Tuesday, June 27, 2006

For Australian soccer, it’s the end of the beginning …

Australia is out of the World Cup competition – for now.

After 93 minutes of being the better team playing clearly a better game, the Socceroos were victim to what was clearly a questionable decision by the referee. Star player Lucas Neill was the victim of a questionable tackle decision which led to the Italians being granted a penalty kick at close range.

Totti took the kick, and even the legendary Australian goalkeeper Schwartzer couldn’t stop the ball from crashing into the net.

The Italians move into the next round. But the Australians are by no means out of international football. For the Socceroos, this is the end of the beginning of their rise onto the world football stage.

In the race for football supremacy in Australia, soccer has always had to play fourth fiddle to the more popular codes of AFL, NRL and Rugby. Despite being the pre-eminent world game, soccer rarely gained more than a cult following in Australia.

When the late Socceroos captain and SBS commentator Johnny Warren wrote the definitive story of Australian soccer, he chose to name it after the numerous insults he would have experienced at school playing the game.

Back in the mid-1980’s, those of us keen on playing “wog-ball” on the rooftop playground at St Andrews Cathedral School were the butt of more jokes concerning our sexuality than even the choristers. Despite being played mostly with feet, soccer wasn’t considered real football.

At club level, Aussie soccer was regarded as a game for Central and Eastern European migrants who insisted on keeping irrelevant forms of ethnic chauvinism alive. Soccer clubs were named after foreign cities and countries, and games were characterised by ethnic feuds and violence between players and supporters alike.

That was then. But now, Australian soccer’s true believers have been exonerated. In particular, the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) has enjoyed record ratings and a financial windfall from the success of Australia at the World Game.

The Socceroos played superbly throughout the tournament. In their first game against Japan, they came from behind to win the match in a blitz of goals from Cahill. Against Croatia, they performed brilliantly to keep one of the game’s veterans drawn at 2-all.

Against the Italians, the Socceroos looked like winning the game. They had possession of the ball for well over 50% of the time. Their defence work was superb, and on numerous occasions did Mark Schwartzer stop a sure Italian goal.

In fact, Schwartzer rarely had much work to do in this game. The Socceroo forwards more often than not found themselves breathing down the necks of the world’s most expensive goalkeeper, testing the Italian goalie’s skills on numerous occasions with plenty of strikes.

As the game moved into extra time in the second and final half, the Aussies looked set to join the top 8 soccer teams in the world. However, in a piece of questionable refereeing, Lucas Neill was found to have tackled an Italian striker. 20 million Australians were punished as a result.

The Socceroos’ progress would never have been possible had it not been for the ongoing support of SBS. Monoculturalists who keep attacking the multicultural and multilingual broadcaster should keep this in mind before they pen their next column for a News Limited broadsheet.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Thursday, June 15, 2006

POLITICS: Pru Goward & The Religious Right

Pru Goward has put her hat into the ring for the NSW State seat of Epping. Pru is regarded as one of the most talented women on the (relatively) conservative side of politics. She is currently Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, and has used her role to generate debate on key economic and social issues.

You may not agree with a lot of what Pru says. I certainly don’t. But there is no doubt that she has a brain. And a very good one.

There are plenty of other Coalition MP’s with no shortage of brains and lots of life-experience outside of Parliament. Peter Debnam has impressive academic qualifications and credentials. He was a university medallist at Macquarie University. There are plenty of other MP’s with impressive credentials.

Then there are the mediocre Liberals. On the conservative side, we see the dominant faction ruled by an MLC who is regarded by his former factional allies to have entered Parliament after the Carr government legislated his personal injury and workers compensation law career out of existence.

The conservative youth wing of the party is filled to the brim with mediocrity. The staffers especially are people with little going for them. If John Howard got run over by a bus and the Coalition lost power federally, these guys (women are rarely welcome) would become … shall we say … consultants to Centrelink.

The political talent pool within the neo-conservative Liberals forces is very small. Which explains why they find intelligent and sensible people like Pru Goward such a threat.

Can you imagine Pru going head-to-head with Alex Hawke on paid maternity leave? Can you imagine her demolishing David Clarke on abortion? Pru could do it with one hand tied behind her back.

Rarely do we see the NSW Religious Right (“RR”) neo-Cons putting up sensible mainstream candidates. Instead, they put up ideological candidates with allegedly the correct views on all the right issues but not much idea about anything else.

Who on the RR neo-Con side has any credentials on tax? Or on economic management? Or on media policy? And we know that the RR is dominated by people whose idea of sound policy is digging up old editions of News Weekly and extracting choice paragraphs from Bob Santamaria’s editorials.

It will be a huge tragedy for the people of Epping, the NSW Libs and Peter Debnam if Pru doesn’t get up. Even John Howard is backing her, notwithstanding disagreeing with her on just about every social policy issue under the sun.

Still, if the NSW Liberals are too busy handing out anti-Di Vinci Code pamphlets at the cinema, Pru can always go federal. I like Bill, but I know for a fact that Pru Goward would make a much better senator than Mr Heffernan!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

OPINION: Al-Qaeda terrorist chief deserved to die

The death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi should be cheered by Muslims, writes Irfan Yusuf.

The real celebrations on the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi will be on the streets of Iraq. More than 25,000 Iraqis have been killed in sectarian violence directly orchestrated by the Jordanian-born terrorist since the destruction of a Shia Muslim shrine in February.

Zarqawi’s life personified self-evident truths too often obscured by such neo-conservatives: politically inspired violence of groups like Al-Qaeda and Jamaah Islamiyah claims many more Muslim than non-Muslim lives, and that terrorism hardly deserves the label Islamic.

Since the September 11 attacks, neo-conservative writers have lined up to recite the mantra that Islamic theologies and cultures preach violence. The natural corollary of this claim is that the West and the Muslim world are on some inevitable collision course. .

The arguments has even captivated prominent theologians like Australian Cardinal George Pell, who relied heavily on such sources during his February speech to a Florida Catholic summit, concluding the Koran is a document that preaches violence toward non-Muslims

Zarqawi and his colleagues represent a form of blasphemy truer than 100 Danish cartoons, in which establishment of their form of Islamic state become an end in itself. God must play second fiddle to the establishment of God’s state, even if it means flouting God’s own prohibitions on killing innocent civilians.

Zarqawi formed a key plank of Al-Qaeda, a network formed from the remnants of more radical veterans of the Afghanistan conflict. A number of Al-Qaeda operatives (including Osama bin Ladin) received training and support from the US, which used the various Mujahideen groups to fight a proxy war against the Soviet intervention forces present in Afghanistan since 1980.

All were fed anti-Shia propaganda produced by religious scholars close to the Saudi royal family, close allies of the US. Shia Muslims make up around 12% of the world’s Muslims. It is the dominant sect in Iraq, Iran and Azerbaijan. Substantial Shia minorities also exist in Pakistan and a number of Middle Eastern states.

Shia Islam is the official religion of Iran’s theocratic regime. The US-sponsored Afghan “jihad” coincided with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran. The US, together with its Western and Arab allies, supported Iraq with weapons, finance and intelligence. The war was sold to Sunni Muslims as a battle against resurgent Shia heterodoxy.

Polemical anti-Shia literature flooded Muslim communities across the world (including Australia), much of it published by religious institutions financed by the US and Saudi Arabia.

This anti-Shia propaganda push has come back to bite the US in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The Taliban regime fed on anti-Shia sentiment to conquer Afghanistan. Regular Taliban massacres of Shia Tajik and Hazeri tribesman saw waves of refugees flee to all corners of the globe, including Australia.

Zarqawi used anti-Shia rhetoric to inspire sectarian violence. In an audio recording released on jihadi websites in April, Zarqawi echoed the sentiments of typical Saudi-financed anti-Shia propaganda: “Wake up, pay attention and prepare to confront the poisons of the Shia snakes. Forget about those advocating the end of sectarianism.”

Zarqawi’s war was regarded by few Iraqis as a religiously-sanctioned jihad or just war. BBC Monitoring cited one elderly Iraqi man expressing joy at Zarqawi’s death. “Abu Musab al-Zarqawi deserves to be cut into pieces because he hurt, killed the people and slaughtered the Muslims”.

Hardly a tribute given to a martyr.

(The author is a Sydney lawyer and occasional lecturer in politics at Macquarie University. This article was first published in the Brisbane Courier-Mail on 12 June 2006.)

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Jobs for Big-S in return for BS?

It appears that a certain NSW Upper House member has been offering jobs to otherwise estranged people from his faction prepared to tip him off about the investigations of unfriendly journalists.

Researchers from a prominent current affairs program have been investigating the growing power of the MLC, as well as his involvement in the kind of politics Peter Debnam would probably prefer to sweep under the carpet.

A number of little birdies have reported to me that a former member of this MLC’s faction (known to his friends as “Big [first-name]” and whom I shall refer to as “BS”) has boasted of being offered a parliamentary staffer's job by the MLC.

And the price for this offer of employment? BS is supposed to tip off the MLC about the identities of all sources the current affairs researchers mention. Further, BS is to deliberately plant false and misleading information to divert the researchers away from the MLC and over to internal party enemies.

Among those targeted for “diversion” are a former regional president of (what used to be) the Inner West metropolitan region, a former Federal MP whose old seat was in the deep south of Sydney and a current industrial relations lawyer who occasionally has articles published in Australia and New Zealand newspapers.

Is it true that the MLC has engaged in such activities? Who knows? Certainly BS has repeated the story to at least 3 separate sources, none of whom are known to talk to each other in a civil manner (and hence would hardly be expected to collude and manufacture the story).

Watch this space for more information. I know Peter Debnam will be watching very carefully …

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Monday, June 05, 2006

Towards Understanding Malaysia

Malaysia is one of Australia’s closest geographical neighbours. Both countries have had an open and frank relationship, with leaders of both countries frequently eschewing the usual diplomatic niceties.

During the Prime Ministership of Paul Keating and Dr Mahathir Mohamed, the exchange was especially colourful. At the time, Mr Keating was pushing for the formation (or was it upgrading? It was all too long ago to remember) of a new regional forum known as Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), which would include Australia and the United States.

Dr Mahathir wasn’t exactly a huge fan of the APEC idea, and made some fairly caustic remarks questioning Australia’s commitment to Asia. Mr Keating responded by using the term “recalcitrant” to describe Dr Mahathir’s attitude toward APEC.

Both Dr Mahathir and Mr Keating have moved on. Malaysia’s new PM, Mr Abdullah Badawi, is certainly more diplomatic than his predecessor. That increased diplomacy, one would hope, would be met by increased sensitivity from the Australian side.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has tirelessly worked to continue Australia’s strong and productive relationship with Malaysia and our other Asian neighbours. His efforts have on occasion been compromised by some comments of the Prime Minister John Howard, particularly Mr Howard’s remarks about the possibility of pre-emptive strikes against neighbouring states where terrorists are suspected of living.

But Mr Howard’s remarks represent the exception, not the rule, when it comes to relations between Australia and Malaysia. In April 2005, the two countries launched discussions toward the establishment of a bilateral free trade agreement (known as “MAFTA”).

Malaysia’s strong economy makes it a key country in the region. Though its GDP is around one fifth that of Australia’s, Malaysia’s two-way trade in goods and services is bigger than that of Australia and represents 200% of its GDP. Malaysia is ranked 18th in the world as an exporter and importer of goods.

In recent times, Malaysian armed forces have joined Australian forces seeking to restore order to East Timor. Malaysia is also a close ally of Australia in fighting terrorism in the region.

A few months back, Mr Downer launched the Australia Malaysia Institute. Among the Institute’s roles is to arrange cultural and leadership exchange programs between delegations from the two countries. In late June, the first delegation will be visiting Malaysia. I’m fortunate enough to have been selected to participate in that delegation.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006