Tuesday, October 28

Is the Federal Police commissioner a servant of the government in power?

On August 30, I put up a post headed “This time Mick Keelty must do the honourable thing and resign.” It was not without some misgivings – it's a harsh call, and the Federal Police Commissioner appears to be a decent fellow.

But as the Dr Haneef affair showed, he allowed himself to become a servant of John Howard's government in its duplicity and spin doctoring. Last night, ABC television's Four Corners program confirmed my view.

In my August post, I wrote:

When he won office in 1996, one of Howard's first actions was to sack six public service department heads – a third of the departmental secretaries – in a sudden and brutal putsch.

Many of us saw it as an assault on the public service obligation to give "frank and fearless" advice to ministers, although some might argue it was to ensure the public service implemented the will of an elected government.

But a police commissioner is not just a public service head. He or she has an obligation greater than implementing government policy – an obligation to uphold the law without fear or favour. When Howard bullied Keelty into a humiliating submission, and Keelty accepted it, they both destroyed something of value.

Last night, Four Corners revisited the humiliating "clarification" John Howard and his chief of staff Arthur Sinodinus forced Keelty to make in a televised press conference in March 2004. You will recall this came after the Federal Police Commissioner made an honest comment on Channel Nine which did not accord with the Howard government's spin on terrorism.

Chillingly, the Four Corners program showed that John Howard did believe the AFP was required to do whatever he demanded, provided it did not involve breaking laws.

In the course of a program titled Good Cop, Bad Cop – in which journalist Sally Neighbour investigated "what's wrong with the Federal Police" – Mr Sinodinus gave an interview on camera, and he is to be commended for his frankness.

Mr Sinodinus said the AFP's job was to "work within the framework of policy, subject of course to their not breaking the law".

Sally Neighbour came back at him: "Is it their job to do the bidding of government as long as it's not illegal?" Sinodinus replied: "In my view it is."

Think about this for a moment. Is it taking it too far to say John Howard and his chief of staff believed it was acceptable to sool the Federal Police on to targets which suited their political agenda? Providing, of course, it did not demand something which would be illegal.

Did Mick Keelty fail to dispute that view, especially after having submitted to the brutal public humiliation imposed by Howard and Sinodinus?

Perhaps, then, I was justified in this comment in August:

We now know there never was a persuasive case that Haneef was involved in terrorist activities or knew of the Glasgow bomb plot.

Yet Keelty oversaw the expenditure of more than $8 million in the investigation. He let the AFP become part of a political agenda driven by John Howard, Phillip Ruddock and Kevin Andrews. He did so at a time when the British authorities had accepted Haneef's innocence, and when our security services like ASIO had already ruled out Haneef as a terrorist concern.

The Four Corners program may be viewed online at

My August post should come up on

A correction: In my earlier post I said John Howard saw Keelty's TV interview and went ballistic. In last night's Four Corners program, Mr Sinodinos said he saw the program and phoned Howard to say there could be a problem. Howard's response was: "Ring Mick and let him know that I'm very concerned about this because of the way it could be interpreted."

Monday, October 27

A great day at the Putt Putt regatta – just the tonic to cheer me up

Not just a community carnival, but one for wooden boat enthusiasts – just what this blogger needed to lift his spirits. For the past week, I've pushed the unfolding economic news to the back of my mind as I focused on getting my pretty little boat ready for the show.

But for that distraction, I might have become depressed, not just at the risk of the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression, but at the boring predictability of most of our bloggers and newspaper columnists. Yes, from both the left and the right.

And as for our politicians! Even allowing for the frustration at being in Opposition in times of national or global crisis, Malcolm Turnbull – the guy I still hope will remake the Liberal Party into something liberals could vote for – disappointed me with an unexpected shallowness, displaying more style than substance.

For a few days, I beavered away in the shed chiselling out and painting a nameplate for the transom, “Peter Pan”, and in smaller letters, “Woy Woy”. Once I would have paid a signwriter, but Merry has drawn shut the purse strings. Ah yes, it's millions of similar decisions which accelerate an economic hiccup into recession or even full-blown depression.

Still, it cheered me when a bystander at the the Lions Park launching ramp asked: “That's you, is it?” Right. Got it in one. Now I'm seventy, I can refuse to grow up.

At the ramp, we hoisted the sails – a standing lug mains'l and a little triangular mizzen out over the stern, both a rich brown tan – but with no breeze, we needed the little outboard to head across to the channel north around Rileys Island. With son Ben at the tiller, grandson Tim as crew and me as the proud old codger up front, we motored to the Davistown waterfront.

The annual Putt Putt regatta focuses on a marvellous part of Australia's heritage, the motor launches – most of them of traditional clinker construction – constructed in their hundreds by skilled boatbuilders all around the Australian coast, and powered by simple, robust motors.

Davistown is a fine site for this celebration. Tucked away on a creek running out of the Central Coast's Brisbane Water, it was the location of 19th and early 20th Century timber-getting and shipbuilding enterprises. Its name honours the Davis family, strongly involved in those early industries. Rock Davis operated a major wooden ship building yard across the water at Blackwall.

Peter Pan isn't a putt putt, so it's outside the main focus of the carnival. But it is a traditionally shaped wooden sailing dinghy (to a design by Hobart naval architect Murray Isles), albeit with a modern clinker ply and epoxy construction, so it did qualify as an entrant.

I had a great time yarning with other wooden boat enthusiasts, swapping and comparing information about designs and materials and suppliers. Joined the putt putt procession motoring up Paddys Channel, around Pelican Island and the oyster leases, and back through the Woy Woy channel and that narrow passage that divides St Huberts and Rileys Islands.

Mid-afternoon, when people were pulling their motor launches on to trailers, the wind had freshened. For the first time, we didn't need the outboard as we sailed back to the Woy Woy Lions Park ramp. A most enjoyable end to the day.

Let's leave it there. I may have some worthwhile ideas to put on this blog when I resolve some of those ideas I pushed to the back of my mind, but why spoil the mood today?

Saturday, October 18

Too hard to call?

Another update on The Australian's top-of-page strap heading across its news coverage of the economic crisis (see posts earlier this week).

Perhaps the Oz's editors have decided it's too hard to call between the "long slow crash of '08" and "the road to recovery". In today's Weekend Australia, the page of economic news reports carries no strap at all.

Perhaps Rupert Murdoch had a word with them. As Sydneysiders prepared their breakfasts this morning, their ABC news was carrying the first brief reports of his address to News Corporation's annual meeting in the US. Here are a few pars:

News Corporation chairman and chief executive Rupert Murdoch says the US could be heading into a prolonged economic downturn.

Mr Murdoch has told News Corporation's annual shareholder meeting the global financial crisis and a slowing US economy were already having an impact on the company. He said advertising revenue had fallen and the News Corporation share price had been beaten down.

Mr Murdoch expressed fears the US was about to enter a prolonged economic downturn, but stressed News Corporation was well positioned to weather the slowdown due to its $5 billion in cash reserves.

Meanwhile, Mr Murdoch continues to pour money into developing what is becoming the world's biggest integrated business and economic news empire. The big push began last year with his acquisition of The Wall Street Journal and its associated financial wire services.

Then he opened News Ltd's cheque book to poach the top financial journalists from The Australian Financial Review and other Fairfax papers. He didn't get them all, but enough came over to take his already talented team ahead of any competition. (Interesting to note that Fairfax management exempted the Fin from their "business improvement program", ie, staff redundancies and cost-cutting.)

Yesterday, the Oz launched the deal (note the trendy lower case), one of those glossy inserted business magazines designed for luxury goods advertisers, and it wasn't a bad effort at all.

The Business section of today's Weekend Australian launches a new business website which appears to be the equal of any I've seen. The site, www.theaustralian.com.au/business, is comprehensive, well organised and easily navigated.

The site is free, but one wonders whether the long-term aim is a service which will attract paid subscriptions. Mr Murdoch has been of two minds about charging for access to his online business newspapers.

When he bought The Wall Street Journal, he announced the highly regarded online edition at www.WSJ.com would become free, but soon changed his mind. Today, he told his shareholders that maintaining a "subscription wall" at WSJ.com was the best way to sustain revenue growth for the site. "Since it was acquired, WSJ.com's audience has surged 90 per cent," he said.

Access to much, but not all, of the Fin Review's online service, www.afr.com, requires a paid subscription. It's my guess Murdoch will keep his Australian business website free for as long as it gives a competitive advantage against the Fin, then will move to a paid subscription model with some limited free access.

In this article today, The Australian's editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell explains many of the features of the new website, and provides a link for even more details.

Oh, about top-of-page strap headings: The printed Australian newspaper's business section continues today with its own wording, "Global Financial Crisis".

Friday, October 17

Sorry folks, it's a Long Slow Crash after all

Has The Australian done a backflip? A few days ago, as noted in this blog, The Australian tried to mark the turning point for the economic and market crisis by switching the strap headline across its coverage from "The long slow crash of '08" to "The road to recovery".

Alas, share markets immediately nosedived again, United States data confirmed a recession, and signals firmed that one great hope for our economy, Chinese demand for our resources, appeared to be slowing.

So today, if you haven't noted it already, it's our solemn duty to inform you that the strap in today's Australian has reverted to the Long Slow Crash of 'o8.

Over on the Oz's high-powered Business section they just stayed with the more sober strap, "Global Financial Crisis".

Wednesday, October 15

Taking a positive view: Let's hope The Australian has it right

Perhaps many readers didn't notice, but today's Australian newspaper gave a significant endorsement to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's emergency economic measures in particular and those of the world's governments in general.

Over the pages it devoted to the global credit crisis and sharemarket meltdown, it had been running a strap, THE LONG SLOW CRASH OF '08. It was still using it yesterday, as the clipping above shows. But this morning the Oz had changed the strap to ROAD TO RECOVERY.

Let's hope our national newspaper has it right -- that we really have turned on to the road to recovery. The alternative is too grim, because I believe we were headed for a worldwide depression to rival the 1930s.

For most of my working life, I covered financial and business news -- going right back to the nickel boom of the late 1960s. The collapse of the "entrepreneurs" in the eighties, Paul Keating's "recession we had to have," the excesses of the dot-com boom . . . you name it.

But since World War II, the world economy has never faced a threat of collapse as great as the current crisis, such a locking up of the flows of credit vital to economic activity.

And if, as seems likely, Australia really is showing the way forward, there'll be another benefit. We won't have to put up with the Poms sending out another Sir Otto Niemeyer to tell us it's far more important to pay the English bondholders than worry about the unemployed at home.

The Australian published good news roundups, probably the best of all our newspapers Down Under, and a good range of opinions.

But one could not avoid noting that all the conservative commentariat was singing from the same songbook, downloaded from the same old right-wing websites. It was all the Democrats' fault, and Bill Clinton's in particular, for forcing America's otherwise prudent banks to make all those sub-prime loans to people who couldn't repay them.

Initially, Janet Albrechtsen went right over the top. She became particularly enraged at Kevin Rudd's criticism of greedy bankers, even suggesting it was the distressed borrowers who were greedy. One wonders why she was so upset. Is there something she wasn't telling us?

Tuesday, October 14

Major upgrade to OpenOffice should reward the wait

Last night, OpenOffice.org sent out the email many of us had been waiting for -- Version 3.0 had been released. Seven hours later, it followed up with another -- in the rush by thousands of users to install this major upgrade, the download site had crashed.

Nor were the OOo people able to say when it would be up and coping. They could only suggest people keep trying, for days to come if necessary.

Over recent months, I've declined offers of Version 2.XX upgrades while I waited for OOo 3.0. Now, from all I read, Version 3.0 will be a significant leap forward, fixing areas in which the previous versions were a bit clunky, and introducing many new features.

In these belt-tightening times, I'd have trouble justifying the purchase of an expensive, fully featured version of Microsoft Office. OOo offers most of the same functionality in a free package. Philosophically, I'm attracted to a community effort in which thousands of people around the world have contributed their experience, skills, talent and enthusiasm to a project for the common good.

I'm rushing off to bowls (although a look at the sky suggests I might soon be back at this desk). These links, copied off OOo's email, should give more information. They haven't been checked. I'll do that when I return.

Official Press Release: http://www.prweb.com/releases/OOo/3/prweb1459364.htm
Download: http://download.openoffice.org
Guide to new features: http://www.openoffice.org/dev_docs/features/3.0
Technical release notes: http://development.openoffice.org/releases/3.0.0.html
Availability of localised versions and ports: http://download.openoffice.org/other.html

Monday, October 13

Is this any time to be rational?

newspaper clippingOne has to feel some sympathy for Andrew Main, The Australian's business editor. On Friday's front page he pointed out – correctly – that many Australian stocks had fallen to levels which made them attractive buying.

When he wrote, Main was not to know that Friday would be long remembered as Black Friday, the day the Australian sharemarket slumped 8.3 per cent – its worst one-day fall since October 22, 1987.

A sharemarket which ended the day 42 per cent lower than its all-time peak last November, at a level which wiped off all the gains of the past five years.

The front-page headline from Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald sums it up. (The Weekend Australian's front-page treatment would not fit on my scanner.)

newspaper clipping

Yet if Main's advice made sense when he keyed it in last Thursday, it still makes sense. Main pointed out that share prices had dropped to about 10 times annual earnings, the lowest in 24 years. If you bought the good ones at these cheap prices, you'd receive a dividend of about 6.7 per cent if you include franking credits, and there'd be a good chance prices would rise sooner or later.

He concluded: “Once you focus on quality stocks and assess what they actually do, you start to wonder what the fuss is all about.”

The thought could have been addressed more felicitously – does he really think we're being a bit silly in worrying about a 42 per cent slump in our portfolios? – but he's right in one thing. At these depressed prices, a cashed-up investor should be able to find bargains.

As he said, no-one's going to ring a bell when the market bottoms out.

Still, as Main points out in this morning's Australian (in an article I couldn't find posted online), distressed sellers – funds having to meet high levels of redemptions, or individuals receiving margin calls on the loans with which they bought shares in more optimistic times – are the main force now driving share prices down. Reluctantly, these investors may be dumping quality shares just as hard as those of more dubious value – providing opportunities for any investor who can find the cash.

Those investors who already hold quality stocks, and have no pressing debts, may do better to sit out the crisis than try to pick emerging winners. It's a matter for the investor's temperament, as much as anything.

To take one example, it's easy to say, as Main did last Friday, that Woolworths shares have fallen from $34 to $28 at the start of the year, “even though people won't stop shopping for groceries”. Woolworths is a brilliant retailer, and as Main said, people need to shop. But families struggling to pay off credit cards may move to the new Aldi store up the road, where they'll save about 40 per cent on a basket of equivalent quality groceries.

Also, remembering that finance commentator Stephen Mayne has claimed Woolworths is also Australia's biggest poker machine operator through its stake in a Victorian hotel chain, a prudent investor might first examine the company's exposures if a prolonged recession slows people's gambling spend. Perhaps there's a risk, perhaps not.

Also, the investor is invited to count on an uninterrupted commodities boom. But anyone who remembers the end of Japan's “economic miracle” or the Asian “tiger economies” will remain wary.

Indeed, last Friday's sharp fall followed reports that China had asked an iron ore supplier to slow down shipments – a claim the Sydney Morning Herald made its front-page lead at the same time Andrew Main was telling people to “put sentiment aside and buy”.

Wednesday, October 1

Portrait of the old journo as a young lad

Card shows boy
Seventy. The big Seven-O. Your blogger has made it to 70!

The celebration could not have been more enjoyable – family and friends came together in a beautiful setting for most of last weekend.

I particularly appreciated this birthday card,from young friends who said it reminded them of the caricature I sometimes use to depict Old Grumpy

Our offspring, partners, and their offspring, along with some valued friends, set up a small tent village right on the Wangi Wangi Point. Others rented cabins in the adjoining Lakeside Tourist Park. For us – Merry and I – they provided a modern on-suite cabin on the hillside looking through the trees across Lake Macquarie.

caricature of blogger Ian Skinner
We took along two lovely small boats I've built, and they were a splendid sight as we sailed them out of the little bay and into the brisk breezes on Lake Macquarie.

We sipped beer and wine and soft drink, barbecued meat, nibbled salads, talked and laughed, and sat in camp chairs watching grandchildren bond with their cousins as they learned to mess around in small boats.

On Saturday night, we revived our traditional family recipe – Black Chicken – dating back to the days when everyone perched a grill or steel plate on bricks in a corner of the backyard and called it a barbie. Today, of course, it's de rigueur to have those huge trolley things with gas burners and dials and woks and rotisseries and hoods sitting on our patios – but they won't cook Black Chicken.

To make it authentic, our mob unearthed a family heirloom, a rectangle of woven steel mesh cut from some quarry screen we scrounged back in the mid-60s. You put it over an open fire, and lay out large chicken drumsticks and marylands (marinade them first if you want to be a bit fancy), turning them often as dripping fat makes the flames spit and flare while the skin darkens to near-charcoal. Messy, but delicious.

Sunday morning, I wake early, feeling great. Friends have given me a new book, Not The Costello Memoirs. Thank God it's not the real thing, and it's brief. Who wants to plough through the story of The Man Who Never Made It?

(Indeed, my friends appear delighted when I tell them the real memoirs are one of the publishing flops of the year. I point to this report in The Weekend Australian, headed “Costello outsold by a cookbook” and beginning, “Peter Costello's memoirs have been beaten at the bookstores by a children's fantasy novel and a book of home recipes that use four ingredients or less.”)

A most enjoyable book – the spoof, that is. Here's “Peter” talking about the early 1970s: "The immoral and discomfiting socialist agenda began – quite understandably – to destabilise me, as did an undiagnosed lack of calcium in my spinal column.”

But this is unworthy of me. How could I rejoice at Costello's travails on such a happy birthday weekend?

I put the book aside and walk down the hill to the campfire, where everyone is tucking into bacon and eggs and croissants. Overnight, the wind has changed and it's blowing strongly, so we decide against more sailing. Provided they stay well inside the sheltered bay, the grandkids may keep practising their newly learned rowing skills.

And so another happy day drifts by, talking with friends and watching children play, before we head home. Perhaps we can do it again soon – the annual Putt Putt Regatta at Davistown on October 26 might be next. Let's try for it.

LAkeside scene at Wangi Point

Above: The sheltered bay at Wangi Point. Our family and friends camped on the headland in background, and we stayed in a cabin just out of frame to the right. [The scenic image is from the holiday park brochure, while we''ll try to pay for our use of the birthday card image by suggesting you'll enjoy others on the publisher's website, which offers a free facility to send e-cards.]