28 September 2012

A fourth Air Warfare Destroyer?

According to this online piece from News Limited,

Adelaide is in line to secure a fourth $2 billion air warfare destroyer because the Federal Government wants a major shipbuilding project in its defence program.

The project will be included in next year's Defence White Paper.

The Government wants to help bridge the national skills gap and a fourth air warfare destroyer is the likely choice.

Leaving aside any question of whether we needed the first three Air Warfare Destroyers, let alone a fourth, and leaving aside that this represents a Government that is highly unlikely to be elected at the next election thinking aloud about what it will do following the election after that, this seems a curious way to shape the Royal Australian Navy.

Let us leave aside also the fact that if the Government had conducted itself with any meaningful sense of purpose in relation to the future submarine we would have been cutting metal by 2016 in order for the first of the new submarines to go into service as the Collins Class submarines reach the end of their planned service life from 2025.  That didn’t happen; instead, the Government presided over a charade in which the Defence Materiel Organisation ran around the world trying to drum up a design competition when it has been clear from the start (including, apparently, to the European submarine builders) that the only way for Australia to procure a submarine that is fit for purpose is to have the Government’s very own ASC Pty Ltd build a submarine that takes HMAS Collins as its starting point, evolves the design both to build on what we have learned from designing, building and operating the Collins Class and to take account of perceived changes of requirement. We must be the only country in the world in which the Government owns a submarine builder and yet agonises for years over who should build its submarines.

I would be the first to agree that continuity of work for Australian defence industry and the preservation of its very high skills is important, and if any Government were to start to talk seriously about a “continuous build” approach to both its surface ships and its submarines (there is talk of this for the future submarine build) I for one would raise a cheer.

Meanwhile, I would have thought that an adequate maintenance and refit budget to keep Australia’s six submarines and 48 commissioned surface vessels in fighting trim would be more than adequate to maintain all the shipbuilding and maintenance skills we would need to support the RAN – especially as the Government’s antics in relation to the future submarine mean that it has inadvertently committed us to cutting up and refitting some number of Collins Class boats – a major shipbuilding task in itself, the end result of which will be a 1980s submarine for the 2020s-30s.

Whatever the case for the Air Warfare Destroyer, I think the certainty of being able to deploy two vessels in fighting trim, while a third undergoes maintenance or refit, would be preferable to having four in various states of disrepair. Given that the Navy could not muster a single seaworthy amphibious ship to assist in disaster relief during last year’s cyclone season, there is plenty of work to be done. What is required is the money and the political will to do it.

16 September 2012

Some aerial views of Iguaçu

In July 1981 I accompanied Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Trade and Resource Doug Anthony, and his wife Margot, on an official visit to Argentina and Brazil. One of the scenic highlights of the program was a visit to the mighty Iguaçu Falls, on the Paraná River on the border between the two countries.

We took a commercial flight from Buenos Aires to Foz do Iguaçu, a provincial city in Paraná State (Brazil) and toured the Brazilian side of the Falls in the late afternoon, including buzzing the 97m high Garganta do Diabo, the tallest of the falls, in a bubble helicopter, which was a buzz indeed.

The following day we crossed to the Argentine side, then returned to the Brazilian side for an inspection of Itaipu Dam, on the border between Brazil and Paraguay, which was at that time under construction and would in due course be commissioned as the largest hydroelectric dam in the world (since eclipsed by the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze in China).

When all was done we took off for our next destination in a Brazilian Air Force Bandeirante, and the pilot obligingly did a circuit of the falls and a low pass alongside them before we went on our way. The photos below give some idea of the immensity of the falls and of the forest in that region of Brazil.

Iran: EU diplomats fear sanctions will lead to war

Interesting tweet yesterday from Trita Parsi, author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S., Yale University Press 2007 & 2008.

Trita Parsi (@tparsi)
15/09/12 1:25 PM
While the French say we need more sanctions to prevent war w/ #Iran, other EU diplomats privately express fear sanctions will lead to war

I have no further background on what has informed the tweet, but it has been my longstanding fear that the sanctions against Iran will lead to war, either inadvertently or by choice.

The United States has promised Israel that Iran will not be permitted to develop a nuclear weapon, and proffers “crippling sanctions” rather than a pre-emptive strike as the way to achieve the desired result – which can only be temporary, as nothing that can be done at a particular moment of history can permanently deprive a country of the option to do anything.

Iran insists that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, and as a matter both of national pride and national interest it will not be dissuaded.

The US response to Iran failing to respond to its demands will be to ratchet up the sanctions; the Iranian response will be to dig in. Both countries will sail closer to the brink while escalating their rhetoric. It is hard to see this ending in anything but tears.

For earlier posts relevant to this story see Iran position on nuclear deal no surprise for some background on Iran’s attitude to the West’s demands regarding its nuclear program, for posts on why sanctions are a bad idea see Iran: Sanctions are in the air and Iran: sanctions still on the agenda, and for an analysis of why it is dangerous to play games around the Strait of Hormuz see Choke point: the Strait of Hormuz.

10 September 2012

Revolutionising ‘Letters to the Editor’ columns

Guest post by Andrew Farran, international lawyer and former diplomat.

How and why the print media should make itself more relevant by revolutionising its ‘Letters to the Editor’ columns

I am an inveterate ‘Letter to the Editor’ writer. I must confess to this as I’ve written countless hundreds over the years. But given that these tend to be one-day wonders, I have come to ponder whether Letters to the Editor serve a useful purpose anymore in this digital era of Blogs, Twitter and the likes of Facebook.

The print media, even in the face of its decline, has not taken up the challenge which its antiquated ‘letters’ columns now present. What is the purpose and relevance of these letters? Some simply draw attention to something that needs doing or fixing, in the hope that some politician or bureaucrat may notice and respond. Other letters expressing a point of view may bring a perspective to an issue that might otherwise be missed. Some contain a personal explanation. Such original contributions stand alone. But where the letters should get gutsy but are failing is in the area of public policy. Here one-shot missives do not constitute a debate or an informed discussion – and frankly may be pretty pointless and serve to mislead opinion.

I will give a recent example, the one that got me thinking about this. It concerns Australia’s relations with Indonesia in an area where further exceptional difficulties may yet arise. Not the cattle trade, but over West Papua. Here a shot across the bow does not constitute an argument nor make a case. In all likelihood, as in this case, the letters’ editor is more likely to allow a false assertion or misperception to stand rather than opening a path for dialogue. What good is that?

On 5th September The Age published the following letter written on behalf of the Australia West Papua Association:

Afraid to speak truth on W Papua

ON JUNE 25, a petition on West Papua, signed by thousands of Australians, was presented to the House of Representatives. One of the requests concerned the fraudulent referendum (the Act of Free Choice) by which Indonesia ''legitimised'' its violent takeover of West Papua.

It is well documented that in this referendum only 1025 West Papuans, selected by the Indonesian military, were allowed to vote, and that they and their families were threatened if they voted against integration.
Senator Bob Carr has now sent a written response to this petition, stating in effect that the Australian government considers the Act of Free Choice to be a legitimate referendum.

When will we get a government that is not afraid to speak the truth? The Act of Free Choice was a sham, and West Papuans have a legal right to a UN-monitored referendum on self-determination in which all adult West Papuans are allowed to vote, without duress. Australia, and other nations that turned a blind eye to this travesty of justice, have a duty to ensure this happens.

The writer has a fair point but that is not the whole of the matter and a responsible journal should have facilitated a response. Indeed if the letters’ columns are not to remain largely one-shot missives, the print media would be doing itself and its readers a service by facilitating such responses, and engendering an informed and purposeful exchange.

I had attempted to provide a response or comment, particularly as I was well placed at the time of the ‘act of free choice’ to know something of the background (which I explained to The Age – but to no avail).

The response I wished to make was:

Re: West Papua’s 'Act of Free Choice’ (1969)

Note for Editor (not for publication): I should mention in regard to this matter that at the time, in 1969, I was Principal Private Secretary to the then Minister for External Affairs (Gordon Freeth). I have often reflected on this event but believe Australia had no choice but to go along with the UN decisions and the legitimate expectations of the Indonesians.
Dear Sir,

Yes, the 'act of free choice' in 1969 exercised by some 1025 hand-picked West Papuans in 1969 was in effect a sham (“Afraid to speak truth on West Irian, The Age, 5/9). But it was an important diplomatic face saver.

Indonesian nationalists and governments before and since independence had relentlessly campaigned to inherit the Netherlands East Indies intact, in accordance with established post-colonial practice whereby the original geography of a colony defined the successor state regardless of ethnic distinctions. The right of ‘self-determination’ in the de-colonisation process, as laid down by the UN, was subject to that qualification. Otherwise Africa, for one, would now consist of well over a hundred separate states.

This outcome does not preclude Indonesia from granting West Papua, a distinct region, a reasonable degree of autonomy or self-government. Nor should it excuse any abuse of human rights in that region.

At the time of the ‘act of free choice’ Australia's relations with Indonesia had just emerged from a very turbulent phase (‘Confrontation', etc.) and the government was not about to complicate matters further by defying Indonesia's legitimate expectations, sacrificing the goodwill generated by Australia’s earlier support of Indonesia's independence, or creating a bad situation for future relations.

It is worth noting that at the height of Indonesia's struggles to secure West Irian, it never laid claim to East Timor, as it had not formed part of the Dutch colony (it was in fact Portuguese). However just a few years later Indonesia betrayed its own high ground of principle in regard to legitimate de-colonisation by seeking to annex East Timor. After enduring much suffering and loss of blood over a further two decades, and without much Australian support in the earlier stages, East Timor (now Timor-Leste) gained its own rightful independence and sovereignty following an 'act of free choice'.

[End of letter]
The question this raises is whether letters to the editor, by not providing dialogue and structure, amount to little more than a haphazard form of topical entertainment; and whether in the light of this the print media should grasp the opportunity to transform and restructure these columns into useful fora for an exchange of ideas and comments on defined issues of public importance. Conducted this way readers may find themselves engaged in real debate that has point and continuity. As it is they carry very little weight.

08 September 2012

But what about the kids?

According to this article in the Saturday 8 September edition of The Age, the jailing of three members of Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot sparked a formal complaint from Australia over the "disproportionate" two-year sentence handed down to them.

The band members were jailed for "hooliganism" after a provocative performance in a Moscow cathedral in February when they sang lyrics critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

There is no doubt that the sentences were disproportionate, but it is hard to escape the feeling that this was rather a low cost demonstration of concern on the part of our Government about a human rights issue – making representations on behalf of three lively and attractive young middle class women who set out to push the boundaries of what the Russian Church and the Russian State are prepared to wear. That will play well in the suburbs, they are people we can relate to, they are our sort of people in a way, and their will be no domestic constituency to speak of that will come out in support of Putin.

And the formal representations on their behalf will have been a very civilised affair; no-one will have got hot under the collar about it. Someone from the Embassy will have gone in “on instruction” and gone through the motions of recording our Government’s deep concern, will have been told that our Government’s views have been noted, no doubt given a cup of tea, a bit of “how’s your father?” and that will be that, but our protest will be on the record.

I wonder how often we express deep concern about

Israel's practice of holding Palestinian children in solitary confinement and denying them legal representation, as well as its use of physical violence, shackles and coerced confessions in interrogations

as reported by Ruth Pollard in this article from the 27 August edition of The Age, relying on the detailed testimony of “veteran soldiers in detailed statements chronicling dozens of brutal incidents”. Other acts of violence reported by the veterans include forcing the children to act as human shields in military operations and “the wounding and killing of children in the occupied West Bank and Gaza by either targeted shooting or by failing to protect minors during military operations”.

From the quoted accounts by the Israeli veterans’ organisation Breaking the Silence, it is clear that the treatment of the Palestinian children is arbitrary and disproportionate.

So I wonder just how often we formally register our concern about this behaviour. That would require intestinal fortitude of an entirely different order on the part of our Governmentthe Israelis would come back hot and strong and domestic constituencies would react.

The matter gets worse when you consider a fundamental difference between the young women of Pussy Riot and the Palestinian children whose arrest may or may not be the result of their throwing stones or other forms of protest. 

The Pussy Riot members are Russian citizens who were arrested in their own country for actions they don’t deny taking, and tried in a Russian court. They had a choice; if they had not taken the actions the Russian State would presumably have left them alone.  This is not to defend what happened to them in any way – the treatment they received was unconscionably harsh - but they must have gone into this with their eyes open, they must have known this was going to get them into serious trouble.

The Palestinian children, on the other hand, have few if any choices. They are minors living under a brutal military occupation, and the treatment they receive is, by the testimony of the veterans’ organisation Breaking the Silence, not only harsh but deliberately arbitrary – to make sure that the people under occupation know no peace, to create “the feeling of being chased” by being subjected to military incursions into their homes at any hour of the day or night. Keeping your head down and causing no offence is no guarantee that you won’t be hauled off in the dead of night with your hands tied tightly behind your back and thrown into solitary confinement – that is the whole idea.

So I am afraid I cannot see the protests about the treatment of the Pussy Riot members as a particularly courageous act on the part of our Government, and I cannot see the violation of their human rights as the case most deserving of our official attention.

02 September 2012

A "Small World" Story

Following the dropping by the Egyptian authorities of charges against Australian free-lance journalist Austin G. Mackell I put a question to him via Twitter to satisfy my curiosity regarding something that I had been wondering about since his name first came to my attention.

The exchange, at about midnight on 30-31 August, went like this:
The Austin “Austie” Mackell that I referred to was a Tobruk veteran who had been Commanding Officer of the Sydney University Regiment during the late 1950s (I would guess until 1959) and who was a great friend of my father, who was at that time a Major in SUR. I met him a couple of times when his regimental duties brought him to Armidale (the citizen-soldier element of the University of New England was the New England Company of SUR), and most notably when the two families had a café meal in Tamworth following a ceremony at Tamworth Airport in 1959, at which Princess Alexandra presented the 12/16th Hunter River Lancers with a regimental guidon (lance). At this stage I was in my second-last year at secondary school.

At Tobruk Austie Mackell was a young platoon commander in the 2/17 Battalion, 2nd AIF who, on the night of 13-14 April 1941, was involved in an action that resulted in him being awarded a Military Cross, and in the posthumous award of a Victoria Cross, the nation’s highest award for gallantry, to a member of his party, Corporal John Edmondson. The story is probably best told by quoting the citation for Edmondson’s VC, which may be found here:

NX15705 Corporal John Hurst EDMONDSON
2/17th Australian Infantry Battalion AIF
13th April 1941 at Tobruk, Libya

"On the night of 13th-14th April 1941, a party of German infantry broke through the wire defences at Tobruk and established themselves with at least six machine guns, mortars and two small field pieces. It was decided to attack them with bayonets, and a party consisting of one officer, Corporal Edmondson and five privates, took part in the charge. During the counter-attack Corporal Edmondson was wounded in the neck and stomach, but continued to advance under heavy fire, killing one enemy with his bayonet. Later his officer had his bayonet in one of the enemy and was grasped about the legs by him, when another attacked him from behind. He called for help, and Corporal Edmondson, who was some yards away, immediately came to his assistance and in spite of his wounds, killed both of the enemy. This action undoubtedly saved his officer's life. Shortly after returning from this successful counter-attack, Corporal Edmondson died of wounds. His actions throughout the operations were outstanding for resolution, leadership and conspicuous bravery”.
[London Gazette: 4th July, 1941]

John Hurst EDMONDSON was born at Wagga Wagga, New South Wales on 8th October, 1914. He is buried in the Tobruk War Cemetery, Libya.

In civilian life after the war Mackell became Managing Director of the Sydney-based chemical firm Scott and Bowne, and in 1961 paid my father an enormous compliment. My father was planning his 1962 sabbatical leave which he intended would involve undertaking a course for postgraduate medical students on the principles and practice of clinical electroencephalography at the Institute of Neurology (London University) at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, Queen Square, London, followed by a period in Montreal working with Herbert Jasper, Professor of Experimental Neurology at Montreal Neurological Institute (McGill University).  For various reasons the idea of joining Jasper’s research team was not practicable – it would have required more time than the University would have been prepared to fund. As Jasper’s research was directly connected to my father’s own research on subliminal conditioning he was very keen to have at least some face to face time with Jasper, but he had no idea where he would find the funds for a side visit to Montreal from London. Succour came from an unexpected quarter; as my father told it in his memoir Psychology at New England: The First Forty Years:

On the eve of our departure from Armidale, I received a phone call from John Dart, who was, at this stage, Assistant Manager of Scott and Bowne, the Scott’s Emulsion firm which manufactured other drugs and chemical preparations at their factory in Sydney. John held a commission in Sydney University Regiment, as I did, and his boss was a former Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. Austin Mackell, M.C., B. Ec. (Syd.). … The purport of John Darts telephone call was that the Company had had an Executive-staff Meeting that day and had voted me a gift of £300 to cover my return fare London-Montreal, to enable me to visit McGill University and the Montreal Neurological Institute.

The eight days that my father spent in Montreal were highly productive, had a lasting impact on my father’s future researches, and led directly to the Ph.D. project he drafted for Helen Beh, and hence to the article in the prestigious journal Science referred to at the beginning of the obituary piece at Vale Helen Beh, 1941-2012.

To return to the younger Austin Mackell, the link he sent me contains some wonderful photos from a visit he made to the Alamein battlefield in company with an Italian colleague whose great-uncle had fought with the Italian Army in the North Africa campaign (which reminds me, if you ever have a chance to see the Italian film about the Battle of Alamein – El Alamein: La linea del fuoco – don’t miss it; IMDb entry here).  See Mackell’s Alamein photographs here.

The younger Mackell’s own account of his travails in Egypt, published in New Matilda on 30 August 2012, may be found here.

01 September 2012

Opening of Light Horse Museum, Armidale, 1998

In May 1998 I accompanied the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, The Hon. Bruce Scott, to Armidale, where Mr Scott was to be Guest of Honour at a ceremony to mark the opening of the Light Horse Museum at the 12/16 Hunter River Lancers' Gaza Training Depot.

There is a proud Light Horse tradition in the New England region. The "12" in the regimental name derives from the 12th (New England) Light Horse, which was one of the two regiments that participated in the last great cavalry charge in history, the charge on the Turkish lines at Beersheba in 1917.  Several descendants of participants in towns like Armidale, Tamworth, Inverell , Glen Innes etc. Major E. Hyman, from Tamworth, who commanded the lead squadron of the 12th Light Horse Regiment was, like several other participants, an old boy of The Armidale School.

It is worth recounting the critical moments of the charge, and the element of surprise that gave the Lighthorsemen success in what should have been a fairly forlorn hope, charging the Turkish artillery over open ground in close formation. As recounted by the Australian Reserve Forces Day Council here:

The two Regiments formed up behind a ridge and moved off by Squadrons in a three-line charge formation, five feet between horsemen within each Squadron. Each Squadron had a frontage of from 300 to 500 metres apart. The lead Squadron of the 12th was entrusted to A Squadron, commanded by Major E. Hyman from Tamworth. They started from a walk-march, to a trot, then to a canter, then to a gallop. The German Officers in command in Beersheba recognised the advancing formation of Mounted Horsemen as Mounted Infantry and ordered his Turkish Defenders to wait until they had dismounted, then 'open fire'. Field guns were sighted on the horsemen; the infantry set their rifle sights to 1,500 metres.

Immediately the Regiments deployed they were quickly sighted and fired upon by the Turkish artillery, who opened fire with shrapnel that exploded in front of the formation then among the galloping horsemen, some were hit, then, after a brief zone of casualties, the lines galloped free. The Turks could not wind down their guns fast enough and soon the shells were bursting behind the charge.

Members of the 2nd Inverell Light Horse Association participated in the ceremony, and Quirindi-born Senator Sandy Macdonald, with Light Horse connections himself, also attended.

Unfortunately the Museum is closed at the present time, but the good people at the University of New England Heritage Centre and Regional Archive are working to get it reopened.