From under the linoleum
Old newspapers show Mussolini's imperialism looked a lot like today's

I sat on the floor and picked through the tragedy of the country we now call Ethiopia laid out on the yellowing pages. It was eerily reminiscent of the current Iraq adventure.

A tale for our times
The December 1934 assassination of Sergei Kirov

Seventy years on, the killing of Sergei Kirov casts an eerie light on the events of 11 September 2001, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the “war on Terror” and the state-sponsored hysteria surrounding the shadowy figures of Osama bin Ladin and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Ninety-three years of bombing the Arabs
It was the Italians, hell-bent on acquiring an African empire, who got the ball rolling. In 1911 the Libyan Arab tribes opposed an Italian invasion. Their civilians were the first people in the world to be bombed from the air.

Dispossessed all over again
After spending nearly two months in the West Bank the pull towards my village was growing stronger, especially after being detained twice and threatened with deportation … an Australian Palestinian returns to her ancestral home.

The tragic inevitability of a forlorn hope
Australia slides further into the Iraq quagmire
Cabinet documents recently released under the 50-year rule show that, in 1954, Liberal (conservative) Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, and key figures in his Cabinet were extremely gloomy about the prospects for success in an American war against nationalists in Indochina. But eventually they went to the Vietnam War anyway.

Bombing King David
One man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist

Some historians date the beginning of modern terrorism from the 1946 bombing by Zionist terrorists of the British military HQ in Jerusalem.

Don’t loiter near the exit
Military debacle and economic decline haunt the Bush regime

When I was just a young possum in the school cadet corps there was a hoary old war story that we all knew. It was almost certainly apocryphal, but it ruefully expressed a nasty historic truth about the US role in the demise of the British Empire.

 


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Once were powerbrokers
Nostalgia and loathing in Western Australia

27 January 1999

After the Operation Gareth debacle I had trouble getting back to what passes for normal life for a marsupial private eye. I had seen too many dead bodies in Indonesia, and too much poverty, distress and demagoguery. I moped around in the café till Joadja banished me. She said I was starting to scare the customers.

So I moped around the office instead. Nobody called, nobody came in, nothing happened, and nobody seemed to care if I went brain-dead or moved to Adelaide.*

It was almost a relief when a letter arrived from a firm of Perth solicitors. They asked whether I would fly over to take charge of some effects of my missing business partner, Bruce Possum. I caught the next available flight.

I had hoped the stuff might give me some clues about Bruce's disappearance a decade ago. There wasn't much: his chrome-plated .44 Magnum; documents showing unsecured loans totalling seven million dollars from Laurie Connell; a small collection of original Van Goghs; an undated note on the letterhead of the Observation City hotel, signed 'Alan', which just read "Thanks for everything Bruce"; and a box of files which would take me some time to analyse.

The high and wild Perth that Bruce knew, the Perth of WA Inc., the Perth that brought Bruce undone, was long gone. Laurie Connell and Robert Holmes a'Court were dead. Alan Bond was pursuing his art career in gaol, where the prison authorities had recently given him his own studio. The former Labor Premier, Brian Burke, was out of gaol and living quietly next door to his mum in downmarket Balga. Yossie Goldberg was said to be somewhere in Spain or maybe Canada.

Perth is a surprising and civilised place. In some ways it's like Melbourne, but with a relentless air of glamour and prosperity. According to CSIRO research it now has the world's biggest café culture. All over the city there are magnificently appointed cafés, restaurants and pubs which stay open long into the hot dry summer nights.

Politics in WA moves to its own peculiar rhythms, not unlike, perhaps, those of Victoria. Labor Governments come in, get cold-shouldered by the Old Established Money and cuddle up to the New, Fast, Shonky Money. This brings them undone and ushers in a decade or two of Liberal rule.

But when I read the papers I was astounded by the disaffection between the ruling Liberal Government of Richard Court and Perth's sole daily paper, the West Australian, which is a sort of cross between the Manly Daily and an intelligent version of the Telegraph. Bob Carr's spindoctors would give it all away, and try to swing jobs with the Sutherland Shire Leader if Bob got flogged every day in the Herald and the Tele the way Richard Court gets flogged in the West.

Nothing seemed to be working for Richard. His personal plan to install the historic bells from London's Church of St Martin's in the Fields in a futuristic glass and steel tower on the freeway-lined forshores of the Swan River had outraged nearly everybody. Then there was his plan to supplement the gaols by housing prisoners in old shipping containers (Bob Carr must be whipping himself for not having thought of that before he announced the reopening of Parramatta gaol). Maybe it was the Perth heat wave, but that particular appeal to the flog-'em-and-hang-'em vote wasn't doing the popularity trick either.

But most of all Court was being flogged about his forest policy.

West Australia's forests are a wonderful and precious resource. Real forests exist only in the small south-west corner of the state, and there, forest campaigners were blockading a block of old-growth jarrah, south of Manjimup on the main highway. The blockade had forced the issue to the surface and the West was outraging the government and the industry with headlines like 'Greenies and Greedies take off the gloves' and a full page advertisement paid for by 58 doctors complaining that current logging practices were unsustainable, unscientific, wasteful, and caused widespread unemployment.

Something like 87 per cent of West Australians oppose clearfelling in old growth forests and a report by the Environment Protection Authority had found that the industry-oriented Department of Conservation and Land Management hadn't complied with 25 out of 37 ministerial conditions laid down in the existing forest management plan. The rapacious Wesfarmers and Bunnings corporations were looting the forests and nobody could understand a word the environment minister said.

The unkindest cut of all was a debate in the West which pitted the former right-wing Liberal Party powerbroker Senator Noel Crichton-Browne against federal forests minister Wilson "Ironbar" Tuckey.

Since his expulsion from the Liberal Party, 'NC-B' had seen the Green light on the road to Damascus -- or at least the Wattle Forest. The forest ferals were right he said, and he praised Jack Mundey's Sydney green bans and the campaigns against whaling.

It was a shocking thing. It disoriented hardened political professionals and galvanised Court's spindoctors into frenzied damage control.

And it made no sense to me, so I rang my old friend Alphonse, a veteran observer of the WA political scene and sometime shrewd political advisor to the WA Greens.

"Why don't we meet down in Freo? They're parading the Duyfken down the coffee-strip this morning", he said.

"Parading the what?" I asked, intrigued.

"The Duyfken. It means 'Little Dove'. It's the world's most authentic replica of an early 17th century Dutch warship. They've been building it in the forecourt of the Maritime Museum for months".

It sounded fascinating. I have long admired the Maritime Museum which has the world's finest collection of precisely dated 17th century Dutch artifacts, so I caught the next train down to Fremantle, which is Perth's port and the nearest thing to a medieval town centre you can find in Australia.

It was 11 a.m. as the train rolled past North Freo. The police were setting up a random breath-testing blitz on the nearby highway. Soon the radio stations would start broadcasting official police announcements about the location of the RBT. Many things in WA are difficult to explain.

I met Alphonse at the Sandrino Café. The streets were already packed with expectant sightseers.

"But are you sure this isn't just sour grapes from NC-B?", I asked, "I mean, before they kicked him out of the Liberals he had the reputation of being the meanest, hardest, right-wingest political head kicker and number cruncher outside of the NSW ALP.

"The fact is, there's incredible public disaffection over the Court Government's forest policy" Alphonse said, "Nobody really believes they're logging the forests sustainably and people are just horrified that Jarrah is being clearfelled for paper. It's such a fabulous timber, they should only be be using it for construction and furniture. Noel's probably as horrified as anybody."

"But what about that stuff he said to that woman, the journalist?"

"It was all a terrible injustice, Noel was misquoted", Alfonse said. "He didn't say 'How would you like me to screw your tits off', he said 'Howard'll screw me but I'll give you a tip-off'. He was about to warn her the little bastard was plotting to give Wilson Tuckey the forests portfolio if he won the election, but he was miss-heard".

"So what next for NC-B?" I asked.

"Well, I'm not sure if my colleagues will go for it" Alphonse said, sipping his latte, "But I've worked out a strategy for recruiting Noel to the Greens. I reckon we need a mean political animal like him to run the party machine".

Why not? I thought. It would take Noel a while to get his head around the ideology, but maybe -- post Cheryl Kernot -- political cross-pollination was the wave of the future.

Just then there was the sound of drums and the Duyfken, three storeys tall on the back of a low-loader, was edged slowly down Market Street into South Terrace. The Little Dove was only a small armed scout ship -- just a frigate in today's terms -- but it loomed large above the crowd in the narrow street.


I took this snap of the Duyfken as it was towed round the corner from Market Street into South Terrace (that's Alphonse in the checked shirt).

It's funny how things work out. The Dutch weren't impressed by the west coast of Australia. Yet here we were, four centuries after the original Duyfken slipped into the water in the Netherlands, celebrating the re-creation of a ship which took part in the colonial conquest of what's now Indonesia and made the first authenticated European landfall on the Australian coast, on Cape York, in 1606.

WA challenges the anglo-centric slant on Australian history that's so prevalent on the East coast. In the sixteenth and early seventeeth centuries, when the Dutch started coming to the Spice Island to challenge Spanish and Portuguese trading supremacy, one reached Indonesia by heading roughly East from Cape Town. The general idea was to hit the WA coast -- hopefully not at night -- and turn left for Batavia.

When the Dutch occasionally landed in WA they found dry, infertile heath or scrubby waterless bushland. Here they found no mace, nutmeg or cloves; no fabulous cloths, exotic artifacts or exploitable populations, so they made a note of what they saw and moved on.

Some unlucky Dutch ships literally hit the coastal reefs and went to the bottom. They became time capsules containing fabulous collections of coins, weapons, cargoes and artefacts of everyday life ... and ultimately made the Freo Maritime Museum into one of the world's great centres of maritime archaeology.

The Duyfken slipped slowly past us and turned into South Terrace, proceded by clowns and excited schoolkids carrying cardboard sardines on poles. It came to a halt in front of the celebrated Old Papa's Café for a little ceremony. There was a gamelan orchestra and a stand-up comedian who told authentically corny 17th century jokes. The only politician was the Mayor of Fremantle, and nobody very important spoke, which was refreshing, and a great relief to everybody. It was the shipwrights' day, and everyone agreed they had done very well.

I flew back to Sydney on Saturday. Perth was being lashed by unseasonal thunderstorms and we came up to cruising altitude through a dramatic skyscape.

The woman in the seat next to me turned out to be from the Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras. The parade had been ambling on on its merits for too long -- they were looking for a new focus and a no-nonsense back-room organiser with a solid business background, she said.

"Why not ring Noel Crichton-Browne?", I suggested. "I understand he's at a loose end at the moment. If you call first thing on Monday, you might get in ahead of the Greens".
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*With apologies to Raymond Chandler.