Refugee deal hits the skids

The Australian government, looking to cater to the wishes of the redneck element of the population, drafted a refugee swap deal some months ago, whereby it would send 800 asylum-seekers to Malaysia to be processed.

In return, the government would accept 4000 refugees – people who had been processed through the system – from Malaysia.

The High Court has now struck down this deal after a challenge was launched by a lawyer.

Both sides of politics in Australia use the fear factor to try and drum up votes. Poor foreigners, who are looking to escape tyrannical regimes, are fodder for the spinmeisters in political ranks and few people try to remove the misconceptions that surround this issue.

Boatpeople are what Australia is made up of to a large extent. Everyone here, apart from the Aborigines, is a migrant. Nobody beats up on the people who come here by plane and seek asylum. Nobody beats up on overstaying backpackers, mostly Britons, who come here and then end up as part and parcel of the country, No, it is only the boatpeople who suffer the abuse of shock jocks on radio and pontificators in the redneck media.

It is not that the government cannot try to educate people about migration. The prime minister, herself, is a migrant from Wales. No, the poor of the world who try to gain admission to Australia via the refugee process are excellent fodder to feed the fear factor that exists among the ignorant.

Politicians conjure up a picture of masses invading this fair land and changing the way of life that the white man enjoys – that is enough to lead to an outcry on the airwaves, a cry of insecure borders. It is a cruel joke but, apart from the Greens, no politician will speak the truth.

The number looking for refuge in Australia is pathetically few compared to the numbers that are seen in Europe. And if Australia does not want them coming here, then it just has to withdraw its signature from the UN Convention on Refugees – it’s that simple. Since Australia is a signatory, any person from any corner of the world is entitled to rock up here by land, sea or air and ask for asylum. Australia, as a signatory, has to process those claims.

No country would sign up if doing so were not to its advantage. There are innumerable tales of refugees who have made it good and contributed a great deal to their adopted country. But no government is going to tell you those tales – no, fear, uncertainty and doubt are the tools by which political parties gain votes. And tactics are not going to change overnight.

It’s good that Australian judges and lawyers have more principles than politicians.

Australia’s tactics for World Cup rugby fraught with danger

AUSTRALIA enters next month’s World Cup rugby union tournament as one of the teams in with a chance – at least, based on the personnel and the strengths of the other teams involved.

But the Australian coach, the New Zealander Robbie Deans, is resorting to a gameplan that has been tried before – when he was the understudy to John Mitchell, the coach for the All Blacks at the 2003 Cup. And Mitchell’s tactics failed that time.

In 2003, the Auckland Blues won the super rugby title. Mitchell based his national team for the cup on four players from the Blues – mercurial stand-off Carlos Spencer, wingers Doug Howlett and Josevata Rokocoko, and full-back Malili Muliaina. Spencer was the dynamo but his spontaneous style of play meant that when he was good, he was very, very good – and when he was bad, the opposition would win. Mitchell went to the extent of getting rid of an All Black legend Christian Cullen to make space for Muliaina.

In the run-up to the 2003 cup, the All Blacks swept all before them. They hammered South Africa 52-16 in the Boks own backyard and humiliated Australia 50-21 in Sydney. The Australians scored a couple of consolation tries towards the end of the game and that scoreline makes them look much better than they deserve to.

Given this buildup, former All Blacks winger Stu Wilson was brave enough to commit himself to print during the 2003 Cup, saying that Australia could not beat New Zealandno matter what they did. The teams met after New Zealand had disposed of South Africa in the quarter-finals, with Spencer pulling off one of his characteristic bits of deception to account for one try via centre Leon MacDonald.

But, alas, in the semi-final, Australia did upset New Zealand. An expansive cut-out pass thrown by Spencer to Rokocoko was intercepted by Australian centre Stirling Mortlock who then sprinted nearly 90 metres to score. This happened early on in the game and New Zealand never recovered.

The pictures in New Zealand papers next day were of Spencer sitting on the ground with his head in his hands, looking miserable. He never played for the All Blacks after that.

Australia has a similar set-up for the upcoming cup, with stand-off Quade Cooper being a clone of Spencer. He has been instrumental in the Queensland Reds winning the super rugby title this year. Cooper has a similar element of surprise to Spencer in his style of play and can often make an opponent look foolish. But when his tactics do not come off – as happened earlier this year when Australia played New Zealand in Auckland – his team runs a poor second.

Deans is gambling on the gains made by the Reds this year to a large extent – he has even appointed the Reds captain, James Horwill, as the national team’s leader, deposing Rocky Elsom who really hasn’t done too much wrong as skipper. It is a big gamble but one guesses that Deans can take it, as Australia’s tactics in the last two Cups have not paid dividends. And Deans has the security of having recently had his contract extended.

Surprisingly, nobody has mentioned this similarity in tactics. Or the fact that it failed in 2003. Oh, well, perhaps people will be wise with hindsight.

Sri Lanka is losing the propaganda battle over war crimes

WHEN a sovereign nation has to respond to charges made in a TV documentary that screens in just a few countries, no matter how serious those charges are, then it has well and truly lost the battle to convince people that it is in the right.

Sri Lanka finds itself in this position after having, rather foolishly, decided to respond to a documentary made by Britain’s Channel 4 about alleged war crimes committed during the war against the Tamil Tiger separatist movement that ended in May 2009. (The programme is also available on YouTube; just search for “Sri Lanka killing fields”.)

The Lankan bid to refute the claims came a few days after Channel 4 broadcast even more evidence of Colombo’s complicity in war crimes – evidence given by two unnamed soldiers who went to the extent of claiming that the orders to kill Tamils en masse in order to get the war over with came from the country’s defence secretary, Gotabaya Rakapakse.

That Sri Lanka found it necessary to respond with an hour-long video is, in itself, evidence of the fact that the government is disquieted by the Channel 4 allegations made on June 14, in the programme titled Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields. But Colombo’s effort at propaganda is rather tame, to say the least.

First, the government video is narrated by Minoli Ratnayake, a good-looking Sri Lankan woman with a British accent, a clear sign of the cultural cringe from which Sri Lanka apparently still suffers, 63 years after gaining independence from Britain. Someone with a Sri Lankan accent would have been far more credible. And when a pretty woman, nicely dolled up, with her head tilted to one side in what is a markedly patronising manner, is chosen to be the face of a programme when she has no experience as a news presenter, it is a clear fact that the people who put here there are trying to use her as a prop, to get past the initial resistance that any sane individual has to government propaganda. Channel 4’s Jon Snow will not win any beauty contests, but he has tremendous credibility as a newsman.

There are lots of irregularities in the government video. First, to numbers of Tamil civilians killed. The Channel 4 video made a claim that as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians were slaughtered in the final days of the war. Gordon Weiss, the former UN spokesman in Sri Lanka, was used as a source. In the government documentary, a figure of 305,000 is cited as being the official number of people in the war zone, the Vanni area, in January 2009. From that, by deducting in dribs and drabs, Ratnayake concludes that only a few thousand were killed. But tellingly, she quietly reduces that 305,000 to 300,000 before beginning her mental pyrotechnics.

The figure of 305,000 itself is dubious. Giving evidence before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, a body set up by the government to supposedly investigate the goings-on during the war, Bishop Rayappu Joseph of the Mannar Catholic Diocese, said there were 429,059 people in the Vanni area as of October 2008. His source was the Kaccheri Office (the government collector or district office). And given this, that figure of 40,000 which Weiss put to Channel 4 looks rather small – the number unaccounted for is well over 100,000.

Ratnayake claims that Weiss had every reason to take part in the Channel 4 programme and spruik his views as he was trying to promote an upcoming book – that, according to the government, is why he participated in the Channel 4 programme. Nonsense. The Channel 4 programme was screened on June 14; I had a copy of Weiss’ book, The Cage, in hand by May 26. As I live in Australia and bought the book from the UK (cheaper by far), I had to place my order about two weeks prior to that date. Promote an upcoming book? Hardly. By the time Channel 4 went to air, Weiss was sitting on a best-seller and he was called in to comment as a result of the book, not the other way round.

The government documentary also claims that a protest by Tamils at the UN office in Kilinochchi, begging the international agency not to leave the war zone, was stage-managed by Tamil Tiger militants who told the people in the area to protest. Channel 4 says this was something which the people did on their own. It is difficult to believe the government claim because it is bolstered by a Tamil from the area – any Tamil who was asked to speak and refused would have been well aware that not taking part would probably have resulted in disappearing in a white van some evening and being never heard of again. Too many people have disappeared in this manner in Sri Lanka ever since Mahinda Rajapakse came to power in 2005.

Ratnayake also tries to cast doubt on the bonafides of Vany Kumar, one of the people whom Channel 4 featured in the programme. According to Channel 4, Kumar is a London-based Tamil, a medical technician, who happened to be in Sri Lanka and got caught up in the conflict. According to the government, she was a member of a front organisation for the Tamil Tigers and landed in Sri Lanka at the beginning of 2008.

The government documentary parades a number of Tamils to speak in its favour – and in such glowing terms that it all looks like stuff made up in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. One of these Tamils talks about Kumar being the head of the Tamil Youth Organisation women’s wing in the UK; here, it is a case of claim and counter-claim.

The rest of the documentary is taken up by telling the viewer about how vile the late leader of the Tigers, Velupillai Pirapaharan, was (true, he was a nasty piece of work) and dragging a number of ex-Tiger cadres before the camera to testify as to how good the government has been to them after the war. It all looks far too stage-managed to have any credibility. Sri Lanka’s government under Mahinda Rajapakse has a reputation for muzzling the press and even murdering journalists; given this, one has to take everything said by these Tamils with a kilo of salt.

What is clear is that, as the UN report into the war (PDF, 9.2 MB) claimed, both sides, the Sri Lankan military and the Tigers, were responsible for some outrageous atrocities. It is time for both sides to admit the truth and take their medicine.

Why the ABC has been forced to cut programs

THE Australian Broadcasting Corporation has announced cuts to a number of programs which will result in staff in some centres losing their jobs. Surprisingly, the corporation, a government-funded entity, has cited “falling audiences for some programs” as one reason why it had to make these cuts.

It tells the tale of the corporation in just those few words. Exactly why a government-funded organisation should be chasing behind ratings is not clear. But the ABC has become like any other commercial network and wants to ape them. It wants to be in the limelight, not to provide services for the diverse range of people who live in Australia.

The second reason adduced by the ABC is vague but tells, in part, the truth: “increasing financial pressures on ABC TV”. This is an euphemism for the enormous additional outlay on the half-arsed 24-hour news channel that was launched last year.

The ABC is unable to even provide the full 24 hours of programming for this service and uses the BBC for an hour or more every day. Yet this channel is a matter of ego for AbC managing director Mark Scott and therefore will continue its half-baked service.

Some people will have to look elsewhere for programs that interest them; no longer is it the duty of the national broadcaster, which is funded by the taxpayer, to provide for all tastes. The ABC now has “a strategic commitment to focus its limited financial resources on prime-time programming”. Whatever that means.

The 24-hour news service has not only put a strain on resources, it has also given existing staff much more to do with less. A planned reordering of foreign correspondents had to be called off after staff protests. But yet the jazzing up continues. A commitment to triviality and artificiality has become the aim of the organisation.

Last year, when the host of the best current affairs program, the 7.30 Report, Kerry O’Brien, decided to move to other pastures, the corporation decided to change the focus of the program. It was relabelled 7.30, hosted on new, garish sets, and new personnel were sought. Unfortunately the two who were given the gig, Leigh Sales and Chris Uhlmann, are not best suited for a program which has made combative interviews its trademark and strength.

If anyone had to be given the gig after O’Brien, it had to be Virginia Trioli, a feisty and intelligent staffer,. who has shown her mettle in no uncertain way. But Trioli is of Italian descent. And the ABC is still very much an organisation of the British colonial era.

Audiences for this flagship program are now down more than 150,000 each night. And the corporation’s head honchos are wondering why. Only idiots would fiddle with a winning formula but the ABC did precisely that. All that is needed now is to appoint an external consultant to find out the reason for falling ratings. Scott is probably on the verge of doing that.

For at least the last five years – curiously, corresponding with Scott’s reign – there has been an increased trend towards fluffy, light stuff. The classic case is the appointment of Lindy Burns to host the drive program in Melbourne. Trioli was the host before that; there were numerous serious options available but Burns, who can be charitably described as a lightweight, was chosen.

The ABC promotes itself furiously, often much better than the commercial channels do. But as the promotions increase, so too does the quality drop. Scott has been given another term at the helm and by the time he finishes one wonders whether any serious programming will be available on the ABC at all.