News & Current Affairs

September 19, 2008

Top Republican says Palin unready

Top Republican says Palin unready

Chuck Hagel

Senator Chuck Hagel could be influential with independent voters

Senior Republican Senator Chuck Hagel has voiced doubts about Sarah Palin’s qualifications for the vice-presidency.

John McCain’s running mate “doesn’t have any foreign policy credentials”, Mr Hagel told the Omaha World-Herald.

Mr Hagel was a prominent supporter of Mr McCain during his 2000 bid for the US presidency, but has declined to endorse either candidate this year.

He was opposed to the Iraq War, and recently joined Mr McCain’s rival Barack Obama on a Middle East trip.

‘Stop the nonsense’

“I think it’s a stretch to, in any way, to say that she’s got the experience to be president of the United States,” Mr Hagel told the Omaha World-Herald newspaper.

And he was dismissive of the fact that Mrs Palin, the governor of Alaska, has made few trips abroad.

“You get a passport for the first time in your life last year? I mean, I don’t know what you can say. You can’t say anything.”

This kind of thing will have an effect on independents

Mr Hagel also criticised the McCain campaign for its suggestion that the proximity of Alaska to Russia gave Mrs Palin foreign policy experience.

“I think they ought to be just honest about it and stop the nonsense about, ‘I look out my window and I see Russia and so therefore I know something about Russia’,” he said.

“That kind of thing is insulting to the American people.”

Justin Webb says Mr Hagel’s opinion of Mrs Palin will have an effect on independent voters.

A senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr Hagel was a close ally of Mr McCain, but the two men parted company over the decision to go to war in Iraq.

Mr Hagel skipped this year’s Republican National Convention in favor of a visit to Latin America.

Mr Hagel’s decision to accompany Mr Obama this summer on a trip to Iraq and Israel, as part of a US Congressional delegation, led to speculation that he would throw his support behind the Democratic nominee.

However, a spokesman for the Nebraska senator insisted in August that “Senator Hagel has no intention of getting involved in any of the campaigns and is not planning to endorse either candidate”.

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September 18, 2008

Australia MPs oppose uranium sale

Australia MPs oppose uranium sale

Undated BHP Billiton photo of the Olympic Dam copper and uranium operation in Roxby Downs, Australia

Australia has 40% of the world’s known uranium resources

Australia should not sell uranium to Russia, a parliamentary committee says.

It said the $800 million deal should not go ahead until Russia assuaged doubts about the separation of its civilian and military uses of uranium.

The deal was signed by former Prime Minister John Howard and Russian leader Vladimir Putin last year.

The committee said assurances were needed on Russia’s compliance with, and long-term commitment to, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Opposition members of parliament supported the uranium sales. They argued Australia would benefit from the trade, and said safeguards against any future military use of the uranium were adequate.

But the report presented to parliament on Thursday recommended that “further consideration is given to the potential ramifications for this agreement”.

The committee said any facilities taking Australian uranium should be inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Russia has insisted that it would only use Australian uranium for civilian purposes, to generate power at home, and would not export it for use elsewhere.

Some reports of the committee’s findings suggested that opposition to the deal was strengthened by Russia’s recent incursions into Georgia.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Stephen Smith warned earlier this month that if Russia failed to withdraw its troops from neighboring Georgia, Australia might withhold approval of the new agreement.

Australia has 40% of the world’s known uranium resources and exports the product to more than 30 countries under strict conditions.

September 14, 2008

Record donations month for Obama

Record donations month for Obama

Barack Obama campaigning in Concord, New Hampshire, on 12 September

Barack Obama’s previous best monthly total was in February

US Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama raised $66m (£37m) in August, making it his best month in terms of election fund raising.

The amount raised makes it likely Mr Obama will have more to spend than Republican rival John McCain in the final two months before the vote.

Donations were lifted by half a million new donors signing up, an aide said.

The record figure contradicts suggestions that Mr Obama’s fund raising appeal had been slipping.

His previous record, of $55m, was set in February.

The fund raising details are expected to be announced in the coming week when the rival campaigns file their monthly financial reports with the Federal Election Commission.

The public financing of presidential elections as it exists today is broken
Barack Obama
speaking in June

Mr Obama earlier decided not to accept public financing for the rest of his campaign and now has no spending limit.

He is the first candidate not to take public financing since the system was introduced in the mid-1970s.

Mr McCain did accept public financing, which limits his direct spending to about $84m after 1 September.

Recent opinion polls suggest Mr McCain has a lead of, on average, about 3% over Mr Obama, ahead of the 4 November vote.

Breaking the mould

Correspondents say Mr Obama raised more money than the Republican candidate partly because of the excitement generated by the Democratic nomination battle with Hillary Clinton, which ended on 7 June.

John McCain greets supporters at a campaign rally in Fairfax, Virginia, on 10 September

Mr McCain currently leads Mr Obama in opinion polls

Mr McCain, by contrast, wrapped up the Republican nomination back in March.

The only donations he is accepting are those to his compliance fund – money to pay for lawyers, accountants and other expenses involved in maintaining compliance with federal election laws.

The Republican National Committee, however, can still raise money to support the McCain campaign.

The Obama campaign has also broken the mould of US election finance by making big efforts to attract small donors.

Mr Obama explained his decision to shun public finance in June by saying the system was “broken”.

“It’s not an easy decision, and especially because I support a robust system of public financing of elections,” Mr Obama said then in a video message to supporters.

How to be a good president

How to be a good president

Barack Obama says the most important quality is vision for the future. No, says John McCain, the key requirement is experience – or at least that’s what he said until he picked Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Ronald Reagan

A former film star, Ronald Reagan was an excellent communicator

Both want the most powerful job in the world – but neither they, nor anyone else, can agree on what, precisely, are the qualities needed to serve as president of the United States.

Indeed, there is not even a job description – only an oath of office demanding the president defend the US constitution.

What’s more, the job keeps changing, evolving constantly in the 230 years since the founding of the republic.

Still, an understanding has gradually emerged of the key qualities required of a president.

The trouble is, they are so many and various, it’s almost impossible to imagine any normal human being matching up.

Preacher and protector

Ever since Theodore Roosevelt described the presidency as a “bully pulpit,” Americans have expected first-class rhetorical skills from their leaders.

Barack Obama and Bill Clinton

Mr Obama’s camp hopes to capitalise on Bill Clinton’s lasting popularity

A president must be able to inspire, to preach, to stir the American people to greater things.

In the modern era, Roosevelt, John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan all had a great talent for communication; so too did Bill Clinton, though in a different style.

The presidents who have struggled – both George Bushes and Jimmy Carter come to mind – were those who lacked oratorical gifts.

But the job requires more than that. Americans look to their president as a protector, someone who will keep the country strong and ward off its enemies.

Roosevelt was a great war leader. As the former Allied commander during World War II, Dwight Eisenhower made Americans feel similarly secure.

Rightly or wrongly, Americans still revere Reagan for winning the Cold War.

Minimum mendacity

Foreign policy acumen is a related and essential element in the presidential kit of parts.

Richard Nixon meets John McCain in 1973

Nixon and John McCain could both claim foreign policy expertise

It’s why Mr McCain makes so much of his own experience in international affairs – and why the Obama camp equally emphasizes Sarah Palin’s lack of a foreign policy record.

The first George Bush’s reputation rests on his skillful handling of the post-Cold War world, while his son will have to persuade future historians that he did not make terrible blunders abroad.

Yet skill on the world stage is not enough to guarantee the respect of posterity.

Richard Nixon regarded himself as a geo-strategic sage, thanks to his opening to China, but he is still known by a single word: Watergate.

Domestic scandal trumps international accomplishments. Put that down as another lesson for those keen to learn how to be a good president: you need to be, if not saint-like in your honesty, at least not so mendacious that you get tangled up in your own deceptions.

It helps if you’re someone who can get things done. Lyndon Johnson will forever be saddled with the disaster of the Vietnam war, but he retains respect for passing a canon of social legislation – from civil rights to his war on poverty – that genuinely improved millions of lives.

Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter was seen as a decent but aloof president

That was largely down to his mastery of the often arcane ways of the senate, which he had once dominated as majority leader.

That hard-headed, practical ability to get results is often underestimated.

In the words of British journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Johnson “pushed through so much legislation which has changed the way we think about equality, equal rights and human dignity, and I think that is a huge accolade”.

Star quality

It’s good if you’re a palpably decent man, as Jimmy Carter was – but less good if that makes you seem lofty, prissy or aloof, as Carter often seemed.

It’s good if you can keep the country at peace and the economy in rosy health – as Bill Clinton did – but less good if you let that get overshadowed by personal indiscipline, as he did.

Finally, in the modern era, the president needs a compelling personal story, great charisma and as much screen presence as a movie star.

As I discovered making “President Hollywood”, the demands of Washington DC and Tinsel Town are remarkably similar.

Which man matches up to this impossible checklist, Barack Obama or John McCain? Well, the American people will decide that on 4 November.

But they had better get used to one thing right away: the president with every one of these essential qualities simply does not exist.

September 12, 2008

Surrender by ‘uranium theft’ man

Surrender by ‘uranium theft’ man

Photo by Anirban Roy

Local objections have stopped mining from officially starting

A tribal man wanted in connection with the smuggling of uranium ore has surrendered to the police in India’s north-eastern state of Meghalaya.

Earlier this week, police arrested five people and recovered a packet of about 1kg of unprocessed uranium from them.

It is not clear how much ore the group had, or what it planned to do with it.

The arrests are at an embarrassing time for India, just days after the Nuclear Suppliers Group ended a ban on civilian nuclear trade with the country.

Indian officials had worked hard to persuade members of the group, which governs global trade in nuclear components, that its nuclear industry was in safe hands.

Uranium is the basic fuel for nuclear weapons, but it has to go through complex processes before it is sufficiently enriched for use.

‘Stolen’

John Khongmin gave himself up to the police in the West Khasi Hills district late on Wednesday after police circulated a look-out notice for him.

Mr Khongmin’s father is an employee of the government-run Atomic Minerals Division.

The Domiosiat mining site. Picture by Anirban Roy

Children play at Domiosiat – prized by experts for the quality of its ore

“We are trying to find out whether the group has stolen more and where were they trying to sell it,” district police official M Khakrang said.

Police say they are not sure whether the men are part of an organized global enterprise, or simply some amateurs, trying to make some quick money.

The seizure was made in the village of Mairang on Monday when police detained four people, including a village headman, for stealing a quantity of uranium.

A fifth man surrendered on Tuesday after the police carried out a search of the area.

Earlier in May too, police arrested five people for stealing uranium ore.

Others have been arrested in the past for trying to smuggle uranium out of the state.

“But we don’t know yet whether this is an organized racket. It could well be and we may have not yet found the kingpins,” Mr Khakrang said.

Proposed mines

Early in the 1990s, India’s Atomic Minerals Division discovered huge deposits of uranium at Domiosiat and Wakkhaji in the West Khasi Hills.

The Indian government announced in January it wanted to open cast mine 375,000 tonnes of uranium ore annually in the area.

But mining has been unable to start so far because of objections from local tribespeople who fear radiation contamination.

Officials say the proposed mines contain 16% of India’s known uranium deposits.

India is desperate for enriched uranium to boost its nuclear power generation.

It recently signed a controversial accord with the US under which it will receive civilian nuclear fuel and technology. The deal now awaits approval from the US Congress.

New Zealand leader calls election

New Zealand leader calls election

PM Helen Clark

PM Helen Clark may hope that a lengthy campaign could help her win

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark has called a general election for 8 November, aiming to win a fourth term in office.

However, Ms Clark’s Labor Party has trailed the opposition National Party in opinion polls for the past year.

Economic woes and a scandal-hit foreign minister have given the opposition its best chance of power in a decade.

But the country’s aversion to the Iraq war and strong anti-nuclear stance are unlikely to change, whoever wins.

Ms Clark, 58, a successful campaigner, told a news conference on Friday that the election would be about trust.

“It is about which leader and which major party we New Zealanders trust our families’ and country’s future with,” said the prime minister.

“What I see is that as the election nears people are focusing very much on what the real choice is. And at that point it comes down to what matters most to our families and our communities,” she said.

The latest date on which elections could have been set was 15 November, and some analysts have suggested Ms Clark’s choice of date will give her time to claw back support.

Correspondents say the nation’s economy is expected to be a key issue in election. A recent cut in interest rates may help Labour, and promised tax cuts are due to take effect in October.

Public opinion polls show the Labor Party trailing the main opposition National Party by at least 6.5 percentage points – an improvement on a 16-point gap earlier in the year.

Party problems

New Zealand’s voting system is mixed-member proportional representation, which shares power with smaller parties, in a 121-seat single-house parliament.

Ms Clark’s government has led a minority parliament in recent years, relying on parties such as United Future and New Zealand First for support.

New Zealand First leader, Winston Peters, has been her foreign minister but stepped down on 29 August as he is now under investigation for donations allegedly made to his party by wealthy business figures.

Ms Clark has distanced herself from Mr Peters in recent weeks.

Just before the election announcement, Ms Clark’s government passed a promised major piece of legislation to set up an emissions trading scheme.

Parliament will be dissolved on 3 October and nomination day is 14 October, allowing for a five-week campaign period.

“I do believe the future of New Zealand is at stake,” Ms Clark said.

“I believe that Labor has shown through its record in office that we can be trusted with the future of New Zealand.”

She said her Labor Party was “ambitious” for New Zealand, whereas the opposition party was “ambiguous”.

National leader John Key did not immediately comment.

Sarah Palin: 10 things we’ve learnt

Sarah Palin: 10 things we’ve learnt

It has been a week since Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was catapulted from relative obscurity to center stage as US Republican John McCain’s choice for running mate. Here are 10 things we now know about her.

Images of Sarah Palin, past and present

1. Her five children are named Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper and, last but not least, Trig Paxson Van Palin. According to the Washington Post newspaper, Track was named after the course of the sockeye salmon the family fishes off the town of Dillingham, while her eldest daughter’s name comes from Bristol Bay, an area known for its salmon fisheries. The name Willow relates to the state bird, the willow ptarmigan, and a nearby town, the paper says, while daughter Piper shares her name with the family’s small plane. Trig is the Norse word for “brave victory”, the Post adds.

2. Her rimless glasses are now a style phenomenon. The titanium Kawasaki 704 frames – designed in Japan, where they sell for $300 – are apparently flying off the shelves. Her upswept hair-do is also reportedly spawning imitators. LA Times fashion writer Booth Moore writes: “The untidiness of her updo has a can-do spirit that says, ‘I have more important things to do than worry about my hair, so I just twirled it into this clip so I could get to the real business of governing and shooting caribou and having babies and taking them to hockey practice.'”

3. John McCain picked someone who not only appeals to “Wal-Mart Moms” but is one herself, shopping for the family in a local branch. Not only that, writes New York Times columnist William Kristol, but “he picked someone who, in 1999 as Wasilla mayor, presided over a wedding of two Wal-Mart associates at the local Wal-Mart”.

4. Mrs Palin enjoys moose-hunting and salmon-fishing – and has said her favorite dish is moose stew. Former Republican senator and one-time presidential hopeful Fred Thompson described her as “the only nominee in the history of either party who knows how to properly field-dress a moose”. Cindy McCain, in her speech to the party’s national convention, said her husband John had “picked a reform-minded, hockey-mommin’, basketball-shooting, moose-hunting, salmon-fishing, pistol-packing mother-of-five for vice-president”.

5. A month before her fifth child, Trig, was due, Mrs Palin’s waters broke while she was in Texas to address a conference. She delivered her speech nonetheless and embarked on the long flight back to Alaska – changing planes in Seattle – before traveling an hour by road to hospital to give birth. She says she was not in “active labor” and her doctor said it was fine. Alaska Airlines allows women to travel in the late stages of pregnancy. Husband Todd – a commercial fisherman – is quoted by the s Anchorage Daily Newas saying: “You can’t have a fish picker from Texas.” Three days later, Mrs Palin was back at work.

6. As governor of Alaska, Mrs Palin ditched plans for a “bridge to nowhere” – a federally-funded project to link a handful of Alaskans to an airport at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. In her speech to the Republican National Convention, she said she had told the US Congress “thanks, but no thanks”. But US media say she appeared to support the project while running for governor in 2006, though she said the proposed design was too “grandiose”. And when she announced the cancellation of the bridge a year ago – after it gained notoriety as an example of wasteful spending – she hardly seemed to be turning down federal funds out of thrift. She explained the decision by saying, “It’s clear that Congress has little interest in spending any more money on a bridge between Ketchikan and Gravina Island.” The federal funding was diverted to other projects in Alaska.

Sarah Palin with one of her daughters on a fishing trip (handout)

Mrs Palin enjoys hunting, shooting and fishing for salmon

7. In a line that has gone down well at the Republican National Convention and on the campaign trail, she boasts of putting the previous governor’s “luxury jet” on eBay as a measure to cut wasteful spending. That is true. But what she has not always explained to her audience is that the plane failed to sell on the internet auction site and so aides had to broker a deal with a buyer.

8. She was baptised a Catholic as an infant but attended a Pentecostal church in Wasilla – her hometown since her parents moved to Alaska from Idaho when she was three months old – for many years. She now attends Wasilla Bible Church, a non-denominational, evangelical church. The Associated Press reports that the church is promoting a conference that promises to convert gays into heterosexuals through the power of prayer.

9. As hunters sometimes do, Mrs Palin has incurred the wrath of wildlife-lovers. It’s not just that she shoots moose and caribou, she has also backed legislation to encourage the aerial hunting of wolves, as a “predator control” measure. Plus, she has opposed the US government’s listing of a variety of animals as endangered, including the polar bear and the beluga whale. Unlike Mr McCain and to the horror of many environmentalists, she actively supports drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

10. She is a self-described “average hockey mom”; a biography published a few months ago was entitled Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned Alaska’s Political Establishment on Its Ear. The hockey mom branding could prove useful come November in the swing states of Michigan and Minnesota, where ice hockey is a big game. Her best-known joke so far? “What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.”

September 10, 2008

Narrow UK class gap, urges Harman

Narrow UK class gap, urges Harman

The class gap must be narrowed in an effort to improve people’s life chances, Labour’s deputy leader Harriet Harman has said.

She told the TUC annual conference that “equality matters more than ever” and “is necessary for individuals, a peaceful society and a strong economy”.

Ms Harman called for more “clarity of evidence” to suggest the government was making progress on the issue.

But the Conservatives accused her of re-opening the “class war”.

Union criticism

Ms Harman’s comments come after Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in an interview with Monitor magazine that “social mobility has not improved in Britain as we would have wanted”.

They will be seen by many as an attempt by the government to rally the unions to Labour, after widespread criticism over the level of public sector pay and demands for a windfall tax on energy firms’ profits.

Ms Harman, who is also Commons leader and minister for women and equality, told delegates at the TUC conference in Brighton: “Equality matters more than ever and it is necessary for individuals, a peaceful society and a strong economy.

“We have made great progress on tackling inequality but we know that inequality doesn’t just come from your gender, race, sexual orientation or disability. What overarches all of these is where you live, your family background, your wealth and social class.

“While we have helped millions of people over the last ten years through policies like Sure Start, tax credits and the national minimum wage, we want to do more.

“To advance equality through our public policy, we need clarity of evidence and focus on the gaps in society and how they have changed over the last 10 years.”

Ms Harman announced that the government’s National Equality Unit would be headed by Professor John Hills of the London School of Economics.

She said: “The robust evidence base that the panel will produce will help us properly target measures to address persisting equality gaps and build on the good work that we have already done.”

‘Sidling up’

Ms Harman accused the Conservatives of being “false friends of equality” and of “sidling up to the unions”.

For the Conservatives, shadow leader of the Commons Theresa May said: “I am astounded that Harriet Harman is dismissing the equality issues around race and gender.”

She added: “I also find it surprising that she should raise issues of social equality when she’s part of government that has been in power for over 11 years, presiding over a 900,000 growth in the number of people living in severe poverty and over a country that has the lowest social mobility in the developed world.

“Labour has made poverty more entrenched and returning to the class warfare rhetoric of 20 years ago is neither helpful nor realistic.”


Do you agree with Harriet Harman? Has your child suffered due to a class gap? Has your family benefited through policies like Sure Start or tax credits?

Send your comments

September 9, 2008

Hugging benefits fractious chimps

Hugging benefits fractious chimps

Chimps at Chester Zoo (Orlaith Fraser)

The consoling arm of a good friend

If you have just had a big falling out with a colleague, there is nothing better than the comforting and consoling arm of a good friend.

Chimps, it seems, feel the same way, according to a study at Chester Zoo.

The research is said to provide the first evidence that consolation in primates, such as hugging and stroking, can reduce stress levels after a fight.

The behavior could indicate some level of empathy, Dr Orlaith Fraser told the British Association Science Festival.

“We can’t actually say what’s going on in a chimpanzee’s mind; we can only deduce from their behavior what’s going on,” the Liverpool John Moores University researcher said.

“Because this behavior is actually reducing stress levels and it’s being offered by a valuable partner, it seems likely that this is an expression of empathy.”

A bit of sympathy

Dr Fraser and colleagues spent 18 months observing 22 adult chimps at Chester Zoo.

They watched closely what happened immediately after the animals had a scrap – perhaps a fight over food, a mate or simply where to sit.

In about 50% of cases, the victim in the fight would be consoled by another member of the group. The soothing was always done by a valuable – or best – friend, a chimp with whom the victim would routinely play or share food.

Chimps at Chester Zoo (S.P.Hill)

Feeling better after a kiss

The consolation usually took the form of a kiss or embrace, a grooming session or even play.

The scientists could see that this activity had the effect of reducing stress levels, indicated by the return to the animals’ normal activities of self-scratching and self-grooming.

“Sympathetic concern” has also been observed in gorillas, bonobos, dogs and even rooks – but it is the calming effect that it had on the Chester Zoo chimps which is said to be a new observation.

“If these chimpanzees are actually motivated by empathy to console victims of aggression, they must first of all be able to recognize that the victim is distressed and then they must know what to do in order to act appropriately to respond to this distress,” said Dr Fraser.

“This is something often thought to be a unique trait to humans, so understanding the link between consolation and stress reduction in chimpanzees is an important step towards understanding whether or not chimpanzees are capable of this level of empathy.”

The results of the Chester Zoo study were recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

September 8, 2008

Scientology ‘faces French trial’

Scientology ‘faces French trial’

Church of Scientology headquarters in Paris

France keeps Scientology sites under surveillance

The Church of Scientology in France will be tried in court for “organized fraud”, according to legal sources.

The lawyer for one of the plaintiffs behind the case told that if convicted the controversial Church could be banned.

The Church has faced stiff opposition in France as well as Germany, where it has been declared unconstitutional.

The French branch of the Church of Scientology said it had been cleared of “numerous” similar charges.

It said such charges should not be brought to court again.

This case stems from claims by a woman who said she was approached by Scientologists in a Paris street in 1998 and offered a free personality test.

She says she ended up handing over more than 20,000 euros (£16,000) for courses, books, illegally prescribed drugs and an “electrometer” supposed to measure fluctuations in her mental state.

Olivier Morice, a lawyer for the woman and for one other plaintiff in the case, says the case could be brought before the court by the end of the year or in early 2009.

‘Commercial operation’

Scientology was founded in the United States in the 1950s by science-fiction writer L Ron Hubbard.

It has attracted stars such as Tom Cruise, John Travolta and the late Isaac Hayes.

But it been accused in some countries of cult-like practices and exploiting its followers financially.

Scientologists reject this and say that they promote a religion based on the understanding of the human spirit.

France refuses to recognise Scientology as a religion, categorising it as a purely commercial operation and keeping it under surveillance.

In Germany last year, federal and state interior ministers declared the Church of Scientology unconstitutional, and in France in 2000 a government committee recommended dissolving the Church.

However, in October a Spanish court ruled that the Church of Scientology of Spain should be re-entered into the country’s register of officially recognised religions.

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