The curious classification of the Kerr-Queen correspondence and other stories

Last Friday morning 14 October 2016, like Australian law and politics nerds everywhere, I was glued to my computer screen as Solicitor General Justin Gleeson SC took a seat before the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs.

An Honours thesis sat neglected as I glanced from monitor to smartphone, tweeting the key answers and watching aghast as Senator MacDonald boorishly dismissed the standing rule that he show respect to the witness, who is the nation’s most senior law officer who is not also a politician.

Like most people, I thought there were three matters. The first is that the Attorney General directed all requests for the Solicitor-General’s advice be approved by him (links below). This was followed by the AG telling Parliament he consulted the SG on the change. Under scrutiny, it turned out this consultation was more like a conversation. Or a question. Perhaps George asked his mate Justin what he thinks.

Attempting to blur the lines between collegiality and the formal business of government could be seen as intellectually dishonest at best.

Next was the way SG Gleeson’s advice on draft bills was represented by Brandis QC to shadow AG Dreyfus QC. In writing. According to Gleeson, his advice on a marriage equality plebiscite bill and on the (now) Citizenship Act related to earlier drafts than those which were tabled in parliament (more links below to these too).

Not to put too fine a point, but George Brandis QC is Attorney General. He told shadow AG Mark Dreyfus QC, in writing, that SG Justin Gleeson SC had advised him, and thus the government, that a majority of the High Court would reject a constitutional challenge to an act which allows the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection to remove citizenship from Australians, including children who are born here.

Children. Born here. The Minister. Peter Dutton. Their Australian citizenship. The High Court. In its original jurisdiction. Where it can strike down Commonwealth laws as unconstitutional.

Anyone tut-tutting that Gleeson appeared angry has no reverence for the law or its institutions. To not express any emotion at such flagrant abuse of democratic principle and disregard for international law would be the true wrong.

But there were four matters.

I remember hearing Sir John Kerr correspondence. I remember thinking no wonder Dreyfus is on fire if that is in the mix. Then there was a knock on the door and the BestHonoursStudentEver™ arrived and I had to drag myself away from the Senate Committee to concentrate on… well. Much the same thing really. His research is on whether the judiciary can operate as a restraint on power in the face of neoliberal overreach in the parliament, and his reading has taken to him to Lord Coke asserting judicial independence in 1610.

Plus ca change n all that. But speaking of overreach, Kerr had disappeared. The other stories were too big. All are covered amply by The Guardian and others:

Brandis orders his office must approve requests for SG advice

The Attorney-General issued a disallowable instrument, of all things, directing all requests for legal advice from the SG first be signed off by him, Brandis. The horns were sounded on 3 June by Fairfax, where James Massola located other sources of ‘frostiness’:

“Several suggested the relationship between Senator Brandis and Mr Gleeson had grown frosty over matters, including the 2013 same-sex marriage High Court case, the 2015 advice Mr Gleeson provided over changes to citizenship laws and over the drafting of same-sex marriage plebiscite legislation.”

Indeed, indeed. And here we are.

As he reliably does, Richard Ackland in The Guardian provided an accessible legal explainer, warning us all that rustlings were afoot or as the headline put it, Brandis has a history of meddling… and he was at it again.

Brandis made the order in May, immediately after the brought-forward budget and immediately before the pre-announced double dissolution election over the ABCC bill. The timing alone indicates something other than an informal or routine decision.

The ins and outs of Brandis’ moves are reported with great clarity by Karen Middleton in The Saturday Paper here. Her piece includes a particular detail on the correct interpretation, according to former Solicitor General and Chief Justice of the High Court Sir Anthony Mason, of the Law Officers Act 1964 (Cth) s 12: Functions of the Solicitor General.

Hold that thought.

The bill to authorise a Marriage equality plebiscite

Those mentions of marriage equality and citizenship bills are not insignificant either, not least because the bills have – and ought to have – significant constituencies of interest. Marriage equality and citizenship are matters which impact, a lot, on the type of society we are and want to be. Even the opposition to marriage equality indicates that a significant proportion of the electorate thinks this goes to what matters.

A marriage equality plebiscite, thank goodness, is dead in the Senate. There is no need to rake over in detail the coals of yet another government mess. Lane Sainty has done a sterling job, such as here. Details of the bill are at the Parliamentary Library here.

But it is worth noting that the Prime Minister will likely have to drag the plebiscite carcass to the next election. It is combined party room policy after all; and what’s a few superannuation changes for the rich between friends when we can put queer lives at risk for the sake of a puerile political compromise playing out like the eye-wateringly expensive opinion poll to settle conservative scores that produced Brexit?

The Australian Citizenship Amendment (Allegiance to Australia) Bill

The Australian Citizenship Amendment (Allegiance to Australia) Act 2016 (Cth) did pass, with much less fanfare than the Plebiscite bill failed to pass. I wrote thousands of words on the thing, which is a dogs breakfast of xenophobia and disregard for international law.

But as is the way of these things, when a bill is passed by both major parties, there is insufficient conflict to generate media interest in the detail. So we have yet another piece of utterly unnecessary terror-mongering law to go with all the others – Foreign Fighters, Data Retention, the Military Call-Out powers that have steadily blurred the line between civil and military functions since the Howard years.

All these laws needlessly extend the authority of government agencies, from the spies to the military, to ever more brutally control us, the citizenry. Up to and including executive removal of citizenship from Australians, remember, which in turn implies executive detention: a non-citizen can be imprisoned indefinitely without trial. This is called ‘immigration detention’.

Still wondering why Gleeson was visibly angry that Brandis passed his advice off as capable of surviving a High Court challenge when a different, later citizenship bill was tabled in the parliament? Any lawyer – most people – would be livid.

Whether Australian citizens are safe from the goon squad formed by Morrison and now commanded by Dutton and Quaedvlieg matters. Remember the blokes who trapped themselves in Flinders Street Station because Melbourne did not want armed thugs harassing brown people on its streets?

Ah yes, Operation Fortitude. Melbourne was the winner on the day.

A week went by… and finally the Kerr-Queen correspondence got a run

The Kerr-Queen correspondence story emerged independently of the Brandis-Gleeson stoush. The story is that Professor Jenny Hocking and barristers Anthony Whitlam QC and Tom Brennan are taking this matter to the Federal Court.

It goes like this. The classification of the Kerr-Queen correspondence is private or personal; despite the fact that the content of the letters is the creation of a constitutional crisis in an otherwise stable constitutional monarchy between the monarch and her representative in a member of the Commonwealth.

An official classification is subject to the 30-year rule; while personal correspondence would remain under wraps until 2027, that is, for 50 years after Kerr’s exit from the Governor-Generalship.

Writing for Fairfax, Tony Wright remarks  that the classification is curious. Tom Brennan is less circumspect. In his opinion titled Australia Owns its History, Brennan sets out the origin, meaning and purpose of the Archives Act 1983 (Cth) and writes that Sir John Kerr’s letters to the Queen

“were official, and not personal. They were records of the official establishment of the Governor-General within the meaning of the Archives Act and Australian law has been clear since 1983 that they were to be made publicly available pursuant to the open access provisions of the Archives Act 30 years after their creation… Mr Turnbull is determined that all proprieties will be observed in any approach to Buckingham Palace. Those proprieties require that Mr Turnbull not seek the agreement of the Palace to release of documents, the release of which is required now by Australian law.”

It is a beautiful, brief opinion, well worth reading. After a nod to the etiquette of notifying the Queen of any release, Mr Brennan concludes:

“We Australians do not need to ask the British Monarch for her consent to our accessing that history: our Parliament secured that for us in 1983.”

The case is that the letters should be released because the letters are official correspondence and therefore fall within the 30-year rule, which has expired, according to the relevant statute, which is the Archives Act 1983 (Cth).

This will come down to the current classification (personal) and the correct classification under the Act (official).

Law is magic. The law could (for example) determine that on the true meaning of the Act, using rules of statutory construction, which are legal rules, that the classification is in law official, not private, despite being in fact private and not official. At the moment. On paper. Once the classification becomes official in law, it becomes official in fact too.

I know that sounds confusing, but this is why law is so intimidating. This is the power of the law, and in a principle that got an airing in the USA this week, everyone then abides by the decision and goes home. Peacefully.

Messrs Brennan and Whitlam may be seeking an order for immediate release from the Federal Court. Or an order that the National Archives correct the classification, which would remove any legal barrier to release. Similarly, Brandis could presumably oversee a classification change tomorrow. Or the National Archives could correct the error, without political interference, and the whole thing would go away.

That would be a lot cheaper. Running the Federal Court is costly, and there is no justification for the Attorney-General or any other politician to expend court resources on secrecy and legacy disputes.

Does any of this matter? Who cares?

Why not just put on the public record the workings of our constitutional monarchy? It is peaceful and stable, no? What is the problem? Kerr is dead, Fraser is dead, Gough and Margaret Whitlam are probably busy with those appeals from the Hague. Is it protocol? What protocol lol these are people who endorsed a constitutional coup. Is it a rule? Who will enforce it? Her Majesty? Please.

But we are talking about the Kerr-Queen correspondence. This is as much an issue as any raised before the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs. I will try to make it as non-boring as possible.

Firstly, these barristers are Anthony Whitlam QC and Tom Brennan. Barrister royalty. But Turnbull, who is as Sydney Bar to his bootstraps as he is anything to his bootstraps (ie nothing he won’t flick for political expediency) is stuck in lock-step with Brandis, for the obvious reason – he wants to keep his job.

Meanwhile, Brandis is locked in a power struggle with Gleeson, another top flight member of the Sydney bar. It is widely agreed that Brandis would lose this dispute on the merits. It is only political power – institutional hierarchy and backing Turnbull – that is the difference between misleading parliament and not resigning.

But that power struggle pales in comparison to the one in which Turnbull is locked. We might like to think that the fate of our constitutional monarchy over forty years ago, or safeguarding the already wrecked reputation of a dead Governor-General who acted to transfer legitimate sovereign power from an elected government to an unelected conservative party, has nothing to do with Abbott-Turnbull.

But it does. Yes, they really are like this. Why, why are they like this?

Because legacy matters. Incumbent power is the most powerful force in the liberal democracies. Conservatives like to posture as the natural party of government, and obscuring the truth of their actual legacy is essential to that.

For instance, Professor David Flint offered the explanation that Kerr classified his correspondence this way to protect the Queen. As though Her Majesty requires the colonial chivalry of a dead sot from another hemisphere, an embarrassment of a representative who could not possibly have caused her anything but exasperation at best.

The classification is to protect Kerr, and Fraser, both of whom, have I mentioned? Are not alive to see it. But again, the bigger project is legacy. Outside of abusing the power of incumbency, lying about legacy – history written by the winner – is the entire conservative armoury.

This is because conservatives can not compete on the merits. Their policies and practices are abhorrent on any decent human measure. That leaves abuse of incumbent power to perpetuate meritocracy mythology, the biggest lie of liberalism, and to construct false legacy.

This in turn founds the kind of façade that projects, for example, an image of someone like Malcolm Turnbull as a credible figure of political leadership. Yet the evidence of his leadership – of the Australian Republican Movement (ARM), of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, and as Prime Minister – show that he is anything but.

Speaking of the ARM and Prof Flint – best known for heading up the group Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy – Tony Abbott updated his register of interests this week to record his appointment as a patron of the Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy. Turnbull and Brandis are going to ask the palace. Abbott is flexing his monarchy muscles. But it was all so long ago? Don’t believe that line.

We may want to think our leaders are not as engrossed in their own ego struggles while collecting huge salaries on our coin to run the country. But the evidence is available. Who was proclaiming victory at the NSW Liberal Party convention today? Abbott, and also Turnbull. Who was collecting big bucks to run the country and New South Wales while plotting and scheming over internal party politics?

In contrast, who drafted a decent bill, negotiated cross-bench support, governed a policy area competently, passed a budget? Anyone? Or did the ruling party faff about and accidentally vote with the Opposition to call itself to account? The Liberal Party call itself to account? Are they joking?

This government has not yet passed a budget. Now check out the deficit. The one that was a disaster at less than a third of the size. But there is plenty of time and resources to protect legacy and party room numbers. Of course there is.

There is a take-home message here.

The Archive Act was passed in 1983. What does that say?

It was the year Labor regained power from Fraser, the day that government was finally won back from Kerr’s cur, a little over seven years after Kerr wrote to the Queen and sought advice from Anthony Mason and then did what no Governor General ought to do.

Conservatives: the natural party of power who create constitutional crises to seize it.

An Archives bill may seem a strange priority, but Labor was on to it. Immediately. They won government, they moved on legacy. Labor did this legitimately. It is how government is supposed to be done: win an election, pass a bill into law. Of course Labor had one eye on legacy and why not? What political party does not, especially after a bruising like that?

Here is the thing: the archives law governs all official documents and when they are released. This is how law is supposed to work: all equal before it, nobody above it. It is the most fundamental principle of democracy, the rule of law itself, a government of laws and not of men.

In contrast, tricky and inaccurate classification of a particular set of documents, which will reveal (yet again) the character of one man, does not uphold the rule of law. It protects an individual. This is the difference between the two major parties. Social democratic ideology, by definition, places the social good above the individual benefit. Conservatism, and its bastard offspring neoliberalism, does not.

There is no reason to ever agree with conservatives like Abbott or Brandis who wax lyrical on convention and tradition – which is always, and only, self-serving. That is the individualism coded into their own founding ideology. On the other hand, the passing of the Archives Act 1983 (Cth) was smart, and it was timely. It is legitimate, and it ought to be obeyed by the incumbent Commonwealth government.

There is every reason for the Federal Court to grant the orders sought by Professor Hocking; and there is every reason for Labor to show that it is committed to social democratic principle which, on the historical record, it has been prepared to uphold.

I can’t sleep. I blame Turnbull. I am only half joking

Dear Diary,

Today I reviewed the Learning Guide to the compulsory first year Torts unit so the unit I am running over Summer School – Advanced Torts and Civil Wrongs – will not duplicate earlier content.

Then I liaised with the first year unit co-ordinator so the advanced unit will be interesting and fit the expectations and interests of the elective class.

After that I worked with the faculty administrator to book the Moot Court for oral presentations from 4 January 2017. This was very time consuming because the university administration and faculty staff are not in agreement as to whether we should return to work on 4 January. As a casual employee, this is of no moment to me: if I am there I am paid, if I am not, there is no income to feed my children. But I can not finalise the assessment requirements for the unit I am running until these details are sorted by those who enjoy holiday pay and sick leave and long service entitlements and what-not.

Of which I can only dream, but whatever. No doubt all the meeting time spent on whether or not 3 January is a paid leave day or something has been an efficient use of education resources. But I was talking about me and what I did today.

Dear Diary

Today I tutored for five hours under the ITAS program (Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme), a job that brings with it the joy of working with a Gamilaraay woman who is going to be a top lawyer one day. This is the program that Tony Abbott promised to abolish as part of his commitment to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS) that saw millions of dollars allocated to white organisations to perpetuate colonial and charity-based models to “help” Aboriginal people. I didn’t really have the time for this job but an auntie asked me and the student is great and now it is not a job but a human relationship and besides here is a Gamilaraay woman future law graduate who is committed and awesome and when my kids come in from school they recognise immediately that we are working and studying and that matters and what if the funding is cut before she graduates?

In the hours before and after ITAS tutoring I marked 10 property law assignments on the scope of Native Title after Akiba v Commonwealth (2013) and I’m happy to say that most of my students seem to have a comprehensive grasp of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ rights and interests in land and sea including for trade and thus commercial purposes under the NTA 1993 (Cth) as amended. Makes ya proud that does.

Like every other day, I am also responsible for three lives – my two teenagers and I – my oldest offspring lives independently – our food, our housing, our moral code, our education and health. Where would we be without endowment and Medicare I hate to think. Today, that meant little more than cooking dinner: my kids are pretty independent these days. It so happened that one teen offspring arrived home with not one but two friends, who simply had to stay mum, and can we have some of that stew? Well, duh. Why would I make a pot of stew if not for people in the house to eat it?

This is my way of saying that for the past 25 years I have done paid and unpaid work, I have paid my rent or mortgage and taxes, done what my employer expected, conformed to what society demanded – singularly, in my case, but that is not ignore two-parent families – taken responsibility for the welfare of human beings I brought into the world….

Imagine then, my joy, when I heard about the second reading amendment today.

That my efforts in the paid work sphere, which net considerable tax receipts for the federal and state governments these days, me not being in a position to off-shore my tax liabilities, and of a disposition that I would not wish to, given that I think universal education and health care are universal goods, so I end up contributing to the half-million-dollars-plus per year, in salary alone, not to mention expenses and costs, to a bloke with over $200 million in assets, who to all intents and purposes appears incapable of organising a piss-up in a brewery.

Imagine my joy, by which I mean imagine my incandescent rage, as a person who nets less than 20% of the Turnbull public purse remuneration, when I hear Christopher Pyne refer to “a series of events that led to this outcome and it is a pity”. That would be the same Christopher Pyne whose judgement is so meritorious that we not only pay him a 6-figure salary but also sign off on his authority to employ, on a $150K pa salary, a senior ‘innovation’ advisor who lacks the insight or judgement on whether or not to strip to his dacks and insult the flag and thus the nation of Malaysia when out and about with his equally expensively remunerated mates.

Have I mentioned? Reward for merit is the most desperate lie of liberalism.

The “series of events” Pyne referred to was a proposed amendment to a second reading speech on a bill in the House of Representatives. The “outcome”, the one which “is a pity” was the vote that saw the government vote for an Opposition amendment to its own bill.

A vote. In the House of Representatives. That would be where the party with a majority forms government. Not to labour the point hur hur but if voting in the House of Representatives on their own Bill is not their day job, why am I sending a third of my income to the ATO to accommodate these people in Canberra and remunerate them to the tune of at least five times my annual income when I can competently perform the tasks entailed by my job yet they can not competently say ‘aye’ or ‘nay’ on cue?

What. Is. The. Point. Of. The. Turnbull. Government?

Today, Malcolm Turnbull lectured us in front of the Singaporeans on the rule of law.

Today, Malcolm Turnbull conceded a position on the NBN Committee to Pauline Hanson – because she asked him to.

Today, a former Solicitor-General – utterly tastelessly – compared the current Solicitor-General to a dog on a leash.

Today, the Attorney-General doubled down on his misrepresentation of advice from the Solicitor General with respect to laws that embody the bigotry of this government: the Australian Citizenship Amendment Act 2016 and the proposed Bill on a marriage equality plebiscite.

Imagine being a good lawyer – an impeccably-credentialed, beyond-reproach, top of executive government lawyer – and see a man like George Brandis misrepresent your legal opinion on what a majority of the High Court would do with regard to a possible future constitutional challenge to a bill as being advice with regard to a different, later version of the bill (a grossly xenophobic and racist bill).

As though Solicitors-General go around giving advice on what the High Court might do in its original jurisdiction lightly. As if such legal opinions are the playthings of the Attorney General. Brandis is abominable.

The Turnbull government made history today because no government in the history of federation – a very short history, a mere 116 years – voted against itself in the house where government is formed.

In the words of the leader of the House… what a pity.

Abuse of power is systematically rewarded

‘Move him upstairs?’ is a sentiment from the acutely observed BBC series ‘Yes, Prime Minister’. It is a tip of a line which conveys an iceberg of British culture.

‘Upstairs’ is the House of Lords, where governments send inconveniently misbehaving blue blood or otherwise powerfully connected men. It is a tool in the meritocracy mythology toolkit.

Reward for merit is the most desperate lie of liberalism.

Say some Tory – they are almost inevitably conservative white men – a politician or judge or banker, for instance – is caught in a tabloid scandal. It is the family values guy sending pictures of his penis to young women. The sanctimonious homophobe snapped leaving a gay club. The misogynist judge who waxes lyrical on how women are responsible for rapists. The fetishists and embezzlers and fraudsters and thieves, engaging the services of a bondage madam, charging the taxpayer for the wedding travel, or the helicopter transport to a party fund-raiser.

But the political leadership does not need the headache. The ludicrous hypocrisy, the sleazy and often criminal creepiness, are seen as a distraction from the latest announceable. This is what passes for government under neoliberalism. An endless string of reactions, distractions or announceables: an inquiry here, a defence contract there. Some other vapid unoriginal tried-and-failed effort to hold unaccountable power to account –  a tribunal, a committee, a commission.

One solution, a kind of predecessor to the dead cat, is to reward these transgressors for something else. An OBE for services to justice, for example, or a knighthood for outstanding contribution to the financial community. Hide him in plain sight, because the caravan will move on soon enough.

The caravan always does.

This technique is not funny, and it is not clever. The well-connected transgressor is not hilariously embarrassing; he is a drain on society, a wrongdoer whose reputation is treated as of greater value than the actual lives of minor offenders such as a drug addict or petty thief.

Take the idiot Australians recently returned from Malaysia. The privilege of their whiteness and maleness is not defined by the internet of things, as one major newspaper implied today. White male privilege is real and it is dangerous. It is violent and harmful. It plays out at every level of our society.

For example, two of the three police officers investigated by the Western Australian coroner over the death of Ms Dhu have been promoted. They have more responsibility than when they not only failed to ensure adequate care for a dying woman but expressed viciously nasty racist views directly to her as she died.

They are now on a higher salary. Move them upstairs.

As The Saturday Paper editor Erik Jensen observed, anyone expressing surprise at the boorishness of private school- and sandstone-educated white men does not know how privilege works. Rich white guys are trained to behave in exactly this way. The young ‘gentlemen’ of all-male institutions like The Kings School and the residential colleges of the University of Sydney are routinely schooled in consequence-free crassness; and have been for centuries.

It is another inheritance in this country from the toxic British tradition. The Kings School is a wannabe Eton, Sydney Uni is our Oxford-equivalent. The father institutions produce the Camerons and the Bojos, incompetent to a man. Their incompetence is not least because no mistake, no matter how monumental, ever results in lessons learned – except perhaps in how not to be caught; or in how to throw other people’s money at crisis-managing the next terrible, dangerous, destructive decision.

Stirring up racist violence to win an unnecessary referendum designed to resolve internal conservative differences which wiped up to three trillion dollars off global financial markets? A promotion to a senior cabinet position awaits. This is not to suggest that global financial markets are not riddled with corrupted dealings – of course they are – but has David or Boris paid any kind of price for the mess they made? Are they destitute? Condemned? Disgraced?

Nope. For a campaign demonstrably founded on racist hate, Bojo was promoted to Foreign Secretary. That’s how it works. Cameron has for the moment gone home to his luxury mansion, free to get on with whatever he chooses to do. Who knows, he could do a Tony Blair and end up being paid millions to speak on peace in the Middle East. Wreck havoc, pose as the solution instead of the problem.

Look at Joe Hockey, ensconced in the most prestigious diplomatic posting in the gift of the Australian Prime Minister. For what? Contributions to Treasury governance? Hardly. For agreeing to go quietly in an internal conservative power struggle. Like Cameron.

Or is Washington the second top post? Word is our man in London, Alexander Downer, could make way for George Brandis at the UK High Commission.

Downer lived there as a child, bless, when daddy held the position. Downer is also the former conservative Howard government Foreign Minister who presided during the corrupt wheat-for-weapons dealings by Australian entities in breach of UN sanctions against Iraq while we were at war there. Talk about reward for merit.

Brandis is the conservative Attorney General who has chanced his luck with fibbing about a meeting with the Solicitor General, a Senior Counsel of impeccable credentials who is angry enough to have made his displeasure public.

Send them upstairs.

Then there is John Howard, neck-deep in reviving the legacy of Menzies, a man who had to be stopped by unionised labour from selling iron to Japan as Japan was seeking to take Australia by force.

Nothing stops this white-washing drivel. Howard and his pet project are endlessly, tediously promoted, for free, all over the media. Hours of airtime on the national broadcaster is not quite a seat in the House of Lords. But it does go to legacy, which conservatives value as much as power, knowing the two are essential to maintain their born-to-rule mythology.

Mall this is on the same spectrum as the men who embarrassed the government and the nation this week in Malaysia. As many commentators have pointed out, it is not that these men do not know what they are doing is out of step with everyone around them. It is that they do not care.

They are not ignorant. They are arrogant.

The father of former senior defence industries “innovation adviser” John Walker told the waiting media that the ‘boys’ – all in fact men who have been adults for between 7 and 11 years – will now go home and get on with their lives. Indeed they will. And not one of the protagonists will see anything wrong with that.

(The Sydney Morning Herald reported at 9.15pm Saturday that Walker junior has tendered his resignation and minister Pyne has accepted it. Expect to see Walker on a similar or higher salary somewhere sometime soon.)

Walker senior also told us ‘there was no charge’. This is not true. The charge was public nuisance, and his son along with eight mates pleaded guilty to the charge. Their connections – called ‘remorse’ in the law and the media – then saw no conviction recorded, so the offender does not end up with a criminal record.

Tony Abbott availed himself of the equivalent provisions in NSW at a similar age.*

We can safely surmise that Walker senior knows his son was charged, and with what offence. Given he was there in Malaysia and there in court and all. Nevertheless, Walker senior has – oops – confused the case outcome with his son never having been charged in the first place. In this rarefied world, ‘there was no charge’ is code for ‘they did nothing wrong’.

It is worth noting that Aboriginal people have died in custody for less – singing ‘who let the dogs out’ in earshot of a policeman; being a victim of domestic violence with unpaid fines.

We could power the world and feed the hungry with the resources which are currently misallocated to exonerating men who are recipients of reward-for-merit (ie fuckup). Men who should – but will not – live out their days in penury and despair for their miserable actions.

A couple of forces are at work here. The first – previously mentioned – is deep and deeply harmful emotional and financial investment by liberal ideology in meritocracy mythology.

Another is the Great Man in History myth. Which is (falsely) tempered by the equivalence of the flawed human. Only men can be great, but all humans are flawed. This shallow but convenient equivalence is deployed to fallaciously refute the obvious. Churchill or Turnbull (or whoever) is not great. He is a drunk or a fake (or whatever).

When this is pointed out, the dominant narrative shrugs metaphorically and says oh we are all flawed. Who among us is not? Let he who has not sinned…

The narrative is upside down. People raised in environments epitomised by Eton or Oxford are more likely to be deeply flawed. Such a system produces terrible characters. People who start wars. Interfere in others’ wars. Send other people’s children to fight those wars. Create material conditions that perpetuate imperialism and poverty and displacement. Financial crises from which they but not the poor escape.

People not raised in these toxic institutions may have been just as deeply flawed as a Bojo or a Walker, but we will never know. This is because the elite male has so much more capacity to do harm. I can not send another person’s child to war, whether I want to or not. Tony Blair can. John Howard can. Abbott certainly wanted to, and it is his legacy that has seen the Royal Australian Air Force implicated in a war crime.

So enough with the trivialisation of Walker and his mates. The nickname is not funny. White male privilege is not a figment of the internet. The men may have had no conviction recorded, but they pleaded guilty and their plea was accepted by the court. They are, by their own admission, guilty of the charge that Walker senior tried to talk away. They are dangerous, because the message as represented by the literal and figurative father tells them they did nothing wrong.

What really matters about all this is that the ranks of the current ruling party are awash with this demographic; and that the Liberal Party is utterly incapable of reforming itself out of this ugly culture.

*Abbott was also charged with indecent assault for groping a young woman between the legs. I wrote this post before the latest news from the US and do not want to risk trivialising the allegations of Trump’s sexual criminality. For the record, millions of women are sharing similar stories right now; and characterising individual, powerful men as monsters is to miss the point.

Trust and the Census – who (definitely) benefits?

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

A $50 billion spend on submarines

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

A Royal Commission into NT child protection and youth detention

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

Another “crackdown” on welfare recipients

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

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

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

Selling off the Land Titles Office to the highest bidder

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

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

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

I could go on all day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But science

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

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

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

That is not science. It is disgusting and exploitative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some reflections on Homelessness and the rough sleeper count

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2011 rough sleepers count

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Media, social media and clickbait

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, thank you

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

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

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

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

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

On the Royal Commission into Northern Territory juvenile detention centres

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

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

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

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

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

The nature of Royal Commissions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Royal Commission into Northern Territory Juvenile Detention Centres

I am against. These are my reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As young as 10.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shut them down.

Not a hot take

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

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

Everyday ignorance

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

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

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

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

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

Disgusting and appalling, yes. Surprising? No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do you think?

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

Nice one mate.

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

Archibald winners

Failure to portray the most successful portrait artist in this story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bona fides ignorance

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile in NSW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In sum

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

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

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

Unless and until

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Malcolm Election: an A-Z

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I ask ya

Media and imbalance in the Conservative tradition

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

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

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

Structural advantages and self-interest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prominence privilege and inherent conservative biases 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Conservative Line, then and now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Malcolm and women: More concern troll than feminist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always was, always will be Aboriginal land

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

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

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

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

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

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

A racist polity: does it matter?

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

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

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

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

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

Recent racism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could the Liberals be less terrible?

Look at it this way: Menzies had an excuse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was not that long ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was then.

This is now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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