How the ghost of Kennett loomed over Doyle’s first day Election 2002

Robert Doyle is being selective when evoking Jeff Kennett’s legacy, reports Karen Kissane.

Managing the ghosts of premiers past can be a tricky business, particularly when that premier is Jeff Kennett. Yesterday Robert Doyle did his best to pick the cherries out of the Kennett chocolate box.

For his first news conference of the campaign, Mr Doyle appeared duly pancaked and scripted. He talked quickly, not yet master of the measured tones of the political trouper, and threw voters sweet reminders of how the Kennett government had turned around the state’s finances.

“I think it’s easy to forget where we were in 1991-92,” he said. “We were a laughing-stock . . . We were on our knees economically. Within two terms of government we were a prosperous state again . . . I’m very proud of that.”

But Mr Doyle was careful to avoid anything that voters might find hard to swallow, such as hints that the Kennett government’s style might be resurrected.

“We have learnt how we got out of touch with the communities, and we have learnt that we need to keep in touch with their priorities,” he said. “I’m a completely different bloke from Jeff Kennett and I lead a completely different party.”

There have been other kinds of differences too. When Mr Doyle made his lunge for the Liberal leadership in August, Mr Kennett was scathing. “He is not, in my opinion, a leader,” Mr Kennett told 3AK listeners.

“He is not leadership material now and he is certainly not leadership material in the future. Those who back him . . . must accept responsibility for what I consider to be a gross act of disloyalty so close to an election.”

That was then. This is now: “Since taking over he’s done a wonderful job,” Mr Kennett said yesterday in his Richmond office (home base for Jeff Kennett Pty Ltd). “He comes across as a leader, particularly on television, much stronger than Denis (Napthine) did . . . I have a very clear feeling that if Robert Doyle says he’ll do something, he’ll do it.”

Mr Doyle said he and Mr Kennett had mended fences – “My relationship with the former premier is great” – and that he had a morning meeting with Mr Kennett last week that was amicable and constructive. The former premier was welcome to help with the campaign any way he liked, Mr Doyle said. But he seemed to reserve overt enthusiasm for borrowed statesmanship for the prospect of a visit from John Howard.

Mr Kennett said yesterday he had met Mr Doyle three or four times in the past few weeks. He was booked for “a sea of functions” with Liberal candidates but has no appearances lined up with the leader. “He hasn’t asked me to do anything for him,” Mr Kennett said. “We’re going to discuss that.”

Any hard feelings over the way the new leader was distancing himself from the Kennett legacy? “I think that is understandable. Every person who is charged with a leadership position has got to establish their own opinions, their own environment. Robert Doyle is not a Kennett, Steve Bracks is not a Kennett.”

He beamed. “Fortunately, there is only one Kennett.”

First published in The Age.

Fragile UK coalition heading for showdown


BRITISH Prime Minister David Cameron’s electoral reform plans are in tatters and his uncomfortable coalition with the Liberal Democrats further strained by his inability to persuade 91 of his Conservative MPs to back an elected House of Lords.
The failure also embarrasses Lib Dems leader and deputy PM Nick Clegg, who had promised his party would use its position in the coalition of uneasy bedfellows to win political reform.
Mr Clegg had wanted the Lords to become an elected house. With this goal now thwarted, he has announced that his MPs will vote against the Prime Minister’s goal of revising parliamentary boundaries to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600.
The redrawing was expected to result in the abolition of up to 40 Labour and Lib Dem seats, boosting Mr Cameron’s chances of re-election in 2015 by giving him up to another 20 seats.
Labour had fiercely fought the proposals because it feared they could give the Conservatives power for a generation.
Mr Clegg said the Conservatives had breached the coalition agreement by trying to “pick and choose” which parts to back. “My party has held to that contract even when it meant voting for things that we found difficult,” he said.
“But the Conservative Party is not honouring the commitment to Lords reform and, as a result, part of our contract has now been broken. Clearly I cannot permit a situation where Conservative rebels can pick and choose the parts of the contract they like, while Liberal Democrat MPs are bound by the entire agreement. So I have told the Prime Minister that when . . . Parliament votes on boundary changes for the 2015 election, I will be instructing my party to oppose them.”
Conservatives retorted that Mr Clegg was failing to stand by his own principles. Conservative MP Eleanor Laing said: “He said [boundary changes] will make politics fairer. Now he says, ‘no, we’re not going to do this because making politics fairer is now not a good idea’. It is rather inconsistent, to put it politely.”
Mr Clegg had earlier argued that the plans to equalise the size of electoral constituencies would correct “fundamental injustices in how people elect their MPs”.
Conservative Chancellor George Osborne said abandoning the push for electoral reform would free the government to “focus 110 per cent on the economy, which is what the public wants”.
It is the third major policy defeat for Lib Dems trying to justify their decision to enter the coalition, following the disastrous failure of a referendum on voting reform and the introduction of steep university fees.
But psephologist Lewis Baston said, “Some Liberal Democrat MPs will be breathing a secret sigh of relief. They have dodged a bullet. The Lib Dems suffer worst proportionately from the changes because their seats tend, on average, to have smaller majorities and to be surrounded by areas where the Lib Dems did not poll many votes in 2010.”First published in The Age.

Far right on rise in Europe

POLITICS: ‘As anti-Semitism was a unifying factor for far-right parties in the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s, Islamophobia has become the unifying factor [now]’


WHEN France’s far-right National Front was newly minted in the 1970s, the people who backed it were stereotyped as working-class roughs with shaved heads and ugly tempers, sometimes photographed at street demonstrations with their fists punching the air. That was then. This is now.
Thibault, 22, lives in Paris and has just graduated from university with a commerce degree. He has studied overseas and he and his sister Camille, 18, who is studying art history, speak fluent English. Their mother is a school teacher and their father a retired businessman.
On a mild summer evening, they mill on the pavement with a couple of dozen other young people waiting to join a meeting of the youth wing of the National Front, the nationalist party led by Marine Le Pen, daughter of party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. Jean-Marie once called the Nazi gas chambers “a detail of history”. Marine Le Pen has been accused of being Islamophobic.
Thibault has followed the party since 2002, when Jean-Marie caused a stunning upset by making it to the second round of the French presidential election.
“I couldn’t comprehend why there was so much hatred towards him and why he was being persecuted,” Thibault says. “I was aware that he had made homophobic and anti-Semitic comments and I’m happy now that such positions are no longer part of the Front National. It must be understood that he is obviously not the same age as Marine Le Pen and that he belongs to another generation . . . The party now truly reflects all of my opinions, whereas 10 years ago it would have troubled me.”
Thibault and Camille are part of the new face of the right in France, which has seen a surge of support among the young and those living in the provinces, many of whom are economic refugees fleeing the struggling banlieues (suburbs) that ring Paris.
The right is on the rise not just in France but across western Europe. There has been a similar spike in support in Greece where, at the June election, hardship and anti-immigrant feeling catapulted Golden Dawn — a more extreme right-wing party often described as neo-Nazi — into an unprecedented 18 seats in the Greek parliament.
Parties pushing anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim ideas now have significant parliamentary blocs in eight countries, including Germany, Hungary and the Netherlands, where politician Geert Wilders has compared the Koran to Mein Kampf.
They feed unapologetically on growing resentment that foreigners are taking local jobs and welfare benefits. France’s anti-Muslim Bloc Identitaire serves a pork-based “identity soup” to homeless people; Greece’s Golden Dawn hands out food parcels only to people carrying Greek identity papers.
“As anti-Semitism was a unifying factor for far-right parties in the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s, Islamophobia has become the unifying factor [now],” says Thomas Klau, of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
British think tank Demos last year used Facebook to recruit more than 10,000 young supporters of 14 parties and organisations in 11 countries to answer questionnaires. The findings revealed a powerful swell in hardline nationalist sentiment in the young across the continent, particularly among men.
Demos used Facebook’s own advertising tool to extract data about 450,000 supporters of the organisations. Almost two-thirds were aged under 30, and three-quarters were male and more likely than average to be unemployed.
The resentment about outsiders is peculiarly spread. At this meeting of the youth wing of the National Front in Paris, several members are the children or grandchildren of migrants. Karime, 20, is a railway worker whose grandparents emigrated from North Africa. He, too, complains about migrants edging the French out of jobs and welfare but, for him, the main attraction to the party is Marine Le Pen; his face lights up as he talks about what a warm leader she is, and how she truly understands the problems facing the nation.
For Thibault, those problems can be summed up thus: “Past governments have failed to assimilate the incoming flux of immigrants and we are now faced with a tremendous challenge with the third generation of people from North Africa and Africa.
“They have no respect for France’s tradition and culture and seek to impose their own customs and values, which is intolerable. France is probably the most welcoming country in the world — free education and social security — but we cannot welcome all of the world’s misery. For that reason, we need to critically reduce the number of migrants.”
He has come to this view partly because of his mother’s experience teaching, he says: “She is also witnessing this change; numerous children with absent, unemployed fathers, violent and troubled. When you have 70 per cent of the class that isn’t French native and who don’t speak French, how are you supposed to pass on French culture and its heritage?”
He is also sceptical about the European Union and favours protectionism for French products. His sister, Camille, likes the Front’s zero tolerance approach to law and order issues. “There is an increasing sense of insecurity in the big cities,” she adds.
While they feel perfectly comfortable with their views, they are aware that not everyone regards the party in the same light. They chose not to use their surnames for this article in case potential employers should find them on the internet.
Le Pen ranked No. 1 of 10 candidates among young voters in the first presidential ballot earlier this year. She has softened the party’s stance in ways that appeal to a younger electorate.
French political analyst Nonna Meyer of Sciences Po says she has shifted the party away from her father’s image and rhetoric. “She’s younger, she’s a woman, she condemns anti-Semitism . . . She says she is tolerant, it is Islam that is intolerant . . . she up-ends the discourse,” Meyer says.
The opposite is the case with Golden Dawn in Greece, where the rhetoric is increasingly savage. Just before the Greek election in June, MP Ilias Panagiotaros promised that if his party were elected, “It will carry out raids on hospitals and kindergartens and it will throw immigrants and children out on the street so that Greeks can take their place.”
Kostis Papaioannou, former chairman of Greece’s National Commission for Human Rights, links Golden Dawn to rising racist violence. “This is not the rise of the extreme right,” he told The Saturday Age. “We have had the extreme right in parliament for a period; they are mainly ultra-conservatives, who pay attention to values like safety and tradition and illegal immigrants. That was as far as they went.
“But Golden Dawn — this is neo-Nazis. They openly use violence and hate speech, deny the Holocaust, and their internal structure is like an army.”
He says the party’s success at a first election in May was followed by a big rise in race attacks, such as one in Piraeus where 25 people entered a house in which Egyptian immigrants were sleeping: three managed to escape but one was badly beaten. “These people were arrested and they were members of this neo-Nazi party,” Papaioannou says.
In the last quarter of 2011, there were 70 such incidents in just two neighbourhoods of Athens. Groups attacked people who were walking or waiting for a bus, or unleashed dogs to terrify them.
“This is organised,” he says. “In many attacks there are juveniles taking part. Golden Dawn is doing very systematic work in recruiting teenagers in high schools in Athens.”
This is not an image of the party that is recognised by many of those who vote for it. Kostas Fasianis, 39, used to own a mini-market in the Athens suburbs before the economy went bad; now he is unemployed. Politically, he describes himself as a nationalist and a Golden Dawn voter. “The core of the party is people like me and you, the common people,” he says. “Its highest value is that we love our country and are patriotic.”
He wants Greece to guard its borders and deport illegal immigrants, who he believes bring diseases into the country and contribute to rising crime: “In Athens it’s become more violent and it’s uncontrollable. People nowadays, they could kill you for five euros.”
Fasianis says it is a lie to say that Golden Dawn activists have ever attacked leftists or immigrants: “There’s no truth at all to that, and it’s proved by the fact that no member of Golden Dawn was ever convicted in court,” he says.
Kostas Papadakis, 35, is the owner of an Athens mini-market and voted for Golden Dawn for the first time in June. He, too, wants a crackdown on illegal immigration, as well as a renegotiation of the sovereign debt repayment deal that is crippling the Greek economy.
“The country has changed dramatically since the first wave of immigrants,” he says. “It started with Albania, and now there are people from Africa and Afghanistan, and large parts of Athens have become ghettoes.”
For Papadakis, Golden Dawn is an alternative to the corruption of the conservatives and socialists whose economic mismanagement has brought the country to its knees. Of its more extreme elements, he says: “Yes, I also believe that there are members in Golden Dawn that act as neo-Nazis. Personally, I have nothing to do with that. I am not a neo-Nazi and not a strong supporter.
“I want Golden Dawn in the parliament to shake up the system. It’s so unjust that 10 million Greeks have to pay and suffer for the money that was embezzled by the 300 members of the Parliament.”
A World Economic Forum report on Global Risks 2012 warned that Europe’s financial crisis, with resulting 50 per cent unemployment in countries such as Spain and Greece, was sowing “the seeds of dystopia”.
Those seeds have begun to sprout.

First published in The Age.

Hacking trial will keep PM’s judgment in spotlight


The leadership of the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, will be rocked by the phone hacking scandal right into next year now that his friend Rebekah Brooks and his former media adviser Andy Coulson have been charged and face trial.
The pair face possible jail terms on charges they conspired to hack the phones of more than 600 people, and their trials next year may reveal new emails or evidence relating to dealings with Mr Cameron, who is up for election in 2015.
Mr Cameron has faced serious questions about his judgment in hiring Mr Coulson, who was appointed to Downing Street after resigning from News of the World over phone hacking.
Mr Cameron has also been criticised for his friendship with Mrs Brooks, a former chief executive of News International.
A lecturer in politics and media at Nottingham Trent University, Matthew Ashton, told the Herald last night: “The criminal charges make things potentially very difficult for Cameron. Obviously they are innocent until proven guilty but, in terms of public perception and media perception, this is going to hang over them and over him for up to the next two years.
“It calls into question again his judgment in being such close personal friends of Brooks and employing Coulson. There will be more questions asked about Coulson’s vetting.”
Mr Coulson, who like Mrs Brooks strongly denies all charges, has said he knew nothing of phone hacking but resigned because the practice took place on his watch.
Dr Ashton said the charges will force Mr Cameron to distance himself further from them.
“I’m sure if they could be erased from official photos without anyone noticing they would be,” he said. It would further strain Mr Cameron’s relationship with the Murdoch empire before an election, he said.
After Rupert Murdoch and his son James appeared before a committee of MPs inquiring into the phone-hacking allegations, coverage in The Times and The Sun gave Mr Cameron “a rougher ride”, Dr Ashton said.
Mrs Brooks and Mr Coulson are among eight people formerly employed by News of the World who are charged with 19 counts of conspiracy over phone hacking. Their targets allegedly included Labour cabinet ministers and celebrities.
Mr Coulson faces five counts of conspiring to unlawfully intercept communications, including the voicemail of a murdered schoolgirl, Milly Dowler. Mrs Brooks faces three similar counts.
Dr Ashton said the Prime Minister’s links with News International, revealed in the Leveson inquiry into the media, have also reinforced a view the Conservative Party looks after “its friends” rather than the people.
The Barclays banking scandal and the phone-hacking revelations have intertwined to create “a feeling that in what is supposed to be a meritocracy, the very top people in the country are out only for themselves and their friends and the fact that in the Leveson inquiry text messages between Mr Cameron and Mrs Brooks were revealed … did help create that mood about an old boys’ network in smoke-filled rooms”.First published in The Age.

Centre fights to hold Greece

POLITICAL horse-trading over the next few days will decide the shape of Greece’s next government, as the pro-bailout New Democracy party tries to form yet another coalition to lead the troubled country.
Greek voters provided a breather in the euro crisis by favouring parties that supported the bailout, warding off an immediate crisis in the eurozone. But they also rewarded parties of the radical left and extreme right, marking a new polarisation in political views.
New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras hailed his win as a victory for Greece and Europe: “We will not have new adventure, we will not doubt the position of Greece in Europe, we will not be cowed by fear.”
But he also promised that “we cannot continue to injure every family with government”.
Greece has been crippled by five years of recession and high unemployment, intensified by severe austerity measures imposed as part of a European deal to help it cope with its debt.
Greece’s lenders had insisted the two bailouts, totalling €240 billion ($300.7 billion), be honoured or funds would be cut off, bankrupting Greece and forcing it out of the eurozone.
But Greeks had protested fiercely against the harshness of the measures and a previously obscure party, the radical left Syriza, has sprung to prominence following promises to tear up the memorandum over the bailout. New Democracy won 29.5 per cent. Syriza came a close second, increasing its share of the vote to more than 27 per cent.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel congratulated Mr Samaras and told him she was confident Athens would abide by its European pledges.
Germany has been a major contributor to Greece’s two rescue packages and a key advocate of highly unpopular austerity and reform measures in exchange.
Meanwhile in France, weekend elections gave the Socialists an easy absolute parliamentary majority, strengthening President Francois Hollande’s position in questioning austerity measures and putting greater focus on growth.
The Greek electoral system gives the party with the highest vote a bonus of 50 extra seats but Mr Samaras will still need several coalition allies. He is likely to seek a partnership with the other traditional ruling party of Greece, the centre-left socialists of Pasok. Between them they could muster 160 seats in the 300-seat parliament, but given their fierce differences the coalition would be volatile. Syriza has declined to join the coalition.
“We have a very polarised election result and I think it is reflecting the anger as well as the fear of the voters,” said Kostas Papaioannou, a candidate for the Democratic Left.
Mr Papaioannou told The Age the strong result for extreme-right, anti-immigrant party Golden Dawn, which won about 7 per cent of the vote and an estimated 19 seats in parliament, showed the party was here to stay.
He said the vote that first catapulted the party into parliament last month was clearly not an aberration. Voters could not claim they did not know what they were voting for because they had seen the consequences of the party’s success in the past six weeks.
These included party spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris slapping a woman MP on national television, several racist attacks and a threat by party MP Ilias Pangiotaros to raid hospitals and kindergartens and throw immigrants and their children onto the street so Greeks could take their places.
Mr Papaioannou said: “In my view the top priority now is that we have to see what we can do with the fact that there will be strong neo-Nazi representation in the next parliament.”

First published in The Age.

Better to befriend Murdoch than to confront him: Blair


MEDIA magnate Rupert Murdoch was not an ”Identikit right-wing person” or a ”sort of tribal Tory”, former prime minister Tony Blair told the Leveson inquiry in London last night.”There are bits of him that are more anti-establishment, sort of meritocratic, I would say,” Mr Blair said.

He said he never felt under pressure to help with the commercial interests of the Murdochs or any other media proprietors.

”We decided more stuff against Murdoch interests than in favour of it. Did that mean they changed their support for me? No, it didn’t, in fact. Even though there were things they really didn’t like.”

Mr Blair testified he made a strategic decision not to take on the British media over their excesses when he became prime minister but instead ”assuaged and persuaded” them because the Labour Party had just spent 18 years in opposition.

He said of that time: ”You certainly [did] fear the power being directed at you”, particularly the papers that would wage campaigns against politicians not just in their opinion pages but through the slanting of news stories.

He flew to Hayman Island to address News Corp executives in 1995 as part of a Labour strategy to gain a hearing with newspapers that had savaged previous leaders Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock.

It emerged in 2010 that he formed a close-enough relationship with Mr Murdoch to become godfather of one of the media tycoon’s children.

Asked whether he got too close to News International, he said he became closer to Mr Murdoch once he left office and that was the point at which he became godfather to one of the media tycoon’s children. “The relationship became a lot easier and better ? I would never have become godfather to one of the children [while I was in office].”

He noted three phone calls with Mr Murdoch in the run-up to the Iraq war in March 2003, totalling no more than 45 minutes, in which he ”probably” asked about the positions of the US and Australia. ”But no, I wouldn’t have been asking him about press coverage.”

Mr Blair led the Labour Party for 13 years, 10 of them as prime minister. His appearance came at the start of a high-profile week for the Leveson inquiry into the press, which is looking at the relationships between the media and politicians.

Embattled Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt is due to give evidence on Thursday and is likely to be grilled over his handling of the Murdoch bid last year for a complete takeover of satellite broadcaster BSkyB.

First published on

A little privacy, s’il vous plait, for a reluctant first lady

It’s not that she’s shy. In fact, Valerie Trierweiler is known at the magazine Paris Match, where she works as a journalist, for slapping a male colleague who made a sexist remark.
She also managed to win presidential hopeful Francois Hollande away from his partner of 30 years and the mother of his four children, Segolene Royal.
And she lashed out publicly when her own magazine featured her and Mr Hollande on its cover last month. “I am angry to see the use of photos without my agreement and without letting me know,” she posted on Twitter.
She followed up with congratulations to the magazine on having reduced her to a trophy partner “on International Women’s Day … (spare) a thought for all angry women”.
Assertiveness notwithstanding, Ms Trierweiler, 46 and a twice-divorced mother of three, will be a reluctant first lady of France if the voting in the election starting today results, as polls predict, in Mr Hollande becoming president.
She might not in any way fill the ballet slippers of glamorous Carla Bruni, the wife of current President Nicolas Sarkozy (Ms Bruni, a former supermodel, always wears flat shoes because she is 10 centimetres taller than her husband).
While she has sometimes accompanied Mr Hollande to political events, Ms Trierweiler stays in the background. She declines to be interviewed and journalists have been told they are not “campaigning as a couple”. The press does not call her Mr Hollande’s “partner” but his “companion”.
Nor is there any serious talk
of marriage, despite the
historic French preference for married presidents.
Asked during the campaign if he intended to marry her if he won, Mr Hollande said, “You do not get married just for reasons of protocol. You get married out of choice. “I stand alone as a candidate before the French people. Alone. It is not a couple standing but a personality who must convince with his ideas, his method … I will do nothing which is against my principles.”
All of which makes this relationship an interesting milestone in the evolution of French attitudes to the sex lives of politicians.
The French have long tut-tutted over what they saw as adolescent Anglo prurience in the obsession of British tabloids, for example, with the love lives of the rich and famous. Traditionally, French politicians were allowed to keep their peccadilloes off stage as long as they were managed discreetly. Paris Match revealed during his time in office that then president Francois Mitterrand had a mistress and a love child but the rest of the French media ignored the story.
The custom largely protected male indiscretions.
But there has been more publicity over Ms Trierweiler. Mr Hollande’s separation from Ms Royal was announced just after the 2007 election in which Ms Royal, also a senior Socialist, had lost her own bid to be president.
A few months later, a French website published news of his romance with Ms Trierweiler, which had begun when she interviewed him in 2005 in a meeting she later described as “a lightning strike”.
Since then, Mr Sarkozy’s flamboyant love life has grabbed the headlines. In 2008, he married Ms Bruni, 12 years his junior and with a colourful past of her own that included affairs with Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton, less than four months after divorcing his second wife.
The courtship was public, including kisses at the Great Pyramid of Giza and press conferences in which Mr Sarkozy meditated upon love and destiny, offending traditionalists who criticised it as American-style tabloidisation of French politics.
Ms Bruni, who is also a singer-songwriter, has also discomfited the French with confessional lyrics about falling in love with her husband, and about her indifference to public criticism: “Let them curse me and damn me/I don’t care.”
If anyone has broken the mould of France’s (unofficial) first lady, it is Ms Bruni.
For Ms Treiweiler, the attempts at distance from Mr Hollande’s public life have not been enough to protect her career as a political journalist from problems with conflict of interest. She had to stop attending editorial conferences at Paris Match during the campaign, saying, “They cannot deprive themselves of a subject and I cannot intervene.” She also recently gave up presenting a TV show called Portraits of Candidates for another on celebrities.
If the last Ipsos opinion poll taken before campaigning ended on Friday night is to be believed, Ms Bruni will soon be exiting the Elysee. It found Mr Sarkozy was narrowing the gap but still trailing Mr Hollande, 47.5 per cent to 52.5 per cent. The poll was taken before defeated centrist candidate François Bayrou told voters to back Mr Hollande.
Ms Bruni last year told the BBC that when she stopped being first lady, she would “just go back to touring, you know. Playing guitar and touring is what I miss the most”.
And her husband? “He’s going to work until he dies. He’s that type of man … After taking care of France in the way he did it, I think you can do absolutely any other job.”

First published in The Age.

Boris, the Tory you have when you’re not having a Tory, leads in London


IN ONE corner is a large, cheery Tory, with mussed blond hair, a wry sense of humour and a notable ability to rise above the bad odour in which his party is currently held. Boris Johnson, 47, is the bookies’ four-to-one favourite to win a second term as London’s mayor in council elections due to be held overnight.
He is expected to vanquish his main opponent, former mayor Ken Livingstone, 67, whose low popular standing is also out of synch with the otherwise rising electoral star of the British Labour Party. This is a contest in which personality has prevailed over party politics.
A YouGov poll published on Monday gave Mr Johnson a four-point lead, even though those surveyed believed Mr Livingstone had achieved more in office (39 per cent to 32 per cent) and was more in touch with the concerns of ordinary people (37 per cent to 14 per cent).
But they liked Boris more; 35 per cent wanted to go out for a drink with him (only 16 per cent for Livingstone) and they also found him more charismatic (51 per cent to 14 per cent) and honest (22 per cent versus 14 per cent).
The campaign has been heated. As a bitter brawl about his non-mayoral income dragged on (Mr Johnson earns £250,000 a year for a weekly column with the Daily Telegraph), Mr Johnson at one point called Mr Livingstone “a f—ing liar”.
At another point, he said “f—ing bollocks” to a BBC camera. This was when he was challenged by a journalist over allegations he had been in talks with James Murdoch while News International was being investigated by police. The result: an instant boost in the polls. It added to his appeal as the Eton/Oxford posh-boy who is seen as being like ordinary Britons.
People buttonhole him on the street. Drivers wind down windows and shout “Go Boris!” — although the occasional driver begs to differ, with “Tory bastard!”
Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged that Mr Johnson is seen as the non-Tory Tory: “You don’t have to be Conservative to vote for Boris; you can dislike all the political parties but you can vote for Boris because he has a big heart and he is doing the right thing for London.”
He is also doing the right thing for Boris. Mr Johnson, who has a high public profile because of his personal charm and the visibility of some of his initiatives, is thought to have ambitions for national political leadership.
Some have even touted him as a potential Conservative prime minister, and there is speculation that he might take advantage of any byelections that present themselves — though probably not until he has presided over the London Olympics.
His election policies this time round include promises to cut council tax, put 2000 more police on the beat and help create 200,000 jobs.
Mr Livingstone, who was mayor between 2000 and 2008, has pledged to help “ordinary Londoners” struggling with the cost of living.
Polls are taking place in 180 councils across England, Scotland and Wales.

First published in The Age.

Book casts new light on Ireland’s dark past

IT IS a wild, wet night, and inside Kilmainham Gaol the wind wails through the steel girders on the roof. It produces an unearthly, keening howl, so eerie that many tourists mistake it for man-made sound effects, but the grim fortress of Kilmainham has never needed help with atmosphere.
Kilmainham is now a museum but it once housed generations of Irish political rebels. Most of the young leaders of Ireland’s proudest rebellion, the Easter Rising, were executed here after being held in the dark, dank, cells of what is now called the 1916 Corridor.
This night, it is again filled with Irishmen who were jailed by the British. They should have notified the Guinness book of records, jokes host Ruan O’Donnell, historian and author of a new book on the Irish Republican Army: “We might have claimed the record for the highest number of prisoners trying to get back into a jail.”
Standing in the glare of the fluorescent lights of the newer west wing are 140 people, including dozens of greying, unremarkable-looking men who have done time in British jails for offences linked to the IRA violence of the 1970s and 1980s. They are here for the launch of Dr O’Donnell’s book, which documents the story of 200 such men: Special Category: The IRA in English Prisons. Volume I, 1968-78. Dr O’Donnell is a lecturer in history at the University of Limerick. He completed his PhD — on Irish republicans transported to Australia — at the Australian National University.
He says he wrote Special Category because that aspect of Ireland’s history was undocumented but had been significant; IRA attacks on British soil received far more media and political attention than violence in Northern Ireland. He believes IRA attacks in Britain were critical to the advancement of the Northern Ireland peace process: “The bombing of Canary Wharf [in London in 1996] removed many pre-conditions and obstructions to the peace process by the British government.”
But even in Ireland, the modern IRA is not regarded in the same heroic light as the IRA that fought in Ireland’s War of Independence. What was it like to sit in a room with men who had killed and listen to their stories?
“I have a very strong sense of this balance in the realm of history,” he says. “I had no equivocation about speaking to prime movers. It’s 30 years old; it’s not political in that sense any more.”
The IRA men who moved to England lived like ghosts, talking little, leaving no fingerprints, avoiding photographs. They knew that arrest would mean a life sentence but still they did it.
John McComb, 58, spent 17 years in jail for conspiring to cause an explosion.
He says he joined the IRA as a teenager after he experienced British troops saturating his Belfast neighbourhood with “gas”: “Old-age pensioners were rolling on the floor. Babies in prams were in convulsions. You saw it every day on the news.”
Asked how he sees his life, looking back now, he says, “I’m proud to be a member of the IRA. Of course the IRA made mistakes and tragedies happened, and there’s a collective responsibility for that if you are part of an organisation, but we tried to have a clean war. We tried to give a warning before every operation. ”
He approves of the peace process and thinks it has improved equality between Catholics and Protestants. Does he think there will ever be a united Ireland? He smiles: “It’s a work in progress.”

Italy’s numero uno faces challenging numbers game

LONDON: It’s hard to find someone with a bad word to say about Mario Monti, the bureaucrat catapulted to prime ministership of Italy this week in the hope he can rescue it from the financial mire. But then, everything is relative, and it’s easy to look good when your predecessor was Silvio Berlusconi, the ageing roue who has been likened to a cross between Vladimir Putin and Benny Hill.
As a respected economist and bureaucrat, Monti, 68, is a sterling exemplar of his kind. For critics worried about democracy, though, there has been a question about an unelected person running a nation.
But concerns about the will of the people are low on the radar of today’s crisis-driven Europe. To the leaders of France, Germany and other euro zone economies, there is a more burning issue, one on which the future of Europe might depend: can he pull it off?
Monti faces a formidable task: Italy is carrying €1.9 trillion ($2.5 trillion) in debt and its economy has almost stopped growing. Markets fear it may not be able to keep up its repayments. The interest rate on Italy’s sovereign bonds has been bouncing around the 7 per cent mark – the level that tipped Portugal, Greece and Ireland into bailout territory. But Italy, with the euro zone’s third-largest economy, is bigger than the other three combined, and too big to bail out.
If it should fail and default on its debts, the consequences could be devastating. Large banks would also fail, and nations would suffer recession and perhaps even depression.
Monti’s task is to knock Italy’s books into shape in time to prevent such a disaster. His task is to cut spending, raise taxes and restructure the economy and the workforce – tough calls that Italian politicians, unwilling to risk losing voters, have been unwilling to make.
Monti is a Yale-educated academic and was most recently president of Bocconi University in Milan, the training ground for Italy’s financial elite. Highly regarded internationally, he is a member of the Reflection Group on the Future of Europe in 2020-2030 established by the European Council.
He has also acted as an international adviser to Coca-Cola and to investment bank Goldman Sachs.
Monti earned the nickname “Super Mario” during his decade as a commissioner with the European Union.
He slapped down huge, multinational companies while he was competition commissioner from 1999 until 2004; forced France to break up its electricity monopolies; stunned the US by fining Microsoft €497 million ($662 million) for abusing its dominant position; and blocked the then world’s largest merger, a $US45 billion deal between GE and Honeywell he said would hurt the aviation industry.
He also led radical reforms of EU anti-trust rules and competition controls, turning the EU from the skinny weakling of global regulation into something that loomed over corporations like the Incredible Hulk.
“He is intellectually powerful and takes seriously any job he takes on,” says Marco Simoni, an Italian lecturer in European political economy at the London School of Economics.
He is also a pragmatist, Simoni says: “His personal convictions are very grounded in objective analysis of facts. You couldn’t attach any position to him. He’s not an ideologue in the sense of thinking that there are solutions that are always right at any point in time.”
Monti is also perceptive. Two years ago he told a reporter he feared the EU was entering a “quasi-existential crisis”. He has long advocated an economic government for Europe and a European monetary fund, foreseeing the crisis that has now arisen because the shared currency is not backed by a shared budget.
His views on what Italy needs are no secret because he has written about them for years as a columnist for the nation’s largest daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera. “He has many times explained that the best thing for Italy would be the co-operation of different parties in order to overcome problems due to special-interest groups and their privileges,” Simoni says.
He says Italy, unlike Greece, has a budget that is in surplus. Its economy slowed down because it failed to make the reforms needed for a globalising world. It has structural industrial problems such as closed shops, with professions such as law and pharmacy insisting upon minimum charges that make it hard for newcomers to start up and impossible for customers to shop for a discount.
“This is absurd from the point of view of a modern economy,” Simoni says.
It also suffers from corruption and cronyism, tax evasion worth an estimated €100 billion ($133 billion) a year, and a black economy of about 16 per cent of gross domestic product.
Monti’s biggest challenge, however, is more likely to be the numbers in the parliament than those in the national accounts.
Monti was created a senator-for-life last week to make him eligible for the prime ministership. Italy does not have a Westminster system, so its leaders can come from either house of parliament.
This week both the centre right and centre left parties agreed to his appointment. They are thought to be keen for him to deliver the bitter medicine of austerity so that they escape political backlash for it. But if he should take a machete to the labour conditions beloved of the left, for example, or to protections for business groups on the right, it is still possible that political support might evaporate.
On Wednesday he announced his cabinet of 17, an unlucky number in Italy. It includes seven academics, a banker and an ambassador but not a single politician, leaving him with a fresh slate but no political cover.
Monti took on the finance and economy portfolio and said the aim was to kickstart growth: “It will be a race … but we have had many signals of encouragement from our European partners and the international community. I believe all this will translate into … a calming of the market difficulties concerning our country.”
Italy’s politicians are already squabbling on the sidelines. Berlusconi’s party insists Monti should stay only until he implements reforms parliament has already voted for, while the former opposition, and Monti himself, expect him to hold power until the next election falls due in 2013.
Simoni says: “Right now, because of the emergency, the parties are all agreeing, but … when they need to approve important reforms, that will be the crucial moment.
“Within four to eight weeks, we will know whether he is able to pull it off.”

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald.