30 January 2010

Reward for the arrest of Tony Blair

On 26 January well known writer for The Guardian George Monbiot launched a website www.arrestblair.org, the purpose of which is to raise money as a reward for people attempting a peaceful citizen’s arrest of the former UK Prime Minister for the crime of aggression for his involvement in planning and launching the invasion of Iraq.

The matter turns on the legality of the invasion. As Monbiot puts it:

 Without legal justification, the war with Iraq was an act of mass murder: those who died were unlawfully killed by the people who commissioned it. Crimes of aggression (also known as crimes against peace) are defined by the Nuremberg principles as "planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties". They have been recognised in international law since 1945. The Rome statute, which established the international criminal court (ICC) and which was ratified by Blair's government in 2001, provides for the court to "exercise jurisdiction over the crime of aggression", once it has decided how the crime should be defined and prosecuted.

Read Monbiot’s article on the Information Clearing House website here.  To make a donation, go to www.arrestblair.org.

25 January 2010

Max Bergmann on calls to bomb Iran

Writing for The Wonk Room, 24 January 2010, blogger Max Bergmann persuasively dismisses calls by US conservatives to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. Noting that it is safe to assume that Iran has taken steps to protect its program, Bergmann argues that there is no way to tell whether an attack is successful – there will be no way to tell whether known underground facilities have been damaged, and no way to know whether there are other unknown facilities that have been missed.

Bergmann concludes:

The day after any attack on Iran, there will be immediate calls for more military action, as Iran still might have a fully capable and operational nuclear program. The only way to be sure that Iran isn’t developing a nuclear program, it will be argued, is to launch an invasion that results in the change of regime.

So when the right talks about taking out Iran’s nuclear program, they are really not talking about surgical strikes, they are talking about regime change. And that in effect would likely mean a full blown invasion involving thousands of American troops on the streets of Tehran.
It is hard to disagree with any of that, and it is probably what the John Boltons of this world intend.

Read Bergmann’s full report here.

Biden on dismissal of Blackwater charges

The New York Times reported on 23 January that United States Vice-President Joseph Biden has promised Iraqi leaders that the United States would appeal the dismissal of manslaughter charges against five Blackwater International security contractors involved in a 2007 shooting at a Baghdad traffic roundabout that killed 17 Iraqis including women and children (see report here).

Investigators concluded that the contractors, who had been employed by the State Department to guard US diplomats, had fired indiscriminately on unarmed civilians in an unprovoked and unjustified attack. In December a US Federal Judge threw out the five guards’ indictment on manslaughter charges, citing misuse of their statements that violated their constitutional rights. 

Some comments and observations:

(1)  As a simple matter of justice to the innocent Iraqi civilians who were killed, it is to be hoped that the United States Government can successfully appeal against the dismissal of the charges. In view of the detailed and scathing judgement handed down by the judge, this seems to be an unlikely outcome.

(2)  One has to wonder at how it was possible for self-incriminating statements to be taken from the contractors straight after the incident, in violation of their civil rights, and how the prosecution came to rely on these statements. What was at work here – was it straight legal incompetence, or was something else going on.

(3)  Apart from the question of justice to the dead and injured Iraqi civilians and their families, it is to be hoped that the contractors can be brought to trial, because the case underlines the catastrophic effect of trying to wage war using mercenary soldiers. For make no mistake about it, these private contractors are mercenaries. Under international law it is only the armed forces of the state who have legitimated power to use, or threaten to use, lethal force, and then only under lawful direction from their chain of command.

(4)  Aside from the matter of legitimacy, anyone who thinks that the deployment of mercenary soldiers represents a saving is seriously deluded.  It is now settled United States policy that success in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq requires the support of the people – that the issue is a “hearts and minds” campaign, and that is what the supreme US commanders in both theatres are about. The deployment of trigger-happy private contractors who appear to blaze away not because they need to but because they can, with no apparent accountability to anyone, fatally compromises the capacity of the US commanders to do what they are trying to achieve. Losing wars on the cheap is far more expensive than winning them on the basis of legitimate forces under proper lawful command.

Defence Procurement: the ‘Jesus sights’

In the 23 January edition of The Australian, Brendan Nicholson reported that the Minister for Defence, Senator Faulkner, had ordered the removal of biblical messages etched into US-manufactured gunsights in use by Australian special forces in Afghanistan (see article here).  The ADF has several hundred of the gunsights, which are also in use by US, British and New Zealand forces.

The previous day, Nicholson had broken the story that the American manufacturer Trijicon had undertaken to stop adding the references to gunsights for Australian use (see here).

According to Nicholson’s report, the gunsights

… triggered an international uproar when US soldiers in Afghanistan discovered that letters and figures they thought were simply stock or model numbers referred to passages from the Bible.

One example was JN8:12 which turned out to be a reference to chapter eight, verse 12 in the Book of John: “When Jesus spoke again to the people he said ‘I am the light of the world’.”

According to the family-owned, Michigan-based company that manufactures the sights:

As part of our faith and our belief in service to our country, Trijicon has put scripture references on our products for more than two decades.

As long as we have men and women in danger, we will continue to do everything we can to provide them with both state-of-the-art technology and the never-ending support and prayers of a grateful nation.

Nicholson reports that the ADF had stated on 21 January that it had been unaware of the meaning of the inscription when the sights were issued to the troops.

Some observations, comments and questions:

(1)  From the moment it was decided to invade Afghanistan in 2001, in response to a jihadist attack on the World Trade Centre, there was a danger that the so-called War on Terror could be represented as a war against Islam. Representing it in this way is of course of enormous benefit to al-Qaeda and jihadists generally. It is unfortunate, therefore, that the Howard Government did not take adequate steps to ensure that there was no flavour of this in relation to any aspect of Australia’s participation in the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.

(2)  We are invited to believe that in as faith-based a society as the United States, even after the practice had been going on for more than two decades, no-one had any idea what the inscriptions meant until US troops in Afghanistan “discovered” what they meant. I don’t believe a word of it. Are we really expected to believe that after more than twenty years no-one in the US Army had any idea? Are we really expected to believe that the family that manufactures the sights has been protecting US troops with the power of prayer all this time, but never thought to mention it to anyone? The Christian Science Monitor reported here on 22 January that the Biblical references have been an open secret among US soldiers, some of whom refer to their weapon as a ‘Jesus gun’.

(3)  Given that the matter was an ‘open secret’ (surely a euphemism for generally known) amongst US soldiers, it is reasonable to suppose that it was also generally known within the Australian Army, which is in constant contact with the US Army at every level (including joint exercises and joint operations).

(4) This leads me to believe that we have something of a procurement problem. Did the Defence Materiel Organisation not know about the inscriptions, or did it not realise their significance, or didn’t it care?

(5)  By what means and when did this information first become known to Senator Faulkner?

(6)  Why don’t we manufacture our own high-tech gunsights?

23 January 2010

Defence Pay: Overpayments of combat pay

The Minister for Defence, Senator the Hon. John Faulkner, announced on Friday 22 January that 63 Defence personnel recently returned from overseas have been overpaid Overseas Campaign Allowance in amounts ranging from $2,000 to $9,000.

Senator Faulkner’s media release says that the cause of the overpayments was a manual input error where information was not correctly loaded into the pay system.

Senator Faulkner concludes:

This pay error is regrettable. Defence has already taken a number of measures to solve other payment and allowance problems. Defence moved last year to upgrade the Human Resources and Payroll system used to administer permanent and reserve military and civilian workforce through a comprehensive technical refresh. Defence is also moving as a priority to replace the personnel ICT system through Joint Project 2080.

Two comments:

(1)  There is no “technical refresh “ of the pay system that will overcome manual input errors. There must always be an interface between the real world and the computational processes that generate the pay and allowances of Defence personnel; the pay system can only manipulate the data that is fed to it by fallible human beings. I hope that no-one is suggesting otherwise to Senator Faulkner.

(2)  The last major attempt to rectify the Defence pay system (PMKeys), was abandoned in late 2002 after suffering major delays and massive cost over-runs. It was meant to save $100 million per annum over ten years, but instead of becoming a source of savings for re-investment in Defence, it became a financial sink (see Defence Savings: The Strategic Reform Program). If there is any reason to believe that the next attempt will be more successful than the last, I have yet to hear it. 

12 January 2010

ASC Board: changes ill-advised

On 15 December 2009 the Minister for Finance announced the retirement (completion of term) of two directors of ASC, and the appointment of four new directors.

The retiring directors are:

(1) Dr Bill Schofield AM, a lifetime defence scientist, having served in various positions in the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) from 1965 to 1991. From 1995 to 2001 he was Director of the Aeronautical and Maritime Research Laboratory at Fisherman’s Bend. In my time as Secretary, Department of Defence, he played a key role in the resolution of outstanding technical issues with the Collins Class submarine. As a member of the Kinnaird Review of defence acquisition which reported in 2003, he was instrumental in the recognition by government of the role which DSTO can play in minimising and managing technical risk in major defence projects. At the time of his retirement from the ASC board he was chairman of its risk committee, a function in which domain knowledge would appear to be critical.

(2) Mr Michael Terlet AM, who spent twenty years in defence industry before retiring in 1992 and becoming a professional company director. He was Chief Executive Officer and Deputy Chairman of AWA Defence Industries, prior to which he was Managing Director of Fairey Australasia Pty Ltd at the time of its merger with AWA.

The new directors are Ms Sally Pitkin, Mr John (Jack) O’Connell AO, Mr Bruce Carter and Mr David Miles AM. So we have replaced two engineers with four professional company directors, two of whom are lawyers and two of whom have an accounting background. None, as far as I can see, have any domain knowledge concerning the building and sustainment of submarines.  In his media release announcing their appointment (see here), Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner said:

... the appointees bring a range of skills and experience in legal and financial matters to the board, and will enhance the board’s high level of expertise and standards of governance.

The new appointees on the ASC board join its Chairman, Vice Admiral Chris Ritchie AO RANR (who has a background  in surface ships), Director Mr Geoff Phillips (a company director with a background in finance and management), and newly appointed Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director, Mr Stephen Ludlam (formerly President – Submarines for Rolls Royce (UK)), bringing the total Board membership from five to seven.

This means that the only person on the board as reconstituted who has a deep background in submarines is the Chief Executive Officer.

Several questions arise. None of what follows is to be taken as questioning the suitability of any single member to serve on the ASC board – each person individually clearly has the background and qualifications to make a contribution to the governance of ASC. My questions relate to balance of skills, where the Government thinks it is heading, and what is really going on here.

In no particular order my questions are:

(1)  Why was it considered necessary to increase the size of the ASC board at this time?

(2)  Given that the board was being increased in size, why was it decided to narrow the range of skills available? Why not, for example, retain Dr Schofield and Mr Terlet, and simply appoint someone with a legal and someone with an accounting background?

(3)  What does this change signify regarding the Government’s approach to ASC?  Does it see this wholly owned entity as a fundamental element of Australia’s defence capability, or is it just another company which the government still hopes to sell one day? Is the Government more interested in the sale price it will one day receive than it is in the defence value of the last remaining Australian-owned prime defence contractor? The Government’s ongoing refusal to commit to ASC as the designer and builder of the future submarine, the only sensible game in town, suggests that the defence value of ASC is seen to be of small moment.

(4)  The key risks faced by ASC are technical risks, not the normal range of commercial risks. Now that the only person on the Board with domain knowledge of submarines is the CEO, who will ask management the hard questions? Who will evaluate the answers it receives? How will the board know what risks it is taking on? Who will chair the risk committee?

Given that the Government shows no sign of moving with the alacrity required to bring the future submarine into service by 2025, this is a more important question than it might appear. My guess is that we will be lucky to introduce the new submarines into service before 2030, by which time we will be managing Collins class submarines as aging platforms, managing a whole new suite of emerging risks.

(5)  Where did the idea of letting Dr Schofield and Mr Terlet go actually come from – who recommended this to the Minister for Finance and why?

(6)  Is this reconstitution of the ASC Board just another step in the Defence Materiel Organisation’s ongoing warfare against ASC?

(7)  If so, why is the Government so cheerfully tolerant of, let alone complicit in, bureaucratic warfare between two wholly taxpayer-owned entities? Is it in on the game, or simply asleep at this particular wheel? Read Combet captured? before you answer that.

(9)  Why is such a key defence asset as ASC run as an asset of the Department of Finance rather than an asset of the Department of Defence?

(10) Why is there no-one in the mainstream media with the wit to ask these questions?

11 January 2010

Future submarine: long lead-time items

In Future submarine: no time to waste I suggested that the project to design and build a submarine to replace the Collins class from 2025 is starting to bump into some very stringent timelines.

Fifteen years might seem like a leisurely timetable for building a 4,500 tonne boat, but consider the following major contributors to the leadtime:

(1) Time to design and build

- The Collins class took 6 million man hours to design and 2 million man hours to build.

- The new United States Virginia class attack submarines took 18 million man hours to design and 10 million man hours to build.

- From cutting steel to delivery of the first of class was 6 years in both cases.

- There is a limit to the number of people than can be engaged productively at the one time on design or build, even if there were no limit to the number of people with the appropriate skills. We cannot halve the design or the build time by putting twice as many people to work.

(2) Research and development

Aside from the R&D task that will flow from the evolution of a whole range of technologies relevant to submarine and anti-submarine warfare, there is a huge R&D agenda directed to more prosaic matters which will drive the design and performance of the new submarines.

There will be a need to find a large production diesel and generator which can be utilised with minimum modification, suitable batteries, and a snort induction system from head valve to exhaust.  These will all be new, because no-one else in the diesel electric submarine world has our requirement for power, and they are all critical to the submarine’s noise signature.

These basic technical issues will take time to resolve, and until we resolve them we cannot design the submarine.  The laws of physics as they apply to submarines impose very rigorous constraints. The length to beam ratio must be in the range 1:7-10. Anything which adds weight must be offset either by removing an equivalent weight or by increasing the internal volume, which in turn requires an increase in the diameter of the pressure hull to maintain the required length:beam ratio.

Until we know the size, weight and performance of the main elements of the onboard equipment, we cannot begin to design the submarine.

This work must commence as a matter of urgency. It must be undertaken by the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) and it must be funded in 2010-11. In order to set the scene, we must have the decisions outlined in Future submarine: no time to waste.

(3) Qualified submariners

While the size of the submarine workforce might have little direct impact on the time required to deliver the first of class, the size and skills of the submarine workforce are critical to the future submarines becoming a military capability – if we cannot crew the submarine fleet with submariners who have the skills and training to take it into harm’s way, why have it?

The history of the crewing of the Collins Class is not a good story. We have never been willing or able to crew the fleet, and the lack of available sea time has had a critical impact on our capacity to train additional crew – we are in a downward spiral in which we cannot put more than two out of six submarines to sea because of lack of crew, and we have trouble expanding the submarine workforce because we cannot put enough submarines to sea.

In Managing the submarine workforce, I described the measures being taken to address this problem and provided a link to the Submarine Workforce Sustainability Review which was undertaken by Rear Admiral Rowan Moffitt, now Project Director for SEA 1000, the future submarine project.

The Chief of Navy is addressing the problem, but I am not convinced we are doing enough to put ourselves in a position to crew twelve new submarines as they are delivered from 2025. On current plans, five years from now crew limitations mean we will still be operating only three out of six submarines, of which we could expect to put a maximum of two to sea at any one time. We will have to learn to do better at matching manpower to platforms than that, and we really need to accelerate the program to redress the crewing problem.

10 January 2010

Kytherans in Armidale

James Belshaw has posted on his New England, Australia blog a couple of posts on the Greeks in Australia, with some recollections of the Greek cafes in our school and university days in Armidale (1950s and 60s) – see Newcastle, Niagara and the Greeks in Australia and Belshaw's World - Armidale’s Greek community, which latter first appeared as a column in The Armidale Express on 2 December 2009.

Among the leaders of that cafe culture that provided meeting places for literally generations of secondary and tertiary students, in a town in which education was one of the key drivers of the local economy, the Comino family with its IXL Cafe in Beardy Street must take pride of place. Nick’s cafe, founded between the wars by Nick Feros, was another important drop-in centre. Comino’s and Nick’s were part of the fabric of Armidale life – without them it would have been a different place, and our lives would have been different.

The first Comino foothold in Armidale was established in 1903 when the Cordatos brothers, 22-year-old Kyriakos and 21-year-old Anthony, built an establishment on behalf of Comino and Panaretto, next to the New England Hotel.  The Feros brothers were there from the early 1920s, and the Tzannes brothers were there by the late 1930s. In the heyday of Armidale’s Greek community in the 1950s and 60s there were about 300 residents, predominantly of Kytheran descent.

Knowing that the Cominos were originally from Kythera I decided to do a little research on the web and came up with a gem of a site – Kythera Family Net, which contains posts in English covering the Kytheran diaspora worldwide. As Kytherans were the start of the migration chain from Greece to Sydney, and at the start of World War II still constituted 22% of the Greek community in Australia, it is a rich source of the history of a community that has contributed so much to who we are today.

For people who are interested in the New England region it is especially rich, because in the mid-20th century Kytherans constituted 75% of the Greek population of Northern New South Wales. For those interested in Armidale and district I would recommend this post by Peter Tsicalas.

For those interested in some more general background on Kytheran migration to Australia, Peter Tsicalis’s Settlement in Australia is a good place to start.

For the Australian Dictionary of Biography’s entry on the man who started it all, Athannasio Comino (1844?-1987), see here.

08 January 2010

Future submarine: no time to waste

The Government has some very important decisions to make regarding the submarines that are to replace the Collins Class submarines currently in service, and it is starting to bump up against some stringent timelines.

The current stated objective is to begin introducing the new submarines into service in 2025, a mere 15 years away. This means that we will need to see contractor sea trials commence in about 2022.

The experience with the Collins Class submarine was that the time from concept development to the delivery of the first of class was 13 years. The time from the cutting of the first steel to delivery of the first of class was six years.

These are respectable timelines. For its latest Virginia Class attack submarines the United States took 15 years from concept development to delivery of the first of class, and six years from the cutting of the first steel.

This means that if we wish to allow ourselves, for the development of a much larger and more capable boat, at least as long as we had for Collins, we will need to be at work on concept development by 2012, and start cutting steel by 2016. These are the latest acceptable dates – even if we meet them, we will be depending upon just about everything going according to plan if we want to avoid the situation we faced in 1998, when acceptance of the Collins Class into naval service was delayed and the Oberon Class submarines were reaching the end of their permissible dive life.

Much has to happen before 2012. We have to settle our acquisition strategy, and then select the team that is to design, build and maintain our next generation submarine.

This means that some threshold decisions need to be made, and fast. Much time has been wasted in the futile pursuit of an off-the-shelf option and strange ideas like running a design competition between European designers who do not build boats anything like the ones we need, and who would not be permitted to build boats incorporating United States technology that we know we will need.

My suggestions for some decisions that the Government should take now in order to cut to the chase:

(1)  Recognise that there is no European military off-the-shelf (MOTS) option that goes anywhere near complying with the requirements specified in the Defence White Paper.

Apart from the fact that there is nothing close to what we need, the laws of physics as they relate to submarine design mean that “near enough” is not good enough. Once it is necessary to adapt a submarine design the requirements for the shape of the pressure hull and the distribution of payload dictate that the “modification” task is essentially a new design.

(2) Accordingly, recognise from the outset that this is going to be a developmental project.

(3)  Abandon the notion of a design competition. 

A design competition between two European designers makes no sense. Why would we want to select a design house on the basis of a choice between two conceptual submarines, neither of which will meet our needs? And why would any European design house commit serious resources to developing the best design when it must know that it is simply a stalking horse for what will ultimately be an Australian project?

We have in this country the resources to design a submarine, but these are scarce resources and we cannot afford to divide them between two competing groups. Nor do we have the resources in the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) to provide scientific and technical support to two competing groups.

Design represents less than 5% of total cost, so this is the wrong phase at which to compete the project. Spreading our scarce resources between two teams that are not permitted to communicate with each other runs the risk that we will end up with a choice between two inferior designs. There is plenty of room to compete aspects of the project between subcontractors and equipment suppliers.

(4)  Agree that the future submarine can only be designed and built in an Australian environment.

This will give us optimum access to European and United States technology, which only we will be permitted by either to integrate.

The Collins Class is the appropriate starting point for the future submarine, and ASC Pty Ltd has been the design authority since 2001. ASC must be selected to design and build the future submarine.

An Australian design and build means that we must bear all of the schedule, cost and performance risk, and will become the parent navy. We must recognise this from the outset, and plan and budget accordingly.

(5)  Benefit from US experience by emulating the Integrated Product Process Development (IPPD) model that was used to build the Virginia Class.

This means including designer, builder, major equipment and sub-systems suppliers, combat system integrator, through-life support agencies and key Defence stakeholders into the process from the outset.

The virtue of this system is that it avoids stop-start decision making, and enables resolution of issues where ease of building conflicts with ease of maintenance.

(6)  Select from the outset the combat system pedigree and integrator.

Integration of the combat system was one of the most problematic aspects of the Collins project. The lowest risk approach for the future submarine will almost inevitably be to derive a system from a proven US Navy system.

The wheel-spinning that has taken place over the last twelve to eighteen months means that the project is already hard up against its timelines.

It is now time to develop an appropriate sense of urgency, make the necessary threshold decisions, ensure that adequate funding for commencement of the program is in the budget for 2010-11, and get on with it.

Saving money in Defence

Former Labor Member for the Federal seat of Kingston, Gordon Bilney, has an op-ed piece in today’s Australian Financial Review in which he outlines the challenges facing the Rudd Government in the year ahead.

One of these is tackling “the monstrous waste and inefficiency” at Russell Hill.

It is remarkable how many people seem to “know” that there is monstrous waste and inefficiency in the Australian Defence Organisation. Equally remarkable is how few people seem to be able actually to identify where this waste is and how it can be eliminated without impacting upon the capacity of the ADF to fight and win. Many of the solutions I see bandied about sound to me a bit like attempts to repeal the Second Law of Thermodynamics (the one which explains why only about a quarter of the energy in the petrol we buy is actually used to propel the car).

The Department of Defence, a complex organisation that consists of both its civilian staff and its “members in uniform”, receives an almost uniformly bad press. Yet somehow the civilian and military leaders of the Department manage, when requested by Government, to put into the field the right people, with the right kit and the right training, who have performed outstandingly on every deployment. Someone must be doing something right.

Waste is inevitable in every large organisation. No-one should be complacent about that: every organisation should have in place effective continuous improvement programs that seek to find better and more cost effective ways of performing all of the organisation’s functions.  But as I have commented previously, the notion on which the Government’s defence capability development plans depend, that there is an annual $2 billion of waste sloshing around the corridors of Russell just waiting for someone to harvest it, is an absolute fantasy – see Defence savings: the impossible dream and More on the Defence Savings Program for reasons why the savings are not there.

I do, however, have one very constructive suggestion for markedly reducing our defence expenditure: leave Afghanistan. No-one can articulate a convincing reason why the allied forces are there or what outcome we are looking for, and the way it has developed it has just turned out to be a very expensive way of destabilising Pakistan, a country which has never needed much help from outsiders in order to mess up its present or its future.

There is no good outcome on the horizon for the Afghanistan adventure. The most likely scenarios are a Pashtun-dominated regime led by the Taliban, or a Pashtun-dominated regime led by the Pakistani Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence’s (ISI) warlord of choice, someone like the appalling Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Anyone who thinks that there is a third outcome should think very carefully about the probability and sustainability of that. If history is any guide, any non-Taliban leader in Kabul who is not ISI’s preferred option will be systematically undermined by ISI, using diverted US military assistance funds to do it, in the interests of their fantasy of becoming the dominant power in Central Asia.

Withdrawing gracefully would be a tricky business.  It must be done in a manner that does not make a bad situation worse for our allies, and that does no harm to the alliance with the United States.

That suggests that the preferred option would be to seek to persuade the United States that it is high time for everyone to recognise the realities and withdraw sooner rather than later, in as decent and orderly a manner as we can – just the topic to enliven the forthcoming Ausmin talks between our Defence and Foreign Ministers and the US Defense Secretary and Secretary of State.

 The bottom line would have to be that we are going sooner rather than later whatever the US decides to do: while we can seek to negotiate a decent and orderly withdrawal, we cannot be held hostage by our allies – and everyone understands that. If we think it is a bad idea, we have to act on that assessment, subject to decent management of the process of implementation.

The principal obstacle to moving in this direction is probably the fact that the Prime Minister has said that the war in Afghanistan is the right war, the war we have to win, and as recently as his surprise visit to the troops in Afghanistan in November declared that Australia “would remain in the conflict for the long haul”.

So the Prime Minister would have to admit that he got that one wrong, and our Prime Minister is not a person who has ever been renowned for his willingness to admit error.

Then he would have to try to convince his very good mate Barack Obama that he too had got it wrong, and we have not yet seen many signs that our Prime Minister is prepared to burn up political capital in Washington telling President Obama that he is mistaken about anything.

But how long should we tolerate having young Australians put in harm’s way in the interests of politicians’ vanity?

04 January 2010

Reformist Tribute to Ayatollah Montazeri

The Iranian reformist website Rooz has a brave tribute to the late Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who died at his home in Qom on 19 December – see Historians and the History-Maker Ayatollah Montazeri, by Akbar Ganji, posted 22 December 2009.

Ganji writes that the people who make history do not resolve all problems, but if they behave ethically they act as role models for their people and for future generations.

No nation is without ethical role modes.  Gandhi is the ethical role model of Indians and all freedom-seekers who believe in non-violent struggle.

He goes on to say that Ayatollah Khomeini did not want to become the Iranian Gandhi. It fell to Ayatollah Montazeri to stand up against prison, torture and execution, and he sacrificed his succession to the supreme leadership to do so. He would not be swayed or intimidated:

Ayatollah Khomeini’s charismatic personality was not something that would bind him to remain silent.  The “post of supreme leadership” was not something that would trick him.  Attacks and insults by thugs was not something that would frighten him.  House arrest for years was not something that would force him into retreat.  Comfort was not something that would entice him to sacrifice ethics.  Loneliness was not something that would weaken his brave resistance.  Massive insults by rulers, beholden clerics and the oppression machine were not things that would break him.

He stood and stood and stood until he became the symbol of the Iranian people’s struggle...

He had the courage to reform his beliefs, and continuously updated his legal-religious views, writes Ganji, so that in the end he reformed his philosophy about the role of religious leadership and came to prioritise citizenship rights.

Ayatollah Montazeri left and left everyone in tears.  He was not only the father of his sons and daughters.  He was the father of all of us.  His body will be laid to rest at some place, but his character will be with us as our role model.

Why do I say that this is a “brave” tribute? Because the people who are contributing to the Iranian reformist websites can’t possibly imagine that the Ministry of Intelligence is not reading every word they write and marking them down for future attention when the time is right.  Someone who publicly lauds Ayatollah Montazeri and in the process directly criticises the two Supreme Leaders, the Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei, is courageous indeed.

For more background on Ayatollah Montazeri see Iran: A regime in trouble and New York Times on Ayatollah Montazeri’s legacy.

03 January 2010

Meddling in Iran

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the hard-line conservative clerics around him assert that the troubles on the streets of Tehran have been fomented by the United States and the United Kingdom.

That is palpable nonsense. Whilst one can never rule out the possibility that some misguided spook who wants to make a name for himself is meddling in something somewhere, the fact is that the current protests by the well educated youth of Iran’s cities need no hypothesis of external intervention to explain them – the reform movement is entirely internally generated, and most of the protesters would see themselves as people who are trying to realign the Islamic Revolution with the values of 1979 that saw a broad spectrum of Iranian society and opinion campaigning against the Shah in the name of liberal reform.

Does that mean that our highly esteemed allies are not intervening in Iran? Not at all. Veteran United States journalist Selig Harrison (now director of the Asia program at the Centre for International Policy) has an op-ed piece in the 27 December edition of The New York Times which outlines the extent of foreign intervention in Iran (see Tehran’s Biggest Fear). He begins:

The biggest threat to the ruling ayatollahs and generals in multi-ethnic Iran does not come from the embattled democratic opposition movement struggling to reform the Islamic Republic. It comes from increasingly aggressive separatist groups in Kurdish, Baluch, Azeri and Arab ethnic minority regions that collectively make up some 44 percent of Persian-dominated Iran’s population.

Later in the article he comments on the approach adopted by the Bush Administration:

During the Bush administration, a debate raged between White House advocates of “regime change” in Tehran, who favored large-scale covert action to break up the country, and State Department moderates who argued that all-out support of the minorities would complicate negotiations on a nuclear deal with the dominant Persians.

The result was a compromise: limited covert action carried out by proxy, in the case of the Baluch, through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate or, I.S.I., and in the case of the Kurds by the C.I.A. in cooperation with Israel’s Mossad. My knowledge of the I.S.I.’s role is based on first-hand Pakistani sources, including Baluch leaders. Evidence of the C.I.A. role in providing weapons aid and training to Pejak, the principal Kurdish rebel group in Iran, has been spelled out by three U.S. journalists, Jon Lee Anderson and Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker and Borzou Daragahi of the Los Angeles Times, who have interviewed a variety of Pejak leaders.

There is nothing surprising in any of that. The really worrying part is the assertion by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaking in the Kurdish city of Bijar on 12 May 2009, that the Obama Administration has not reversed the Bush policy.

Early in 2009 President Obama stated that he wanted to engage with the Iranian regime, stating that he was extending a hand, but that to take it Iran would have to unclench its fist.

If there is any truth in the assertion of Ayatollah Khamenei that the United States and others continue to get up to mischief with the ethnic separatists (and who could doubt it?), then to the Iranians the American hand would itself look pretty “clenched”. As Selig Harrison concludes:

For the present, the Obama administration should tread with the utmost care in dealing with this sensitive issue, guided by a recognition that support for separatism and engagement with the present regime are completely incompatible.

Iran: Assassination threats against reformist leaders

In a continuation of the sinister developments within the Iranian political crackdown, on 30 December 2009 the reformist website Rooz posted a report on talk of assassination of the reformist leaders Mir-Hossein Moussavi, Mehdi Karroubi and former President (1997-2005) Mohammad Khatami – see Reformist Leaders Threatened with Assassination by Bahram Rafiee.

The basis of the report is a comment by Jafar Shajouei, member of the conservative Association of Combative Clergy, who had commented, “I believe that people can treat offenses against the regime by following the model of Navab Safavi.”

Navab Safavi was the leader of the terrorist group “Fadayian of Islam,” which claimed responsibility in the 1950s for several assassinations in Iran.

This is hothead talk which may be occurring because, while it might reflect regime sentiments, it does not reflect regime thinking. The regime would have to be mad to strike against any of these three. If anything, it should be posting a security detail on each of them to make sure that nothing happens to them, because even the most outlandish accident would be regarded as having been perpetrated by the regime.

It presumably knows this because to date it has chosen to make their lives difficult by arresting their senior staff and various supporters, and in Mir-Hossein Moussavi’s case assassinating his nephew, but has hesitated to move against any of the principals directly.

Similar nasty acts of harassment are visited on those who are close to people who dare to criticise the regime. For example, Nooshin Ebadi, the sister of Peace Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, who had been threatened with arrest should she not cut off her ties with her sister, was arrested on Monday by agents from the Ministry of Intelligence – see The Arrest of My Sister is to Pressure Me by Omid Memarian, reporting an account of an interview with Shirin Ebadi.

To follow the rapidly developing events in Iran from the perspective of the reformists, consult the English language online version of Rooz here.

William Oates on regional archives

Jim Belshaw’s recent post New England story – new states, archives and the preservation of our past drew my attention to a fascinating recent post by William Oates, University Archivist in the Heritage Centre of the University of New England, on the Archives Outside website of State Records New South Wales.

It relates the story of the fight to have regional archives established in New South Wales, starting with the then Warden of the New England University College writing in 1947 to the NSW Under Secretary of Justice NSW to protest about a decision that records located in the Armidale Court House could only be researched by NEUC staff and students at the State Library in Sydney (over 500 kilometres away). Local access to historic records was forbidden.

In a triumph for common sense, Madgwick succeeded in having custody of the Court Records transferred to NEUC custody in July, 1947. This led to a call to the local community for donations of family papers and records, and decisions by the University to appoint a librarian (Frank Rodgers) who was also a professionally qualified archivist, and to dedicate floor space in the basement of the Dixson Library for the archival holdings.

In due course, with the passage of the New South Wales Archives Act in 1960, Rodgers was given a seat on the Board which was established to manage the State’s archives, and the University went about an active program of collecting records and establishing itself as the principal repository of records in Northern New South Wales.

Read William Oates’s post here, and see some wonderful photographs including one of 1960s archivist Alan Wilkes fording the Macleay River on horseback in the quest for records from a property that was only accessible by horse.

Education and the New State of New England

James Belshaw has posted to his New England, Australia blog on 2 January an item entitled New England story – new states, archives and the preservation of our past.

It contains some interesting history of the establishment of the Armidale Teachers’ College, the movement to establish a new state in the New England region of New South Wales, and the connection between the two. James’s grandfather The Hon. D.H. (“Davy”) Drummond, who to this day remains NSW’s longest serving Minister for Education, played a central role in both.

In the last year or so I have heard political commentators, including academics who ought to know better, describe the National Party and its predecessor, the Country Party, as an “agrarian populist party”. That might be an apt description of the Nationals today – a party that has seriously lost its way, but it does not begin to do justice to the glory days of its predecessor, for  which the word “Country” denoted the towns and villages of rural and regional Australia, not just – or even primarily – its farmers. This is entirely consistent with the fact that in my youth “the country”, rather than “the bush” was the normal expression for non-metropolitan Australia – no-one who grew up in Armidale, Tamworth or Wagga would describe themselves as coming from “the bush”.

At state level, men like Davy Drummond and Sir Michael Bruxner were not running around chasing hand-outs for farmers, and the farmers were not exactly waiting at the farm gate for the handouts to arrive. They were all concerned with the strategic issues for the communities they served, issues like education and infrastructure – passenger rail in the days before widespread car ownership, the rail services that would shift the wool and the wheat to market, and the establishment of scheduled air services to places like Armidale.

Their strongest supporters in the establishment of the education infrastructure which characterises Armidale were farmers who were contributing rather than receiving – people like T.R Forster, who donated Booloominbah for the establishment of the New England University College, and Philip Arundel Wright, who was a supporter of the movement to establish the University College and a generous benefactor, and who ultimately served as the University’s Chancellor after the retirement of Sir Earle Page.

Earlier, in the 1890s, The Armidale School had been established on purely private initiative as the New England Proprietary School, led by campaigners such as F.R. White, a leading landowner and builder of Booloominbah.

Many of the key figures, including Drummond and F.R. White, had limited formal education, but they understood the benefits that it could bring. How wise they were. In my view the University of New England, with its innovative Faculties of Rural Science (which trained its students to see farming in “whole of system” terms) and Agricultural Economics, transformed the fortunes of northern New South Wales  - there was a close connection between the academics and the farming community, and in the  summer schools which filled the university colleges during the long vacations researchers communicated their knowledge direct to the farmers who came from far and wide. Those farmers in turn diffused their new knowledge to those of their neighbours who were a bit coy about “goin’ back to school”.

And people like the legendary Bill McClymont, who founded the Faculty of Rural Science, had a way of roping others in to the research activities of his faculty. My father’s skills in electroencephalography, for example, were harnessed for the purposes of some interesting joint research on pregnancy toxaemia in sheep.