Trust and the Census – who (definitely) benefits?

Consider these recent government announcements and decisions. Plenty of factors are at play, but which is afforded the most weight?

A $50 billion spend on submarines

  1. Christopher Pyne’s seat
  2. Census data
  3. Talking national security and border protection in an election campaign
  4. Opportunity for Malcolm Turnbull to say shtrong a lot

A Royal Commission into NT child protection and youth detention

  1. A show on the telly
  2. A report from the Northern Territory Children’s Commissioner
  3. Census data
  4. Genuine concern that government employees beat and torture black children

Another “crackdown” on welfare recipients

  1. The treasurer is a sadistic hater
  2. Census data
  3. Welfare payments are already very tightly targeted
  4. Family payments to the middle classes free up their income to invest in negatively-geared properties

Removing a tax-free loop hole from the tippy top most richest superannuants

  1. We need one policy that signals we are fair-minded
  2. We care about older women living in poverty due to inadequate superannuation
  3. Census data
  4. Malcolm Turnbull has a Mr Harborside Mansion image problem

Selling off the Land Titles Office to the highest bidder

  1. The morally bankrupt nature of neoliberalism
  2. Highly questionable relationships between major political parties and developers
  3. Privatisation gone mad
  4. Census data

Closing feminist-run services in favour of large contracts for corporate religion

  1. The church is just more trustworthy than feminists when it comes to vulnerable children
  2. Starting a conversation has more efficacy than safe secure housing
  3. Just because more men murder women each year doesn’t mean our policy is terrible
  4. Census data

I could go on all day.

But at some level we all get that sandbagging and pork-barrelling are euphemisms for decisions based on political expedience and nothing at all to do with accurate data capture.

There are many valid concerns about the census this year. These include data security and encryption and privacy and data linkages across government agencies and retaining our names and addresses for a longer period (18 months up to four years) than last census, especially when Data Retention legislation has been passed in the meantime.

These issues have been thoroughly covered by far better minds than mine, such as Ross Floate here and Richard Chirgwin here and the indefatigable Asher Wolf and Rosie Williams’ Little Bird Network.

The legal implications of not complying with Census instructions are set out here.

But what is really getting to me are people who say that a robust and accurate Census count will be of great benefit policy-wise, and cite Indigenous health and the homeless population to support their argument.

This is a typical tactic. We saw it when Josh Frydenberg said the superannuation changes would benefit older women.

Does anyone really believe that the Liberal Party cares more about older women living in poverty than the pressing need to have just one policy to hang claims about ‘governing for all Australians’ on?

The other typical feature of this argument is that the people making it – demographers, bureaucrats and other academics – are absolutely guaranteed to benefit from data linkages.

In contrast, there is no guarantee whatsoever, and not a shred of evidence, that Census data produces benefits for Aboriginal people’s health or for homeless people.

In the ham-fisted way that neoliberal government is done these days, the Census trust problems continue unaddressed.

Instead, a glaringly obvious problem is blundered and stumbled through, blasted and blustered at, urgently plastered over, in a make-shift, ad-hoc, amateurish way.

Why? Because the problem is not a significant problem for comfortable middle Australia. It is the tyranny of the majority writ large – a phrase that should be familiar to Liberal Party politicians.

Here are a few of the questions I would put to academic and bureaucratic defenders of the census changes:

Is public schooling a necessity for your children, or a choice? What about hospital cover? Is the GST that a sole parent pays on her child’s school shoes, upfront and at the point of sale, subsidising your investment property? While you judge her?

Have you ever been subject to years of Centrelink compliance measures? Have you feared for your life at the hands of your ex/partner?

Do you know anything at all about people in situations you have never encountered, let alone what is best for them?

But science

Why are demographers and other social scientists saying sciency things without any evidence?

Indigenous people on dialysis and with other co-morbidity diagnoses were counted in the last Census. Are they better off? Has anyone asked them? What is the link between data matching and their well-being, whether as individuals or a population?

How is we will know more about your death rates a convincing argument for people who are under more surveillance and incarcerated at higher rates than any other peoples on earth?

That is not science. It is disgusting and exploitative.

Homeless people were counted last Census too, or at least there was a genuine attempt to reach rough sleepers. But housing is a state responsibility.

Has anyone seen a propensity of Mike Baird to fund housing services based on data? Or on the number of men who kill women?

Baird has zero regard for evidence-based policy. This is a claim backed by evidence.

Similarly, merely counting the number of people in prisons and detention centres does absolutely nothing for the conditions for people in those places; and does absolutely nothing to decrease the rate of incarceration and detention (which are different things, according to the High Court of Australia; see Al-Kateb, critiqued here).

Trotting out some feel-good claim about more accurate measure of Aboriginal life expectancy and twinning this with generalised projections about data and better policy implies that the data collection will somehow improve morbidity rates for Aboriginal people.

But it won’t. The claims are disingenuous at best. Some would say such statements are grossly misleading. It is also harmful. This messaging is designed to create the impression that government cares about Aboriginal lives – when the opposite is true.

Some reflections on Homelessness and the rough sleeper count

In 2011 I was employed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics as a Special Area Supervisor – Homelessness. The homelessness collection was an attempt to count as many rough sleepers as possible.

There was no strategy to identify secondary homelessness. The ABS assumed that people who are couch-surfing would be counted in the households where they were staying that night.

This is naïve at best. A significant proportion of couch-surfers stay with friends or family whose rent is linked to the number of residents in the household. Those tenants are at risk of accumulating a debt, or even eviction, for extending a helping hand.

The causes of homelessness are complex, with multiple overlapping issues such as escaping violence, mental illness, and chronic addiction. But ultimately, homelessness can be traced to the breakdown of relationships, whether that is relationship with family, a landlord, an employer, or the state.

Couch surfing is tenuous and fraught, it raises a strong presumption that many relationships have already broken down.  Few people in this situation can afford to add more risk to relationships with a host or landlord or the state.

To assume that vulnerable people are in a position to take on more risk for the sake of government data collection is to lack insight into their situation.

One of the worst types of homelessness is created by government: TA. Temporary accommodation is when the state pays for housing applicants to stay in a motel. It is very widespread, not a one-off stop-gap but a systemised response – and a miserable and expensive failure.

TA creates anxiety. People are compelled to spend every day applying for housing and must re-apply for TA eligibility every week. It creates gross discrimination. Many motel owners split their accommodation and provide vastly inferior services – plastic cutlery, no toilet paper – to TA guests, as though somehow government money buys less service for no reason other than exploitation of the poor – and the taxpayer.

It is a terrible dehumanising system that creates mini-ghettoes and resentment while motel owners net huge profits on the government purse. Motel owners who are of course small business and thus eligible for the $20,000 immediate write-down at our expense while touting their own as entrepreneurial and innovative and not at all like those lazy bludgers getting rich on Newstart.

No census can or will change this entrenched inequality, whether people in TA are counted or not.

The 2011 rough sleepers count

ABS consulted widely and recruited supervisors from the social housing sector.  The training was better than the consultation but both were predictably paternalistic. It seems it is virtually impossible for white middle class professionals to not reproduce unrealistic and ill-informed assumptions and stereotypes about the population with whom they work – yet it is the homeless who keep them in a job and see their mortgages paid.

Some of those assumptions were around trust in authority. It is a familiar line – homeless people, or Aboriginal people, or young people, lack trust in authority. This is presented as some kind of deficit in the individual member of this or that community.

But the most cursory glance at the facts reveals that people who do not trust authority have reached an evidence-based conclusion: authority has, does, and will treat them badly. Violently. Brutally. Ignore their human rights. Deny their humanity. Be condescending and paternalistic and judgmental.

All of these are horrible experiences, and all are meted out, often, by government employees such as police; or government-funded employees, such as job agency staff.

So a mistrust of authority is a product of authority being oppressive; yet in the great Australian tradition this mistrust is framed as a deficit in members of the community to which government, historically and contemporaneously, has actively caused harm – usually under the guise of providing help.

The ABS had developed a two-tiered message for the homelessness count. The first was ‘trust us, we are trustworthy’. The second was ‘the data will assist government to make better policy which will benefit the homeless population’.

Fast forward to 2016 and the rules have changed, but the message is that same as that which informed our training for the homelessness count.

Using the same message for a different set of circumstances is lazy and complacent at best. At worst, it reeks of misleading the public: if there is a case to be made for the changes, why not make it? Why fall back on exactly the same message designed to engender a trust relationship with homeless people five years earlier?

Like all good tweeps, I put out a twitter poll: do you trust the government? There were two yes votes (n = 254). One person tweeted me to say she accidentally tapped yes.  Either way the yes vote was basically a margin of error. (No, I am not going to insult readers by spelling out the unscientific nature of a Twitter poll.)

Ironically, the failure to make the case for retaining names and addresses for a longer period is eroding trust in the ABS because the argument is so weak and the government so mistrusted.

The ‘better policy’ argument is specious for political expediency reasons already mentioned. The gap between the data collection and analysis and actual policy decisions, which are based on neoliberal ideology and electoral chancing, is huge.

In addition, people most likely to not be counted are the people most likely to need government services to survive. Not government money in the form of research grants and public service jobs and immediate tax write-downs and public housing guests, but actual resources to feed and clothe and house themselves in a wealthy society.

Yet the line about better directing government policy based on census data is widely accepted… by people who do not rely on government services. The academics and bureaucrats pushing this line are not grounding it in evidence of better homelessness services, or identifiable improvements in the lives of welfare recipients.

They are not doing this because the evidence is not there.

So like the trust argument acting to erode trust, the evidence-for-better-policy argument fails to point to evidence of better policy outcomes derived from the previous Census.

Meanwhile the evidence of a benefit to the academic or bureaucrat is there for all to see: there they are on the telly, with their job and media platform, well remunerated and recognised, as an expert in data capture and analysis.

Leaving aside identifiable groups of academics and bureaucrats, is the Census beneficial to homeless people? Unemployed people? Sole parents, carers, people with disabilities?

Are any of these groups better off than in 2011 because their status was counted and analysed by the ABS and other social scientists?

Why not ask them? I could easily find people who were counted as homeless in 2011. Pay me and I’ll let you know if any are better off, and if so how many.

The government has moved many Centrelink recipients on to cashless welfare this year. Why not ask Alan Tudge if this policy is linked to census data? Ask people on the Basics card what they think of the alleged link between their Census form and having access to only 20% of their payment in cash?

Media, social media and clickbait

And then there are the privileged and their cheer squads who go hahaha conspiracy theorists shut up who cares what a joke lol if you’ve got nothing to hide whaddaya fraid of why not be an elite like me spreading my disdain for intelligent, informed critique of the Census.

The worst bit is when these people pretend that their deeply conservative line, which conforms 100% to the government line, is somehow edgy and real.

Nah, Mark.  Agreeing with government and name-calling dissenters is not edgy. It is a well-documented standard practice of conservative white patriarchy, the tradition from which you massively benefit and proudly reproduce while posturing as some kind of hip n rad guy.

These are people who have never missed a meal in their life. Who have not lived in a car while trying to keep their children in school. Who are too wilfully ignorant to grasp the depths of their ignorance. Who know nothing, absolutely nothing, about the deliberately oppressive and humiliating systems imposed on public housing applicants and Centrelink recipients and prisoners.

But their view is so ingrained, so casually and callously normalised, that others fall into line, and even sell their testimony to prop up the lies and hate.

You know the kind of thing: I was homeless once and I got back on my feet. I will ignore the fact that being white or being a man or not having a mental illness or not having dependents means it was far far easier for me than all these other people who are just lazy or drunks or – this is actual claim – choose to be homeless.

No, thank you

The ABS asked me back this year. I turned the offer down, providing detailed reasons, and requesting that these reasons go on the record. My work in 2011 was extremely highly regarded.

Our team was seen as an exemplar of thoroughness and accuracy. The team of five was comprised of three Aboriginal women and two white women. We included one young person (22) and four mothers. Of course we were thorough and accurate. We were careful and respectful and professional; and trusted by the target population.

And while I passed on the offer and let the 2011 team know that the work was available, not one of us wanted to go out there again under the new rules. There was nothing to found any trust in the process. Some individuals may have improved circumstances, but by and large homelessness services have been trashed by the Baird government. Some families may have been allocated a house but meanwhile domestic violence services have all but disappeared into large non-specialist corporate religion.

These sorts of decisions are not driven by accuracy of data capture and robust policy development. These sorts of policies – cashless welfare, mainstreaming women’s services – deliberately negatively impact the poorest people in our community. And anyone who claims that Coalition government decisions give more weight to census data than religion, ideology, internal power games and political expedience is

  1. not paying attention
  2. lying
  3. entirely self-interested
  4. an attention-seeking tosser
  5. all of the above

On the Royal Commission into Northern Territory juvenile detention centres


Bearing witness to the horrors that human beings inflict on each other prompts many responses. One is silence. Another is to express shock. A third is gesture politics, as Prof Megan Davis writes here and Luke Pearson here.

One of the loudest public responses to terrible acts of violence in Australia is to call for an inquiry. When a politician responds by apparently deciding overnight to hold a Royal Commission, it is very likely to be an act of gesture politics.

This week, Malcolm Turnbull responded to mass media exposure of a problem – an endemic problem with a history as long as colonial Australia – by announcing a Royal Commission into Northern Territory juvenile detention centres.

As pointed out by Michelle Grattan and Brian Stout among others, the ‘evidence of NT detention centre abuse was there for all to see’. The Prime Minister knew or ought to have known. The Chief Minister did know. We know they knew because the NT Children’s Commissioner published its report in August 2015.

But there seems to be some confusion as to what is a Royal Commission, as well as to what a Royal Commission can achieve. A Royal Commission is a process, not an end in itself – although announcing a Royal Commission can be a political end in itself.

The nature of Royal Commissions

Royal Commissions are a serious business: the act enabling their establishment is only a year younger than the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution. The penalty for intentionally insulting a Royal Commission is imprisonment for three months. If the Commissioner is a judge, no trial is required – the Commissioner acts as police, judge and jury.

Royal Commissions bear witness, and are reported in detail. So the citizenry can bear witness too.

Referrals may be made for prosecution, and may produce convictions, which might be followed by custodial sentences – or not – as the law takes it laborious course.

Recommendations are always included in the final reports. This is the systemic aspect, the central purpose of an RC, that which goes beyond individuals to the whole of the society.

Governments may accept some or all of the recommendations. Governments might then legislate for the implementation of the recommendations. Or not.

Executive government – the minister and public servants whose job it is to implement cabinet decisions – may do as directed, in part or in full. Employees who ignore or resist government directives may face consequences for this form of misconduct. Or not.

So the pathway from announcing a Royal Commission to a positive change in the way we are governed – whether a harm done is compensated, whether the wrong-doer is punished, whether future harm is prevented by systemic reform – is very long.

The longer the path, the more likely there are twists and barriers and traps and saboteurs between the RC and its stated goal.

Meanwhile, vested interests deliberately deny and derail and delay around RC proceedings: to avoid accountability for their wrongs and those of their mates or staff or institution. Witnesses tell the Commissioner they can not recall. It was all so long ago.

Then there are the false binaries as to whether Royal Commissions are political or impartial, effective or ineffective. Some Royal Commissions are party-political from day one, others are established after careful consideration of its nature and the terms of reference.

These binaries emerge because white western traditions and systems – of knowledge, of government, of society – are designed this way. Our adversarial system of law, the two-party model of government, rigid male-female genders and stereotypes: these are examples of how we organise and teach and understand the world in ‘the west’.

The model is neither accurate nor nuanced, but it is the one we have. And its beneficiaries are very aggressive in maintaining the status quo.

A Royal Commission may be relatively non-politicised; but all concern specific vested interests (such as organised religion or the nuclear industry) and RCs always concern the interests of governments. Different Royal Commissions have played different roles. But no RC in living memory has prompted “strong decisive” government action to implement all recommendations and thereby produce lasting, effective social change for the better.

EG

The Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption was an unmitigated and expensive, deeply politicised failure. That a finding of corruption was pre-emptively written into its title is the first sign. The referrals for prosecution have not stood up to scrutiny by the relevant prosecutors. The Commissioner was compromised by perceptions of bias if not actual bias – where perception of bias was a decision reserved to the Commissioner himself.

In contrast, Black Rainbow founder Dameyon Bonson has been calling for a Royal Commission into Indigenous suicide. Rates of suicide among Indigenous people are the highest in the country. Young people and people from Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Intersex (LGBTQI) community are over-represented again. There has been no national approach to understanding, let alone acting on, these known facts. No representation of Indigenous people on the various peak bodies. We see mass coverage of government homophobes attacking an education program designed to save young LGBTQI lives, but not of the intergenerational trauma carried in Indigenous communities since colonisation.

In this context, a national, co-ordinated response in the form of a properly funded Royal Commission that gathers evidence, tested by lawyers, has every chance of being the most effective next step to the work done by Black Rainbow and Joe Williams and others’ efforts to save the lives of their people from suicide.

The Royal Commission into Northern Territory Juvenile Detention Centres

I am against. These are my reasons.

1 As mentioned, the claims made about the efficacy of Royal Commissions, that RCs have the capacity to effect social change for the better, are misplaced. It is governments which must legislate and implement the recommendations.

2 There are thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from hundreds of Indigenous nations around the country who have already analysed the evidence. Who have been stymied at every turn from bringing up their young people. Who have the knowledge, skills, understandings, love and care and motivation – but not necessarily enough resources or authority, which the colonial state has systematically stripped away – to care for young people.

3 The notion that another evidence-gathering and analysis process is required before government can act on systemic racist violence in its own ranks is entirely unfounded because the evidence is in. It is uncontested. It has been in for decades, at least since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987-91) and National Inquiry into Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families (1997).

Only the most Jurassic racists openly pretend that this state-sanctioned violence is to deal with kids who ‘cause trouble’.  Like the NT Chief Minister. When (slightly less overtly racist) politicians gravely intone that this RC will ensure the terrible wrong will never happen again, they are demonstrating wilful ignorance of the system of government to which they have been elected. They are grandstanding. Posturing. Knowingly misleading the public. Lying.

Not only is implementing recommendations the role of government, but no RC recommendation has ever ensured Indigenous people are not harmed by the state. In fact, the state removes more Aboriginal children now than during the Stolen Generations eras. The state locks up Aboriginal people at a higher rate than when the RCADIC recommendations were handed down. A key finding of that RC was that the rate we lock up Aboriginal people is a direct cause of the rate that Aboriginal people die in custody.

4 Which raises the spectre of an RC doing more harm than good. Whenever Aboriginal people make steps towards equality and justice, the dominant majority – the white patriarchal state, citizens with structural social privilege (collectively and individually), corporate interests, conservative media, all these push back aggressively against Aboriginal people, Aboriginal people’s rights and interests.

This is how the official end of segregation and assimilation as government policy saw the beginning of a much harsher form of segregation: more children removed, and more locked up  – often the same kids.

5 Cost-benefit, or better use of resources: RCs are very expensive. Lawyers cost a lot of money, as do researchers and scribes and security and sittings and per diem if the RC sits in multiple locations. There is an allowance for witnesses, whether abuser or victim.

The estimated cost of the Trade Unions RC was $80 million. This new one looks to have a similarly narrow scope (unlike the RC into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, with its much wider jurisdiction).

What is the opportunity cost? Could $80 million cover a compensation scheme, be invested in remote communities, in health and education, in transport and recreation facilities? Who has the greater need for state funding: Aboriginal children, or lawyers?

6 Some recommendations on how to stop police and prison guards violently assaulting and even torturing children would be useful.

But this is not how the terms of reference will be framed. We know this, because the Prime Minister and Attorney General have committed to working with NT Chief Minister Adam Giles; and Giles has framed the problem as unloving parents and children who ’cause trouble’.

This problem – the subject of this RC – is about Giles’ racist government and its very violent employees.

The Northern Territory government signed off on the procurement of these ‘restraint’ chairs, as is clear from the linked story dated 22 April 2015, which reported: “Cable ties and restraint chairs are set to be approved for use on children in custody as young as 10 if new laws pass the NT Parliament next month.”

As young as 10.

Yet the Chief Minister watched footage of staff strapping a child to a chair with cable ties, men hooding a boy, men teargassing children, turning a fire hose on them, stripping a child naked in the most abhorrent way … and concluded:

“The best form of youth program there is the love of a parent. … In the Northern Territory, there are too many children who are unloved.”

This is coded. The translation? Black parents are the problem.

If 60,000 years continuous survival is not evidence that Aboriginal and Islander people can bring up their children, what is?

There is simply no way an RC with terms framed by a man who thinks like Giles can effect positive change. The way he thinks and the stated objective of the RC process are incompatible, irreconcilable, do not inhabit the same discursive universe.

7 – 100: No Australian government has the courage or the know-how to stop police and prison guards from violently abusing Aboriginal people, especially children.

The people who are presenting this Royal Commission as a solution are part of the problem. The people who will write the terms of reference, who will tell us this process is to ensure it never happens again, can not, and will not, ensure any such thing.

Racist violence directed by successive white governors and governments has led us here. Attorney General Brandis limited the RC scope to the Northern Territory on the basis that the NT was “the particular problem that has been exposed” – exposed by a television program. This minimisation and isolation of a systemic problem is part of the problem.

Our governments pass laws to (re)dispossess and otherwise oppress Aboriginal people, like the NT ‘Emergency’ Intervention, or the NT paperless arrest laws, or the closure of remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia.

The events shown on Four Corners are terrible, but they are on a spectrum rather than being a one-off, an aberration. All Australian governments employ men who violently abuse children in their care (as do churches, charities, boarding schools, armed forces and so on and on, ad infinitum, back to the culture of the C18 imperial power).

Yet these same men imply an RC comes with a magic Royal wand to safeguard against future governments passing laws that are designed to dispossess and otherwise oppress Aboriginal people. If Giles thinks black lives matter, he will repeal the paperless arrest laws and focus on the violence committed by government employees. He has not and will not do these things.

The timing, the politics, the narratives, and the role of RCs

The fact that the Turnbull government chose its announcement for maximum impact to capitalise on the Four Corners program; the feigned outrage and faux sincerity of every government member when asked about the footage (like Child Abuse RC witnesses, these people are only concerned with their own position, not those kids); the narrative of claiming shock when faced with the long established fact that government employees (and churches etc) grossly abuse young people; that Giles has been invited to give input …

These observations of how this thing is playing out in the public domain (and politicians treat the public domain as their private playground: double dissolution elections, plebiscites, Brexit), strongly indicates that the Commonwealth is using an RC announcement to appease the public; and that it will not be designed to stop government employees committing state-sanctioned racist violence.

Bearing witness is important, and has been done: by Aboriginal children and their families and communities; by the NT Children’s Commissioner and legal and other organisations; by governments and now by the viewing public. It is time for action.

Shut them down.

Not a hot take

Another day, another aggressive bombastic bully makes nasty sexist remarks on a public platform. He should, but will not, be sacked – unlike this writer who was sacked for two tweets. His name is Steve. Her name is Catherine.

Another day, another cranky old shock jock calling a woman hysterical on the telly ie he used a gendered slur in an attempt to silence and discredit that woman.

Everyday ignorance

Another day, another bunch of self-appointed progressive men being ironic or sarcastic or smart or funny – none of which can be done without honking their own horn.

‘To be fair, Steve Price did come to a battle of the wits unarmed’ chortled one bloke on Twitter. When an Aboriginal woman pointed out the significant armaments that Price’s demographic privilege affords him, the white man doubled down. His original irony and sarcasm were obvious, he proclaimed.

This bloke is performing support for women. He should have listened to, of all people, an Aboriginal woman. She knows a lot more about white male privilege than he does, because she has to navigate it every day while he does not see it at all. His comment was not original either – the phrase goes back centuries (but not to Shakespeare). Nor could he be sarcastic and ironic. Or maybe he is one of those people who think the two are synonyms, in which case his claim was a tautology.

This is the kind of dominance and erasure and ignorance – we are ignored and our views dismissed, by men who deploy responses which do not stand up to basic scrutiny – that women endure every day in the company of men.

Then there are the responses of incredulity and disbelief, which emerge every time a nasty sexist goes public with his nasty sexism. But nasty sexism is not new, or different, or out of the ordinary. It is not incredible.

Disgusting and appalling, yes. Surprising? No.

Every time we express surprise at routine sexism, we decontextualize the systemic nature of sexism. We also give a free pass to all those blokes who characterise themselves as entirely separate and different to the cranky old shock jock.

But the good bloke may not be so different from the cranky shock jock. ‘He was only joking’ and ‘I was being ironic’ are two versions of the same message. The message also has the same purpose: to legitimatise men’s voices while de-legitimising women’s voices. To silence women, to minimise and trivialise our perspectives, our experiences, our knowledge, our lives.

Everyday man, famous man: the difference is scale, not attitude

Take comedian Wil Anderson’s hot take: ‘We’ve reached the point where on a Tuesday there are more hot takes on #qanda than people who watched #qanda’ (Disclaimer: I love Wil. I defend Wil against Wil haters. I woke up with Wil for years. But in this tweet, Wil got it wrong).

Trivialising and minimising hot takes is one thing, but here is another: the two most important articles this Tuesday, by Van Badham and Rebecca Shaw, described the substantive problem in detail. The substantive problem is men’s violence against women, and domestic violence in particular. The substantive problem is the fact that successive conservative governments have systematically dismantled women’s services.

These are not ‘hot takes’. These are not for trivialising. These are life and death matters.

Or take the ABC radio host – a nice guy, a witty guy – who last week invited listeners to call in with their ‘tired mum’ stories. The first caller put through was a man. He was the parent who had not spent nine months growing a human being, who had not laboured mightily to bring a human into the world, who had never fed that human from his own body. But he was just as tired, this dad insisted, and the radio host did not have the wit or the will to correct him with basic biological facts.

Then there was the ABC radio roundtable last Thursday on the prospect of a federal hung parliament. The host – an apparently nice guy, witty too, some say – said ‘and of course Tony Windsor was an independent in the Greiner government’. Well, yes, he was. Windsor also served in a more recent minority government in the federal jurisdiction ie the actual jurisdiction that was then in the balance and under discussion. Why erase the Gillard government and reach back over 20 years for a less relevant comparison?

Why do you think?

The same radio host could also be heard this week ‘joking’ around with a white man colleague, saying Australian politics is not so bad because ‘we gave the sheilas the vote’ ha ha ha ‘before anyone else thought of it.’ Maybe he should think about what he just said. The suffragettes’ struggle for the vote was a protracted and difficult campaign. It was not a struggle against good blokes who hand over political rights to the sheilas because they are good blokes. It was a struggle against powerful white men who resisted power-sharing outside their own demographic elite. It was also not a struggle for Aboriginal suffrage. In a single sentence, our non-shock jock, our good white man, co-opted the work of suffragettes and pretended our enfranchisement was a gift from good blokes like himself and erased the disenfranchisement (or should that be unenfranchisement) of all Aboriginal people, men and women.

Nice one mate.

Then last Saturday there was this story on past winners of the prestigious Archibald prize, illustrated by a photo of three men front on, and the man writer off to one side. Off to the other side, we could just make out the blurry profile of Del Kathryn Barton, the only artist there who had won the Archibald twice. Maybe Barton asked to be obscured, but I doubt it – she has been interviewed and photographed before. I have no qualms with a photo in the arts section of a major newspaper showcasing Quilty. He seems like a top bloke. But to all but disappear Del Kathryn Barton? I have a major problem with that.

Archibald winners

Failure to portray the most successful portrait artist in this story

And how about The Drum this week. Host John Barron, a man, crossed to a commentator in the UK, also a man, to discuss the ascendency of Theresa May, a woman, to the British Prime Ministership. After treating us to the insights of these two men into women politicians, the host turned to former conservative MP Jackie Kelly and asked her about conservative women leaders such as Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir and Indira Ghandi. Golda Meir. In 2016. In Australia. I ask you.

To her credit, Kelly responded to this ridiculous question by naming (Labor) Premiers Joan Kirner (Vic), Carmen Lawrence (WA) and Anna Bligh (Qld) as well as (conservative NSW opposition leader) Kerry Chikarovski – but not (Labor Premier) Kristina Keneally (NSW).

If not discussing the ‘hospital pass’ – as Kelly, and again kudos to her, called it – of men ceding power to women when the blokes have made such a complete mess of things that only a woman could possibly clean it up… then why raise gender at all?

Barron then crossed to another man, and said ‘is it just old blokes like us who don’t get Pokemon Go?’ This is an invitation to begin a self-deprecating blokey routine together. What was the other bloke supposed to say? ‘No mate, it is just you. Women have a much better grasp of how Pokemon Go works, given it is women who are most likely to be looking after kids as they play the game’.

Why not merely compare the merits of politicians, or conservatives, or any old adult who does not ‘get’ an app craze? Why not place the most successful artist front and centre of a photo showcasing successful portrait artists? Why erase not one but four ALP Premiers and dig around in history, overseas, to put an absurd and unsubstantiated premise about conservative women in politics?

There is a point to listing how men choose to gender these narratives. These nonsense twists and turns in public debate serve multiple purposes. Highlighting gender where it is unnecessary to do so paves the way to obscuring gender roles when it is very necessary to do so. Such as when it comes to domestic violence.

For instance, when women note the fact that men’s violence against women is gendered in specific ways that benefit men and harm women, the man commentator – assuming he has got past the me-tooism practiced by oafs like Steve Price – can throw up his hands, act confused, and say ‘but when I gendered women politicians you all criticised me’.

Our man prides himself for being above Neanderthal level, of having made an effort to understand women’s issues or some such. It is all about him. He tried. He can not be expected to understand the fine distinction between men killing women and men ceding power to women when the blokes have trashed the polity.

After all, he is only a highly remunerated professional with a public platform who was awarded his position on merit. What more do women want? Can he help it that his learned helplessness and deliberate decision to close his ears when women are speaking has prevented him from learning important lessons about his own gender? Of course not. He is a good man. He tried.

Bona fides ignorance

This is the bona fides ignorance routine that is unthinkingly permitted – to whiteness and to men. Look at the enormous harm that church and state visited on members of the Stolen Generations and their descendants. The standard conversation among white people about the Stolen Generations – again, if it gets beyond base level, (it wasn’t me I wasn’t even there) – quickly essentialises to ‘but they had good intentions’.

When his intentions were good, once he has done nothing more than said so, the white man is almost always taken at his word, and is thereafter in the clear. This norm stems from centuries of cultural indoctrination about a man’s word being his bond and so on. Course we can no longer demand our satisfaction by way of a duel if we doubt a man’s intentions – that is for the courts these days.

But women were never permitted to question men’s intentions anyway. He said he did not mean it. Why are you harping on about it? It is petty. It is trivial. It is nothing. He probably did not think about it. (Indeed. That is his luxury. Also the problem).

Women are trained to minimise our own stakes and feelings in any given set of circumstances; and to fear the repercussions of impugning a man’s character. The repercussions are very real, of course. Rejecting a man or his views is in fact a huge risk. Hell hath no fury like a man scorned; which is why the old aphorism is ascribed to women.

This is how sexism works: men are granted the benefit of the doubt, based on a false assumption of his good intentions. At the same time, the evidence shows that men often hold extreme ill-intention, up to and including killing the women who doubt or refute or reject them.

Meanwhile in NSW

As I write, the NSW Premier Mike Baird is gearing up for a heroic announcement on legislative reform to assist ‘women in violent relationships’. The changes are addressed at the terrible hardships women endure when violent men damage property but leave a woman with the bill.

Here is the scenario. Someone damages property that is owned and leased by someone else. This is a crime. The correct response is to call the police and make a report; and contact the agent to provide details including the crime report number. The real estate contacts the landlord, who contacts their insurer, who pays for the damage to be fixed.

However, if the leaseholder is a woman in a sexual relationship with the man who did the damage, she is held responsible for his actions. Rather than the police, the landlord, the insurer and society ensuring the safety and individual responsibility of each member of the community (as per our purported values), a woman is made to pay for the crimes of a violent man.

The ‘law reform’ is said to ‘assist’ women to not be blamed for the actions of a violent man. Yet the violent actions of a violent man are in fact actions for which she is not and never was and can not be at law responsible for in the first place.

If women could control or change men, we would use that magic power to stop men being violent, not cause men to be violent (and to not, in this context, leave us with the bill while we also take responsibility for feeding and clothing and housing our children).

The law could instead uphold its own principles – individual responsibility, equality before the law. But there is no fanfare for Baird, or continuation of the dominant victim-blaming norm, in that.

So Baird shuts down women’s services while posturing as a hero and saviour of women. Nobody mentions that violent men are the problem, because everyone up and down the chain knows that women’s lives are at stake. This makes criticism extremely difficult. We must settle for reforms that would not be necessary if the rule of law as it currently stands was upheld by those who write it.

These reforms enshrine in law the norm that a woman victim is responsible for a violent man perpetrator’s damage by providing special ‘help’ in ‘exceptional’ circumstances – circumstances which are in fact routine and not exceptional at all.

In sum

Meanwhile, a bully tells his audience that the woman he bullied is aggressive. A radio host hears out a man telling his tired mum story. A twitter exchange shows a white man performing support for women while talking over a black woman. A successful woman portrait artist is framed out of a photo of successful portrait artists. An entire government led by a woman is erased from public discussion.

All these instances are on the same spectrum. Even the Prime Minister knows this, with his empty rhetoric on ‘violence against women’ (by which he means men’s violence) beginning with ‘disrespect’ (by which he means the ways that men ignore, erase, speak over, silence, and tone police women). What a pity Turnbull does not articulate these facts, or any real meaning. I mean, the electoral evidence suggests he has a ready and willing audience, if only he had the wit or the guts to do so.

Turnbull wants to be a hero to women too – but not in any substantive way. Like everything in politics, no matter how flowery the rhetoric, it comes down to numbers. As the final seats are counted, the proportion of women MPs in the newly elected Coalition government is 17.1% on current figures. Turnbull has gone backwards. If he is a feminist, he has no authority. If he has authority, he is no feminist.

Unless and until

Steve Price defended his mates as making a joke and then demanded that Van Badham ‘not tar him with the same brush’ as his mates. This is exactly the kind of irrational, unreasonable, internal incoherence that white privilege bestows on white men. But Steve does belong in the same category as Eddie MacGuire. It was Steve, by blathering about his mates, who tarred himself with the same brush as Eddie.

And until those nice white men who think it is funny or clever or ironic to trivialise and minimise women’s lives and perspectives and knowledge and experience, including by crowding the airwaves with their own performative good bloke routine…

Until conservative politicians get that it is not heroic to enshrine in law so-called exceptional circumstances for what is in fact unexceptional nay routine male violence…

Until writers and artists and public broadcasters recognise that it is unacceptable to give men a more prominent platform for objectively less success, to co-opt womens’ labour, whether in creating new humans or painting a portrait of those humans…

Until white Australian manhood comes to terms with the fact that it is unacceptable to co-opt white women’s struggle for the vote, while erasing Aboriginal people from both their struggle for the franchise and from public debate…

Unless these lessons are learned, the progressive good bloke men are tarring themselves with the same brush too.

The Malcolm Election: an A-Z

I have many thoughts about this election. Here are 26 of them.

A is for aspirational. The politician who seeks to connect with the desires and hopes of a heterogeneous Australian electorate while assuming we all still think middle class white men are the only credible figures of authority, legitimacy and leadership. See also: #FakeTradie

B is for bullshit. Sorry, but politicians lie. It is an enduring but false trope that the Australian electorate has an indefatigable bullshit detector. No, we do not. If we did, Tony Abbott would never have been Prime Minister. As a chronicler of context and truth it is my reluctant duty to remind you that yes Tony Abbott was, in fact, for two long years, the Prime Minister of Australia.

C is for cynicism. Every time I write about politics, somebody says oh why so cynical. No, I am not. I have reached an evidence-based position. I am qualified to do so. On my analysis, the Liberals are terrible economic managers. Turnbull is lying. Dutton is racist. I hold degrees in economics, politics and law; have ten years experience in cultural studies and semiotics research. Qualified conclusions are not cynicism.

D is for double dissolution. Which is ABCC AND DD (hur hur hur) because this election was called on an important principle, that principle being that Malcolm Turnbull be allowed to set a new low for abuse of constitutional process in order to attempt his hand and fate at re-election.

E is for election, the one that was due in September but has been brought forward by our default anyone-but-Abbot Prime Minister for the simple reason that the Liberal Party are, to quote a favourite of theirs, in disarray.

F is for fantastical, which is the correct adjective for the sad and stubborn headspace of those who maintain that Turnbull is statesmanlike; or that the Liberals are any kind of economic managers, in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

G is for government. The proper role of government. The extent to which the governing authority has control over the lives of the governed. The citizens. A legitimate question.

H is for housing. Homelessness. Housing security. That for which the Liberal Party do not give a fig. The Liberals will, however, waste resources on defending a policy that transfers wealth from the PAYE taxpayer to the investment-property-owning class. Resources that could be used for, oh, I don’t know, public housing.

I is for inequality. The first rule the FIRST rule is that all are equal before the law. That we are all born equal in dignity and rights. We should get cracking on that. Make it happen. Right now it is just words.

J is for justice. Social justice. Gender justice. Race justice. Our jails are full of poor people. Illiterate people. Survivors of child sexual assault. Yet it is fraud that costs the community more than any other crime. Our justice system is not, at present, distributing justice.

K is for killers. Men who kill women. Men who kill gays. Men who have access to guns and the structural power of patriarchy and use it to kill fellow human beings. Yes, it is political.

L is for liberalism. The actual values of liberalism, not this corrupted garbage passed off to us as free speech to hate on First Peoples and whoever else it is today.  Liberalism is autonomy of individuals over decisions and actions without harming others. Someone should tell members and representatives of the Liberal Party about that.

M is for moderates. Of which there are none left in the Liberal Party. Such that Turnbull looks like a moderate next to a religious extremist like Bernardi.

N is for Nauru. Because who is talking about Nauru this campaign? Bipartisanship is death. Literally. If the majors have decided not to contest each other on an appalling policy, we shall hear no more about it.

O is for opinion. And opinionistas. And opinion makers, and seekers, and jealous gatekeepers. Whether to a desperate shill like Devine or a dogged tortoise like Henderson, the fragmentation of audiences is scary as because we the people – in a democracy – are  *gasp* choosing to whom we want to listen, all by our own selves, like grownups.

P is for parties, and the ragged party system. So flawed, yet so entrenched. And every decision-maker who could see it improved is deeply vested in its current structure. Plus ca change etc

Q is for the Queen, and not just because our current Prime Minister tried and failed back in 1999 to rid us of her as our head of state. Her man Cosgrove, appointed by Abbott, signed off on Turnbull’s garbage excuse for a double dissolution, as convention requires. Unlike Kerr, she is at least cognisant of convention.

R is for refugees, And the Refugee Convention. And for – or more specifically, against – refoulement. As per our obligations under Article 31. The ones we regularly breach, using Art 33 on national security grounds as an excuse.

S is for soul and searching. Do that. I am. As I hold my nose and vote for Labor or maybe the Greens while deciding whether to put the Liberals last or some other violent racist sexist homophobe. What a pity our choices are so limited. I wonder who could do something about that. Yes wonder I do.

T is for transfer of power. Not from Liberal to Labor or back again, or from the House to the Senate. I mean real, institutional, structural change. Guaranteed positional power for First Peoples. Seats. Vetos. Sovereignty. Enforceable rights. It can be done.

U is for umbrage. Because saying things like oh I think constitutionally guaranteed seats in parliament and sovereign recognition of Aboriginal rights and interests in land … give rise to umbrage. Someone who gets to exercise their rights, more than they need and certainly more than they deserve, will take umbrage at that.

V is for the vote, and the voters. No, we are not responsible for the dismal state of the polity: that would be politicians. It is politicians who are in a position to change the quality of debate, policy, what we get and what we came for. It is politicians who decide that rich people can pay for access, and democracy be damned. But on that one day in three years, on 2 July 2016, we do have our vote.

W is for Wentworth. May it change hands. The incumbent is terrible, and he looks like he may not last into next week.

X is for X-factor. The known unknowns and the unknown knowns. How many are there of both. Blessed be the Australian polity.

Y is for YOU. In two weeks you get to choose which cis white heteronormative neurotypical private school educated sandstone university married man led party you want to choose a candidate for such that it will form government. Choose carefully, or the parliament might be overrun by all those radical communist ecologist black power feminist disability gay rights activists that you saw on your ballot paper.

Z is for Ziggy. Because where would we be without a demonstrably incompetent overpaid executive who knowingly breaches caretaker conventions running a third rate broadband network that was once going to be a national equaliser on digital access and opportunity.

I ask ya

Media and imbalance in the Conservative tradition

One of the many benefits of incumbency is that traditional media models and journalism methods favour the current government over the opposition.

This style of reporting is justified by citing the public interest. The claim is that the incumbent government position is more newsworthy. It is the government that is in a position to make decisions that directly affect citizens, and therefore it is the government pronouncements that should be foregrounded in the news bulletins.

(Of course it is governments, and not oppositions, that are in a position to directly affect media interests too; and these do not always coincide with the public interest.)

Structural advantages and self-interest

Foregrounding is particularly significant in election campaigns. It looks like this: the dominant message of the day is reported ‘above the fold’ – it is presented more prominently, in more detail, and more often.  It is more likely to headline and appear in off-the-hour updates; and be repeated as we ‘recap our top story’.

The inherent benefits are that the top ranking story is 1) more likely to be heard/read than other stories; and 2) more likely to be perceived by audiences as more important or more credible than an alternative position.

This is the prominence privilege dynamic. It favours the incumbent government. It is not in the public interest, but it is said to be.

At some point during an election campaign, traditional media decide whether to shift away from giving more prominence to the incumbent. Any shift depends on whether the opposition has become more likely to form the next government.

This is not a simple yes or no question, because so many interests are at stake. Suppose the Labor Party is now more likely to win, but it is not the preferred winner of heavyweight media interests. The shift may be put on hold. Some reasons are in the shadows: the influence of proprietors and pollsters; the desire of press gallery members to be participants in, as well as observers of, the political process.

Other reasons are more overt. Like voters, the media, its proprietors and employees are vested in electoral outcomes. Like voters, the media must source political information somewhere.

The obvious sources are face-to-face meetings with politicians, and political reporters. Some hardy voters attend town hall meetings or similar, and plenty of media monitor other outlets. Nevertheless, the vast majority of voters rely on political reporters; and the majority of political reporters are more likely to speak directly to politicians – at press conferences, interviews, debates, or for leaks, backgrounding and off-the-record quotes.

Prominence privilege and inherent conservative biases 

Leaving aside rumblings like Abbott’s agitating or who has been mothballed this week (is it Dutton? Ley? I can’t keep up) the core point of election campaigns is to choose between the parties. The parties have policies, which are units of ideology. Every policy is an articulation of social circumstances and how the next government will neglect or shape, subsidise or curtail, those circumstances. The parties design and sell their policy – legalise marriage equality, build more roads – in line with an ideology, such as neoliberalism or social democracy.

Take the NBN. A policy of affordable, high speed national broadband for all, regardless of corporate or shareholder interests, is grounded in a progressive, social democratic ideology. In contrast, a policy of concentrating the benefits of high speed broadband in the hands of the comfortable and wealthy, while neglecting people who are, say, unemployed or house-bound, reflects a neoliberal ideology.

That is an ideological divide. But there is also an ideological bias in traditional reporting methods. So-called media balance, like the system itself, is inherently conservative. It vigorously resists change. And high-platform media voices who call the election outcome are usually also inherently conservative.

So while one NBN policy is clearly of greatest benefit to the greatest number of citizens, to economic integration and to growth, to equality of opportunity and to regional areas… the other is currently being implemented. Its currency is its currency: this is how the public interest justification works to provide incumbent governments with prominence privilege.

NBN policy also has differential impacts on mainstream media: audience fragmentation, ownership of broadcasting rights and other media power bases. And this too is a factor for editorial decision-makers when calculating which story to foreground – on the front pages, at the top of the hour. The call on when (or whether) to shift on who will benefit from prominence privilege is reserved to the most senior editorial voices.

It is obviously unwise for high-circulation media outlets to cross a likely victor who has a vengeful streak – and democracy be damned.

These observations do not require a conspiracy, or an especially cynical outlook. It is a description of the political-media landscape, of the long-standing relationship between the various public estates. The relationship reflects multiple vested interests doing the self-interested thing that neo/liberalism insists is human nature (despite the many non-Western cultural traditions that give the lie to this claim).

During an election campaign, the prominence privilege dynamic operates in two ways. First, for the public interest justification given above, the dominant coverage is allocated to the incumbent (the first audio grab or quote or footage, the most airtime, the biggest and most frequent headlines, and ‘top story’ billing).

Second, or later in the campaign, the privilege is bestowed on whichever party is perceived to be most likely to form the next government. This perception is formed and reinforced in a homeostatic feedback loop by editors and their respective pollsters, by the message-makers and gate-keepers, the opinion writers and political commentators and press gallery, who then shift editorial decisions accordingly.

It is this second stage that we are in now, and it is this second dynamic that makes a call from a high-platform voice like Chris Uhlmann significant. While it is tempting to ask who cares whether Chris Uhlmann has called the election for the Coalition? Isn’t Labor going for underdog status anyway?

But Uhlmann is the political editor at the national broadcaster. He makes electoral editorial decisions at the ABC. He matters, whether we know he is hopelessly compromised and partisan or not. This is why we should care about blatant manoeuvring and participation (rather than observation and reportage) from well-placed media figures. A call like Uhlmann’s is timed to when more voters, particularly the all-important undecided voters, start to engage.

Uhlmann’s call, and his decision to make it now, was not only a very clear call for the Coalition to win, but also a very clear call which favours the Coalition. It provides scaffolding for the feeble public interest justification to be used to continue foregrounding Coalition speakers, Coalition talking points.

I can not over-emphasise the significance of this. Like the political editors at Fairfax, and the Murdoch press, and the commercial radio and televisions networks, these high-platform decision-makers determine what to cover, how prominently, for how long, and how often. If traditional media were going to shift away from its more prominent showcasing of the incumbent government, it would start to happen about now.

The decision of whether to shift tends to coincide with who the media wants to form the next government. They know how prominence privilege works., and have their own interests to safeguard. And because media interests do not always coincide with the public interest, prominence decisions only seem coherent when the two do coincide. When these interests are at odds, and the call has preferred media over public interests, we hear engaged voters asking why Uhlmann (or whoever) is calling the election for the Coalition (or whoever).

The Conservative Line, then and now

There are additional structural advantages when the incumbent and the expected winner (as claimed by media heavyweights) are conservative. The prominence effect accumulates and compounds, like financial interests of the wealthy (not a coincidence).

These dynamics stem from two related propositions: 1) the system is historically, inherently conservative 2) incumbents abuse incumbent power to maintain prominence and credibility and thus power.

The system is inherently conservative because the system was designed by conservatives: propertied white men. Remember, these were men whose property included legal ownership of human beings under a legal system designed and constructed by themselves. They also built mechanisms for favouring conservatism into the structural norms and conventions of the Westminster system. They called these design features checks and balances and said the purpose was stability.

This is not to say that conservative conventions are not also abused by conservatives. They are. This is also inherent, to the ‘born to rule’ nature of conservatism. Born-to-rule, by the way, is not some made-up slur. It is a centuries-old tradition of the British system that they forcibly imposed here. The formal term is primogeniture. It denoted which offspring (the oldest son) would inherit all the property and a seat in government (the House of Lords) through no merit whatsoever, merely an accident of birth. 

The default tendency towards incumbency is founded in these various formal structures – our stabilisers, or checks and balances – and has been reproduced down the centuries.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and the upshot is that apparently intelligent people say things like Malcolm Turnbull has gravitas, or the Liberal Party are the better economic managers. And the stubborn humanity and pride of some means that people will continue to make such nonsensical claims despite overwhelming counter-evidence.

Then there is the fact that conservatives will pull any lever, and use any tax-payer funded resource, to stay in power. After the lie of meritocracy, this is the next most crucial feature of conservatism, and it is enabled by inherent biases in traditional journalism methods.

The classic manoeuvre this time round was the way Turnbull, with the support of legal advice from his Attorney General, called a double dissolution despite no discernible democratic reason to do so. The double dissolution trigger was pulled for purely political reasons, specifically, to shore up the political power of our default, anyone-but-Abbott Prime Minister.

This was done because Turnbull has utterly squandered his political capital. In language even the dimmest Liberal apparatchik could understand: the high-risk strategy to invest in Turnbull’s popularity has delivered a negative return on investment. No dividend. And like most rich folks faced with this scenario, the party turned to lower-net worth individuals, the Australian taxpayer, to bail them out of a truly terrible venture capital decision.

This is not to hold Labor up as some kind of squeaky-clean golden role model (see: Eddie Obeid). But Labor are not in power, nor reaping the structural advantages of incumbency and prominence privilege in this election campaign. Quite the opposite.

So it is the conservatives who will, collectively, stop at nothing, no matter how extreme, unprincipled and in breach of conventions designed to ‘stabilise’ the system. After all, nice guys finish last, right? We may not want to believe that this continues, year in, year out, Parliament after Parliament. That we have progressed so little.

But progress is not linear. For every step towards equality and justice and rights for all, conservatives are on stand by to aggressively push back and reinstate their preferred – and rigidly unequal, unjust – status quo.

The events of 1975, unprecedented and unrepeated, are the prime example of this in Australia. The 1975 legacy includes even apparently progressive voices reproducing, to this day, the trope that Whitlam was reckless. This retrospective justification for conservatives breaching their own conventions is never balanced with an accurate observation as to how aggressively and unscrupulously the Coalition did everything in their power to bring down an opponent – and in so doing, destabilised the whole system.

Yet somehow, being conservative and destabilising the entire system, trashing the stabilisers designed by their own, is not as reckless or dangerous or destabilising as when progressives establish progressive policies for which they have a clear mandate from the electorate in a democracy. That is how it works.

And commandeering legacy, a very high priority for the conservative side of politics, works in other ways. Why stop at retrospective justification for deeply unprincipled actions? In a similar way, conservatives will commandeer any legacy they can not destroy. According to this narrative, the Hawke-Keating economic reforms were ‘bipartisan’, while attacks on Medicare and affordable tertiary education continue right now, in 2016.

So as we enter the final stage of this campaign, it is important to know the historical context, this deeply ingrained and vigorously prosecuted position that conservatives are supposedly the more credible governing body – which continues, as mentioned, in the face of overwhelming counter evidence, via abuse of incumbent power.

In this context, major media voices make both instinctive and calculated decisions about how and where to bestow prominence privilege. Where the call is that the conservative incumbent will win, it is not merely an observation or a punt or an informed prediction. Nor is it only a vested interest. It is a call that overtly favours the conservative incumbent. The call will vest in the conservative interest, for the remainder of the campaign.

 

Malcolm and women: More concern troll than feminist

Malcolm Turnbull says he would call himself a feminist, like it is some movement he can just join with no invitation, no credentials, and no effort. Much like the rest of his life really, except feminism is not as easy to join as lunch at a men-only club, or the Liberal Party. Some of us have standards.

The quote was immediately butchered to claim that Malcolm Turnbull is a feminist – which he demonstrably is not. We know this because at the same time he nervously joked about the ironing. Women who are feminists do not posture and perform for the cameras about who does the ironing when outing themselves as feminists. That is a thing that men who are not feminists do. Men like Tony Abbott.

Malcolm Turnbull says he would describe himself as a feminist – he just left off the end of the sentence: ‘to garner votes’. We know we can find this implied premise in the sentence because we know Turnbull would say anything to win votes. Saying things, after all, is a lot easier than devising actual policy, like wealth distribution that does not transfer wealth upwards, or standing up to the lunatic homophobic right, or even standing up to his own Treasurer, Scott ‘release the costings’ Morrison.

This is a man we pay $500,000 per annum to traipse around, looking like death warmed up, while telling us fibs. That is, when he is not making a dribbling fool of himself in an embarrassingly transparent attempt to connect with the 99% whose net worth comes in under $200 million.

I speak, of course, of the tasteless and mawkish daddy video. The one about which Turnbull clarified separation arrangements regarding the marital bed. I’m not making that up.

Some of us did engage with what Malcolm put on show, which is to say, his mummy issues. This is so predictable that it must have been at least partially the point. It is not a feminist point, nor a feminist thing to do. It is a trollish thing to do. He is trolling a dead woman, his own late mother, who gave him life on this earth.

If this seems a long bow, here is what Turnbull said when asked why he released the video:

It’s important to honour your parents, Mark. It’s important to honour your father.

See what he did there? It was probably not even deliberate. He is a man running for office and running on empty. What’s a bit of defensive erasure and misplaced anger at his late mother, on the national stage?

Turnbull has form in trolling women. His first announcement as Prime Minister was to restore one third of the $300 million that had been ripped out of services for women escaping violence. A third of that third was earmarked for ‘awareness-raising’. This is a Liberal Party favourite. It is code for fat cheques to donor mates who run or have interests in advertising companies. See ‘ideas boom’ for further evidence of this garbage substitute for policy.

Meanwhile, unlike feminist-run women’s refuges, ‘awareness-raising’ (profiteering from misery) is not a proven success at stopping men’s violence towards women and children. The ads are essentially designed for comfortable Liberal voters to tsk tsk at how terrible is domestic violence while nodding knowledgeably: isn’t it nice that nice Mr Turnbull (or that nice Mikey B in NSW) is ‘doing something’.

Something like spending taxpayers’ money on advertising campaigns designed to make conservative voters feel better about voting in a cabal of racist sexists who can not sell a policy in a seven week election campaign but they can keep a torture camp or ten up and running.

Similarly, in his first cabinet, Turnbull announced NSW Senator Marise Paine would become our first woman defence minister. He was swiftly reminded that Ros Kelly was a junior defence minister in the Keating government. Minor quibbles. What Turnbull wanted was the grandiose claim, the great man in history narrative, the ‘first’ status – using a woman or two to get there is of no moment to him.

Incidentally, how much have we heard from the Defence Minister when it comes to terror announcements, overseas fighter deaths and the like? Nothing? Has George Brandis taken over that role? How about threats to the nation state, non-existent as they are compared to most places in the world? Anything? Or do we see that role fall to Peter ‘BorderForce’ Dutton, when he is not tripping over his own shoe laces, or the rubbish falling out of his mouth?

Paine may be the first woman to be a fully fledged Australian Defence Minister, but that does not mean Turnbull was not merely trolling women while the men retain the bombs and terror and brassy uniforms stuff for themselves.

But we were talking about Turnbull and his relationship with his parents, who both died last century. If the outbreak of amateur reverse-Oedipus analysis was not predicted, Turnbull and his team are even more embarrassingly incompetent than even I thought possible, and I have zero regard for the man or his team. I see no skill in policy or politics. Simple abuse of incumbent power, explored at length here, is all I see.

In short, the single dad schtick is a narrative for which I have zero empathy in this context. Here is why. I am a sole parent. I have actual parenting to do. Turnbull is 61 years old, his father has been dead for 30 years, he holds the most powerful job in the country.

What does he want from us? This whiny, needy, multimillionaire thinks the best way to woo my time is with a tacky pitch to the dudebro vote with a posthumous poverty narrative wrapped in meritocracy mythology. Nuh-uh. No.

My take is the infamous Turnbull judgement (again). Like the decision to talk about the ironing, a line which, to a sizable portion of voters, immediately recalls his predecessor. Or his decision to feign outrage that Opposition Leader Bill Shorten dared to state a known fact: that women take by far the most responsibility for childcare.

Remember the GST increase thought bubble and tax-based federation revolution that lasted mere days? Here, too, Turnbull has form.  As a backbencher in 2005, Turnbull spent months undermining then-Treasurer Peter Costello on tax policy, and released his proposals with apparently no insight into the toes on which he trod – judgement, judgement – or the opprobrium he would incite. His proposals sank without a trace – because Turnbull could not read the political landscape.

Yet on ascension to the prime ministership, Turnbull exhumed the dead tax cat and threw it on the table. Only to discover that the Australian electorate was no more interested in his sweeping gestures than was Costello. Funny, that.

Then there is the constant sloganeering – also reminiscent of Abbott. In fact, except for the unsubstantiated hypothesis that Turnbull is better suited to Prime Ministering than opposition leadering (he has proven to be terrible at both), it is Abbott who comes up rosier in any comparison with respect to sloganeering. This is because Abbott was not exposed as a serial plagiariser as well as a predictably repetitive liar.

The United States Chamber of Commerce in Washington, District of Columbia, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg
Jobs & Growth banners, The United States Chamber of Commerce in Washington, District of Columbia, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

Yet here is Turnbull blathering jobs and growth until he is grey in the face, drearily invoking the least successful Liberal Prime Minister since at least McMahon. No wonder the team decided a circuit breaker was in order. What a pity they did not hit on telling the truth about policy as an alternative approach.

Unlike those who are remunerated to assemble actual insights into the Prime Ministerial performance, I see no point hashing over marriage equality, the republic, and climate change. We all know Turnbull has blown these policies; and that such abject failure has ‘disappointed’ those who were sure he was up to the Prime Ministerial job.

In a kind of creepy-daddy-karma twist, a poll in his seat of Wentworth published this week, men over 55 who are most ‘disappointed’ in Turnbull’s performance. I can just see their silver heads bobbing sadly as they tell pollsters in a sorrowful tone. No, we are not angry with him, just disappointed.

Which brings us full circle to the emotional immaturity Turnbull unwisely put on display to the Australian electorate. As one mate remarked, it is almost as though this is a therapy session. To which I replied that the whole tawdry exercise seems like the electorate has been press-ganged into providing group therapy – for a man who wants for absolutely nothing – and I for one resent it.

I am a feminist. I have actual parenting to do. Not half a century ago. Right now. Whether the Prime Minister is feeling nostalgic has no bearing on current housing costs, or the state of public education, the casualisation of the work force, the fact that coal and CSG mining are trashing country for generations to come.

As better minds than mine have noted, he did not even have the grace, or brains, or antennae, to link the video thing to restoring sole parent supports removed by Gillard. That would at least have played the feminist card more effectively. Cynically, but even cynical-yet-effective would be a step up from vacuous attention-seeking.

Malcolm wants me to divert my attention to him – and thus away from my income-insecure job, and my children, and parenting responsibilities, and family and friends and writing and actual policy and promises. Really? For a purported position on feminism and a tear-jerker bro clip that erases his dead mother and exploits his dead father?

This poorly-judged attempt to humanise a sitting prime minister who is also a multimillionaire – a man who wants for nothing, nothing …  is little more than a transparent plea to the Australian electorate that we gratify his seemingly bottomless hunger for power and insatiable desire for approval.

Always was, always will be Aboriginal land

Late in 2015, as part of the Breeza and Liverpool Plains Harvest Festival, I camped for a couple of days with friends and colleagues on Gamilarray Gomeroi land near Gunnedah, not far from Tamworth, in north-west NSW. We were there to participate in, and document, the campaign against five Watermark Shenhua coal mines slated for the go-ahead by the NSW Coalition government.

After a group photo, the chant went up: ‘always was, always will be, Aboriginal land’. As a vocal minority called out this message, local farmers shifted their feet – and eyes – uncomfortably.

The night before, a group of said local farmers – young men all – joined us at the campfire, got rollicking drunk, and voiced the kind of racist statements we hear at any gathering of the agricultural elite.

One young cocky interrupted a conversation to ask a 21year old Gamilaraay man whether he is Aboriginal. On being told ‘yes’, the cocky described his experiences employing Aboriginal farm hands, and commented on the physical build of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.

After we listened politely for a while, and then backed away slowly, the young Gamilaraay man asked me if I thought the cocky was, well, a bit of a eugenicist. How we laughed. What can you do? The guy actually confirmed that he was speaking to an Aboriginal person before spouting false and racist commentary about supposed traits – both physical and work-ethic – of Aboriginal people.

I am white, but to the best of my knowledge this is par for the course, in the 21st century.

A racist polity: does it matter?

I do not tell this story to deny the constructive partnerships that have been built between traditional owners, activists, and the agricultural elite (and researchers, and small business owners, and scientists and city and country) as we work together to stop coal and coal seam gas mining. These relationships have taken a lot of work to build, together. These relationships exist, and matter.

But such relationships do not nullify the fact that we live in a racist country. Our very identity as a single nation-state, when the continent and her islands are made up of over 300 sovereign Aboriginal and Islander nations, is a product of racist violence.

This is a difficult and confronting fact. The incident of the racist cocky – and of our chant at the coal mine protest site – came to mind when I heard the audio clip of Bill Shorten speaking at the 2016 Reconciliation Dinner. It is why, for me, it is noteworthy that in his speech, Bill Shorten said ‘this continent is, always was, and always will be Aboriginal land’.

The accepted political wisdom is that there are very few votes in this statement.

For the first time ever, National Reconciliation Week (NRW) has fallen during a federal election campaign. This is not in itself particularly noteworthy. Federal elections fall due every three years, and NRW was established by Reconciliation Australia in 1996, a mere twenty years ago. Twenty years is approximately 0.0004% of the period of human occupation here.

Recent racism

The year 1996 was the last year of the Hawke-Keating governments, the year the High Court of Australia recognised the partial survival of native title in lands under pastoral leases in its Wik decision. It was the year John Howard was elected to the Prime Ministership of Australia, on a policy platform that included extinguishing native title.

John Howard is renowned for exploiting our inherent racism for political gain. He never hesitated. His racist rhetoric followed a trajectory in lockstep with views expressed by Pauline Hanson, just as his parallel actions were designed to distance himself from her.

Naturally, Hanson copped a lot more opprobrium than Howard. It is not as if the Australian electorate is any less sexist than we are racist. Howard was hugely ‘successful’, with his ‘plausible deniability’ and his dog-whistling technique. He has ‘inspired’ and nurtured at least two generations of nasty racist young Liberals (so far): the morally moribund ‘black ops’ who have now come of age.

Not least of the Howard acolytes was the self-proclaimed bastard son Tony Abbott, whose meanness and madness was carefully nurtured as only a grossly hyper-masculine organisation can ‘nurse’ such creatures (for the Freudians: this is womb envy). Abbott’s development was eventually arrested only by a bigger ego, our current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.

And the nation, or at least the media and their polling partners, dominated by the same white male demographic, proclaimed that this Turnbull, another (richer) white man, could solve the problems of the nation, a systemically, endemically, sexist, racist polity.

For who? And how is that working out? Not by citing gun control and looking back on John Howard with rose-coloured glasses. Such an approach is delusional.

But then conservatives always put legacy before actual achievement. It is inherent to conservatism, devoted as it is to the past and maintenance of the status quo. Conservatives put retaining power first and legacy second. Governing the country comes a very distant third.

Could the Liberals be less terrible?

Look at it this way: Menzies had an excuse.

Yes, self-determination emerged in the post-war years as a central principle of human rights, along with the most endorsed document in the history of humanity, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights itself.

Yes, it was not until the late, great Gough Whitlam won the 1972 election that Australia was dragged into operationalising post-war human rights principles such as self-determination and thus land rights. Yes, Menzies was an Anglophile, a relic from an era when all Australians were born British subjects and it meant something – or it meant something to the white Australians.

But maybe Menzies was not completely terrible. He signed us onto the Refugee Convention (1951) and codified it into law (Migration Act 1958 (Cth)). In his limited and pompous way, Menzies represented Australia as a responsible member of the international community. White Australia, which was (legally) a half-century old by then, was not dismantled on Menzies’ watch, but post-war immigration boomed and white Australia became doomed. There was no way white Australia could remain intact under Menzies’ successors, no matter what their political hue.

And Howard? Howard is now a Menzies biographer no less. A self-seeking, legacy-profiteering acolyte. What is Howard’s excuse for being a backwards relic of another era, not just now, but while in government? Is it that he grew up under Menzies, and had arrested development throughout the civil rights and women’s liberation movements? That does not wash.

The entire ideology of liberalism is constructed on the assumption that men are rational. This, says the liberal tradition, is what differentiates men from other creatures. These socially constructed assumptions of superiority over, say, dolphins, rely on social Darwinism, while refusing to evolve. This in turn is founded in its own self-interest, or reasons, while calling self-interest rational.

See how that works? And we wonder why conservatives are incapable of dealing with, for example, climate change.

The refusal to evolve, the resistance to change, is inherent to the conservative project. Like its two icons, Menzies and Howard (Fraser rejected the party before the party rejected Fraser), the Liberal Party is deeply conservative.  Even its name is a lie.

It was not that long ago

In many ways, the Howard era (1996-2007) was defined by racism. It is his signature legacy, his lasting contribution to the Australian polity. he set out to see any progress toward racial equality or self-determination or Aboriginal rights forged by Whitlam, Hawke and Keating  – and even Fraser – under whom he was the worst treasurer this country has ever seen – be rolled back, undermined, attacked, destroyed.

Howard’s immediate and unreconciliatory amendments to the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) set the scene for years of racist policy- and law-making to come. Later campaigns included demonising asylum seekers as terrorists (2001); and the abolition of the only national, elected, representative Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander body in the land (ATSIC).

The final Howard election campaign (2007), in an effort to not lose his seat and government (he lost both) the then-Prime Minister and his ex-military Indigenous Affairs man Mal Brough announced they were sending in the army to Northern Territory communities because look at all those mining riches well black men you know what black men are like.

Just some of the indescribable damage we caused under the so-called Northern Territory Intervention is described here.

Nobody did more than Howard to ensure that post-war developments in human rights, in racial and gender equality, in land rights, recognition of Aboriginal rights and interests in land, in women’s liberation, environmental sustainability, climate change … were trashed, broken, swept away, kicked to the kerb. The man stood for nothing and nurtured no-one but his own: politically invested white patriarchal industrial, corporate, and social interests. And no-one did he nurture more than Tony Abbott.

This destructive impulse, or more likely frank incompetence, is evidenced by the fact that Howard failed utterly to ensure any form of succession. If anything, Howard completely bollocksed the potential succession out of spite towards his Treasurer and deputy. Although to be fair, Costello was no better in the political skills stakes by then. After ten years in power it would be beyond naivety to expect anything more from the Liberal Party than incompetent, lazy, born-to-rule complacency.

This is one key reason Howard lost his seat as well as lost government. People put up with the old man rapidly losing relevancy for so long, out of loyalty and respect and deference, but if he can not even handle succession?

Not all cultures are like this. But Howard and Costello benefit from a specific form of social organisation: white patriarchy. It is women and children who will continue to show loyalty and spend time and provide meaning to Howard in his dotage. Howard was sacked, but most claim to leave in order to ‘spend more time with family’. After a lifetime of grasping and game playing and destroying people’s lives, one or two may come to understand what actually matters. The huge cost to other people’s children and grandchildren, such as of the elders struggling under the Northern Territory Intervention, is unlikely to cross the tiny mind of a Howard or Costello.

That was then.

This is now

There is a reason I recount this disaster of a Prime Minister, a man whose reign is hailed as a success because he ‘won’, despite the lies, the massive and continuing damage, the racism and sexism and backwardness. Despite the meanness (Howard) and the madness (his protégé and chief head kicker, Abbott), that is this legacy.

This is the Australia in which our young cocky grew up. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? This person came of age, his entire high school years and development towards adulthood, was dominated by a backwards racist sexist, a small and nasty, petty and mean-minded, talentless suburban Liberal Party hack with no original ideas, no creativity, no vision, and no greater articulation for the future … other than that Australians be relaxed and comfortable.

To be a young white man coming of age in this period meant to win at that? How foul. Whoops! I mean what a time to be alive.

The point is not to defend these men, either old or young. The point is that they inherit and hold more social, political and economic power than anyone else – without having done anything for it, let alone having worked hard. It is axiomatic that the beneficiaries of structural advantages perpetuate the mythology of meritocracy most aggressively.  Under white patriarchy, when a trope is demonstrably untrue,the white men who benefit from it most are always in the forefront when it coms to reproducing the lie.

The point is to note that very few federal election campaigns see a robust Aboriginal policy platform at all, let alone a policy plank around Aboriginal identity, sovereignty, or rights.

In 2007, Kevin Rudd added an official Apology to the Stolen Generations to his policy mix, a promise he delivered on 13 February the following year.  It had been a while since a major party had the courage to put up what would be done for Aboriginal people, rather than what a future government would promise to do to harm Aboriginal people.

Few people would claim that the Apology had tangible benefits for the material circumstances of Aboriginal people. Many argue the opposite. Nevertheless, as a campaign policy, the Apology was couched in the language of democratic principle: a Royal Commission had made a recommendation, which was to Apologise, as a nation, to the Stolen Generations, to take collective responsibility for our actions. A social-democratic political party stated that if it won government, it would implement this recommendation, because social democratic ideology subscribes to collective action and collective responsibility.

This is how our democracy works. And it is in this context that we must understand what Bill Shorten said:

This mighty continent is, was, and always will be Aboriginal land.

Lying lacks integrity, or IOKIYALNP*

Last week I wrote up a few tips and guidelines to the Malcolm election in which Australia, increasingly miserably, finds itself. I grumbled about the sexism of Dutton and the posturing of the Prime Minister and observed that the Treasurer clearly hates his boss.

The post was redundant within hours. Dutton surpassed his sexism with some carefully calibrated racist xenophobic lies. Despite obvious distaste from the Opposition, much of the commentariat and the electorate, Turnbull backed him up and Dutton doubled down. Clearly this dead cat had major work to do. Just how bad were those polls, those PEFO figures, the evidence that the budget handouts to business and the wealthy would not produce either jobs nor growth?

Maybe it was the news that Australian Border Force members are allegedly involved in smuggling rackets. You know the ones. That favourite of Dutton (and Morrison, and Abbott) which spends more on medals than the actual Australian Defence Force does. This pseudo militaristic outfit isthe solution to ‘people smuggling’ but according to Fairfax, a ‘network of Australian Border security officials’ are likely into tobacco smuggling.

Not to mention the troubling evidence from none other than Amnesty International that our government committed transnational crimes by paying people smugglers to leave Australian waters.

Perhaps it was the Pre-election Economic Fiscal Outlook, which World Today reported would revise revenue downwards from the imaginary growth figures that featured in the budget a mere two weeks earlier. The afternoon PM program then reported that the PEFO would be broadly consistent with the budget forecasts. Is this really some kind of achievement when, did I mention? The budget was tabled a mere two weeks earlier.

But then things got really messy.

Turned out the AFP was about to raid the office of a Labor senator and the house of a Labor staffer which they did in quite spectacular fashion. The raid was ostensibly over leaks of nbn™ documents. An nbn™ staffer apparently went along to advise the AFP and took photos of documents – documents which are now subject to a claim of Parliamentary privilege – but not before the former copper turned nbn™ staffer turned special assistant to the AFP could share said photos.

Or not. Who knows? If these were errors, the AFP is incompetent. If the AFP knew the documents were likely to be subject to a privilege claim and went ahead anyway, the whole thing was a redundant stunt. Redundant but for one possible purpose: the ever-present media, some of whom happened to be nearby when the night time raids were mounted. The media works in mysterious ways.

Speaking of craptacular mistakathons (© @YaThink) the AFP Commissioner then told the media that his organisation had not notified government of the raids. This was followed by a clarification from the Communications Minister that he had been advised of the raids but that he had not told the Prime Minister.

So what? Well, both men clearly have a poor understanding of the word government (the AFP Commissioner and the Minister are both members of executive government); and at least one of them is lying about whether Communications Minister Fifield was told.

Nobody has contradicted the claim that the Prime Minister was not told except, it would seem, the Prime Minister himself. Answering questions on the campaign trail, he was asked repeatedly about the raids he was purportedly not told about before the fact.

From the transcript:

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister can you confirm that your Communications Minister knew about the possible investigation into the NBN links some months ago and didn’t tell you about it?

PRIME MINISTER:

I can yes, that’s right.

JOURNALIST:

He didn’t tell you about it but he knew about it?

PRIME MINISTER:

That’s correct.

So far, so good – if you believe what the Prime Minister places on the public record. After some babbling about an old white man megaphone who is a blight on our airwaves, the PM was asked:

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister Turnbull, did you or anyone acting on your behalf have any contact with NBN Co or its’ executives about this leaked material?

The AFP Commissioner having denied telling anyone in government about the raids, and the relevant minister having said he was told but did not pass on this information, the journalist is checking whether the PM knew of the raids through some other avenue.

Here is what the PM said when asked if he had any contact with NBN Co about the leaks:

Can I say to you that I’m not sure what you mean by that question. But the only issue here, the issue here is the integrity and the independence of the Australian Federal Police.

Let me just make this point; it should be a matter of very great regret that the Leader of the Opposition and the Shadow Attorney-General sought yesterday to attack the integrity of the Australian Federal Police. Now, Australians recognise that the national security of this country, of our nation, the safety of our people, is indivisible. It involves our armed forces. It involves border protection. It involves police, federal police, state police. It is an indivisible chain of security. The integrity of our police forces is absolutely critical.

Now, the Australian Federal Police, when they conduct an investigation, firstly they make their own decision as to whether to investigate, which they did in this particular case and then how they conduct that investigation is theirs, their decision to make, independently of government. Now, what Mr Shorten is seeking to do is to suggest that the Australian Federal Police have acted other than with integrity or other than independently. He should be ashamed of doing so.

We know, as the Commissioner said, that the AFP act with the utmost integrity and they act independently of government as they should.

 Here is some of what Turnbull just did:

  1. began his answer with a signature distraction/think-time phrase
  2. expressed doubt in his own comprehension as he bought time to decide what question to replace the actual question with
  3. conflated AFP integrity with a lie about the Labor Party
  4. asserted, without a shred of evidence, that the AFP are above reproach and beyond questioning on issues of integrity and independence
  5. conflated an AFP raid with national security – which traditionally refers to threats from outside the nation state.
  6. implied that the AFP are not an arm of government. In fact, the AFP are armed agents of executive government
  7. backed his claim that the integrity of the AFP is above reproach by citing a man who either lied to the public or exposed the communications minister as a liar
  8. did not answer the question

And that is just a start. Turnbull was then asked about the NBN staffer who was present under the guise of holding expert knowledge as per AFP guidelines. He did essentially the same thing, in terms of not answering the question, switching the topic to the Opposition, and making unsubstantiated claims about the integrity of the AFP.

It is worth asking whether Turnbull would bother doing any of these things if there was a simple yes or no answer available to a properly briefed leader on the independence and probity of the raids. But apparently a man trained in first principles like presumption of innocence, and who ostensibly had no prior knowledge of the raids, also had deep insider knowledge of the facts and of culpability (emphasis added):

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, do you accept that given these documents were presupposed to be under parliamentary privilege the AFP violated their own guidelines by having an NBN Co person present there, taking photographs?

PRIME MINISTER:

I can’t comment on that. The documents, I note that there’s been a claim of parliamentary privilege made by Senator Conroy. The documents have not actually been tabled in Parliament, which is how parliamentary privilege is normally obtained. But really, I don’t want to get into the legalities of Senator Conroy’s determination to keep the police away from these documents, which were clearly stolen from the NBN Co. So he’s trying to keep the police away from those. He’s made a claim. Apparently it will be dealt with by the Senate when the Senate reconvenes after the election.

All I can say to you is that the police acted independently and with integrity. My Government respects that integrity and independence. It is a great pity that Mr Shorten and in particular his Shadow Attorney-General, plainly does not.

The documents were clearly stolen from NBN Co, according to the leader of the land.

Lets leave aside the presence of the former Victorian police officer turned casino security manager turned NBN staffer turned expert who was present at highly sensitive AFP raids in the full glare of the media in the middle of an election campaign where he reportedly took photos of documents and shared them before any privilege claim could be heard – this is all too murky for me.

What I can set out – in light of the Prime Ministerial claim that the documents were seized because the documents are clearly stolen goods – is a quick run down on how a criminal proceeding proceeds.

A complaint (or observation, when police are out on patrol) is made such that police form a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed or is about to be committed.

The police interview the complainant and begin to gather other evidence.

If that potential evidence includes items that the police reasonably believe are stored at a specific location, a warrant application is made to search the premises at that location.

The warrant is signed off by a magistrate or higher officer (depending on seriousness of the crime and other details).

The police attend the suspected address and properly execute the warrant.

If evidence that matches that described on the warrant is found, it can be photographed, seized, and removed by authorised officers of the state.

So.

We know each of these steps have been carried out, with the possible exception of the presence of the NBN staff member, which may turn out to be unauthorised at law.

Before anyone can state that the seized documents were stolen from NBN Co, let alone that the documents were obviously stolen from NBN Co, the following steps must be taken:

The police continue gathering evidence such as interviewing witnesses until there is sufficient evidence to arrest a suspect with a view to laying a charge or charges. The standard test here is whether the evidence can amount to proof such that a reasonable jury would be likely to convict the accused. Are there, asks the prosecutor, reasonable prospects of success in this case?

This rule is intended to prevent police from pursuing an unwinnable case against an accused person who merely conforms to the police idea of what a criminal is or looks like or who the police think should be locked up without credible evidence. There is a reason for thus rule. The reason is embedded in the preventative purposes listed.

Next, the police make an arrest ‘on suspicion’ of a particular offence. Then they question the suspect. Then they lay the charge (or release the suspect). There may be a bail hearing, if the police oppose bail. This is due to presumption of innocence. The accused is innocent until proven guilty, beyond reasonable doubt, in a properly constituted court of law.

There will be a mention to set various dates and may be a plea hearing. If the accused pleads guilty, we may state at this point and not before, that the documents were ‘obviously stolen’ – if and only if the charge is that of stealing these documents.

If a not guilty plea is entered, the evidence is tested before the tribunal of fact – either a jury, or a judge if the accused has opted for a judge-only trial. The prosecution presents its case. The defence presents its defence. Evidence is adduced. Applications are made for non-admissibility of prejudicial evidence (or not). Witnesses are examined and cross-examined (or not). The rules are explained by the judge if necessary.

The evidence and arguments are summarised. The tribunal of fact retires to consider the facts and circumstances of the case. A verdict is reached. The court is recalled. The verdict is delivered. If the verdict is guilty then, and only then, can we say that ‘the documents were obviously stolen’ – if the charge was that of stealing these documents.

The presumption of innocence is a cornerstone of the criminal law system. It is an acknowledgement of the fact that the state and its agents are known to abuse power. Far from the armed agents of the state being above reproach, the most foundational principles of our legal system – presumption of innocence, right to silence, guilt beyond reasonable doubt – are specific recognition of the inherent power imbalance between the citizen and the state; and of the inherent tendency of the state to abuse its power and to violate the rights and freedoms of its citizens.

This is historical fact. The evidence of state abuse of power is overwhelming, and has been for centuries. When the Prime Minister claims the AFP are beyond reproach, he contradicts what every first year law student learns about the foundational principles of our legal system and why we have them.

In other words, none of us know whether the documents were ‘obviously stolen’ until a guilty plea is entered or the evidence is tested in a court of law. Either of these two results then makes the fact obvious. That is what criminal law processes are designed to do: seek facts and evidence, construct those facts and evidence into a logical argument that examines all the circumstances, and reach a verdict, which is either the truth or becomes the truth, depending on how robust is the system and its agents.

Yet regardless of centuries of legal tradition, principles, and rules, a barrister-turned-politician, the highest-ranked leader in the land, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, got out his crystal ball and told reporters that the documents were obviously stolen.

This is not his call to make. It is a matter for the police, the accused, and the courts.

 

 

 

*IOKIYALNP: It’s okay if you are Liberal National Party (like living within your means, for example). Originally coined as internet slang to describe the way Republicans in the USA apply one rule for the party (family values and rampant adultery, for example); and another for everyone else.

 

The Malcolm Election: A Primer

As week two of the 2016 federal election campaign kicked off, there was no more important news than the findings by The Australia Institute (TAI) which clearly show the 2016-17 budget measures will not, in fact, create either growth or jobs.

In short, taxpayer-funded government hand-outs to business and the wealthy do not trickle down to those in greatest need, but are scooped up by – this will shock you – business and the wealthy.

Who are the wealthy?

Australians who enjoy an income of $80,000 or more per year want for absolutely nothing. We can choose between public and private education. Between public and private health care. We do not experience the systemic criminalisation of poverty. Nor the anxiety and transience of housing insecurity. When we turn on a tap, at home or at the park, clean potable water comes out. We can take at least one domestic holiday each year, and save for overseas holidays – the trip of a lifetime, biannual sojourns in the Pacific. Either way, other than our ugly sense of entitlement, we are just fine.

The electorate which reaps the greatest windfall from the jobs n growth budget is Wentworth, the extraordinarily wealthy enclave in the eastern suburbs of Sydney and seat of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Meanwhile, the Grattan Institute released findings that the slated company tax cuts would stimulate growth by  0.6% at best and it would take 25 years ‘for the economy to feel the full effect’. In other words: nothing. Margin of error stuff. The ‘growth’ half of the Liberal Party slogan ‘jobs and growth’ is demonstrably false.

In response, the Prime Minister did not engage with the figures. He did not provide a nuanced rebuttal. He did not display his fabled intellect, another lie, so vigorously promoted by his crony commentator mates. He did what weak and lazy conservative thinkers always do: asserted that a demonstrable lie is somehow natural, inevitable, common sense, an infallible truth.

Turnbull said: “It is well understood and well accepted that if you reduce the level of business taxes, company taxes, then you will get a better return on investment, you will see more investment and you will see more employment and that is the inevitable consequence of it.” (The Guardian, Friday 13 May, 2016).

Over at The Australia Institute, economist Richard Deniss found that the government hand-outs to business in the 2016-17 budget will create as many jobs over 30 years as the economy created last month on its own. That is, the economy created more jobs in a month, without a $50 billion hand-out from the saintedAustraliantaxpayer™ than the hand-out to business will create over the (very) long term.

Who is the saintedAustraliantaxpayer™?

Anyone who buys a good or service. It took a Disability Support Pension (DSP) recipient to remind the nation and the foreign-owned Murdoch press of this fundamental fiscal fact. This displeased said Murdoch press, which is neither Australian nor pays tax, but is down for persecuting a sexual assault survivor who is reportedly now on suicide watch.

(In fact we paid $882 million of our tax money to the foreign-owned Murdoch press. This windfall was sent via a morally bankrupt government and a depleted and frankly exhausted Australian Tax Office, which under the profligate and economically illiterate Treasurer Joe Hockey was forced to shed 4,400 jobs in 19 months.)

Disunity and Misleading Claims

As well as the completely unfounded claims (lies) the government broadcasts about its budget, the company tax cut (like the date of the budget itself) saw the Prime Minister and the Treasurer at odds, again, over whether Treasury had done the costings. Did the Prime Minister lie about whether Treasury had done the costings? Why not ask FactCheck, the ABC service to be axed by its brand new ex-Murdoch CEO in the middle of an election campaign?

What does it matter whether the Prime Minister forgot to tell the Treasurer that his re-election strategy relies on a grandiose announcement about a double dissolution over a bill nobody knows or cares about and that this would mean bringing the budget forward because Malcolm?

Who cares whether the Prime Minister lied about Treasury costings and the Treasurer therefore ordered Treasury to release the costings which is clear evidence that the Treasurer hates the Prime Minister and that the government is dysfunctional and in chaos but whatever because Malcolm.

Why not trust a banker, a barrister, a politician in bed with the real estate industry? Malcolm!

In the end we found out that the cost of this pre-election hand-out to Liberal Party donors business would be nearly $50 billion – for basically no return, except a prop on which to hang a slogan. That slogan of course is jobs and growth. The analysis above clearly shows that neither jobs nor growth are an inevitable iron-clad law of economics flowing from budget promises, as the Prime Minister would have us believe. Jobs and growth is nothing but a false and empty slogan of the most Abbottesque variety.

Next came The Australia Institute findings that the company tax cut would represent a massive $10 billion wealth transfer over ten years from Australia to – wait for it – the USA. Not to a developing country. Not to an aid project. Not to investment in renewables or global peace or education for girls (the single most effective way to change the world).

In response, the Finance Minister did not engage with the figures. He did not provide a nuanced rebuttal. He did what weak and lazy conservative thinkers always do: asserted that a demonstrable truth is not true. The Australia Institute findings are ‘factually incorrect. Completely and utterly false’ blathered Cormann, as we stood by for his substantiating evidence. But no, his entire argument amounted to the blare of a quiz show horn. Bzzzzzt. Wrong.

Recall that the Prime Minister relied on not just false but disproven productivity claims for the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) in his letter advising the Governor-General to dissolve Parliament. The Attorney General QC produced a 13-page letter in support. The Governor General reproduced the false claims in his speech to the amassed MPs who the Australian taxpayer flew back to Canberra at an estimated cost of $20 million to reject a bill we knew would be rejected. (Did the Governor General mislead parliament? My case for the affirmative here).

Such expensive gestures afford huge electoral advantage to the incumbents. Of course, for those smashing economic managers of the Liberal Party, no expenditure of other people’s money to shore up political advantage is too great. Abuse of incumbent power is also no problem.

Meanwhile the Prime Minister, not known for decisive action or sound judgment, dithered and waffled about the budget and a double dissolution, as his fortunes sank in the polls (stand by for fear-mongering on terror and asylum seekers). Meanwhile, his Treasurer hastily scribbled some numbers on the back of a nearby envelope. Young people, Morrison muttered, pencil clamped between his teeth. Health and education no no scrap that. I know. Give business yet another hand-out and troll young people by making another business hand-out look like a constructive policy.

Done.

Democratic process: on policy and law

None of the budget thought bubbles measures have been tabled as bills or passed by both houses of parliament. The government is in no different a position to the opposition: whatever they say is a promise, not a law.

Supply was passed, unamended, the day after the budget was tabled. New policies, which require new appropriations, are still up for grabs. Electoral fodder, nothing more.

At any time, but more so at times like this, it is important to remember that legislation is the codification of policy; and policies are units of ideology. Laws are made by politicians, who belong to political parties, which in turn hold to specific ideologies. The law is not neutral, either in creation or application. There is no magic political-evaporation pond in which to soak our laws when they come into force. Law is inherently political, because politicians make laws.

This is how democracy works. An election is called. Candidates for two major and some minor parties traverse the country, communicating their policy platform to the voters. The policy platform is comprised of planks. In the old days this was a direct metaphor for the stage on which the politician stood, like soap box for public speakers.

One party or coalition secures a majority of seats in the House of Representatives and forms government. Its promises, founded on its ideology, do not suddenly magically turn into law (the great Gough Whitlam came close to performing this magic in 1972, rest his soul). Each policy or promise must be dumped or broken or drafted into a bill and passed by both Houses of Parliament. No new policy, no hand-outs to business, whether tax cuts or the dehumanisation of young unemployed people, are yet law. What is happening in this campaign is a simple abuse of the power of incumbency by the incumbents.

Decoding election messages: the Malcolm campaign

The media has a designated role in the democratic process. This designated role is not to compete between gotcha moments and creepy selfies for the nightly lead. In the English tradition, the tradition forcibly imposed on this continent and her islands, the media is the fourth estate. The first, second and third estates are the Church, the landed gentry (Lords), and the peasants (Commoners).

As an estate, a stakeholder in a democratic system of government, the media have an obligation to report in the public interest. This includes informing the electorate of opposition policies, so the public has a choice on election day. If the electorate are not informed of opposition party policies, we only hear about government, and thus lack informed choice at the ballot box. There are words for one-party states, and none of those words are democracy.

The traditional media method of discharging this duty is to proclaim a commitment to the journalist code of ethics and to balanced reporting. Of course balance is not for vested conservative interests. The Murdoch empire remains a shrieking cabal of nasty privileged sexist racist cronies who broadcast their shameless partisan garbage to the detriment of all but the vested interests of their sadistically selfish boss.

But the supposedly more responsible media are not balanced either. This is partly a function of bullying by conservative governments and big business, via funding cuts (ABC and SBS) or a big bank withdrawing its ad buy (Fairfax).

But it is also a function of the most powerful structural advantage in any democracy: incumbency. The media subscribes to a structural hierarchy of privileged voices. The most powerful voices in society are assumed to be the most important voices.

Never mind that democracy claims to be government by the people for the people; or that the Rule of Law announces that we are all equal before the law; or that the most endorsed document in the history of humanity, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, says all humans are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

No. Put all that to one side and, like capitalism itself, afford the highest platforms and most prominent positions to the most advantaged. Those from whom we have already heard, whose voices we hear all the damn time; who rarely offer a new insight or creative approach (and never an impartial one); whose social power eclipses all others; and who are largely responsible for the social, geopolitical, and environmental mess in which we find ourselves and in which we have placed our overburdened and burning planet.

Value is scarcity, or so my economics professors told me. Yet here we are with a surplus of vested white men and the occasional woman whose views are largely dull and redundant anyway, but also, according to economic orthodoxy, being in surplus and all, of extremely low worth. It is these voices that the traditional media foregrounds as though they are of the greatest value. We have an over-supply of smug white men. We hear from them endlessly. The bigger problem is how to shut them up. These voices lack substance, honesty, morality, inspiration, creativity, insight… anything, really.

Except incumbent power.

Under this model, every mainstream media campaign report leads with the incumbent. It should be noted that the current incumbents are ministers in a deeply conservative and inept government, sexist and racist and homophobic to a man and woman. These values are thus hyper-visibilised and normalised, irrespective of whether Australians see such ugly positions to accurately represent our values.

Government representatives of the people: a sample

We might hear from AG George Brandis QC, ‘confirming’ that prevention of an imminent terror attack is a fact (when it is not only an unproven claim but sub judice, as the good QC knows, or ought to know).  Brandis is presumably on terror-mongering duty to rehabilitate his dismal reputation as a luddite who failed to notice that numerous letters from Man Haron Monis to his office amounted to overwhelming evidence of Monis’ violent tendencies – which ended in the Sydney siege.

Or we get Scott Morrison saying the Opposition has blown a hole in ‘the budget’ (the Opposition does not control the budget. That would be the job of the Treasurer) and saying ‘this decision, the decision that we have taken today, we had already accounted for’. Okay, Scott. You accounted last month for a decision you made today, but Labor did not. Back in your time machine, mate.

The temporal dissonance is bad enough, but the failure to ever back their own policies with anything other than ‘this is inevitable’ conservatism, or ‘my unprovable claim is a fact’ terror-mongering, or ‘Labor Labor Labor’ from a rabble who have been in government for 2.5 years?

Who else is out and about flinging misleading claims like defecating monkeys?

Why hello Peter ‘plod’ Dutton. Hello you of the recently purchased $2 million+ Palm Beach pad, trolling Tanya Plibersek on her household income. It is an unwritten bipartisan rule of politics to never draw attention to the exorbitant amount we pay politicians for their phony, petty posturing. But household income? Oh, that’s okay. In this instance. You know why? Because Plibersek is a woman.

Ask yourself: have you heard anyone, despite its ostentation, refer to the enormous wealth of Lucy Turnbull nee Hughes? Do you know whether Malcolm or Lucy, and we are talking an extremely high wealth base on any measure here, comes from the wealthier family circumstances? Not a whisper? Yet here is Dutton making veiled references to Plibersek’s husband. Anyone who has followed the fortunes of Mr P knows what else Dutton is implying, a disgusting smear unworthy of further consideration.

And then there is the Prime Minister. The shtrong (pause, deepen pitch, take breath) Prime Minister. A man who told Freemantle workers that massive government contracts are innovative, talented, the future of Australia, twenty-first century.

Let’s take a closer look. The  announcement is a government contract for patrol boats. Are we at war? Is someone invading our remote island?

A: Australian patrol boats are used to turn back desperate people fleeing persecution, many fleeing persecution of our making, in Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria. So the Turnbull vision of innovation for the future of Australia is to further persecute desperate human beings. Nice.

The announcement was for a government contract. Not a start-up, not the invention of refrigeration, or commercial application of wi-fi, or economies of scale on solar cells. It is a government contract to build patrol boats. This, says Turnbull, is Australia at its best. This is our future. Lovely.

Turnbull is talking about a taxpayer-funded order for military hardware in peacetime. The claims he makes for this ordinary procurement decision are so grandiose, so doused in rhetoric, that there must be a greater ideological purpose. What could this statesmanlike purpose be? When on analysis the rhetoric comes up isolationist, socialist, and racist? Can that be right?

Yep. Turns out the only point is the re-election of the Malcolm government, which stands for literally nothing but itself and its donor mates. Nothing new there, then.

Turnbull followed his racist isolationist speechifying with a visit to Darwin, where the Northern Territory government has leased the port to a Chinese government entity for the next 99 years. This is obviously the greatest threat to national sovereignty since the British took by force the sovereignty of over 300 nations in 1770.

Here on soil stolen by the British and handed to the Commonwealth of Australia which leased it to the Chinese, Turnbull waxed lyrical on shtrong border protection. Think about that.

Is he being wilfully ignorant? Stupid? Has he not heard of soft power, despite the cheer squad who laud his ‘intellect’? Or does he just love money and hate brown people seeking asylum? It is very hard to tell.

Just kidding. It is very easy to tell. Despite being demonstrably terrible at his job, Turnbull likes having it; and when a vested, powerful, wealthy white guy likes what he sees, woe betide anyone who stands between him and his object of desire. No isolationalist nationalist xenophobic rhetoric is too low to go.

Six More Weeks: A Survival Guide

Happily, the way to understand media coverage of all this woeful garbage is not difficult. It is not intellectually demanding, or more complex than that, as people out of their depth in public are trained to say.

First, every day is opposite day in the Liberal Party. The reason is that their policies are designed to benefit their own, their base and their donors; but must be sold as if the policy will produce some general social good – in order to win the election. While the Grattan and Australia Institutes have done fantastic work, and our system requires evidence to debunk the myths and lies being flung about, there is no need for the average punter to decode or analyse or crunch numbers. Just ask two simple questions:

  • Is the Minister insisting his claim is true without any substantive evidence? It is false.
  • Does the decision in fact benefit business and the wealthy? Then that is its point.

The dedicated punter can perform further checks. Turn the claim around, and see if its exact opposite seems to resonate, to more closely correspond to the facts in the world.

  • Turnbull is a good economic manager: take a look at the deficit
  • Turnbull can be trusted: Turnbull has reversed his positions on GST, state tax collection, marriage equality, the Republic, climate change (etc)
  • Turnbull is a good leader: Turnbull failed the Republic campaign and failed on climate as Opposition leader. See also NBN. And Godwin Greche (etc)
  • Turnbull is an intellect: Turnbull repeats the same six words at every outing
  • Turnbull is progressive: see marriage equality and climate change, above. See also Safe Schools, cashless welfare, Gonski, university fee deregulation, eating disorder helpline, upfront pathology costs (etc)
  • Turnbull is better than Abbott: Turnbull bangs on about terror and border protection at every opportunity
  • Turnbull is articulate: Turnbull ums and ahhhs like Abbott. Turnbull uses conservative tropes every time he speaks. Turnbull patronises senior journalists to prevail over otherwise much stronger counter-arguments to his claims.

And so on. And on. For six more gruelling weeks.

 

 

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From island prison to island prisons: White Australia and other stories


This week the highest court in Papua New Guinea unanimously ruled that the detention camps established by Australia on Manus Island are unconstitutional, which is to say illegal.

There were two layers to the decision, both of which went against the case for the legality of the camps. The first was that the establishment of the camps was unconstitutional. The second was that the constitutional amendment designed to authorise the establishment of the camps was itself unconstitutional.

The next day the PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill announced that the camps would be closed. Bear in mind that the case was brought and won by the leader of the opposition. The PNG Supreme Court may have displayed greater moral fortitude and constitutional rigor than the High Court of Australia, but politics is politics wherever we look.

 

Two constitutions, four islands: Australia, Papua New Guinea, Manus and Nauru

This post is not about these legal decisions. I leave that to others who are far more qualified than I to write. The PNG decision is available here, and can be contrasted with the case against the constitutionality of Australian detention camps on Nauru here. There are many great explainers of the issues, the legalities and the politics. This article by Madeline Gleeson in The Conversation is excellent, as is this by Richard Ackland in The Guardian. Ackland has been publishing pieces on asylum seeker policy for the layperson for years.

This post is about the failure of the Australian political leadership and society to decolonise our thinking, over 220 years since what Aboriginal pastor Ray Minniecon recently described as the original sin of terra nullius.

 

The current political landscape and ongoing colonial project

The Australian political landscape this week was once again a garbling of strategy and tactics and messaging and what passes for policy these days. I say ‘what passes for policy’ because current government policy is predictably predicated on doing more-or-less nothing, or nothing differently to immediate predecessor PM Abbott.

As the PNG Supreme Court decision hit the news, the Immigration Minister was accused of contradicting the Defence Minister and the Prime Minister expressed surprise at the PNG court decision while the Immigration Minister said the government had been ‘working behind closed doors’ in preparation for such an outcome. Nothing new here. The month before the Treasurer and Prime Minister were at sixes and sevens on when the budget would be brought down – a matter of some import, or so we would be forgiven for thinking.

We are accustomed to this incoherent and mendacious incompetence from the Coalition government (though we are less accustomed to the Murdoch press completely ignoring it rather than screeching CHAOS!11!! at every opportunity, as was the case during the last Labor government).

There are many contradictions – some would say lies – of the 28 April 2016 prime ministerial interactions with the electorate. Fresh from memorialising victims of a massacre at Port Arthur 20 years ago, Turnbull put on his paternalistic lecturing voice to caution that ‘we can not be misty-eyed’ about indefinite detention on island camps.

These are camps that we know for a fact facilitate mental illness, rape, torture, and murder.

Anyway. Misty-eyed. From the man who did all he could to muster misty-eyed-ness mere hours earlier. It is obligatory at this point to emphasise that I do not intend to disrespect the dead at Port Arthur, which I do not. I write as a mother and human rights scholar, of the value of a single human life.

The events of the day were reliably exploited to:

  • perpetuate the lie that an event in 1996 was the worst massacre in our history, erasing massacres across the country from 1788 to 1928
  • elevate the legacy of John Howard, a racist, small-minded and deeply conservative prime minister who nurtured the meanness and madness of Tony Abbott and who is responsible for conflating asylum seekers with terrorism during the 2001 ‘Tampa affair’
  • reinforce the dominant narratives that ‘our’ dead were lives of value and must be remembered, while those human beings living in ‘offshore’ detention are to be dismissed as means to some other political end

It was like a one-day methodologies workshop on aggressive prosecution of the colonial project, a seemingly endless national preoccupation. Australia Day is merely the most blatant example. Abbott was merely the most blatantly racist recent prime minister. The erasure of the oldest continuing human history on earth continues unabated right here, right now, in Australia, in the 21st century.

 

The social landscape and dominant cultural hegemony

How might white and other non-Indigenous Australians decolonise our thinking on island exile? For island exile is not new to the white Australian colonial-settler state. It is in our DNA.

I do not mean to hate on this amazing country, cared for as it has been for upwards of 50,000 years by First Nations people. Nor do I ignore the vibrant multiculturalism of 21st century Australian society. I am looking at the dominant cultural hegemony of white middle class Australian values. It is these values that apparently approve the camps on Manus Island and Nauru; which makes these values racist, divisive and cruel.

This is what was bequeathed to us by the colonisers, and continued in recent times by the mean and tricky Howard; the aggressively nasty Abbott; and the cowardly and conformist Turnbull. Conservatives all, these men think that the way things have ‘always’  been done  (always being for as long as a liberal democracy is run by property-owning white men) is the way things ought to be done – despite evidence of a growing discomfort (discomfort!)with the inhumanity our off-shore processing arrangements.

 

Island exile: nothing new here

Island exile as a social and legal control measure is not only central to white Australian history. It is said that St John was exiled to the Greek island of Patmos in the first century C.E. From France we have a rich store of lore: Napoleon was famously banished to St Helena, and prisoners including the elusive Papillon (butterfly) to Devil’s Island. Stories of the brutal island prison Alcatraz live on in film; while freedom fighter Nelson Mandela was labelled a terrorist and spent 27 years on Robben Island (and highly accessible island prison lore from the Smithsonian here).

This is not ancient history, any more than that notorious torture site, Guantanamo Bay on the island of Cuba off the coast of the US, is a thing of the past (I strongly recommend the account of David Hicks’ time there by his lawyer Major Michael Mori, pointedly titled In the Company of Cowards).

Placing particular people beyond the laws of the state is a key feature and purpose of island prisons. We are told this is to keep us safe. But the dominant purpose is to prosecute cruel and inhumane treatment of the banished. Cruel and inhumane treatment by the state, but out of sight of its true power base: the people, in a democracy. In other words, the island site is not to keep us safe from the banished but from knowledge of the cruel and lawless actions authorised by the government that we elected.

Island exile is thus a tried and true method of social control, as is exile in other forms. Even self-exile to the wilderness appears throughout the human story, and it is through stories that our species makes sense of ourselves and our world. This is a universal human trait, it is part of what makes us human, no matter where on the planet or when in the great expanse of our time on this earth.

Involuntary exile is a harsh measure of social control, and to an island is harsher again. It is therefore imperative on the leadership of the society that has imposed such a measure to tell a credible story about why a member of society has been expelled from the land itself, to another land. An island.

 

The past coexists with the present

Zooming in on the Australian colonial period (since 1770) there is no shortage of examples of how island exile has been used to control, up to and including ending, the lives of those who are devalued and dehumanised by a society.  This cultural hegemony has been passed down through two centuries and  appears unlikely to be dislodged any time soon.

This type of thinking placed greater value on the property rights a baker held in a loaf of bread than sharing food with the hungry. It denies the poor and the hungry their basic human sense of family, belonging and connection to country (as miserable and dirty a country was C18 England, it was still their home, the place where their family and friends resided). Nevertheless, it was the English way: steal a loaf of bread, be banished to a ‘remote’ island. As the old song goes, you’re bound for Kamay (Botany Bay).

But here is the thing. The remote island was not remote to the locals. The hostile landscape was not hostile to its First Nations populations. On this incredible archipelago, mother earth to over 300 sovereign nations, generations of Aboriginal peoples sustained societies for upwards of 50,000 years. These uncontested facts alone prove that the land is abundant and the people live in close harmony with it.

You may be familiar with the ‘great man’ approach to history. This methodology elevates individuals, as part of the perpetuation of liberal mythology. Shining a spotlight on just a few ‘great men’ illuminates much about the island gulag model that Australia continues to perpetuate to this day.

For example, Cook came here with the bloated botanist Banks, for whom the Dharawhal place Kamay was renamed Botany Bay, as was the home of our very own Napoleon, the Bankstown Bonaparte. These men arrived via the lands of the Palawa peoples. The English filled their barrels with fresh water on Palawa shores – without which they could neither sail nor live (sorry to be so obvious, but these basic facts are erased and ignored by great men in history narratives) from a ‘stream’ running into the sea, as streams are wont to do.

The lands of the Palawa were later called Van Diemens Land – or The Demon by those Irishmen on whose backs the vicious brutality of English penal practices were inscribed. This is the place where the Palawa peoples (‘Tasmanian Aborigines’, in colonial terms) were literally declared ‘extinct’. What we meant by this social Darwinian erasure was ‘brutally murdered – by us’.

But Palawa culture and peoples endure. The claim that there are no more Aboriginal Tasmanians is a lie. Meanwhile, Cape Barren Island was conceptualised by the English as a place for the Palawa descendants to die. Think about that. The English claimed to have ‘discovered’ a place where their own ‘great men’ would have perished of thirst without the sustenance of its streams. The English presumed to declare ‘extinct’ a people whose epic voyages predated the English by 50-70 millennia; peoples who survived the ice age that saw the island formed, when it was separated from the continent. In other words, the Palawa were there when the island became an island.

Back on the mainland, in 1788 Phillip set up camp at Warrane (Sydney/Circular Quay/Farm Cove). He established a punishment site at Mat-te-wan-ye (Fort Jackson/Pinchgut, more rocky outcrop than island but either way surrounded by a large body of water). He also sent a boat north to set up a secondary punishment island at Norfolk. This island, currently being bulldozed of its autonomy by the federal government, was an essential part of colonial survival strategy.

Here is how it worked. Like Tasmanian streams, Norfolk resources were key to the colonial project. Without decreasing the number of mouths to feed at Warrane, by sending them to Norfolk to live off mutton birds, the ‘second fleet’ and its cargo of human misery may have ‘arrived’ to find the Cadigal people burying a pile of white people bones.

‘Second fleet’, by the way, is in quote marks because of the absurdity and arrogance of English naming practices. As I have been writing about all post, this place is an island. It is a populated island. Yet the English claim is that the first ever fleet of boats to arrive here was in 1788. Such arrogance is boundless, like our plains to share oh wait. That we accept this naming claim as fact is too absurd for words. There was no other way to get here.

So Phillip used Sydney Harbour and Norfolk islands for both punishment and survival. Tasmania was also used as a site of punishment and exile as the bureaucracy was established. Langerrareroune off the coast of Tasmania, named Sarah Island by the colonisers, became a secondary secondary prison – an island off an island off an island. Langherrareroune was chosen for the rocky channel they called Hells Gates, in a fairly typical indicator of what navigating a boat to the island entailed.

Then there are islands where different clans of sovereign nations were forced together by the colonisers. This is the background to Palm Island off the Queensland coast, a place of great tragedy in a tropical paradise. The place of Palm Island in colonial thinking is akin to Cape Barren (note the name again. I wonder what Cape Barren is like?) off the Tasmanian coast. Again, different groups of Aboriginal people were forcibly transported, out of sight, out of mind, as were the convicts before them and asylum seekers today. It didn’t work, and it will never work. It is a terrible mindset, a terrible thing to do, by a people who proclaim themselves beacons of civilisation. Why isolate and be done with actual human beings, people who belong to this place?

My guess is fear. After all, we ‘won’, right? Yet no white Australian will ever say so in polite company. We do not celebrate this ‘victory’ (unlike a defeat on a foreign peninsula 101 years ago). Why? Do we want to deprive our opponent of treaty?

That the contemporary Australian state banishes the unwanted to remote island prisons is not innovative, it is not civilised, it is predictable and backwards. And if we are condemned by the international community, which we deserve to be, the world should also turn one eye to the origin of these traditions: a remote and windswept island off the coast of France.

 

Two preventable deaths, one colonial mindset

As I was writing this, news of two preventable deaths came streaming through the news feed. Within minutes of each other. The news was so sad, and so frustrating. I had been reflecting on the colonial mindset that informs Australian treatment of asylum seekers, particularly as colonisers of pacific islands, including the biggest island in the largest ocean on earth: us. Australia.

From the English imposition of its laws and ways on these lands to the ghastly gulags on Manus Island and Nauru, the idea that it is the laws and culture of a civilised society that produce such outcomes could not be further from the truth.

First there was the devastating news of the loss of Bangarra Dance Theatre musical director. Here is their statement:

The Bangarra clan is unbelievably saddened that our brother David Page is no longer with us. On behalf of Stephen, the Page family and Bangarra, we ask for your privacy and respect at this difficult time.

I pay my respects to the family and to the clan. He was only 55 years old. A towering talent. He achieved huge success with his brother, family and clan. I saw many Bangarra productions, most memorably a performance of Kin at Belvoir St, starring seven young brother cousins, on 26 January ten years ago.  The eulogies will and should be filled with praise. That 55 is the average life expectancy for Aboriginal men might be mentioned.

This sounds young, because it is. My father in law, a proud Aboriginal man, died of cancer at the age of 55. This is the terrible toll of a life expectancy twenty years lower for Aboriginal people than the rest of Australia. This is why the death of David Page also feels close to home. I miss them both, for their connection to country, for their teaching, for their generosity.

Then came news that the 23 year old man Omid who set himself on fire had died. I cry for Omid because I am a mother. My oldest son is 23 years old. I raised him myself. Singlehandedly. Since my daughter was three and my younger son was 15 months old, I have been the only responsible parent in this house. The only breadwinner. When I hear ‘mum and dad investors’ I am reminded that the political leadership of my country does not care about my household. However hard I work, which is most days, I will never qualify because there is no man, no ‘dad’ here. I dismiss the lies of government because I know what really matters. As a sole parent, a mum and not dad property owner (one house, no investment) all that matters is to feed and house and educate the children. Their health. Their well-being.

Yet we live in a place that demonises some while elevating the health and well-being of some people over others. This includes valuing some children over others. Some babies. Did anyone else find the sight of the Turnbull grandson running around Yarralumla fawned on by all, while refugee babies are locked behind barbed wire, monumentally disgusting?

We should mourn the great David Page who died too young and the life of Omid and other young people who commit suicide in despair including those suffering the intergenerational trauma that causes so much suicide in Aboriginal communities. As we do this we should reflect on our own lives; and on the origins and traditions of governance, law and justice in this country.