Blood on all their hands

In the 2010 federal election, the Liberal Democrat Party in New South Wales polled around 96,000 votes. In 2013 their first-placed candidate polled around 416,000 votes. This analysis shows that the party increased its vote by over 50 times, or 5000% between 2007 and 2013.

Wow! That party is on the up and up! It must be quite something, right?

Well, no. According to the winning candidate, some people “voted for us because we were first on the ballot paper – there is always a sizeable number of people who don’t care… Then there are some people who mistook us for the Liberals, probably the Liberals, but they could also have mistaken us for the Christian Democrats or even the ordinary Democrats.”

In his own words, David Leyonhjelm was elected by the donkey vote, lazy Liberal Party supporters, a few illiterate Christians, and someone who forgot that the Democrats disappeared in a puff of GST smoke (watch that space).

Here is the same information in formal logic terms. There are correlations between the facts – exponential increase in the vote, the number one spot on the ballot papers (which is drawn from a hat), the apathy of rusted-on Liberal Party voters – from which we can draw conclusions. Correlation is not causation. Correlation can, if researchers have sufficient context and skill, be evidence of causation. What this means is that there are plausible reasons – correlated facts – that explain what probably, in all likelihood, ahead of other random non-correlative or non-fact based explanations, caused the outcome.

Of particular note: the candidate posits that he was not elected on his policies or abilities or appeal, but due to the party name and its lucky ballot paper placement. He is an elected representative who is not representative of the electorate. In the parlance of liberalism, his achievements are not on merit.

This pro-gun, anti-feminist, aging white male ‘libertarian’ nevertheless took a seat in the Australian parliament on the recently increased backbencher salary of $203,020 a year (plus expenses). Not bad for a lazy liberal constituency and some donkeys. At the same time, penalty rates have been cut for some of Australia’s most insecure and lowest paid workers. The government has legislated future income tax cuts of over $7000 a year for people who are paid – wait for it – over $200Kpa. Low and middle income workers get about $10 a week.

The total cost to the budget bottom line is an estimated $140 billion over ten years – the time period chosen by a government facing certain defeat in the next 18 months to sell what are basically budget booby-traps. Structural deficits in the Howard-era model. Pre-legislating to sabotage an incoming administration may seem extreme, but is really nothing more than variation on a very familiar theme. The post-electoral budget blackhole scream was long a best-selling performance, until then-Treasurer Peter Costello introduced the Charter of Budget Honesty in a moment of panic. Like all tory policy, this became an opportunity to tell lies in set pieces designed for the dissemination of dishonesty.

Meanwhile, the unemployment payment for people who would notice $10 a week – or $7000 a year – remains unchanged. The conditions for income support have been made, by the usual method, which is by passing legislation, ever more immeasurably, horrifically, breathtakingly, cruelly, and fatally worse.

Anyway where were we? Oh yes. Before coasting into the Senate on the previously unexplored opportunities of the lazy Liberal donkey combo, Leyonhjelm was a failed candidate for Liberal Party pre-selection. And since then, collecting millions in AEC campaign allowances on the way – on top of that $200Kpa – he has, like the racist Hanson, voted with the conservative Coalition government 60 per cent of the time.

Who cares? Well, very few people, until the day the parliament rose for the 2018 winter recess and South Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young stood to read into the Hansard the disgusting remarks this aging white male ‘libertarian’ regularly shouted across the chamber – sexual harassment, given the Senate is her workplace – under parliamentary privilege. What followed was a full week of media coverage.

The ABC, among less credible and trusted news organisations, chose to provide a platform to the sexist senator to repeat his revolting remarks, multiple times. This is entirely predictable. There he was, talking talking, given every opportunity to legitimise, validate, disseminate and amplify his crass and nasty message… by the 730 Report, on ABC Sydney radio, on Radio National.

This is irresponsible and dangerous. Here is the evidence.

David Leyonjhelm speaks directly to a group in our society euphemistically known as MRAs, or Mens Rights Activists (predictably, a white man has been given a platform to opine on this obvious fact without noting the complicity of the media. It is in the Guardian feel free to google it). These men are aggressive, angry, violent or potentially violent, and their core culture is derived from separated fathers. Violent men who have less domination and control over a woman who has left them and their children than they once exercised are extremely dangerous.

In a developed country with universal health care, the most dangerous time in a woman’s life is leaving an abusive male. One third of all homicides were preceded by domestic violence. Not coincidentally, the vast majority of mass shooters in the USA are men who have previously abused women they know. The same is true of the ‘terrorist’ Man Haron Monis, a man who probably was mentally ill, unlike all the white males who kill family members and are unreflexively offered this benefit of the doubt. Monis sent letters to then-Attorney General George Brandis, flagging his questionable stability, but nothing was done. His actions were later used to justify more ‘anti-terror’ laws; but not to increase funding for women’s shelters or mental health services.

The angry violent men who blame women for their inadequacies are the audience Leyonhjelm wants to reach. His purpose is simple: re-election to the Senate. This is the workplace where he harasses Senator Sarah Hanson Young with nasty innuendo that he has repeated widely courtesy of legacy media, including three times on the ABC Sydney radio drive program in one half-hour segment.

Every time, Leyonjhelm is increasingly enabled to reach his audience of angry men. It does not matter what false equivalence is later offered up as ‘balance’, such as interviewing Senator Hanson-Young the next day. Any media professional who thinks that irrational and angry men will tune in the next day to carefully weigh up the ‘other side’ is a fool who a) knows nothing about angry violent men; and b) has been played. The damage is done.

At the end of a week when Leyonhjelm was indulged all over the airwaves and his hideous opinions discussed at length in print and online, a separated father shot dead his two children in cold blood and then killed himself. Another man has been arrested for burning down a house with a woman inside. He was reportedly her ‘carer’. She is dead. Think about that. Two more men have been arrested for murder. Both victims were women with whom they were or had been in a relationship with the killer. Think about that, too.

Here are the facts which correlate. A pro-gun, anti-feminist politician who speaks directly to angry violent men was provided with widespread exposure to espouse his nasty hateful views across multiple media platforms. These decisions by editorial teams amplified his views well beyond an otherwise tiny audience. Given the credibility and trust in which the ABC in particular is held, these decisions validated and legitimized him as an elected representative. Remember, he was elected by a donkey vote and some lazy Liberal Party supporters. He needs exposure to survive, and was given it.

By the end of that week of saturation coverage, the average rate at which men kill women in this country – which is one per week – had tripled. Then there was the child-killer. So four times as many men killed five times as many victims as are killed on average in what are euphemistically called ‘domestic violence incidents’.

That is the correlation. Is there a causal connection?

My answer is yes. First, the increase is so great as to not be statistically insignificant. Sorry to be so cold, but this is the kind of logic that males with influence, but who are none too informed on male violence, demand of women. I said earlier that correlation is not causation, and that correlation can be evidence of causation, if the person joining the dots has the context and skills to do so. When the person with the requisite skills and knowledge is a woman, and a pro-gun anti-feminist has been given a platform to communicate with his constituency of angry men, the Science is Facts!! crowd start shouting in defence of violent men at women survivors of domestic violence.

So, we muster more logic, tedious and unnecessary to anyone with an ounce of humanity as this ought to be, and do the thing, which is to account for other possible variables. For example, we know that men are more violent to more women in particular sets of circumstances. These circumstances include big sporting occasions, holiday periods, and the hotter months. The football factor is so pronounced that there are advertisements in the UK showing how many more men will beat up women when England loses, which it just did, in the World Cup.

Were these factors present during the week in which Leyonhjelm broadcast his misogynist views to his angry male audience via a complacent and complicit media which can only perceive ‘balance’ from its own programming perspective? No. There was no footy grand final, no long weekend, no commercialised religious tradition. It is the middle of winter.

There is one other conclusion available: that at the end of a week when the media widely disseminated and legitimised the crass and misogynist norms of a male parliamentarian, we saw a significant but completely random increase in the number of men killing women and children. Maybe.

In news that will surprise nobody who knows anything about male violence, in the aftermath of the slaughter this week, an even less plausible thesis has been offered.

Like David Leyonjhelm, the institutions in our society are white and patriarchal. This is true of politics, the parliament, government, bureaucracy. It is true of media and families, corporations and industry, religion, universities, the arts. What this means, and it is not a complex proposition, is that the executive, the people with the most authority and influence over other people’s lives, is dominated and controlled by white men.

What has this apparatus in its wisdom ponied up in response to saturation coverage of a man whose politics encourage violent men? A campaign to reinstate the womens shelters which were smashed by premier Mike Baird in New South Wales? Funding and support for women to secure safe and affordable housing for themselves and their children? A spotlight on the billions wasted on anti-terror measures when men terrorise women and children in their own homes every day of the week?

In the midst of peak violence week, Fairfax produced this headline: Leyonhjelm has ignited outrage that is years overdue. It is not a terrible article. Its author, the highly respected Stephanie Dowrick, has many good points to make. And I, too, hesitated to write about Leyonjhelm at all, given a week of exposure culminated in a week of men killing women and children at such a massively increased rate.

But this is just my own little platform and I felt strongly that the case for correlation as evidence of causation had to be made. Sometimes a blog serves the simple purpose of saying, yes, I do think these phenomena are related. I have done my homework. I do understand the arguments. And I wrote about it.

My response is both emotional and logical. I am a domestic violence survivor, and so are my three children. And? None of us should have to parade our pain to legitimise an emotional response to the levels of violence that are tolerated and enabled by white hetero-patriarchy, which cares only for its own. I am also a teacher to future lawyers on logic and critical thought, and co-authored a text book in the field. So I have extensive scholarly knowledge and extensive lived experience. This does not stop many men in multiple contexts presuming to hold greater insight than I do.

Violence is emotional, and I should not have to out myself as a survivor or tout my academic credentials to make such a straightforward ontological point. But I do, because here we are. None of us get to resign from patriarchy.

I am not here for the absurd argument that a gun-loving woman-hater started a conversation or that this is a good thing™. I am not here for the erasure implicit in the bland observation that people are talking about it now when we have been talking about it for years. I am vehemently not here to allocate credit to a vile politician, and the media who legitimised his views, with having done anything, anything at all, to assist women and children escaping from a violent man. If you think ‘police can’t do anything’ or the courts ‘hands are tied’ or that AVOs are ‘just a piece of paper’, wait until I tell you about the efficacy of the commentariat congratulating themselves for having a conversation.

If you can see the blood on all their hands, and are stuck in workplaces and social environments and conversations with people who can not, this post is for you.

 

 

 

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Malcolm Turnbull Keeps Getting History Wrong. Here is Why

On 25 August 2017, Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull uploaded a 526-word post to Facebook, condemning two minor acts of vandalism. It begins:

The vandalism of the statues of James Cook and Lachlan Macquarie is a cowardly criminal act and I hope the police swiftly find those responsible and bring them to justice. But it is also part of a deeply disturbing and totalitarian campaign to not just challenge our history but to deny it and obliterate it. This is what Stalin did. When he fell out with his henchmen he didn’t just execute them, they were removed from all official photographs – they became non-persons, banished not just from life’s mortal coil but from memory and history itself.

The deeply disturbing and totalitarian campaign which resembles what Stalin did consisted of two spray painted messages, with no structural or permanent damage to the inanimate objects (statues), on which the paint was sprayed.

The first message is CHANGE THE DATE. It refers to the proposition that Australia, as a nation, not celebrate its national day on 26 January. The reason is that 26 January marks the beginning of the British invasion, from Tharawhal (Botany Bay), to Gadigal (Circular Quay) and Darug (Parramatta-Hawkesbury) country respectively.

The colonisers headed out across the lands of some 350 distinct Peoples. Megan Davis, Cobble Cobble woman and UNSW pro vice chancellor and constitutional law professor (2015-16) describes this as ‘the pattern of killing that was the political economy of Australian settlement’. And as award-winning novelist and Wirlomin Noongar woman Claire G Coleman wrote here, the initial British invasion made way for the attempted genocide of another culture’.

The second message is NO PRIDE IN GENOCIDE. It states a simple truth: those who attempt genocide ought not be proud of their genocidal project. This is an incontrovertible moral position, that attempting to wipe out an entire ethno-racial or religious people (a genus, as it were) is a crime against the targeted group and a crime against humanity.

The laws of war and the British invasion

According to international law, unjustified invasion (in Thomsian terms, a breach of jus bello) and attempted genocide are war crimes. We are often told that times have changed since 1770, when Cook claimed the east of this continent for the British crown. But this position is confused and misrepresents history. The just war doctrine, generally attributed to Aquinas (1224-1275) was already 500 years old in 1770; and Aquinas derived and distilled his theses from earlier works, as scholars do.

What Turnbull does in his social media post is flip a crude binary power relation from perpetrator to victim. He does not draw a parallel between the autocratic, murderous Stalin and the autocratic, murderous Macquarie. Instead, he distorts historical fact to compare a known mass killer to an anonymous individual. The one act referred to is spray painting a statue. It did not hurt anybody. Any body.

There are minor inconveniences and clean-up costs, and a sense of indignity or anger among those who are emotionally attached to their dead heroes. But graffiti on a statue is peaceful protest, not a reign of terror. Peaceful protest is where nobody gets hurt, while a reign of terror is where thousands, even millions of people, are killed.

Obvious as it sounds, this bears repeating: peaceful protest and mass murder are not the same thing.

The illogics of Australian public debate

Analogical overreach is a familiar technique in our public debate. It is used frequently by the white male executive class who dominate all our social institutions. This group struggles to discern historical truth from their own belief in whatever claim they are making, and their act of saying it.

Meanwhile, everyone else is compelled to back claims with facts and evidence, and even to justify speaking in public at all (witness the witless conservative response to Michelle Wolf at the White House Correspondents dinner). Comparing graffiti to a fascist dictatorship is a fairly extreme departure from truth, yet there it is, sent out across the digital landscape for anyone to disseminate. The prime ministerial post quoted above was shared 2300 times, and white nationalists are primed to shout FREE SPEECH, whenever we try to call such absurdities in.

In this way, a deeply erroneous claim – that representations of dead white men (statues) are of greater import than First Peoples justice and rights – becomes reified. The Prime Minister sets the terms, and public debate is programmed to operate within those terms. Value-laden norms like ‘meeting place’ or ‘discovery’ carry a host of underlying assumptions, even as those assumptions deny or erase the reality of British invasion.

May we question such assumptions? Not really. Such assumptions may be questioned or articulated within acceptable parameters laid down by the executive class. It works like this: alternative narratives may be tolerated, but only to the extent that a base line of conformity is not disturbed. Anything that upsets the parameters of debate, rather than offer token balance within it, is loudly derided as identity politics (only dominant white male narratives are endorsed as impartial or objective), and as disrespectful (only dominant white male narratives, no matter how obnoxiously bigoted, qualify as civilised).

Those who do question orthodox parameters, such as by promoting Change the Date, are denigrated as ‘divisive’. In this case, calling for a change of date for our national day is labelled cowardly and criminal. The Stalin comparison has another, special purpose. It is designed to create the impression that a graffitist with a spray can is dangerous, and thus to be feared. This is so we may infer that, by defending a stone rendering of a dead Yorkshireman, Turnbull is being brave.

It does not take courage to post an illogical analogy on social media. This is something people do every day of the week.

Honouring the living

There is a scene in the Dickens masterpiece Bleak House starring ex-soldier Sergeant George, beloved by some of London’s poorest inhabitants for the compassion he shows towards them, and as someone who acts on principle. The good soldier must decide whether to hand over a letter written by his late comrade Captain James Hawdon to the lawyer Tulkinghorn and the money-lender Smallweed. The letter is of great value, as it will confirm the identity of Nemo the law writer, who fathered the illegitimate child Esther Summerson to Honoria Barbery, before her marriage to Sir Leicester Dedlock.

Sgt George runs a gym, teaching the military arts with his faithful comrade-in-arms, Phil Squod. The sergeant is behind on rent, in debt to Smallweed. As he deliberates over debt and the reputation of the dead Captain Hawdon, Phil says ‘we’ll get by, Guv’nor. We always do.’ No, says Sgt George eventually, deciding to part with the letter. ‘My duty is to the living.’

Such a principle of soldiering is lost on tin pots like Turnbull.

In the introduction to his book Soldier Dead, Michael Sledge (2004, p. 4) writes: ‘I have read of and spoken with those who have risked and will risk their lives to recover the remains of their comrades; those who did and do hold their political careers to be more important than the duties of their office…’

Politicians who start and join wars do not risk their own lives, and a commander who risks the lives of the living to recover the dead is making bad decisions. This is so in combat and equally true for commemoration and national narrative.

For every $500 million allocated to the Australian War Memorial, or $100 million on a museum in another hemisphere, or $50 million in yet more homage to Cook, there are opportunity costs. These costs are paid by students whose education is compromised, by patients to whom health services are not delivered, by women and children seeking refuge from violent men and who can not get away because there is nowhere to go.

What is the ‘benefit’, in return for this extremely high price that some, mostly women and children and always First Peoples, always low income householders, pay with our future, our opportunities, our safety and lives? Well, a white male executive class get to dominate the national narrative in ways that venerate their heroes and at the same time erase thousands of acts of courage, of heroic resistance, of almost inconceivable tenacity and determination and everyday struggle.

History is written and re-written by the most powerful and least moral, such that the ‘different times’ argument becomes ever weaker. It is one thing to argue, however uncritically, that Cook himself should be judged by the standards of eighteenth century England. It is quite another to continue to claim honour, for actions which opened the door to invasion and attempted genocide, in 2018.

Why not right past wrongs instead?

Honouring (some) dead: three projects, with a $650 million price tag

The hundreds of millions of public dollars allocated to just three projects, and just during this Coalition government, are a profligate waste and inexcusable investment in historical inaccuracy. When decolonising knowledge systems, a process rather than an end point, there are four basic principles. Adhering to these principles can prevent the problems of colonial mindsets, where the opposite of knowledge – errors, mistakes, falsehoods, lies – are disseminated instead.

The principles are these: knowledge must be place-based; the past co-exists with the present; human cultures are not frozen in time; and anglo- and euro-centric frameworks inevitably produce inaccuracies. Inaccuracy is counter to the purpose, ontologically counter to the existence, of everyone and everything operating in the public domain: universities, journalists, historians, politicians.

Inaccuracy is, or should be, a thing we are committed to not doing (or being). For more on decolonising, a detailed exegesis of these four principles here.

  • A proposed $500 million Australian War Memorial (AWM) Redevelopment

For many years, First Peoples have campaigned to see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander diggers recognised in official military histories. Their distinct identity as Indigenous soldiers has been routinely erased; as well as their specific experience as returned soldiers denied the basic rights of citizenship, including soldier-settlement compensation packages. One valuable project (of many) corrects this record here.

It is a predictable and poignant irony that white soldiers were gifted parcels of stolen Aboriginal land while Aboriginal soldiers were doubly – continuously – dispossessed.

Similarly, the Australian War Memorial consistently refuses to recognise the Frontier Wars. Aboriginal resistance to the invaders and colonisers is well-documented historical fact and ongoing, for example, the Stolenwealth Games action. This campaign highlighted the illegitimacy of the Commonwealth, a fact belatedly recognised by our highest court Mabo v Queensland (No. 2)(1992) 175 CLR 1, and by the Australian Parliament Native Title Act 1993 (Cth).

Re-branding the British Empire, such as from Empire Games to Commonwealth Games, does not make it any more legitimate (the Crimes of Britain site is a handy central online repository). The British Empire enriched itself by plundering the people and lands of places to which it had no right, on every populated continent, as demonstrated by Shashi Tharoor on India, here.

There has been no acknowledgement, and no reparations. This alone tells us the resistance is ongoing, rather than a new or discrete action. Re-branding can not and does not change the fact that the Commonwealth is an illegitimate global entity, regardless of what political leaders say at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

Meanwhile, failed former Liberal Party leader Brendan Nelson, recycled to head a national institution as failed white male leaders inevitably are, accepted the proposition that navy personnel who participate in turning back refugee boats be recognised at the Australian War Memorial. This is in breach of its mission, because we have not declared war on non-state actors who seek asylum in Australia, and no ADF personnel were killed in action. In contrast, many refugees have died under the same Operation Sovereign Borders policy (a recap by Marr, 2014, here).

A separate memorial to resistance warriors and the Frontier Massacres has been canvassed (sign the Aboriginal Tent Embassy petition here).

It is conceivable that a properly funded institution headed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will result in a more accurate telling of invasion and colonisation. It is frankly inconceivable that the establishment of an Aboriginal memorial will be allocated anything like the half-billion dollars Nelson wants, and will probably get, for the AWM.

  • The $100 million Sir John Monash Centre

Located in Villiers-Bretonneux in France, this vanity project of deposed conservative prime minister Tony Abbott is riddled with the worst excesses of misplaced military glorification. At the opening ceremony, media and law expert David Marr said ‘the French prime minister, Édouard Philippe, delivered a speech that blew [current conservative Australian PM] Malcolm Turnbull’s to smithereens’.

Quoting Remarque’s seminal account All Quiet on the Western Front, Philippe said:

The earth is more important to the soldier than to anybody else,’ continues Erich Maria Remarque, ‘the earth is his only friend, his brother, his mother. He groans out his terror and screams into its silence and safety’. For many young Australians, this earth was their final safe place. For many of them, this earth was the final confidante of a thought or a word intended for a loved one from the other side of the world.”

Marr tells us that Turnbull was pedestrian and dull in comparison, which is no surprise to anyone who has observed Turnbull in speechmaking mode. His hallmarks are plodding gravitas, phoney enthusiasm, and ill-concealed anger. That he was eclipsed by Philippe on the day is predictable, because Philippe was place-based, on his home soil. Those soldiers bled into and embraced the earth on the western front in the northern hemisphere, no matter where they were born. Turnbull has no meaningful connection there.

This was painfully evidenced when Turnbull, in his speech opening a museum (or ‘centre’. Honestly. The imagination) attributed a pivotal victory led by Brigadiers-General Glasgow and Elliot to the eponymous Sir John Monash. This was picked up by historian Ross McMullen, who alerted us via Fairfax newspapers almost a full week later. All those political advisors, those foreign affairs officials and media staff, and nobody had fact-checked whether Monash led a battle that Turnbull, twice in two days, claimed that Monash had won.

Military history is absolutely not my thing, but research is. It took about 20 minutes to locate the primary source in the AWM archives, a letter from Monash dated 26 April 1918. Another quick search produced multiple scholarly and popular accounts of the same battle. This is unsurprising. First, there is the date – it was the three-year anniversary of the Gallipoli landings (25 April 1915) that are now the defining Anzac Day event. Second, there is a near-consensus view that the action was decisive in the lead-up to German surrender (see for example Pedersen 2014, pp. 139-44).

It was not difficult to find out that Turnbull had attributed victory to a bystander based at a nearby chateau (sic) who himself noted – in parentheses! – that the battle was led by Brigs-General Glasgow and Elliot (War letters of General Monash, Australian War Memorial, Canberra pp. 398-400: accessed 30 April 2018).

[Anzac day was] signalled by a wonderful fight, Monash wrote, carried out by the 13th and 15th Australian brigades – (Glasgow and Elliot) both of which Brigades have been under my orders for the past few weeks. It was the same old story. My 9th Brigade had held securely, and kept the Bosch out of the town of Villers Bretonneux for three weeks. They were then withdrawn for a rest on April 23rd, and the 8th British Division (regulars) took over the Sector from them.

Naturally, on April 24th, the Bosch attacked (with 4 Divisions) and biffed the Tommies out of town. Late at night we had to organise a counter-attack. This was undertaken by 13th and 15th Brigades, in the early hours of Anzac day. They advanced 3,000 yards, in the dark, without artillery support, completely restored the position, and captured over 1,000 prisoners. I can see the prisoners pouring past this chateau, from the window of the office, as I write this letter. It was a fine performance.

Everything on my front is quiet. Although there has been a lot of talk of another big attack, nothing has materialised. In any case we are quite ready for him.

Monash did not lead this decisive battle, but he wished he had. It was the same old story. My 9th Brigade had held securely… Everything on my front is quiet.

Turnbull and Abbott, and the edifice they conceived and oversaw, are also completely misplaced at Villiers-Bretonneux in France.

Malcolm Bligh Turnbull is descended from, and named after, the least capable colonial leader of his age. Bligh is a man who sailors mounted a mutiny against at sea; and who soldiers mounted a coup against on land.

Abbott is British-born and remains British in spirit. For instance, he said to then-tory British prime minister David Cameron, on the world stage, at a G20 meeting, that pre-colonial Sydney was ‘nothing but bush’.

In fact, Australia is home to the oldest continuing cultures on earth, a claim explored with nuance by Luke Pearson here. It is a place of successful, subtle and sophisticated societies which have developed – and continue to develop – over 65,000 years. These are societies of intricate laws and vast knowledge of ecology, of astronomy, of the human condition, neatly summarised by journalist and Darumbal and South Sea Islander woman Amy McQuire here.

An Aboriginal woman invented bread: Uncle Bruce Pascoe, Bunurong man and author of Dark Emu, the kind of book that changes lives.

However, it is not possible to shift Turnbull and Abbott from their anglo-centric, colonial mindset, and as stated above, anglo-centrism produces inaccuracy. The widely discredited ‘great man in history’ method has been discarded from curricula by historians all over the world, but not by conservative politicians.

For men like Abbott and Turnbull, the ‘great man’ approach is the only approach. They do not have the range, the depth, to process any other perspective.

  • The $50 million Kamay Botany Bay-Cook Plan

Learning nothing, our prime minister then returned home and strolled along the Kamay (Port Botany) shoreline with Treasurer and local member Scott Morrison. While the ABC took care to revive the defaced Cook statue story, it did not bother to identify or publish a quote of anyone other than the two white men pictured at the photo op.

Goori journalist Jack Latimore confirms that La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council representatives were present here. Meanwhile, the Turnbull and Morrison quotes, and ABC report generally, are riddled with the usual rag-bag of errors, falsehoods, misleading frameworks, and erasure of Aboriginal people and Aboriginal resistance:

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says the revamp of Sydney’s historical Botany Bay site, the place of the first encounter between Europeans and Indigenous Australians will allow the country to “celebrate, understand and interpret” the “momentous place” it is.

This is so frustratingly wrong, on so many levels.

Cook was not a European, he was an Englishman. He lived during an era when Britain was almost constantly at war with continental states like Spain and, most notably, France. There was no announcement about venerating the Frenchman La Perouse, who turned up in 1788 a few days after Phillip and his fleet. This is despite the fact that Turnbull was talking turkey on our ‘shared values’ – whatever that means – with French president Macron at the Sydney Opera House just a few days later.

But no: just Cook, at the LaPa site. This matters. The English colonised this place, not ‘Europeans’. There is no valid reason for continental Europe to share responsibility for the crimes of the English and their band of British collaborators, like the Scotsman Macquarie. The English did not identify as European then, and despite the best efforts of more progressive thinkers, do not now. This is evidenced by Brexit and the Windsrush generation as I write.

Kamay, or Botany Bay, was not the first encounter between Europeans and Indigenous Australians, either. Upwards of 300 distinct peoples are not a homogenous category of ‘Indigenous Australians’. Creating this homogenised category erases the diversity and identity of hundreds of Peoples, their language groups, landscapes, societies and laws.

Returning to the anglo-euro perspective, famous prior ‘encounters’ include the 1629 wreck of the Batavia off the west Australian coast, where two white men were put ashore as punishment for murders there. The Torres Strait is named after the 1606-08 voyage of Luis Váez de Torres. The Tasman sea and Tasmania itself are named for the 1642 claim to the island staked by Abel Tasman. Unlike Cook, these men were Europeans, but that does not mean their names and claims had – or have – any validity, for the simple reason that the continent and her islands were already occupied by First Peoples.

Nor did Cook ‘encounter’ First People here. He attacked, firing musket balls three times in what appears to be within as many minutes of weighing anchor, as his Sunday 29 April 1770 journal entry records. After describing his first two ‘Musquet small shott’, Cook wrote:

emmediatly after this we landed which we had no sooner done than they throw’d two darts at us  this obliged me to fire a third shott soon after which they both made off, but not in such haste but what we might have taken one

In typical English fashion, like the Parthenon marbles stolen and retained by their ruling classes, the British Museum refuses to return the Gwaegal Shield, which bears the bullet holes and which belongs to the descendants of those warriors who Cook attacked.  The museum can not do justice to the shield, because the past co-exists with the present, because anglo-centrism produces inaccuracies, and because knowledge is place-based.

Cook eventually got himself killed for carrying out his ‘obligation’ to shoot native peoples after entering their waters without permission. Whether his ignominious end at Kealakekua (Karakakooa) Bay, Hawaii, is accurately told at Kamay, Australia, remains to be seen. Either way, the Turnbull remarks bring us back to where we began:

This is a momentous place. One we need to celebrate understand interpret and reflect on.

Kamay is a momentous place. It is a place of great moment, a moment that opened the way to invasion and changed the course of 65,000 years of human occupation here, for every Aboriginal descendant since. It is not, however, a moment we need to celebrate. This is a place of commemoration, not celebration. The Cook claim, English invasion, British colonisation, and attempted genocide: these are not causes to celebrate. As the anonymous spray painter made clear, in that act of peaceful protest which did not harm anybody, there is NO PRIDE IN GENOCIDE.

AND SO THIS IS ANZAC DAY

Like Valentines day and Halloween, which were non-events when I was growing up, the twenty-first century incarnation of ANZAC Day bears no resemblance whatsoever to when World War vets were alive and marching and telling interviewers that war is an unmitigated disaster of the human project that we should always, always caution against under any and all circumstances.

My memories are as clouded by time and nostalgia as the next person. Commonality of human trait is not an easy thing to pin. As a student and scholar of jurisprudence, I often examine such questions; and I tentatively offer that nostalgia, like curiosity, is a characteristic shared, if not by every individual human, then by most if not all human cultures.

From the 1970s: colour television. Seeing someone we knew on screen was a BIG deal. Nowadays it is practically impossible to not see people we know on screens, given how widespread is the smart phone as a medium. But back then the old black and white television behaved the same way as those TVs in the Mad Men scenes, vertically scrolling without anyone tapping a touch screen; fizzing and zapping and jumping at the slightest movement of an aerial or the weather.

Both my parents were born during the second world war. Each wedding photo of my grandparents shows a beautiful woman in a stunningly elaborate white gown, and a man in uniform. When my own children were born, and when I left and became a single mother, I gleaned a strength from those photos that defied how little I really knew of their lives. I would talk to my grandmothers in the car when I felt alone; or late at night when the children were asleep.

The context is not what government or politicians or media tell me ANZAC Day is about. It is the oral history passed on by my mother. It is the sure knowledge that both my grandmothers were alone with a baby, my mum and my dad, and that my grandmas knew how difficult that can be. Keeping a baby alive, keeping baby fed and clean and clothed and happy, is not easy. It is not easy in isolated circumstances, beyond our control, because of violence, like wars and domestic violence. This is how I connected to my grandmothers in those moments when I thought I might go under, and here is what they – and the existence of my mum and dad – reminded me: we are not entirely alone. Baby is a person too.

The human condition is social. The human spirit is geared for company. The baby, the child, the young person, the tween and the teen and the adult, is a person. One of the hardest lessons I learned from my children, and there are many, was the simple insistence: I am here too mum. Yes, I struggled with housing and utility bills and the uselessness of the law to ‘protect’ us hur hur and education and sport and all the responsibilities, of course I did.

But here is the thing. Not only were my kids always there, they are great company. Being around them is fun, and enlightening, and uplifting. And they had no choice. What were they supposed to do, compete in a free market of more or less terrible parents? The only adult human who could negotiate this treacherous world on their behalf is me.

When I was five and six and seven, on the 24th of April, my mum would ask if we wanted to be woken up to watch the march. A big drawcard was that we might see grandad on television.

Two memories: the ecstatic excitement, always with a tinge of doubt, as the parade passed the cameras. Was it our granddad? There he is! It’s Dee! We called my mum’s dad Dee, he was David, named for his maternal uncle who was in turn overseas in 1918, when my grandfather was born. In case he never came back, my mum would share gravely, a story passed down as families do.

And then it was Don’t Touch! Don’t put your greasy fingers on the screen! For years I thought I had uniquely greasy fingers. Many years later, when the greasy finger marks of my children obscured blindspot vision checks while driving, I came to appreciate why greasy finger marks should be discouraged. Lol.

After we watched the ANZAC Day march, and saw – or maybe saw – grandad on TV, we went about our day. Dad would tell me and my sister to pick up the dog poo and the damn bones so he could mow the lawn, a task we hated (we hated all tasks). Mum would tell us to put away the dishes, and clean our rooms (ditto). In other words, a normal day. Domestic tasks. Household chores. Family matters. A household headed by two people whose lives were irreparably shaped by the second world war, and their parents were more so, literally lived and born into it.

This is my ANZAC Day memory. This is my knowledge of what is called world war. Not the Bean or the Monash, nor the Greste or the ABC. My grandmothers are why I am here today and I pay my respects to everything they did.

*my mum’s dad his family in WWII there were 5 siblings Barbara, a WAC, her husband Colin, all the brothers Ted (Edward), Derek, David and Leonard their surname is Giblin thank you

The Aboriginal Child Placement Principle is Unenforceable at Law

Late last year, the Nationals member for Lyne in New South Wales was appointed assistant minister for children and families. In a tired and predictable charade, this comfortable white man appointed to a well-paid position is learning for the first time of harsh conditions in which many First Peoples live since the theft of their country. When I lived in Alice Springs in 1994-95, which was peak Mabo-scare time, it was then-Opposition leader Alexander Downer who took out his hanky while touring remote communities.

Indigenous poverty is a direct result of colonisation. There was no alcoholism, and there were no hungry children, here for 65,000 years. As Senator Malarndirri McCarthy recalled at the annual Dr Charles Perkins AO Memorial Oration in 2016, one of Dr Perkins’ key messages was to ‘never leave anyone behind’. This is not a political slogan, as it would be in my culture, but a central organising principle of Aboriginal societies.

Junior minister David Gillespie says he had his ‘eyes opened in the last couple of weeks’ to pervasive problems which have never been solved by comfortable white men recently appointed to well-paid positions and discovering for the first time what First Peoples have known all their lives and have tried, with staggering patience, to tell government and white Australian society.

He added “If a child is being raped we can’t just say it’s OK on cultural grounds.”

According to SBS (link above): ‘Dr Gillespie believes the need to keep Aboriginal children in Indigenous communities “doesn’t trump other issues’”… He believes it’s “pretty poor” only 143 of the nearly 48,000 Australian children in foster care last year had been adopted.’

In news that will surprise no-one, Channel 7 Sunrise invited two white people to comment on whether white families should be ‘allowed’ to adopt Aboriginal children. There is no law against the state placing Aboriginal children with, or being adopted by, white families, although it is difficult to tell whether the Minister understands this.

The Minister and the Media

The first task is to call out the shoddy breakfast television show Sunrise, which many Aboriginal and other people have done, as in this Twitter moments. This is not cost neutral: responding to the endless, exhausting stereotyping of Aboriginal identity has a price.

Meanwhile, the nasty Sunrise segment opens up space on other media platforms for Gillespie to repeat his message; and for his message to gain traction and credibility. This has already happened with a soft interview on ABC24 asking whether ‘laws should be changed to allow’ white adoption of black children.

So another call-out is crucial, because the premises for Gillespie’s remarks are wrong.

The peak Indigenous body National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples swiftly released a statement, saying that Congress

“agrees that vulnerable children should be removed, but we are troubled by the knowledge from past Royal Commissions of the dangers of neglect and abuse perpetrated within institutions and of the failures of many out-of-home-care alternatives. We desperately need to know: where we are removing our children to?”

Congress’s statement underscores the fact that there is no evidence of Aboriginal people expressing the view that child abuse should be ignored on ‘cultural grounds’. In reality, there is footage from all over the country, most recently Tennant Creek, of Aboriginal people saying the exact opposite.

So who is Gillespie talking about? Well, he did mention [white] child protection workers expressing fear that they will be labelled racist for removing Aboriginal children, so maybe it is them. In reality, Aboriginal children are disproportionately removed for ‘neglect’, the most flexible, shall we say, ground for removal. In contrast, non-Aboriginal children are more likely to be removed for physical or sexual abuse.

As it turns out, these patterns of decision-making, and the ministerial and media focus on physical and sexual abuse, are racist. It is a function of imposing white middle class values and standards on Aboriginal families, of ignoring and erasing the ongoing trauma of dispossession and colonisation, and a failure of empathy. It is white savourism in compound, base, and damaging forms.

Meanwhile, the chatter sparked by Sunrise will cause more apprehension, fear, and exhausted resignation that the same fights must be fought over again just to keep Black children with Black families. The unfounded or fabricated impressions are broadcast to a receptively racist public, who uncritically consume messages about Aboriginal identity. The messages attack Aboriginal parents where it hurts any parent most: their children.

Here is a brand new junior minister for children and young people who has chosen to stigmatise and re-traumatise and gaslight Aboriginal people, blaming the Blacks for the failures of the state, and all the evidence shows that the state is a terrible, terrible parent.

The Minister and the Law

That well-paid white men seek media attention to drive their political ambition at the expense of Aboriginal children is not new, but it never gets any less revolting. Who had heard of David Gillespie before today?

Gillespie is a federal minister, but child protection is a state responsibility. So he is out of his jurisdiction, telling ABC24 he is ‘stimulating policy’ discussion. Thanks, minister. More seriously, the NSW Children and Young People (Care and Protection) Act 1998 does not create any enforceable rights regarding placement of Aboriginal children with white or Aboriginal families. This is a little-known but important feature of the Act.

The specific exclusion of enforceable legal rights or entitlements is in s. 7 of the NSW Act:

7 What is the role of the objects and principles of this Act?

The provisions of this Chapter are intended to give guidance and direction in the administration of this Act. They do not create, or confer on any person, any right or entitlement enforceable at law.

This section governs Chapter 2, which includes “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Principles”. The Aboriginal Child Placement Principle is an important principle, enshrining in law a preferred mode of practice – kinship care – and was hard-fought.

The principle was agreed at national level and then enacted into state and territory legislation, a not-unusual federated model. It directs social workers to seek to place Black children who are removed with family or kin first, or Aboriginal households. Placement with non-Aboriginal families is meant to be a last resort.

There are similar provisions in s. 10A with regard to prospective adoption of Aboriginal children. Yet the Minister, while tending to conflate out-of-home (foster) care with adoption – which are very different for children, family, and carers – generated multiple headlines shouting Let White Families Adopt Aboriginal Children – Minister.

Where are we then?

There is no law to be changed, because there is no law barring placement of Aboriginal children with white families. No child protection worker has ever faced legal consequences, whether under the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) or any other statute, for breaching the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle, because the [NSW] Act which contains the Principle specifically rules out the possibility of creating or conferring any ‘right or entitlement enforceable at law’.

The remarks by the minister (whether thoughtless, ignorant, or malicious) create the impression that Aboriginal families are uniquely deviant or incapable – when they have successfully raised their children and passed on their knowledge for a longer continuous period than any Peoples on earth.

The errors of law and fact implied or stated by the Minister have been enthusiastically repeated, first by the odious Sunrise and then by the rest as space opens up in its racist wake. Meanwhile, like many who enjoy the same demographic privilege as him, the junior minister for children and families appears to have strolled into his quarter-million-dollar-plus per annum position with an alarming lack of knowledge, experience, and empathy. At the same time, he has achieved several goals of most politicians. He got his mug on the telly, lifted his name recognition, and stamped his brand of paternalism on his portfolio. this was done at the expense of Aboriginal children, young people, parents, families, and communities.

Indigenous Peoples have the right to determine their own identity

One of the most persistent features of colonial jurisprudence is its aggressive insistence on defining colonised peoples on its own terms. In his 1797 work Law of Nations, Emer de Vattel conflated cultivation with civilisation, ironically presuming to define Aboriginal people by his perspective on their relationship to land.

In the same Anglo-European tradition, the British claimed this continent by citing terra nullius. This now-discarded doctrine of land belonging to no-one rested on a further fiction, this time of nomads.  The anglo-euro idea was that Aboriginal peoples aimlessly wander across country, a claim which quite literally could not be further from the truth. While many Indigenous cultures have as sophisticated land management and ecological knowledge as here, no human society on earth has a longer continuous connection to country than the more than 300 distinct Peoples of Australia.

Nomadism means a seasonal way of life anyway, rather than aimless wanderings, often disparagingly referred to as ‘walkabout’ (noting that it is entirely up to Aboriginal people to reclaim the word Walkabout on whatever terms they choose). But definitional accuracy is not a strong point of colonisers making bold assertions as to the culture and traditions of Black peoples. It is well documented that the most extreme forms of scientific racism – a fabricated human hierarchy with white men placed, by white men, at the top – were applied to First Peoples in Australia.

Alongside this recent history are post-war understandings of the right to self-determination, which is the cornerstone right specific to Indigenous Peoples. Self-determination is formally encoded into the leading international instruments of their kind, the United Nations Charter (Chapter 1, Article 1(2) and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) Article 3, signed by Australia in 2007.

When white law and society – the colonial state and social surveillance, each as invidious as the other – impose definitions of Aboriginality on Aboriginal people, we violate the general right to self-determination and the specific right of Indigenous Peoples to define themselves.

The colonial jurisprudence of imposing identity

The UNDRIP Article 33(1) states: Indigenous Peoples have the right to determine their own identity or membership in accordance with their customs and traditions. Yet settler-colonial nations insist on exercising – or abusing – the power to define colonised peoples. This is not some legacy of a bygone era. It is a continuation of the philosophy, law, and actions – the jurisprudence of the British invasion, attempted genocides, and forced assimilation.

To illustrate, many Australians are familiar with the Stolen Generations, but possibly without having contemplated the jurisprudence of colonisation. The Stolen Generations are made up of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who were forcibly removed from their families as children, and their descendants. This is formally known as ‘assimilation’. It is informally known as ‘breeding out the colour’, which is a eugenics program, as signified by the word ‘breeding’.

Forced assimilation in turn rests on widespread belief in scientific racism, an obnoxious and discredited but (not yet eradicated) school of thought that provided the philosophical foundation for Aboriginal Protection Acts and Aboriginal Protection Boards. These are laws and institutions of executive government. Finally, officers of those agencies, as well as police and missionaries authorised by the same laws, took children from their families, by force, on the basis of their Aboriginality.

This is how philosophy, law and practice operate together under the rubric of colonial jurisprudence. The rubric can be applied to all the ways colonial powers were directed towards First Peoples: from formal acts of dispossession like the First Charter of Justice to the earliest criminal prosecutions against Aboriginal men (see R v Murrell and Bummaree [1836] NSWSupC 35), from segregation in cinemas and public pools well into the 20th century, to the disproportionately high rates of incarceration, police brutality, and forced child removal to this day.

In all these cases and many more, governments and the laws they pass operate in concert with the academy, cultural institutions and society, to maintain dominance over colonised peoples

Defining Aboriginality in 2018

This background is by way of context to the current proposal to create a new Indigenous Productivity Commissioner position. The position will be created by way of a bill to amend the Productivity Commission Act 1998 (Cth). Typically of how government rates that which concerns Aboriginal people, the amendment can be found on page 45 of a 45-page document, the Treasury Laws Amendment (2017 Measures No. 5) Bill 2017 No. [blank], 2017 Treasury.

The Productivity Commission compiles data on Aboriginal people which it publishes in its biennial Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage report. This is one of three publications which track Closing the Gap, which was established by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and announced in conjunction with the 2008 Apology to the Stolen Generations. It includes benchmarks like infant mortality, life expectancy, and education and employment levels.

The 10th Closing the Gap report was released on 13 February this year by a Prime Minister who arrived at the Anniversary breakfast for photo opportunities alone and departed without entering the hall.

Closing the Gap, along with the Indigenous Affairs portfolio and the Indigenous Advisory Council (IAC), sit with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C). I appreciate that these institutional arrangements are dull as dull to most punters, myself included (Kevin Rudd sets out more detail and justification on Closing the Gap governance here). However, the enabling amendment to create an Indigenous Productivity Commissioner has given rise to considerable disquiet among many Indigenous people, as discussed in this broad-ranging article by Karen Wyld, a writer, novelist and consultant of Martu descent.

The public concern largely centres on whether government has unilaterally, without consultation, changed the way Aboriginal people are defined at law. Recall that Indigenous Peoples have the right to determine their own identity. Note that governments can not control what they can not define – legislation must have a subject, purpose and scope. As mentioned, colonial governments define Aboriginality for the purpose forced assimilation, a eugenics program that amounts to cultural genocide. These are not merely historical or legacy issues, but continuing, contemporary realities.

It is entirely logical for Aboriginal people to respond to a known threat, based on evidence, like the definitional amendments buried in the 5th Treasury amendment bill of 2017.

The new law, just like the old law

Those amendments just passed the House of Representatives, and merit closer examination as the bill proceeds to the Senate. It says:

1 Section 3 5

Insert:

Indigenous person means a person who is: 

(a) a member of the Aboriginal race of Australia; or

(b) a descendant of an Indigenous inhabitant of the Torres Strait Islands. 

4 At the end of section 24 18

Add:

(6) At least one Commissioner must:

(a) have extensive skills and experience in dealing with policies and programs that have an impact on Indigenous persons; and

(b) have experience in dealing with one or more communities of Indigenous persons

 

There are two things going on here. One is the definition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. As Wyld notes, this is “not consistent with today’s standards [and] lacks awareness that Indigeneity is much more than descent, as it is linked to relationships, kin and community, and ongoing cultural practices”. The second is the continuing insistence by the Commonwealth that it is competent to define Aboriginality.

The definition of an Indigenous person at law is circular, and self-referential. A ‘member of the Aboriginal race’ in this context actually means ‘an amendment of this wording authorises the creation of an Indigenous Productivity Commissioner position and is consistent with section 51(xxvi) [the race power] of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1901 and also the International Convention on Elimination on all Forms of Racial Discrimination’.

Except that is not what is going on at all. The new Commissioner role is not required at law to be filled by an Indigenous person. The amendment quite specifically says a person ‘with extensive skills and experience’ of ‘dealing with’ Indigenous communities.

In other words, a mission manager.

The three-part test

However, there has been some misunderstanding around the definition of Indigenous in the amendment, which at law subsumes rather than changes the three-part definition of Aboriginality: Aboriginal descent, self-identification as Aboriginal, and community acceptance as an Aboriginal person.

The three part test is often referred to as an ‘administrative’ definition, which is not correct. It was set out in full as far back as 1983 in section 4 of the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act, and the authority at common law is the High Court of Australia (Commonwealth v. Tasmania (1983) 158 CLR 1 at 551 per Deane J).

As such, reassurance that the amendment contains the three-part test is not, as Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion asserted, because it “is wholly consistent with the standard Commonwealth legislative definition used under both Liberal and Labor governments since the 1970’s (sic)”.

Further, as Scullion himself points out, this is a Treasury bill. Why, then, has Scullion been sent out to defend it? Surely the government would not establish a governance structure which enables interminable buck-passing between Treasury and the PM&C on an ‘Indigenous’ position – which is not an identified Aboriginal position – that it claims will ‘deliver better outcomes for First Australians’?

Surely not. But in among his paragraphs which do not accurately clarify the definitional issues, Scullion drops this gem:

Consideration of how to define Indigenous status in legislation is a significant matter and well above politics… [The Government] calls on Labor to immediately rule out doing a dirty deal with One Nation to change the legislative definition of an Indigenous person.

There has been much chatter recently about declining standards in public debate. Less clear is what was the previously high standard from which debate has declined? This kind of pompous innuendo is entirely consistent with the standard of rhetoric I have seen in 35 or so years following Australian politics, particularly from Conservatives.

More importantly, including the definition of Indigenous in the Treasury Bill merely scopes the requisite skills and experience in ‘dealing with Indigenous persons’. It is this contradiction that lies at the heart of community disquiet about the amendment. ‘Dealing with’ could include someone who has exploited Aboriginal people and damaged their lands, or as one Aboriginal colleague noted wryly, Twiggy Forrest could be appointed.

Meanwhile, inclusion of the definition limits the scope of the Commissioner’s role to monitoring Indigenous people and Indigenous communities, people who already experience extremely heavy surveillance from both society and the state.

The last word as the bill proceeds to the Senate goes to my colleague Lynda Holden, an Aboriginal lawyer and law lecturer:

“Aboriginal people know that if it is not an identified position, they are removing the three-part test. Because unless the Indigenous Productivity Commissioner is an identified Indigenous position, there is no need for the three-part test to be in the legislation. Much the same as the Minister for Indigenous Affairs is not an Indigenous person…

Both the Commissioner and the Minister should be an identified Aboriginal position”

Myths of Westminster democracy

Almost everything we are formally taught about our system of government is deeply anchored in vested dishonesty. All the formal claims to democratic principle fall short. Here is how those structural designs benefit as undeserving a character as Barnaby Joyce.

Like many Australian voters – or saintedAustraliantaxpayers™ as many choose to define us (taxpayers are everyone who buys anything other than fresh food so, you know, everyone) – I am incandescent at the mess caused by the current deputy prime minister and his senior coalition partner, the prime minister.

Malcolm Turnbull and Barnaby Joyce have less idea how to clean up this spilt milk than my teenage son wiping the bench after making two-minute noodles, which trust me is a very low bar. Both men, and both parties they head, and thus by definition all the dithering cowards in their caucus, are terminally and irredeemably incapable of completing the tasks we pay them big money to achieve. Like running the country.

Two of the most deeply held Westminster myths are especially relevant to the shambolic shitshow that is now Barnaby Joyce’s political “career”. For the sake of brevity – and sanity – I limit this post to these: ministerial accountability; and the public interest obligation of the fourth estate.

For the record, I was writing about the moral and political failures – same thing, when it comes to Pilliga properties and inland rail, CSG and Eastern Star and Santos, the Murray-Darling river flows and Wesfarmers and irrigation licenses and water theft and more – of Barnaby Joyce before it was cool. I also have a rogue theory on why Joyce chose to publicly concede his marriage was over after the 2 December 2017 by-election.

I lived and voted in New England for thirteen years and visit annually to see family, and this is what I think: Joyce would have won anyway, but the charade allowed New Englanders to deny, to themselves, official knowledge that they were re-electing a grifter and a fool who was quite obviously drowning in a mid-life quagmire of his own making.

Nobody wanted to know, because nobody wanted to feel the prick of truth as they stood by their leery, beery charlatan of a man, their representative clown of the first order whose crass and boorish rent-seeking ways were well-known, but who nevertheless delivered the pork from a hapless beholden Coalition government and the public purse. Plus they hated Tony Windsor for backing Gillard, despite the obvious integrity of his decision-making process.

The by-election charade was aided and abetted by corny sentiment and distant ignorance from political journalists too eager to go along with the rebuttable presumption that white rural folk have an ontological right to define themselves in opposition to city culture and in their own best interests. The entire exercise was a classic demonstration of white fragility: collective safeguarding of the farming lobby and vested constituencies from facing the realities of their shabby loyalty to a wholly compromised bacon-bearer.

Which is all very well as anecdotal observation by an unreconstructed city dweller: I only lived away from Sydney, in the northern tablelands and Northern Territory, for fifteen years which as everyone knows does not a country girl make.

The analysis, like the Joycean house of cards, requires structural support.

Myths of Westminster 1: Ministerial accountability:

The misconceptions around Westminster-model democracy are numerous, persistent, and huge. One of our most fondly held beliefs is that once upon a time, in a kingdom far far away, ministers in Westminster governments resigned for sins such as abusing the power of office, such as using their influence to obtain a benefit for themselves or others, such as misleading the parliament. The myth is enthusiastically prosecuted by politicians, political reporters, and the comfortable classes. It feeds the comforting notion that we live in a democracy with flawed but essentially sound leadership, institutions, and systems.

As English as cricket, ministerial accountability purports to rely on the honour of the honourable member. This necessarily requires the heroic assumption that all MPs have a sense of honour, which is demonstrably untrue. Logic therefore directs that the assumption be discarded and a different mechanism be instituted for dealing with ministers who can not meet ministerial standards, whatever that was before Malcom Turnbull added a ban on minister-staff sexual relations this week

There was no mention at Turnbull’s press conference of compliance and enforcement of his sex ban. What is Malcolm going to do? Bust Joyce in flagrante delicto and not sack him, like he did not do last week, last month, or last year, because of a coalition agreement not in the public domain?

Despite the usual ‘reporting’ of prime ministerial announcement, nothing has changed. The Turnbull sex ban is as effective as the Turnbull citizenship audit, and no doubt came from the same advisory source. So much efficacy.

Like centuries of ‘reform’ before it, the sex-ban relies on another furphy that wafts around misguided notions of ministerial accountability. Contrary to popular belief, the real test is not ministerial behaviour but whether the minister gets caught. George Brandis mislead parliament over the exit of Julian Gleeson SC from the Solicitor General’s office and was rewarded with the London High Commissionership.

Hilariously, Joyce is the batsman who snicked the ball which was caught behind but does not walk back to the pavilion when the umpire shakes his head… then retires hurt.

It is just not cricket. But because it originates from the same source as cricket – the breathtakingly hypocritical privilege of upper class Englishmen – the myth of accountability is maintained. Some behaviour, somewhere, is cricket, the story goes – and we all somehow, miraculously, know what that behavioural standard is.

This is why the accountability myth is maintained not only by political elites but also by punters for whom the system is not an abusive monolith designed to criminalise and punish life circumstances.

For those who are systematically oppressed by Centrelink, child protection, Homeland Security, police and courts and prisons (to name a few), naïve faith in democratic principle is not an option. For most people who fall outside the demographic norms of its originating template – Westminster Parliaments comprised of property-owning white males – government is not benign but oppressive. It can be literally a matter of survival to not assume that government is well-meaning, or honest. If we believe Centrelink is necessarily right about a debt notice, we could become homeless or suicidal. If we believe the state will not brutalise our family, they could be killed by its agents.

Barnaby Joyce does not get this. He is entirely unaware that marriage and relationship breakdown is a primary cause of homelessness, especially for women and children escaping violent men. He told his matey Maguire story with zero insight into how life can hit people experiencing the emotional pain of separation and a lot more besides what a philandering fool like himself, often through no fault of their own, go through to survive. Joyce claimed it is ‘in the ballpark’ to be offered free rent on an executive townhouse while collecting upwards of a million dollars a year in publicly funded salary and entitlements when he felt sad.

It is patently absurd to hold onto the idea that a principle, ministerial accountability, will compel a proper response from Barnaby Joyce to being publicly exposed as a rorter and adulterer. The falsity of the assumption is borne out by Joyce’s response and that of the Prime Minister. Instead of falling on his sword, Joyce has taken a holiday. Meanwhile, Turnbull announced a wholly ineffective – because it is wholly unenforceable – rewrite of his sagging, lagging ministerial code of conduct.

The Fourth Estate

The role of media as the fourth estate, fearlessly reporting in the public interest, holding politicians to account, is pivotal in this context. According to principles of Westminster democracy and doctrine of estates, it is the task of political reporters to investigate allegations of impropriety, to know the official code, to question ministers, and to inform the public of how suspect decisions and actions measure up against the stated standards.

It then becomes a matter of whether the minister in question can withstand the pressure, rather than honour the fact that he felt the snick and knows he is caught out. Over and again, as from gallery veteran Michelle Grattan and Fairfax prince James Massola, we heard that Barnaby Joyce was on a knife edge. He could not possibly survive another transgression, it was pronounced, as further transgressions emerged by the minute.

The next step can take numerous forms. The transgressor might resign from the ministry, or from his party, or from the parliament. He might go to the backbench or to the cross-bench. He might be rehabilitated like Arthur Sinodinos (before taking sick leave) was and Abbott wanted to be; or embark on a post-parliamentary life like Sam Dastiyari.

This step is not determined by honour, or principle. It is determined by what the party numbers men, the pollsters, and the political press, decide is worth pursuing, or can be ridden out.

Such kid-glove treatment is not available to women, or anyone left of Barnaby Joyce, Andrew Robb, or John Brogden. In fact women, like Julia Gillard and Kristina Keneally, were regularly pilloried when there was no suggestion of impropriety other than in the fevered imaginations of their political opponents. The inherently conservative political press duly publish any old innuendo or nasty sexist claim. How would Bill Heffernan know whether Gillard is ‘deliberately barren’? Why publish slur after slur linking Keneally to the odious Eddie Obeid when the official body charged with investigating such claims, the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, specifically praised the credibility of her evidence when questioned about him?

Why indeed?

The upshot

In contrast, conservative white men are invariably extended benefit of the doubt ad infinitum, and their feelings handled delicately. The media attention and public opprobrium are often said to be punishment enough. The wrong-doer is re-presented as a victim of the harshness of the spotlight. This is happening to a degree for Joyce, but his star is tainted. Independent news sites and social media are operating to strengthen ministerial accountability. Great, right!?

May the mainstream press and his Coalition colleagues find their spines. It is not difficult to discern that Joyce has behaved, and been caught behaving, in such a way that would compel an honourable man, by Westminster principle, to resign

Ministerial accountability is to Westminster democracy what meritocracy mythology is to liberalism: a convenient lie which operates to shore up the positional power of an already very comfortable class of persons. Joyce is in this class of persons. Nevertheless, even though current reports say Joyce is away for a week, I reckon he is gone from politics for good. And if he is not, he should be.

 

Politics 2017 Finale: The Bin Fire Edition

So much to take credit for, so little effort! A Royal Commission instigated by a Labor Prime Minister; a Yes campaign in which the work done and harm suffered was by people other than the political class; a by-election won by a conservative man called John; a MYEFO presaged by strategic leaks to produce misleading headlines!

All bundled into a convenient narrative of the prime minister getting his thirtieth chance or his fiftieth reboot or his mojo back or whatever. It must be quite something, to repeatedly, endlessly, receive the benefit of the doubt on a national scale. Especially when any lingering doubt has long since departed the minds of thinking observers.

Because what the prime minister wants (ending the year on a “high note”) is indistinguishable from the national interest, right?

Yeah nah.

This month, between the house and the hustings, many long-term issues – the Uluru Statement, off-shore refugee camps, the NDIS – were put to the prime minister in a solo appearance on the ABC QandA program. It was a golden opportunity to show the intellect and statesmanship that allegedly forms part of his political repertoire.

He didn’t though, because it doesn’t, and he can’t.

The Terrible Show

Turnbull oozes a smugness that many mistake for charm. Then someone holds him to account for some dodgy nonsense he has said, or his government has done. Suddenly the smug-charm turns to outright condescension, he belittles and bullies, manipulates facts, and misleads his audience.

When host Virginia Trioli asked about a recording which, the evidence suggests, must have been leaked by security services, Turnbull implied she was impugning the spooks. He told Iranian Australian and ship-wreck survivor Yaser Naseri that he cares about asylum seeker deaths at sea (he doesn’t); he told Tommasina Owens of his fine grasp on the difficulties faced by her aging father caring for her brother with severe disabilities (he doesn’t). He did not answer Michael Doyle on his future vision for recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (he couldn’t).

This bonfire of vanities culminated when Teela Reid, who participated in the Regional Dialogues, asked about the Uluru Statement. After reeling off the usual spurious points – mischaracterising the Voice to Parliament as a House of Parliament (it isn’t); asserting that Indigenous MPs represent Indigenous constituencies (they don’t) – the prime minister used a technique called gaslighting.

Gaslighting is when the speaker not only distorts the question (“straw man”) but also seeks to make the other person doubt their own position, loyalties, or self-worth. Turnbull accused Ms Reid of disrespecting Indigenous MPs (she didn’t) while asserting that he himself has the greatest respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, culture, and people (he doesn’t). He put this argument while disrespecting an Aboriginal woman on national television.

For the record, Ms Reid remains confident of her position and respect for her people.

Yes Success

December kicked off with the passing of an amendment to the Marriage Act. Pushing on through measurable harm resulting in increased demand for mental health services, raising and dispersing funds not only for activism but for support, the rainbow community finally saw marriage equality made law.

When the prime minister, who did not campaign, rose to move that the bill be read for a third time – an essential step to making a bill into law – he accidentally gave a victory speech instead. The Speaker reminded him to do his job, and the error was edited from history. As is always expected of progressive punters – conservatives actually know they are the nastier bunch – the Yes folks generously shared their joy with all.

Responses to responses

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is a grave moment. Its scale is gargantuan: five gruelling years, more than 1.2 million documents; testimony from over 8,000 people; a 21-volume final report; more than 400 recommendations. By all accounts, the commitment, professionalism and thoroughness of the Commission were impeccable.

Did Turnbull and the (then) responsible Minister, Christian Porter, rise to the occasion?

On the last day of hearings, Porter was tweeting a selfie at the cricket with John Howard. He followed this up with an awkward speech thanking the Commission and survivors, and boasting about increased sentences for child sex offenders, a common political response with no known efficacy.

Presumably Porter had been tapped for promotion and was merely going through the motions.

“An outstanding exercise in love”, declared Malcolm Turnbull creepily, of a child abuse investigation. He also reiterated his policy of limiting and capping the compensation costs, which are to be borne by the Australian public. The policy rules out redress for victims with a conviction for a serious crime. Given that police routinely escalate charges against Aboriginal suspects, this will disproportionately disenfranchise Aboriginal survivors. The policy is racist, arbitrary, populist, and unjust.

Predictably, catholic church leaders conducted tacky, tone-deaf press conferences, speaking to the obscure theology of the confessional seal, and defending their vows of celibacy. On Insiders, veteran church-watcher David Marr called their defence of the confessional ‘barbaric’. Social media exploded. But the depravity of grown men who purport to be virgins discussing celibacy and theology when the true issue is sexual abuse of children went without comment from our political leaders.

Another by-election

If you thought the skin-crawling display from Joyce and Turnbull in New England (my write-up here) wait til you hear about the oratorical wit of Bennelong MP John Alexander.

‘John is an honest man’, Turnbull shouted at the happy throng, despite the fact that he had lied on a statutory declaration about checking his eligibility parliament. ‘A hard-working man’, crowed the PM, among other hackneyed descriptors invoking a tennis career rather than political career – because what political career?

In real life, this retiree-in-waiting bunks down in Bondi while renting his Moss Vale mansion for $1400 a night – without declaring it. He says sexist, racist and ableist things on camera. He makes non-apologies, and channels Donald Trump, saying ‘no-one has done more for people with disabilities than I have’.

This is not true. Thousands of people, including children, care for people with disabilities from dawn to dusk and every hour in-between every single day for a carer’s allowance that amounts to 7 cents an hour above the Newstart rate… so no, John. Stop lying.

MYEFO

The Mid-Year Economic Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) was delivered by a man whose degree is in ‘applied economic geography’ and who has apparently now been informed that cutting wages dampens demand, and consumption, and growth.

The trick to MYEFO is for Treasurers to cut spending, preferably targeting people who conservative politicians hate, like students and migrants and children. This disinvestment in education and social cohesion is called ‘savings’. The budget deficit increase projection is revised downward, and presto! An economically illiterate press babble ignorantly about ‘slashing debt’. By the time financial journalists produce a more sober analysis, of falling real wages and rising public and private debt, the government got the headlines it wanted.

The caravan moves on

And there it is. A quick trip across the Australian political landscape reveals long-term issues like First Peoples justice and rights, our torture of refugees, and what was once enthusiastically sold as ‘debt and deficit disaster’, have gotten nowhere. It shows a prime minister with no vision for the future, and apparently no capacity to form one.

So season’s greetings! Thank you for your time, and for your shares and comments. I look forward to writing more next year.

*This post was first published by Independent Australia on Wednesday 20 December 2017

Official responses to Royal Commissions: A sorry take on a sorry tale

The gargantuan Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has come to a close. Its scale is almost impossible to comprehend: more than 1.2 million documents; testimony from over 8,000 people; a 21-volume final report; more than 400 recommendations. By all accounts, the commitment, professionalism and thoroughness of its processes were impeccable. And it would have surely taken a huge toll on survivors, counsel, journalists and lower-profile staff as well.

It is important to keep this Royal Commission in our sights, and in the headlines. Sexual predators thrive in secrecy, and catholic leaders have vowed to keep the secrets of its criminals, if they confess their crimes behind the confessional wall. Bearing bad news is never fun, but it must be said: the hopes and dreams of Australians desperately yearning for change in the wake of this Commission are already stymied.

The two most powerful actors on this stage are the federal government and the catholic church, and both have already signalled limits to – even rejection of – meaningful change.

The authority and efficacy of Royal Commissions

Many examples could be cited to demonstrate how governments stymie and side-track and otherwise render ineffective the work of Royal Commissions. It is tempting to re-visit the failure to secure justice for Anangu people at Maralinga, and the fact of a subsequent Royal Commission into the Nuclear Fuel Cycle; or remind everyone again that the Cole Royal Commission was supposed to clean up corrupt kickbacks paid by the Australian Wheat Board to the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein in breach of United Nations sanctions yet in the real world we followed the USA into an illegal war in Iraq and the responsible minister at the time is now our High Commissioner in London.

But for this post I confine myself to the one historical example, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and the four RCs called during the Abbott-Turnbull administration, to make some general observations about the institution of the RC as a constitutive part of Westminster systems of government.

There is a general public perception that Royal Commissions are a solution in themselves, but the ultimate efficacy of any Royal Commission rests with government and other institutions in its purview. This is not to overlook that public trust in institutional processes is a democratic good; or that bearing witness carries an intrinsic value. As Alice Walker eloquently writes here, it does. Over these five years, people who struggled for decades to be heard were finally heard. People who were ignored, stonewalled, manipulated, and re-traumatised were honoured, respected and believed.

This matters.

But governments consistently lag behind community expectations, leaving recommendations unimplemented, underfunding monitoring and compliance bodies, and allocating resources to appearances over action. Another failure is at the coal face, where officers of the state, such as police officers, ignore reforms.

Since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, no police or prison officer has ever been successfully prosecuted for killing an Aboriginal person on their watch. The police officers Nunn and Matier, on duty when Ms Dhu died in a Western Australian police cell, were later promoted. So was Chris Hurley, the officer who Magistrate Brian Hine found caused the death of Mr Doomadgee on Palm Island.

When police failed to notify the Aboriginal Legal Service that Wiradjuri woman Ms Maher was in their custody, in breach of Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Royal Commission recommendations, they failed to prevent her death. Ms Maher was 36 years old. She was taken into custody ‘because police had concerns for her welfare’. Her death was the first in the 16-year history of the Custody Notification Service.

Properly considered reforms in response to thoroughly investigated structural circumstances save lives. It follows that those who resist such reform wish to preserve their own positional power over the actual lives of others. Obviously this is a disgusting position to take, whether by a man of the church, an officer of the state, or a representative of the people.

So Royal Commissions, the most powerful investigative process in the Commonwealth, are not enforcement bodies. And in recent years, the official authority and community respect commanded by Royal Commissions has been diluted. Unsurprisingly, the politicisation of Royal Commissions, which were never entirely free of political influence, accelerated during the short and ugly prime ministership of Tony Abbott. Both Royal Commissions he called were established for no better reason than partisan vengeance, thereby cheapening the institution itself (my comment on the Trade Union Commissioner here).

It is worth noting that many political reporters continue to view the aggressively hyper-partisan Abbott as ‘effective’ and ‘successful’ rather than as nasty and destructive.

Malcolm Turnbull has also called two Royal Commissions in two years. He is more desperate than aggressive, because his prime ministership is driven more by internal disunity. The first was called the morning after a television program (my take here). Like most Turnbull initiatives, it was designed for him to be seen to be doing something. The show screened footage of state employees viciously assaulting and otherwise abusing black children in detention.

These criminal practices were well-known, as this 2014 report makes clear. Yet Turnbull invested so little in its brief – the literal torture of black children by the state – that his first choice of Commissioner had to be stood aside immediately due to dubious differential treatment of black and white offenders. Turnbull also resisted calls to extend the inquiry to other jurisdictions, as though the states do not also employ prison guards who routinely violate black children (they do). That Commission has finalised its reports. The political speeches have been made. The work on the ground, which is largely done by Aboriginal community and organisations, and Aboriginal staff at NFPs like Amnesty International, will continue.

Turnbull, a former merchant banker, had also resisted calls for an inquiry into banks which ‘literally stitch up widows and orphans’ and breach anti-terror and money laundering laws. He was eventually forced to choose between a self-orchestrated backflip, or humiliating defeat in the chamber, because his numbers were weakened by two by-elections and perennially fickle Nationals MPs. He chose the backflip.

The likelihood of reform to ‘keep children safe’

The response to the Child Abuse Royal Commission recommendations lie with Turnbull and three others in particular: Christian Porter, Anthony Fisher, and Denis Hart. Keen-eyed observers will spot the immediate problem with this line-up. These men are not anointed as a result of actual effectiveness in institutional reform. In fact, all four have presided over colossal damage to substantial sections of the population, from children in institutions to welfare recipients sent fictional debt notices, driven to suicide, and forced onto a cashless regime which does not work.

What have these men had to say?

The Child Abuse Royal Commission “is an outstanding exercise in love” blathered the Prime Minister, presumably creeping out everyone who knows anything about sexual abuse. Christian Porter is the minister responsible for the government implementation (or otherwise) of its recommendations. This rhetoric is as repetitive as it is obtuse. “This card is an act of love,” said Turnbull when launching cashless welfare in Kalgoorlie, on the first anniversary since 14 year old Elijah Doughty was killed by a white vigilante. Christian Porter is the senior minister responsible for that program too.

Turnbull also announced limiting and capping costs of compensation, for the crimes of rapists in institutions, which are to be borne by the Australian public. He ruled out redress for victims with a conviction for a serious crime. Given that police routinely escalate charges against Aboriginal suspects, this will disproportionately disenfranchise Aboriginal survivors. Even without the embedded racism, the policy is arbitrary, populist, and unjust.

Then the most senior catholics in Australia, archbishops Fisher and Hart, shared their thoughts on celibacy and the seal of the confessional. This, too, would creep out everyone who knows anything about sexual abuse. In her book Cardinal (temporarily removed from Victorian book stores) Louise Milligan describes Hart as ‘Pell’s best mate in the church’ (2017, p. 66).

Hart and Fisher also unilaterally rejected any change to their confessional practices, supported by the scholarship of Fr Frank Brennan. They want to keep their culture of secrecy immune from scrutiny by secular society and the law. This tells us that despite what Geoffrey Robertson has argued amounts to crimes against humanity, the church does not want to change, ergo they do not want to stop rapists, and do not want to save lives.

Finally, there are growing community demands that the churches pay tax on their obscene wealth. This will not happen, despite the fact that religious organisations are handed multimillion dollar government contracts to deliver ‘charitable’ services, when provision of charitable services is the indefensible rationalisation for tax free status in the first place.

How do I know this will not happen? Because of the disproportionate, unrepresentative power that the catholic church wields as a political lobbyist. Recall that the lawful authority for religious organisations to discriminate against service users or staff with impunity was recently reaffirmed in amendments to the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth). The lawful authority to impose hateful doctrine – referred to as ‘religious freedom’ by their parliamentary allies – includes the freedom to refuse abortion advice to women or sack gay staff, in places like hospitals, schools, homelessness services, and drug and alcohol counselling.

So while the Commission has done its work, all the evidence suggests that the federal government and the catholic church will not do theirs, although there is one recommendation we will see implemented. A national memorial to survivors will provide an opportunity for politicians to appear to be doing something. That one will get done.

Marriage equality and Joycean humility: the week that was

Nobody with ears could mistake the words of recently re-elected Nationals Party leader Barnaby Joyce for stirring speechmaking. But in a close run thing, the indulgent nonsense from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, when the House of Representatives eventually reconvened to debate marriage equality, was the bigger oratorical mess.

Joyce first. The footage of his breathlessly anticipated return to Canberra shows Barnaby muddling through a poorly-conceived and grossly misleading analogy on eligibility for the national parliament.

“We threw ourselves under a bus”, said Joyce of his decision to stay on in cabinet and the parliament until disqualified by the High Court of Australia. “Matty Canavan came out the other side, I got stuck under there for a little while.” The camera zooms in briefly on that footy ruck neck and his lanyard strap. VISITOR.

That VISITOR stamp was a momentary reprieve from an otherwise grim reality. The thumping Joyce victory is disappointing and dangerous. I lived and voted in New England from 1989 to 2002, and visit every year to see family and stand with community against coal and coal seam gas mining. I have written at length that Joyce talks the farming talk while walking the mining walk.

The Joyce victory is a betrayal of traditional custodians and their country, of farmers and food production, and of looming climate catastrophe. It is also telling of a hyper-masculine culture that many voters knew why Mrs Joyce and their daughters were not on the campaign trail, and voted for him anyway.

That reason was kept strictly under wraps until Joyce was safely back in Canberra in record time. As ABC political editor Andrew Probyn told Insiders, the fastest turnaround from by-election to swearing in was previously 11 days. Joyce took four days. That timing was essential to avoiding the referral of several Coalition MPs to the High Court for potential breaches of the Constitution, but Joyce had other matters on his mind.

While preaching on ‘traditional marriage’ – whatever that is – to the parliament, Joyce announced publicly for the first time that he is currently separated ‘so that is on the record’. Presumably he meant ‘on the record as of this exact moment’. Joyce later told radio 2GB that he disclosed his marriage breakdown – widely tipped to be caused by his adultery – so as not to appear hypocritical. While a worthy goal, this is logically unattainable goal, given events and the passage of time.

“Some Nationals also feel that locals may have voted for Mr Joyce on principle,” reported the ABC, “or in sympathy because they felt the High Court citizenship ruling had been harsh.”

What principles? Joyce tracked across the electorate – was there was a New England pub he did not visit? – telling his constituency he did not understand why a fine bloke like his good self was disqualified from the parliament. This actively encourages ignorance of, and disrespect for, the Constitution. Which is his call, except that Joyce votes on laws that govern this country, and collects a hefty parliamentary salary, under that same Constitution.

But the by-election was not about the Constitution, because Joyce is apparently some kind of unreconstructed retail politics genius. “If you want to focus on the person in the weatherboard and iron they will give you the grace of their vote,” he said. That is code for the poor white rural (Australianised rustbelt) vote, as Joyce told Fairfax here.

The reality is that New Englanders know which side on which their bread is buttered. The cache of having the Deputy Prime Minister as the local member is real. Government largesse rains down upon New England at a greater rate than in any other electorate. At the same time, you could count the number of New England farmers who support government handouts on no hands. Agrarian socialist entitlement is as intractable as it is invisible to its beneficiaries.

Anyway, it worked. A victorious  Joyce said he is “completely and utterly humbled”, as shown here with an equally humble Prime Minister. You can practically smell the humility.

 

If the Joyce victory speech was a clatter of misplaced triumphalism and cringe-worthy hypocrisy – which it was – nothing can top the way Turnbull carried himself during the passage of the bill drafted to legalise marriage equality.

The highlight of the Turnbull “gay marriage” speech – such a staunch supporter, just ask him – was this piece of patronising gibberish:

“Co-dependency is a good thing. If we believe two gay people are better off together than living alone, comforted only by their respective cats, then why should we deprive that relationship of equal recognition?”

The question, recall, is equality before the law – specifically sections 5 (definition of marriage between a man and woman) and 88EA (recognition of overseas marriages not between a man and woman) of the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) as enacted under s. 51(xxi) of the Australian Constitution (the marriage power). Since 2004 – the date at which ‘traditional marriage’ was defined by the Howard government – and until Friday 8 December 2017, that definition discriminated against same-sex couples.

It is not about religion, or sex education, or de facto relationships, or cats. It is fundamentally not about whether “we believe two gay people are better off together than living alone”. They can do that now, without scrutiny by the entire electorate. Yet having put thousands of people through an unnecessarily protracted and intrusive survey process, the Prime Minister endorses legal recognition of rainbow couples getting married by grossly insulting single gay people, complete with cat schtick. Classy, huh?

Turnbull then cited David Cameron, the bloke who brought on Brexit. That still-unresolved matter has seen an increase in hate crimes, cost millions, and was essentially designed to outsource petty internal differences between two white conservative men who attended Oxford University.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

“And for those to see this [sic] as an ideological issue”, Turnbull brayed in that paternalistic hector that he imagines portrays gravitas and great moment, “recall British Prime Minister David Cameron as he spoke for marriage equality six years ago: ‘To anyone who has reservations, I say Yes, it is about equality, but it’s also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.”

There it is. Turnbull outs himself as a conservative by quoting an actual Tory.

I mention this, because one of the most irritating features of the Turnbull government years is a press gallery which insists on the existence of moderate Malcolm. This is not true. Turnbull is an ideological chameleon, a man of ambition rather than loyalty, who once reportedly said “I could never succeed in the Labor party as it would be unforgiving towards someone who had been a successful businessman”.

The idea that Turnbull may have joined the Labor Party is ridiculous. Turnbull married into blue-blood Liberal heritage, as he reminded us in the second reading speech extracted above. As we watch Trump unravelling live on his twitter stream, the proposition that being a businessman somehow trains an individual for public life is exposed as the self-serving lie it has always been.

It does not matter how enthralled our fourth estate remain by “the Prime Minister held court as he regaled all and sundry with witty anecdotes about his days as Kerry Packer’s lawyer”. Whatever, Phil. This is a lawyer who as a politician basically concedes that his team are announcing a new legislative package designed to criminalise and otherwise control their political opponents (Senator Sam Dastiyari and GetUp! if you were wondering). That is not democracy but authoritarianism, so at least Turnbull himself has finally put to bed the myth of moderate Malcolm, given myriad other examples, including the shabby lonely cat dig at single gay people.

The bill reaches the House of Representatives

Tone-deaf as that verbal imagery was, the next day Turnbull’s performance was substantially worse. As those carefully watching the procedure would have noticed, Turnbull was not responsible for commissioning the drafting of ‘the Dean Smith bill’. It began legislative life as a private members bill, introduced in the Senate.

After the postal survey results were announced, Turnbull assigned passage of the bill through the lower house to himself. In the normal course of events, a bill is tabled (first reading), debated (second reading) and passed (third reading). In this case, the second reading was interminable. Every MP and their dog wanted a position on the record. The conservative derailment exercises in pre-defeated amendments went on and fucking on.

Even Tony Abbott, who campaigned against his own sister and delayed the reform for as long as politically possible, whose electorate returned a 75% Yes in the postal survey, who left the chamber so as not to vote on the bill – and whose ‘traditional marriage’ hypocrisy is as well-kept a secret as Joyce’s – got his mug on the news as he banged on with his bigoted bullshit.

The debate was also derailed by that s. 44 disqualification vote which Joyce snuck back in just in time to defeat. But eventually, even all the boring bigots had had their say and the House was ready for the Prime Minister to move that the bill be read a third time so that it could be passed into law, pending the signature of the Governor General and the clock striking midnight.

Naturally, given the suspense and patience of those in the public gallery, the rainbow community, and everyone else watching at home, the Prime Minister rose and moved that the bill be read for a third time so the speaker could bring on the vote and the thing be done.

Just kidding. Turnbull rose to move the motion, but instead started shouting about what a great day it was for Australian democracy. He boasted about the shoddy postal survey which cost $80 million and saw a swift rise in mental health stresses for LGBTQI+ people. He waved his arms and thumped his tub. When he had exhausted his misplaced triumphalism, the prime minister sat back down to what he imagined was appreciative applause for himself.

The Speaker was thus compelled to ask the Prime Minister to rise again and move that the bill be read for a third time, without which the vote can not be called.

This moment has been edited out of every inch of footage I have seen of the vote. Why? Either it is mere procedural glitch, of no shame or moment to a prime minister who, naturally, was feeling exuberant that marriage equality – or gay marriage, as Turnbull, in the language of the No campaign, said consistently throughout. If Turnbull failing to move that the bill be read a third time is a trivial and meaningless oversight, it surely can be shown. After all, that moment is as accurate an account as any of what actually happened in the chamber in the moment the bill was passed.

Maybe commercial television has the clip on repeat, but in the mediascape I inhabit – the Guardian, Fairfax, the ABC – nobody is showing the clip of the Speaker reminding Turnbull to do his actual job. Nobody is commenting on the fact that Turnbull rose to perform an essential step in the passage of a bill into law, but became so distracted by his own vanity that he failed to perform this simple task.

At last

The final step in making a bill into law is the Governor General giving royal assent. Then all that remains is for the clock to tick past midnight on the commencement date. So off to Yarralumla went Turnbull, godspeed, with his Attorney General George Brandis. Interestingly, given nobody threw brickbats at Turnbull for fluffing his final lines, Brandis got all sorts of feathers for his cap for being visibly moved by the reform. This is a simple manifestation of inherent bias to incumbent power: individualise and heap praise on the good (you are quite emotional, Senator), while ignoring or universalising (it could happen to anyone!) the bad.

While Dean Smith, the first openly gay Liberal member of the parliament, received a gift of the pen used by the Governor General, he did not get to share the limelight with the Prime Minister on leaving Yarralumla. In a piece to camera framed by the French doors of Government House – and presumably recorded by the PMO media team – Turnbull again sang his own praises, alone.

The strategy here is obvious enough. Just in case media had mischievously broadcast historical truth and shown him messing up procedure the day before, Turnbull wanted to command his own legacy and take credit for the new law no matter what mistakes he made along the way. Any media advisor knows that the news of today supercedes the news of yesterday, so it was a sure bet. Right on cue, the piece-to-camera was broadcast far and wide.

The most lasting image, by AAP photographer Michael Masters, must go to Labor MP Linda Burney and Nationals MP Warren Enstch; and the final word to Ms Burney, who lost her son Binni Kirkbright-Burney during the protracted campaign. She spoke incredibly eloquently and courageously:

“I support marriage equality as someone who has and has had loved ones who identify as LGBTI,” she said. “To them marriage equality would mean so much. I honour these people, in particular my late son, Binni.”

 

*This is an updated account of marriage equality debates and the return of Barnaby Joyce to Canberra following a by-election in the seat of New England. An earlier version was published by Independent Australia on Wednesday 6 December 2017, before the Marriage Act Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 (Cth) had passed the lower house, and before Joyce was sworn back in as Deputy Prime Minister.

The dots less joined

As someone who asked the question of whether British-born Tony Abbott is eligible to sit in the Australian Parliament back in 2014, I feel the pain of punters who are tired of the ‘section 44’ story. In those days, we who raised the s.44 question were mocked as “birthers”, a nasty distortion, as I explained here.

The issue is not the foreign-born, but renunciation of foreign allegiance. Abbott never disguised a strong sense of allegiance to England. But those who backed Abbott into office studiously ignored eligibility questions. It is fine for Abbott to tweet a renunciation screenshot three years after those questions were raised, yet now we see the entry papers, not of an MP but his mother, published online [deliberately not linked]. We see the Prime Minister demanding Shorten prove his renunciation, which Shorten did.

While the press scour parentage records across the parliament, Turnbull announces ‘new’ disclosure rules that replicate the disclosure statement all federal parliamentarians have already signed, making his decision as redundant as his leadership. The major parties failed, as the major parties were always going to fail, to resolve the problem of candidates failing to renounce.

This is because both majors want what they always want. It is not rocket surgery. Labor wants to force the Coalition to a general election so it can win government, and the Coalition wants to stay in government. That is the point of the existence of these organisations, and thus that is what each will pursue.

meanwhile, we all have to watch the routine hypocrisy, a function of the inherent conservatism of our political and media institutions. But the direction reporters and politicians have taken this story since July 2017 is increasingly ugly. There is the law, sure, but there is also the messaging.

The legal question, and its answer

Our constitution disqualifies from the federal parliament anyone with ‘acknowledgment of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign power, or [having or entitled to] the rights or privileges of a subject or a citizen of a foreign power’. Nothing prevents any Australian born in any country, or whose parents or grandparents were born overseas, from nominating. However, a nominee must take all ‘reasonable steps’ to renounce their foreign connection(s). This test is from Sykes v Cleary [1992] and was upheld by the High Court in the ‘Citizenship Seven’ case.

Attorney General Brandis led the government response by claiming the Citizenship7 case is a ‘strict’ reading. This is the Joyce (and Nash) defence. It downplays the cornerstone of common law systems: doctrine of precedent. In reality, the High Court applied the law – including case law – to the facts before them.

Similarly, Turnbull repeatedly implies that the correct constitutional reading was shrouded in mystery until last month. This is the Parry (and Alexander) defence. But the case law is 25 years old. In reality, the government was hoping the High Court would overturn precedent (which it has full authority to do) to save Barnaby Joyce.

The political messaging, which is dangerous and wrong

That some nominees did not do their homework is a straightforward proposition. But the Coalition response is to make it about being Australian. This is underpinned by white nationalism, and Barnaby Joyce intends to fan these messages into flames, which I will come to in a moment.

But first, the pivot on which public debate turned from a semblance of legal logic (‘strict’ constitutional reading) to politically expedient ‘passion’, was the prime ministerial defence of Josh Frydenberg.

Now I am the last person on earth to defend Frydenberg. I have zero regard for his politics. Energy policy is a mess. I merely note this: there has never been a Jewish Liberal party member of the House before. Turnbull and colleagues joined a party which had never endorsed Jewish candidates in safe seats. This supports the widespread view that the Turnbull display was invoking the Holocaust for politically expedient purposes. It also suggests the party has not thought through the implications of the Israeli law of return whereas Labor probably has.

My own view of Israel is a rogue nuclear state that daily violates Palestinians in myriad ways such as water supply ‘apartheid’; and systematically commits war crimes such as collective punishment. Nevertheless, Israel is a sovereign nation and, to most of world Jewry (and many others), it is the Jewish homeland; and the relevant discussion here is not international law but Australia-Israel relations (my research on Australia-Israel relations here).

Israeli Law of Return confers entitlement, on Jewish people, ‘to the rights or privileges of a citizen’ of Israel, which is a ‘foreign power’ from the Australian perspective. Thus on that ‘strict’ s. 44 reading, our Constitution would demand prospective Jewish candidates renounce allegiance to Israel. I strongly suspect this is part of the current major party discussions.

It is unthinkable that Parliament contemplate putting the High Court in the position of reading down s.44 to accommodate right of return. Nor could any reasonable person contemplate a process that would effectively disenfranchise Jewish candidates.

A competent leader would have quietly brokered a compromise that the public could accept, if these genuinely sensitive issues were explained properly. But bringing the public along is a Prime Ministerial skill we have not seen in a long time.

New white nationalism

By mobilising the Holocaust defence, Turnbull has ensured the ‘citizenship debate’ –until now, a paperwork problem – turns entirely on emotional responses. This is the preferred setting of most campaign managers – political, military, advertising – who know we are less individualist than we are taught to believe.

Here is how that is panning out.

In Tamworth, Turnbull declared ‘I don’t know anybody that’s more Australian than Barnaby Joyce, I don’t know any electorate more Australian than New England’.

Not Lingiari, home of the Gurindji walk-off and historic handful of sand. Not Canberra, named for Ngunawal Peoples ‘meeting place’ and seat of national government. A seat that literally has the word England in it being contested by a man who has pocketed millions of public dollars for which he was not eligible, is the most Australian.

Meanwhile, Joyce told Sky News ‘how people see it is if you’re born here you are an Australian’. But we deport refugee babies. What jus soli is this? On Insiders, Mark Kenny sang from the same songsheet, asking ‘what could be more Australian than Barnaby Joyce?’

Oh I don’t know. Fanning white nationalism for political gain?

In the Daily Telegraph anonymous ‘cabinet ministers expressed concerns MPs of Greek and Italian (sic) could be the first under threat…’. But Canavan was cleared of Italian citizenship rights and Xenophon was cleared because he renounced Greek citizenship rights. So why the ‘fears’ about Italians and Greeks?

Then there was Craig Laundy, telling ABC radio he wants a referendum because ‘in my electorate I’ve got 320 nationalities represented. If we trade with those 320 countries, Australia grows.’ He made up 140 countries to defend the legitimacy of MPs of British descent. The AM reporter commented ‘there are concerns the strict ruling would make it harder to attract multicultural candidates in the future’.

Concerns about ‘multicultural’ candidates? Why? Every disqualified MP is a white person who failed to check their connections to Commonwealth countries.

Finally, there is the book Joyce is writing on ‘the social opprobrium attached to poor white people in Australia’s towns and regions’. Peter Hartcher quotes: ‘A lot of it will be politically incorrect – I want to shock… To give greater economic and personal advancement to the people in the weatherboard and iron in the regional towns.’

Politically incorrect? Weatherboard and iron? Poor whites?

Joyce is unashamedly channelling the Trump narrative, even though Trump was bankrolled by rich whites and elected by comfortable whites and the poor white rural rust belt myth has been debunked again and again including by the Washington Post. Hartcher in the era of Trump called Joyce’s project ‘respect for the people who live outside the big cities and feel overlooked.’ The headlined shouted ‘shrewd tactic of Barnaby Joyce’ but this is not shrewdness. It is dangerous.

This is how contemporary Australian white nationalism works: in the name of ‘equality’, we reject the consensus-based proposal for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. In the name of ‘multiculturalism’, we defend white people who fail to do due diligence as true Australians mate. In the name of investigative journalism, we publish refugee documents of a Holocaust survivor. The debate will get anti-Semitic, because it always does. The political classes and political media will not, because they can not, put it back in the bottle.

Just don’t say nobody told ya.