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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Never believe your own shtick
A lesson from the rise and fall of Australian “conservation icons”

1 November 2006

Young Bindi Irwin is all over the news these days and it looks like a cruel thing to this possum. I mean, she’s just a little kid. She still has a decade of school in front of her. And the angst of teenhood. And maybe she’ll find, as she gets older, that wildlife icon just ain’t her. Then what? Irwin built a business around personal celebrity. The adulation surrounding Bindi strikes this possum as a desperate attempt to find a commercial substitute.

When you’ve lived a long time and seen many things, you notice the patterns. There’s always got to be a left-wing bookseller in Newtown, an art-house bonking movie in the cinemas and a conservative-friendly conservationist on TV. In my lifetime I have lived through three major Australian “conservation icons”: Harry Butler, John Wamsley, and now Steve Irwin. Trust me, I know what I’m talking about, and the system probably won’t wait for Bindi.

The icon role is for aggressive self-promoters – it’s a perpetual gig with its own special shtick. You have to come across as a ‘real Aussie’ – a loveable garralous larrikin modelled on the Aussie male caricatures on the postcards they print for tourists – a ‘hands-on’, no-nonsense he-man, as distinct from a new-fangled, university-trained ecologist.

Big business and right-wing governments (these days it goes without saying this includes Labor governments) crave private enterprise role models. Embarrassed by their own increasingly hostile impulses towards conservation and biological science, they have a pressing need to proclaim that they’re practical, down to earth conservationists and the book-learned elites and government conservation departments don’t know how to do it.

The Irwin style of conservation made governments feel relaxed and comfortable. It was all about ‘individual responsibility’ rather that the responsibilities of government. The importance of the icon role can be judged by the fact that Howard rushed to the media and talked gibberish about Irwin’s “quintessentially” Australian demise; Queensland Premier Steve Beattie offered a state funeral, and the Sydney Morning Herald devoted more pages to one man than it has since Frank Packer shuffled off to meet the Big Auditor.

Irwin’s ocker image might as well have been lovingly crafted to fit John Howard’s right-wing agenda. Basically it was a symbiotic relationship, as they say in the wildlife business. Irwin latched onto Howard like a suck-fish on a shark and hung on for the ride, mouth open, in the hope that his own conservation agenda would benefit. It was a faustian bargain. He stooped to calling Howard “the greatest leader Australia has ever had”, which is like saying that Bishop Paley was history’s greatest naturalist.

In 2003 Irwin attended a barbecue for George W Bush at the Prime Minister’s Canberra residence. Asked the next day by Channel Nine’s Richard Wilkins about Greens' Senator Bob Brown’s vocal opposition, in parliament, to the detention of Australian citizens at Guantanamo Bay and the unequal “free trade” agreement, Irwin remarked, “Oh crikey mate, he needs to be taken out the back and given a good belting”.

Now Bob Brown led the campaign that saved Tasmania’s last wild river, with all that implied for nature conservation. Nothing obliged Irwin to slag off at him, but I guess it was just another opportunity to ingratiate himself with his political patron. If you hitch a ride with a big predator, pretty soon you’ll find the words ooze out spontaneously.

Irwin fell victim to a stingray. He did his animal-bothering thing once too often, but the underlying hazard for conservative-friendly conservation icons is that, like American TV evangelists, they’re taken in by their own shtick.

Take Harry Butler. The ABC made him into a national icon. Originally a wildlife consultant to big mining companies, he had the requisite “genuine Aussie” manner, a beard, a battered hat and an ability to find cryptic fauna in the wild.

Harry walked the walk and talked the talk, but he was really a consultant, and a man becomes what he does. He came a cropper because he just couldn’t conceive of his old employers in government and industry losing a fight against grassroots conservationists. In the early 1980s when the Wilderness Society’s campaign to save the Franklin swept Australia, Harry gambled on the Fraser government pushing through the Dam project, and he signed on as its wildlife consultant. His fans were deeply shocked. When, against the odds, the conservationists won, Harry was political roadkill.

In the late 80s, the mantle passed to John Wamsley who proved the viability of small fenced-off natural areas free of introduced foxes and feral cats – sort of gated communities for vulnerable wildlife.

Wamsley too, did the bushman shtick and worked the iconoclast entrepreneur angle in a way that appealed to Dick Smith nationalists and the folks who would later become Pauline Hanson supporters.

Alas, he was sucked in by the prevailing capitalist triumphalism. Unfortunately, in a market economy – as Karl Marx or your local used car dealer will testify – you can subjectively “value” your stock at whatever price you like, but its objective value is what somebody else is willing to pay. Dead, a kangaroo has market value as meat and hide, but the only real market value Wamsley’s thundering herds of mini-macropods had was what people would pay to see them. And the more sanctuaries he established, the more he was competing with himself. In 2001 the business had to be radically ‘restructured’ and many of its assets sold off.

The idea that the market economy can ever have more than a modest, specific, and tactical significance in nature conservation is a nonsense. In the broad scale, conservation depends on governments recognising that wild ecosystems are, literally, priceless, and defending them as such.