Aussies overseas deserve better support from their government

News reporting that Australian Alexandra ‘Pippi’ Bean feels let down by the Australian government during her ordeal in Libya is both worrying and sadly becoming an increasingly common experience for Australians finding themselves in trouble overseas. The Age article is here.

There was a time when Australian citizens traveling overseas and finding themselves in difficulties could rely on the Australian government for top notch support no matter the cause of the trouble. Support was not withdrawn or limited if the Aussie government assessed they might be guilty of a crime or if they had been involved in activities the Australian government found politically uncomfortable.

Or if their activities caused political embarrassment for the Australian government.

Australians could historically rely on excellent consular support as a right of citizenship. Of course, many still do but others are worried that since the time Julian Assange found himself in trouble overseas Australian government support has become much more arbitrary and politicised.

Guilty or innocent, Assange is an Australian citizen who found himself listening to calls from senior Australian government figures for his Australian passport to be cancelled. Hardly the actions of a government Aussies overseas would feel they could reply on.

Now Pippi Bean says she felt abandoned when Foreign Minister Carr told the ABC’s 7.30 she did not require further assistance. Clearly she did.

Australians deserve better and the federal government needs to lift its game here. It important for the government to listen to the message from citizens like Pippi Bean and genuinely lift their game here – especially at the political level. I’m not criticising Australian diplomats but rather their political masters who set the tone and from whom overseas agencies and governments take their cues about the degree Australia’s government cares about its citizens when they are overseas.

There are many countries who do not seem to care about their citizens’ welfare either at home or abroad – and this means we should never make the assumption overseas governments will assume foreign nationals have the support of their respective governments (Aussies included).

Our government needs to strongly signal to the rest of the world that Aussies in trouble overseas will receive top level diplomatic AND political support. This should be something we take for granted and it should be a policy priority for the millions of Australians who travel overseas annually.

Bicycle helmets save lives and should be mandatory

Today I was reading a book about 1980s cycling in Europe and it struck me how strange it seemed that so few of the cyclists were wearing helmets.

Actually, none of the cyclists were wearing helmets, save for a few with those leather strip head covers that I remember as hopelessly uncomfortable and utterly unsafe. But it also seemed strange to me how many photos there were of racing cyclists with blood streaming from their heads after crashes. This isn’t something you see as frequently nowadays as helmets are a mandatory part of cycling and cycle racing.

There is no doubt in my mind helmets are a huge safety aid and have protected many people, me included on many occasions, from far more serious injuries in accidents than would otherwise be the case.

Mandatory helmet laws are to me, like seat belt laws – they might be bothersome to some but they save lives. More people are alive today because they were wearing helmets while falling/being knocked off bicycles.

And I want mandatory bicycle helmet laws to stay.

That’s why I am a little concerned to see in this week’s The Age a report about the beginnings of a campaign to remove the requirement for cyclists to wear helmets while riding their bicycles. The Age story is here.

Many cyclists will sacrifice comfort to look and feel good while riding and there’s really nothing wrong with striving to look good while pedaling about the place. But this should not go so far as to compromise safely as will happen if folk start riding helmet-less. Please let me know your views – leeronan@hotmail.com but remember its the law to wear a helmet while riding your bike so please do!

Our thoughts are with Jill Meagher and her family

Jill’s husband Tom Meagher. Photo from Herald Sun.

Very sad news about the Jill Meagher missing persons case. It is a tragedy and our thoughts are with Jill and her family.

The news.com.au report is here.

Please make note of the statements today by Jill’s husband Tom and also Victoria Police that care should be taken when making social media posts about this case to ensure the outcome of a future trial is not compromised. Victoria Police statement is here.

Also, here is an ABC news report including tributes to Jill from co-workers.

A very sad day indeed.

Jill Meagher’s Brunswick disappearance – can you help identify these people?

Police have just released this clip showing people they believe can help with their investigation into the disappearance of Jill Meagher in Brunswick on Friday.

Here’s the link: http://media.theage.com.au/news/national-news/jill-meagher-cctv-footage-released-3665840.html

Also there are more photos at news.com.au here.

If you can help identify these people please immediately call Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.

Its a nice thought but Labor is not going to soft pedal on the Greens

Today I read two articles arguing why Labor should not vigorously campaign to take votes from the Greens as we approach the federal election instead allowing both parties to focus attention on tackling the conservatives.

You can read the article by Dennis Altman here and by Nicholas Barry here.

I’m not getting into whether the suggestions by Altman or Barry are worthwhile aspirations instead I want to address their key points in our current political climate – and I just don’t buy the core political arguments being made.

The first broad argument is laying off the Greens can deliver a better preference deal for Labor; the second argument, Labor should see the Greens as kindred-spirits and work more cooperatively to maximise the non-conservative vote.

Both suggestions would have been useful to the Greens and Labor at last federal election but the current political climate is very different.

The preference argument doesn’t stack up for me because Labor is in the box seat where Greens preferences are concerned. Federally, voters must indicate a preference and I just don’t see how the Greens could or would, in the current political climate, encourage their supporters to preference Liberal. This leaves the question of the Senate and I think here, based on recent polling trends, it will be the Greens most in need of Labor preferences. I’m not convinced Labor could easily be convinced to back off attempts to retake votes from the Greens in this climate – there just isn’t enough in it for them.

The higher your vote the better position your party will be in to negotiate a preference deal. Labor will simply campaign hard, taking as many votes from the Greens as possible and only then make a final decision about preferences.

The second argument is Labor should work more cooperatively with the Greens to maximise the non-conservative vote. Since Labor has already devised a strategy to begin retaking many of the votes they have lost to the Greens over the last three election cycles its hard to see why Labor would now see any political benefit for themselves in soft pedaling on the Greens.

It is time the Greens realised Labor is unlikely to do them any favours prior to the federal poll – you can argue all you want about whether it is in the long-term interests of both parties but the fact is Labor is going to be interested only in their own political health. And if you listen to Labor figures like Paul Howes the Greens could well be the focus of a good deal of Labor’s attacks.

This means the Greens need to work out why their vote is softening, realise Labor will not be doing them any favours and start thinking seriously about where the preferences needed to retain senate seats are likely to come from.

‘Waste’ – the global food waste scandal

'Waste'This new book ‘Waste’ is about the inefficient use of food and how as our planet reaches the limits of its productive capacity we will need to seriously think about why we accept such food waste.

The author Tristram Stuart explains how with nearly one billion people hungry, the world has a food problem – or maybe just thinks it does. There are good arguments here and some ideas that can really help feed our planet.

You can listen to an interesting TED talk by Tristram here (also below) and buy his new book here

Cambodia and the failure to prosecute Khmer Rouge genocidal monsters

Khmer Rouge victims' skulls

Khmer Rouge victims’ skulls

Cambodia is a country cursed by its history but it seems determined to keep itself mired in government corruption and a failure to prosecute, let alone punish, the leaders of the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal regime.

I’ve written before about the dreadful situation in Cambodia and recommended people interested in the subject read Joel Brikley’s book ‘Cambodia’s Curse’ but the recent news the UN tribunal (part Australian government funded) designed to prosecute only the Khmer Rouge’s senior figures will not proceed further with the trial of Ieng Thirith is appalling.

Thirith, the sister-in-law of Pol Pot and the regime’s minister for social affairs is accused of crimes that resulted in the deaths of thousands of people but is too ill for the trial to continue.

This leaves just three Khmer Rouge figures facing trial – KR head of state Khieu Samphan, KR foreign minister and Nuon Chea, the KR chief ideologist known as ‘Brother Number 2’. The tribunal has managed just one verdict, to imprison the head of the infamous Tuol Sleng torture centre and prison in Phnom Penh, Kaing Guek Eav known as ‘Duch’.

This is an appalling outcome for a tribunal designed to give the victims of the Khmer Rouge’s murderous communist ideology some justice and allow the country to begin a process of rebirth so Cambodia’s people can more on from their tragic history.
Sadly the tribunal has been subject to much of the same incompetence and corruption seen throughout much of Cambodia’s government apparatus and the consequences are obvious – despite being responsible for the brutal murder of close to one quarter of the population of Cambodia, close to 2 million people – decades after these monsters have been removed from power there has been just one judicial verdict. Its enough to make you sick.

And Australia’s government, who is part-funding this charade should be asking serious questions about how this UN endorsed tribunal can be working so slowly that it appears to be almost trying NOT to reach verdicts until the accused are so old or frail that their trials must be stopped.

Remember, all the Khmer Rouge leaders on trial are in their 80s. This is very old by Cambodian standards but let’s face it, they all had access to better food and healthcare than just about every other Cambodian during the country’s worst times. And these evil people were the one’s pointing the guns and creating the twisted ideology.

You can read the details of the tribunal’s decision to release the Khmer Rouge’s ‘first lady’ in The Age here but you will probably wish you hadn’t.

Warning bells are ringing and the Greens need to listen

All the warning signs are there but the Greens need to acknowledge they are facing a significant weakening of their electoral support if they are to avoid a disastrous federal election.

Its not the only time recently a political party received a strong warning of impending political doom – how Queensland Labor responded (or didn’t) to a dreadful municipal by-election has important lessons for the Greens.

Labor achieved a vote of just 16% in the October 2010 by-election for Brisbane’s Walter Taylor ward. I know Walter Taylor ward well, it overlapped the state electorate I won for Labor on three occasions (2001, 2004, 2006) and at its most challenging could always deliver a Labor vote of 20% plus.

A primary vote of 16% should have sent shock waves through Queensland Labor as it prepared for a state election. Instead, Labor’s state secretary told the media, “I wouldn’t read too much into a council by-election”. At the state election Labor achieved a vote of just 18% in this area.

Statements like this send a clear message to candidates, campaigners and supporters. What could have been a wake up call for Labor was seemingly ignored. Now Queensland Labor holds 7 seats in a State Parliament of 89 MPs. The policy consequences of Labor’s collective hubris are plain to see and are particularly painful for public servants, the environment and the many worthy NGOs losing funding in Campbell Newman’s budget.

The Greens have been given a similar wake up call with significant opinion polling decline since the retirement of Bob Brown and the Parliamentary refugee debate. There are real election results to bear out the accuracy of the polling trends with poorer than expected outcomes from the Melbourne by-election (my analysis is here), the NT election and a big drop in support at NSW’s council elections.

The Greens should see this as an opportunity to examine just what is going wrong and why they are no longer connecting as positively with voters but judging by Greens’ reactions to these warning signs this doesn’t seem likely in the short term.

The Melbourne by-election loss was spun as ‘Melbourne goes Green’. Trouble is, it clearly didn’t. Poor polling is blamed on methodology, margin of error and voters not understanding policy positions. The point here is the polling IS down and there are real election results to confirm this.

Articles presenting an alternative, more positive view of the situation facing the Greens are circulated and tweeted furiously as though this is evidence everything is still really going swimmingly. While articles suggesting there really is a problem to address are being interpreted as untrustworthy attacks (sure, there has been some gloating in the conservative press about the Greens decline in support but to dismiss all such analysis as motivated by an anti-Greens philosophical position is just silly).

Just like Labor’s ‘we’re not reading much into it’ approach to an obviously approaching political catastrophy didn’t work for them, the Greens need to accept ignoring these strong warnings from voters will not work either.

One positive for the Greens is the continuing volatility in Australian politics which means they can still have a successful federal election. But addressing the problem requires the Greens to first accept they do in fact have a problem. The next task is fixing it quickly.

What global water shortages could mean for our planet’s diet

You can read my article titled ‘Water shortages will mean our planet needs a non-meat diet’ by visiting Green Earth Group here. The article explains what this rather complicated but very useful graphic from the journal ‘Nature’ will mean for global diet in the future.

Aquifer graphic from ‘Nature’

Diverting food to ethanol production drives food prices to record high

Global food prices reach record high.

Recently the World Bank released some worrying statistics about global food prices.

From June to July world food prices rose by 10% with corn and wheat prices rising a startling 25%.

Current prices are now higher than the previous price peak reached in February 2011. This Reuters article about this last price peak is still worth a read. The Reuters article suggests high food prices significantly contributed to the Arab Spring.

Al Jazeera’s ‘Inside Story’ this week addressed this issue and here is where you can watch the Al Jazeera piece ‘Hunger Games: the prices of feeding the world’.

There are numerous contributors to the rise in food prices, changing weather patterns are a significant driver of food shortages and price rises and NGO the World Development Movement suggests speculation on food futures markets are artificially inflating global food prices.

But close scrutiny of US agriculture and energy policies are also worth considering.

Full credit should go to the US for being responsible for 60% of the world’s food aid. This is a noteworthy achievement but US domestic policies are causing huge quantities of maize to be diverted to ethanol production.

But ultimately, as weather patterns continue to trend towards being less predictable, it is agricultural policies like this that will need to change – we simply will not have the luxury of using food to fuel our cars.