about the program, which screens on Sundays: "Just watched Insiders on ABC: The boys-on-the bus, the insular cult of the savvy, the admiration for operatives."

So, is firing "hard" questions from the centre of the Pack really a good way to keep your readers informed of the issues they need to know about in order to make a sensible choice on 21 August? Rosen thinks it's not. Unfortunately, our addiction to the quick serve of - what we believe is - relevant and cogent information will ensure that this type of "news" will surely prevail over the more substantive, long-form journalism we probably, actually, need.

Where are the editorials about the Commonwealth Bank's massive, $5.66 billion profit announcement made just this week? It takes a blogger such as John Passant to inquire into the import of this unusual and unexpected result. And he's a bit of a Bolshie.

What about the immigration debate? Well, it just happens that David Ritter pretty much nailed it on ABC's The Drum two days ago. Unfortunately, the tabloid headlines echo the broadsheets, and vice versa. So no resonance there, sadly.

But as John Birmingham tells us in one of his trademark op-ed pieces:

When we read the election news online, the software tracking our every click tells us that we're much more interested in faff and celebrity than analysis or reportage. As I type these words, for example, a few clicks of the mouse confirm that 199 people are reading ''Mark Latham Strikes Again'', while nobody is bothering the scorers at the story about Health Minister Nicola Roxon defending shrinking Medicare rebates.
Why, then, should it come as any surprise that hardened pros in the mainstream parties give us what we really want? After all, that's the very essence of democracy.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Winning is everything in politics and sometimes it's also the main game for the media. At least according to Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University.

Rosen visited Australia as a guest of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance this month and spoke at the union's annual Walkley Media Conference, which was held in Sydney. He also spoke to academics and appeared on the ABC's Lateline news commentary program on Thursday night.

Asked about his notion of "horserace journalism", Rosen elaborated at some length, pointing out that it is a very easy way to do journalism compared to concentrating on "what the country needs to settle by electing a prime minister" - in other words, 'issues' journalism.

He illustrated this when asked by host Leigh Sales to explain his experiences. Rosen's exposure to a one-hour 2008 radio documentary changed his perception of stories about the GFC, he said, because it gave him the required set of cognates necessary for understanding the "incremental stories" that appear over time. Rather than being "turned off" by reporting on the GFC, he was now engaged.

But Sales didn't take time to touch on another topic Rosen has been talking about for some years, which is "he said, she said journalism". This is unfortunate, as this aspect of contemporary media practice has a lot to do with that fundamental concept of reporting, which is 'objectivity'.

When I spoke with an old school mate last month about his new book, which I reviewed earlier this month, we talked about his venturing into the realms of creative non-fiction, or literary journalism.

After mentioning an influential writer, Adam said that objectivity is a debatable quantity in journalism. Of course I agreed but then he began to suspect that a can of worms was about to be opened and made his exit, joining others milling about the big room on the top of the cliff where we had congregated to renew contact after a period of 30 years.

Of course it's debatable, which is why Sales frankly disappointed me in missing this chance to update Australia on this seminal thinker's views on a subject that is rarely discussed here, if anywhere.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Funny and fast-witted, Copout (dir Kevin Smith, 2010) is going to take some beating in the entertainment stakes. Action-movie maven Bruce Willis stars as New York City cop Jimmy Monroe and he takes Tracy Morgan, who plays his partner, Paul Hodges, on a long ride into a seemingly endless series of days and nights of extempore law enforcement once his prized baseball card is stolen by Dave (Seann William Scott), an unemployed Gen Y slacker with a taste for parkour, hard drugs, and watching heartbreakingly beautiful sunsets on Long Island.


Monroe desperately needs the cash the card would bring on the memorabilia market to pay for his only daughter's wedding. Pride demands that he get back the card or else put up with seeing his arch nemesis - the step father, Roy (Jason Lee) - get all the kudos by shelling out the required $50,000.

Pride is one thing. But since Dave has given the valuable card to a drug dealer (Poh Boy, played by Guillermo Díaz) who has a perverse taste for baseball, practical demands impose a rough challenge.

Poh Boy offers Monroe a deal: find my lost Mercedes and you get back the baseball card undamaged. So Monroe finds the car. He also finds the girl stashed in the trunk. Then he finds the flash drive containing hundreds of drug business records. And then he loses the girl. Then Poh Boy finds the girl (the car is unimportant by this stage). Undaunted, Monroe and Hodges find the parkour freak who started all the fuss, Dave, so that they can get back the card, save the girl, and accrue brownie points with their boss back at police HQ.

The two cops are in the doghouse due to the disastrous outcome of a bungled sting where a source was killed while a drug deal was under way. The shooter fled with Monroe and Hodges in pursuit, and shots were fired in a public place endangering onlookers.

Hodges was dressed as a mobile phone during the fracas. But the comic element doesn't stop here. There's also the daughter's wedding. And then there's Hodges' lovely wife who he stupidly suspects of being unfaithful. Ah yes, comedy always leans heavily on love for its essential message.

And then there's Dave, the parkour enthusiast and experience junkie with a frustrating talent for annoying people. Hodges is especially riled, partly due to Dave's penchant for repeating everything that's said to him but mostly by being a general pain in the ass.

There's also a pair of slapstick detectives, Hunsacker (Kevin Pollak) and Mangold (Adam Brody) who fail to endear themselves to our heroes by being completely incompetent while at the same time always staying on the good side of the boss. Investigating crime for these two has the tone of a school science project led by a couple of well-behaved but intellectually deficient nerds. They look like they're busy but they never get close to the truth.

Doh Boy's Mexican crime gang is running around in big SUVs armed to the teeth and killing various criminal associates. Hunsacker and Mangold want to crack the case but all they end up doing is getting shot at, laughed at, and fed. While they're dodging bullets and sounding cooly professional, Monroe and Hodges get the intel, save the girl, and give away the bride.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Chinese is the second-biggest language on the internet but it may as well be a minor regional dialect so far as most Westerners are concerned. What are people saying in Chinese and what are they asking their government to do? We don't - and can't - know. For all we know, there have been millions of calls for democracy already put down in pixels.

The government's censors are using advanced tracking tools to monitor keywords and volunteers also monitor what's said in chat rooms, in blog comment threads, and on social media. The influence of the government is expanding, but there's no doubt that people on the street talk about democracy in a Chinese context. Every day.

Now that General Liu Yazhou has come out and said in print what many others are saying privately, we can gauge the strength of democracy's impetus in China. It is strong yet despite the obfuscatory techniques employed by the central government.

Is a Soviet-style implosion on the cards for the Middle Kingdom? Possibly. But other scenarios come to mind. Given its fractious history of regional conflict, it's not hard to imagine a series of localised splits sundering the fabric of the single state so keenly desired by the Communist Party.

Another alternative is global war. We're already seeing signs of a muscular military scuffle developing in the West Pacific as China moves to enhance its influence in its maritime regions. The South China Sea? It's up for grabs, according to the Party. And new-found wealth has enabled the government to spend big on pricey items such as aircraft carriers and jets.

General Liu's vocal position can be nothing other than welcome to China-watchers. Whether it comes to anything in the near- to mid-term is quite another matter, however. Needless to say that journalists like John Garnaut - Fairfax's China correspondent - will be keeping a weather eye on local publications for further signs of liberalisation in the ranks.

Pic credit: Flikr/Rika...Im Loving It!!!

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Review: The Duel, Tariq Ali (2008)

A provocative cover. A subtitle saturated with pathos. A gripping read. But a failure. This is a strange package and one that is motivated by excellent feelings but Ali's book does not convince me of its main premise: that US foreign policy has systematically warped Pakistani politics for over 60 years.

We know this is his goal because he tells us again and again that it is. But what emerges most strongly from the book is that Pakistan's political system is not robust enough to improve the lives of its citizens.

In the West we often say "You get the government you deserve". Here, Ali goes the other way, blaming venal and corrupt politicians for the ills suffered by the millions of ordinary - mostly poor - Pakistanis who emerge to vote (when they're given that option) and who invariably vote in a set of leaders who resemble the last lot in all but name.

If corruption is rife at the top, doesn't that mean it's also present at other levels of the social matrix? Ali says "No". I wonder.

As a piece of literature, the book is impressive. It's a tight, challenging read that demands total concentration, especially for those, like me, who are mainly unfamiliar with the principal cognates of Pakistani politics. You have to keep your head if you want to get through this and also glean whatever is good and durable in the narrative. Don't start thinking about what someone said to you an hour earlier: just keep your head down and read.

This is not a failing. But it's a structural element that betrays Ali's main problem in designing the book. There are two potential readerships, and he has to cater for both. On the one hand there's an educated Westerner with an interest in South Asian society. On the other hand there's the educated Pakistani who understands the ins and outs of his country's political history.

To write for both audiences in the one book means that he has to go fast enough to allow the second class of reader to stay interested. But he has to explain things well enough so that the first class of reader can keep up with him. The result is sometimes extremely dense grammar and syntax that requires your full attention.

No doubt there are hidden bombs here that I just passed over glibly on my way to the end of a chapter. I'll never know. There's just so much good writing available nowadays that it's unlikely I'll buy another book on Pakistani politics for a while. At least I can recognise some of its main events now. That's a good result for a strong, principled author who has been writing about his country for a long time and continues to entertain his readers.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

News today in the media that Julia Gillard's one-woman show as star of the ABC's Q and A hit the screens of over 840,000 viewers. That's small beer compared to reality TV show Masterchef but it's nothing to laugh at in the political stakes.

The showing of the PM in this forum put the traditional televised pollie-on-pollie debate format in the shade. Instead of over-controlled message management as the two politicians face off you get a town-hall style encounter with individual audience members getting answers to their questions. And Tony Jones' mediation plays a vital role by ensuring the politician stays on topic rather than on message.

Gillard talked freely and openly as she answered questions put by a range of people. Jones told us at the show's opening that attendees had been vetted so that there was a balance between those with views on the Right and others with views on the Left.

It was a controlled and genuine performance totally at odds with her performance at the leader's debate a couple of weeks ago, although she seemed to have nailed that one too. But this time the aggro was absent, the topics were broadly canvassed, and the applause rang out inside the small Adelaide auditorium.

Next week, Tony Abbott gets his turn. By then we'll be less than a week away from election day (21 August). It seems unlikely that there will be another leader's debate before that time. But who cares if there isn't? Let the people have their say. It makes for great television.

Monday, 9 August 2010

So what's so ghoulish about Mark Latham becoming - if only for a week or a season - a journalist? Surely members of parliament have the right to re-enter the workforce once a party decides they are past their used-by dates?

Laurie Oakes, as pre-eminent as they come his side of the mocrophones, says that Latham doesn't know "where the line is" and lashed out at his own employer - Channel Nine - which has put Latham on the payroll, after the ex-Opposition leader confronted the current PM on the hustings in typically forthright style.

Latham is also "full of bile", we're told by Oakes - who's always sanguine, as we know. So sanguine that his broadcast sign-off makes him sound as though he's morphing into a neighbouring time zone. But Latham is a different type of ghoul, according to Oakes.

The trouble is that I am not sure Mark Latham knows where the line is. He's not a journalist; he's still full of bile and settling old scores. I don't really think it does 60 Minutes or the network much of a favour really to have him posing as a journalist.

But why should this make any difference? A lot of parliamentarians - at both state and federal level - go into private enterprise once they're done their dash on the public stage. Many go to work at banks, where their inside knowledge of the way governments run is an asset. Banks do business with governments as much as, say in America, do defense contractors.

Latham published a book after he retired from politics. It, too, was lambasted as bilious. He was aggressive when serving the public, most famously when he almost shook the prime minister's hand off when they met by accident at a radio studio.

It's Latham's schtick. Surely, if that's what he's good at, he can do as good a job as a journo as the next bloke. Journalists are known for their aggro, after all. We see it during press conferences. You know? The guy with a question who makes everything he says sound like an accusation of some public scandal.

So let Latham do his schtick and let's just enjoy it. After all, he may even become practised at it and then spend the next fifteen years at his computer keyboard railing against the machinations of the faceless men behind the scenes. It might even be refreshing to see their faces from time to time. It may even improve our democracy.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Mark McInnes must be feeling like a total fool right now. Not only has the ex-David Jones CEO been forced to resign with an apology to the woman he allegedly sexually harassed, but he's now been labelled a sexaholic. He's vowed to fight the charges "vigorously".

David Jones has moved quickly to stem the blood flowing as a result of the massive volumes of publicity being given in the media to all things pertaining to Kirsty Fraser-Kirk, the woman who made the allegation. It has made an offer to Fraser-Kirk to settle out of court. The amount being offered, though, seems unlikely to appeal to the woman.

They're offering, The Sydney Morning Herald tells us, a million dollars. Fraser-Kirk has sought $37 million. She's unlikely to accept this offer.

It's not in the interests of women that she does, moreover. A high-profile case like this can help to promote the issue within the community, where attitudes are still languishing behind our higher expectations.

I spoke with an ex-colleague about this topic a year ago. She had been sexually assaulted. While driving with a colleague he had pulled the car to the side of the road and demanded a blow job, threatening physical harm if she refused. And she believed that the majority of women who are sexually assaulted do not bring charges. It's too embarrasing. It's too hard. It's not worth it short of rape.

Even rape victims often do not speak out, especially in countries where women's rights are ignored due to cultural or religious norms.

So let's hope that David Jones is taken to court. And let's hope that Fraser-Kirk wins. It's in all our interests that women feel comfortable and unthreatened when working - or simply living - in society. We have to live together. Let's give to those men who refuse to respect women's rights a strong sign that their behaviour is not acceptable.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Review: Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer (2009)

What seems to have happened is that after his son was born, the author decided to discover the real truth about animal husbandry and the production of meat. It took him three years. This book is the result.

It's an ambitious and fascinating book. Safran Foer is a novelist who has gone the other way and plunged, headlong, into non-fiction. It's creative non-fiction, which is a (mainly) American mode of writing with strong historical precedents but it's still exceptional enough that, for example, if you go into a bookshop looking for the 'creative non-fiction' section you'll likely find yourself directed to the 'how to write' books. The alternate descriptor, 'literary journalism', will lead you to the literary criticism shelf.

Safran Foer had dabbled in vegetarianism for years before the birth of his son but it was only after discovering the cruelties of industrial farming practices that he finally drew a line in the sand and said "Never more".

Grounding the sections that describe how these farms - which are a 20th century innovation and, thus, an historical anomaly - operate, the author talks mainly about his family. Eating is a communal activity after all. Stories about his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, underpin and finally punctuate the narrative with a force so compelling that the reader may decide to do his or her own research on this massively underreported and extremely newsworthy topic.

But the companies that produce meat - they are mainly companies nowadays, at least in the United States - are highly secretive. And they are so dominant that small-holders have been pushed out of business or coopted into the system. Nevertheless, Safran Foer says that their days are numbered. These inhumane practices are so aberrant and repulsive, he writes, that as knowledge about them grows the only possible result is a consumer backlash.

We'll see. Certainly, this book will make a few people in the industry shake their heads.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Review: Philanthrocapitalism, Matthew Bishop and Michael Green (2008)

Giving money away rarely makes the news unless it's a story about a big lottery win. Or unless Bill Gates is involved. Gates makes many appearances in this book, as he does in the news, and for the same reasons. Since quitting as CEO of Microsoft in 2000, Gates has moved to improve quality of life in the developing world, mostly through donations to scientific research aimed at eradicating a few common diseases.

Many would class this as pure philanthropy, a recognised form of wealth distribution with a long history. The names of prominent foundations, especially in the United States, attests to its longevity. In writing this book, the authors decided to bundle in a few other things with this class of charity, such as corporate social responsibility and social return-on-investment. But the result is less than inspiring.

It's a problem of style, above all. Possibly a year attending creative writing classes would give the prose more flexibility and limberness. You have to wade your way through ugly collections of nouns and verbs snatched from the rulebook of corporate managerialism to get to the core information the book purports to contain. It's a struggle, and I think it's an unnecessary amount of effort.

Despite not being very good writers, the authors managed to get to a second edition. This is because these guys seem to know their stuff. And that's no minor achievement. The breadth of material covered in the book is pretty impressive. It contains in addition to the main narrative, a selection of 'capsules' that give more detail about particular concepts in philanthropy.

It's a pain to use their portmanteau coinage - 'philanthrocapitalism' - because it smacks just a wee bit of hype, which is a class of information I'm not drawn to.

Beyond the masses of detail the book contains, you do not come away with strong memories and in this sense it's a failure. Part of the problem is allied with the hype embedded in the blousy title. You get the feeling that no amount of scepticism about the motivations of rich people who decide to give away lots of money will uncouple the authors' instinct: to praise them.

Sure, the 'issues' are 'addressed' but not in any detail nor in any depth. Above the whole masquerade hangs the smiling face of a fat cat. Its features are changeable, they could belong to any number of wealthy individuals. But as with the Cheshire Cat, the broad, self-satisfied smile remains after everything else has blended in with the name of whichever mandarin is currently being talked about.

You yearn for a more critical angle, a sharper appraisal of the idea of wealth distribution whereby vast sums of money are given away by the few. And you desire more in-depth stories about specific institutions, such as Bill Gates' Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Just who is complaining about the way money is spent? How do we know they are trustworthy? What does the Foundation have to say about its detractors?

Perhaps a follow-up endeavour of merit for these two energetic writers would be a clinical investigation of this one institution. Because in the current book they do not impress from the point of view of exhaustiveness and transparency. It's as though they're afraid to upset powerful individuals who are liable to turn nasty when confronted with suggestions of unethical or improper dealing.

So for those who want a quick and easy overview of some of the main concepts in play in the world of philanthropy, this book can be recommended. For the rest of us, who desire a comprehensive look at the dynamics of a fairly shadowy industry, the book signally fails to impress.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

It was enlightening but above all depressing to read Richard Morgan's risible take on freelancing on US-based website The Awl. It seems as though he finally gave up on the life after seven years. Well, at least this side-splitting report makes you laugh while you cry.

Or anyway you might smile in mild amusement. But beyond the humour the truth is hard to overlook: freelancing is a tough gig. I've been travelling on this road for a year now so I guess if Morgan succumbed to the lure of a desk job after seven years, I'll need to gird myself with happy thoughts and a fair serve of writerly gumption if I'm to avoid the same dismal outcome.

I won't go into all of his travails in detail here - you can read about them yourself (go on, you will smile at his wry sense of fun) - but it's worth noting how sharing disappointment can benefit others.

For me, freelancing is about sales above all, so I don't completely subscribe to his understanding of the freelance writer's total subjection to the vague whims of editors. Editors, for their part, have to answer to someone. Their performance is measured albeit according to different metrics than the writer's. And editors are kept pretty busy in the email department. For every email I send, they'll have a dozen arrivals in their inboxes. Each one has to be read, its merits weighed against publishing priorities, and its sender answered.

Admittedly, it becomes fairly frustrating at times. You send an email to an editor and wait - sometimes for weeks - before getting a solid 'No'. And editors tend to be fairly brief in their communications. A line or two is enough to turn down a pitch, it seems.

Waiting for replies constitutes a significant amount of the freelancer's endeavour, in terms of the attention given to things other than researching, interviewing, transcribing, writing, and editing. It's a hard game to play. And you have to keep track of a lot of themes and stories. You are never just working on one thing at a time.

For me, though, journalism is a calling. It's more than an occupation. There's something bigger at stake beyond the hurly burly of story generation and production. The public sphere is a space that is occupied by a select few. It's my privilege to be counted among them - for now.

Pic credit: Robert Todonai.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Review: The Skull, Adam Shand (2009)

This book is about what makes a virtuous cop. It's set in another era, but that era is so close to ours that you wonder how much of this man called The Skull can still be found in some members of today's police force.

It's a thoughtful rendering of a more rudimentary era the less attractive elements of which have been erased from memory and replaced in retrospective consciousness with certain modes of dressing-up, select song lyrics, and a pulpy affection that coats the more jarring edges of the time with its smooth efflorescence. It is based on five years of interviews with the protagonist - Shand tells us in one of his personal appearances in the book. And while he often recoils from making explicit judgements there is, buried in the language, a distinct tone of approbation for a fairly rough and simple man.

When I met Adam at a school reunion recently, I told him that I had enjoyed his earlier book on the Melbourne gangland killings, Big Shots. That book is about how apparently ordinary people change - a lot - once they start to become involved in organised crime.

This thoughtfulness is also evident in the pace of the books. They are fast-paced, on occasion confusing as it will happen to the reader that Shand refers to a character who had been present earlier in the narrative but who has slipped his or her mind. But this is not a great failing. More important, I think, is that the rapidity of the narrative keeps you thinking. It is likely that some readers will come back later and re-read these books, as they contain more than can comfortably be assimilated in one go.

For Shand is being ambitious. In The Skull, there are many rough characters who do questionable things but underneath the violence lies an enduring need for virtue, for order and sanity, and for society to stay the way it always has always done. To be good at policing, you must needs be a conservative at heart. Enforcing the statutes requires you to be constantly on the lookout for the detail, the anomaly, the tell-tale sign of something afoot.

When we chatted briefly at the reunion, Shand told me about his love of Hunter S. Thompson, the American journalist whose fame is so great in our circles that his book titles have become a staple of the sub-editor's daily spiel. 'Fear and loathing' is a trope so well-used that the subs instinctively lunge for it whenever a headline is required to highlight some out-of-the-ordinary and paranoia-inducing scenario currently playing out in society.

Thompson was also a thoughtful man, despite the glaring surface of his writing. A screaming liberal, Thompson's fame is based on a style of writing developed - out of the profound desperation of the hungry freelancer - in order to grab the attention of the community. He also gravitated toward subjects of such perverse fascination - Hells Angels, San Francisco bohemians - that success became more likely than failure.

Shand has written two books about crime. Now crime is a popular subject, and a lucrative one. The shelves of mainstream bookstores are stuffed to their very edges with true tales of carnage that are wrapped in blood-spattered, garishly-embossed and -inked covers. But what is certain is that his books sit above the crowd in terms of their aspiration and also their execution. For this reason, if you buy The Skull and read it, I'm fairly sure that you will not regret the expense. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

There's something about this election campaign that's making me just shut right down. Madonna King described the problem well on the ABC's Q and A panel discussion show last night. The politicians are focusing on "small-target" issues. The competition is hot but the candidates are making themselves invisible. As small targets, they're less open to criticism, blame, censure.

There was nothing at all small-target about the Q and A audience last night, I must say. Beamed live from Brisbane, the feed showed an engaged and vocal audience unlike the usual, restrained Sydney crowd. Maybe they were just so pleased to have the chance to have their say - they mostly stood up like kids at school to ask their questions, which they read off pieces of paper - or maybe it was just the typical rowdiness of a relaxed and down-to-earth Queensland crowd in operation.

King is a long-time journalist with a history of various postings around the traps. She now works for the ABC in radio, so she's accustomed to explaining things clearly. It makes you appreciate the value of good word choices. Listening to the politicians on the panel swerve away from the question onto one safer patch of ground or another, you appreciate it when someone actually says something neatly, without adornment, and without segueing effortlessly into an attack on someone else.

But you sometimes wish that the atmosphere generated at the Q and A show would trickle down to the party set-pieces organised for the benefit of politicians intent on maximising damage to the opposition whilst minimising their own exposure.

Of course, the history books show that making yourself into a large target can be disastrous. Just think of Mark Latham in the 2004 election, when he imploded spectacularly over a range of issues including logging in Tasmania and funding of private schools. No wonder today's politicians are more circumspect when choosing their form of address.

For my part, there's a small corner of my attention focused on the campaign. There's also a fair slice of guilt aimed at myself over my inability to stay interested. I read a headline on the news website and then blithely click on the story about genital mutilation instead of reading about the latest cuprit in the Rudd-kill leaks scandal. It's hard to keep up your interest when, somewhere else in the world, there is real suffering and real pain and real injustice. Worrying about injecting more stimulus into the booming Australian economy rates low in my mind when over 40,000 Australians are sleeping rough every night.

Perhaps Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, is right when he says journalists are not living up to the high calling they're supposed to be engaged in. Or maybe, like me, they're just not engaged any more. So spare a thought for the poor journalist seated, like a stunned mullet eating jelly snakes, on the campaign bus.