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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Cambodia's missing accused by John Pilger

John Pilger

In an article for the Guardian, John Pilger calls on his long experience with Cambodia's struggles in lamenting missing faces in the dock at the UN-backed trial of crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge period. Where are Pol Pot's accomplices and collaborators in the West?

At my hotel in Phnom Penh, the women and children sat on one side of the room, palais-style, the men on the other. It was a disco night and a lot of fun; then suddenly people walked to the windows and wept. The DJ had played a song by the much-loved Khmer singer, Sin Sisamouth, who had been forced to dig his own grave and to sing the Khmer Rouge anthem before he was beaten to death. I experienced many such reminders in the years following Pol Pot’s fall.

There was another kind of reminder. In the village of Neak Long, a Mekong River town, I walked with a distraught man through a necklace of bomb craters. His entire family of 13 had been blown to pieces by an American B-52. That had happened almost two years before Pol Pot came to power in 1975. It is estimated more than 600,000 Cambodians were slaughtered that way.

The problem with the United Nations-backed trial of the remaining Khmer Rouge leaders, which has just begun in Phom Penh, is that it is dealing only with the killers of Sin Sisamouth and not with the killers of the family in Neak Long, and not with their collaborators. There were three stages of Cambodia’s holocaust. Pol Pot’s genocide was but one of them, yet only it has a place in the official memory. It is highly unlikely Pot Pot would have come to power had President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, not attacked neutral Cambodia. In 1973, B-52s dropped more bombs on Cambodia’s populated heartland than were dropped on Japan during all of the Second World War: the equivalent of five Hiroshimas. Declassified files reveal that the CIA was in little doubt of the effect. “[The Khmer Rouge] are using damage caused by B52 strikes as the main theme of their propaganda,” reported the director of operations on May 2, 1973. “This approach has resulted in the successful recruitment of a number of young men [and] has been effective with refugees.” Prior to the bombing, the Khmer Rouge had been a Maoist cult without a popular base. The bombing delivered a catalyst. What Nixon and Kissinger began, Pol Pot completed.

Kissinger will not be in the dock in Phom Penh. He is advising President Obama on geo-politics. Neither will Margaret Thatcher, nor a number of her comfortably retired senior ministers and officials who, in secretly supporting the Khmer Rouge after the Vietnamese had expelled them, contributed directly to the third stage of Cambodia’s holocaust. In 1979, the US and British governments imposed a devastating embargo on stricken Cambodia because its liberators, Vietnam, had come from the wrong side of the cold war. Few Foreign Office campaigns have been as cynical or as brutal. At the UN, the British demanded that the now defunct Pol Pot regime retain the “right” to represent its victims at the UN and voted with Pol Pot in the agencies of the UN, including the World Health Organisation, thereby preventing it from working inside Cambodia.

To disguise this outrage, Britain, the US and China, Pol Pot’s principal backer, invented a “non communist” coalition in exile that was, in fact, dominated by the Khmer Rouge. In Thailand, the CIA and Defence Intelligence Agency formed direct links with the Khmer Rouge. In 1983, the Thatcher government sent the SAS to train the “coalition” in landmine technology – in a country more seeded with mines than anywhere on earth except Afghanistan. “I confirm,” Thatcher wrote to opposition leader Neil Kinnock, “that there is no British government involvement of any kind in training, equipping or co-operating with Khmer Rouge forces or those allied to them.” The lie was breathtaking. On June 25, 1991, the Major government was forced to admit to parliament that the SAS had been secretly training the “coalition”. Unless international justice is a farce, those who sided with Pol Pot’s mass murderers ought to be summoned to the court in Phnom Penh: at the very least their names read into infamy’s register.

20 Feb 2009

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Hollywood's new censors by John Pilger

John Pilger

In his latest column for the New Statesman, John Pilger describes how censorship in Hollywood works in the age of the 'war on terror'. Unlike the crude days of the cold war, it's by omission and 'introspective dross'.

When I returned from the war in Vietnam, I wrote a film script as an antidote to the myth that the war had been an ill-fated noble cause. The producer David Puttnam took the draft to Hollywood and offered it to the major studios, whose responses were favourable – well, almost. Each issued a report card in which the final category, “politics”, included comments such as: “This is real, but are the American people ready for it? Maybe they’ll never be.”

By the late 1970s, Hollywood judged Americans ready for a different kind of Vietnam movie. The first was The Deer Hunter which, according to Time, “articulates the new patriotism”. The film celebrated immigrant America, with Robert de Niro as a working class hero (“liberal by instinct”) and the Vietnamese as sub-human Oriental barbarians and idiots, or “gooks”. The dramatic peak was reached during recurring orgiastic scenes in which GIs were forced to play Russian roulette by their Vietnamese captors. This was made up by the director Michael Cimino, who also made up a story that he had served in Vietnam. “I have this insane feeling that I was there,” he said. “Somehow... the line between reality and fiction has become blurred.”

The Deer Hunter was regarded virtually as documentary by ecstatic critics. “The film that could purge a nation’s guilt!” said the Daily Mail. President Jimmy Carter was reportedly moved by its “genuine American message”. Catharsis was at hand. The Vietnam movies became a revisionist popular history of the great crime in Indo-China. That more than four million people had died terribly and unnecessarily and their homeland poisoned to a wasteland was not the concern of these films. Rather, Vietnam was an “American tragedy”, in which the invader was to be pitied in a blend of false bravado-and-angst: sometimes crude (the Rambo films) and sometimes subtle (Oliver Stone’s Platoon). What mattered was the strength of the purgative.

None of this, of course, was new; it was how Hollywood created the myth of the Wild West, which was harmless enough unless you happened to be a native-American; and how the Second World War has been relentlessly glorified, which may be harmless enough unless you happen to be one of countless innocent human beings, from Serbia to Iraq, whose deaths or dispossession are justified by moralising references to 1939-45. Hollywood’s gooks, its Untermenschen, are essential to this crusade - the dispatched Somalis in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down and the sinister Arabs in movies like Rendition, in which the torturing CIA is absolved by Jake Gyllenhal’s good egg. As Robbie Graham and Mark Alford pointed out in their New Statesman enquiry into corporate control of the cinema (2 February), in 167 minutes of Steven Spielberg’s Munich, the Palestinian cause is restricted to just two and a half minutes. “Far from being an ‘even-handed cry for peace’, as one critic claimed,” they wrote, “Munich is more easily interpreted as a corporate-backed endorsement of Israeli policy.”

With honourable exceptions, film critics rarely question this and identify the true power behind the screen. Obsessed with celebrity actors and vacuous narratives, they are the cinema’s lobby correspondents, its dutiful press corps. Emitting safe snipes and sneers, they promote a deeply political system that dominates most of what we pay to see, knowing not what we are denied. Brian de Palma’s 2007 film Redacted shows an Iraq the media does not report. He depicts the homicides and gang-rapes that are never prosecuted and are the essence of any colonial conquest. In the New York Village Voice, the critic Anthony Kaufman, in abusing the “divisive” De Palma for his “perverse tales of voyeurism and violence”, did his best to taint the film as a kind of heresy and to bury it.

In this way, the “war on terror” – the conquest and subversion of resource rich regions of the world, whose ramifications and oppressions touch all our lives – is almost excluded from the popular cinema. Michael Moore’s outstanding Fahrenheit 911 was a freak; the notoriety of its distribution ban by the Walt Disney Company helped to force its way into cinemas. My own 2007 film The War on Democracy, which inverted the “war on terror” in Latin America, was distributed in Britain, Australia and other countries but not in the United States. “You will need to make structural and political changes,” said a major New York distributor. “Maybe get a star like Sean Penn to host it – he likes liberal causes - and tame those anti-Bush sequences.”

During the cold war, Hollywood’s state propaganda was unabashed. The classic 1957 dance movie, Silk Stockings, was an anti-Soviet diatribe interrupted by the fabulous footwork of Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire. These days, there are two types of censorship. The first is censorship by introspective dross. Betraying its long tradition of producing gems, escapist Hollywood is consumed by the corporate formula: just make ‘em long and asinine and hope the hype will pay off. Ricky Gervais is his clever comic self in Ghost Town, while around him stale, formulaic characters sentimentalise the humour to death.

These are extraordinary times. Vicious colonial wars and political, economic and environmental corruption cry out for a place on the big screen. Yet, try to name one recent film that has dealt with these, honestly and powerfully, let alone satirically. Censorship by omission is virulent. We need another Wall Street, another Last Hurrah, another Dr. Strangelove. The partisans who tunnel out of their prison in Gaza, bringing in food, clothes, medicines and weapons with which to defend themselves, are no less heroic than the celluloid-honoured POWs and partisans of the 1940s. They and the rest of us deserve the respect of the greatest popular medium.

19 Feb 2009

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Unions act to help bushfire victims by Sue Bolton

As soon as the devastation of the Victorian bushfires became known, unions began organising to help bushfire victims.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions and its affiliates donated $250,000 to the national bushfire appeal on February 9.

As Green Left Weekly goes to print, the Union Bushfire Emergency Response has raised $1,345,500. This includes $1 million donated by the Construction, Forestry, Mining Energy Union.

The union movement internationally has been donating money with US$20,000 coming from the United Steelworkers (USA) and 10,000 Euros from Public Services International.

In Victoria, the building industry unions are organising blood donations, teams of volunteers and collections on building sites.

Many unions have members badly affected by the bushfires, many who have lost homes and some who have lost their lives.

Fosters brewery in Melbourne heartlessly sacked three Country Fire Authority firefighters from their maintenance jobs at Fosters, while the men were out fighting fires. Unions are resisting attempts by Fosters to outsource maintenance to contractor ABB.

The Gippsland Trades and Labour Council (TLC) had already been organising support for the victims of earlier fires in the region before the huge firestorm hit on February 7.

Gippsland TLC secretary John Parker told GLW that it is now building a database of people who need help and a database of volunteers and their skills to help with the rebuilding process.

The Australian Education Union is organising immediate financial assistance of $5000 for members who have lost their homes as well as $5000 for each of the AEU sub-branches in the three schools which burned down.

Geelong Trades Hall is organising members into relief teams to help with the clean-up and repairs.

John Parker said that another role that Gippsland TLC will play, as part of its community unionism approach, is to advocate on behalf of the community.

Bushfire victims are already having to battle Centrelink, the banks, insurance companies and government bureaucracies. The Gippsland TLC is offering help with these issues to bushfire victims.

Unions are also warning that the current devastation must not be compounded by insurance companies using untrained people to clear the burnt-out remains of houses.

Many of the houses were built with asbestos. That asbestos is now dislodged. If untrained contractors let that asbestos escape into the air, then many of the survivors of the bushfires may be exposed to the deadly material.

Some unions have also indicated they will advocate fighting climate change in order to prevent the increasing frequency and intensity of bushfires.

United Firefighters Union national secretary Peter Marshall wrote in the February 12 Age that “we will be fighting more fires unless we tackle the problem’s source.”

“Without a massive turnaround in policies, aside from the tragic loss of life and property, we will be asking firefighters to put themselves at an unacceptable risk.

“Firefighters know that it is better to prevent an emergency than to have to rescue people from it, and we urge state and federal governments to follow scientific advice and keep firefighters and the community safe by halving the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2020”, Marshall said.

From: Australian News, Green Left Weekly issue #783 18 February 2009.

Bushfires — just chance, or climate change? By Renfrey Clarke

With Victoria’s bushfire holocaust now confirmed as Australia’s worst-ever natural disaster, people are reasonably asking: are these events linked to climate change?

The short answer is yes. Major bushfires are complex phenomena, requiring the right combination of temperature, wind speed, available fuel, low humidity and low preceding rainfall if they are to reach their full savagery.

By bringing more frequent and extreme hot weather events, and increasing the likelihood of droughts, climate warming now promises to make really severe bushfires much more frequent.

In a 2007 study, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO sought to put a figure on the shortening odds of bushfire catastrophe.

Relating the scientists’ findings, the Canberra Times reported on February 9: “By 2020, days of extreme fire danger are forecast to increase by 5 to 25 per cent if climate change is low and by 15 to 65 per cent if it is high.”

Ominously, the 2007 study predicted that the worst changes would be seen in northern NSW. Until now this region has mostly been too humid, and its temperatures too mild, for bushfires of the intensity experienced further south.

The Victorian inferno of February 7 was the culmination of more than a week of record or near-record temperatures across much of south-eastern Australia.

In Adelaide, the maximum temperature of 45.7°C on January 28 was the third-hottest day ever recorded in the city.

Maximum temperatures in the South Australian capital remained above 40°C for six consecutive days, from January 27 to February 1. The last time Adelaide had experienced six days above 40°C was as far back as 1908.

The grilling suffered by Adelaide, however, was soon to be surpassed in Victoria. In most of that state, February 7 was the hottest day on record.

Hopetoun recorded the state’s highest ever temperature of 48.8°C. Melbourne also set a new mark: 46.4°C.

With temperatures mounting, state political leaders groped for excuses that might explain paralysed public transport, rolling blackouts, and large numbers of heat-related deaths.

“We’ve got to remember, this is a one in 100 year heatwave”, South Australian Premier Mike Rann lamely assured listeners to ABC radio on February 5.

Unfortunately for Rann, this supposedly one-off event had been spectacularly previewed less than a year before. In March 2008 — autumn, not summer — the maximum temperature in Adelaide had stayed above 35° for 15 consecutive days. The previous record, over 170 years of recording, was eight days.

If the fifteen-day heatwave were pure chance, the head of Adelaide University’s Research Institute for Climate Change and Sustainability Professor Barry Brook later observed in his blog, it would recur on average once every 3000 years.

But come 2009, and south-eastern Australia was enduring another historic heat event.

As of February 4 this year, weather forecasts were predicting that Adelaide would undergo 12 consecutive days above 35°C.

If no underlying warming mechanism were involved, Brook calculated, the odds of a 15-day heatwave in Adelaide being followed within a year by another of 12 days were one in 1.2 million.

As it happened, the forecast 12-day streak was broken on February 4 when the maximum temperature in Adelaide fell about 1.5° below the arbitrary 35°C mark.

Making a rough recalculation, Brook revised his earlier figure. In the absence of a warming trend, the heat events of March 2008 and January-February 2009 would now have been likely to succeed one another, he concluded, about once every 150,000 years.

“But what’s a couple of ice ages or 18 times the period of human civilisation between friends?” Brook remarked.

Then, as if to spite the deniers, temperatures soared back up again. On February 6, the Adelaide maximum reached 43.9°C, and next day, 41.5°C. So far, no one seems to have worked out the odds on 15 days above 35°C being followed by a run of eight out of 11 days above 40°C, all within less than a year.

“I would say confidently … that [the March 2008 heatwave] is not a one in 3000 event any more”, Brook told the February Adelaide Review. “It’s much more frequent and it could end up being a yearly event within the next few years if we continue with our warming.”

The startlingly longer and more intense Australian heatwaves have followed an average warming of the Earth’s surface atmosphere that seems mild by comparison — around 0.8°C since the mid-19th century. Why have the changes in south-eastern Australia been so striking?

Global warming is not evenly distributed. Summer temperatures in continental interiors, such as inland Australia, are rising faster than the general increase.

When a high pressure system sits persistently over the Tasman Sea, as happened both this year and last, dry air moves slowly southward over the Australian inland, picking up heat as it goes. And with higher inland temperatures, there is now more heat to be picked up.

Also important is the fact that, as climate zones shift, Adelaide and even Melbourne are increasingly becoming part of Australia’s inland in climate terms.

In earlier decades, bursts of cool air from the Southern Ocean would more or less reliably drive back hot inland air from the southern coastline before many days had passed. Heatwaves of more than a week were rare.

One of the results of climate warming, however, is that the cool mid-latitude westerly airstreams are contracting pole-ward.

The cool changes are weaker, and in the Southern Hemisphere, do not reach so far north. In southern Australia, there is now less and less reason why extreme heat events should not last for much of the summer.

And there is a catch: when a vigorous front does pass over southern Australia, there is a high chance that its approach will accelerate superheated inland air and send it spearing into forested areas. This is the type of event that doomed close to 200 people on February 7.

To reach full ferocity, bushfires also require unusually dry conditions. Prior to February 7, Melbourne had 35 days without rain, the second-longest period ever recorded.

Over the past 12 years, rainfall over most of the area affected by the fires has been about 20% below the long-term average.

Scientists now believe that the single largest influence on rainfall in south-eastern Australia is the recently discovered Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), involving shifts in water temperatures in the Indian Ocean.

How the IOD might interact with global warming remains undetermined. But there is no longer any substantial doubt about the link between global warming and the pole-ward retreat of the westerly wind belts.

Cold fronts and showers embedded in the moist westerlies have historically been an important source of rain to the bushfire-prone regions of Victoria. This source is now waning.

If there is any lesson in the bushfire catastrophe, it is that climate change is well able to kill people, in large numbers, in Australia, right now.

Television viewers in the aftermath of February 7 watched a teary Prime Minister Kevin Rudd embracing bushfire victims.

We might all have been more impressed if he had set serious targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while allocating the resources needed for success.

13 February 2009

From: Australian News, Green Left Weekly issue #783 18 February 2009.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Meltdown, fires as climate emergency hits Australia by Katherine Bradstreet

The heatwave across south-eastern Australia in recent weeks has given a hint of what we can expect as global temperatures continue to rise: black-outs, fatalities and transport chaos as privatised infrastructure fails.

Throughout South Australia and Victoria, thousands of homes were left without electricity as demand soared, overwhelming the existing grid. Melbourne’s rail system collapsed into chaos as temperatures reached over 40°C.

Both states have seen a sharp increase in deaths as a result of the heatwave, with Adelaide’s central morgue quite literally overflowing — the “excess” cadavers were stored temporarily in a refrigerated freight container.

University of Adelaide climate scientist Barry Brook put this tragedy into perspective on his blog on February 3. He pointed out that more people are thought to have died due to heat stress in the last week than died in the infamous Ash Wednesday Bushfires in 1983.

This was before the bushfires that raged out of control in rural Victoria, described by Victorian Premier John Brumby as the worst ever in the state's history. By February 8, more than 200,000 hectares had been affected in over 400 fires and the confirmed death toll stood at 65 people.

At least 650 homes have been destroyed, with the small town of Marysville being almost completely razed, with an estimated 80% of building burned down.
Climate change

What do such unusual and extreme weather events tell us about global warming? Climate scientists, activists and media sources like Green Left Weekly, among others, continue repeating that key climate tipping points are being crossed right now.

It’s not something we will only have to think about in the future. Urgent action is required immediately, because runaway climate change threatens life itself.

So can we say that climate change is at least partly responsible for those deaths? And do the politicians and corporate interests who are resisting sustainable change also bear some responsibility?

What we can say with certainty is that the temperatures reached are exceedingly unlikely based on past meteorological data. Previous records tumbled across the south and south-east of the country.

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology released a report, Special Climate Statement 17, on February 4, which documented what it described as an “exceptional heatwave”.
Tasmania experienced seven of the eight highest temperatures on record; Adelaide reached 45.7C°, the third highest on record and had it’s highest overnight minimum temperature of 33.9°C; Melbourne peaked at 45.1°C, with the maximum temperature staying above 40°C and minimums staying above 30°C for three consecutive days — the first time this has happened since records were kept.

Extreme weather events have occurred in the past. It simply isn’t possible to attribute any one unusual event to climate change.

But at the same time, the scientific evidence for global warming is conclusive, and the predictions of its impacts include a far greater number of intense heatwaves.

Brook argues that the likelihood that climate change is responsible for Adelaide’s heatwave is very high. He pointed out that 10 months ago Adelaide suffered another unprecedented heatwave — 15 days in a row with the maximum temperature exceeding 35°C.

He calculated the chances of Adelaide having two such extreme weather events so close together. The odds are that it should occur just once every 1.2 million years.

Along with the heat-stress related deaths, the heatwave threw some of Australia’s most inefficient, privatised infrastructure into disarray.
Transport meltdown

In Melbourne, the private rail operator Connex was already blaming the heat for train cancellations on January 18, despite the temperature clocking in at a moderate 25°C.

Between January 28 and January 30, more than 1000 trains were canceled; including at one stage, all services on eight metropolitan lines. On January 30 alone, 740 trains — a third of those scheduled — did not run, leaving thousands of commuters stranded for up to an hour and a half on scorching hot platforms.

Dr Paul Mees, a transport planning lecturer at RMIT, told the 7.30 Report on January 29 that “privatisation is the culprit. We’re becoming the international benchmark for failed privatisation of urban public transport systems”.

Currently, Melbourne is the only capital city which has fully privatised it’s metropolitan rail system. The Victorian state government still maintains the network infrastructure.

Transport minister Lynne Kosky told the Victorian State Parliament on February 5, that the government spends $80 million a year on rail maintenance and that this would increase to $120 million by the end of 2009.

But this public spending is dwarfed by the annual government subsidy of $345 million per year made out to Connex directly — more than half of the $589 million revenue Connex took in 2007.

A 2006 report by urban planning academics titled Putting the public interest back into public transport, Victoria’s privatised public transport system cost taxpayers $1.2 billion more than if it had remained state-owned.

So not only is it outrageous that people have to put up with regular delays and cancellations, but Melbourne’s privatised transport is costing taxpayers more!

While the government has pointed the finger at the “once-in-a-century” heatwave as the sole cause of the problem, Connex executive chairperson Jonathan Metcalfe tried to shift the blame to train drivers in the Rail, Train and Bus Union.

In January, he accused drivers of causing up to 80% of train cancellations by refusing to drive trains with no air-conditioning, broken locks and other “minor” faults.

But his attempted buck-passing has not stemmed growing public anger at his company.

In the 1920s, trains left Flinders Street Station, one of Melbourne’s main stations, more frequently than they do today.

Public transport use in Melbourne has increased by 70% in last 10 years, but there has been only a 9% increase in services and hardly any new trains running in peak hours.

In fact, between 2002 and 2005, Melbourne’s excess trains were sold off for scrap despite increasing demand for public transport.

It is not just the public train system that is unable to cope with extreme heat; during the heatwave hundreds of thousands of homes in Victoria and South Australia experienced blackouts as the electricity grid failed in numerous places and supply was shut off for up to an hour to cope with the demand.

Five hundred thousand homes in western Melbourne and regional Victoria were left without power following an explosion at an electrical substation.

The power-failures may also have contributed to the significant increase in heat-related deaths.

On February 3, the Victorian State Coroner announced that there had been almost two and a half times more deaths in the last week of January than the same time last year.

Jane Castle from the Total Environment Centre and one of the authors of the Rule Change Package, a proposal to reduce greenhouse emissions and electricity costs, has said the current energy system is hurting consumers and the environment Australia-wide.

“Regulators plan to approve a $17 billion spending spree in NSW alone by networks bent on expanding the grid. To pay for this, Energy Australia’s customers in Sydney and Newcastle are facing increases in network prices of over 70%”, she said.
Stopping climate change

This raises the question of whether privately owned energy and transport infrastructure is compatible with the need to transform our economy along sustainable lines. Can energy and transport be organised for profit and be sustainable?

Should the companies who profit most from the status quo be allowed to dictate the pace of environmental change, as they do today?

Increasingly, climate activists will need to confront these issues. Such is the urgency required to deal with the climate emergency, that direct government intervention and investment will be necessary to make the transition possible.

If essential services remain in private hands, then profit, rather than the needs of people and planet, will continue to determine what decisions get made.

The huge amount of money that privitisation costs taxpayers would be better put towards expanding and improving public transport, and to start a rapid transition to renewable energy sources.

Even if emissions were slashed tomorrow, the science indicates that there will still be a high likelihood of temperature rises and significant changes to existing weather patterns.
If the existing systems can’t even cope with the conditions we are seeing now, then it can be assumed they will fail even more disastrously in the future — unless we can organise and pressure the government to act.

From: Comment & Analysis, Green Left Weekly issue #782 11 February 2009.

New Labour encouraged every aspect of this avarice by Mark Steel

Mark Steel

The people who couldn't see what was obvious are allowed to carry on.

The real point about a minister saying this is the worst economic crisis for 100 years, is it shows they haven't got a clue. That figure was plucked out of nowhere, unless there was a really dreadful crisis in 1909 that no one ever noticed before. Maybe the minister's just seen Mary Poppins, and the scene where the bank goes bust, he thinks is footage of a real financial crash.

So his next statement to Parliament will be "In order to steady the financial markets we are proposing tuppence tuppence tuppence a bag, feed the birds, tuppence a bag. THAT is the sound economic sense that can rescue our banks, rather than the ill-thought-out soundbites from the party opposite."

Why not say it's the worst for 2,000 years, when the great crash of 9AD was caused by the gross overvaluation of aqueducts? Or the worst for 65 million years, when the Jurassic currency disaster led to bankers throwing themselves from the top of brontosaureses, followed by the eventual disappearance of all dinosaurs, despite the Prime Minister having boasted: "We have finally put an end to the cycle of evolution and extinction."

Next week a minister will announce that the Bank of England has revised its forecasts, and instead of the crisis getting as bad as diarrhoea, as it first thought, it now expects it could be as bad as gastroenteritis, and the IMF believe it could even reach the point where it's like one of those days when it's coming out of both ends at once. But with careful fiscal handling this should be easing by the last quarter of 2010.

You have to admire the front of these ministers for saying anything at all about what's happening, given they insisted for years there would never ever again ever be a cycle of boom and bust.

Similarly an army of experts assured us on a daily basis that this boom couldn't possibly crash like previous booms because this boom was still going on whereas all previous ones had ended, and previous booms were founded on a manic belief that wealth could go up and up without any basis in reality, whereas this one was built on the sound footing that everything really is somehow suddenly worth twice as much so TAKE AS MUCH AS YOU CAN RIGHT NOW IT CAN'T EVER STOP!!!

For example, one of the bankers questioned yesterday said it was "not possible to envisage" the banking crash. But in every office, every pub, every launderette, there were people who managed to envisage exactly that. If Gordon Brown had got them to write his chancellor's speech, so that it went: "The bubble's got to burst sometime. I mean, you can't base an economy on pretending everything's doubled in value, and who's going to pay for these bankers' bonuses – WE are, that's who. I commend this budget to the House," he might not be in his present trouble.

Instead the people who couldn't possibly envisage what was obvious are allowed to carry on. To be fair, ministers have expressed their annoyance at the bankers' bonus system, so presumably there will now be a series of adverts in which a furtive banker buys a boat, while the camera zooms in to his sweaty face and a voice says: "Banking cheats – we're closing in."

One answer may be a review of how this bonus system came about. As if the Government's making out it's only just heard about it and they're as outraged as everyone else. Maybe Brown will make a statement to the nation in which he says: "HOW much do they pay themselves? Well no WONDER we're in a pickle, you just wait 'til I get my hands on them."

But New Labour urged and encouraged every aspect of this corporate avarice. It was defined from the beginning by characters like Mandelson making speeches such as: "In the modern Labour Party we are relaxed about those who express an insatiable and pathological desire for self-enrichment at the expense of our fellow man that borders on the truly evil."

They grovelled to every banker, and now they want to set up a review to see how that happened. If only Karen Matthews had thought about it, she could have said: "Instead of going to jail, why don't I set up a review to see how I kidnapped my own daughter," and got herself six months' work.

First published in The Independent on 11th February 2009

"We will be fighting more fires unless we tackle the problem's source."- Peter Marshall, United Firefighters Union of Australia

DEAR Mr Rudd and Mr Brumby, On behalf of more than 13,000 firefighters and support staff in Australia, I write this open letter to request a review of Australia's fire risk and our readiness to meet future catastrophic events.

The fires in Victoria have ripped through towns and suburbs, farms and forests, destroying lives and livelihoods. Ashen remains are the sorrowful legacy of the devastation they caused. Never before in Australian history have we been confronted with such destruction at the hands of fire.

Firefighters work in conditions that most of the public try to flee. We often put our lives on the line. We understand that our job is dangerous by its very nature. However, we are gravely concerned that current federal and state government policies seem destined to ensure a repeat of the recent tragic events.

Consider the devastation in Victoria. Research by the CSIRO, Climate Institute and the Bushfire Council found that a "low global warming scenario" will see catastrophic fire events happen in parts of regional Victoria every five to seven years by 2020, and every three to four years by 2050, with up to 50 per cent more extreme danger fire days. However, under a "high global warming scenario", catastrophic events are predicted to occur every year in Mildura, and firefighters have been warned to expect up to a 230 per cent increase in extreme danger fire days in Bendigo. And in Canberra, the site of devastating fires in 2003, we are being asked to prepare for a massive increase of up to 221 per cent in extreme fire days by 2050, with catastrophic events predicted as often as every eight years. Given the Federal Government's dismal greenhouse gas emissions cut of 5 per cent, the science suggests we are well on the way to guaranteeing that somewhere in the country there will be an almost annual repeat of the recent disaster and more frequent extreme weather events.

Something is going on. As we battle blazes here in Victoria, firefighters are busy rescuing people from floods in Queensland. Without a massive turnaround in policies, aside from the tragic loss of life and property, we will be asking firefighters to put themselves at an unacceptable risk. Firefighters know that it is better to prevent an emergency than to have to rescue people from it, and we urge state and federal governments to follow scientific advice and keep firefighters and the community safe by halving the country's greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

Unfortunately, the scientists are advising that no matter what we do, a "low global warming" scenario is almost inevitable, and so we must make fire plans accordingly. Fire does not respect state borders and we need a national inquiry into the state of readiness of the country's fire services to meet this century's challenges.

Our existing resources cannot be expected to cope with even the "low global warming" scenario of a 25 per cent increase in extreme fire days — and catastrophic fire events every five years — in major Victorian country locations in just under 12 years' time. Likewise, when the scientists tell us that under a "low warming" scenario in 2020, Wagga Wagga faces "very extreme" events every two years, warning bells must surely be ringing.

Climate change, however, is only one factor. There are many other pressures on our fire services. As cities expand into formerly rural areas and "growth corridors", many volunteer brigades find their new members have full-time jobs in the city and all the pressures of urban life, and therefore less time to devote to firefighting. These areas need more resources. And professional firefighters routinely perform duties from rescue to emergency medical response, and we are now trained to be part of the front-line response to any terrorist attacks: duties we are proud to perform but which will increasingly put us under strain as we respond to more and more fires.

The real question now must be whether the nation as a whole is devoting the resources it needs to fire prevention and suppression. We are gravely concerned that the royal commission to be set up in Victoria will have a narrow brief to investigate a geographically specific disaster. It cannot have the scope needed to provide an overview of Australia's fire readiness. Further, we want to ensure that it is not a whitewash, with narrow terms of reference designed to ensure political cover for the Victorian Government. The proposed Victorian royal commission should be folded into a broader national inquiry into the nature of Australia's fire risk and our preparedness to meet that risk.

Consideration must also be given to massive new federal and state investment in infrastructure and firefighters. A portion of any stimulus package must go towards preventing future disaster, as well as rebuilding after the current one.

Finally, now is not the time to play a "blame game" with respect to the Victorian fires. But at the appropriate time, we hope to be able to publicly air the concerns we have been conveying over many years to those in power about the state of readiness of our fire services. A national inquiry would allow Australia to get to the bottom of what happened, but also to work out how to ensure that nowhere in the country will it happen again. We urge state and federal governments to make sure this tragedy wasn't completely in vain: grasp this opportunity to develop Australia's first-ever national approach to fire and rescue.

Peter Marshall
February 12, 2009 The Age

Peter Marshall is national secretary of the United Firefighters Union of Australia.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Socialist Alliance: Victorian fire tragedy highlights scale of global warming emergency and need for real action

Like all people across Australia Socialist Alliance members have been devastated by the Victorian bushfire tragedy, the greatest disaster in peace-time Australian history.

We express our condolences to and solidarity with all who have lost family, friends and homes in this shocking holocaust, made worse by the possibility that some of these fires were deliberately lit.

We salute the efforts of Victorian Country Fire Authority workers and all volunteers who have sacrificed time, effort and security and done everything in their power to halt the ravages of the fires. Emergency service workers battled for up to 30 hours without sleep trying to control the infernos, help the injured, and attend to the thousands left homeless.

The Victorian Labor government has called a Royal Commission into the tragedy. If that commission listens carefully to firefighters, emergency personnel and bush communities it will learn many truths, including that emergency services are severely underfunded, fire breaks and forest access tracks should be better maintained and high-risk areas better patrolled.

The commission must also ask why, in the middle of an unprecedented heat wave, after years of drought and predictions of extreme climate events, little seems to have been done to prepare for a disaster that was waiting to happen.

However, the commission will be a waste of time if it refuses to confront the underlying cause of the Victorian bushfire disaster—accelerating global warming and climate disruption.
The reality of climate emergency, which has been explained for years by eminent scientists, has been denied or downplayed by the mainstream politicians, or “treated” with completely inadequate policies like the Rudd government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.
The record temperatures in Melbourne and in many parts of southeastern Australia last Saturday cannot be explained simply by natural variability. The hottest 14 years on record have occurred in the last 20 years.

Far from being a “one-in-a-thousand-years event” claimed by Victorian premier John Brumby, bushfires like those in Victoria have been multiplying as average temperatures rise across eastern Australia. Extreme fire weather situations of mid-40s heat and strong winds have been increasing in frequency over the last ten years, and will continue to do so as climate change worsens.

In the words of a Bureau of Meteorology colleague quoted by University of Adelaide climate scientist Professor Barry Brook: “Climate change is now becoming such a strong contributor to these hitherto unimaginable events that the language starts to change from one of ‘climate change increased the chances of an event’ to ‘without climate change this event could not have occurred’.

The Socialist Alliance calls for greater resources for fire fighting and prevention, and appropriate land management, in the wake of this tragedy. However, the best and bravest fire-fighting in the world will be impotent before infernos like those that devastated country Victoria last weekend unless underlying causes are tackled.

Along with a serious effort at all levels of government to assess and mitigate the impact of global warming on our bush and country towns, Australia needs to invest billions of dollars in a “green New Deal” to cut its greenhouse gas emissions and to lead the way internationally by following the lead of programs like Al Gore’s call for 100% renewable energy by 2020.

The dreadful Victorian bushfires—like the disastrous floods in Queensland—are a dire warning that government cannot afford to ignore what the climate scientists tell them or to “balance” their views against those of the fossil fuel lobby. Global warming underlies this awful tragedy and the continued ignoring of scientific opinion about the climate emergency can only contribute to more such disasters.

February 11, 2009

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Socialist Alliance: Expand Rudd’s stimulus package into a green New Deal!

Socialist Alliance National Co-conveners Bea Bleile and Dick Nichols have written this initial response to the Rudd government's Nation Building and Jobs Plan. The Socialist Alliance will develop a more detailed response in coming weeks.

At fist glance the Rudd government’s Nation Building and Jobs Plan looks like a massive pre-emptive strike against looming recession and unemployment. With $42 billion extra in government spending (the biggest since World War 2) this is surely the economic stimulus package the economy needs as the tsunami of global slowdown rolls towards Australia.

(The fact that Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberal-National opposition has decided to vote against it as an extravagant waste of taxpayer money simply reinforces the impression that it’s the right package for the times.)

But the plan, despite its positive features, remains a severely inadequate response to the recession that is beginning to hit working people in this country. It also only starts to tackle the massive backlog of public investment needed to upgrade health, education and public transport.and begin building the infrastructure for environmental sustainability Australia sorely needs.

Despite its welcome billion-dollar investments in school upgrading, house insulation and social housing, Rudd’s plan is mainly designed to soften the worst aspects of the recession by increasing public spending by as little as necessary, before winding it back as private profitability and investment eventually revive. This is in line with the treatment the International Monetary Fund is now recommending for all advanced capitalist economies as they plunge into recession.

The Updated Economic and Fiscal Outlook that contains the stimulus package forecasts that the federal budget deficit will peak at $35.5 billion in 2009-10. It sounds like a vast amount of money, but it's only 2.9% of the economy's annual output (Gross Domestic Product). In former treasurer Paul Keating's "recession we had to have" (1991-92) the federal government deficit reached 5.4% of GDP, $66 billion in today's terms. To seriously counter the present downturn the Rudd government would have to countenance a deficit of that size (or increased taxation of the capitalists to reduce it).

Rudd and treasurer Wayne Swan say that their package will “support” 90,000 jobs. That means that it will, if all goes to plan, maintain or create 90,000 jobs more than would otherwise be the case.

Yet the federal Treasury forecasts that official unemployment will increase from 4.4% (498,000) to 7% (around 750,000) by 2010. So while Rudd’s plan will “support” 90,000 jobs, it will do nothing for the extra 250,000 workers expected to join the dole queues.

The main reason is that the Rudd-Swan plan falls far short of offsetting the expected crash in private business investment. This is presently forecast to drop by nearly 3% of GDP by 2010, and could easily collapse more if the global economic nosedive fails to bottom out. With household consumption and exports also predicted to stagnate, the Rudd plan’s expansionary stimulus of 2% of GDP for 2009 is too small to counter the forces shrinking the economy.

At the same time, however, Rudd’s package also gives us a clear glimpse of what a genuine jobs plan could and should achieve--and could have achieved long ago if Labor and Liberal governments had not been slaves to the dogma that public investment only exists to offset falls in private capitalist investment. The plan's $28.8 billion in direct investment will produce a long-needed upgrading of schools. Insulating over two million ceilings and installing solar hot water in Australian homes will reduce power bills and greenhouse gas emissions across the country. The plan to expand social housing by 20,000 at last begins to tackle the 200,000 public housing waiting list.

But imagine what could be done if the package had been designed to fully counter the coming recession! The Socialist Alliance says that would amount to a “green New Deal”, which would fund:

· An emergency plan of rail infrastructure construction;

· The immediate establishment of a Sustainable Energy Authority to drive the shift to renewable energy and the phasing out of fossils fuels;

· A massive upgrading of urban public transport; and

· A boosted plan for eliminating waiting lists for social housing and repairing existing public housing stock.

Other essential aspects of such a plan would be to lift the dole, the pension and other welfare payments to at least 35% of average weekly earnings, reducing poverty and stabilising consumption, as well as a sustained increase in government funding for health and education.

The economy, environment and social justice demand such an apporach. More than the Rudd government’s cautious exercise in “counter-cyclical policy” it would start to put people and planet before profit, putting a stake through the heart of the neo-liberal capitalist model that has brought our planet and human society to the edge of disaster.

Naomi Klein: We’ve Got to Make Obama Do It! by Matthew Hoffman

Naomi Klein

In her best-selling book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein outlines the disturbing trend of governments using crisis as a means for corporate profit-advancement. She cites Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, and Pinochet's Chile as examples of the practice.

At her January 29 speaking engagement at Loyola University, the award-winning author made the case that America's current economic crisis is just another "big bang moment" in this evolution.

Klein cautioned listeners at the packed 750-seat Mundelein Auditorium against cheerily consenting to the wave of Obama-fueled optimism. Throughout his campaign, Obama rejected the "worn out dogmas" and suggested it was time for an ideological sea change. Klein isn't ready, however, to embrace the recent market interventions as a shift in American policy, and instead implored her audience to work for a deepening, rather than deadening, of democracy in these tense economic times.

The concept of an American version of The Shock Doctrine is predicated upon two basic principles: panic forces the electorate to search out paternalistic political policy; and the resulting distraction stifles public debate.

These conditions nudge the collective American eye off the ball, allowing politicians to "override the will of the electorate." Disillusionment creates what Klein called a "temporary democracy free zone." She argued that the recent economic panic is an explicit example of The Shock Doctrine and she termed the $700 billion bailout the "greatest heist in modern history."

With a total of more than $7 trillion in estimated corporate handouts so far, the world is witnessing the largest transfer of wealth in history. Congress has opened the federal wallet to the financial and automotive sectors, justifying unregulated corporate welfare with warnings of economic collapse, frozen credit markets, and rampant unemployment. This "no-strings-attached" federal policy, orchestrated by former Secretary of Treasury Henry Paulson, offers a disturbing illustration of domestic shock doctrine in action.

Klein said that the recent actions of Paulson and company fly in the face of democracy. She revealed that Paulson began working on the bailout in secret six months prior to its sudden announcement just before the election. She added that a federal willingness to hand out taxpayer funds to banks with no prerequisite lending requirements has not only failed to unfreeze the credit markets, it has put massive pressures on public "entitlements."

In her speech, Klein quoted bank CEOs who referred to the bailout as a "cushion" and an "insurance policy," clearly defining their intent for use of the funds. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's successful enforcement of lending increases in the U.K. version of the bailout clearly shows that it is possible to use built-in regulation to thaw credit markets.

While federal bureaucrats exhibit an obvious aversion for corporate micromanagement, they have eagerly restricted the rights of workers. During negotiations for the auto industry bailout, Congress forced the United Auto Workers to roll back its members' pay to non-union levels prior to releasing funds. Klein remarked that it was odd that they "got this one in writing" after failing to do so with the lending increases from banks.

After issuing caution, Klein offered the Loyola audience cause for optimism and a few possible solutions to the current shock doctrine policies. The author's democracy-reclamation project begins with campaign finance reform. She framed the current economic atmosphere as a dichotomy of people power versus the corporate lobby, with the business set holding a stated advantage until election financing is made more equitable.

Klein's next step is the nationalization of America's banks. Her argument is simple: These private entities have already proved themselves failures within the market. If the banks are not viable, don't throw money at them - nationalize. After bailouts, Klein pointed out, both Citigroup and Bank of America actually received more in federal gifts than their total market value.

The U.S. financial industry has been effectively nationalized by the bailout, but Klein said the banks are "encouraged to pretend they're still private" because, otherwise, shareholders would lose their stakes. She posed the rhetorical question, if private banks knew how to effectively conduct business would this economic crisis exist in the first place? She also pointed out that U.S. taxpayers failed to receive even one seat on the Boards of Directors of any of the banks that have been aided by bailout funds.

Klein advocates green investment in industrial infrastructure as the follow-up to the nationalization of banks. As factories go under in today's economic maelstrom, she argued that government-directed "green audits" should take place to discern the cost of environmental retrofitting the failing shops.

If entrepreneurs are unwilling to take on these costs, Klein suggests that the federal government divert wasteful corporate subsidies and make a national investment in environmentally friendly production. She identifies this as the kind of bold action that would bolster employment and have positive ecological impacts. She posited a local case, the recently shuttered Republic Windows and Doors, as an exemplary instance of need for this "green-audit" policy.

Lastly, Klein encouraged the proliferation of democracy in the workplace. She argued that democratically run workers' cooperatives offer an egalitarian alternative to today's corporate hierarchy. As examples, she cited the success of the Argentinean co-ops portrayed in The Take, a film she made with her husband Avi Lewis.

She also came out strongly in favor of other policies to extend the social safety net so thoroughly picked apart since the Reagan administration. She insisted that it is time for a health care system "that covers every person in the country, and the model that works is single payer health care." Her view matched the sentiments of the local Transition Team Health Forums reported on in the last edition of The Urban Coaster, and her comments were loudly cheered throughout the auditorium.

Klein closed an excellent speech with a deeply relevant anecdote harking back to the New Deal era. President Franklin Roosevelt was well known for maintaining a dialogue with the electorate. At town-hall style meetings, Roosevelt would hear his political base's calls for change and challenge them to "go out and make me do it" - effectively admonishing the public to force his hand on policy.

Klein positioned President Obama as an executive caught in a tug-o-war between corporate and democratic interests, and one who needs to be pushed as FDR was. She stated that, "one scandal at a time, government has failed to extract any kind of meaningful reform." She's hopeful that the American public can remove government from its current position as a "corporate valet."

Klein is optimistic that due to its repeated use around the world, the affected are becoming resistant to the arguments for shock doctrine policy. She said that, "if we want a healthier, more just, and more peaceful world we must go out there and make them do it." And she urged readers, listeners, and interested voters around the world to go about that by demanding "war-levels of funding to fight Global Warming, exploitative health care, inequality, and poverty."

Published on Friday, February 6, 2009 by The Urban Coaster (Chicago, IL)

You can't be impartial about aid by Mark Steel

THE BBC is right. If they broadcast that appeal for aid to be sent to Gaza it would be taking sides. The Israeli Defence force could legitimately say "We've gone to enormous lengths to kill people, then you go and help keep them alive. How do you square that with your remit to be neutral?"

So the BBC needs to look at other areas in which its 'impartiality' could be called into question. To start with they'll have to scrap Crimewatch, which clearly takes the side of the murdered against the murderers. Maybe they could get round this by having a new balanced Crimewatch, in which the police plea for witnesses to a crime, but then the presenter says, "Next tonight - have you seen this man? Because Big Teddy and his gang are desperate to track him down and do him in for ringing us up earlier. So if you have any information please call us, where Nobby the Knife is ready to talk to you in complete confidence."

It's impossible to be entirely neutral about anything, especially an appeal for money. Appeals are made for injured veterans of World War II, but I don't suppose they'd take them off air if they got a letter saying, "Dear BBC, I'm a Nazi war criminal but I pay my licence fee just like everyone else, and as such I was appalled by the biased images of the Battle of Normandy used to promote your financial appeal. There are two sides to every story, and I thought you had a promise to be impartial. So come on BBC, us Kommandants watch tv as well!"

Appeals have been made for victims of wars in the Congo, Darfur and Bosnia, keeping people alive and thereby undermining the efforts of the armies who tried to wipe them out. But if the current stance carries on, if anyone feels their block of flats collapsing they'll think, "I hope this is an earthquake and not an invading army or we won't get a penny via the BBC."

Aware of the frail logic of not showing the appeal, the BBC has made some even stranger statements to justify its decision, such as claiming it couldn't be sure the money would "get through".

Ah yes, that must be it. If only Gaza was like the Congo or Darfur, where the Red Cross can pop along to the village cashpoint machines, draw the money out and get Janjaweed or Hutu militias to help them search for two-for-one bargains in the local Somerfield.

Luckily for the Middle-East, the US government has been less squeamish about this question of impartiality. For example in Bush's last year he sent Israel $2.2bn worth of military aid, and there's no record of anyone saying: "This couldn't be seen as breaching our impartiality in any way, could it?"

The problem is that when viewers are confronted with scenes of misery and destruction, they're bound to ask what or who caused this, and if it was done deliberately.

So the BBC couldn't remain neutral. Either they allowed the appeal that would lead to those questions being asked, or they refused it, in which case they're suggesting they shouldn't aid the relief of civilians who've been bombed, starved and slaughtered, as on this occasion their plight can be justified. And it's decided this time to be biased not towards the impoverished but towards the impoverishers.

Or maybe they've been under such a barrage of complaints lately they just panicked that in the middle of the appeal the presenter might say, "Oh and by the way, I shagged David Attenborough's grandson. Anyway, back to the lack of clean water."

First published in The Independent on 28th January 2009

On the Question of One-Sided Boycotts By Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein

Read a letter exchange between Robert Pollin, co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, and Naomi on the question of one-sided boycotts.

Robert Pollin:I strongly oppose Naomi Klein’s proposal to begin boycotts and divestment initiatives against Israel, similar to the approach used against South Africa in the apartheid era [“Lookout,” Jan. 26]. Klein anticipates four objections to her proposal and offers responses. But her list ignores the most important and obvious objection: it is entirely one-sided both in blaming Israel for the horrible cycle of violence in the region and in meting out punishment.

I agree entirely that the Israeli occupation is brutal. But Hamas is also brutal. To date, the only thing preventing Hamas from being less lethal than Israel in the damage it inflicts is its limited resources. Hamas is deliberately firing rockets into Israel with the aim of killing and terrorizing civilians. Should Iran, for example, succeed in supplying Hamas with more effective weapons, Hamas will become more successful in killing and terrorizing Israeli citizens. Rockets are beginning to land only twenty miles south of Tel Aviv.

The toll on Palestinian civilians of the current Israeli attack on Gaza is horrible. But let’s also recognize that Hamas is deliberately using civilians as human shields. The bomb that hit the home of Hamas leader Nazar Rayyan in Jabaliya tragically killed his wives and children as well as himself. Why was Rayyan exposing his family to such danger?

I agree with Klein that economic levers probably have the best chance of dramatically shifting the status quo (even while, given the history and emotions involved, economic initiatives could never offer a sufficient solution on their own). But instead of a one-sided boycott to punish Israel, why not pursue a positive agenda of economic development that would benefit both sides? Consider, for example, a development aid package on the order of $10 bil-lion, spread over two to four years, with funds supplied on an equitable basis from the United States, the European Union and the Arab oil-exporting countries. This amount would be enough to:

(1) undertake a massive infrastructure investment and job creation program in Gaza and the West Bank to help create an economically viable Palestinian state;

and (2) comfortably resettle the roughly half-million Israelis now living in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem and turn over these communities and homes to Palestinians. This second initiative would entail a large-scale home-building, community infrastructure and job-creation program in Israel, perhaps concentrated in the less well-developed northern and southern regions.

The amount of money I’m suggesting seems large, of course. But $10 billion is only about 7 percent of what the United States spent in Iraq in 2007 and 5 percent of Saudi Arabia’s $194 billion in oil revenues in 2008. In short, the amount is modest in comparison with the opportunities it will create to contribute to an equitable and lasting peace in the region.

- Robert Pollin, co-director, Political Economy Research Institute University of Massachusetts

Naomi Klein Replies:

Robert Pollin believes that the biggest problem with the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) strategy is that it targets only one side in the conflict. For Pollin, this is a conflict between equally guilty parties deserving of equal punishment. It is not. Israel is the party that displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1948, annexed more of their land in 1967 and continues to occupy the land today. Occupiers and occupied people do not share the same responsibilities, which is why the duties and responsibilities of an occupying power are laid out in the Geneva Conventions—laws Israel violates with impunity.

Even if I were to accept Pollin’s argument that any sanction should punish both sides equally, we face a rather large problem. How does Professor Pollin propose that we punish Gazans more than they are being punished already? In case he has failed to notice, there is already a fierce campaign of boycotts and sanctions under way, and it is completely one-sided. I am referring, of course, to Israel’s brutal eighteen-month siege of Gaza, launched to teach Gazans a lesson for voting for Hamas in US-backed elections. As a direct result of this siege, Gazans have been deprived of lifesaving medicines, cooking fuel and paper—not to mention food. This is far more than a mere boycott; it’s “collective punishment,” as described by Richard Falk, United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. By contrast, the kind of legal boycott being called for by the BDS campaign would deprive Tel Aviv of some international concerts and, if it really got going, would cost Israel some foreign investment. It would not starve and sicken an entire people. In this context of actual one-sided punishment inflicted on Palestinians, sanctioned by the so-called civilized world, to complain of one-sided boycotts against Israel is, frankly, obscene.

As for the proposed $10 billion for a redevelopment/relocation fund, there is no doubt that if a just peace agreement is ever to be reached, a generous peace dividend will be required to make it work. But before we start handing out rewards for a nonexistent peace, Israel first has to decide that endless war is too costly. And that’s what the BDS strategy is for: to help Israel come to that eminently reasonable conclusion.

- Naomi Klein

- January 21st, 2009

Snowmen are costing Britain billions by Mark Steel

Mark Steel

It's fine to skip work to play in the snow. But strike, and you wreck the country

Snow used to be annoying, because it made everything stutter at half-speed, leaving you frustrated on icy rail platforms, or trying to find out what time the school would open. But now it's brilliant, because the moment a snowball's worth has settled every single thing packs up completely. It's not worth even asking whether a school, bus, library or cardiac unit might be opening. Just frolic about and laugh at the idiot spinning his car in circles.

Most things were still shut on the second day, even though the snow had mostly gone, because someone said there might be more coming. If one of these space probes finds evidence of snow on Mars, the buses will all be cancelled just to be on the safe side.

Then the reporters do that heroic bit where they stand under an umbrella gasping, "This LITERALLY apocalyptic downfall has landed on EVERYTHING. It's landed on trees, pavements, even on CATS if they've been outside, NOTHING is spared the relentless flakes. Reports are coming in of people walking across a park to find their socks are quite LITERALLY damp. Huw, I've read the Bible and quite frankly a plague of locusts would be welcome relief after this."

And we're told, "The police have issued a warning that for the time being no one should do anything whatsoever. Even filling in a crossword, they say, could lead to a broken hip or even an avalanche so just sit still for a few more days."

The weather office had been warning the snow would arrive for a week, but still there were hardly any preparations made to keep anything running. Transport for London will probably issue a statement that "This is a valid criticism, so next time we won't be caught out. Instead of cancelling everything on the day we'll cancel everything a week in advance."

As people have pointed out, there are other countries that have snow most of the time. And they keep doing things. For example there's a train called the Trans-Siberian Express. And they must have snow in Siberia. Presumably the board of Virgin trains must think this train has sat in the depot for a hundred years, and every day there's an an announcement that there's no service today because of frozen points at Novosibirsk.

But the most heartening response was from those newspapers that delighted in showing the result of no one going to work, with pictures of cavorting communities enjoying their impromptu holiday.

They must have lightened up, because before, if even one part of the workforce was off because they were on strike, we'd be told this was wrecking the lives of everyone in the country. So you'd expect their response to the joviality would be, "Callous snowman-builders cost Britain BILLIONS!" and to quote a mother saying, "My son was hoping to be a barrister. Now because of this day off school he'll have to make do with spending his life as a penniless nomad."

But now they've seen what fun it is for everyone to stay off work they'll suggest we should all have a general strike. Then they'll fill their papers with feelgood stories about council workers skipping through the bushes, as they don't have to spend their day driving vans and digging graves. Ann Widdecombe will be thrilled at the community spirit, as old and young link arms with a cheery "Good morning", and everyone agrees this a far better way to live, and wonders why no one seemed to think of it before.

First published in The Independent on 4th February 2009

All Of Them Must Go By Naomi Kline

Naomi Kline

Watching the crowds in Iceland banging pots and pans until their government fell reminded me of a chant popular in anti-capitalist circles back in 2002: "You are Enron. We are Argentina."

Its message was simple enough. You--politicians and CEOs huddled at some trade summit--are like the reckless scamming execs at Enron (of course, we didn't know the half of it). We--the rabble outside--are like the people of Argentina, who, in the midst of an economic crisis eerily similar to our own, took to the street banging pots and pans. They shouted, "¡Que se vayan todos!" ("All of them must go!") and forced out a procession of four presidents in less than three weeks. What made Argentina's 2001-02 uprising unique was that it wasn't directed at a particular political party or even at corruption in the abstract. The target was the dominant economic model--this was the first national revolt against contemporary deregulated capitalism.

It's taken a while, but from Iceland to Latvia, South Korea to Greece, the rest of the world is finally having its ¡Que se vayan todos! moment.

The stoic Icelandic matriarchs beating their pots flat even as their kids ransack the fridge for projectiles (eggs, sure, but yogurt?) echo the tactics made famous in Buenos Aires. So does the collective rage at elites who trashed a once thriving country and thought they could get away with it. As Gudrun Jonsdottir, a 36-year-old Icelandic office worker, put it: "I've just had enough of this whole thing. I don't trust the government, I don't trust the banks, I don't trust the political parties and I don't trust the IMF. We had a good country, and they ruined it."

Another echo: in Reykjavik, the protesters clearly won't be bought off by a mere change of face at the top (even if the new PM is a lesbian). They want aid for people, not just banks; criminal investigations into the debacle; and deep electoral reform.

Similar demands can be heard these days in Latvia, whose economy has contracted more sharply than any country in the EU, and where the government is teetering on the brink. For weeks the capital has been rocked by protests, including a full-blown, cobblestone-hurling riot on January 13. As in Iceland, Latvians are appalled by their leaders' refusal to take any responsibility for the mess. Asked by Bloomberg TV what caused the crisis, Latvia's finance minister shrugged: "Nothing special."

But Latvia's troubles are indeed special: the very policies that allowed the "Baltic Tiger" to grow at a rate of 12 percent in 2006 are also causing it to contract violently by a projected 10 percent this year: money, freed of all barriers, flows out as quickly as it flows in, with plenty being diverted to political pockets. (It is no coincidence that many of today's basket cases are yesterday's "miracles": Ireland, Estonia, Iceland, Latvia.)

Something else Argentina-esque is in the air. In 2001 Argentina's leaders responded to the crisis with a brutal International Monetary Fund-prescribed austerity package: $9 billion in spending cuts, much of it hitting health and education. This proved to be a fatal mistake. Unions staged a general strike, teachers moved their classes to the streets and the protests never stopped.

This same bottom-up refusal to bear the brunt of the crisis unites many of today's protests. In Latvia, much of the popular rage has focused on government austerity measures--mass layoffs, reduced social services and slashed public sector salaries--all to qualify for an IMF emergency loan (no, nothing has changed). In Greece, December's riots followed a police shooting of a 15-year-old. But what's kept them going, with farmers taking the lead from students, is widespread rage at the government's crisis response: banks got a $36 billion bailout while workers got their pensions cut and farmers received next to nothing. Despite the inconvenience caused by tractors blocking roads, 78 percent of Greeks say the farmers' demands are reasonable. Similarly, in France the recent general strike--triggered in part by President Sarkozy's plans to reduce the number of teachers dramatically--inspired the support of 70 percent of the population.

Perhaps the sturdiest thread connecting this global backlash is a rejection of the logic of "extraordinary politics"--the phrase coined by Polish politician Leszek Balcerowicz to describe how, in a crisis, politicians can ignore legislative rules and rush through unpopular "reforms." That trick is getting tired, as South Korea's government recently discovered. In December, the ruling party tried to use the crisis to ram through a highly controversial free trade agreement with the United States. Taking closed-door politics to new extremes, legislators locked themselves in the chamber so they could vote in private, barricading the door with desks, chairs and couches.

Opposition politicians were having none of it: with sledgehammers and an electric saw, they broke in and staged a twelve-day sit-in of Parliament. The vote was delayed, allowing for more debate--a victory for a new kind of "extraordinary politics."

Here in Canada, politics is markedly less YouTube-friendly--but it has still been surprisingly eventful. In October the Conservative Party won national elections on an unambitious platform. Six weeks later, our Tory prime minister found his inner ideologue, presenting a budget bill that stripped public sector workers of the right to strike, canceled public funding for political parties and contained no economic stimulus. Opposition parties responded by forming a historic coalition that was only prevented from taking power by an abrupt suspension of Parliament. The Tories have just come back with a revised budget: the pet right-wing policies have disappeared, and it is packed with economic stimulus.

The pattern is clear: governments that respond to a crisis created by free-market ideology with an acceleration of that same discredited agenda will not survive to tell the tale. As Italy's students have taken to shouting in the streets: "We won't pay for your crisis!"
This article was first published in The Nation - February 5th, 2009


GreeceWatch footage of the December protests while a student organizer discusses the demonstrators' demands.

See Greek farmers blockade one of the Greek-Bulgarian border crossings.
South Korea

Watch legislators get tear-gassed, view the furniture barricaded against the door in Parliament.

See 200 security guards storm Parliament and brawl with protesters.


Watch protesters banging on pots, pans, windows, & drums, and see some of the Icelanders' demands:

See more footage of the "Saucepan Revolution" in this Reuters segment.


Watch raw footage of the January 13 protests in Riga.

See a grandma hurl a big rock at police in the Latvian capitol.

The politics of bollocks by John Pilger

John Pilger

In his latest column for the New Statesman, John Pilger borrows from Lord West of Spithead to deconstruct current mythology, such as the 'impartiality' of the BBC and the 'radical changes' implemented by President Obama.

Growing up in an Antipodean society proud of its rich variety of expletives, I never heard the word bollocks. It was only on arrival in England that I understood its majesterial power. All classes used it. Judges grunted it; an editor of the Daily Mirror used it as noun, adjective and verb. Certainly, the resonance of a double vowel saw off its closest American contender. It had authority.

A high official with the Gilbertian title of Lord West of Spithead used it to great effect on 27 January. The former admiral, who is security adviser to Gordon Brown, was referring to Tony Blair’s famous assertion that invading countries and killing innocent people did not increase the threat of terrorism at home.

“That was clearly bollocks,” said his lordship, who warned of the perceived “linkage between the US, Israel and the UK” in the horrors inflicted on Gaza and the effect on the recruitment of terrorists in Britain. In other words, he was stating the obvious: that state terrorism begets individual or group terrorism at source. Just as Blair was the prime mover of the London bombings of 7 July 2005, so Brown, having pursued the same cynical crusades in Muslim countries and having armed and disported himself before the criminal regime in Tel Aviv, will share responsibility for related atrocities at home.

There is a lot of bollocks about at the moment.

The BBC’s explanation for banning an appeal on behalf of the stricken people of Gaza is a vivid example. Mark Thompson, the director general, cited the BBC’s legal requirement to be “impartial... because Gaza is a major ongoing news story in which humanitarian issues... are both at the heart of the story and contentious.”

In a letter to Thompson, David Bracewell, illuminated the deceit behind this. He pointed to previous BBC appeals for the Disasters Emergency Committee that were not only made in the midst of “an ongoing news story” in which humanitarian issues were “contentious”, but demonstrated how the BBC took sides. In 1999, at the height of the illegal Nato bombing of Serbia and Kosovo, the TV presenter Jill Dando made an appeal on behalf of Kosovar refugees. The BBC web page for that appeal was linked to numerous articles meant to support the gravity of the humanitarian issue. These included quotations from Blair himself, such as “This will be a daily pounding until [Slobodan Milosevic] comes into line with the terms that Nato has laid down.” There was no significant balance of view from the Yugoslav side, and not a single mention that the flight of Kosovar refugees began only after Nato had started bombing. Similarly, in an appeal for the victims of the civil war in the Congo, the BBC favoured the regime of Joseph Kabila without referring to the Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and other reports accusing his forces of atrocities. In contrast, the rebel leader Nkunda was “accused of committing atrocities” and was ordained the BBC’s bad guy. Kabila, who represented western interests, was clearly the good guy – just like Nato in the Balkans and Israel in the Middle East.

While Mark Thompson and his satraps richly deserve the Lord West of Spithead Bollocks Blue Ribbon, that honour goes to the cheer squad of President Barack Obama, whose cult-like obeisance goes on and on.

On 23 January, the Guardian’s front page declared, “Obama shuts network of CIA ‘ghost prisons’ ”. The “wholesale deconstruction [sic] of George Bush’s war on terror”, said the report, had been ordered by the new president who would be “shutting down the CIA’s secret prison network, banning torture and rendition...”.

The bollocks quotient on this was so high that it read like the press release it was, citing “officials briefing reporters at the White House yesterday”. Obama’s orders, according to a group of 16 retired generals and admirals who attended a presidential signing ceremony, “would restore America’s moral standing in the world”. What moral standing? It never ceases to astonish that experienced reporters can transmit PR stunts like this, bearing in mind the moving belt of lies from the same source under only nominally different management.

Far from “deconstructing [sic] the war on terror”, Obama is clearly pursuing it with the same vigour, ideological backing and deception as the previous administration. George W. Bush’s first war, in Afghanistan, and last war, in Pakistan, are now Obama’s wars – with thousands more US troops to be deployed, more bombing and more slaughter of civilians. On 22 January, the day he described Afghanistan and Pakistan as “the central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism”, 22 Afghan civilians died beneath Obama’s bombs in a hamlet populated mainly by shepherds and which, by all accounts, had not laid eyes on the Taliban. Women and children were among the dead, which is normal.

Far from “shutting down the CIA’s secret prison network”, Obama’s executive orders actually give the CIA authority to carry out renditions, abductions and transfers of prisoners in secret without the threat of legal obstruction. As the Los Angeles Times disclosed, “current and former intelligence officials said the rendition program might be poised to play an expanded role.” A semantic sleight of hand is that “long term prisons” are changed to “short term prisons”; and while Americans are now banned from directly torturing people, foreigners working for the US are not. This means that America’s numerous “covert actions” will operate as they did under previous presidents, with proxy regimes, such as Augusto Pinochet’s in Chile, doing the dirtiest work.

Bush’s open support for torture, and Donald Rumsfeld’s extraordinary personal overseeing of certain torture techniques, upset many in America’s “secret army” of subversive military and intelligence operators as it exposed how the system worked. Obama’s nominee for director of national intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, has said the Army Field Manual may include new forms of “harsh interrogation”, which will be kept secret.

Obama has chosen not to stop any of this. Neither do his ballyhooed executive orders put an end to Bush’s assault on constitutional and international law. He has retained Bush’s “right” to imprison anyone, without trial or charges. No “ghost prisoners” are being released or are due to be tried before a civilian court. His nominee for attorney-general, Eric Holder, has endorsed an extension of Bush’s totalitarian USA Patriot Act, which allows federal agents to demand Americans’ library and bookshop records. The man of “change”, is changing little. That ought to be front page news from Washington.

The Lord West of Spithead Bollocks Prize (Runner-up) is shared. On 28 January, a national Greenpeace advertisement opposing a third runway at London’s Heathrow airport summed up the almost willful naivety that has obstructed informed analysis of the Obama administration. “Fortunately,” declared Greenpeace beneath a God-like picture of Obama, “the White House has a new occupant, and he has asked us all to roll back the spectre of a warming planet.” This was followed by Obama’s rhetorical flourish about “putting off unpleasant decisions”. In fact, Obama has made no commitment to curtail the America’s infamous responsibility for the causes of global warming. As with Bush and most modern era presidents, it is oil, not stemming carbon emissions, that informs the new administration. Obama’s national security adviser, General Jim Jones, a former Nato supreme commander, made his name planning US military control over the exploitation of oil and gas reserves from the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea to the Gulf of Guinea in Africa.

Sharing the Bollocks Runner-up Prize is the Observer, which on 25 January published a major news report headlined, “How Obama set the tone for a new US revolution”. This was reminiscent of the Observer almost a dozen years ago when liberalism’s other great white hope, Tony Blair, came to power. “Goodbye Xenophobia” was the Observer’s post-election front page in 1997 and “The Foreign Office says Hello World, remember us”. The government, said the breathless text, would push for “new worldwide rules on human rights and the environment” and implement “tough new limits” on arms sales. The opposite happened. Last year, Britain was the biggest arms dealer in the world; currently it is second only to the United States.
In the Blair mould, the Obama White House “sprang into action” with its “radical plans”. The new president’s first phone call was to that Palestinian quisling, the unelected and deeply unpopular Mohammed Abbas. There was a “hot pace” and a “new era”, in which a notorious name from an ancien regime, Richard Holbrooke, was dispatched to Pakistan. In 1978, Holbrooke betrayed a promise to normalise relations with the Vietnamese on the eve of a vicious embargo that ruined the lives of countless Vietnamese children. Under Obama, the “sense of a new era abroad”, declared the Observer, “was reinforced by the confirmation of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state”. Clinton has threatened to “entirely obliterate Iran” on behalf of Israel.

What the childish fawning over Obama obscures is the dark power assembled under cover of America’s first “post-racial president”. Apart from the US, the world’s most dangerous state is demonstrably Israel, having recently killed and maimed some 4,000 people in Gaza with impunity. On 10 February, a bellicose Israeli electorate is likely to put Binyamin Netanyahu into power. Netanyahu is a fanatic’s fanatic who has made clear his intention of attacking Iran. In the Wall Street Journal on 24 January, he described Iran as the “terrorist mother base” and justified the murder of civilians in Gaza because “Israel cannot accept an Iranian terror base (Gaza) next to its major cities”. On 31 January, unaware he was being filmed, Israel’s ambassador in Australia described the massacres in Gaza as a “pre-introduction” - dress rehearsal - for an attack on Iran.

For Netanyahu, the reassuring news is that Obama’s administration is the most Zionist in living memory – a truth that has struggled to be told from beneath the soggy layers of Obama-love. Not a single member of Obama’s team demurred from Obama’s support for Israel’s barbaric actions in Gaza. Obama himself likened the safety of his two young daughters with that of Israeli children while making not a single reference to the thousands of Palestinian children killed with American weapons - a violation of both international and US law. He did, however, demand that the people of Gaza be denied “smuggled” small arms with which to defend themselves against the world’s fourth largest military power. And he paid tribute to the Arab dictatorships, such as Egypt, which are bribed by the US Treasury to help the US and Israel enforce policies described by the United Nations Rapporteur, Richard Falk, a Jew, as “genocidal”.

It is time the Obama lovers grew up. It is time those paid to keep the record straight gave us the opportunity to debate informatively. In the 21st century, people power remains a huge and exciting and largely untapped force for change, but it is nothing without truth. “In the time of universal deceit,” wrote George Orwell, “telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
5 February 2009