Monday, January 24, 2011

We Australians can be proud to have among us such men

Corporal Benjamin Roberts-Smith VC with his wife Emma and twin five-month old daughters Eve and Elizabeth

As corporal Ben Roberts-Smith has tattooed across his chest the simple message: "I will not fail my brothers."

Early on June 11 last year, in the rugged north of Afghanistan's Kandahar Province, the special forces soldier lived up to his own promise.

In an early morning raid on a Taliban stronghold, Corporal Roberts-Smith and two other special forces soldiers were lying in a horribly exposed position just 20m in front of an insurgent machine-gun post.

From the sparse cover of a small pile of rubble, Corporal Roberts-Smith saw gunfire tearing up the ground around his friends and realised they'd soon be killed. He leapt to his feet and charged the machine-gun, killing the gunners at point-black range.

Yesterday, he was awarded the highest award for valour, the Victoria Cross of Australia. The medal was presented in front of Corporal Roberts-Smith's family and previous VC winners Mark Donaldson and Keith Payne.

Corporal Roberts-Smith's father, West Australian Corruption and Crime Commission chief Len Roberts-Smith, told The Australian last night he was not surprised by his son's courage. He said his son lived by the message he wore on his chest.

"To have a son that you know did that is just extraordinary. We are incredibly proud of him," said Mr Roberts-Smith, himself a former army major-general. "As a parent, of course I worry enormously. We know the circumstances he goes into and we know our son, so we know he's going to be at the forefront. But we're very proud of him."

Corporal Roberts-Smith comes from a high-achieving family. His brother Sam, 24, is an opera singer critically acclaimed for his role in Carmen, which is playing in Sydney at the moment

Yesterday, Corporal Roberts-Smith, the second member of Australia Special Air Service regiment to win the VC in Afghanistan, spoke of the fear felt by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan and said they all showed great courage under fire. "I saw a lot of brave men do a lot of brave things that day," the 32-year-old SAS soldier said yesterday after being honoured for his extreme gallantry.

Governor-General Quentin Bryce said she felt honoured just pinning the medal on his chest. "In these times of hardship for so many Australians, you bring our hearts to soar," she said. "Corporal, you are not invincible, you are human, extraordinarily and exceptionally so."

Julia Gillard said Corporal Roberts-Smith was reluctant to be at the centre of "so much fuss" but he was a true hero. She said the Victoria Cross was "an honour so high that even the chief of the Defence Force salutes those that hold it".

Defence Force chief Angus Houston, himself a decorated pilot, followed convention and, despite his vastly superior rank, saluted the corporal.

Air Chief Marshal Houston said Corporal Roberts-Smith had brought great credit to himself, the Australian Army, the Special Air Service Regiment and the Australian Defence Force. "Today, we in the military feel great admiration and respect for the extreme valour shown by Corporal Roberts-Smith and we are honoured to call him one of our own," Air Chief Marshal Houston said.

The SAS soldiers were pinned down in a battle with the Taliban in Afghanistan's Shah Wali Kot region when Corporal Roberts-Smith made his life-saving dash through a storm of gunfire. "Every single bloke in that troop was at some stage fighting for their lives, every person there showed gallantry," Corporal Roberts-Smith said. "The decisions that I saw made were heroic, just watching some of my mates who were wounded by frag just keep firing, just ignoring the fact that they were drawing fire to themselves."

Corporal Roberts-Smith said he was aware of bullets flying around him as he tackled the machine-gun posts, and anyone who said they didn't feel fear was "either crazy or not telling the truth". But he said his actions were instinctive. "I saw my mates getting ripped up so I just decided to move forward. I wasn't going to just sit there and do nothing. I thought I'd have a crack, I was not going to let my mates down," he said.

The father of twin five-month-old girls said Australia was achieving results in Afghanistan. "I believe that we are making a difference in stemming the flow of terrorism into Australia, and I want my children to be able to live as everyone does now without the fear of getting on to a bus and having it blow up," he said.


Some Australian criticism of the windmill craze at last

One of Australia's most successful company receivers is taking on the proponents of a $400 million wind farm development that plans to place turbines taller than the Sydney Harbour Bridge overlooking his rural getaway on the NSW southern tablelands.

"It started out as a NIMBY (not in my back yard) issue, but it is now much more than that," said Tony Hodgson, who co-founded the insolvency specialist Ferrier Hodgson, which has handled some of Australia's highest-profile corporate collapses, including One.Tel and Laurie Connell's Rothwells Ltd. Ferrier Hodgson also pursued Christopher Skase for his missing millions and more recently was the receiver for the failed logistics group Allco.

Mr Hodgson is no stranger to a protracted fight. He was chairman of the Melbourne Port Authority during the 1998 waterfront dispute between Patrick Ltd and the Maritime Union of Australia. "My position in life is I thought Genghis Khan was a bit of a piker so I am out there," Mr Hodgson said.

Hodgson bought his property in Collector, about 30km west of Goulburn, five years ago and said he learned of plans for a 160-megawatt, 80-tower wind farm in October.

He has launched a furious campaign against wind farm proponent Transfield Services, the state government and his absentee neighbour, a Double Bay cafe owner who has agreed to host some of the proposed wind towers in exchange for lease payments estimated at $1m a year for 20 years.

Since Mr Hodgson started his campaign, Transfield has been forced to disclose, belatedly, about $39,000 in political donations that it failed to report when it lodged its development application.

Mr Hodgson's lawyers have referred Transfield's non-disclosure to the Independent Commission Against Corruption after NSW Planning Minister Tony Kelly declined to do so. Mr Kelly said he was "satisfied" that Transfield's failure to disclose the donations with its project application on September 17 last year did not indicate "corrupt conduct". Transfield has rejected any suggestions of impropriety.

Mr Kelly has announced he will not consider the Transfield application -- as is his right under the special project status given to wind farms -- and will instead refer it to the Planning Assessment Commission for assessment. This has been claimed as a significant victory by those who object to the wind farm proposal.

Meanwhile, lawyers acting for Mr Hodgson have advised his neighbour that the businessman may sue him for loss of amenity and reduced property value if the wind farm goes ahead.

Mr Hodgson has formed a Friends of Collector group to lobby against the development. He has organised a community meeting this weekend at which Sarah Laurie, from the Waubra Foundation, will talk about her research into the health impacts of wind farms on nearby residents.

Opponents of the wind farm are planning to erect a giant billboard alongside the Federal Highway at Collector tomorrow that says "Transfield. Go stick your 80 turbines somewhere else. Try Sydney".

Mr Hodgson said he did not want the Collector wind farm to go ahead but, if it did, Transfield should be forced to make payments to the local community on a dollar-for-dollar basis on what it was paying landholders who had sold the right to host the turbines. He said the company should also be forced to lodge a bond of $200m to cover the cost of decommissioning the wind turbines at the end of their life.

Opponents want the state government to scrap the Part 3a provisions that give wind farms special project status, and exempt them from normal planning rules and land and environment court oversight.

They also want an inquiry into the environmental and economic value of wind farms and an inquiry into the health impacts of living near them. Transfield's preliminary environmental assessment says there would be a minimum 1km buffer between the wind towers and non-involved residences. The company said it was anticipated that only five non-involved residences would be within 2km of the nearest turbine.

Mr Hodgson said the size of the towers and blades -- at 150m, taller than the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge from the water level -- meant the visual impact was far-reaching. "My view is there should also be a register of easement that shows up on all the adjoining land," Mr Hodgson said. "My position would be if I knew there was going to be a wind farm here I would not have bought it five years ago. I could have gone anywhere."

The Collector protests reflect widespread concern in rural communities where wind farms are being proposed.

The wind industry has dismissed concerns it is being self-interested and has research that shows 80 per cent of residents in areas where wind farms have been proposed support the developments. However, a survey of Collector residents who claim they will be immediately affected by the wind towers has produced the opposite result.

Community opposition to wind farms is a global issue. At a future energy conference in Abu Dhabi this week, Morten Albaek, senior vice-president of Denmark-based wind turbine maker Vestas, said the industry had underestimated the NIMBY syndrome. "The not-in-my-backyard syndrome is strong and driving the political decision-making," Mr Albaek said.

He said he believed the wind industry must provide more information to communities. "There are too many rumours and conspiracy theories about wind power plants and we as an industry are doing too little to fight them," he said.


Judges too lenient on sentencing, say police

WA Police have little faith in the state's judiciary, with a landmark survey revealing an overwhelming 96 per cent of officers believe the sentences handed down by magistrates and judges are not tough enough.

And almost nine in 10 officers who responded to the survey claim the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions is under pressure and does not have adequate resources to secure convictions from evidence provided by police.

The findings are based on the responses of 625 WA police officers who took part in a comprehensive online questionnaire, organised by The Sunday Times and and supported by Channel 9, which canvassed the state's 5500 sworn police officers in December.

WA Police Union president Russell Armstrong said many officers felt disillusioned at the justice system, particularly with what they believed were lenient sentences handed out by the courts.

"The community of WA is sick and tired of people who are paid extremely well, handing out lenient sentences. The job of the judiciary is to hand out the penalties that are appropriate to the crime. In most cases they are very soft and very lenient," Mr Armstrong said.

He agreed the DPP needed to be better resourced. "There needs to be a lot more money put in to the DPP to retain and attract professional lawyers," he said. "Police officers are sick and tired of putting a case up and then dealing with offenders getting off on technicalities. "In a lot of cases, the DPP has outsourced to other lawyers because they don't have the resources within their own department to continue on."

Opposition police spokeswoman Margaret Quirk said: "It has been apparent for some time that prosecutions are suffering because of dysfunctional relationships between police and prosecutors". "Police feel frustrated when all their hard work counts for nothing when cases in court are lost on technicalities."

Director of Public Prosecutions Joe McGrath declined to comment on the findings. Police Commissioner Karl O'Callaghan and Police Minister Rob Johnson also refused to comment on the survey results.


As the left sides with Muslims, Christians search for support

Martin Place is the symbolic centre, the point zero, of Australia's existence as a sophisticated economy. Last Wednesday it looked medieval. A forest of crucifixes sprouted among a sea of earnest faces that would look comfortable on ancient coins. The talk was of murder and persecution. The threat was real. Hyperbole was unnecessary.

As Martin Place, between Pitt and Castlereagh streets, became crammed with people, many of them young, real politics was made, and real news. Observing this rally, in oppressive humidity and under a dark sky that occasionally showered the crowd, was to observe another example of grassroots support for the ALP falling away.

Not long ago this crowd, drawn from a broader Middle Eastern Christian diaspora, would have voted like the rest of Australia. Demographics would have been the key driver. Labor would have got its share. Not any more.

When Julia Gillard's name was mentioned, it was greeted by a stony silence from the crowd of between 1000 and 2000 people. When the name of Tony Abbott was mentioned, there was a burst of spontaneous applause. Abbott had sent a personal emissary from his shadow ministry, Senator Connie Fierravanti-Wells, who would deliver some telling news.

Most at the rally were Coptic Orthodox Christians, the Egyptian branch of Christianity. They increasingly find common purpose with the expatriate communities of Assyrian Christians from Iraq and Maronite Christians from Lebanon. All three groups, who collectively number about 200,000, are heavily represented in western Sydney. All three are feeling the pressure of the religious cleansing of Christians in the Middle East.

These communities are tilting away from Labor, perceiving it as the party of appeasement of Muslim belligerence, and the party which has turned Australia's refugee program into a Muslim immigration program, while Christian communities are bludgeoned in Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon. These countries have seen a Christian exodus. The American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 proved to be a disaster for the estimated two million Assyrian Christians. Roughly half have fled the country.

The trigger for the rally at Martin Place was a cascade of events which began late last year when a list was circulated via an extremist Islamic website pledging attacks against 64 specific Coptic Orthodox churches. Four of the churches are in Sydney, where the majority of Australia's 80,000 Copts live.

At the top of the hit list was the Saints Church in Alexandria, Egypt. On New Year's Eve, as Christians left a midnight prayer service at the Saints Church, a car bomb exploded. Twenty-three Copts died and at least 95 others were wounded in the attack. Hours before, Muslim fundamentalists had gathered outside a major mosque in Alexandria chanting threats against the Coptic church. After the attack, men ran around the city shouting "Allah Akbah!", the battle cry of jihad.

Violent attacks against the more than 10 million Coptic Christians in Egypt have been continuing for almost 40 years. The violence coincided with the rise of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the prototype of modern Islamic fascism. Violent incidents continue. On January 12, an off-duty police officer shot six Copts on a train in Egypt after identifying them as Christians.

Australia's most contentious mainstream Muslim cleric, Sheikh Taj el-Din al Hilaly, the former grand mufti of Australia, is an import from Egypt. He was installed as a permanent resident by the Keating Labor government, over the objections of the security service. His Labor connections are well known and self-advertised.

The Labor Party, locked into a political alliance with Muslim leaders in western Sydney, has said little of consequence about the problem of religious cleansing of Christians by Muslims. It has done even less.

On January 1, the acting Minister for Foreign Affairs, Martin Ferguson, issued a six-line reaction to the Alexandria bombing, stating "the Australian government utterly condemns the attack". Condemnations were issued by President Barack Obama, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, among other leaders.

No statement was issued by Julia Gillard. Nor has there been any policy change in Labor's policy of indifference to Coptic refugees from Egypt. The Australian embassy in Cairo has long been a point of contention. It is difficult for Egyptian Copts to immigrate to Australia or seek refugee status. The blocking agents include the Egyptian government, which discriminates against Christians as official policy, and the local embassy, which acts as a de facto extension of state discrimination against non-Muslims.

At the rally in Martin Place, Senator Fierravanti-Wells announced that a Coalition government would reintroduce a program for Coptic refugees from religious persecution in Egypt, a program discarded by the Rudd government.

She was one of three Liberal MPs who spoke, while Labor was entirely absent until the last minute, when a Labor member of the NSW upper house, Greg Donnelly, was dropped in to represent the Premier, Kristina Keneally. Such is the desperation of NSW Labor that Donnelly could not resist noting: "There are no representatives from the Greens today, which is interesting."

The absence of the Greens was not interesting. It was predictable. Throughout Western Europe and Australia, the left has consistently made common cause with political Islam, an embrace of reactionary intolerance made without a shred of irony. Also absent was the broadcast arm of the Greens, the ABC, whose two 24-hour news networks could see no value in attending.

Meanwhile, outside the world of the public sector unions, while religious intolerance remains endemic across the Muslim world and Australia's refugee and asylum-seeker process remains a debacle, support for Labor is showing signs of disintegrating among Australians who take discrimination against Christians seriously.


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