Monday, February 28, 2011


Grubsheet is in Indochina this week, marvelling at the breathtaking transformation of the city the locals still refer to as Saigon, 36 years after their communist masters insisted on changing its name to Ho Chi Minh City in honour of the wispy-bearded architect of their revolution. The French colonisers who Uncle Ho deposed before his lieutenants deposed Uncle Sam two decades later used to call Saigon the Pearl of the Orient. It still is and holy pho, what a monster strand the city's elite wears around its collective neck nowadays.

By far the biggest obvious change since we last visited three years ago is an explosion in the trappings of wealth of Vietnam's movers and shakers. The accompanying photo pretty much says it all. Long gone are the bicycles, black pyjamas and conical straw hats or the later Vespas and Levis. This is now communism with the imposing front grill of a Bentley, clad in Armani or Chanel and shod with Jimmy Choo. All of which amounts to a pseudo-capitalist nirvana for an unelected clique still masquerading as "socialists" who preside over a one party dictatorship in which their fellow citizens never get a chance to remove them because they don't get a vote. Funny how all totalitarian countries wind up the same.

The upside is that the Vietnamese people are still charming and the food sublime. Just pity the platoons of beggars on Saigon's streets for whom communism is no different from capitalism. They still have to kow-tow to those at the top while only ever being able to dream of making the party connections that are the only route to success. Ironies abound. But to think that this ostentatious decadence was precisely what the legions in black pyjamas were intent on destroying when they swept into Saigon in April 1975. Was this really what Uncle Ho had in mind?

The morning paper brings a delightful start to the week. A local woman with a face as pitted as a pineapple has just turned 121. Like all good journos, the Vietnam News reporter asks her the key to such a long life. It's eating only fish and never telling a lie, she says. Nothing about political longevity, of course,  but Julia Gillard would do well to take note.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


So Australia is to have a carbon tax from July 1st 2012,  despite assurances from Prime Minister Julia Gillard before the last election that such a tax would not be imposed.  The Australian electorate is used to our politicians behaving with craven self interest. But there can be few more cynical instances of a Prime Minister resorting to such a shameless about-face to remain in office. "There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead", Gillard said categorically to an uneasy electorate about to cast its vote. Read my lips and watch my flaying hands, eh Julia? Yeah, right.

It's one thing to promise action and not deliver it, as her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, did with his own promise of an emissions trading scheme to address what he called "the greatest moral and economic challenge of our time". But to specifically rule out something while seeking a national mandate and then rule it in so soon afterwards isn't a question of "semantics" - as the prime minister has so absurdly put it - but deceptive conduct.  Gillard lied to save her electoral skin before the election and has since betrayed the Australian people to protect her coalition with the Greens.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott's prediction of a "People's Revolt" against the tax may seem like excessive hyperbole now but when the bills eventually come in, voter anger will know no bounds. As the cost of electricity soars and households are hit with the consequent flow-on effects, Gillard will be doomed. She's already caught between a rock and a hard place, with the Greens on the one hand demanding even tougher action and Abbott assembling his army of the disaffected on the other.

The coming months will produce bitter divisions in the country. Gillard's clumsy, dissembling appearances on talk back radio in the wake of the announcement are just the start. Repeatedly confronting her with audio of her pre-election denials, the attack dog of the right, Alan Jones, called her "Jul-liar". For once, the flustered prime minister had no convincing retort.

Labor strategists are counting on the Government establishing a solid stronghold in the middle, convinced that younger voters especially will reward it for doing something tangible on climate change beyond emitting a lot of hot air. But the notion that voters in marginal seats will flock to Labor as the cost of living rises shows how far the party has become disconnected from the concerns of middle Australia. Labor has thumbed its nose at the age-old dictum that Australian voters are governed primarily by their "hip pocket nerve". It would be brave even if the cause was unassailable. But to do it when the human contribution to climate change is still so hotly contested is fraught with electoral peril.

The battlers may be confused and undecided as both sides in the climate debate put their case with equal conviction. But there's one thing they know for certain. For Australia to tax its citizens to curb carbon emissions is the height of empty-headed folly without concerted global action, and especially on the part of the world's biggest economies and its biggest polluters.

Some starry-eyed environmental activists might sleep more soundly at night but most people will shake their heads at the pointlessness of it all when the bills come in. Oh, sorry, there is a point. It's for Labor to keep the Greens on side and them in office and to keep the flame-haired temptress with the forked tongue in The Lodge.

Yet this is truly a pact with the devil, as Gillard's capitulation emboldens the Greens even further. These people are secular zealots and once appeased, will only hunger for more imposts on the community, using their vastly increased muscle when they gain control of the Senate in July. Gillard was quick to reject a statement by Greens senator Christine Milne that petrol prices would also need to rise as part of the party's agenda. But the Greens have a gun at her head and the public knows it. Labor's hard-heads are alarmed and with good cause. With trust in Gillard shattered, the carbon tax better not be as bad as people fear or the Abbott era is just around the corner.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


There's something especially cruel about the New Zealand earthquake, which has flattened much of central Christchurch and looks increasingly certain to be the worst in the country's history. To have been struck a mortal blow not once but twice in the space of six months must make the stricken residents of the city named for its churches feel more like residents of the City of the Damned. There's fearful symbolism in the fact that so many places of worship were toppled and that people died in them. God's Own Country - as Kiwis are fond of referring to their homeland - has taken a hellish battering.

The latest casualty figures of  147 dead and more than 200 missing after the lunchtime catastrophe are an appalling blow for a country of just three-and-a-half million people. Every New Zealander will have been touched in some way by this tragedy, whether directly or by simply knowing someone because of the small-town intimacy of the whole nation.

Every Kiwi is also aware from childhood of the risk of living in the shadow of disaster because of the massive tectonic fault line that runs down the centre of the country. Yet nothing can have prepared them for such a huge psychological blow, as the death toll seems certain to eclipse the previous record of 286 from the earthquake that struck the Hawke's Bay region of the North Island in 1931. Can Christchurch ever be properly rebuilt, given the almost certain prospect of future quakes? New Zealand faces some agonising decisions plus a lot more fear, as seismologists warn that the capital, Wellington, is overdue for a "big event" itself.

Kiwis and Aussies have always had a relationship of siblings - intense bonds on the battlefield, intense rivalry on the rugby field and good and bad jokes at each other's expense. But it was a sign of how close we really are that Australian emergency workers were on the ground in Christchurch within hours and will stay there for as long as New Zealanders need them. The arrival of a large contingent of Australian police prompted a standing ovation from the throng in the Christchurch Airport terminal, a sign, if any were needed, that this tragedy has made the relationship stronger.

At a time of heart-wrenching grief, we stand shoulder-to-shoulder as one nation united in sorrow. The condolences of every Australian go the bereaved, along with sympathy and encouragement to the other quake victims.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


Someone we know who taught Tony Abbott at Sydney's Saint Ignatius College has a wonderful story that tells us much about the man who thinks he was robbed of the chance to lead Australia at the last election and certainly intends to do so after the next. The year was 1975 and Tony Abbott was in Year 12, a confident all-rounder and the cherished favourite of his Jesuit mentor, school chaplain Father Emmet Costello, who fanned young Tony's desire at the time to enter the priesthood.The Jesuits are the intellectual elite of the Roman Catholic Church and "Iggies" - otherwise known as Riverview - is also the school of choice for much of Sydney's Catholic social elite. So it was seen as pretty unexceptional to have Australia's then governor-general, the snowy-maned tippler Sir John Kerr, visit the school to address the students.

St Ignatius Riverview
The times themselves, however, were far from unexceptional. Indeed Australia had been plunged into a full-blown constitutional crisis when then Liberal opposition leader Malcolm Fraser threatened to use his power in the Senate to cut off the funds needed by faltering Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam to govern.  All eyes were on Sir John Kerr, the Queen's representative, who had the final "reserve powers" under the constitution to break the impasse, if necessary, by sacking the government and forcing Whitlam to an election he was certain to lose.The nation was fixated about what was on Sir John's mind, including Tony Abbott, who turned eighteen on November the 4th and was given the task of escorting the Governor-General to his official Rolls Royce as his Riverview foray drew to a close.
Sir John Kerr

As he shook hands with Sir John - our schoolmaster informant tells us - Abbott thanked him for coming and said: "Now Sir John, don't you go doing anything rash!" Those present will never forget the moment nor the look on Sir John's face, a combination of surprise and bemusement. Maybe the Yiddish word chutzpah isn't entirely appropriate to describe what happened at this Papist bastion that day but certainly no-one can accuse Tony Abbott of not speaking his mind. On this occasion, history tells us, his advice was ignored. Sir John Kerr was fully intent on being rash and on November the 11th, sacked Whitlam, who duly lost the subsequent poll.

The point of all of this is to make the point that 36 years later, after a meandering career through the priesthood, journalism and politics to the pinnacle of the Liberal opposition, Tony Abbott sorely needs to regain the ability to tell people what he really thinks. He has to shake off a growing tendency - doubtless born of fear of putting his foot in his mouth - to choose his words so carefully that they lose their power to persuade. It's bad enough with the electorate, who are subjected to way too many media interviews in which a stream of "ahs" and "ums" make it look as if Abbott is tentative about his opinions when he's anything but, is trying to hide something or is grasping for words to sugarcoat the otherwise unpalatable. It gives the opposition leader a shifty look that may well account for his inability to appeal to many women voters and keeps him low in the opinion polls as preferred prime minister even as his party is on top. So Abbott and his media advisers badly need to work on this.

Youthful exuberance
The really urgent task, however, is to give his colleagues  the benefit of what ought to be outright belligerence about some of the infighting and backbiting that has plagued the opposition in recent times. Some very big heads deserve to be knocked together, some irksome poseurs badly need to have the strut taken out of them by Abbott's celebrated left hook. This is a time for unity and policy development if the Coalition is to take government, not for individuals like jolly Joe Hockey and the lugubrious Andrew Robb to step on heads as they try to ascend the Liberal totem poll. Robb has no right to beat depression himself only to inflict it on the Liberal faithful. Yes, he might be able to do Hockey's job as Treasury spokesman but Joe doesn't think so and this is not the time to change mounts. Yes, Julie Bishop is a total waste of space as foreign affairs spokesperson and undoubtedly doesn't deserve to be deputy prime minister. But she is and there'd need to be a much better reason to replace her right now than someone else's ambition. And she's a woman, which isn't tokenism with a woman prime minister on the other side of politics and a female constituency that still hasn't warmed to Tony Abbott.

All this jockeying for positions in opposition is absurd. But Abbott's failure to censure his immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, with a heavier hand over his desire to stop public funds being used to ferry bereaved refugees on Christmas Island to the Sydney funerals of their family members beggars belief. It wasn't just heartless but appalling politics, the kind of thing that alienates  Liberal supporters - as Joe Hockey appreciated - let alone swinging voters or those many Labor people less than impressed with the party in its current form. Tony Abbott's inherent decency means that he'll have been as stricken as anyone by the sickening sight before Christmas of refugees drowning before the cameras or being hurled onto the rocks of the island that takes its name. Yes, Labor is culpable for watering down its own previous hardline on boat arrivals and arguably encouraging the refugees and the people smugglers who prey on them to enter the rickety back door. But when the horse has bolted, there's something quite repulsive about not wanting to pay for a orphan child who lost both parents to attend their funeral. If, as some argue, Morrison was dog whistling on behalf of One Nation supporters or at least trying to get their votes, then Abbott needed to remove his tongue and rupture his lips. The Coalition will get the hard right vote anyway.

The same goes for the idiotic Liberal senator Cory Bernardi and his comments about Islam being a "totalitarian religious and political ideology". Tony Abbott will know from his own study of religion that Islamic teachings are pretty much in line with Christian teachings, a belief in one God and different prophets, Jesus and Mohammed. Both faiths have their loony elements but the difference is that Christians haven't been as successful as Muslims in forming their own sovereign states. Regrettably some of those states are totalitarian to the point of being not only distasteful and repressive but highly dangerous to world peace. But they're in the grip of Islamic extremists who take a perversely literal view of the Koran in the same way some extremist Christians do about the Bible. The only difference being that these Christians are confined to small communities in the Appalachians or somewhere and don't have their own nuclear arsenal. In any event, moderates of either persuasion don't deserve to be tarred with an extremist brush, as Cory Bernardi has done with law-abiding, mainstream-voting Australian Muslims. If Bernardi is Tony Abbott's "attack dog" - as one Liberal MP whispered to the media - then Abbott urgently needs to muzzle him and if he won't be muzzled, put him down. An Australian conservative attacking Muslims is not only a bad look but also bad politics. Who else are they going to vote for?

Many Australians are coming to like Tony Abbott for his authenticity, moral clarity, and dogged eagerness to have a go. They almost gave him the top job last time and some of his supposed setbacks in the eyes of the media aren't setbacks at all in the eyes of middle Australia. Indeed, in the famous long silence of Abbott's encounter with the Seven Network's Mark Riley, we'll wager that much of the country was willing him on to plant one right on the smug Riley's mooch. Yet the long and short of it is that if Abbott wants to be Prime Minister, he's got to get on top of the craven misbehaviour and lack of discipline in his own team first. They're the punches that he has to throw now to have any chance of landing the knockout one on Julia Gillard down the track. It's a truism in politics that disunity is electoral death and on the evidence of recent days, disunity in the Coalition is slowly nibbling at the Liberal leader's entrails. Abbott already has to fight the perception that he's unfit to be Prime Minister because he'll never be anything other than "The Mad Monk". But right now, he risks losing the votes of people concerned not so much about him but about a more potent form of insanity in the Coalition's ranks. Mutually Assured Destruction.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


Grubsheet has always regarded llamas and their alpaca cousins as gentle creatures to be shorn occasionally for their silky wool and otherwise patted and pampered. So it's somewhat disconcerting at first to find some unfortunate llama turned into wafer thin slivers on the plate in front of us, drizzled with oil and vinegar. Yes, folks, it's llama cappaccio, just one of the signature dishes at one of the hottest of the many hot restaurants in Buenos Aires, the most exciting city in Latin America and perhaps the whole world.

Llama carpaccio and other treats
Food critics flock to El Baqueano and its regulars include film director Francis Ford Coppola, who has a house in BA and regards this modest eatery in raffish San Telmo as a culinary temple. Chef and owner Fernando Riverola spent time at the venerated El Bulli in Spain so his dishes are dotted with the kind of flavoured shaving foam that has earned El Bulli the longest waiting list in the world. The Portenos (residents) of the Argentine capital come here, of course, for meat, though not the usual wood-fired feast of offal, blood sausage and assorted cuts of beef that's the standard offering everywhere else. No, this is a carnivore's paradise of a different kind, the meat that was apparently present in Argentina before the bovine invasion on which the country's economy now depends.

So we begin with yacare wrap, pieces of local alligator in a delicate pastry accompanied by something called txatxiki foam, then the llama cappaccio ( a lot more subtle than beef ), then a seafood deviation of marinated red mullet in basil and lemon followed by grilled ostrich with fondant potato, liquid yoke and onions. Ostrich, of course, is an African native so this is an Argentine interloper. But no matter. It was all delicious, especially washed down with an ocean of chardonnay and bonarda  (an Argentine red varietal) from the celebrated Algodon winery in the foothills of the Andes near Mendoza."Llama!",  people exclaim when I tell them. "How could you?" It's pointless looking sheepish so I try to look, well, llama-ish. But guilt is an emotion that soon passes, subsumed in the raw excitement all around us.

The vibrant street culture of San Telmo
San Telmo is the cradle of the tango, that most sensual of dances, and our apartment is within walking distance of a string of milongas or dance halls where the bandaneons play and black-clad couples glide across the floor with a stop-start shuffle and the odd kick. Tango etiquette is a strange thing, the woman not so much making eyes at potential partners as engaging in long stares, like the mating ritual of some exotic bird. Only when he gets such a stare is it OK for the male to approach. But when he does and scoops the delicate bird into his arms, it's his job to "lead" or call the shots, now cheek to cheek, his arm firmly planted around her waist. This is not for wilting violets with a keen sense of personal space. For it's about as close as one gets to any human short of the act of procreation. Those new to the tango can look as awkward on the dance floor as newly hatched birds. But the experts are truly a sight to behold, the epitome of cool as they move back and forth, to and fro in perfect rhythm to the beat of the intense young musicians pushing their bandaneons (accordions) back and forth with their hands on stage.

Tree-lined boulevards redolent with history
These are places where being a good dancer makes women seem utterly blind to the haphazard topography of even the most unfortunate face. In fact I've never seen so many deeply unprepossessing men dancing with such beautiful woman. Clearly in Buenos Aires, as in Harlem, if you've got rhythm you don't need anything else. Each afternoon at 4.00pm, Madam Grubsheet set off for her personal tango lessons with some spiv called Fabrizio. I didn't ask what else happened but  suspect they'll have discussed Argentine relations and how such relations can be improved. Hmmm.

Fabrizio, of course, has to make a living, not an easy thing in a country with such an appalling economic record. The Argentine middle class was almost wiped out in the economic collapse of 2001, when the banks closed their doors and educated people took to the streets beating pots and pans to complain about the country's general hopelessness. Things have stabilised since but once burnt, twice shy as the saying goes. Most people in a position to do so have their money in Swiss or American bank accounts and still stash dollar bills under their mattresses.

The Kirchners: Inheritors of "Evita's" mantle
Incredible as it may seem, Argentina's current leader, Cristina Kirchner, comes from the Peronist Party, a direct political descendent of the loathsome 1950s dictator Juan Peron and his call-girl missus and erstwhile saint of the masses, the celebrated Evita. Unashamedly populist and economically illiterate, they led Argentina to rack and ruin and a series of brutal military dictatorships, the worst of which made the mistake of invading the British-owned Falkland Islands in 1982 to deflect from its own shortcomings. Of course, the generals hadn't counted on the redoubtable Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, who sent a naval task force to seize back the islands the Argentines call Las Malvinas and deliver a humiliating lesson of impotence in their own backyard. A note of caution to would-be travellers. No matter how well you can tango, don't mention the war. Anyway, the glamourous Cristina inherited the current leadership from her husband, Nestor, who then left her to it by promptly dropping dead last year. She's still bursting into tears at the mention of his name, prompting Hilary Clinton to wonder aloud in one of the leaked Wikleaks cables whether Cristina still has her marbles.  Not so much Don't Cry For Me Argentina but Please, No More Tears And Start Running The Country.
Don't mention the war: Protesting Falkland veterans

To be fair to the Kirchners, the Argentine economy is a lot better than it was and the government has begun to repay its vast national debt. But the last 50 years have been a huge blow to the national psyche of a country that was once the richest in the world. Yes, at the turn of the 20th century, Buenos Aires shone brighter than almost anywhere else, an opulence still reflected in its public buildings and splendid tree-lined boulevards. This is a city that oozes romance and style yet with a Latin edge and a hint of potential danger. There are some parts of the city you shouldn't venture into even in daylight and any local not trying to steal your wallet will be happy to mark the "do not cross" lines on your map.
The cult of Carlos Gardel

The upside is that all over BA, the sounds of the tango waft out of shops and bars. Funnily enough, Argentina's biggest ever tango music star - their national Elvis - is a crooner called Carlos Gardel, who rose to international stardom in the 1920s and plunged the whole of Latin America into mourning when he was killed in a plane crash in Colombia in 1935. His most famous song is called Mi Buenos Aires Querido, My Beloved Buenos Aires, which you can catch on YouTube and is ubiquitous, even making it into the classical music repetoire courtesy of a fellow Porteno, the Argentine-born Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim. Soak up the music and soak up the place. You're bound, like us, to find that Dorothy was wrong. There is a better place than home. It's called Buenos Aires. Querido indeed.


Grubsheet no longer gets invited to most Sydney dinner parties because we're always getting into fights with other people's guests about climate change. Insults are hurled, woman cry and their male escorts lunge for our throats. And all because we have the temerity to point out some of the glaring inconsistencies in the arguments of the true believers of what is undoubtedly the great religion of our time.

This is the fevered conviction of these poor souls in the impending armageddon of rising sea levels and either unbearable heat or unbearable cold, conflicting predictions if ever there were. All this is conveyed over the Spaghetti Vongole or some other un-filling dross with the starry-eyed certainty of a Jehovah's Witness banging on the gates of Heaven. We've all brought this on ourselves and need to repent before the altar of the International Panel on Climate Change lest our children inherit a landscape resembling the ash strewn plains of Mount Pinatubo. Or is it the snows of Antarctica? I forget.

We've grown tired of patiently explaining that there's ample evidence that the earth warms and cools all by itself. Yes, it's getting warmer right now but this may just be part of a normal cycle rather than because of human activity. Are we so certain, so arrogant, of our dominion over the earth that we imagine we hold the atmosphere and the oceans in our thrall? Eyebrows are raised, people shuffle in their seats, women clasp their jewellery and clench their buttocks and occasionally someone turns puce and reaches for the verbal axe. "The jury is no longer out on climate change. You deniers are a menace!" Ever reasonable, we ask how it is then that whole civilisations in the Indus Valley have risen and fallen over the millennia because of climate change and that whole cities moved as rivers ebbed and flowed. "Bullshit. Climate change is undeniable and we're causing it".

OK, what do we do about it? "We've got to use less fossil fuel". You mean less of the fuel that powers your new Landrover or the 747 that took you to Europe and back at Christmas? "No, come on. The real problem is that we're using too much dirty coal". Then isn't it hypocritical of us to sell that dirty coal to the Chinese? Isn't that dirty money, profiting from the profligacy of the world's biggest polluter? A momentary silence.

We press on. OK, why not embrace nuclear power as the one truly sustainable power source into the future? "Are you mad? The radiation from those spent nuclear fuel rods lasts for thousands of years". Yeah but the technology is improving all the time and people like the Americans, the Europeans and the Japanese all have nuclear energy and think it's safe. Why not Australia? "Because we just don't. Read my lips. We don't want it. You people are dangerous and mad". And so it goes on in similar vein, with the veins in the necks of the protagonists swelling with the rising temperature in the room.

The real fireworks come when we mention the unconscionable hypocrisy of Australia not adopting nuclear energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions itself but being more than willing to prosper from the sale of uranium to those countries that do. "You really are bloody mad! Bugger this, we're going home." The party then disintegrates, the remaining wine guzzled as the other guests avert their eyes and certainly their cheeks and our own significant others give us death stares. We stumble into the night to the trill of "Wow that new car of yours is nice!" or "Have a good time in LA!" without the slightest acknowledgement of the irony that hangs so heavily in the air.  Heavier than any greenhouse gas emission, that's for sure.

A senior figure in the Labor Party we know tells us that most senior party figures now believe that the nuclear option for Australia is inevitable. But certainly not while Labor governs in loose coalition with the Greens. For them, such talk is heresy. They want to keep ploughing their thirsty four wheel drives into the Tasmanian bush to save the forests while forcing Labor to impose a carbon tax on industry in the life of the current parliament. In itself, this tax will do absolutely nothing to reduce global emissions while simultaneously pushing up the cost of living for us all. So who's really mad? Go figure.

Friday, February 18, 2011


Wikileaks founder Julian Assange may well be someone totally unconcerned with personal hygiene, as some of those who've been in close proximity to him maintain. It's neither here nor there for those of us keen to keep our distance from this strangely unsettling character, with his Mogadon manner and haughty self-righteousness. Yet there's something distinctly odious about the way this convicted Melbourne computer hacker has shot to global prominence on the back of unquestionably the real "hero" of the Wikileaks saga - if there is one - the psychologically troubled American serviceman Bradley Manning.

The ABC's Four Corners recently reminded us that Manning faces a possible 50-year jail term for downloading a quarter of a million confidential State Department cables and giving them to Wikileaks. In one of the many bizarre twists to this story, Manning pretended to be lip-syncing Lady Gaga songs during his nighttime shift at a military base in Afghanistan as he used the same CDs to stage the biggest heist of secret documents in the history of espionage. The US Government, understandably, is outraged and wants to throw the book not only at the hapless Manning but the ultimate receiver of these stolen goods, the dashing and dishy (to some deluded damsels) Jules.

Assange's supporters regard this whole saga as a contest between good and evil. Freedom of information and the world's right to access America's secrets is good. Uncle Sam and his weak-kneed stooges - the Brits and the Swedes - are evil. Oh, and anyone like Julia Gillard who has the audacity to argue that the confidential internal musings of governments shouldn't be everyone's property, especially the enemies of the West who, incidentally, would have executed young Julian in a flash. Assange's defenders are the usual gaggle of human rights and media types, those terminal bleeding hearts like Geoffrey Robertson and John Pilger who tour the planet accumulating air miles and ruining the ozone layer as they seek out the latest victims of "injustice" to burnish their own reputations.

Now, no-one is saying Julian Assange doesn't deserve proper justice. But this is where things get mightily complicated. Because rather inconveniently for the whole "right to freedom of information" crusade, two comely Swedish lasses have accused Jules of the local version of rape. Evidently not exactly the kind of rape we're used to but nonetheless rape under Swedish law. You'd imagine when the normally libertine Swedes cry rape, it's perhaps worth investigating whether something untoward happened between the sheets. But this is where the likes of Robertson and Pilger have developed a Stockholm Syndrome all of their own, determined to keep Assange out of the clutches of the Swedish courts. Why? Because they believe the Swedes are so much under the American boot that were the British to extradite him, he'd be marched onto one of those unmarked CIA "rendition" flights before you could say Abba. This is where it all gets highly distasteful. Never mind the poor women unfortunate enough to fall under Jules's persuasive spell ( oh, of course, they've been put up to it). Where's the justice for them? No, the toast of tout Londres deserves, in the interests of our right to know, to remain in his luxurious country manor house among his new-found celebrity chums like Jemima, Bianca and that old leftist trojan Anthony Wedgwood-Benn.

Of course, Assange also has his supporters across the Atlantic, though not as many as he once had as he falls out with one-time companeros at places like the New York Times. The most prominent of these is Daniel Ellsberg, the former US military analyst who, working for the Rand Corporation, caused a national scandal in 1971 when he leaked the so-called Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg is fond of comparing Julian Assange to himself yet there's a critical difference between these two leakers that renders such a comparison highly problematic. Ellsberg exposed serious wrongdoing by the US Government, including the revelation that the Johnson administration had continually lied to Congress and the American public about the Vietnam War. And what have the Wikileak documents revealed? Well - surprise, surprise - that the US Government has actually behaved rather well in its foreign policy dealings. State Department diplomats invariably report conversations and events faithfully and accurately, however embarrassing those otherwise private observations may be when splashed all over the world's front pages.

The point is that the public interest component of the Wikileaks dump in exposing official wrongdoing simply isn't there. Of course the stuff is interesting and makes headlines. But it's still stolen property and the confidential internal communications of a democratically elected government simply doing its job. Do we insist on viewing the correspondence of our friends and workmates in the same way? Of course not. Then why do we have the right to access the correspondence of those officials 307-milion Americans have entrusted to safeguard their futures? And in turn (though I can hear the sniggers already) the future of America's allies in the rest of the free world.

That is the big picture. The small picture, just as distasteful, is the way Wikileaks, the publisher, has left the hapless leaker, Bradley Manning, hanging out to dry. Did it consider the dire consequences he would face once it released the material? More pertinently, did anyone within Wikileaks incite Manning or conspire with him to obtain the documents? Now this is where it really gets interesting. If Manning acted alone and simply released the material to Wikileaks, it's hard to see how a compelling legal case can be made against Julian Assange. But if he was more than just the innocent recipient, then he could be in very big trouble indeed. We don't know what's in the secret indictment that the American courts have prepared to try to obtain Assange's extradition. But there was a discernible sense of alarm in the Assange camp when the US authorities tried to get Twitter to provide it with Tweets relating to the Wikileaks case.

Where this will all end, no-one can yet predict. But a superpower that can unload Hellfire missiles directed from an underground bunker in the US onto an Afghan rooftop to take out a senior Al Qaida commander can never be underestimated. If there's evidence against Assange, the US will undoubtedly find it. And he'll rue the day that he slung that ubiquitous satchel over his shoulder and set out from sleepy Melbourne on the path to global fame. American assurances that he won't go to Guantanamo Bay will be cold comfort. A US federal penitentiary - which is where they intend to put him - ain't exactly Club Med.


Paul Howes is one of the self-confessed faceless men who made Julia Gillard Prime Minister yet is now doing everything he can to unmake her with a crude attack on mining giant Rio Tinto that has astonished much of the labour movement. In a fiery speech to his members, the 29-year old national secretary of the Australian Workers' Union declared "war" on Rio, insisted that monkeys could do a better job than its executives and accused the firm of "trying to rip off" its workers.