Was there ever an election where we so clearly needed more than one leader’s debate? John Howard said on announcing the election date: “The uncertainty over the security outlook and the global economic downturn are the most significant challenges that an Australian Government has faced in nearly a generation.”


War, world recession, boat people, two Australias, political fragmentation, fundamental rethinking of free market theory and the role of government – there’s so much for leaders to debate in this election.


Two debates – one on international events, boat people and the vision thing, the other on domestics – would have been great. But no, says big John, leader.


And make it early too, our leader insists. As Ray Martin told me today, “They’re really launching their campaigns with the debate – this time the debate is kickstarting the election, rather than being the final full stop.”


The problem with that is the leaders debate before their official campaign launches or the big policy platform announcements. Howard, standing on leadership, is taking no risk that his might taint. Too bad for democracy.


Ray agreed to give an email address for reader’s suggestions on questions, stressing that they should be issues-based. You can send them direct to or you can send them to me and I’ll publish them tomorrow night and send a copy to Ray. I’ll be on a Network Ten panel at 9.30 Sunday night to analyse the debate, along with Peter Reith, Bob McMullan and The Courier-Mail’s Peter Charlton.


The rules of engagement thrashed out by the two parties were finalised late today and are just about the same as for the last election. Here they are.




1. The debate to be opened with a two-minute opening address by both leaders.

2. From there, the moderator will conduct a free-flowing discussion, allowing both Leaders to pursue the major issues of the election campaign.

3. The moderator will ensure both Leaders are given equal treatment and time.

4. The moderator will ask questions alternately of the Leaders, but be able to follow up the responses of the Leaders. He will also allow each Leader to respond to the points made by the other, if they wish to do so.

5. There will be no strict time limits, but both leaders are asked to restrict their answers to less than two minutes. (The moderator will ensure both Leaders have equal time.)

6. The moderator will intervene to prevent either person from talking over the top of the other.

7. The debate will finish with the moderator asking a general question to both Leaders in order to sum up.

8. A coin will be tossed to determine who will make the first opening statement. Whichever Leader makes the first opening statement will be the first to be asked the wrap-up question.

9. The Leaders will use standing lecterns.

10. A clean feed of the debate will be made available to all broadcasters, with no station identification on the set.

11. The broadcast should be commercial free.

12. There will be no “worm” or broadcasting of audience responses.

13. The debate must be broadcast live.


Sixty Minutes will have an audience of 80 uncommitted swinging voters in Sydney in a studio driving the worm during the debate. After it ends, the worm’s key movements will be shown, and the audience will pick a winner.




Michel Dignand’s complaint yesterday that “the Webdiary seems to have been taken over by Media People, Leading Academics and other well-known and very verbose commentators – am I the only one who is tiring of this, and longing for simpler, shorter and more straightforward opinions?” has attracted a strong sympathy vote.


This is an ongoing issue for Webdiary – for new readers, the last big debate on the mix (and on a redesign) is in the archive, beginning with Cut and Paste and Not too Wanky.


For a start, I can only run what you write, so if you want short, punchy items, go for it. Second, I’ve chosen not to run such items when they repeat views already expressed – I got complaints recently that the Webdiary was getting repetitive.


New reader Richard Goodwin wants to know the Webdiary’s rules of engagement: “Can anyone have a rave about anything at any time? Do past topics still get updated if someone adds a rave? If so, does anyone read them? Can someone re-start a topic? Who chooses the topic for the day?”


Unlike our leaders, I’m into freewheeling debates. You can write anything you like about anything you like any time you like. I run what I like when I like, and reserve the right to edit. So it’s a trust thing. I try to run everyone with something interesting to say that is not vilification – I don’t censor ideas. Sometimes I get overwhelmed with contributions, as with the Tampa, and have to pick and chose. On the Tampa, I ran up to five editions a day and some people complained it was all too much. It was too much for me too, and I want to run one edition a day at no more than 5,000 words. You will find the charter of Webdiary in the archive in an entry called What’s the point?


On updating topics, a planned redesign to make the webdiary easier for you to navigate and which would bring together discussion on topics was underway when budget cuts hit us in June. Dump time. I hope a modified redesign will go ahead after the election.


Election issue five, Thursday, October 11


1. Frank Fredrick, Labor left, on why his party had to throw away boat people.

2. Jeffrey Allen on why the polls are wrong.

3. Cathy Bannister on how the Howard leadership ad is too damn good.

4. David Stanford on how to cope with a Labor loss and Jock Webb, Rosemary Bedford and Pippa Tandy on why they can’t.

5. David Eastwood finds John Anderson wanting.

6. Mary Travers on arts on the edge.

7. Simon Thomsen’s marginal seat report on Richmond.

8.. Sean Richardson’s War and Politics column


Helping out: Australian unions, through its humanitarian arm Union Aid Abroad (APHEDA), need donations to help fleeing Afghan refugees. Donations will go to Handicap International to help refugees near Quetta in Pakistan, concentrating on the very old and those suffering from disabilities, and to Merlin, a British-based health organisation providing medical assistance to Afghan refugees living in neighbouring Tajikistan. Donations tax deductible. Phone: 1800.888.674 (business hours), Fax: (02) 9261.1118, Email:


Left field


The rail industry and the Democrats became friends during negotiations on the GST deal. The relationship has stayed sweet. Today, the Rail Association hailed “the Australian Democrats’ announcement of a $507 million dollar commitment the future of Australia’s rail network”


“For the cost of half of one major urban road, Australia’s national rail network could be brought up to international standards, making it more efficient, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and save lives of motorists by making rail a more attractive option for freight haulage…A transfer of unnecessary road freight to rail means safer roads, lives saved, reduced pollution and major savings in road maintenance.”




Frank Fedrick, member of the Labor left


Howard’s ads, I’m afraid, will fall on fertile ground, as some people are really spooked. Howard is doing what Menzies did with Communism. But then you have other people who don’t want to know about it and turn CNN off – Afghanistan is just to far away to worry about and they are more concerned with domestic issues.


I know it was pragmatic, but I agree with the compromise we struck over the refugees. Kim Beazley had no choice. We can’t help our people in opposition, it’s as simple as that.


Before Tampa we had an election winning lead, because Howard’s policies on the GST, job security, education, health, child care and aged care are hurting our people. Sometimes you have to forgo your most treasured principles for the greater good.




Jeffrey Allen in Sydney


No matter how hard I try and how often I’m told polling is a science, I cannot comprehend the recent Newspoll figures – my only conclusion is that their respondents are lying (or not totally telling the truth )


During the 98 election, One Nation garnered more actual votes than polling had indicated in the lead up to the election. One theory was that One Nation voters felt stigmatised and a good percentage gave false responses to the pollsters when asked who they would vote for – only in the privacy of the polling booth did they show their true intentions.


My desperate theory for this election is that the reverse is happening regarding John Howard – many respondents feel it would be `disloyal’ or `traitorous’ to acknowledge they would be voting against the Prime Minister at a time of perceived national crisis, in effect rallying behind the office rather than the man.


Come November 10th, behind closed doors, the result should be a lot closer than polls now predict.




Cathy Bannister


I think you were wrong about the Liberal black ad on Late Night Live this week. . It beautifully encapsulates every fear and paranoia floating around at the moment. It will work, dammit. At the very least it won’t hurt the Liberals one iota.


Your comparison with the 1993 Hewson shotgun ad was interesting, but I think you’re kidding yourself that the new ad will fail for the same reason. That shotgun ad was way too melodramatic for 1993. In that context it was silly.


This new one, however, seems entirely appropriate in the circumstances. I must admit (albeit begrudgingly) that I admire the ability of the Howard PR camp to identify social paranoias and create symbols that resonate. Sure, Daniel Maurice in News Overload is correct that both Keating and Beazley have wielded the wedge, but no other imbues it with quite the verisimilitude as Howard.


Beazley is spectacularly bad at it; whenever he tries, he ends up looking disingenuous. You could just tell his heart just wasn’t in trashing the GST. He just hasn’t bothered since, hence the long silence.


I’m just hoping the polls are as spectacularly wrong as they have been before every other major electoral test this year.




David Stanford


There seems to be a climate of fear amongst many of your correspondents that the conservatives are about to have a decisive victory on November 10. They have clearly been expecting a Labor victory for a long time, encouraged by the Canberra Press Gallery to expect the Howard Government’s slaughter at the polls. They’re not happy, and judging from the last few days are escalating the level of vitriol in the Webdiary.


Many of these people must really loath aspects of our democracy. In their minds legitimate governments don’t have the right to carry out mandates given at the polls. Even though they have minority views on many of the big issues, they are certain that their views are paramount and everyone else’s viewpoint is beneath contempt.Such views are echoed in the columns of Mike Carlton or Mark Day or on air by Phillip Adams to name a few.


No-one has ownership of the high moral ground in a truly free democracy, and it is imperative that we listen to each others views and select what we believe is right at election time.


I know many extremely intelligent and successful people around Australia with a broad range of views and opinions from Aboriginal reconciliation and the Republic to immigration policy. I am often amazed therefore that a viewpoint prevails that there is only one credible way of looking at most issues. This is insulting and essentially anti-democratic as well as lacking empathy with other Australians, not all of whom are as stupid as some would have you believe.


People who continually talk about the shame in being Australian and feeling diminished in the world eyes show a classic sign of insecurity that is almost childish. Australia is a strong, mainly tolerant and ardent democracy that is considered so by the world and the many boat people who try to come here.


To all your correspondents experiencing fear and loathing and seeing conspiracies everywhere, bad luck. Get over it and rejoice in strong democracy.


Jock Webb


I come from Narromine west of Dubbo, population just under half Nauru’s. Feeling bitter and shamed by the events of recent weeks I asked a National Party campaign bloke in Dubbo if they were reconsidering the refugee issues in view of the beginning of the attack on Afghanistan. “No!” His office person interjected that “they are of a different religion to us and should go to a country with the same religion – I mean, we’re Christians”.


“Would you recommend on that basis that Jews not come to Australia?” I asked. They could not see the parallel.


I find everything despairing at the moment. Though I come from the bush and off a farm I was raised to keep an open and thoughtful mind about race and culture. Grandad was conservative in deed but a Tory hater. Everything that I felt was decent about Australia seems to have sunk in the last 5 years and I cannot find a head to kick.


Rosemary Bedford in Balmain, Sydney


David Davis said yesterday that Labor was not yet ready for Government. When will it be? We could wait around for that till Doomsday. My feeling is that, in our current climate, anything has to be better than a Howard Government.


I warned Kim Beazley by email that he would lose my vote forever if he went with the Government on the Border Protection Bill, but I might have to renege on my vow if the country is polarising towards the major parties.


Yet I cannot bear to be part of a country that is so mean-spirited, so lacking in compassion to turn away from desperate people in need. I spent 6 weeks in Afghanistan in the 1970s when the Shah was still in his palace on the Kabul road, and everywhere we went, including to Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, we were treated with a dignified courtesy and generosity by a people who didn’t have much materially and who must have been puzzled by us women walking around in jeans and hippie tops displaying a freedom that wasn’t extended to their own women. Mind you, we were there long enough to realize that you would insult or cross these people at your own peril – they aren’t known as proud, fierce, unassailable fighters for nothing.


The last straw for me came last night when I heard Peter Reith talk about the RAN Adelaide firing shots in the air followed by a round of automatic fire near the asylum seekers’ boat, and then heard Howard state that he wouldn’t want people who `throw their children in the water’ to enter his country.


Are the Australian people going to swallow that? Surely what is taught in schools now – the acceptance of diversity, the power of conflict resolution through free exchange of ideas and active listening, is reaching the adult population? And surely adults understand the difference between `tough’ and `bullying?’


Thank you for providing a forum for our views – I feel myself boiling over with despair not long after I awake each morning, and it’s good to have an outlet.


Pippa Tandy in East Perth


In today’s edition of our tawdry daily The West Australian there is an article about a man jailed for `people smuggling’ and on the back pages, an obituary for Emilie Schindler, the widow of and collaborator with Oskar Schindler.


Abdul Hussein Kadem is reported to have paid $17,000 to get himself and his apparently stateless family to Australia. He is said to have collaborated with people smugglers by acting as a translator and go-between. A squalid arrangement perhaps, like the squalid arrangements of the Schindlers, but none so base as those made by our Prime Minister and his generals Reith and Ruddock at the expense of asylum seekers in order to ensure his re-election.


Even lower are the actions of Kim Beazley and the Labor Party. I have been voting Labor for over thirty years but not this time. We have been bullied into a ludicrous supine submission on the one hand and on the other we are complicit in the most cynical cruelty.


Both Liberal and Labor have made thugs of all Australians, and many of us do not seem capable of making the connection that what our leaders are doing to asylum seekers they will do to us next.




David Eastwood in Sydney


Margo, was listening to John Anderson on the radio this morning urging Australians to vote for “stable government” – presumably the Coalition, rather than casting the major parties aside to register protest votes for Greens, Democrats, One Nation et al. Naturally this is particularly pertinent in his case, facing a real independent threat.


How many times over the decades and in many nations have governments of “national emergency” been formed comprising all parties, with a view to developing a united non-partisan response to a threat? Heaps. We could argue that this form of “unstable government” is actually a better solution to dealing with our current economic, geopolitical and military uncertainty than either of the main alternatives.


I find it hard to take this election seriously when politicians indulge in this type of disingenuous rhetoric to suit their own personal needs.


So who can one vote for? Why?




Mary Travers in Potts Point, Sydney


The piece you ran yesterday about polling by Graham Turner yesterday prompted me to fish out an extract from my study of reporting government and the arts.

“The low news status of government and the arts can be seen in the reporting of the most recent federal election, in 1998. The day after the Liberal-National Coalition Parties announced their arts policy, the Melbourne newspaper, The Age, reported the policy release, quoted the predictable negative response by the Labor Party spokesman, but did not report one item of the policy. A few scraps of information appeared later the next week.


None of the arts policy of the Australian Labor Party was reported by the Daily Telegraph, which devoted a full page to the launch. Instead it ran a story on the former Prime Minister, Paul Keating, describing the current Prime Minister as the cartoon character Mr Magoo, and a second story about famous artists and senior Labor figures meeting at a hotel after the event.


The Herald did produce a short report of each party policy announcement, but no media gave an adequate outline for the public to judge.


Coverage of the arts before the 1996 federal election was quite different. In the six weeks of the campaign the arts pages of The Australian and the Herald reported some aspect of arts policy every week.


The drop in media interest in 1998 can be directly linked to Prime Minister Howard’s lack of interest in the arts. When Prime Minister Keating and Opposition Leader Howard launched their arts policies, even the political journalists attended the events. As a rule they rarely cover the arts beyond the occasional ministerial statement. And when they do the over-riding influence appears not to be the content of an arts news event but the status of the persons involved in it.”


On this basis I guess 2001 will be even worse than 1998.






By Simon Thomsen

Editor, The Northern Rivers Echo

In 1990, the NSW north coast’s political landscape changed dramatically thanks to a grassroots nuclear disarmament campaigner and a National Party leader with a philately obsession. Politics has been much more interesting ever since.


Helen Caldicott went up into the lush hills around Byron Bay, in the federal seat of Richmond, where three members of the Anthony dynasty have sat as members. Normally, the only time the hippies heard a knock on their door, it was the drug squad. Caldicott convinced them to tune in to the electoral roll while they dropped out.


In doing so, an independent almost ended the National Party’s 89 year reign in Richmond. But the incumbent, Charles Blunt was already in deep trouble, having spent $250,000 on postage during the campaign.


Labor won Richmond and the adjacent seat of Page, based around river towns of Lismore and Grafton, plus the hippie haven of Nimbin. Suddenly, years of National Party neglect were over.


Voters stuck by Labor for a second term before the reverting to the Nationals when Howard came to power. In his second attempt, Larry Anthony followed in the footsteps of his father Doug, and his grandfather Larry snr.


Former Greiner government minister Ian Causley won Page from Harry Woods, who promptly won Causley’s state seat of Clarence. After coming within a whisker of winning in 1998, Labor’s former federal member, the insipid Neville Newell, followed Harry Woods’ example by winning another formerly safe Nationals state seat of Tweed in 1999.


We like to hedge our bets.


The far north coast is a strange blend of traditional and emerging farming, new age and Seachange lifestylers. The average weekly income is $452 – two thirds of the national average. Unemployment rarely falls below double digits, and consistently hovers around the mid-teens. There is a high proportion of single parent families, group households, retirees – pensioners and self-funded – and Aboriginal people.


Real estate prices are skyrocketing on the coast. Only 30 minutes drive inland, places like Lismore, Casino and Grafton in Page worry about their future.


The traditional farmers have sugar cane, tropical fruits, beef and dairy. Local lawyers and doctors in search of a tax break plant tea tree, macadamias and coffee.


Dairy dominated the region for a century, and the ghosts of the butter factories remain scattered across the landscape as pubs and cottage industries. The once proud dairy cooperative Norco almost disappeared last year under a mountain of debt, surviving after asset sales. We don’t make white milk locally any more – Norco has pinned its hopes on being an ice cream manufacturer. This week it received a $1.1 million federal grant to upgrade its plant. One third of dairy farms have gone, along with 1000 jobs.


Richmond has the nation’s highest proportion of caravan park residents. That’s why Community Services Minister Larry Anthony looks so terrified every time Labor hammers the issue of the GST on caravan parks.


Byron has been screamingly green tinge and is not much fun for the Nats. The fought to keep big corporations and fast food chains out of the town, but amidst congratulating themselves, fret that their paradise is too popular.


The coastal town of Ballina, 20 minutes south, delivers strong support for the Nationals, but it shifted to the Page electorate, to the dismay of Larry Anthony, during the last redistribution of electoral boundaries


Nimbin is Nimbin. It has a serious drug problem, despite the finest aspirations of its residents. Backpackers bussed over from Byron for the day to try the local weed support the smack habits of junkies.


Lismore is a university town and the regional centre emerging from its rural depression and the withdrawal of government jobs and services. The city is pinning its hopes on innovation and a belief that herbal medicine could drive the rural economy. Like the rest of the tertiary sector, Southern Cross University has struggled to attract funding. It’s strong on nursing, environmental science and MBAs. It’s about to build a new residential college for international students.


Casino has an abattoir, Grafton’s survives on government intervention and tax concessions. Forestry is big, but despite the certainty the Regional Forest Agreements were supposed to provide, the Greens came away from the process feeling duded, and the bickering and protests continue.


While Larry frets that if voters don’t like the government his 0.8% margin means his ministry is first on the chopping block, things are not all smooth sailing for Jenny McCallister, 28, a union organiser imposed on local branches over a popular grassroots candidate. John Della Bosca has been fingered as having his prints on the move, and a bitter stoush between party stalwarts has been waged publicly in the letters pages of the local paper.


One prominent ALP office holder, Julie Nathan, has resigned to run as a `Labour independent’.


One Nation polled 10.2% in 98, and this time has a 60-year-old female taxi driver, Dell Rolfe, from the Tweed. Anthony is snookered by a agreement that ministers will not do deals with ON.


Byron Bay Greens candidate Jan Barham is a local councillor, proving she already has a strong electoral base. You can bet a meditation or basket weaving party will join the fray. Byron activist Fast Buck$ is keen to create havoc once again.


While John Howard is following in the footsteps of his mentor Menzies’ reds-under-the-bed campaigns to whip up fear, Richmond is probably the rural seat least likely to buy it.


Tomorrow: Page




Sean Richardson


Mahatir Watch


This week the always straight talking Malaysian PM said: “Conventional war cannot overcome terrorism and defeat terrorists; it can only result in innocent people becoming victims.”


Hmmm. Depends what he means by “conventional war.” If he means forming the redcoats in line and firing muskets by platoon volley, he’d be right. On the other hand, the good Doctor may have noticed that he does not reside in a communist country. This is because the British and Australian armies successfully destroyed a well organised (communist) terrorist network between 1948 and 1960. It was called “The Malayan Emergency”. Perhaps Dr Mahatir was overseas at the time.


Lionel Hutz Still at Large


There has been much reportage in the last 24 hours on the words of al-Qaeda spokesman Sulaimon Abu Gheith. Of course, you should never take people seriously when they’re named after a Neil Diamond song, but here’s what he said: “There are thousands of young people who look forward to death like Americans look forward to life.”


Oh, Sulaimon (Sulai-sulai-sulai-mon), if you’re right, then it is proven that western civilisation is superior to your brand of “theocratic fascism” (to use Chris Hitchens’ accurate description). We too have young folk who look forward to death, but we call it “youth suicide”, consider it a tragedy and try to discourage it.


Here’s another quote, from Peter Baker and Susan Glasson reporting from Afghanistan: “The supply route fell to the rebels after 40 Taliban officers and their men defected in northern Afghanistan and agreed to cut off the regime’s main north-south route.” In days of yore, when information was hard to come by, we commoners were protected from most of the propaganda of our countries’ enemies. These days, it seems, every post-adolescent enemy cry of “I’m hard, me, HARD!” makes the front page.


Nevertheless, just because they say they’re the toughest bunch of death-loving supermen ever to change sides on a whim, that don’t make it so. Unless America does something very stupid indeed, the Taliban and al-Qaeda are going to lose.


Domestic Affairs – Burn Your Draft Card


Australians have never, ever, not even once, been conscripted to serve overseas. I mention this because others still seem worried by the prospect, including a letter writer to the Herald today. Apparently she didn’t hear John Howard’s reply to the question “Will you be introducing conscription?” It was a non-prolix “No.”


“That young whipper-snapper’s forgetting Nam!” cry the old hippies. No I’m not. I know many Aussie baby-boomers confuse their actual lives with memories of The Big Chill, but National Serviceman had to volunteer for the Regular Army before serving outside Australia and her territories and protectorates. This was also the case in World War II.


Don’t panic!

The traitors within

I’ve thought through my outburst against certain right wing commentators on Monday, and the result is below, a piece written for the Last Word column.




The finger pointed, accusing me of joining the terrorists to demonise their victim. I was one of a long list of writers Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt last week plucked a sentence from to prove that the `left’ had sided with terrorists to undermine the war against them.


My quote came from Last Word: “As we back the US in bombing the bejesus out of Afghanistan…we wage our own war against Afghan refugees.” What on earth did this have to do with condoning terrorism?


On the same day, in similar reductive vein, Miranda Devine named her traitors. Her rhetorical trick was the same as Bolt’s – while he used the words of Saddam Hussein to drag critics of US foreign policy into the terrorist’s camp, she used those of the Taliban leader.


It looked like crude McCarthyism to me. But then I saw the light, courtesy of a Late Night Live interview with left-wing columnist Christopher Hitchens in the US, who has strongly criticised some leftist American opinion on the bombings.


He said there is a loony left and a loony right, with one thing in common. Both blame the US for what happened and say no more. The loony left says the United States has got its just deserts for it’s State sponsored terrorism and support for dictatorships in its economic interests. The loony right, led by fundamentalist Christian Jerry Falwell, blames America because of its materialism and secularisation.


The non-loon debate is about the nature, breadth and core principles of an effective United States response. Citizens around the world are vitally concerned in the correct answers – everyone fears the nightmare scenario of World War III, religious war, a war without end in a world consumed by fear.


For that debate to be informed one must understand the enemy and understand and learn from history. Bolt and Devine avoid it completely by slam-dunking anyone who raises such matters with accusations of bad faith. They chose not to dispute the history, or interpret it differently. They simply deny it a place.


For instance, the question of whether the United States should kill thousands of innocent civilians in a reprisal attack goes to the question of the values the United States is seeking to defend, and whether such a response would escalate rather than end bin Laden’s grand plan to trigger a holy war.


This debate has raged within the Bush war Cabinet. Some hawks wanted to wipe out Afghanistan and Iraq. At the extreme end, car stickers holler: “NUKE AFGHANISTAN: Noone will miss it anyway.”


So far these forces have been overruled by the Bush Administration, in favour of a complex and delicate attempt to build a Coalition of most world powers, including Muslim nations, to fight the threat. So far the Coalition has isolated the Taliban, promised to feed Afghan refugees fleeing Afghanistan, avoided civil war in Pakistan and united old enemies on the side of America. There are suggestions of a nation-building program for post-Taliban Afghanistan along the lines of the Marshall plan which rehabilitated Germany after World War 11.


For what the New York bombing proved is that overwhelming military might is not a defence in today’s world. The war against terrorism must be won in other ways. As Paul Keating said so graphically last week, “It’s not building a cocoon like (the) missile defence around the United States with (a) Mad Max world outside, but rather one where our security, the security of all of us, is more particularly catered for by the fact that we don’t tread over other people, and that we do run the whole world in a way which does chip away at a bit of our own strength, our own privilege, but which makes it happier and more secure.”


I believe readers are hungry for these debates. In Australia’s post-leadership politics, we get nothing from the major party heads but bipartisan banalities or adversarial emptiness. It is left to the commentariat and the Australian people to address big-picture global issues which have dogged us for years but seemed to big to comprehend, let alone tackle.


The Devine/Bolt play seeks to close down that conversation. It annihilates history and the lessons we can learn from it. It’s accusatory emotionalism buries rationality. It decries suggestions of double standards without explaining why.


Surely readers deserve more than a blame-game slanging match bereft of genuine engagement and mired in name-calling. That style has had its day, and not only in politics. There are more important matters to discuss.




October 3 issue:


1. A Guardian comment piece today on the war, forwarded by the Herald’s foreign editor


2. David Palmer on the refugee aspect of the war


3. Jeffrey Allan on whether the league grand final crowd cheered Howard

4. Helen Darville and Peter Kelly on the trouble with the system.

5. Jim Green brings the terrorist threat into political debate in the Southern Sydney seat of Hughes, in one example of how the election campaign will be transformed by it.


6.Geoff Honour and Roland Killick continue the left/right debate




The Guardian


Matthew Engel in Washington


GEORGE Bush once said that the biggest mistake of his life came when he owned the Texas Rangers baseball club and got rid of a player called Sammy Sosa, who became one of the great home-run hitters of all time.

Like much else we used to know about American politics, that is presumably out of date by now, along with the joke that Dubya thinks Al Qaida is some guy who plays short-stop for the Detroit Tigers. I have this odd feeling that the president’s biggest mistake might turn out, as so often happens, to be what everyone now perceives to be his biggest triumph.

The pace of events being what it is, it’s possible that by the time you read this, half a dozen SAS men or SEALs will have abseiled down a mountainside, headed into the cavern like Bilbo chasing Smaug the Dragon, captured Bin Laden and carried his head away on a platter. And if the best comes to the best, the notion of Dubya being in power until 2009, when his image will be carved into Mount Rushmore and brother Jeb moves into the White House, would be a small price to pay for getting shot of his fiendish enemy.

The first problem, though, as the attorney-general John Ashcroft has been trying to say, is that the capture of Bin Laden might only increase the danger to American civilians, rather than reduce it. And what if it isn’t so simple?

For more than a week now, all the propaganda from the administration has been designed to cool the war fever that raged across America after the attack. The danger that the US might lash out at anyone and everyone has abated. The message now is all about subtlety. This, we are told, will be a new kind of war, a concept that sounds dangerously like the new economy, the internet-led one that was to erase forever the outmoded cycle of boom-and-bust.

Sometimes we will be told what’s going on; sometimes – presumably when it’s bad news – we won’t. The American people, accustomed to wanting giant-sized blue raspberry-flavour slush puppies with swirls of chocolate topping, ranch dressing and cheese melts, and wanting them NOW, suddenly understand the need for patience. So the polls say, the ones that report 90% backing for the president.

Well, maybe. The kind of person smart enough to read all the way through the news section of the Washington Post (I know one of them; there may be a second) might indeed have this sort of patience. I am not sure about the rest of the nation. There is a long-standing tendency for voters to make all kinds of virtuous statements to pollsters – a preference for good works rather than tax cuts, for instance – on which they renege at the crucial moment.

The problem in this case is that they were already worked up into a state of excitement about imminent retribution. The person who worked them up was the president, in the famous speech to Congress that earned enough standing ovations to make a dictator blush.

This phoney-war period is doubtless deeply misleading in many respects; in October 1939 it would have been impossible to grasp the nature of what lay ahead. Defeatism is as dangerous as over-confidence. But I am finding it hard to get out of my head one letter, written just after the speech to the New York Times by Catherine Kudlick, a Californian history professor.

She rightly gave Bush credit for the effectiveness of his rhetoric and for telling the country it would be a messy, drawn-out conflict. “But in promising a new kind of war, he tempts us with an old image of victory that may be impossible to achieve …,” she wrote.

“What could possibly convince us that the last bomb has been planted, the last gas canister spent, the last computer virus launched? Six months without an attack? Six years? Six centuries?”

It is this thought that alarms me more than anything, as the strategists contemplate the snowfall statistics in the Hindu Kush, and the difficulties of using a sledgehammer to crack a wasp’s nest. I am not sure Americans are truly ready for the realities of the battle that has now been joined. I am not sure any of us are.




David Palmer in Adelaide


I know that “refugees” are not what the two main parties want to talk about now with the election looming, but working toward a comprehensive – not piecemeal – Australia policy on this issue is more urgent than ever. We are about to witness a tidal wave of refugees – and from a distance the possibility of millions starving to death in Central Asia. Many observers believe we are about to witness one of the worst famines in human history.


It also is an issue that the Bush administration in the United States does not seem to be considering seriously. It is remarkable that the US has moved toward a more multilateral position in dealing with terrorist networks and the Taliban harboring them. It is also encouraging that Bush gave indications that his administration might recognise a Palestinian state if Israel’s safety could be guaranteed. Furthermore, Bush called for pushing ahead with peace initiatives outlined in the Mitchell Report.


The Bush administration still has not dealt adequately with the human dimension of this catastrophe beyond US shores, however. Today’s New York Times had this article – highlighting that the US State Department does not even have a head in place for its Refugee Bureau. The URL is:


The Australian government – and all party leaders – should seriously work towards an international solution to the growing refugee problem, which will become worse day by day as the eventual military action takes place. The Nauru solution has been a total failure – and will only further alienate Australia from its closest neighbors in Southeast Asia.


We’ve really had enough political opportunism by Howard and Beazley – and their parties. Howard in particular has seriously misinformed the Australian public on this crisis. Can’t they please focus more on Australia’s place within the international community and make us proud about Australia’s role in the world? Might one answer be for those with a bit of vision on this issue – Keating, Fraser, and Whitlam – to start a national forum on dealing with this issue seriously?


PS: On a different – but related note – Riaz Hassan, who teaches in Sociology at Flinders University, just gave a talk here and stated that Bin Laden’s end game may be to attack Saudi Arabia and try to gain control there – return of the holy land, etc. This can only be accomplished once the US begins its attack on the Taliban and many in the Muslim world can be mobilised against the US. It makes a great deal of sense – especially given the Saudi’s present caution and Rumsfeld’s coming visit there. I doubt that this scenario has even crossed Howard’s mind.


MARGO: Keating spoke at length about Australia’s long-term national interest in complying with the refugee convention on Lateline last night. See




Jeffrey Allen in Sydney


I was interested to hear your comments on Late Night Live last night in respect of the reception John Howard received at the National Rugby League Grand Final on Sunday night.


Your esteemed colleague, Roy Masters, has also commented that it was the first time in living memory that a prime minister has not been booed and concludes that it is an indication of Howard’s current popularity .


I attended the match and didn’t read it that way at all. For the first time I recall, the presentation of the winners trophy was handled `Wembley’ style with the teams walking up through the crowd – Howard and VIPs were pretty much hidden from view of the majority of the crowd (they usually stand on a podium in the middle of the ground), there were no official speeches (which usually annoys the crowd) and I don’t recall Howard being introduced (hence the lack of opportunity to boo ). I didn’t sense any great affection for him.


My view is that Masters and the like are reading it wrong – the only problem is that it seems to have taken on the proportions of an urban myth.


As a sideline, I watched the match from a corporate box and a few of the guests (myself included) did spot Howard trying to slip away and booed him . Not that anyone cared, as most of the crowd had either left (losers) or were watching their team do a lap of honour (winners).


Then again, perhaps we were just a bunch of chardonnay (cabernet merlot, actually ) swilling elitists totally out of touch with middle Australia. Let’s hope not.




Helen Darville in Logan City, Queensland


Well, why do we have an opposition?


To, ahem, oppose the government.


Well why aren’t they?


Because they’re the same as the government!



I overheard this little conversation in the gym the other day. Beazley and Labor’s refusal to articulate a different position on a whole range of issues (refugees is only the most obvious example) is not only undermining Labor’s support in the electorate. It’s undermining the whole political process in this country.


I thought the point of our Westminster-style democracy was to provide the voters with a range of different views on public policy/current issues. Historically, we were usually stuck with just two but – as Rick Passpoints out – at least they were very different from each other!


I think (out on limb here) that had Beazley opposed Howard on refugees, been louder about his party’s opposition to privatisation and clearly articulated his policies, the initial reaction of the public would have been negative, yes. Over time, however, he would have gained the respect of the electorate for holding to his principles and articulating a genuinely different vision for the country.


Now people see him backing Howard on refugees/economic policy/environment etc, but they also see the internal ructions within the Labor Party over these issues. They perceive (rightly or wrongly) that his heart isn’t in it, and penalise him for his failure to articulate any sort of vision, let alone an independent one.


Peter Kelly


Christopher Selth wrote about Sylvio Berlusconi in Strange Election Looming. Berlusconi is as subtle as a brick when he describes Islamic countries. An ugly westerner, you might say.


But there is one strength in the Italian political system I would love to see in Australia. It is unstable and prone to frequent changes of government. The major parties are not as strong, disciplined or stable and Berlusconi, in the Italian tradition, will soon be gone again. In Australia, the stability of government is about as reassuring as a stable group school yard bullies.


If only we had the same sort of instability of government in this country. It might make the future more bearable. Bring on the confusion of many third parties. After seeing what has been achieved in the last few weeks in the Australian parliament I would prefer to see a political system where nothing effective can be done. The only good government is an impotent government.




Jim Green in Chippendale, Sydney


Disclosure: I did my PhD on the reactor debates in the Dept. of Science and Tech Studies at Wollongong Uni, and am a member of Sutherland Shire Council’s Reactor Taskforce.


MARGO: The battle over the Lucas Heights reactor will be fought in the seat of Hughes, held by Liberal Danna Vale.


In the wake of the shocking events in the United States on September 11, it’s timely to reconsider the federal government’s plan to build a 20-megawatt nuclear research reactor in the southern Sydney suburb of Lucas Heights. If built, the reactor will replace the 10 megawatt HIFAR reactor operated by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) at Lucas Heights.


In 1983, nine sticks of gelignite, 25 kilograms of ammonium nitrate, three detonators and an igniter were found in an electrical sub-station inside ANSTO’s boundary fence. Two detonators failed, and one exploded but did not ignite the main charge. Two people were charged over this incident.


The following year, a threat was made to fly an aircraft packed with explosives into the HIFAR reactor; a person was charged and found guilty on two counts of causing public mischief.


Last year, in the lead up to the Olympics, New Zealand police uncovered a possible terrorist threat to the nuclear plant at Lucas Heights. A street map with entry and exit points to ANSTO was discovered following a raid on a group of refugees, most from Afghanistan and some from Iran, some of whom were suspected of being involved in a people-smuggling racket. The raid also uncovered notes on police security tactics at the 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games. Several people were charged with passport and false-documentation offences following the New Zealand raid, though none with terrorist activities.


In response to these revelations, industry minister Nick Minchin said in an August 26, 2000 media release that, “The ANSTO facility is a research reactor and as such its fundamental design greatly limits the risk to public safety from an accident.” In fact, the opposite is true: research reactors are designed for ease of access in order to facilitate the range of purposes for which they are used – isotope production, research and commercial applications such as silicon irradiation. This ease of access poses obvious security risks.


During the debate over the planned new reactor, ANSTO has dismissed the possibility of a sabotage event leading to a `fast loss of coolant’ accident which would expose the reactor core. This has been challenged by nuclear engineer Tony Wood, former head of ANSTO’s Division of Reactors and Engineering. Wood told a Senate inquiry on October 25 last year that a sabotage event “has the potential to have much worse consequences [than ANSTO’s selected ‘reference’ accident] and the EIS admits there is no way of assessing its likelihood.”


“Pool reactors have a free water surface and this very feature, which is desirable for flexible access to the core, also makes it vulnerable. The EIS claims credit for the massive reinforced concrete block of the pool but this is the very thing which would direct the force of an explosion into the reactor core and expel fuel and water,” Wood said.


Wood asked for an assessment to be carried out and the results published “of a true upper-bound event based on major sabotage” with involvement from the SAS or other military experts. ANSTO prefers to stick its head in the sand.


Last year, the CEO of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), John Loy, issued a licence to ANSTO to prepare a site for a new reactor. Loy justified his decision in a statement which said, inter alia, “I accept that the critical point in the evaluation of the reference accident is the exclusion of a fast loss of coolant. But I believe that the ARPANSA review and the international peer reviews commissioned in the EIS process demonstrate that this is a valid scenario. Of course, it is possible to posit all sorts of simultaneous disasters and suggest superhuman powers to saboteurs or enemies; but that does not help the careful evaluation of a real life proposal.”


Will ARPANSA reconsider its decision in the wake of the `real life’ events in the United States on September 11? Let’s hope so. But ARPANSA’s regulatory branch is inhabited by no less than six former ANSTO staff members, and, incredibly, the chief executive of ANSTO sat on the panel which interviewed applicants for the position of CEO of the `independent’ regulator, ARPANSA! Perhaps not surprisingly, John Loy, as the successful applicant, sees no contradiction in ANSTO’s involvement in selecting its own `independent’ regulator.






Greg Weilo started the left/right definitional debate in Retrospective Hansonism, triggering several responses in Left, right…how politics will march forward and a reply from Greg in Strange election looming. Here’s the latest.


Geoff Honour


I’ve read Greg Weilo’s second go at explaining his perspective on an emergent post-ideology political culture. I’m still not convinced.


Taking the worst from both Old Left and Right – small-minded social judgmentalism from the right and re-regulation from the left – seems more like a turbo-charged reversal back down the road already travelled; chauffeured by Jerry Falwell.


And this “liberal humanism” bete noire of his resonates unpleasantly with my own past. The nuns in my primary school years pronounced “humanist” with the same foreboding tone reserved for “atheist” or “Protestant.” I worked out that humanists were people who weren’t totally reliant on Father’s opinion and who put little store in Faith alone. I was totally sold on the concept.


If he’s got a moment to spare from re-arranging the political landscape, Greg might like to share what he considers to be the sensible alternative to that old devil humanist position – “pro-homosexual”? I gather he’s definitely not in favour of “pro” but what then might “anti” look like for me and mine?


Roland Killick in Sydney


Christopher Selth writes in Strange election looming: “And the Western roots Berlusconi is calling on are not democracy, civil rights, but religion.”


There are many people who would claim not to follow the Christian religions, but who could nevertheless be described as Christians. This is because Western culture has developed in an environment shaped almost entirely by Christian values, by Christian politics and by Christian patronage.


Could we not argue that many of the fundamentals we take for granted, such as the equality of individuals, the notion of right and wrong, the separation of state and religion, all arose from or support this context? Perhaps this is what Berlusconi meant.


And similarly, when Mark Worthington, commenting on a piece by Greg Weilo, writes that “some argue that there are a fixed set of values, a moral code, that defines our national identity” the same point could be made. For better or worse, Australia is a Christian country and is defined by that fixed set of values. At least for the time being.


I agree with Greg that I have not seen “multiculturalism” work – in any of the 14 countries in which I have lived, There seem to be four “F”s in multiculturalism: Food, Fashion, Festivals and what we tell those who ask us to modify our Fundamental beliefs.


It is easy to learn to live peacefully and without malice if we restrain ourselves to the first three. However, it is nonsensical to expect to retain a cohesive society if we accept – and acceptance to me means integrating into our political and legal systems – contradictory values. It would be like saying to the people who are used to driving on the left that they may continue to do so in Australia with impunity, as can the people who are used to driving on the right.


Perhaps both Christopher and Mark would agree with the proposition that if we truly value different cultures we should seek to understand their differences at a fundamental level. For example, should we legalise the notion of “Womens’ secret business” or should we accept the non-discriminatory rules of the UN? Should we abolish land ownership and only grant Stewardship rights over a parcel of land?


If we seek to build a multicultural society, it might be useful to create a national body to systematise this investigation and propose changes to our systems of government. And maybe even, dare I say it, changes to our Economic systems, the need for which Mr. Bin Laden has so shockingly brought to our attention?