BBC BLOGS - Nick Bryant's Australia

Archives for April 2010

Giving up the fight for a climate scheme

Nick Bryant | 09:54 UK time, Tuesday, 27 April 2010

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Kevin Rudd once described climate change as "the greatest moral challenge of our generation", but on Tuesday afternoon he gave up the fight to enact the centrepiece of his government's environmental strategy, the emissions trading scheme - or the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS), as he prefers to call it.

The scheme has now been shelved until 2013 at the earliest, well after the next election, which will come before the end of the year.

The Rudd government has now made two unsuccessful attempts to get the measure passed in the upper house of parliament, the Senate. But it does not command a Senate majority, and the deal negotiated with the opposition ahead of Copenhagen came unstuck, of course, when Malcolm Turnbull was ousted by the new Liberal leader, Tony Abbott. Mr Abbott won the leadership by vowing to block the ETS, and has now effectively delivered on that pledge.

Mr Rudd has blamed the obstructionism of the opposition, reminding everyone that Tony Abbott once famously described climate change as "absolute crap". He also placed part of the fault on the slow progress made by other countries in the aftermath of Copenhagen.

We have spoken before of how the politics of global warming changed quite abruptly following the failure of Copenhagen to produce a more comprehensive agreement. In the BC phase - Before Copenhagen - of his prime ministership, Mr Rudd was supremely confident that battling for the ETS would not only win him a second term in a "climate change" election, but obliterate the opposition.

But public support for the ETS showed signs of erosion fairly quickly after the inconclusive end to the climate change conference. Leading sceptics, like Professor Ian Plimer of the University of Adelaide, started getting more air time, the "Climategate" scandal started to generate more headlines, and large swathes of Australia started getting significantly more rain.

Prior to Copenhagen, support for the ETS was steady at more than 60%. Afterwards, it dropped by 10%. The proportion of Australians who fear there's a risk of catastrophic climate change also slipped to below 50%. A more recent poll for the Climate Institute and Conservation Foundation showed that voter concern about climate change had slipped by 9% since May 2009 - although it is still strong at 68%.

An oft-heard argument leveled against the ETS was why should Australia press ahead with such a major structural reform of its resources-based economy when the rest of the world hasn't yet signed up to binding cuts in emissions. The government has failed to provide a convincing rebuttal.

Environmentalists would claim that it has not even tried to mould the public debate. Since January, as he watched his personal approval ratings slide, Mr Rudd has not delivered much of a counter-argument, and has effectively retreated from the battlefield of climate change. He has not made a major speech on climate change, and has been largely reticent on the issue ever since he returned from Copenhagen.

His critics will say that this exposes a familiar characteristic of his leadership: his reluctance to fight for causes when the polls suggest he might be in danger of ending up on the wrong side of public opinion. His predecessor John Howard won a lot of respect, sometimes even from his detractors, for fighting for unpopular causes, like the introduction of a sales tax, the GST. But Kevin Rudd tends only to fight battles when public opinion is emphatically on his side. He is reluctant to squander his personal popularity, his main selling in a party which always respected his abilities but never really taken him to its heart.

Partly because of its heavy reliance on cheap coal, Australia has some of the highest per capita emissions of any industrialised nation, and Mr Rudd came into office vowing to exercise global leadership on the question of climate change. By shelving the centrepiece of his environmental strategy, has he shirked from that pledge?

What's wrong with Anzac?

Nick Bryant | 20:55 UK time, Saturday, 24 April 2010

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Australians search for selfless values in their war stories rather than self-validating victories. Does that not provide part of the explanation why Gallipoli occupies such a special place in the national imagination? In the run-up to Anzac Day (that most sacred of acronyms), I have been in Canberra, where I got the chance to visit the national war memorial and to spend time with some of the historians.flags_getty.jpg

Resident Gallipoli expert, Ashley Ekins, put it rather neatly. "The ultimate outcome has become less important over time. It's the courage, the endurance, the humour in adversity. All those characteristics which we associate with the soldiers on Galipoli which we like to attribute to the Australian national character."

Of course, Galipoli also provides Australia with a heroic foundation story: the idea, which helped make sense of the death of so many soldiers in what turned out to be a military disaster of immense scale, that a new commonwealth was baptised in the blood of its fallen men.

Anzac Day has surely become the most important date in the national calendar, and, as we have noted before, experienced a remarkable revival, with the crowds at dawn services and at Anzac Cove in Gallipoli estimated to be larger than ever.

As part of these ritualised commemorations, it has now become almost customary to engage in a heated historiographical debate in the run-up to Anzac Day, and this year is no different.

The debate has focused on the publication of a new book written mainly by two historians, Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, entitled "What's Wrong With Anzac?" Its main target is what the authors call "the relentless militarisation of our history". Prof Marilyn Lake set out her stall in a lecture delivered last year on the eve of Anzac Day.

"The myth of Anzac has become more significant in recent years, ubiquitous even, with what I have called the militarisation of Australian history, mightily subsidised by the Howard government in the 1990s and early years of this century. War stories have figured ever more prominently in our culture, in our school rooms, on our TV screens and in our bookshops...'

"Amongst other things the myth of Anzac requires us to forget, first, the gender and racial exclusions, the centrality of manhood, race and colonial anxiety to its begetting. Secondly, the long history of pacifism and anti-war movements in Australia, the historic opposition to militarist values in Australia. Thirdly, the stories of national aspiration and identity based in civil and political society, not military society, the democratic social experiments and visions of social justice that once defined Australia. And fourth, that at Gallipoli we fought for empire not nation, symbolising our continuing colonial condition."

The militarisation of history, it is argued, has created a mood of ultra-patriotism. The government money spent on promoting Anzac themes, the book also contends, was designed to "divert attention from the history of Aboriginal dispossession and frontier massacres by opening up a new front". galipolli_getty.jpg

In this month's edition of the Australian Literary Review, one of the country's leading historians, Geoffrey Blainey, publishes a rejoinder. He accepts that the Howard government did, indeed, spend a lot of money promoting Anzac-related themes, but that the National Museum in Canberra received much more money, a significant proportion of which went towards promoting Aboriginal history. He also argues that the surge in military publishing happened when Bob Hawke and Malcolm Fraser were the prime ministers rather than John Howard.

For Blainey, the newfound popularity of Anzac Day is cyclical rather than the product of cynical manipulation. "To my mind Anzac Day, like many symbolic occasions, is partly cyclical. It has risen and waned and risen, and it will wane and rise again."

I'm keen to get your thoughts, and to hear your experiences of Anzac Day. Some of you will no doubt be attending dawn services. Some of you may even be at Gallipoli, some of you might be heading to the Anzac Day footy games, and some of you might be heading to the pub for that other great Anzac tradition: a legal game of two-up.

The lie of the Storm

Nick Bryant | 11:30 UK time, Thursday, 22 April 2010

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Only the other day I was thinking how quiet and relatively uncontroversial the start of the new rugby league season had been. Now comes a bombshell: what is being described as the football code's biggest scandal in its 103 year history. To give an indication of how big the Australian media is treating this story, all the main news websites here have gone into emergency redesign mode. You get the idea.

The Melbourne Storm, the reigning league champions and the dominant side for the past four years, has admitted to massive breaches of the salary cap, the device which prevents the richest clubs recruiting too many of the most highly-renumerated players.

For the past five years, the Storm has been able to field a side packed with superstars. During that time, it has won the title twice, in 2007 and 2009, and come runner-up twice.

Melbourne Storm captain Cameron Smith (L) holding the National Rugby League (NRL) trophy aloft with coach Craig Bellamy (R) on 30 September 2007

Now we know how it managed to do it. Off the field, the club pulled off the most audacious of dummies, effectively running two sets of books which hid from view prohibited payments of over $A1.7m. There has been systematic cheating for five years.

The punishment has been severe and unprecedented. Its two premiership titles have been taken away, it has been fined $A500,000, all its points have been taken away from this season and it will not be able to earn any more for the rest of the season. Every game will be a dead-rubber, and the side has plummeted from fourth place in league to bottom, an ignominious position which it will occupy for the rest of the season.

The club is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Limited, and its chairman and chief executive, John Hartigan, said he was sick to the stomach when he found out. He says there were "rats in the ranks", and has promised to root out all those responsible.

One Storm fan has already delivered his verdict. He dumped all his shirts and memorabilia outside the club's headquarters in a couple of black bin-liners.

At a time when rugby league is facing a challenge from Aussie Rules in its traditional strongholds of New South Wales and Queensland, the code needs to maintain a franchise in Melbourne, Australia's sporting capital.

But will fans in Victoria, where Aussie Rules has always dominated, want to support a club that has cheated for the past five years? For the foreseeable future, what is the point of turning up to see a team that may be able to win games but cannot win any points?

The Storm is about to move to a fabulous new space-station-like stadium in Melbourne. Again, will anyone want to turn up to watch them in their bubbly new home?

Should the losing grand finalists in 2009 and 2007, the Parramatta Eels and the Manly Sea Eagles, now be handed the trophy? The league says no. But many fans will feel aggrieved.

Instead, there will be two blanks in the league history books - blanks that will speak of the stain left on the game.

Australia's balance of power

Nick Bryant | 03:01 UK time, Wednesday, 21 April 2010

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"Rudd's Health Revolution," proclaims the banner headline on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald, accompanied by a cartoon of a smiling Australian prime minister dressed in surgical gowns with a stethoscope hanging, medal-like, around his neck.

After weeks of sometimes fraught negotiations with the state premiers, and a two-day pow-wow in Canberra, Kevin Rudd has managed to strike a deal which changes how health care is funded in Australia - a more sustainable model, according to the prime minister, which shifts the onus from the states to the federal government, and makes Canberra the dominant funder. Western Australia, which has a Liberal premier, has refused to sign up, but Kevin Rudd managed to reach a compromise with the Labor premiers, some of whom had baulked at the notion of a federal take-over.

Australian PM Kevin Rudd inspects a prototype bionic eye at University of Melbourne 30 March 2010"It is highly debatable whether this truly marks a "Health Revolution". It is surely more accurate to describe it as a "Bureaucratic Rearrangement," a phrase which admittedly does not lend itself to quite such snappy headlines.

You can get political analysis of the health deal here and here. But to the outside eye, one of the most intriguing aspects of these reforms is how they alter the balance of power between the central government and the states.

In many western democracies around the world, centrifugal impulses have recently been at work when it comes to the devolution of power. Decision-making has moved further away form the centre. Over the past decade, for instance, Britain has seen the creation of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. In America, many of the really eye-catching reforms have come from the states, such as health care in Massachusetts and new environmental regulations in California.

In Australia, however, an enormous amount of power has flowed in the opposite direction, from the localities to the centre. Under the Howard government, the states lost control over industrial relations law and much of company law. There was also the nationalisation of the Murray-Darling river system, as well as the federal intervention in the Northern Territory to curb child abuse in indigenous communities.

Under the Rudd government, the states will comply with a national curriculum in education and see more federal influence over health. Canberra has encroached into areas of Australian life that have long been the domain of the states, raising fears that the states are becoming increasingly inconsequential. Indeed, one of the main complaints of state premiers, like the Victoria leader John Brumby, during the health care debate was that Mr Rudd was trying not only to engineer a cash grab, by getting his hands on 30% of the sales tax (GST) from the states, but a power grab.

Certainly, Australia has a small enough population right now to be run by a leaner, more streamlined system of governance. But geography, history and the written constitution militate against such a move.

Ever the bureaucrat, Kevin Rudd's has tried to clear away some of these governmental inefficiencies, although the compromise reached with the states falls short of what originally he proposed. In so doing, he has followed the path of successive Australian prime ministers: to amass greater power and influence in Canberra and to further marginalise the states.

'Glamorous' TV life of slain mob boss

Nick Bryant | 11:37 UK time, Monday, 19 April 2010

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By strange coincidence, I was about to sit down to compose a fresh blog on whether television series like the smash hit, Underbelly, glamorises and glorifies crime, when the news came through that Carl Williams, the Melbourne mobster, had died in prison.

For the uninitiated, Underbelly has been one of the great Australian TV ratings success stories of the past few years, and a much-needed fillip for Channel Nine. Carl Williams featured in fictionalised form in Underbelly's first series, which centred on Melbourne's gangland wars over the past 20 years and sealed his reputation as the country's most famous mobster.

The series was banned in Victoria, because of ongoing investigations and active criminal proceedings, which only added to Williams' cache and gave his story even more of a folkloric feel. Pirate copies soon got over the border. In the view of Andrew Rule, the journalist from the Melbourne Age who co-wrote the original Underbelly: Gangland Wars book, he was the most well-known criminal in Victoria since Ned Kelly.

To fill in some of the back-story, "Fat Boy" Williams was found guilty in 2007 of murdering three of his gangland rivals, and sentenced to at least 35 years imprisonment.
But Williams and his family have rarely been out of the headlines. On the morning of his death, the Melbourne Herald Sun, the city's influential tabloid, carried a front page splash about how Victorian taxpayers were footing the bill for his daughter's private education. Though Williams could hardly be described as telegenic, his story was made for TV.

Underbelly has now become one of the most bankable franchises in Australian television. Its second series, a prequel to the first, centred on the New South Wales and Victoria underworld in the Seventies and Eighties. Its latest instalment, Underbelly: The Golden Mile, focuses on Sydney's Kings Cross between 1988 and 1999, where, in the words of Channel Nine's publicity blurb, "bent cops, straight cops, cool criminals and colourful characters all converged to make their mark".

Like all successful franchises Underbelly relies on a formula. It is stylishly shot and lavishly produced. The costumes and outfits veer on the side of gangster chic. There is much more flesh on display than in your average Aussie drama. The acting is also better than average, and the series have showcased some of Australia's up-and-coming stars. The latest Underbelly features the Lebanese Australian actor, Firass Dirani, who was the stand-out of the film, The Combination.

But does it glamorise crime?

The former Supreme Court judge, James Wood, who led the Royal Commission into corruption in the New South Wales police force - crimes which are dramatised in the latest series - is vehemently opposed.

"There's nothing honourable or admirable in relation to the people who are depicted in these programs," Justice Wood told the Sydney Morning Herald. "For the impressionable kids out there watching these programs, they think it's a lot of fun. It's bloody well not a lot of fun. It's harming a lot of people and carries huge risks. You've got a high chance of ending up in a prison for 20 or 30 years. These shows don't show that."

Meanwhile, the manager of one of the biggest strip clubs in Kings Cross, believes that Underbelly will produce "a whole new generation of dirtbags".

Channel Nine has responded to the criticism by describing Underbelly as a "cautionary tale," because few of the characters, other than the straight police officers, came out of it well or with any honour.

Certainly, Carl Williams met a very unglamorous end: clubbed over the head with the stem of an exercise bike, an attack, ironically, that was apparently captured on CCTV.

The Australian Ugliness

Nick Bryant | 20:56 UK time, Thursday, 15 April 2010

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Book titles do not come much more provocative than The Australian Ugliness, the caustic polemic penned by the architect Robin Boyd which was published in 1960. Boyd took aim at the unsightliness of post-war Australian suburban design, and what he described as its vulgar featurism: the gauche decorations, brick veneers and fussy stylistic embellishments that disfigured cul-de-sacs across the land.

Among Boyd's targets was the Sydney Harbour Bridge, at that time the most celebrated structure in the land. Its stone pylons at either end were a featurist monstrosity, Boyd believed, because they were structurally superfluous. "[I]ts design is a spectacular example of Featurist irrationality," he observed.

Boyd's opus work came on the heels of Barry Humphries' great comic invention Dame Edna Everage, who poked at the social pretensions of suburban housewives. It was also published four years in advance of Donald Horne's The Lucky Country, with its wider critique of post-war Australia. As Peter Conrad, the Australian-born Oxford academic has noted Boyd "belonged to the first generation of intellectuals for whom the denunciation of Australia counted as an urgent patriotic duty".

To mark the 50th anniversary of its publication, a new edition has just hit the shelves. So does it still have resonance?

To begin with, much of what Boyd wrote about the mediocrity of urban design might seem particularly germane as planners and architects consider how to accommodate Australia's growing population. In the McMansions which are proliferating on the outskirts of the major cities many might see modern-day manifestations of the Australian ugliness.

But re-reading an old copy that I found in a second-hand book shop not so long ago, I was most intrigued by Boyd's observations on his fellow Australians. In a chapter called Anglophiles and Austericans, he speaks about "the pervasive ambivalence of the national character".

"Here also are vitality, energy, strength and optimism in one's own ability, yet indolence, carelessness, the 'she'll do, mate' attitude to the job to be done. Here is insistence on the freedom of the individual, yet resigned acceptance of social restrictions and censorship narrower than in almost any other democratic country in the world. Here is love of justice and devotion to law and order, yet the persistent habit of crowds to stone the umpire and trip the policeman in the course of duty.....

"The Australian is forcefully loquacious, until the moment of expressing any emotion. He is aggressively committed to equality and equal opportunity for all men, except for black Australians. He has high assurance in anything he does combined with a gnawing lack of confidence in anything he thinks."

It is a statement of stunning banality to say that massive changes have overtaken Australia since Boyd's book was first published, socially, economically, racially, culturally and architecturally. But 50 years on, does The Australian Ugliness still echo? Writing the forward to the new edition, the author Christos Tsiolkas is in no doubt: "He got us. He still gets us."

The Acronym Country

Nick Bryant | 20:55 UK time, Tuesday, 13 April 2010

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If there is a problem in Australia these days then a new acronym is sure to follow close behind.

The Rudd government hoped to counter the threat of global warming through a CPRS, a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme - a clear case of Australian acronym one-upmanship, or AAOU, since the rest of the world happily makes do with the simple ETS, or emissions trading scheme.

Its solution to the problem of slow broadband speeds is an NBN, a national broadband network. And a key part of the government's response to the GFC, as the prime minister prefers to call the global financial crisis, was the BER, which stands for Building the Education Revolution.

The BER is a $A16.2bn ($15bn:£10bn) scheme to upgrade schools around the country, by handing out federal money via the states for new classrooms, libraries, kitchens, outdoor learning areas and the like. It has funded more than 24,000 projects in all.

The problem for the Rudd government is that the acronym BER has become something of a joke among certain contractors. For many, BER has come to stand for Builder's Early Retirement, given the widespread profiteering and alleged price-gouging from the scheme.

Take the primary school in the Riverina area of New South Wales, where a project to build a covered shade area for a disabled ramp has mushroomed to $A250,000. Locals reckon the work could have been done for $35,000. There are equivalent stories from all over the country.

Cost blow-outs have become such a widespread problem, in fact, that the government has now set up a BER taskforce - inevitably dubbed BERT - to scrutinise school projects.

The taskforce was announced by the Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard, normally one of the government's more sure-footed lieutenants. This time she has stumbled.

As in the home insulation scheme mess, another policy implemented quickly to mitigate the worst effects of the global downturn, the government's reputation for competence is once being questioned. Inevitably, the controversy also raises broader questions: if the government cannot implement BER, then how will it manage to roll out far bolder schemes like the ETS and NBN? Put another way, can it turn acronyms into action?

There's Nothing Like Australia...

Nick Bryant | 20:55 UK time, Saturday, 10 April 2010

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Never before have I lived in a country where the launch of a new international tourism campaign attracts so much attention and grabs so many headlines.

Perhaps it speaks of the ongoing national conversation about Australia's still-evolving national identity. Perhaps it comes from a fierce national pride and the consequent pressure on Tourism Australia to produce a campaign that is worthy of the country.

Perhaps it is simply that Tourism Australia has produced a run of controversial campaigns, which have been deliberately provocative. Its much-derided So Where the Bloody Hell are You? campaign was an obvious case in point.

Now Tourism Australia has unveiled its new slogan, There's Nothing Like Australia, and the first stage of its new campaign: an invitation to every Australian to upload images and stories featuring their own favourite parts of the country. They will ultimately form an interactive map that will be the centrepiece of an online social networking campaign.

Suffice to say, within hours of the launch a spoof website was already up and running, proving there's nothing quite like the Aussie sense of humour. It features, among others, that notorious image of Steve Irwin at his beloved Crocoseum in Queensland, when he faced down a crocodile with his baby son, Bob, tucked beneath his arm. "There's nothing like taking your son to work," says the tag line.

Last month, I happened to be at a pre-launch party for the campaign, where, in the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I benefited from Tourism Australia's hospitality to the tune of one beer, a sushi roll and an asparagus spear wrapped in flaky pastry. I would hate to be accused of accepting crudites for comment.

But I mention the event because of a brief speech from Tourism Australia's chief marketeer. After unveiling the new slogan, he ended his remarks with a throwaway "Come and Say G'day," Paul Hogan's celebrated catchphrase from the country's most successful ever tourism campaign.

Needless to say, the audience seemed to react much more favourably to "Come and Say G'Day" than "There's Nothing Like Australia," which fell a little flat.

It is more than 25 years since Paul Hogan, the chirpy comedian, first told prospective visitors that he would throw another shrimp on the barbie in readiness for their arrival. Millions of dollars and a few failed campaigns later, is it fair to say that Tourism Australia has yet to come up with a more attractive invitation?

Re-thinking Big Australia

Nick Bryant | 20:56 UK time, Thursday, 8 April 2010

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In the week that Australia appointed its first population minister, a survey from a leading Sydney think-tank has shown that Australians are wary of the fast-paced growth of their country.

Right now the population stands at 22 million, but a government study released late last year forecast that it would grow to 36 million by 2050, an increase of 61%.

To put that in perspective, the global population is expected to grow over the same period by 38%, and Australia's projected expansion would likely make it the fastest growing industrialised nation, outpacing even India.

According to the Lowy Institute poll, 72% of respondents support the general principle of a population rise, but 69% want it kept below a 30 million ceiling.

Last year, Kevin Rudd was quick to embrace a Big Australia policy. Now he's having a rethink, ostensibly it seems because he misread the public mood on what has always been a sensitive issue here.

It not only raises the always thorny question of immigration levels, but whether Australia's cities can sustain such rapid growth. The government has refused to set a population target. It says it will report back sometime after the election, which seems like an attempt to neutralise what could be a major issue during the upcoming campaign.

The politics of the Big Australia policy are by no means clear cut. This week the Liberals seem eager to adopt a populist stance. On Tuesday, the party's immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, said that migration levels were "out of control", and had to be brought "back into perspective". Yet following complaints from business groups, who fear immigration cuts would be followed by skills shortages, he was forced to backtrack. Tony Abbott, meanwhile, says he supports a "strong Australia", which also sounds like a hedge.

We've spoken before about the creep of the cul-de-sacs into the countryside, which looks set to become a headlong rush if the population forecasts. Sydney, for instance, is growing at a rate of over 1,500 people a week, and is suffering badly from an infrastructure lag. Road and rail construction simply cannot keep pace, and nor can new housing. Demand outstrips supply, fuelling Australia's housing affordability problem - a problem exacerbated this week by another hike in interest rates (although, historically speaking, the cost of borrowing remains on the modest side).

The flip-side is that low population growth can lead to stagnation and problems of economic sustainability - in particular, of how to pay for the health and pension costs of an ageing population. Many in the business community equate a Big Australia with a booming Australia. Many in the burgeoning suburbs are increasingly thinking that big is far from beautiful.

UPDATE:

This is also the week, as it turns out, that the Australian government has decided to clampdown on asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, two of the main source countries. More than 100 boats carrying asylum seekers have been intercepted by the Australian navy since the Rudd government came to power in 2007 and Kevin Rudd has clearly been under mounting political pressure over the spike in the number of boat people.

The government's response is the immediate suspension of visa applications from new Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum seekers. The move is clearly intended as a deterrent to people smugglers who operate mainly out of Indonesia - an attempt to stop the boats. People smugglers will no longer be able to give their Afghan and Sri Lankan clients the assurance that their asylum applications will be processed by the Australian authorities. Instead, there's the much less enticing prospect of being held in limbo at an Australian offshore detention centre at Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.

The government has said it made the decision in the light of changing circumstances in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. But the move is widely being interpreted here, of course, as principally a political move designed to neutralise an always sensitive issue ahead of this year's Australian election.

The opposition has repeatedly claimed that the softening of the Rudd government's immigration policies has led asylum seekers to target Australia.

It is always interesting and instructive to put Australia's share of asylum seekers in a global context. According to the latest figures from the United Nations refugee body, the UNHCR, Australia received 6170 applications for asylum in 2009, compared with 1400 the previous year. The United States received 49,020, France 41,980, Canada 33,250, United Kingdom 29,840, Germany 27,650 and Sweden 24,190. On a list of 44 industrialised nations, Australia was ranked 16th overall or, if you prefer, 21st on a per capita basis.

Kate Gauthier of the Refugee Council of Australia bemoans "'the hysterical obsession with each boat arrival" and notes: "It's unfortunate that the most vulnerable people in the world are being treated as public footballs."

Under the new procedures, boats will not be turned away by the Australian navy and boat people will still be taken to a detention centre at Christmas Island, which is already overcrowded. What the Refugee Council of Australia fears is the indefinite detention of new arrivals from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, who will not be able to apply for asylum for at least the next six months, if they are Afghan, and the next three months if they come from Sri Lanka.

So is this is a paranoiac overreaction or a proportionate response to protect Australia's borders?

'Reef rat run' on the coastal coal highway

Nick Bryant | 02:01 UK time, Tuesday, 6 April 2010

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Once again, the words "resources," "exports," "China" and "controversy" feature in the same blog. But this time they refer, of course, to the grounding of the China-bound coal carrier Shen Neng 1, which rammed into a sand bar on Saturday afternoon.

For the past couple of days we have been on stand-by to head up to north Queensland, for if the ship had broken up it could potentially have caused one of the biggest environmental disasters in Australian history and done untold damage to the Great Barrier Reef.

Shen Neng 1 aground on Douglas Shoals off coast of QueenslandYet as I write, early on Tuesday morning, the maritime authorities seem much more confident that they will be able to stabilise the 230-metre bulk carrier, and prevent it from breaking apart. Officials say that a catastrophic break-up is now unlikely. Happily, chemical dispersants have also been successful in containing a 3km by 100m slick.

Three investigations will now focus on why the Chinese-owned ship veered so far off course into a restricted area, and the Queensland government has raised the spectre of hefty fines. Anna Bligh, the state premier, says she wants to "throw the book" at the Chinese shipping company. "This ship has acted illegally by being in this restricted zone," she said, "and I hope they face the full force of the law."

Brisbane's Courier Mail has a story today which speculates that the ship might have been taking an illegal short-cut - "a Reef rat run" which saves time and money on the voyage to China.

Conservationists have also complained that the federal and state governments have encouraged the growth of the resources sector but failed to acknowledge the environmental risks involved. This is the third oil spill in less than past two years, and it comes at a time when the east coast ports of Gladstone in Queensland and Newcastle in New South Wales are being expanded, which will obviously increase the traffic.

The Australian Greens say that these shipping lanes off north Queensland have become a "coal highway," and have complained that there are no laws which make it mandatory for foreign ships to use local pilots.

What I've found genuinely surprising is that there is no seaborne equivalent of air traffic control, and the maritime authorities do not track these huge ships. Whereas fishing boats are required by law to carry vessel-monitoring systems to prove that they are not operating in "no catch" zones, bulk carriers are not mandated to carry this equipment.

With the resources sector back at full throttle, has Australia got the maritime policies in place which balance the needs of the economy and the needs of the environment?

BREAKING NEWS: Some breaking political news that's big in Australia, but with not enough global resonance, I suspect, to make it onto the BBC website. Malcolm Turnbull, the former Liberal leader, has just announced he is quitting federal politics.

Art versus anti-authoritarianism

Nick Bryant | 20:56 UK time, Friday, 2 April 2010

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You can imagine my delight at last week's made-for-blog news that a painting of Ned Kelly had just become Australia's most expensive work of art, reaching almost US$5m at auction.

How fitting that, in a country which prides itself on its anti-authoritarianism, art's richest price tag should be attached to a work featuring Australia's most celebrated anti-hero - a homicidal rogue who regularly defied the colonial authorities.

First Class Marksman (Menzies Art Brands)

Much is made of how Australia can boast a Ned Kelly but not an Elliot Ness or Dixon of Dock Green, a national hero who enforces the law rather than breaks it. But as regular readers will know, your blogger does not really buy into this anti-authoritarian myth-making, and continues to be surprised at the meek adherence to a bewildering array of rules and regulations (see below).

So I tend to view the acquisition of First Class Marksman - which depicts the notorious outlaw walking through the Australian bush, his rifle at the ready, wearing his trademark body armour, with its iron helmet with a narrow, oblong eye slit - rather differently. It is not so much about the sanctification of Australian folk-lore as the celebration of high-brow Australian art. It is recognising the glorious talent of Sidney Nolan rather than the inglorious notoriety of Kelly - even if, as some of you may point out, Nolan's brilliant series of Kelly paintings did much to enshrine the myth.

Admittedly, my knowledge of Australian art is sketchy at best. Following on from our last blog, any discussion surely has to start with an acknowledgement of the cultural contribution of indigenous artists, who produced an extraordinary body of work both ancient and modern. Then it moves on to the European artists who arrived here after white settlement and made the mistake of representing Australia as if they were painting Europe. The light was all wrong. The trees were too neat and tidy. Landscapes tended to look like the Scottish highlands or the French Alps.

At the end of the 19th Century, artists from what became known as the Heidelberg school changed all that by painting their homeland with a more careful eye for local detail and a distinctly nationalistic brush. Australian art began to look like Australia.

Sidney Nolan came much later and painted in a different style, but his art was perhaps the apotheosis of that trend: it was emphatically and uniquely Australian, and could not have come from any other country.

Nolan was also fixated with Australian stories and idioms. The Ned Kelly series is perhaps his most popular work - and the most visited Australian art collection at the National Gallery in Canberra. But his work also focused on the adventures of the legendary explorers Burke and Wills, along with Gallipoli, which he viewed "as the great modern Australian legend, the nearest thing to a deeply-felt common religious experience". With good reason, art experts see Nolan as "Australia's premier iconographer". So how fitting that his work should command such a high price, the modern-day currency of cultural success. The hammer went down in celebration of Australian art not Australian anti-authoritarianism.

On that front that, there's this blast from Australia's great Formula One hope, Mark Webber. Following the Australian grand prix in Melbourne, Webber said he had spent his time "dodging the ridiculous speeding and parking [rules] and all the nanny-state country that we have down here in Australia" - a reference to Lewis Hamilton's run-in with police.

"I think we've got to read an instruction book when we get out of bed - what we can do and what we can't do ... put a yellow vest on and all that sort of stuff," Webber went on. "It's certainly changed since I left here. It pisses me off coming back here, to be honest.

"It's a great country but we've got to be responsible for our actions and it's certainly a bloody nanny state when it comes to what we can do."

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