Holding ministers to account

The federal government is in a spot of legal bother. This may seem like the old cliché about the builder with the unfinished home renovation, but it isn’t. Tradies prioritise work for paying customers because it puts food on the table. The same explanation is not available to a government awash with lawyers, because its elected representatives are generously remunerated by the Australian public.

What is their excuse? Do they care? The news this week answers a few questions that regularly kick around my conversational circles. Questions like: Who or what will hold this government to account? Federal Corruption Commission? Is it getting worse? How to tell?

Here is one answer: a Supreme Court moved to speak on judicial independence, public confidence in the administration of justice, and the Rule of Law. Here is another. When a policy has cost over $9 billion in three years (2013-2016) for outcomes so catastrophic we just negotiated a $90 million settlement to 1,905 people subject to the policy… yes, something is rotten in the state.

Nobody is on trial

The first matter is a mention in Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions v Besim and CDPP v MHK. These are sentencing appeals before the Victorian Supreme Court. The defendants had pleaded guilty to planning to commit a crime. This act of planning has itself been made a crime, on the basis of the type of crime the person is planning to commit. Thus neither man has committed an act of terrorism, but both have terror-related convictions. Besim was sentenced to a maximum of ten years and a minimum of seven years six months. MHK, whose identity is suppressed, was sentenced to seven years with a minimum of five.

The court reserved its decision as to whether these sentences are too lenient. Before any decision was brought down, three federal ministers from Victoria – law graduates all – made comments to The Australian newspaper on the topic of judges, sentencing, and terrorism. The comments have been retracted with regret but no apology.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said ‘Comments by senior members of the Victorian courts endorsing and embracing shorter sentences for terrorism offences are deeply concerning… the state courts should not be places for ideological experiments in the face of global and local threats from Islamic extremism’.

Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar said ‘It’s the attitude of judges like these which has eroded any trust that remained in our legal system. Labor’s continued appointment of hard-left activist judges has come back to bite Victorians. Our judiciary should focus more on victims and the safety of our society, and less on the rights of terrorists…’

Human Service Minister Alan Tudge, who supports generating debt notices by algorithm which are known to drive welfare recipients to suicide said ‘Some of these judges are divorced from reality We have a crisis on our hands with people who want to kill indiscriminately and yet some judges seem more concerned about the terrorists than the safety of the community’.

The court wrote to the Attorney General and called on the ministers to ‘show cause’. The Ministers were not ‘hauled’ before the Court. In fact, the Ministers were not required to, and did not, face the court. Commonwealth Solicitor General Dr Stephen Donaghue QC appeared on their behalf.

The court took appearances and reserved its decision as to whether to refer the ministers for contempt. It is normally the Director of Public Prosecutions who decides whether to lay charges, using specific guidelines, like whether a reasonable jury could convict on the evidence. In the case of contempt, the court can refer the matter to the prothonotary of the Supreme Court for prosecution on grounds of sub judice or scandal.

Implications at law

This means exactly what it says. It is not complex. The legal implication is that the ministers showed contempt for the court by improperly discussing, and putting on the public record, matters which were before the court. Chief Justice Warren said in her opening remarks ‘contempt does not exist to protect judges or their reputations but the independence of the judiciary [from the political arm of government]. Its decisions bind government and citizens alike’.

Judicial independence is from the political arm of government. This is the doctrine of separation of powers. Political interference in judicial process is a breach of the doctrine, and may undermine public confidence in the administration of justice. The key mechanism for dealing with this kind of breach is contempt. Judicial decisions bind government and citizens alike: ministers are not above the law, because nobody is above the law. This is Rule of Law.

While the political leadership has skidded over this issue with glib remarks about free speech and public debate, I strongly suspect the public takes fundamental democratic and legal principle as seriously as does the judiciary and the rest of the legal profession.

The $90 million asylum seeker case did not go to trial either. It was what lawyers call an offer ‘on the courthouse steps’. As a lawyer highly experienced in these matters, Josh Bornstein writes that the Commonwealth follows

‘a predictable pattern… strongly defending them for years, driving up legal costs, and then settling just before trial. The cases do not proceed to trial because torturing refugees is unlawful and the politicians are desperate that the shroud of secrecy over the conditions in detention is not lifted.’

Most lawyers use words very carefully. The evidence of torture is in a United Nations report which found that by ‘holding asylum seekers in dangerous and violent conditions on Manus Island’, Australia is ‘systematically violating’ the Convention Against Torture.

But it was not torture that exercised the emotions of the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection. An apoplectic Peter Dutton denigrated the law firm as ‘ambulance chasers’; and furiously blamed the Labor Party for a settlement negotiated by his own administration. And the settlement is infuriating. Think how many asylum seekers could be assessed and resettled for that money.

The reason offered was that $90 million is lower than the potential total costs if the case went to trial. Because the Commonwealth does not concede any liability, it logically follows that this ‘cost-saving’ claim does not include compensation. In this hypothetical comparison, the Commonwealth spends in excess of $90 million to ‘win’ the case; and the court does not make a costs order against the ‘losers’.

Back in the real world, there are possibly alternative reasons. Maybe the Commonwealth did not have a robust defence, or did not want the evidence presented in an open court. Perhaps the Commonwealth received legal advice pointing to a large compensation payment and massive costs order against it. In this scenario, the final figure – compensation plus costs – could well be higher than $90 million. But it turns on a finding of liability against the Commonwealth, and the Commonwealth admits no liability.

These two positions – put by a Minister of the Crown in Parliament and negotiated by lawyers for the Commonwealth – can not both be true. But both are legal. This, too, is Rule of Law. Meanwhile, the Australian public pays the settlement, and the Australian public pays the salaries of Peter Dutton and Malcolm Turnbull. These men will not be held to account.

Accountability in democracy

In a class action like this, the onus is on the plaintiffs (asylum seekers) to show that harm was caused to them by the respondent (the Commonwealth). This is a microcosm of basic rules of logic. A classic example is the god debate. If I say that god exists, the onus is on me to show, using logic and evidence, that god exists. The onus is not on others to disprove a claim, that I made, without any evidence.

The principle derives from Athenian political philosophy, which penalised citizens who made speculative claims in the public domain. The idea is to disallow unsubstantiated nonsense, by holding citizens (free men, about 10% of the population) accountable for their public claims – literally statements.

All citizens had the right and the obligation to participate in the governance of the city-state. This conceptualisation of obligations as rights has largely been lost in contemporary nation states. We know at some level that the flipside to rights is responsibilities. But responsibility is regarded as somewhat onerous. This departure from the spirit of the demos comes via the class-based ‘representative democracy’ (House of Commons, House of Lords) and social contract constructed by the English.

In this model, we discharge our duty to participate by voting for a representative; and cede the right to participate in law-making to those representatives. This disaggregation of obligation-rights divides citizen from parliamentarians. But a trace of Athenian logic – the formal English word for truth and logical validity is ‘sound’ – remains in the Westminster principle of ministerial accountability.

The idea is that ultimate responsibility for executive government decisions and actions lie with the minister. There is a mechanism for upholding this principle too. It is called resignation. A sound man – should his department do things so monumentally terrible as to be condemned by the Committee Against Torture, or should his legal representatives offer a $90 million settlement rather than have those terrible things revealed in an open court; should he act in breach of so fundamental a doctrine as separation of powers, or show contempt for the Rule of Law itself; and all while a Minister of the Crown… A sound man holds himself accountable to the people, and resigns.

An edited version of this post was published on Independent Australia 21 June 2017

 

The human subjects of endometriosis research are humans with endometriosis

There are specific ethics considerations around research with human subjects. These words may – and should – conjure up images of men in white coats measuring the noses and lips of Aboriginal children, and stealing the skulls of their ancestors. Of doctors prescribing drugs to pregnant women that cause deformities over at least three generations, and not stopping when its damaging effects are fully documented. Of Henritta Lacks, and the Tuskegee Experiment. Of electric shocks administered to same-sex attracted people.

These are just a few examples of the crimes of science. Science is not infallible. It is not pure as the driven snow. The notion of purity itself is a white western christian construct, and its adherents have caused enormous harm to people all over the world. The fetishisation of science as all that is noble and good and right has a long and shameful history. Science reflects and reproduces the values of the society in which it is done. In the west, these values are sexist and racist and homophobic, ablist and anti-Semitic.

As a researcher, I am deeply vested in getting the science right, in doing research with integrity, in ensuring that human beings are not harmed by my investigations into their lives. When designing a research proposal, researchers must be cognisant of ethics clearance. Even after funding has been secured, the methodological details are submitted to an ethics committee for approval. As with any institutional process, this is an onerous bureaucratic task. It is even more so if the study is not of birds or buildings or legislation (for example), but human beings.

Research with human and animal subjects

The main ethical distinctions between animal and human subjects are these: animals can not and do not consent to participating in the research, meaning there is no voluntariness. And the purpose of research on animals is almost always to bring some benefit to humans, meaning there is no therapeutic benefit to the animal on which the scientists are carrying out their experiments. The key ethical question with respect to experimentation on animals – and I am not endorsing this priority, just describing it – centre on potential harm to the animal.

Research with human subjects has different ethical standards. Say a person was infected with Hepatitis C while in hospital for a skin graft. She takes on board this information, and despite the fact that the problem was caused in a hospital, she retains some trust in the medical profession, and reports regularly for check-ups, as per advice from her doctor. Three years later, the doctor says there is a new drug which may cure rather than manage Hepatitis C, and asks if she would like to be part of a clinical trial.

The patient hears all the advice, receives all the information, and fully comprehends voluntariness. She knows she can withdraw her consent in the trial at any time.  She signs on, and six months later is free of all symptoms. After a year, she is declared free of the disease. Two more years, and her doctor advises she need not check in for another five years. She has never felt better. The drug is released on the market. It changes lives.

This is a real case study, and the best-case scenario. It is extremely rare, but this is how ethical research with human subjects is supposed to work. The person (human subject of research) is fully informed of the risks, she fully consents and knows she can withdraw consent, and there is a high likelihood of therapeutic benefit, not just to others or society at large, but to the participant herself.

Ethics research standards

Research can be on all sorts of subjects – stormwater drains, algorithms, chemical compounds. Ethical considerations come into play when the drain or the equation or the chemistry affects humans, beyond the research environment. This is because the subject matter of ethics is human interaction, and what is good, and what is right. What is a life well lived? How should we treat other people? Do our decisions impact on future generations, on the planet? Are we integrating our ways with the world around us? This is literally the root of integrity: getting along with others in the society to which we belong.

A stormwater drain is not affected by my observation of its workings. But my interpretation of drain data is influenced by my inherent biases, my background, my prior knowledge of water and drains. Some improvement in stormwater management may result from the research, and this may benefit some humans or society in general. None of this is of any moment to a concrete pipe.

If my job is to test the potential harm of active ingredients of a cosmetic, like allergies or skin conditions, I will probably seek to do so on animals. This can and probably will cause harm to the animal; and will benefit people who later profit from sales of the product. The harm will not necessarily follow, but it is extremely likely, and predictable. The prediction is inherent to the purpose of the research, which is to test for potential harms the product may cause. The experiments are designed to extrapolate any harm caused to the animals in the study to potential impacts on humans.

So research ethics is categorised in these various ways, founded in what philosophers call objective morality. We in the west have an anthropocentric tradition, placing humans at the centre of our pursuits, at the top of a constructed hierarchy. Not all cultures do this: the Aboriginal totem system ensures that people have special responsibility for kangaroo, or frog, or whale. Other forms of Aboriginal social organisation see authority – via birthright, kinship, learning – to speak for a tract of country. From these practices, the ecologies of this continent and her islands are carefully looked after, and have been for upwards of fifty thousand years.

The western tradition, in contrast, is rigidly hierarchical and anthropocentric. Humans are sui generis – in a category (genus) of one (single). We see ourselves as at the ‘top of the food chain’. We punished those who dared to observe that the earth was not at the centre of the solar system in which we exist. The west has not thrown off legacies of pre-Copernican religiosity. Look at contemporary atheism, for example, under the ‘leadership’ of unreflectively privileged men like Richard Dawkins. There is a decidedly religious fervour to the continuing elevation and mythologizing of science.

And it does not matter how onerous the ethics approval standards are if the oversight is left to scientists to self-regulate. As any ethicist (or lawyer) could predict, ethical standards are regularly breached unless a standard-setting body – a professional organisation, the state – allocates resources to compliance and enforcement.

Not all humans

Ethics committee clearance for research with human subjects has rules around potential benefit and harm to human beings. No scholar should seek to obtain knowledge if the net result is harm to the participants. We are not stormwater pipes or algorithms or rats. The potential therapeutic benefit to human participants, as in the Hep C example, is a real consideration.

But the western tradition not only places humans at the top of a misinformed hierarchical way of seeing the natural world, but also grades humans into categories of value. It is not coincidence that the worst crimes of science are committed against black people, and gay men, and pregnant women. This is a function of the specific values of white patriarchal societies. These societies reward domination and control, aggressive competitiveness (called ‘rational self-interest’), and are incapable of seeing or changing its own violent and dishonest core.

The western canon is riddled with false dichotomies: empirical and normative methodology; science and religion; natural and positivist world views. This is because western epistemology is ontologically adversarial. It is not capable of not producing false dichotomies, because simplistic binaries are its basic cultural unit, built into its structures at every (formal) level.

This is fine when designing computer codes, or building cathedrals with as many resources as could feed all the city’s poor for a decade (okay no that is not fine, but it did happen). It is not fine when deciding who may be human subjects of which research, either. These decisions are dominated by the same demographic group who dominate the executive level in all our institutions. Unless the ethics committee is extremely vigilant (and unusually demographically diverse), the hierarchy of humanity ingrained into western culture is reproduced in research culture. It elevates straight white men and devalues the lives of all women and children, of First Peoples and people with disabilities, of Black people, of people of colour, and LGBTQI people.

A study into the sex lives of male partners of people who suffer from endometriosis

Random, you might say, unless following a story this week about a study exploring “the impact of endometriosis on men’s sexual wellbeing”. yes, that is the research topic. It is misguided at best, and very likely poorly served by the relevant ethics committee and research institution.

The parameters on any endometriosis research are determined by the condition. Endometriosis is debilitating. It is painful. There is abundant evidence that doctors minimalise and trivialise the suffering experienced by women, and girls as young as eight, that comes with endometriosis.

Women, and girls, and trans people dealing with menstruation or associated experiences in this context, are routinely disbelieved, spoken over, ignored, and dismissed by the medical profession. The effect is even more pronounced when it comes to our reproductive health. Doctors prescribe dangerous and harmful substances like DES and thalidomide for as mild and normal an experience as morning sickness (chronic all-day nausea during pregnancy is debilitating, but this is much rarer). Such practices cause trauma and hardship to millions and millions of people.  Unnecessarily medicalising experiences like menopause is a hugely profitable industry. It is we who menstruate or get pregnant or stop ovulating, yet it is white cis men who dominate the medical profession and drug industry, and are the wealthiest shareholders.

All this requires that science continuously reproduce the myths of infallibility, the idea that doctors know best. For this dominance and control over our health to be maintained, and the money to be made, we are told that we are not the experts on our own bodies and our own pain. It is ontologically impossible for a cis man to know more about period pain than anyone who has experienced period pain. Similarly, the male partners of a person who has endometriosis can not contribute more value to endometriosis research than those with the condition.

The debate that emerged this week centred on the study of men in such partnerships, and their sex lives. This is what bioethicists call a surrogate end point, which is when researchers create an artificial endpoint for the purpose of obtaining the desired result. For example, a new drug is shown to lower blood pressure, and lower blood pressure is assumed to have a preventative effect on heart disease. Yet the drug has a side-effect that increases the likelihood of heart-attack. Only the first results are tested and reported, and the drug is approved. The subsequent increase in heart attacks of those taking the drug could have been avoided, but for the surrogate end point built into the research design.

Say a bloke recruited to the man sex life endo study broke up with his girlfriend who has endometriosis. Is he still eligible to participate? Not really. The study is on men who are the heterosexual partners of women with endometriosis, and he no longer meets that description. But perhaps his experiences, no matter how vaguely recalled, would still be considered relevant? Why? So the researcher can continue the research.

A study on male partners of those who suffer from endometriosis is ontologically about endometriosis. His response, his experiences, the data he provides, are all contingent on the condition, and their partnership. The ethics clearance for this research would have weighed whether the study will benefit or dis-benefit those men (and society in general). But this is a surrogate end point. The recruitment of participants is dependent on his relationship to the person who has endometriosis. As such, the true subject of the research is endometriosis, so the true ethical question with respect to ‘human subjects of research’  is whether humans with endometriosis are likely to benefit or be harmed by the study.

Will she be better off? Probably not. Will the study cause harm to her? Quite possibly. Who among us has not told a bloke true facts endlessly, for weeks or months or years, only to find him an expert on the topic when told by another source – like, say, the University of Sydney? This is a real and likely harm. It causes anxiety, it messes with our heads.* It is a familiar and tiresomely repetitive experience, and thus can be re/traumatising. The bloke is only relevant to the study for his relationship to another person, and a condition – endometriosis – which does not exist without its human host. His relevance to the study does not either. The potential good or harm that should be taken into account by ethics committees is much wider than the recruited ‘male’ and his ‘sexual well-being’.

Additionally, the likelihood of having a partner with endometriosis is doubled among lesbian couples. Endometriosis is a prevalent and painful condition. But this study is not interested in the sex lives of lesbians. Science is sexist and science is homophobic, and no amount of manufactured sympathy for a researcher (who was not “attacked” by anyone) will change these institutionalised norms.

The defence of the researcher that I saw was not based on research ethics. Instead, most defences focused on the fact that the researcher and the endometriosis sufferer who wrote an op-ed in The Guardian are both women. The men doing this were too dense to realise that their ‘defence’ basically amounted to “Science! Cat fight! Freedom!”. None of this is the issue. Ethics in research with human subjects is what matters, and the ethical analysis shows conclusively that any potential harm to those people who suffer from endometriosis, the humans whose condition and partnership determines the eligibility of participants, should have been taken into account.

*I do not have endometriosis. I have menstruated for 35 years and counting: and have been pregnant four times and given birth three times. This gives me greater insight into the pain and experience of patriarchal medical norms with regard to reproductive health than any man who has never menstruated or given birth.

Referenda and Recognition: Whose political leadership?

[This article was first published on Independent Australia Tuesday 23 May 2017]

This week marks fifty years since the most emphatically supported referendum in the history of Australian federation. In 1967, the Australian electorate voted overwhelmingly to constitutionally empower the Commonwealth to make laws governing ‘the aboriginal race’. A Yes vote over 90 per cent was unheard of, before or since. This overwhelmingly positive result assumed that law is not the problem but the solution to injustices.

Unanimity is an anomaly in democracies. The norm is “50 per cent plus one”, which delivers carte blanche to a “tyranny of the majority”, who then invoke the dubious concept of a mandate and proceed to govern in the interests of their own vested class. When Donald Trump governs in the interests of his own, the only novelty is that he ignores conventional democratic charades, and his class consists primarily of his family and businesses.

First Peoples, Colonialism, Constitutionalism (1770-2017)

“The first ten Australian Prime Ministers were vehemently white supremacists. Indigenous people were never included because we were going to die out” – Dr Gary Foley.

This ‘evolutionary paradigm’ is an odious hotch-potch of pseudo sciences like craniometrics, phrenology, and eugenics. Colonialism simultaneously holds that First Peoples will disappear due to the ‘natural’ superiority of whiteness; and that passing laws which authorise governments to destroy First Peoples societies by force are a legitimate role of parliament and the courts. The fragmented incoherence of this is glued together by racism.

At global level, the evolutionary paradigm was rejected by the Martinez Cobo study (1986) and subsequently the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) (2007). Yet ongoing acceptance of unscientific and destructive mind-sets remains difficult to dislodge from the minds of ‘democratic’ polities.

In 2007 in Australia, the incoming Labor government campaigned on a platform which included signing the UNDRIP and apologising to the surviving Stolen Generations and their descendants. The Apology was a Bringing Them Home (1997) recommendation, which reported on the trauma caused by those eugenicist laws and practices.

On 13 February 2008, Prime Minister Rudd delivered the Apology alongside Closing the Gap, a policy to address First Peoples health and well-being, and a commitment to begin work towards recognising First Peoples in the Australian Constitution. The fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 referendum was visualised as a timely point to achieve this constitutional recognition.

That deadline falls this Saturday 27 May 2017 and will not be met. This is not of huge moment. The date was largely symbolic, and if there is one thing the Black leadership of the Referendum Council has worked for, it is moving the campaign beyond mere symbolism.

White leadership failures

Recognise began life as a government-funded feel-good campaign, with a social media strategy relying on cute Black children and sports stars. As with federal governance generally, it has been derailed by the chronic instability that has seen five Australian Prime Ministers in ten years. This dismal display of political incompetence at the highest levels is an emphatic failure of a system that installs people like Tony Abbott and Donald Trump as national leaders.

Meanwhile, a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people began re-shaping Recognise. Predictably, conservative cheer squads complained that Black leadership of Black Recognition is ‘divisive’. This incoherent nonsense is part of that racist ‘glue’, and demonstrates the incapacity of whiteness to identify itself as a barrier to meaningful change rather than the (paternalistic) pathway.

Nevertheless, twelve Referendum Council Dialogues were conducted across the country, and will culminate in a National Convention on 26-28 May. The date – the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum – does carry symbolism. It remains to be seen whether an agenda beyond symbolism emerges from the conference that white Australia can accept and will endorse.

Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten have ‘respectfully declined’ an invitation to the Convention. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, they ‘discussed their attendance’ (ie, non-attendance) and determined that their presence ‘risked being interpreted as an attempt to influence the outcome’. The evidence proffered for this ‘risk’ was, of all things, past obstructionism by former Prime Minister and racist curmudgeon John Howard.

Howard sailed into office promising ‘bucket loads of extinguishment’ after Native Title was recognised at common law by our High Court (Mabo v Queensland (No. 2) (1992)) and by statute in the Australian Parliament (Native Title Act 1993 Cth). He disgraced himself at the Bringing Them Home conference, thumping the lectern, hectoring people he was incapable of seeing as equals. He gracelessly refused to endorse the Council for Reconciliation final report (2000) or cross bridges alongside hundreds of thousands of Australians. In 2004 he campaigned on a promise to dismantle the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), citing the usual racist tropes on internal governance. By 2005, this national representative body elected by First Peoples was gone.

Another way?

It is possible the National Convention leaders invited Turnbull and Shorten as a pro forma gesture, on the understanding it would be declined. Maybe backchannel negotiations sought to head off the screeching commentariat who, despite being entirely absent from any constructive debate, would complain loudly at any perceived slight of excluding the white leadership. The delegates may well be relieved to not have to allocate valuable time and expertise on walking Turnbull and Shorten through the intricacies of the issues at hand.

It seems equally likely that the invitation was issued with a strong sense of protocol, and came with generosity of spirit or at least acute pragmatism, the sure knowledge that major party support is an essential component to effecting meaningful, functional, positive, change.

More details may emerge, or not. I am not a representative, and this is not really my concern. The question that keeps recurring in my mind is this: can you imagine Whitlam or Keating declining an invitation from Black leaders, on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 referendum, to consider recognition of First Peoples in the Australian constitution?

Turnbull and Shorten are highly remunerated by the public purse. They lead the two most powerful political organisations in the country. Did they consult their front bench? Their base? Decide on an avoidance strategy given the certain fractiousness of their caucuses?

The ‘respectfully decline’ response strikes me as cowardly and politically lazy. These men could each take the matter to his party room and table a position. They could seek the authority of a caucus vote to attend for, say, a half-day, and commit to respecting the Dialogues as a process, to Black-led reform in principle, if nothing more.

Nobody is asking Turnbull or Shorten to endorse an outcome which has not yet been determined. That would be pre-emptive and illogical, and set up future failure, which would be entirely inconsistent with the Black leadership on the issue to date. Rather, these men have been invited to an important meeting, where they could listen and learn, and commit to the process, within the constraints of their political positions – constraints of which the Black delegates are entirely cognisant.

Yet instead of sitting down to hear the prospects and implications, Turnbull and Shorten have declined to be at the table, presumably on the assumption that they can re-join the dialogue later – and dominate debate via the positional power of their parties. Meanwhile, they have dealt themselves out of the current conversation, literally a conversation with currency.

Why?

There might, after this weekend, be a proposal on Treaty or an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representative constitutional body, or First Peoples sovereignty. Who knows? Both have been written about extensively and authoritatively for years. I recommend Irene Watson’s Aboriginal Peoples, Colonialism and International Law: Raw Law, and Treaty and Statehood by Michael Mansell. I am writing here only about the proposed referendum on constitutional recognition, and the process.

If Treaty or Sovereignty emerge via consensus this weekend, that is for those who are present and their peoples, their constituencies, those to whom they are accountable. This is not a matter of race, or inclusiveness or divisiveness. It is how conventions work. But either way, because they have declined to attend, Turnbull and Shorten can not respond with integrity, whatever the outcome. Given the restless and racist component of their constituencies (inside and beyond the parliament), Treaty and Aboriginal sovereignty are their greatest unspoken fears. I think this is the real reason they ‘respectfully declined’.

And here we are

Two avowed political opponents discussed an invitation from Black leaders on justice for First Peoples and constitutional change. They jointly declined, citing racist obstructionist John Howard. Perhaps the white leadership is incapable of bringing the mainstream polity to any place beyond mere symbolism. If this is the best leadership they can do – and the evidence suggests it is – there are no grounds to claim that they support Recognition at all.

 

 

Black is the New White: Brilliant, brave, spectacularly good

[CW: one spoiler]

If good theatre gets us pondering, Nakkiah Lui’s Black is the New White comes crashing into the imagination like a runaway train.  It is spectacularly good theatre, intricately intelligent theatre. It is so fantastically funny that inhibitions (like me being that person with the too-loud laugh) fall away.

The casting is perfect, the wardrobe is perfectly assembled, the choreography hits every note. I have never seen a better set piece than the violence-prevention family conga line (go see it for this alone). Given the joyful sound of the audience clapping along, superbly directed by narrator Luke Carroll, I was not alone there.

Lui has written that cleverest of comedy, the kind which works at so many levels that you could go along with old friends or your mum or a group of students and have as wonderful a time with any and all. When Charlotte (Shari Sebbens) the native title lawyer introduces her fashion designer sister Rose (Kylie Bracknell Kaarljilba Kaardn) to her white boyfriend, Rose skips through the accepted niceties in rapid time to the crux: “but where are you really from? You’re white, you must be from somewhere”.

Along with the rest of the (mostly white) audience, I cringe in recognition and can not stop laughing. It is an inescapable truth that when moving through the worlds of Sydney, of Black and white Sydney, there is one social requirement above all others: have ready a coherent answer to the question ‘where are you from?’

Black is the New White defies singular classification, but it is above all an ensemble piece. The cast, the set, the script – all are the star of the show. The set sends out signals like a lighthouse: a kitchen-dining-open living space hosts most of the action, but it is the wooden staircase, on which the women’s heels tap out identity morse codes, that gets me thinking. Black culture tends towards inclusiveness inasmuch as whiteness tends toward hierarchy and exclusivity, and here the Upstairs/Downstairs evocation is miles and miles from class-ridden white ways. This staircase is a good staircase, to borrow a phrase, and the framed black-and-white photos at its foot reflect family, community, and history, the title of the play and its core themes.

The script delivers lines about holiday houses which tell us this is no stereotypical Black family. The Gibsons are Black, and ensconced in middle class comfort – here is the spoiler – thanks to the speech-writing skills of mum Joan (Melodie Reynolds-Diarra), speeches which shored up the post-sporting-great political career of dad Ray (Tony Briggs). This is a closely kept secret for much of the play.

In a glorious metaphorical mirror, the white family are beneficiaries of a grandparental trust, a trust which ensured the gnawing emptiness of white mum Marie (Vanessa Downing) and shored up the political career of white dad Dennison (Geoff Morrell).

Cue meritocracy mythology motif, where black dad Ray touts the value of hard work with disturbing complicity. The irony is that Ray would be a rare case of myth meeting truth – he has worked hard for everything he has, including the holiday house – but for the unacknowledged speechwriting talents and hard work of his wife.

This incorporation of intersectionality – what scholars call the intersections of oppression, in this case racism and sexism – is so neatly done it takes my breath away. Every year, when feminist legal theory week rolls around (I teach jurisprudence), I agonise over how best to present work by black feminists when my interpretive lens is, by definition, white.

But I digress (to centre myself, as white feminists are wont to do. Lol. etc.)

So. The two dads, old parliamentary foes, have recently rekindled their animosity on twitter, a digital platform which has also sent one of those Joan-authored speeches viral. If the in-jokes to black and white Australia are breathtakingly accurate, the social media in-jokes are the 21st century topping. Especially when the online dating activities of tottering Stepford-wife-like Marie take hilarious twist after daring turn.

It is from the yet-to-be announced engagement of Charlotte and Francis (James Bell) that Lui draws out her richly layered theatre of the farcical, the slapstick, the tragic, and the absurd. The soliloquies to black community, the intellectual struggle between culture and class, academia and law, politics and media, are gripping in their depth and accuracy. ‘How can we change the law if we can’t even change the conversation?’ asks Charlotte, and the question hangs in the air. How, indeed? The seamlessly narrated storyline and rapid one-liners are just as stunning. When Dennison demands of Ray ‘Is it because I’m white?’ the answer is ‘No. It’s because you’re a cunt’.

The nods to the classics (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Love Actually) and recognisable Aussie cultural oddities (footy hero turned merchant banker) pile up so quick – almost too quick to take in – and with pinpoint accuracy. As a hilarious exchange about WAGs and handbag husbands unfolds, Dennison harrumphs in Wildean homage ‘a handbag?’ His literalist take is funny enough as a stand-alone moment, but when ex-footy hero Sonny (Anthony Taufa) discovers his true ancestry, we are reminded that the dénouement was signalled by this smartest of scripts.

As an irregular theatre-goer, I probably missed other similarly delicious details. I can say that the play is [David] Williamsesque – and I mean that in the most complimentary possible way. It skewers the white theatre-going classes, but the real achievement is Lui’s fearless engagement with racial identity issues that perennially emerge, continuously unresolved, in Australian discourses and public debates.

I can not praise Black is the New White highly enough, and recommend it to anyone who can get along to see it. This show is unquestionably one of the best evenings of entertainment I have ever enjoyed. I say that as a person who has enjoyed ensemble comedy at the same venue (many a Wharf Revue) and Black art across the country (Black Arm Band at the Sydney Opera House, Archie and Ruby at the Armidale and Tennant Creek Showgrounds…) I am an enthusiastic, if too seldom these days, audience member.

Black women’s voices

To borrow a phrase, so many Black women share so much with so many, like Leah Purcell and her superb Black Chicks Talking (2002). For me, that amazing production connects to the 1997 Festival of the Dreaming ( I missed Box the Pony – don’t ask) leading up to the Sydney Olympics. I cry every time footage of Cathy Freeman winning is replayed. My daughter was breastfeeding when Cathy won that race, and she and her brother have won many an Athletics gold trophy since. I know in my heart that the Festival of the Dreaming and the Sydney Olympics and Black excellence today were intended to be connected, and are connected.

For instance in late 2013 we went to the opening of Corroboree Sydney at the wharves under the Bridge. There was Leah Purcell, artiste extraordinaire. Redfern Now had just screened, and both my kids were allowed to sit up late and follow its stories. Leah took a moment to say hello to them. We were star struck that night at the Pier, and have been ever since, seeing her work directing incredible productions like Cleverman (age permitting).

There are two perspectives that I think should be in this post because, as is often the way of these things – a kind of social media confirmation bias – in the days leading up to seeing Black is the New White, I clicked on two articles which mentioned the brilliance and bravery of Nakkiah Lui.

One is Blak Critics: Flipping the Power Play in the Arts by Timmah Bell in Overland Journal, where Bell outlines the endemic problem of white dominance, as well as some exciting developments towards shifting that status quo:

A twenty-eight-year-old Gamilaroi/Torres Strait Islander woman is creating dynamic black theatre and television – painfully absent not that long ago – but there are only white people to review it. Her career rises, and we watch in frenzied adoration, finally seeing ourselves represented in ways that celebrate our humour, spirit and complexity. But the work itself is still valued through a white lens. As many Aboriginal artists, designers and writers have suggested, these critics want our work, but on their terms. Our views on our own work and how it should be positioned within white institutions is often neglected.

It should go without saying that Aboriginal artistic excellence is as creative and enduring as it is undervalued. What Bell then reports encapsulates approaches that are advocated by Aboriginal people across multiple fields in multiple ways, while simultaneously being specific to the skills and professionalism of Black artists:

Indigenous-run and -led festivals are beginning to reshape the operational structure of the sector. The inaugural First Nations Festival Yirramboi, led by creative director Jacob Boehme, is starting to flip the power play. One of the key principles of the festival was the establishment of Blak Critics, a program supporting nine Indigenous writers (including me) with a public platform for creating critical review and conversation, from our perspectives… Participating in Blak Critics was an opportunity to destabilise mainstream practices. It was a space and program where our voices, values and cultures were centered… From the first workshop new methodologies started to emerge. Muruwari playwright Jane Harrison quickly observed that we need to move away from the ‘softly softly’ approach too often used by white critics writing lukewarm, gentle reviews out of fear of being seen as racist, as if we lack the professionalism to handle rigorous judgment. But of equal importance was permission to critically engage with Aboriginal work with honesty, and in a reciprocal way, which would build and strengthen the artist’s work, not hurt or reduce them to a star rating.

Another is State of the Nation by Nayuka Gorrie, who writes:

In ecology there are things called bio-indicators. They tell us about the state of a particular ecology. For example, the presence of sensitive macroinvertebrates in a water body suggests that it is healthy and clean. It is my belief that women are one such indicator for the state of the nation. We are some of the most vulnerable people in the country; more likely to experience sexual abuse, family violence, are less paid and utterly underappreciated. We are at the intersection of different oppressions; being black and woman. Even more so if you are a trans woman, queer, poor, criminalised or have a disability.

Gorrie describes being a black woman in Australia and thus black womanhood. In being part of a conversation with black people that critiqued the ABC comedy ‘Black Comedy.’ In particular the critique was of tidda Nakkiah Lui… she writes, When I pushed on this the people giving the criticism just said she took it “too far.” 

These articles reflect contemporary dilemmas that are invisibilised in the mundane and consistently uncreative conversations which dominate black-white relations – which dominate all conversations – in this country. From our politicians to the panellists who comment on their follies, from the white academy to white science to every white institution, the dominant narrative is unhelpful, predictable, destructive, and dull… and built on colonial tropes and lies that refuse to die.

Compare this to the Aboriginal voices, the voices of women like Nakkiah Lui and Leah Purcell, of Timmah Bell and Nayuka Gorrie. These women speak a clear sense for anyone whose ears are open. Compare this to tired old phrases and trite observations like ‘cut-through’ – for example, ‘the electorate has stopped listening’, or ‘the government needs to cut through with its message’.

Caveats

Irregular, seldom – these are the words I choose to make clear that I am not an expert on the arts. The one ‘professional’ role I ever held was to observe the making of a play by Milk Crate Theatre, a company I came to have the greatest respect for, as a researcher on a cultural studies project. This inspired explorations and reflections in many directions (my usual role is a lecturer in law).

One detail I stumbled across at the time is that the theatre of Dionysius on the Acropolis is named for the god of grape and grain (ie wine and whiskey). So what? you may ask. Well, Dionysius is anglicised to Dennis, and when Dennis was beatified (made a saint) he became St Dennis.

The contraction of St Dennis is Sydney. This is the kind of thing that lawyers like me love. To get to see Black is the New White at the Wharf, this most Sydney of things to do, a Black theatre production that is asking and answering the big questions about Black and white Australian identity, an identity that insists on what white Australia forged while awash with grape and grain (hello Rum Corps), and promptly projected its crimes onto Blackness (there was no wine nor whiskey here before 1788), beneath the lights of Sydney Harbour, at the Sydney Theatre Company…

There is meaning to be distilled here, and distilling meaning from cultural experience is what cultural researchers do.

Among the most ancient of crafts, there is a special place for theatre in the human memory, and this is a microcosm of the physical spaces where theatre is done. A theatre may appear deserted, sitting quietly on its city block or in a suburban street or perched on a pier over Sydney Harbour. Its best moments are ignited by those marvellously eclectic casts of people who are drawn to doing theatre, and the audiences who love them. But the theatre is never inert, it is always alive somewhere.

The Wharf Theatre is always alive, and for that alone I love it. It may be difficult to imagine now that the decommissioned piers along Hickson Road sat dormant for decades, so deplorable is the waste of those years. For a Sydneysider as steeped in history and as old as I am, crude neglect and criminal mismanagement is as much a part of Sydney as the glittering harbour and glorious venues, and has been since 1788.

Theatre settles itself in the collective memory of people and place. Wherever there are people, bush clearing or campfire, city or suburb, town or village or nomansland, there is theatre. It is by drawing on our collective humanity that good theatre is made.

All this is by way of saying that Black is the New White is spectacularly good, it is an unqualified triumph, and you should totally go and see it. It is also by way of saying that through white eyes (the ones I have) Aboriginal art consistently showcases the wisdom of its ancient ancestry, while coming across as fresh and new. This is an art in itself: powerful and subtle, unique and universal, contemporary and eternal. It can be done, and probably can only be done – this well, like this – by custodians of the oldest continuing cultures on earth.

THAT bomb. What was it dropped for? Absolutely nothing

Is anyone else disturbed by how the decision of the USA to drop a Massive Ordnance Air Blast  on Afghanistan has disappeared from the news?

A week later (20 April 2017), Malcolm Turnbull said of Donald Trump and the Republican administration: ‘I trust the judgement of the American government… I trust the judgement, the wisdom, of the president’. That is a verbatim quote. How could anyone trust the judgement of President Trump; or surmise he has wisdom?

Even to a hardened politics watcher like me, waking up to the MOAB news on Good Friday was so shocking I spent much of easter scrolling through Trump tweets seeking clues. It is worth noting in this context that Trump will host Palestinian President Abbas at the White House on 3 May. This may be consistent with the observation that Trump’s domestic rhetoric is isolationist, while if anything he is escalating American military interventionism.

War hardware and war software: Bombs and propaganda

The MOAB is horrendous in scale. The Pentagon says it is the largest non-nuclear weapon in the US arsenal. It sucks the oxygen from the air and sets the rest on fire. It weighs 10,000 kilograms. It flattens everything within a one-mile radius in every direction. It costs US$16 million just to build. Like most such monstrosities, it was ‘originally’ built ‘as a deterrent’.

‘The goal is to have the pressure be so great that Saddam Hussein cooperates,’ said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2003.

Predictably, US and other western news sites fawned breathlessly over its size and power; and dutifully reproduced the White House message about precision and firsts (in combat, was the claim) and avoiding civilian casualties.

But the reasons offered were entirely vacuous. Not just strategy-free, like the 59 missiles dropped on a Syrian air-base near Homs on the chemical weapons pretext. The chemical weapons ‘red line’ at least had a history of failed multilateralism and Putin-Obama negotiations. It was anchored in something of substance. In contrast, the two reasons put forward for detonating the MOAB were entirely without substance.

‘The US takes the fight against ISIS seriously’ said White House press secretary Sean Spicer. Well, yes, but our leaders have been saying that for years, with no apparent thought to how this plays for ISIS. But what had changed in Afghanistan? Nothing anyone was telling the public. The case is empty. Caves and tunnels. An American soldier was killed in the area last week.

One soldier? ISIS-K? Caves and tunnels?

Who outside of foreign policy circles had heard of ISIS-K before now? It is apparently two years old and operates in country bordering nominal American ally Pakistan. The same ally who sheltered bin Laden and for its trouble saw a US Forces raid on the bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, complete with extra-judicial assassination and reported dumping of the body at sea. The same bin Laden who video-taped his ramblings in those caves and tunnels when they were populated by Taliban fighters, like the caves and tunnels fitted out by the CIA courtesy of the American public.

So the usual dishonest and violent American interventionism is present.

But the MOAB is not just another American mess, a real-life scene out of Team America: World Police, the one where Gary the actor is kidnapped in Egypt and US Forces swoop in and blow up half of Cairo, knocking the head off a sphinx. The MOAB is more than disproportionality, a war crime, although it is that. The MOAB is ‘use of force’ so out of all proportion as to be in another category of crime, on another level of wrongness.

There are echoes of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but without the preceding 6-year global bloodbath. That is not to deny the extent of slaughter America brought to Afghanistan and Iraq, but to point to the sheer scale of this horror at this time. Even in the world of an American president who rarely says what he means or means what he says, the MOAB drop seems incomprehensible.

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai called out Trump for using Afghanistan as a bomb testing ground. While Karzai is not of clean hands when it comes to brinkmanship, on this occasion he articulated the major issues associated with such an extreme and destructive weapon. Unlike the breathless bomb-porn that dominated coverage in the west, Karzai pointed to Afghani sovereignty – imagine how America would respond to such an attack on its soil – and to the soil itself, to the environmental and inter-generational consequences.

This was an inhuman act, a brutal act against an innocent country, against innocent people, against our land, against our sovereignty, against our soil and against our future… A bomb of that magnitude has consequences for the environment, for our lives, for our plants, for our water, for our soil – this is poison – Former Afghani President Hamid Karzai, 16 April 2017

We could use more truth like this over the endless ‘analysis’ from the no-choice-but-to-bomb school of war journalism, an inherently biased approach which showcases the violent views of military ‘experts’ while ignoring conflict resolution approaches and peace scholars.

One other disturbing observation is that the MOAB has all but disappeared from our airwaves and newsfeeds. The (predicted) North Korean missile ‘test’ (explosion, detonated by North Korea), the Turkish referendum which Erdoğan could only have scheduled for Easter Sunday well in advance, eclipsed the horror in Afghanistan.

Less than a week later, the Pentagon is claiming that ISIS used a ‘chemical attack’ on an Iraqi contingent that included US and Australian ‘advisors’ in Mosul – but they are all unhurt. What even is this? Did the MOAB not warn ISIS off using chemical weapons, then? Oh no, that’s right, that was Assad? Will Trump bomb Mosul back to the stone age too? Oh no that’s right, he bombed caves and tunnels – stone age technology – back to the stone age.

How to make sense of it all?

My instinct was to return to Trump’s words and deeds. Trump is Commander-in-Chief. It is Trump with whom the buck stops for the MOAB, no matter what is reported as to which general gave what order. If Trump really did delegate that level of authority to someone else, that is an abrogation of his responsibility, but it is still his abrogation and his responsibility.

The most obvious Trump characteristic is that his decisions appear largely random, or, if there is any method at all, his decisions tend to further his personal rather than the national or global interest. How to test whether Trump is issuing orders at random? Does he just like blowing up people and their lands, their homes? The record is opaque, and we must assume deliberately so, given the conventions Trump has flouted, the rules he simply ignores, the failure of institutional checks and balances to curb his excesses.

This is not to suggest that Trump is some kind of evil foreign policy genius. Quite the opposite. It is to observe that Trump is doing what he has always done: operating in the interests of Donald Trump.

Abridged Timeline: on Twitter and in real life

It is a truism that the Trump Twitter timeline is as good a window as any into the thinking of the President. I do not follow either his personal or POTUS account, but trump Twitter, and reporting about Trump twitter, is impossible to avoid.

The first thing I noticed was the contrast between domestic and foreign policy tweets.

In the past fortnight, Trump has met with Egyptian President Al Sisi (4 April), Jordanian King Abdullah (6 April), Chinese President Xi Jinping (9 April) and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (12 April). Given the general purpose of such meetings, there would be some agenda with individual countries, and some with the relevant region. In other words, Trump here is skirting around Syria, North Korea, and Turkey.

Each foreign policy tweet is interspersed with what in Australia is called feeding the chooks, although in Trump’s case he is feeding the Fox [News]. These domestic nonsense tweets contain shallow statements, heavy with exclamation marks. Each bears the hallmark of Trump self-expression: his unquantifiable relationship with truth. Trump is less reliable than the proverbial stopped clock: he might be right twice a day, but he might not. Whether he is being serious – whether he means X or will change his mind on Y – is so randomised that it is impossible to tell with any confidence.

But those are the domestic tweets.

The tone and spacing of the foreign policy tweets indicate some oversight. There is a whiff of daughter Ivanka about it (see this by Anne Summers on her role). Her husband, Jared Kushner, continues to be promoted. According to the not-credible source Eric Trump, it was a ‘heartbroken and outraged’ Ivanka who persuaded dad to order the 59-missile attack on a Syrian air base. Certainly the missile attack near Homs lacked strategic coherence – the calls for Trump to ‘reveal his strategy’ assume he has one, or one he would reveal to the media and the public. Meanwhile, Jared headed off to Iraq wearing a flak jacket over his Ivy League uniform outfit.

The only real certainty is that Trump is not operating according to conventional priorities. As mentioned, he is in all likelihood operating according to self-interest rather than global or American interests. This is not to say that a Cheney- or Rove-style Washington Consensus is a force for good in the world; only that it is knowable in a way that Trumpism is not.

It was the 6.5 minute Trump speech addressing King Abdullah from the Rose Garden podium – the link posted to Twitter at around 5:00pm on 5 April – that contained the most chilling clues to the MOAB drop. The speech is irredeemably awful, repetitive and garbled. It is also – with hindsight, of course – quite chilling. It is worth analysing even in retrospect, I think, because we now know that the failure to take Trump seriously, to really listen to the meaning of his words, was a major factor in his electoral success.

Annotated transcript, Trump speech addressed to King Abdullah of Jordon.

“…before we begin let me say a few words about recent events. Yesterday chemical attack, a chemical attack that was so horrific, in Syria against innocent people including women, small children and even a beautiful little babies their deaths was an affront to humanity. These heinous attacks by the Assad regime can not be tolerated…”

Trump then gets back on script, although it seems unlikely the author included quite so much repetition, notably of these terms:

  • Very very
  • Many many
  • I can tell you that
  • Tremendous
  • Believe me

He also co-opts the King into his implied future actions several times. Can we assume the King agreed to this beforehand? That the King knew this co-option would later include dropping the largest non-nuclear US bomb on Afghanistan? For example:

“Your majesty, Jordanians are known …and I have to say this, for their fighting ability. And you are a great warrior, and we appreciate it, thank you.”

Trump goes on: “[The US] has looked to Jordan as a valued partner, an advocate for the values of civilisation, and a source of stability and hope.” This is standard western chauvinism, where civilisation has long signalled the ‘othering’ of the East (or the ‘Orient’), and implies a range of imageries especially barbarism, going back to at least the crusades.

“As you know”, says Trump, “the Middle East and the entire world is faced with one of its gravest threats in many many years. Since the earliest days of ISIS Jordan has been a staunch ally and partner and we thank you for that.”

This is standard wartime propaganda but Trump is also locking Abdullah into a pro-American corner. He goes further:

“In King Abdullah, America is blessed with a thoughtful and determined partner. He is a man who has spent years commanding his country, special forces. He really knows what being a soldier is that I can tell you. And he knows how to fight… The King has been a leader in calling for a plan to defeat ISIS once and for all. And I am with you on that, we’re both leaders on that, believe me. That’s what we speak about today and that is what we are going to do. And it will be a shorter fight than a lot of people are thinking about believe me we’ve made tremendous strides as we discussed.”

These are the key MOAB hints. Trump then brings together the tropes and the hints: “We will destroy ISIS [pause] and we will protect civilisation. We have no choice. We will protect [pause] civilisation. King Abdullah and I also discussed measures to destroy the evil, and ideology, that inspires ISIS and plagues our planet.”

Unless it is referring to an actual disease outbreak, plague is always a red flag term, long used by génocidaires.

Trump then uses the opportunity to speak to his domestic audience: “we also acknowledge the vital role that Jordon has played in hosting refugees from the conflict in Syria. We’ve just announced that the United States will find additional funds to Jordan for humanitarian assistance. This funding will help countries like Jordan host refugees until it is safe for them to return home the refugees want to return home I know that from so many other instances they want to return back to their home and that’s a goal of any [emph] responsible [emph] refugee policy.

Here, Trump is telling his voters that violent raids on undocumented migrants in the US will continue, and that is what the undocumented migrants – ripped from their homes, children left without parents – want.

Jordon is not only host to an enormous number of Syrian refugees. It has a huge Palestinian refugee population, and has had since 1948. This is how Trump segues onto his next chilling hint:

Finally, as we discussed, to advance the cause of peace, in the Middle East, including peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and I’m workin very very hard on trying to finally [emph] create peace between the Palestinians and Israel. And I think we’ll be successful, I hope to be successful I can tell you that. The king is been an entire, a really tireless advocate for a solution. He is gonna help me with that, at the highest level, and we will be consulting with him very closely in the days ahead.”

Trump separates the words ‘finally’ and ‘solution’ by a single sentence.

“King Abdullah I wanna take this opportunity to thank you for your partnership, working together, the United States and Jordan can work together, to help bring peace and stability to the Middle East and in fact the entire world and we will do that. Thank you very very much for being with us.”

Not that this analysis is especially revelatory. The US has brought violence and war to bear on the Middle East for as long as I can remember. We already knew Trump is aggressive and dangerous; that he is limited in his thinking, that his central organising principle is self-interest, that he is reckless and highly susceptible to being manipulated by less public characters.

But I am saying this: while the tone and syntax are quite similar, there is a sharp contrast between shallow Trump messaging on domestic policy (Jobs! I won! MAGA!) and his apparently garbled, but deathly serious, pronouncements on foreign policy. As the new week dawned, confirmation of US military aircraft intercepting Russian planes off Alaska was being reported by all major outlets.

The emphasis on confirmation is for a reason. As CNN notes in the first four sentences of its online report – above the fold, as it were – ‘Fox News first reported the intercept’. Maybe Fox just got the scoop, who knows. But I suspect that rather than looking for strategy on missile strikes, this is closer to what Trump strategy looks like.

They do not speak for me and they shit me to tears

This weekend, the Sydney Morning Herald showcased three conservative ‘young’ white women aged 28, 31 and 37 years. Most definitions of ‘young’ fall short of all these ages (and end at 25), but whiteness has long bestowed a peculiar time-machine effect which bears no relationship to reality, although it is closely associated with the shifting goal posts strategy perfected over centuries.

Anyway, the profiles of Daisy Cousens, Helen Andrews, and Georgina Downer generated a lot of comment. Daisy started a twitter campaign using a hashtag inspired by a dead white bloke who drew despicably racist and transphobic cartoons.

Into the fray leapt Caleb Bond, a 17-year-old white boy who has been propelled into the spotlight by Murdoch editors and publishers who for reasons of their own – such as disseminating patriarchal norms via shallow, ill-informed, feminist-hating trash – prefer a proportion of their misogyny and hate to be churned out from behind the face of an arrogant and ignorant school kid.

Where to start with this mess?

Nowhere, some would say. Stop, no more takes, the neocons are just building their brand on lefty outrage. Never feed the trolls.

But I disagree. These women are trolling, but they are not operating from anonymous, 50-follower twitter accounts. They are on our televisions, in our living rooms. And their viewpoints are used in specific ways to troll women like me, because I share a demographic – white, privileged (although a feminist and, as a single mum, not that privileged).

It reminds me of how Mark Latham loves to pretend he is the voice of working mums in western Sydney, as though we could not, given his platform, make a perfectly good case for ourselves.

The kind of cheap, crass argument goes like this: but Ingrid, what about the thing Daisy Cousens said and she is a woman, therefore you are wrong/extreme/isolated in your view. The ‘just ignore them’ school of thought is often said to children who are victimised by bullies, too. It doesn’t work. The same claims also imply that each new crop of nasty conservatives is a product of the left, and that our response determines their position.

These implications are false.

So I will refute the thing Daisy Cousens said as often and wherever I like. Producers and editors provide platforms to Daisy and Georgina to espouse their harmful views irrespective of whether I blog on the topic. This is mainly because our media is inherently conservative, as I wrote during the 2016 federal election campaign.

The racists and the misogynists, the climate-deniers and religious bigots, are not our mess. We did not make them and we can not make them go away. These people are a product of conservative right wing ideology. Their high-platform opportunities to broadcast narrow-minded nonsense are a product of conservative right-wing legacy media (and not of progressive, left-wing, social media).

So why the darling of panel shows status?

Perhaps these people are representative, or popular, or a brave new hybrid of youth representation via social media popularity, savvy and reach?

Nope. Even I have more followers on Twitter than any of the three women profiled. And even with the 100 new conservative trolls and attention-seekers Daisy gained this afternoon (who found her via other conservative trolls and attention seekers, not us), their reach is in the thousands at best. The women I saw who called out her nastiness, who share her demographic but not her politics, women like Asher Wolf (49.3K) and Erin Riley (6.5K) and Clementine Ford (66.7K), have tens of thousands of followers. Their reach is in the millions.

So there is no rationale for conservative white woman elevation there. What about representation?

Nope. As the Jane Cadzow article in Good Weekend reported (and I am not dissing the article, I think the journalist portrayed the three subjects well), the Australian National University found that almost 60% of women aged 18-34 years vote for Labor or the Greens. This is as good a measure as any as to whether an ultra-conservative Trump supporter like Cousens or Andrews is representative of their demographic.

Voting patterns of women in Georgina Downer’s age group were not mentioned, but the short answer is no, these women are not representative. We just hear their views anyway.

Downer claims that more conservatives is a more balanced approach to political discussion, thus simultaneously demonstrating her ignorance of the Australian mediascape, of political discussion, and of the English language.

Then again Downer also says we have an overly generous welfare system of a system which is literally killing people. So she either has no idea how the welfare system operates, which in a rational world would disqualify her from commenting on it; or she thinks life itself is too good for the unemployed, for carers, for people with disabilities, which would indicate that Downer has no humanity and in a rational world – did I mention? – that would disqualify her from commenting.

Andrews says it is a matter of supply and demand. Young conservative women are rare, and value is scarcity. In addition to being founded in free market tropes and lies based on false assumptions, the illogic of this idea is twofold (at least). First, Andrews assumes that their views are of any value at all, when nothing they say stands up to the most cursory scrutiny. Second, predictable and basic conservative views are supposed to be somehow of greater value when voiced by a privileged white woman.

In fact, conservative tropes which bear no relationship to fact or common humanity are a dime a dozen. It is almost impossible on any given day to turn on the television or radio, to open a newspaper or newsfeed, and not be exposed to dishonest and nasty conservative viewpoints.So again, the only rational justification would be if Andrews (or Cousens or Downer) were representative of a much larger population, which we have established they are not.

As old as the hills

There is one other dynamic I want to point to here (and I am using the first person as an iteration of an aggregate progressive experience). I might go on social media and say that Georgina Downer has taken a disgusting stance, that being entirely ignorant of the welfare state, of its origins and purpose, that knowing nothing, absolutely nothing, of hardship or her own privilege, that saying life itself is too good for the poor is repulsive, and that she is repulsive for accepting gigs where she disseminates this heartless, ignorant, arrogance.

In this context, Downer is commonly framed as a perfectly reasonable conservative observer, who is entitled to her view. In contrast, I am framed as part of an online outrage machine (which only exists in the conservative imagination). This framing is itself inherently conservative: it benefits cruel, and wrong, ideological positions. Her view – a view which lacks all moral compass and compassion – is elevated, normalised and validated. My view – which is ethical, logical, and humane – is seen as a bit flaky because – and this is key – my position is coded as emotional.

Coding us as ‘emotional’ – activists for peace, or climate action, sovereign Aboriginal rights and marriage equality, to name a few – is a specific form of gendered garbage that even prominent male thinkers have known is garbage since forever. Military campaigns always include a propaganda component that speaks to ‘hearts and minds’. Every patriarchal political machine plays to emotion, usually fear, while simultaneously holding itself out as the only, the rational, the common sense solution.

David Hume is remembered for his deconstruction of the naturalistic fallacy (and I do not thank him for his role in the rise of positivism) but in some ways he was a proto-feminist. It was Hume who pointed out that, far from the claims of natural law thinkers, men do not make decisions based on a perfectible human reason but are driven by passion. This is true: it is men who bash and kill and maim and stalk at the slightest slight, on the wounded ego. Nowhere is the reality of men driven by emotion more obvious than when it comes to the emotion of anger.

Same conservatism, different year

Yet here we are in the 21st century, with a dominant public discourse which uncritically reproduces and broadcasts untested claims of reason and facts and evidence and Turnbull’s favourite, common sense. These unquestioned claims are made by conservatives who have no knowledge of the subject matter but are entitled to their opinion. It is a central imperative of conservativism to devalue responses based on compassion and empathy, on equality and justice and meeting the human needs of all in a wealthy society. It is central because it is the only way ideological adherents know how to elevate their own cold and inhumane world view (they are not very bright, and are – by definition – unoriginal).

Conservatives quite literally hate the poor: they can not be bothered finding out how the poor live; and they do not care if poor people die as a direct result of their ideology. But they do not want to be seen to hate the poor, or displaced persons, or women and children. In other words, conservatives do not have the courage of their convictions, either. Millions of hours, and dollars, and column inches, and airtime, are poured into dishonestly obscuring the obscene immorality of their ideas.

This is why cashless welfare is called healthy welfare. It is the source of ludicrous posturing on caring about deaths at sea. It is why the label snowflake is applied to those who express concern about the impacts that graphic content – such as stories on rape – may have on rape survivors. It is not humane to care about the damage done by Centrelink, it is ‘social media outrage’. It is not compassionate to express disgust at indefinite detention, it is ‘political’ or pressuring people to self-immolate – an actual claim made by the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, so desperate is he to push the line that conservative cruelty is neutral and normal and valid.

We might live in a world run by heartless demagogues who enthusiastically profiteer from misery and death, propped up by a conga line of nasty cheerleaders who are continuously amplified by legacy media. But the real problem, according to neocon ‘commentators’, is that the progressive left are perpetually outraged, we are snowflakes who are easily triggered.

This language is specifically gendered. For over 2,000 years, reason has been attributed to masculinity, while emotion is framed as feminine. And that is why, as a feminist and a woman, I choose to refute the horrible and harmful ideas espoused by the likes of Daisy Cousens, Helen Andrews and Georgina Downer.

Here we go again: Race, racism and 18C

Yesterday I went to March Australia (Sydney), an event which began in March 2014, six months into the Abbott government. The movement was established to mobilise against the destructive policies of a newly-elected Coalition government and the dishonest Liberal Party campaign.

In September 2013, Tony Abbott cruised to victory on a slew of lies (such as no cuts to public broadcasting, and not butchering Gonski, NBN and the NDIS); and his trademark aggression, misogyny, racism, religious bigotry, homophobia and climate denialism.

The line-up this year began with an acknowledgement of country by Shaymaa Abdullah, an Aboriginal and Muslim woman, a single mum of three and midwifery student. Shaymaa spoke eloquently about the domino effects on nutrition and mental health caused by housing inaffordability in Sydney; and by government dismantling the welfare safety net.

Next, Aboriginal man Daniel Taylor from Kunnunurra spoke of his life under the oppressive cashless welfare regime. He read out a long list of government agencies with access to his personal details through the scheme. He described the humiliation, the daily hardship, not of being poor but of the system imposed by government on the poor, in violation of fundamental human rights.

The following speakers spoke on cuts to penalty rates for the lowest paid and most insecure workers; on the continuing expansion of fracking in Queensland and NSW, and the inherent risks to food and water supply posed by this destruction of country and obscene pursuit of profit; cuts to university funding and increases in the cost of degrees through fee deregulation; and the ongoing horror that is our immigration detention policy.

These critical issues, which go to the heart of well-being in community, and to who we are as a nation, are rarely addressed or debated in good faith by the political leadership and those who report on policy and government politics. Instead, a deeply conservative, woefully inept, morally bankrupt government goes the same rounds on the pet obsessions – tax cuts, free speech, attacking unions – of the elitist few.

The Coalition is no better on economics, or science and technology, or education, or foreign affairs, of course. They invented a budget emergency in Opposition, and then promptly created economic malaise in office. They sabotaged climate policy in Opposition and destroyed any meaningful action in office.

The Liberal Party pre-selected, disendorsed, and then appeased Pauline Hanson in 1996; and re-empowered her twenty years later. It falsely conflated asylum seekers with an ostensible terror threat under John Howard in 2001; and hyper-militarised our response to people fleeing persecution ten years later.

This is from the Sydney Morning Herald letters page, 18 September 2001:

The parliamentary secretary to defence Minister Peter Reith, Peter Slipper, said today: “There is an undeniable linkage between illegals and terrorists and it is absolutely vital in my view to ensure that we don’t have illegals entering Australia inappropriately because given the fact that some of those people come from the country that is the centre of terror, I would be particularly concerned if those people were allowed to enter Australia.”

Have we shifted from this position, a full fifteen years later?

That our federal government prefers to raise, over and again, discussions which cause demonstrable harm to identifiable communities – marriage equality and LGBTQIA people; 18C and Aboriginal people, Jewish people, Muslim people, all people of colour – demonstrates a paucity of vision.

It also showcases a hegemonic bigotry that has prevailed for centuries.

The cultural backwardness, the stagnation, the absence of innovation, the dearth of ideas or solutions or creativity or competence – these are not mere embarrassments. These are the inevitable result of abuse of incumbent power by conservative elites; and of the moral vacuum in which neoliberalism operates.

A potted history of racism

The ‘debate’ on s. 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) and racist Australian values more generally has been thoroughly covered by Aboriginal journalists and writers such as Amy MacQuire here and Luke Pearson here. It is tedious and exhausting for Aboriginal people to keep educating the wider populace on this.

What I want to add is some history of a white scholarship which contextualises the purpose of those who insist on perpetuating their racist views. How racism is done in Australia is simultaneously a product of a divergence and development in racist thought in England; and a founding feature of the white Australian state.

It is only 170 years old.

This is both good news and bad news: as something so recent, it can and should be reasonably easily dismantled. As a founding principle, coded into our Constitution, racism is constitutive of the laws, culture, and society of the federated Australian nation.

So.

First, race is not a real thing. It is a social construct, made up by white men who invented a hierarchy of humanity and placed themselves at the top. Less well known is the historical fact that the odious pursuits of poly-genetics, phrenology, craniology and eugenics were prompted and accelerated by the English in the wake of their ‘empirical’ observations of Australia – of First Peoples, of native flora and fauna, of country.

The English refused to see this continent, her islands and Peoples and languages and law, as simultaneously diverse and integrated; a cosmology and a reality; physical and metaphysical. Their eyes and ears did not transmit to their brains that they were looking at, and being told of, the oldest and most successful societies on earth.

As Kombumerri/Munaljahlai woman and senior research fellow at Charles Darwin University, Dr Christine Black (2011), writes,

But then I ask how can people who come from such young cultures as those of Europe comprehend the sophistication of a continuous culture that goes back more than sixty thousand years? To be truly “of the great southern continent” a newcomer needs to engage with the ancient history of the continent through the intellectual traditions of one or more of the two hundred clans in language, song, dance, and localized common law. Otherwise, newcomers are forever grafting themselves onto a landscape about which they have no real historical understanding, let alone a sustained relationship with, other than as a pit from which to extract resources to sustain the consumer lifestyle of the coast-bound capital cities. In other words, they are devoid of stories from the land. The land is silent, mute to their efforts, belligerent in its continued extremes of flood and drought.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in the Americas, the colonial invaders perceived First Peoples and their lands as different, but comprehendable through the lens of European norms.

According to De Vattel (The Law of Nations 1760)

though the conquest of the civilised empires of Peru and Mexico was a notorious usurpation, the establishment of many colonies on the continent of North America might, on their confining themselves within just bounds, be extremely lawful. The people of those extensive tracts rather ranged through than inhabited them.

This stipulative nonsense rationalised the extreme violence of imperial projects throughout North America, and was taken to even greater extremes here. In Australia, everything seemed so vast, so alien – to the northern aliens – that whole disciplines were dedicated to shoe-horning what they perceived of Indigenous life on the Great Southern Land into the twisted rankings and arrogant imperatives of ‘enlightenment’ theorists.

Before they saw Australia, northern concepts of race were a made-up hierarchy of humanity, but we were still ‘all children under god’. After they reached Australia, the farthest flung continent from their anglo-centric and euro-centric world, the monogenecist (one species) approach was deemed insufficiently racist. Now, said these learned men, a polygenecist view of more than one species of humanity should prevail.

Hiatt (1987) explains: ‘to the European mind, accustomed as it is to positions of authority and hierarchies of command, a state of ordered anarchy poses a set of intellectual and emotional problems’.

The shorthand for this observation these days is white fragility. The vibrancy, wisdom, social order, and above all the survival of Aboriginal people continue to pose intellectual and emotional problems to many a white Australian mind.

Racism is an objective moral wrong

While race is a made-up thing that is universally rejected by every credible institution and thinker on the planet, racism and racists remain, in law and in life. A key problems with the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) is that race is simply not a legitimate organising principle for a statute. The problem is not race, because race is not real, so the legislation can not achieve its purpose.

Similarly, racism is always wrong. This is because the harm racists cause is real; while race itself is not. Speech and actions which harm people are moral wrongs, while voicing and acting on opinions which are based on a known falsehood are epistemologically wrong. This is so irrespective of how flowery the arguments, how earnest the white folks, how repetitively we wax lyrical on free speech.

The intellectual and emotional problems white people experience in the face of Aboriginal survival – and excellence – is evident in the huffing and puffing of a racist populism into which the likes of Malcolm Turnbull and Pauline Hanson and Andrew Bolt and Rowan Dean (or whoever) tap – for their own benefit.

Their arguments are always the same, and never specific. Instead, these people drag out big picture abstractions like free speech and democratic principle and balance and Rule of Law to rationalise the same creepy obsessions [content warning] that motivated their phrenologist and eugenicist forefathers.

The politics of a racist polity

Regular guest and Liberal party apologist Niki Savva was asked this week on Insiders (Sunday 9:00am ABC1) whether the Prime Minister had ‘his heart in it’. This was in regards to Turnbull arguing for law reform which would retrospectively safeguard the emotional well-being of a dead man, because he was (accurately, in my view) called a racist – a prospect so absurd that only fellow ideologues could argue it with a straight face.

Savva said yes, and she is right.

It is true that Turnbull put his heart into prosecuting a case that could be seen as arguing to ‘make Australia more racist again’. This is a living example of the ‘emotional problems’ identified by Hiatt, above. Turnbull was emotional, but I doubt it was the emotion of conviction. After all, he made no secret of being mates with a dead cartoonist who produced an undeniably racist body of work.

Turnbull also experiences the emotional confusion that is spawned by the intellectual incoherence of conservative ideology and its denialist imperative. For people like Turnbull, and those who share the same demographic privilege and worldview, this confusion and denialism tend to manifest in aggression and abuse of power. The dynamic can be seen in the conflicted and conflicting Turnbull rhetoric on 18C.

For example:

Political correctness did not silence Bill any more than terrorists did, declared Turnbull, in his favourite faux-gravitas tone, weirdly conflating two fear-mongering favourites of the far right. And indeed, being racist and seen as racist did not stop Leak or his publisher from producing and publishing racist material.

The suggestion those people who support a change to 18C are racist is deeply offensive, Turnbull told the Parliament, simultaneously trolling himself, the current wording of the section (‘insult or offend’), and the Australian people.

In sum, what was perceived and accepted on Insiders as a personal and political prime ministerial emotion over commitment to free speech and legislative reform was in fact situated in two other places entirely.

One is grief at the loss of a friend – always an emotional moment, no matter who we are or where we work. The other was classic triumphalist Turnbull, the ‘conviction’ of lording it over former colleague Cory Bernardi, who campaigned against 18C for years before deserting the Liberal ship (with an emotional, lip-quivering performance of his own).

Bernardi has rattled Turnbull throughout his Prime Ministership, so what better revenge than to cede to the cause after Bernardi left the Liberal Party, and introduce the changes in the Senate, where Bernardi sits? This has the twin Turnbullesque benefits of getting under Bernardi’s white skin, and avoiding a vote (in the lower house) on the obnoxious thing himself.

We know this is how it will play out, because Nick Xenophon, in the fine tradition of two-faced conservatives masquerading as moderates, has declared he will support the procedural but not substantive changes in the bill. We know this also because Turnbull represents the seat of Wentworth, and his constituency has a significant proportion of Jewish voters.

Every time this debate is dragged out again, Jewish community groups put in hundreds of hours defending the law as it stands; Jewish and Muslim and Aboriginal leaders stand side by side to argue against any weakening of the provisions. Nevertheless, this is where the Orwellian nonsense Turnbull sprouted about strengthening the act – by weakening it – was directed. As if such incoherent rubbish would be palatable to Jewish or any other intellectual traditions.

The disproportionate impacts of racist ‘debate’

It can not be overemphasised that the legacy of nineteenth century polygenetic racism lives on in Australia sui generis. This is because of the twin phenomena of First Peoples here inspiring white science to invent a polygenetic humanity; and because this invention was – and still is – codified into the Australian Constitution.

This is not to minimise or obscure the racism directed at African Australian communities, Jewish communities, Muslim communities, Arab communities, Chinese and Vietnamese and Indian and other Asian Australian communities, against all people of colour.

It is to point to the status of Aboriginal people as the First Peoples of this country, to their specific rights and interests as First Peoples. It is to underscore the intellectual dishonesty and scientific bastardry used to rationalise generations of laws and violence on the black body by the Australian polity – the white state and society – and which continues to be so used.

This is evident from the ‘killing that was the political economy of Australian settlement’ (Davis, 2016) as described by Cobble Cobble woman Megan Davis, Professor at Law and Pro Vice Chancellor at the University of New South Wales.

It can be seen in the material connection between harmful stereotypes of Aboriginal people (such as those depicted in cartoons published in The Australian) and medical neglect, as articulated by Kamilaroi woman and barrister Louise Taylor on the death of Ms Dhu.

It has been said over and again, year after year, such as in the work of Tanganekald and Meintangk-Bunganditj woman Irene Watson – Professor at Law and Pro Vice Chancellor of Flinders University – who writes of laws which ‘construct all aspects of our being, even the construction of our death and the displacement of our bodies’ (Watson, 2005).

This tradition, the jurisprudence of colonisation, continues today – by Turnbull and the Liberal Party, Hanson and Bernardi – and backed by the law-making power of the Australian Parliament. The magnificent self-sufficiency of First Peoples here so confounded the invaders that whole new sciences were invented to rationalise cruel and violent laws. The young culture of the aliens is still beset by the intellectual and emotional problems posed by our failure to comprehend the sophistication of a continuous culture that goes back more than sixty thousand years.

Meanwhile, in the real world, we are talking about the harm caused by racists, and by dehumanisation of welfare recipients, and indefinite immigration detention, and the increasing cost of degrees, and penalty rate cuts, and housing insecurity, and CLIMATE CHANGE.

Conservatives really do fiddle as the world burns.

 

On the dangerous dishonesty of Rule of Law

With an outbreak of interest in and ignorance of two legal precepts, Rule of Law and the 1500-year-old lex iniusta non est lex an unjust law is no law at all, here is a bit of background on origins, authors, influences, and adherents.

The bones of the debate are this: the highest placed union leader in Australia, Sally McManus, was asked by Leigh Sales on 730 (ABC1) if she “believes” in the Rule of Law. McManus based her reply on the natural law philosophy that laws must have a moral dimension and a relationship to justice – and ought not cause injustices.

Over the years, philosophers have disagreed on the correct response to an unjust law, and have attempted to codify types of injustice. Do we leave the state which makes unjust laws for a more just society which does not? Do we obey the unjust law for the sake of some greater social good, such as stable government? Is an unjust law nullified by its unjustness, is it neither valid nor authoritative, because it does not meet an essential criterion for being a law? Are we justified in disobeying this unjust command which is not a law? Are we morally obliged to resist the command that is not a law?

Surely participating in and contributing to injustice is an objective moral wrong?

It will surprise nobody that these nuances were lost in the ensuing debate, which has (rightly) been overshadowed by the strategically brilliant and intelligently articulated reply from South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill to yet another poorly-conceived federal government thought bubble on energy supply.

But as I was writing a jurisprudence lecture on Aquinas and friends today anyway, I decided to post an explainer on the debate, and the origins of its false assumptions.

The incoherence of conservatism, then and now

Despite their fondness for identifying longevity with authority – the longer a principle has been around, and survived, and invoked through the ages, the greater legitimacy it carries – conservative thinkers reacted to McManus with predictable clickery and conformity.

Like most conservative incoherence, these people reject identity politics, yet judge a clear statement of principle not on what is said but who is saying it. So when McManus says that unjust laws can and should and will be challenged, your local conservative reporter frames her sentiment as imminent anarchy. This is despite the fact that McManus is drawing on an ancient (in European years) tradition found in the works of Augustine, Aquinas and Locke, works which provided the rationale for the American War of Independence, ideas which inspired Martin Luther King.

In contrast, when laws which do not suit the conservative agenda are challenged – such as the mining industry campaign against a perfectly sensible and just attempt to establish some kind of sovereign wealth mechanism – the ‘news’ is merely ‘reported’. As though vested advertising from the mining industry is impartial and reasonable, rather than an affront to principles of equality, democracy, and justice.

Following the 730 interview, prominent voices and high traffic sites – Buzzfeed, Fairfax, the ABC – immediately started peddling the angle that challenging unjust laws is some kind of unprecedented call to arms. In fact, it was the top union leader in the country sensibly discussing workplace safety and the human cost of employer negligence that sees human beings killed on construction sites. (And shout out to Crikey, who lined up left of Buzzfeed, and to Guardian journalist Paul Karp, who took on two Fairfax heavyweights.)

Workplace safety and union solidarity sit squarely within the remit of Sally McManus’ job description. A philosophy that rejects unjust laws also lies squarely within her expertise. Yet she does not enjoy the faux-neutral reportage – acceptance – that is enjoyed by the mining industry, for example, or the passing of profoundly anti-democratic laws by conservative governments. These laws are specifically designed to safeguard mining industry interests; and massively increase fines and maximum custodial sentences for protestors. Additional laws dramatically reduced the maximum penalties for toxic spills and other forms of destruction of country caused by big mining.

Conservative commentators could draw the most rudimentary and relevant comparisons between huge fines for striking unions and insultingly small penalties for employers who create conditions which kill workers. The edgy performative crew of political writers and editors could read a book, or google, before tweeting out ahistoric ignorance (and clumsily walking it back, complete with auto-correct error). But they do not.

Their hegemonic response relies on Hobbesian authoritarianism, which is coded into all Australian Constitutions. This tradition says the lead task of the political leadership is ‘peace, order and good government’. While the US chose Lockean revolutionism to throw off English colonial rule, Australia chose Hobbesean order. We are not the loveable anti-authoritarian larrikins we like to think. We still have a foreign national as our head of state.

Both Hobbes (1588-1679) and Locke (1632-1704) were deeply influenced by the English civil war from which the version of liberal democracy that is practiced here sprang. This model relies on the doctrine of separation of powers for power-sharing arrangements across the executive, the parliament, and the judiciary. Those fighting for a sovereign parliament – where sovereignty is the legitimate authority to make laws governing over a population in a defined territory – prevailed over the absolute monarchy that preceded it.

Theology and theory for population control by church and state

Social contract theory thus has its origins in a period of turmoil and bloodshed, of the English people rising up against tyranny. It was also an age of secularisation and the declining influence of the church as the lead source of moral authority. The theory proposes that citizens are born into a social contract with the state. The social contract replaced original sin as the prevailing belief system imposed on new born babies by members of the ruling classes, the academy, and the judiciary – none of whom ever gave birth to a baby.

If Rule of Law is closely associated with the social contract, original sin was a favourite fetish of Augustine of Hippo (354-430). The earliest coinage of lex iniusta non est lex is attributed to this famously sexually confused man of god, a man who rejected the pleas of Pelagians seeking refuge from the fall of Rome. The ‘reason’ was that Pelagius rejected the Augustinian cult of baptism.

It is beyond me (as it was Pelagius) how anyone could hold a new-born baby and think ah yes, so sinful, best get a self-hating turned-celibate man to half-drown the wee one before she can grow into a professed christian who refuses asylum to refugees fleeing imperial violence. Augustine thought it necessary to cleanse new-borns of the taint of the fall in the Garden of Eden. This kooky nonsense prevailed over the sensible and obvious truths of the innocence and blessings, the beauty and joy, of a living, breathing baby.

Aquinas (1225-1274) came along around 800 years later. He, too, made his name by theorising the norms imposed by a patriarchal and cruel church on the most precious and demanding (and life-threatening) imperative of humankind: birthing new humans. In a common technique, Aquinas looked to the works of Augustine, and re-interpreted that with which he did not agree.

He also christianised the philosophy of Aristotle, and retrospectively justified the rampant slaughter of Muslims that was the Crusades. For this immensely immoral rationalisation of the seemingly endless violence of the christian west, Aquinas was canonised by Pope John XXII in 1323. His jurisprudence continues to be taught today as a reformist and enlightened force for good (an altogether different take is taught in my classes). His Summa Theologica is quite literally part of the western canon.

Because the men who theorised our relationships with church and state were confused and deluded, the contemporary discourses which draw on their legacy also tend toward a confused babble of mostly conservative white blokes bickering over how best to govern (regulate/control) various sectors of the population.

There is nothing new under the sun, as my grandmother was fond of quoting from Ecclesiastes, a book which, fittingly, also gave us vanity of vanities, all is vanity! For the enthusiasm of some journalists to happily make themselves the story is not only an exercise in vanity, it is in breach of first principles of their own profession.

Rule of Law, in the news and in real life

Speaking of first principles, the Rule of Law is one. Do you believe in the Rule of Law? is a question by and for simpletons, which does not (or should not) fit any description of a host or guest on the national broadcaster. It is tacky gotcha journalism, it is joining the outrage machine, it is creating and participating in manufactured controversy. This is dismaying at best coming from 730 and the ABC. It shows bad faith, and displays zero intention for a nuanced and meaningful dialogue which will educate rather than divide an already divided populace.

The interview was immediately and, I suspect, unspontaneously disseminated across social media by journalist colleagues with significant followings. The posts gave every impression of their authors being on notice to make the 730 program the story. The technique is getting old: tried and tested at QandA, and to a lesser extent on The Drum, it seems 730 and Insiders have boarded the clickbait bus – which (I hope) is in decline.

Meanwhile, the robust defence of Rule of Law from conservative quarters came with deep ignorance of its content, origins, meaning, and status. If there is an upside to this embarrassing clamour, it is that people with a clue will be invited to speak clearly on the biggest lie of common law legal systems. The claim that all are equal before the law; and no-one is above the law is not true, and was never true. Maybe we will get to learn about this in the wake of McManus’ comments.

The noble idea of equality before the law – symbolised by a blindfolded Lady Justice – is what lawyers call the content of the Rule of Law. It travels alongside its blue blood cousin, which describes democracy as a government of laws and not of men. Both principles perpetuate mythologies of objectivity, neutrality, and impartiality to which conservatives earnestly subscribe. White law tends to look impartial to white people. But neither principle bears up under the most cursory, let alone critical, scrutiny.

Our jail populations reveal the truth of a violent and racist patriarchal state: a government of propertied white men, for propertied men, by propertied white men. Our jails are full of Aboriginal people, of poor people, of illiterate people and people with intellectual disabilities and mental illness, people who are survivors of child sexual assault.

You will not find Rule of Law in the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 (Imp), the authorising legal instrument for the creation of the federated nation. That is because Rule of Law is not a law. It is a foundational principle of the common law, and the common law is a product of the class-riddled imperial mind set of upper-class Englishmen.

These same people traversed the globe, slaughtering whole populations, claiming ownership of vast tracts of land, plundering the resources of territories which were sustainably managed for millennia. Backed by military force, they attacked the institutions and traditions of First Peoples, of Indigenous governance and learning, spirituality, and law-making – and then told them everyone is equal before the law.

All this was also backed by the soft power of theory and principle, of tropes and lies like Rule of Law, produced by the complacent and comfortable men of god and state and the academy.

Their descendants, and direct beneficiaries, are a dominant minority to this day. A demographic elite who overwhelmingly constitute the executive (highest decision-making power and authority) of every institution in our society: private and public, government and political parties, corporations and industry, universities and religions and the fourth estate. This lot are still out in force promulgating the lies and violence of yesteryear. Like their forefathers, they deploy positional privilege to belittle and oppress those who speak truth to, and challenge, and make visible, inherited and unmerited power.

This is not some social media storm in a teacup. Aboriginal people killed in custody and workers killed on construction sites are real people, in life and in death. And if there is one thing every culture treats seriously, it is the taking of the life of a fellow human being. But in our culture, not all humans are seen as fully human by the dominant group. It is members of this group who ensure that when it comes to the errors and horrors of their own, there is still nothing new under the sun.

Tax sugar, they say, but no price on carbon emissions

The story this week is climate change. Not that we can forget the catholic church is responsible for crimes against humanity; or our collective responsibility for destroying lives on Manus Island and Nauru; or the dangers of our government and its new best friends One Nation building up racism and other forms of bigotry, off a very high base.

Conservative (adj): averse to change or innovation

But the real story this week, and every week of every summer from now on, is climate change. Our political leadership is not up to the job. Conservative governments are not, by definition, equipped to deal with new challenges, being composed of people who chose to join a conservative political party. They do not like to concede this obvious point, because they are also people who seek the power to control others (to govern); and who yearn to appear masterly and successful.

Hedged in by these inherent incompetencies and ambitions of their own making, the options for dealing with the ‘new’ challenge of irrefutably irreversible man-made climate change are limited. Turnbull or Joyce, Pyne or Frydenberg, Ciobo or Morrison, they are all the same. They represent, and only represent, a monoculture of material comfort, of limited life experiences, and the narrowest of narrow perspectives.

Their choices are to lie and dissemble, to distract and deceive, to derail and delay and deny. Oh, and to bully. In a homophobic way. Simpering sycophant. Sucking up to Dick. Tucking his knees under the rich man’s table. Sucking hard in the living rooms of Melbourne.

‘Sucking hard’ on what?

These are the tools in which the current front bench is trained. Like the blinkered horse, they stare straight ahead, at the Labor Opposition, and to their own re-election chances. This is all they see. The horse is blinkered to minimise distraction, but we can not blinker our politicians in real life. So in addition to their narrow, limited outlook, we get distraction after distraction.

We get a piece of lacquered coal passed around the government benches in the Parliament. We get the Prime Minister shouting sympathy for those who can not turn on the aircon due to a blackout. It does not occur to him some of us do not have aircon at all, blackout or no. Does not cross his mind. Limited. Blinkered.

Turnbull says the problem is renewables, and Labor. To the latter end, we see Peta Credlin – former Chief of Staff to former Prime Minister Abbott and former COS to former Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull – telling Sky News that the 2013 Coalition campaign against a price on carbon was never anything but a giant scare campaign built on a mountain of lies and yes of course they would and will do it again anytime anywhere. This is moral bankruptcy of the first order. The implications for Abbot’s Stop the Boats campaign are unspeakable.

Such is the integrity of the conservative parties in Australia. And because conservatives weaponise everything, this garbage rhetoric is all wrapped up in the language of security. Border security. Energy security. But there is no security for anyone – not for you, not for me, not for our grandchildren, not for the planet – while the only solution on offer is to use public resources to subsidise more coal – while the earth burns.

Turnbull makes Nero look statesmanlike.

Politics and Policy 1: Politics

Speaking of conservatism and distraction and lies, it is barely more than a week since the ABC ran saturation coverage of What Cory Did Next. There is no excuse for multiple replays of Bernardi’s querulous slow-mo mumble, whining that climate debate took a terrible toll, poor fellow, not just on him but on his family. Ah, yes, how Bernardi and family must have suffered as papa B went about the toll-taking toil of scuppering any and all efforts to implement global warming mitigation policy.

Fellow homophobe and religious extremist George Christensen is also attracting all sorts of attention. His opposition to a proposed sugar tax would be straightforward retail politics – lots of sugar cane plantations in the Christensen electorate – except that Christenesen sits in the Lower House. The Turnbull government lost 14 seats last July, leaving it a single seat majority. (This, incidentally, is why the party room will not scupper Turnbull – in case he throws a sulk and leaves).

In the USA, institutional checks and balances are proving woefully inadequate at putting any meaningful restraint on the excessive bigotry, dishonesty and bullying, the moral bankruptcy and dangerous incompetency that are the decades-long hallmarks of the man who is now President.

There are similarities here – the greed of crony capitalism, the erosion of assumed base line principles – which will excite some sections of the commentariat. But this doesn’t mean much. These are people who get excited by the national leader engaging in homophobic bullying on the floor of the Australian Parliament.

Neither a rat in the Liberal ranks of the Senate nor a shift from a one-seat majority to minority government will make much difference here. The conservatives will keep blocking anything remotely resembling sensible climate policy. Legislation will keep failing in the Senate until Turnbull throws enough public moneys at the cross-bench – in that irresponsible, chaotic, megalomaniac way of his – to get what he wants.

In other words, it is business as usual. Turnbull never articulated a policy agenda anyway: he rationalised toppling Abbott by citing opinion polls. He never had command of his party room – few of them even like him. He has no record of sound leadership or judgement (see Australian Republican Movement, emissions trading circa 2009, non-existent marriage equality) or successful negotiation. The ABCC bill he used to trigger a double dissolution was negotiated out of all recognition AFTER Turnbull squandered tens of millions of public dollars recalling the parliament and running an eight-week election campaign. He could have just as easily done that BEFORE wasting so much public money (and quite a bit of his own).

If George moves to the cross benches, yes the government will be nominally a minority government. Perhaps George will not guarantee Supply, but that seems unlikely. The government is still trying to pass measures from the 2014 Hockey budget, and government has not shut down. If George goes, the constitutional lawyers will be rolled out for comment, interviewers will nod earnestly, but so what? The nation got a crash course in the mechanics of minority government – from a master of the art, the most effective Prime Minister in the history of federation – four years ago.

And Turnbull will keep bullying Labor to back his agenda, which is largely payback for Rudd convincing Turnbull to back his ETS (and subsequently losing the opposition leadership to Abbott). In Turnbull world, his 2009 compromise was not his error to own, but something to be blamed on others, specifically Labor. Whatever. It will not work. Like Rudd was, Turnbull is a factional outsider, which Shorten is not.

So the Senate cross-bench rabble is slightly more rabblish with Bernardi, but ultimately he remains a crashing irrelevancy. In contrast, climate policy and the failure of the political press to ignore the distractions and to instead analyse the pressing issues of our time, are relevant to everyone, including those yet to be born.

Politics and Policy 2: Policy

While it is not all about the politics, or should not be, Coalition climate policy is about nothing but politics and an ideology founded on the false claim that self-interest is rational. Understanding policy direction requires an understanding of ideology, because policy is the codification of ideology.

This is in fact how democratic government works. A party founded on a set of ideas (an ideology) runs an election campaign based on its policy platform. If it wins, those policies are drafted into bills and passed into law (my more detailed explainer here).

To think the law is impartial, or that laws are free of partisanship or ideology, is to ignore this most basic of civics lessons. If the citizenry are without critical skills and civics knowledge, that is the responsibility of education governance. But there is no excuse for self-identified expert commentators to overlook these fundamentals of liberal democracy.

The Coalition policy, Direct Action, is a dog’s breakfast of a thing. It transfers public resources – tax collected from the public and redirected via fiscal policy – to high pollution-causing profit-seeking private sector enterprises. How could such a policy be perceived as rational by anyone?

The answer is ideology: because ‘rational self-interest’ is the central tenet of free market liberalism. For everyone who profits from the mining industry, and for everyone who benefits from mining industry donations, giving public resources to the mining industry is in their self-interest. Ergo it is rational.

This sounds daft, because it is daft. Nevertheless, it is a dominant organising principle of free market capitalism, and operates in tandem with the hyper-individualist ideology of liberalism. This is political economy as it was once understood, before conservative promotion of wilful ignorance disaggregated the two.

Even now, commentators speculate in faux wonderment as to how Hansonism is on the rise again. Is anyone analysing why Hansonism does not rise when Labor is in power? No. Self-interest directs the conservative mindset to treat her unoriginal brand of bigoted opportunism as random happenstance, even as the Coalition parties enthusiastically fan the flames of – and normalise – religious and racial bigotry at every turn.

This is partly a function of the make-up of the Coalition parties. The constituent parts include old-school authoritarian conservatives, nominal liberals who can not apply the most basic tenets of their ideology to policy or governance, and former agrarian socialists turned client spruikers for the mining industry. Each member of each group operates in a moral vacuum filled by greed, aggression, and bigotry.

All this is underpinned by selfishness (‘self-interest’) being encoded into their ideological values as ‘rational’. Similarly, to not pursue one’s own individual self-interest is judged to be irrational. The link was conceived three hundred years ago by propertied white men who excluded everyone else from the franchise. The same group then universalised their values through dominance of public discourse; and continue to do so today, through the mechanisms of dominating legacy.

Human beings are a social species, but patriarchal societies reward aggressive individualism. This is called ‘competition’. In a sensible world, competition is for games, for tennis or chess, for entertainment and recreation. It is not the key to human survival. The keys to human survival are co-operation, reciprocity, mutuality, and love.

We may be all born equal in dignity and rights, but who gets to exercise those rights, or who gets to live a life free of governments deliberately violating those rights, is very selective indeed. And the selection criteria are bigoted nonsense: race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, religion and dis/ability, wealth and class and the access to education and health services that capitalism ensures is correlated with income.

In sum, rational self-interest is a terrible organising principle. It informs the decisions and actions that have brought about irreversible man-made climate change. And it can be found everywhere across the liberal democracies, in every institution: government, media, universities, corporations, religion, everywhere. These institutions are rigidly hierarchical. The executive is invariably monocultural and rationalises self-serving decisions which cause purposeful, demonstrable harm to those outside their elite and exclusive group. This toxic norm infects all decisions and actions, from the top down.

High-taxing, high-spending, big government

One of the most profound analyses Paul Keating offers of the Coalition is that its claim to a commitment to markets is in fact a commitment to business. This illuminates the Coalition rejection of a market mechanism-based price on carbon (which successfully reduced carbon emissions), for a policy which transfers public resources to high polluting industries (which does not).

Similarly, conservative political leaders routinely express a commitment to small government. If the rejection of a market price on carbon in favour of subsidising polluters is high- spending big government, the proposed sugar tax is high-taxing big government. It is a distraction, of course, but a harmful one, because the arguments ‘for’ attack the poor.

A distraction with collateral damage to low-income Australians is par for the neoliberal course.

The sugar tax was borrowed from David Cameron, the failed British Tory Prime Minister who stood down after losing an expensive xenophobic campaign which was designed to settle conservative scores but which instead now poses an existential threat to the United Kingdom. The sugar tax proposal has the same flaws as the Coalition climate policy; because it comes from the same ideological place.

Paternalistic do-gooders are trotting out the usual lies of liberalism in support of a sugar tax: that a market mechanism (making sugar more expensive to dampen demand) is the correct policy approach to rising rates of obesity and diabetes.

The fastest rising diagnoses in the western world are anxiety, depression, diabetes and obesity. What does this say about the toxicity of our societies? Or about the cognitive dissonance of being fed, year after dreary year, the message that we are free, and autonomous, and have liberties and rights, when government interference in what you put in your shopping trolley is based on your income.

A sugar tax, goes the paternalism, will be good for the poor. It is only fair. The poor are irresponsible with the below-poverty-line income we so generously provide. In fact, poor people are the least profligate with public moneys – they have to be, or they die. In contrast, politicians throw the stuff around with merry abandon, a hundred million on entitlements here, $2.2 unauthorised billion there, squillions to private sector contractors over decades to the failed Job Network, ABS outsourcing, off-shore camps run by the incestuous web of Wilson Security, G4S, Serco, Transfield.

What is the return on our investment in shipping Joyce and Bishop around, in paying those profiteers in human misery to employ rapists on Nauru, in spending tens of millions on automated extortion of welfare recipients? How is the national interest served?

The answer is that the national interest is not served. This is not investment. It is toxic dilettance. The claims of liberalism, so tediously reproduced – selfishness is rational, reward is commensurate with merit, public accountability is the norm, lack of accountability is an exception –  are demonstrably false. Yet instead of a ‘small government’ that listens to the people in a nominal democracy, we get ever-increasing government surveillance and erosion of democratic rights: an inept and expensive data retention regime, criminalisation of democratic participation by protest, higher taxes, higher spending (evidenced by a deficit doubled since 2013), big brother big government.

And still, and still. What about the climate?

Jingoistic white nationalism stops with me

With 26 January looming, it is that time of year in Australia when the gatekeepers of the national narrative go into overdrive.

Where I live, in western Sydney, it is easy enough to look around the train carriage or campus or shopping centre and celebrate diversity. It is equally easy to forget, unless venturing into the large and poorly-conceived social housing estates, that western Sydney has the largest Aboriginal population in the country.

And on 26 January, it is impossible to ignore the social fact that white Australia relentlessly, aggressively promotes the dominant agenda: whites are nation-builders, we ‘let’ the migrants in, we obscure the violence of our own ‘entry’, we are the arbiters of what is, and of what is not, Australian.

An early salvo from DIBP

One example of the dominant narrative is how junior minister for Immigration and Border Protection Alex Hawke stopped Freemantle Council holding a citizenship ceremony on Saturday 28 January. His is the department which the Australian National Audit Office reported has spent $2.2 billion on off-shore detention without authorisation.

This shambolic, cruel, militarised, and eye-wateringly profligate branch of executive government is designed to manufacture and disseminate xenophobic hate. And its 2IC (from the wealthy white northern suburbs of Sydney) confidently told a local government in Western Australia that its citizenship ceremony ‘has got to be apolitical, non-commercial, bipartisan and secular’.

Given the rabid politics in which white Australia engages around 26 January, these criteria would be met by changing the date of the first Freemantle citizenship ceremony for 2017.

At no point did Hawke articulate what exactly is ‘political’ (or commercial, or partisan, or religious) about 28 January. Unlike 26 January, which is obnoxiously white and hideously commercial, 28 January is just another day on the calendar. There was no mention that 28 January is the saints day of Thomas Aquinas, although Hawke is a former Opus Dei adherent and, given his position, likely to be as unapologetic an Islamophobe as his boss. Such mention would have been quite fitting: Aquinas christianised the philosophy of Aristotle while developing retrospective justifications for the christian west to invade Islamic countries and slaughter Muslim people. His just war theory (!) is embedded in the contemporary law of war (which, typically, is called humanitarian law) and invoked to this day.

But Hawke did not have to win his manufactured controversy on the merits or in the marketplace of ideas

He just threatened Freemantle Council with the power of the Commonwealth to revoke authority to hold citizenship ceremonies. Hawke backed this threat with an insupportable interpretation of the Australian Citizenship Ceremonies Code. The code does not stipulate that citizenship ceremonies be held on 26 January. In fact, such a directive would breach the code:

In keeping with government policy that ceremonies be held at regular intervals, local government councils should hold ceremonies at least every two to three months, regardless of the number of candidates available to attend and more frequently if necessary (ACCC 2011: 6).

It is par for the neoliberal course to label a decision to make a public ceremony more inclusive as divisive. Freemantle Council put up a decent fight, but was ultimately forced to move its scheduled 28 January citizenship ceremony.

A junior minister threatening to unilaterally operationalise federal power to bully a local government was widely reported, but without analysis of why Hawke got so worked up about a local council events calendar.

Why intervene? The strength and longevity of Aboriginal Australia

There is more to the wrongs of 26 January than whining hypocrisy and dishonesty from the likes of Alex Hawke. He is a mere microcosm of how incumbent conservative power is abused to retain dominance. Hawke was successful on his own terms: he got his mug in the press, playing to a racist constituency. Other councils will now resist change which could mitigate some of the harm caused by ‘celebrating’ 26 January.

And the nation is the poorer for it. Every time new Australians are sworn in on 26 January, they are co-opted into the colonial project. To become an Australian on 26 January is to become part of ongoing dispossession, of the goals and narratives of the colonial settler state, and to participate in the endless whitewashing of a violent history.

Surely new Australians do not want to erase the 50,000+ years of over 300 sovereign nations, their populations, their societies, their law and languages and traditions, which are the oldest continuing cultures in the world? Traditions that, as journalist Amy McQuire writes, include a slew of firsts from astronomy to bread baking to burial rituals to art to the most sophisticated and sustainable agricultural practices ever devised.

If we are seeking to redress dispossession, as we say in another dishonest narrative, we would not frame 26 January as a day of national pride. But in its current form, the Recognise campaign is as likely as every other white Australian agenda to further erase Aboriginal people and their sovereign rights.

At best, Aboriginal people are expected to show gratitude for crumbs from the white table, when an entire continent and her islands were taken by force. At worst, constitutional change will be interpreted by future governments and the courts as Aboriginal people collectively ceding sovereignty to the colonial settler state; something no Aboriginal nation has ever done nor stated any intention to do.

People like Hawke are deeply threatened by the fact that Aboriginal people have survived and maintained so much of their culture and traditions. During his crusade against Freemantle Council, Hawke did not once mention the meaning of 26 January to Aboriginal people. Instead, he relied on the inherent racism of the non-Aboriginal population to fill in the gaps around his false claim that  28 January is somehow a political/divisive date for a citizenship ceremony.

Inclusion and collusion

Speaking of crumbs from the table, this phrase was used more than once to describe a commitment by a crowd funding campaign which raised over $120,000 to donate leftover money to Indigenous organisations.

The money was raised to reinstate billboards and publish print ads depicting two girls wearing hijabs and waving Australian flags. The original digital billboard, funded by the Victorian government and developed by QMS media, showed a rotating series of images. It was taken down following threats of violence by tiny but well-known (because well-covered by legacy media) white supremacist groups.

A #PutThemBackUp campaign quickly gained traction. New billboards have since appeared with the same image of the girls, and the words ‘Happy Australia Day’.

That many Australians put their money where their mouth is for the purpose of addressing racist violence against Muslims is not an incontestable social good, although it did prompt some nuanced conversations about the implications of the billboards, the day itself, and another campaign: #ChangeTheDate. Conversations, I should add, that have been had many times over many years.

This generous post by Nakkiah Lui was widely shared and applauded. I say ‘generous’ because while racist threats by white supremacists are easy to spot, many Aboriginal people are still taking the time and effort to explain the ways in which self-identified political ‘progressives’ erase Aboriginal people, history and culture.

My own reaction was to cringe at the fact that the campaigners failed to consider Aboriginal perspectives until prompted.

Does it matter that the campaign was instigated by a director of Creative Edge, the advertising company that is reinstating the billboards? Or that the alliance offered ‘leftover money’ to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre before CEO Kon Karapanagiotidis turned their minds to Aboriginal perspectives – well after the initial target was reached?

Does it matter that many Aboriginal people were once again compelled to expend valuable time and emotional resources on educating white and multicultural Australia on what is wrong with celebrating 26 January? Or that a commitment to ‘deliberately not mention 26 January’ morphed into billboards saying Happy Australia Day?

HAPPY AUSTRALIA DAY? Would you say happy Israel independence day to Palestinian locals on the anniversary of the catastrophe? Would you, in the month of May, donate to fund billboards of Aboriginal children wearing ochre to ‘celebrate’ Al-Nakba? In Bethlehem? Naqab? In Ramallah?

Moral relativism and the national character

Commentary on such issues tends to draw on specific philosophical traditions, whether proponents are aware or not. For instance, concepts from classical economic theory, such as cost-benefit analysis and utility, are often applied to moral questions. This is a legacy of the enlightenment: Jeremy Bentham applying (half) of Adam Smith’s ‘free market’ theory to the (im)morality of the carceral state; Herbert Spencer butchering Darwinian evolution to justify the racist violence of imperialism.

Where an event or series of events produces feel-good benefits to one section of the population and tangible harm to another, it is justified by utilitarianism, the short hand for which is ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. The problem is that we can reliably predict to whom the harm will be done and to whom the benefits will flow.

In Australia, with just about any political or social movement, the harm will disproportionately impact on the Aboriginal population.

So the claim is that the campaign did more good than harm, or produced a net social good. This is to succumb to JS Mill’s tyranny of the majority, which in turn relies on hyper-individualism for coherence. The thing to remember here is that for Bentham (and Kant and Rousseau and the rest) only property-owning white men were fully human.

This is the real root of identity politics. The corrupted version is used by opponents who have a vested interest in continuing to obscure the role of demographic privilege in life outcomes. We know who will benefit and who will not from any top-down policy or action. The evidence speaks for itself.

For example, the rate at which the state imprisons Aboriginal people has increased since desegregation freed people from mission managers and dog tags and town-limits curfews; since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The rate at which Aboriginal children are forcibly removed from their families has increased since the Bringing Them Home report, increased since the Apology to the Stolen Generations.

And these are policies which were said to be redressing past crimes against Aboriginal people. More commonly, Aboriginal peoples, and their sovereign rights as First Nation peoples, are not taken into account at all.

Inevitably, the response to critics is: what have you done? Is doing nothing better? At least we are doing something.

Implicit in this response is the utilitarian calculus: this action is better than the actions of white supremacists (and armchair activists). But also embedded is the value of change for its own sake. Like other nonsensical values such as extending government control over the citizenry for its own sake (data retention is an expensive hotch potch of IT amateurism; cashless welfare, at huge public cost, has no discernible benefits to people on welfare) this unquestioned assumption is dangerous.

Its economic manifestation is growth for the sake of growth, a capitalist value which has brought us to the brink of extinction. Its social manifestation is progress for the sake of progress, where a dominant minority defines progress: bigger houses? Smaller telephones? Greater connectivity? Labour market ‘flexibility’, rising inequality and income insecurity? Incessant, endless, unwinnable wars?

The not-dominant narratives

There are various reactions to the billboard campaign. Members of the many Aboriginal and Muslim communities have spoken out against a campaign which celebrates a day marking the start of colonisation, and their voices should be amplified: the links above to Amy McQuire and Megan Davis and Nakkiah Lui, the IndigenousX platform created by Luke Pearson for unmediated Indigenous perspectives; Aamer Rahman saying the billboard campaign is an ‘expensive way to throw Aboriginal people under the bus’.

It is also important to note commentary which emphasises the well-meaning motivations of the well-intentioned. This trope is a sop to whiteness. It is routinely trotted out to obscure the genocidal policies which caused monumental harm to the Stolen Generations and their descendants. When supposedly good intentions are so profoundly damaging, the crime should be treated as one of strict liability: absolute legal responsibility for which mens rea (the intention) does not have to be proven in order to convict the guilty.

From my point of view – and I speak only for myself, a white Australian and feminist (and graduate economist) – the billboard campaign is a misallocation of resources. It is exhausting for Aboriginal people to keep explaining how Happy and Australia Day do not go together. It re-traumatises, it marginalises, it causes fatigue, it takes up valuable time and effort, it drains energy from the struggle to see Australia recognise and redress its ongoing colonial crimes.

Where could these resources have gone instead? To Aboriginal women’s refuges, to Aboriginal legal and health services, to Indigenous literacy, to a trust fund pending consultation.

But there is also a missed marketing opportunity. The billboard could have featured the words Change the Date. And the billboards could have had a message which foregrounds the fact that white and multicultural Australia share something profound: we are all on stolen Aboriginal land.