Liberals doing what they know best – beating up on asylum-seekers

THE Australian Liberal Party and its National Party allies were known for using the tactic of dog-whistling during their 11 years — 1996 to 2007 — in power, with any section of society the target as long as the opinion poll numbers improved.

It looks like nothing much has changed with the coalition in opposition – having gained little traction in the opinion polls against a dominant Labor Party over the last two years, the leader of the opposition, Malcolm Turnbull, has finally picked on the vulnerable to try and boost his ratings.

The former Liberal leader, John Howard, was a mealy-mouthed individual who knew how to appeal to the lowest common denominator in Australia. Turnbull, despite his professed interest in the arts and a republic, appears to be no different.

Seventy-eight Sri Lankans are all it has taken to turn Turnbull into what one might call Howard Lite. The Sri Lankans were picked up by an Australian Customs ship when they were in trouble on the high seas. They are now in Indonesian waters and refusing to get off the ship.

The Indonesian government does not want them on its hands – and, not being a signatory to the international convention on refugees, is not obligated to let them enter its territory. Australia, being a signatory, has to allow anyone who rocks up through land, sea of air to apply for asylum and then judge the applicant on his or her merits.

Twenty-two of the 78 have now agreed to get off and be processed in Indonesia after Australia provided some assurances of a fast-track in processing. The remainder are still holding up and there are reports that Indonesia wants Australia to settle the issue within the next two weeks.

If one were to rationally analyse the arguments put forward by Turnbull, the whole thing is a joke. Countries like Pakistan face a problem with millions on their borders; Australia gets a few hundred and starts shouting about border protection.

There is some mythical queue which is often referred to when it comes to asylum-seekers. That no such thing exists is never pointed out.

People who come looking for asylum in Australia are referred to as illegal arrivals. It is never pointed out that once a country has signed up to the international convention on refugees, any son or daughter of a sea gherkin can come to the borders – air, land or sea – of that country and ask for asylum. It is the responsibility of the country concerned to assess the claims and either allow the person in or send them back.

There is nothing like an illegal arrival once a country has signed up to this convention. None.

But one needs a modicum of intelligence to understand that. It should be explained in clear terms to the masses. Neither major political grouping is prepared to do that. Both have their eyes on the next general election which is a year away.

It is easy to prey on differences — of caste or creed or colour — in any country. Politicians who do this deserve to be treated with contempt. Unfortunately, as a politician in Israel, an extreme right-wing type once said, “I am only saying what deep inside you believe.”

Australia had harsh laws in place to deal with would-be migrants during the 11 years of coalition rule. The laws have become somewhat more humane after Labor came to power. The ugliness is coming back again as Turnbull attempts to capitalise on divisions in a country which is made up more or less exclusively of migrants. The only people who are native to this dry, harsh land are the Aborigines – everyone else is a migrant.

But Turnbull is an ambitious man and known for either crashing through or else simply crashing. He wants to be prime minister and if he gets there on the back of a few Tamil asylum-seekers it really wouldn’t prevent him from sleeping peacefully at night.

At times like this, I am ashamed to be an Australian citizen.


Are video referees a help or a hindrance?

TECHNOLOGY has given us many benefits – of that there is little doubt. At times, however, one does tend to wonder whether technology does more harm than good.

This has been brought home to me recently by two incidents – one, a statement by the authorities who run Australian rules football to the effect that they would look at having video referees to help the referees on the ground, and two, an incident during an Australia-New Zealand rugby union game.

Australian rules football — which the Australian state of Victoria is crazy about — holds its final in September and this year the team that won did so by a margin of 12 points. In this code, that means two goals. And for a goal to be awarded, it has to go through without touching the posts.

There was one clear instance in the final where the winners were awarded a goal even though the ball clearly touched one post. When the ball touches the woodwork, only one point is awarded — it is called a behind.

There was a second instance when a goal was awarded to the winning team even though the person who kicked it had committed an offence on an opposition player just before collecting the ball to kick the goal.

Instead of awarding a free kick against the infringing player, the referee let him play on and kick a goal.

There was a third instance where the referees missed blowing the whistle when one of the losing team was heading goalwards and had his jumper yanked to prevent his progress. Whether he would have kicked a goal or not is open to speculation but that was clearly an infringement deserving of a free-kick.

That meant a total of 17 points was in dispute – and the final was won by 12 points. Hence the statement about video referees by the official of the Australian rules governing body.

Of course, there is a lobby which does not want technology to be part of the refereeing process at all. They argue that once video replays are accepted as a means of judging one thing, then there is the likelihood that people will want everything to be adjudicated by means of video replays.

Clearly, that would add a considerable amount of time to the game and annoy the audience. It would also remove one element, that of human unpredictability.

And you don’t want 90,000 people involved in a fracas – that’s about the crowd that the Australian rules final attracts each year.

In the case of the rugby union game, there were some additonal factors at play. The game was staged in Tokyo which meant that a fairly decent sum must have been paid to the Australian and New Zealand boards by the Japanese authorities.

Union has four officials in all – one in the field of play, one on each sideline, and one television match official. In this game, one of the linesmen and the television match official were both Japanese.

Hence when there was doubt over the grounding of the ball by an Australian player in the first half — getting the ball down firmly would have meant five points — the television match official was called on to make a judgement.

He had to communicate his decision through the Japanese linesman who would then tell the referee what it was.

But after two minutes and 50 seconds — I counted — there was still no decision and the referee, who had been growing impatient by the second, awarded a try to Australia. In the end it did not matter because New Zealand won the game. But had they lost, this would have been a point of contention.

In my judgement, the decision was wrong and I was unable to fathom why the television match official took so long and could not yet see that no try had been scored.

But the point is that with the best technology at hand — and Japan is second to none when it comes to technology — the video match official was of no use.

I guess technology has its place but it is not infallible. It is only as efficient as the humans who use it.


The video library – a dying species

LAST night, after nearly six months, I dropped in on my local video library to kill some time by browsing around while my son was at his karate class. It’s never hit me so hard – this business is badly out-of-date.

Most of the new releases were ones I had either seen as much as three months ago or films I had known were being released around the same time. It looks very much like the greed of the film industry will be its own downfall.

Let me explain. Most film studios want a film to exhaust its saleability in theatres before the DVD is released; only a few have seen the light and are now allowing the film to be released on the big screen and in DVD format simultaneously.

Hence, by the time most films come to the video library, they have been released for at least a couple of months. Who is going to wait that long to see a film – especially when copies, not very kosher ones, can be obtained from other sources?

In countries like the US, film channels like Hulu are being tested over the internet. Hulu does not yet offer a service in this part of the world so it is not possible to say what kind of bandwidth is needed to see a film without the transmission being jerky. That will be a limiting factor in countries like Australia because bandwidth is very expensive and though a national broadband network has been promised, it is unlikely to be in place even by 2015.

Even when people are prevented from seeing a film or TV programme by law, it just doesn’t seem to prevent copies of the prohibited programme(s) being distributed and, at times, even sold. A well-known case in Australia was the Underbelly crime series which could not be shown on TV in the state of Victoria for legal reasons. It was shown in neighbouring New South Wales.

The speed at which copies of this series began to circulate in Victoria was simply amazing. It looked very much like the production studio itself was leaking the prints to grey market sources and it became possible to see the series well before it was shown on TV at all.

The same goes for films. The case of X-Men, the Hugh Jackman blockbuster, is the most recent. The film gained a lot of publicity due to the prolfieration of news that it was being downloaded by all and sundry.

Australia is quite backward when it comes to technology, no matter what the media says. In Britain, the sale of video recorders was discontinued in 2005 by retailers; in Australia it is still possible to buy a VCR at a retailer, though you won’t find too many of them these days. The last time I visited JB HiFi, the biggest retailer of electronic goods, there were a couple of VCRs lying around. And this was six months ago.

So what does the poor video library owner do in this case? Even in Australia, the video library owners must be seeing the writing writ large on the walls. Nobody will buy a video library now – it has no future, it is part of the past.

A lot depends on how the upper layers of the film industry react. If they decide to act like the music industry did when music first became available on the net from unauthorised sources, then they will stand to lose. The music industry kept hanging on to the old formats – CDs – because the profit margins were huge, not realising that going the digital route would mean a massive increase in sales volume.

That’s the reality – when anything goes digital, volume sales increase and costs decrease. Profits will decrease but there will be profits for those who adapt and adopt the new technology.

It’s doubtful whether Australia will be one of the enlightened countries in this regard – just yesterday a decision was taken by the Australian federal government to protect the book industry by prohibiting parallel imports. This is protectionism that harks back to an earlier era and retrograde thinking of the worst possible kind.

But this is the kind of thinking that prevails at the level where decisions are made. People are scared of technology and afraid of losing control. Businesses like video libraries will have no choice but to be governed by laws that are framed by people who are, themselves, past their shelf-life.

No amount of copy-protection or legislation will prevent piracy; those who can break encryption are far ahead of those who design it. Film studios have to come up with a scheme that protects their entire food chain – and that include the lowly video rental outlets.

Else, if you are a video library owner prepare to do business in some other sphere.


The rise and rise of blogs

THERE was a cartoon that was popular some years ago, one of a dog sitting on a chair and surfing the net. The caption read: “On the internet, nobody knows you are a dog.”

These days, everyone and his dog has a blog. There are so many of them that there is an aura of confusion over what a blog is, where the species came from and what it is meant for.

Seven years ago, there were hardly any websites which could be referred to as blogs. The traditional term meant a web log, some kind of a diary maintained by someone who was necessarily web-savvy since it meant using processes like FTP to transfer files and having a website of one’s own.

In 2002, things changed markedly, and one has to give one of the world’s great semi-literates credit. George W. Bush began a campaign to send American troops into Iraq and the falsehoods that he and his administration used to try and con the American people began to annoy those who were wise to this kind of deception.

The problem was compounded by the fact that American journalists appeared to have lost every ounce of courage and most backed the push for invading Iraq. They simply repeated the administration’s lies, functioning as cheerleaders and forgetting that they are not known as the Fourth Estate for nothing.

There were brave souls around though and some of them began to write about the lies spread by the administration on their own websites. The number of those indulging in this exercise grew by leaps and bounds, in direct proportion to the cowardly politicians and journalists who refused to condemn Bush and his cohorts.

The number of blogs mushroomed at this time. They were marked by being run by individuals, most of them politically aware and able to articulate their thoughts clearly.

By the time the Americans had got a number of countries on-side and invaded Iraq, there were a lot of websites that were opposing the war. The lack of uncensored information from Iraq led to a further explosion of such sites and this was crowned by the efforts of one Iraqi blogger who went under the name Salam Pax.

The trend continued. By 2004, many mainstream media organisations had noticed the phenomenon and some journalists had decided that this was an easier way of communicating with people. Blogs, which had until then rarely been used for breaking news, became sites where everything that some journalists produced was hosted.

Journalists went this route simply because a trend that has now become alarming – the fall of both ad revenue and circulation – was making itself evident. Newspapers were said to be serving a corporate agenda and hardly bothering about issues that concerned the people.

There were two occasions in the US in 2004 which are noteworthy – one when retiring American politician Strom Thurmond was exposed by bloggers as a racist; this came after there were suggestions that he would have been a worthy candidate for the presidency.

A second instance was when the well-known CBS news anchor Dan Rather was accused by bloggers of using documents about Bush that had not been properly authenticated. Rather finally apologised on air.

Mainstream online publications slowly began to add blogs to their sites. Over the next couple of years, it became trendy for a site that was mainstream to also have its own blogs. The meaning of the word – an individual’s diary – had changed by now.

Mainstream media blogs could contain news, views, or interviews. Some journalists choose to use their blogs more or less for everything they write. The same care that goes into editing is not present; a blog is raw and more immediate. That, many feel, tends to attract readers. Others differ and their blogs are subject to the same process of editing to which print journalism is subjected.

Lone bloggers often get confused when they encounter blogs which are part of mainstream media. They have one meaning for the word and cannot relate to the mainstream media blog. They get confused – they only know of one kind of blog, the type they own.

The development of blogging software like WordPress and MovableType and the free blogs on offer from web giants such as Google has given even more impetus to the growth of blogs – if any was needed. It is trivial to create and publish one’s own blog these days.

But as the number of blogs grows and the faddists drop out, blogs, like online media, are coming under as much scrutiny as mainstream media. There are many who blog who do not know what they can and cannot say; some even seem unaware of the reach of the internet.

The case of Australian mining magnate Joseph Gutnick who sued the journal Barrons for defamation in the Australian state of Victoria has changed the way people approach online media. Barrons contended that the case could only be tried in the US but was overruled and Gutnick won his case which was heard in Victoria.

This set down the precedent that, unlike a newspaper, the place where something is read can be used as the location for a defamation action. More recently, a Chinese games website has filed a case in Sydney, Australia, against a British blogger. Exactly how this will turn out remains to be seen, but the man will definitely be inconvenienced by having to travel all that distance. And any Australian verdict can be enforced in Britain.

As blogs come under more and more scrutiny, the trend will change. The growth will level off and it will slowly become something of a cottage industry. These days many bloggers make a little money off their blogs, at least enough to cover their bandwidth and hosting charges. Original material will be at a premium and, like all trends, it will level off to the point where only those who have something original to say will remain in business.


Tendulkar: the little genius

THERE have been occasions recently when one has often felt that it was time for Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar to think about retirement. The man has been hesitant at the crease, often slow to react and caught off-guard by balls that he would have smashed to the boundary ten times out of ten a year or two ago.

But then he just blows you away with an innings which puts him on par with the late Don Bradman, Sir Gary Sobers, Sir Vivian Richards, and the diminutive Brian Lara. It is a privilege to be able to watch one of these innings unfold, a chance to study a man who, despite having every reason to be puffed up and proud, is still very much a self-effacing character.

He played such an innings in Hyderabad a few days ago, an innings that almost took India to an incredible victory. He made half of his opponents’ total, in a manner that looked effortless and made the observer realise that, after 20 years of playing at the top level, he still has a few years of good cricket left in him.

The odds were very much against the Indians making anything like a good showing when, in the face of chasing down 351 for a win, they lost two wickets before 100 was on the board, and a further two by the time the score reached 162.

This meant that Tendulkar, who opened the innings, had just one specialist batsman left to play alongside him, and 189 runs more to get if the match was to be won. By the time the fourth wicket fell, he was six runs away from a hundred and had already indicated that he was at the top of his game.

Australia was aware that if he went, a win and a 3-2 lead in the seven-match series, was there for the taking.

The match was all Tendulkar It speaks volumes for his mastery, as his innings came after Shaun Marsh, son of the illustrious Geoff, had made his maiden hundred, and Shane Watson had contributed a well-made 93. That the man of the match award came to Tendulkar says a lot.

Tendulkar hasn’t been in the best of form in this series, and the one time when it looked like he was regaining a bit of touch, in the fourth game, he was the victim of an umpiring error. He made 32 in the third game without really looking anything like his best.

But Hyderabad was a different story. He watched as the flamboyant Virender Sehwag sprayed the ball all around the ground in a quickfire knock of 30 that kept the scoring rate high – India needed a trace over 7 an over to win after Australia made 350 – and kept his end up, taking no chances.

The bad balls were treated as they deserved but Tendulkar played as though he was planning to settle down at one end for the night. It almost turned out that way. It took until the seventh over for a masterly touch, when he played a classy pull shot and a flick off Doug Bollinger, both to the boundary.

He had to cope with the distraction of reaching 17,000 runs in one-day cricket early on in his innings and as there was a full house, there was quite a din when he achieved that mark.

But his concentration never flagged. It was in the 20th over that he began to look ominous when he went back and across to hit Watson over the mid-wicket boundary. There was control, class and domination writ large in that one stroke. At that point, anyone who has seen him play a long innings would have realised that he would be at the crease for a while.

In the same over, he drove home the message by hitting Watson to the cover boundary, dancing down the track and placing the ball very neatly just out of reach of a diving extra-cover fieldsman.

He treated Nathan Hauritz with contempt in the next over, hitting two sixes off successive balls. One went over long-off, the other over long-on. Hauritz saw the second one coming and dropped it short but Tendulkar adjusted in a trice and did not even bother to run.

After his captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, left at 162, Tendulkar found an ally in young Suresh Raina, who played with panache. The pair went through the same routine time and time again – they played a couple of overs without taking a risk, and then got the run-rate back to a manageable level with some calculated big-hitting.

The big hits were never made in desperation; they were cricketing shots every time. Despite the big total, it was Australia that looked the worried team.

Raina was dropped twice but Tendulkar only offered one half-chance when he had crossed 130. It looked very much like India would get home with the little master there at the end.

But, sadly, it was not to be. Not that Australia deserved to lose; it was just that with a player like Tendulkar in such majestic form, he deserved to be on the winning side.

In the 48th over, he fell to debutant Clint McKay. A slower ball caused his demise as he failed to clear short fine-leg with an up-and-under. Hauritz took the catch and the game was over.

India had 19 runs to get off 17 balls but as usual the tailenders flattered to deceive and fell in quick succession to hand Australia victory by three runs.

The night belonged to one man, Tendulkar. He played down his contribution by characterising his 141-ball 175 as “one of my best. I was striking the ball very well…”

Then he went on to talk about the game and the rest of the team. Like Lara, he often plays great innings and ends up on the losing side. He hasn’t won as many games off his own blade as Lara did but the only word that fits for a knock like this is genius. There is no current player in the game who is his equal.


Indian-bashing: the latest Australian sport

EVER since the surge of interest in soccer in Australia after the national team made it to the World Cup finals in 2006 and the A-League was set up, the Australian Football League – the body that governs Australian rules football – has been looking over its shoulder, realising that it has another sport competing for audiences.

Until soccer reared its head as a contender, the AFL had the two rugby codes – league and union – to contend with.

But there is worse to come – the AFL will now have to contend with a sport that had its genesis right here in Melbourne, one that’s beginning to draw crowds on the weekends.

It’s the game called Indian bashing and it’s growing in popularity. Go online, search around a while, see how many people are there to defend it – and you’ll realise that AFL chief Andrew Demetriou certainly has something to fear.

The latest game, staged in Epping recently, drew 70 people in a small indoor venue while four Indians were beaten up.

Imagine what it could have been like if it had been staged at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, an arena which can hold 90,000 people with ease. I can just see the ticket touts rubbing their hands in glee.

While the AFL is busy trying to tone down the biffo and has acted decisively against racism, the new sport has no such inhibitions. Indeed, in Epping the first racist taunt came from a woman.

And biffo? Man, the new game has landed plenty of Indian students in hospital. One guy died of head injuries. Australian Rules cannot compete.

What’s more, Indian-bashing has the support of the police and politicians too. Neither is willing to say a bad word about the sport.

The media is on-side too. With some notable exceptions, there is little negative comment on the issue – and the media manages to keep those truculent Indians from making a noise about it too.

A classic example of how to do this was illustrated on the ABC’s Lateline program a few months ago.

Two Australian citizens of ethnic backgrounds, Tanvir Ahmed and Waleed Aly, discussed the sport within the broader framework of racism. Ahmed inclined to the view that there was no racism at play while Aly said there was “low-level racism” involved.

It looked quite good – ethnic types discussing Indian-bashing. But looks are deceptive – both Ahmed and Aly, no slight on either, have spent nearly all of their lives in this country. Neither is of Indian extraction.

Presenter Leigh Sales just provided an Australian viewpoint all over again. Everyone nodded in approval. Them ethnic types had been given their say – who could fault the balanced ABC?

Demetriou hardly needs another distraction like Indian-bashing. The man has had to set up AFL teams in far-flung areas of the country to generate interest in places where rugby league and rugby union hold sway.

Now, he will have to look at staging AFL games in places like Epping and Fairfield, to pull the crowds.

Else, the AFL had better watch out. There are more than a billion Indians and loads of them are here.

You’ll soon have more Indian-bashing than the eight weekend games which the AFL stages. And remember – while Australian Rules is a winter game, Indian-bashing knows no seasons.