Monthly Archives: September 2014

Farewell SMH I miss what you once were

On Thursday 25 September 2014, the Sydney Morning Herald plastered its front page with jihadi imagery and an oddly dissonant picture of a young man in a suit. The Fairfax mast heads in Melbourne and Canberra published the same images and the same misinformation. It turned out the young man in the picture was alive but not so well, having been frightened by Fairfax out of leaving the house.

Picture a beautifully restored heritage landscape of sandstone and brick buildings, manicured gardens and green, green lawns rolling down to a sadly despoiled but still picturesque river. The odd Rivercat, a special catamaran-style ferry built for the shallows of Duck Creek, swooshes by with a faint honk carried on the wind.

This landscape is alive with young people and their families, everyone beautifully and respectfully dressed for the solemnity and respect demanded by the occasion. There are photos being taken on every corner. Young women tower over their parents in heels, bursting with health and pride. Young men hold their heads high and their chests sturdy. Nearly every ethnicity, nationality and religion on earth is represented. Scholars in full academic dress sweep by in pairs, their floppy hats and glowing brocade glittering in the sun.

This is graduation day at the University of Western Sydney, Parramatta campus. Our wonderful, dedicated, ambitious, hard-working against-the-odds students are attending their commencement, the day they start their adult lives as qualified bachelors, to go forth and work and teach and learn. To tend the sick, represent the accused, run the computer systems and teach the children of Western Sydney, Australia, and the world.

They are a wonder to behold. Huge numbers of our students would never have had access to tertiary education without this university, the brain child of Gough Whitlam, 25 years old this year. My heart swells with the tiny contribution I have made to some of their lives. I wish them every success, and eagerly anticipate seeing some of them on the news programs of tomorrow, working for peace, entering Parliament, making a difference.

Graduation is during the semester break. Just before the break, two of my students asked if I could give a lecture at Bankstown on the strong and rational responses we can deploy to mitigate against stereotypes of Muslim people, especially the young men. “They will listen to you miss” said one young man, an exceptional and committed student, employee, and family man, an Arabic-speaking Muslim who appears to know every other young man “of Middle Eastern appearance” on campus. Following up this request has become more urgent in recent days.

A few weeks ago I wrote about these young men. It was the story of an incident in my classroom where one Muslim student had objected to my using Islam in an example of an illogical argument. Three other Muslim students leapt to my defence, and one of the three later explained the concept in more detail to his formerly confused classmate, who is no longer confused on the point. It is good story, with a happy ending. It reinforced my conviction that education is the answer, irrespective of the question. As mother used to say, to a man with a hammer every problem looks like a nail. To that I would add that to a man with a seat in Parliament, every problem looks like more legislation. And to an educator in richly vibrant, hugely diverse multicultural western Sydney, every problem looks like sensible, ongoing and consistent investment in universal education. I like to think of myself as consistent in my commitments and values, and in line with my views of the value of education, I busy myself each day with the tasks of living, working and educating in Western Sydney.

Imagine then my disgust, my visceral anger, my absolute contempt for everyone involved in the sordid and careless mistake that was what Fairfax did that morning. I responded to the SMH front page with fury. I also did what any other engaged digital citizen would do with their seething, roiling, relentless heartburn at this despicable carelessness, and posted my intention to boycott Fairfax, after 25 years of faithful readership, on my Twitter feed.

The response was overwhelming. No tweet of mine has ever gone so far (not even retweets from the mighty Van Badham, whose reach is legendary). My notification folder filled with hundreds of retweets, favourites and mentions. More experienced tweeps contacted me by private message to offer support, advice and caution. I thanked everybody, responded to almost everybody, and continued to tweet out my reasons for 24 hours. Over and over again, I said this is the last straw. This is it. Too much.

Then I got a reply from a sub-editor at BRW, a Fairfax publication. This put me on the alert. Like my reply would not be sent through the ranks, if my tweets had caught her attention? SMH was tagged in every single tweet.

‘I’m not defending the front page’ she began. Well, obviously, given that it is indefensible.

‘But after 25 years there must be more to your decision than one front page?’

I took this question in good faith. I answered with two tweets, in the accepted two-tweet way. The first said

‘Yeah, fair call. It’s been a slow burn since the Abbott endorsement and Carlton, but this was personal 1/2′.

This tweet referenced the fact that Fairfax endorsed Tony Abbott at the 2013 election, even though it was obvious to the most casual of observers the man is a power-seeking wrecker, with no policies of any value, no vision, and tendencies to be violent, misogynist, homophobic, and racist. Nevertheless, Fairfax is a company in decline with a dinosaur of a business model, and it was equally obvious that Abbott would be the next Prime Minister. For this and other claimed reasons, Fairfax endorsed this decision of the Australian electorate. The tweet also referenced their shameful treatment of long-time columnist Mike Carlton. When the editor who arranged for an apology for an article critical of Israel was over-ruled, and sought to impose a suspension of the columnist instead, Carlton walked.

The second tweet said:
‘It was graduation day at UWS. I teach 100s of students ‘of Middle East appearance’. Fairfax endangered them all. More’

Interestingly, the Fairfax employee retweeted the first but not the second reply. If this was strategic, and I assume it was – she is a professional – the thinking would go something like this: I had a made a claim that Fairfax lawyers could argue is unsubstantiated yet damaging to the brand. Defamation, loss of earnings, damages. Thus a Fairfax employee could not spread my claim further across the twitterverse, as that would further damage the brand (and assist my hypothetical defence in this hypothetical libel case).

Here is what it would look like.

This woman has made an unfounded claim, Fairfax lawyers could tell the judge, which has resulted in loss of earnings. Where is the proof that students at UWS are endangered by the Fairfax front page? Show us the endangered student. Prove the danger has increased. Demonstrate the chain of causation back to Fairfax. How did the Fairfax front page endanger anyone any more than a Murdoch front page?

It doesn’t, of course. The front pages are all as awful as each other. But lawyers like causation. For this hypothetical suit, Fairfax would imply that I have to prove a link between their front page (rather than any other front page) and the reckless endangerment of one of my students (rather than the student community “of Middle Eastern appearance”). I would not have to, because the onus of proof lies with the complainant in these matters. The correct legal argument would therefore be around whether I caused loss of earnings through an unsubstantiated claim. But that would not necessarily stop libel lawyers from trying to imply that the case is about something else. I adore many of my colleagues who are in legal practice, and send many exceptional future lawyers their way. But I am not particularly fond of those who ‘defend’ corporate interests against people with little or no resources, wealth, income or power.

Here, in more than 140 characters, is why that headline was the last straw, and why I took to Twitter to express my disgust, and why I am boycotting Fairfax.

I have read the Sydney Morning Herald all my life. It was delivered to my parents’ home (still is), and when I left home I kept buying it daily.

In our student household in the late 80s and early 90s, someone would go get the paper and we would all sit around and pool our wits to do the crosswords. A day when we got the cryptic done before lectures (usually a Thursday, never a Friday) was a good day. A completed cryptic is still a beautiful thing. I taught my mum to tackle them, and later when we got mobile phones, we would exchange texts and tips on 7-down or 8-across. My dad developed a sort of ritualised whinge about the time mum spent with the crossword.

When I moved to Alice Springs in 1994, my mum would send a fax of the cryptic to herself, tear off that shiny paper and send me a bundle of four or five by post. Once a week I would head into town and buy the one SMH available in the Northern Territory: the Saturday Herald. My then-partner and I would do the crosswords together, a happy reminder of our pre-parenting, carefree student life.

The cryptic crossword alone was part of my circle of friends and family.

I also submitted letters. The editor printed many of them. I would get a flurry of texts from friends and family – ‘saw your letter today, well said, well done’. Once a letter I wrote attracted replies for over a week. The paper had gone digital relatively recently, and gentility was already evaporating. The digital splash fanned a controversy over Nicole Kidman pretending to play the didgeridoo. Colleagues stopped me in the corridor, friends questioned me at BBQs, and disagreed with me by email. All this was triggered by my letter. Ironically, it was on a similar topic: I criticised Kidman for potentially disrespecting Aboriginal people for the purpose of selling movie tickets (I try to be consistent). I also felt like I was contributing to public debate, and I was, as I am now. But it was somewhat intimidating and confronting (so is this) and I stopped submitting letters to the editor after that (I do not plan to stop blogging or tweeting. Yet).

On returning to my home town of Sydney after 14 years in remote and regional Australia, I booked a Saturday SMH delivery. I leave too early during the week, and more than one day a week delivery would feel indulgent anyway. By now a single mother escaping domestic violence, this Saturday delivery was a tiny luxury, one that made me feel I had re-entered polite society after a traumatic ride in the gutter. Reading the SMH felt like hanging out with kindred spirit adults, and like home. The letters page remained a delight. I had graduated from the simple Sudoku to the samurai, egged along by my other ‘adult company’ in that little house, Adam Spencer. I bought an SMH each week day morning on the way to the station and geared my brain up for the day at work with news and comment and puzzles.

I have come a long way since then. I graduated at law, have publications in academic journals, and a co-edited collection on citizenship to my name. I went to Greece last year and gave a paper on the parlous state of Australian democracy in the home of democracy. My eldest son has reached adulthood, a young man who has a clear understanding of the risks of being a young man in this world. My daughter and younger son are in high school. I work hard in my home town and am more connected than ever before. My reliance on the SMH for like-minded adults to read and ponder and sometimes interact with via the letters page diminished. And now it is gone.

This is what I think happened. It is not conjecture but hypothesis, produced using the available evidence and accepted rules of case theory. The news that police had shot a teenager dead broke late on the night of Tuesday 23 September. By the time I signed off just after midnight, all we had heard was of a stabbing and a shooting. This is too late for a print publication to get a full story out for the first Wednesday morning edition.
Next, the workers at the paper probably went into overdrive to catch up on Thursday. This is highly likely for the simple reason that print is dying but the business model demands it remain relevant. This is because much of the news cycle is actually the news recycled. Breakfast radio and television do ‘what the papers say’ and the papers return the favour by cross-quoting broadcast media. All the major dailies now have social media monitors and presences. Maintaining a print presence is about feeding the larger machine.

As they all do these days, the people on the Numaid story would have trawled facebook pages for uncopyrighted images. Of course, just because everyone does it does not make it right. Trawling the facebook pages of a dead teenager in order to increase newspaper sales is a repulsive thing to do, but people do it. There are papers to sell, and catch-up imperative to satisfy.

My considered view is that someone had too many screens open at once and in a race to deadline – the media environment has been more frenzied than usual and they are all on it to keep themselves relevant and afloat – the wrong picture was put on the front pages.

Human error is common and predictable. No-one is suggesting malicious intent by whoever made this monumental mistake. Just a profit-seeking relevance-desperation deadline-driven rush job. But it has nevertheless wreaked enormous harm on the teenager concerned, and has flow-on effects to all Australians of “Middle Eastern appearance”. And that includes many of my students, and that is why I am so angry.

And here is a predictable fact: attacks on Muslim women have increased according to AFP Commissioner Ken Lay. That is on top of the attacks on a Muslim school. To state the absolute obvious, schools have children inside. That is who schools are built to serve. So the ramping up of a terror threat, in which all the media are playing a shameful part, women and children in Australia are suffering. It is a man’s world alright.

It has been a slow burn, and it is personal, as I said in my first tweet to the Fairfax employee. And I will not be backing away from that second tweet. I have my arguments mustered. They are rational arguments. I have even generously disclosed some of those arguments to Fairfax lawyers right here in this post. And full disclosure, as they know, or ought to know, is how ethical lawyering is done.

So I feel like I lost a friend, but we were drifting apart anyway. I was probably holding on, unnecessarily, tenuously, for old times’ sake, the way you do, not wanting to be the one to do the breaking up. Not wanting to face the fact that I was deluded all along, thinking we were friends. The SMH brought many joys. But Fairfax is a corporation and I am a human being. And when I opened that newspaper yesterday and saw that sordid headline, and got home to hear a young man is afraid to leave the house, I pictured those proud students and their proud families against the backdrop of the university grounds. Then I looked at my newspaper and thought ‘I stand with my students. And I no longer read you.’

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The increasingly difficult task of understanding Abbott’s Australia

I started this blog to vent my anger at the Abbott government. To keep myself sane. To mitigate against the real likelihood of alienating myself from polite company. And to share my thoughts with like-minded Australians in online communities, many of whom are speechless with horror at what we are becoming, and grateful for support in putting that horror into words.

There are many brain-dumps on here. Some are mocking, some are furious, or disgusted. I won’t be deleting anything – we still have implied freedom of political communication in our liberal democracy – but I am changing my style. Sane people change their behaviour when circumstances around them change. As Einstein observed, to do the same thing repeatedly and expect a different outcome amounts to insanity.

What has changed?

I no longer trust my own government. I do not feel that it is safe for me to furiously and hastily say what I think of government actions (in the hasty immoral way that the press does to the Muslim community). I am afraid that the brain-dump approach risks attracting the attention of a band of heavily armed men with the legal power to use force against me. If I wrote in haste what I really think of the Abbott government and its oppressive nonsense, I would be afraid for my children. As many Australians know only too well, particularly the Aboriginal community and now the Muslim community, children are deeply traumatised by heavily armed men breaking down your front door and using legal force against innocent civilians. And yes, they are civilians. They are not members of the armed forces of a nation state. And yes, they are innocent. We have the presumption of innocence in this country. You are innocent until proven guilty in a properly constituted court of law. And so am I.

So.

I have decided to try and make sense of events in Australia on 23-24 September 2014 using evidence-based arguments instead. I would rather scribble off an angry rant about the ugly rhetoric and extreme violence being deployed around Australia on the flimsiest – or absence – of evidence. But that is dangerous now. Here is my thinking on the danger: armed agents of the Australian government are convinced or deluded about the level of terror threat to Australians; and impervious to their role in increasing that threat. And because they are probably convinced and likely deluded and definitely impervious, they might accidently mistake a middle-aged mother of three sitting at her computer for a threat to national security.

I have written before on the clash of civilisations thesis, I have drawn on theology and history and law and peace studies and international relations and political economy to make sense of the rhetoric about what is happening in Iraq and here. Today, I think the news stories are best addressed using intersectionality, a recent development in our understanding across social categorisers such as class, race and sex. In particular, intersectionality brings together critical race theory with feminism, where race theory also illuminates (religious) sectarianism.

In the current climate, adherents of the Muslim faith are conflated with any person ‘of Middle Eastern appearance’ (whatever that means). Muslims are conflated with all Arabs, who frequently bear a striking physical resemblance to Jews, both being of Semitic ethnic origin (whatever that means). The facts do not get in the way of government and media enthusiastically reproducing ethno-religious stereotypes to foment fear in the Australian population, so we need to make sense of both.

What we have been told

This comes from the joint press release issued by the Victorian and Australian Federal Police. An 18 year old man was wanted for questioning. He agreed to meet police at 8.00pm on Tuesday 23 September at Endeavour Hills in Victoria. He carried a knife. He used the knife to stab two officers. He was shot dead. His name is reported to be Numan Haider.

There are conflicting statements about what kind of threat the teenager posed before agreeing to meet police to answer questions. It is said he was under surveillance for at least two months, and had been seen by authorities to be acting ‘strangely’. Some say it was suicide by cop. This is as plausible as any other hypothesis. Such events typically involve a young man with a mental illness (depression can be fatal: its worst outcome is suicide). A young man who had been acting strangely and voluntarily attended a police station for questioning is as likely a candidate as any other to seek suicide by cop.

The other explanations are various versions of this: the young man was a terrorist, an extremist who hates our way of life. He was simultaneously a lone wolf even though the entire Australian community is under threat from an organisation of terrorist Muslim extremists on another continent. So he is depicted as a representative of an organised group but acted alone and independently of them. He was a terrorist but this is not about Islam. But the group he represents calls itself Islamic State. There is no specific intelligence that the man made threats against the Prime Minister. But the loosely labelled ‘press’ has ‘reported’ that police killed a man who made threats against the Prime Minister. Imagine US security forces allowing a man to stab two officers while making threats against the President before shooting him. Plausible? No. This narrative is incoherent at best. Most of it is probably propaganda. As the old saying goes, the most effective lies contain a kernel of truth.

The context and the analysis

The police in Victoria, as elsewhere in Australia, have a long history of shooting young men dead. The young man may be unarmed or, more commonly, armed with a knife. One memorable incident at Bondi Beach involved multiple officers shooting and killing a mentally ill man who was wielding a knife. One of the officers who fatally shot Roni Levi was later convicted on drug charges.

You will search high and low, however, for news of a policeman shooting a woman, or a policewoman shooting anyone. Police have a deep and abiding interest in young men, particularly brown young men, or bearded young men, and especially black young men. Do not be any of those people, and the chances of being stopped, searched, detained, arrested, charged, convicted and imprisoned go through the floor. Add poor. Poor young men. Our jails are full of young men with very little formal education, who are from low income areas. They are survivors of child sexual assault, bullying, physical abuse, neglect. Many have a mental illness, an intellectual disability, substance addictions, and histories of being victimized by, and then perpetrating, violence. This is the lot of many poor young men in contemporary Australia. It is a disgrace, but it is the case.

Across human history, these people were traditionally sent to war. They needed a role in society, and the role chosen for them by patriarchs is, typically, to be frontline guards of whatever territory the society regards as its own. This was seen as a good job for young men, and for the society. When young men are killed in the line of this duty, it is a tragic terrible loss for the young man’s family and friends, but for everyone else – namely, the patriarchs – it seems like an excellent idea to send young men to kill other young men at the ‘front’. The front is any border of the territory the society calls its own.

And so it is today, with two key exceptions.

The first exception is that we now send young women as well. This is stupid. Young women have the most crucial role in the survival of any society. No-one else can fulfil the function that young women can do. They do not have to fulfill this role in Australia if they do not want to, thank goddess. Or more specifically, thank feminism. Nevertheless, all patriarchies treat young women with contempt, as human incubators, and ignore their rights. Patriarchies are violent and careless towards women; and lie about the singular, crucial role young women play in the survival of humanity. Using threats of force and actual force to ensure its own survival is a classic behaviour of any patriarchy. It is ugly and cruel, but it is the case.

To reiterate: It is a social fact that we fail to honour the humanity of young women. It is a scientific fact that no-one else, no-one but young women, can do what young women do for the survival of humanity. To hold any other position is to remain deaf to the lies told by the patriarchs.

And the patriarchs tell many lies. These are dangerous lies. Lies which cause massive, tangible harm to humanity and to the planet. Patriarchs dishonour young women for power-seeking purposes. Patriarchs send young men to war for power-seeking purposes. Patriarchs plunder and poison the planet for power-seeking purposes. Patriarchs tell more lies to cover up the true power-seeking purposes of their dishonourable and bloodthirsty actions. This is so whether they are white patriarchs or black patriarchs or Muslim patriarchs or Christian or Zionist patriarchs. Yes we get the odd Golda Meir or Maggie Thatcher. They are women, but they operate a patriarchal paradigm It is not that a woman can not imitate a patriarch. Some choose to, and some are really quite good at that. It is that we can not imagine an alternative reality where young women are honoured for their crucial capability and young men are found something more constructive and less abhorrent to do than kill other young men.

Which brings us to the chief patriarch in 2014 Australia, Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Here are some grabs from his statement in response to the shooting of an 18 year old man.

“It is clear that there are people in our community who are capable of very extreme acts”.

Yes it is. Are any of these people young women? Are any of them matriarchs? Are some of them young men and some of them patriarchs?

“I have spoken to the wives of both the officers concerned”.

The Prime Minister did not discuss the international meeting he is attending and the global response to terrorist acts. He did not outline our foreign policy objectives in the face of terrorist threats. He did not even have to imply that the dead young man was planning a terrorist act, regarding which no evidence has been released.

The AFP has categorically stated that there is no specific evidence of a threat to the Prime Minister. And the Prime Minister has categorically stated that he has “spoken to the wives of the officers concerned.” Remember what our alliance in Iraq is called this time? It is called the Coalition of the Concerned. Abbott is our chief patriarch, keeping Australian women and children safe from the barbarians at the gate. Sending young men (and now women) to do it.

Many will not be convinced by this analysis. Some will complain that I have left out a detail here, or omitted context there. Well, yes. Yes I have. That is what writers do. We choose to tell this story, and by choosing this story, we discard every other story there is to be told. We choose this particular story for a reason, and we often provide those reasons. My reason for choosing to present the particular analysis I have presented here is because the cognitive dissonance is so great. The only framework for understanding the events of 23-24 September 2014 in Australia available to me and my experiences is the frame of the violence and deceptions reproduced by patriarchs. It will not work for everyone.

A final word on when the penny dropped that the violence and deception of patriarchs would clarify my understanding of this uglier Australia the Prime Minister is determined we should be, regardless of facts on the ground.

Each morning I wake to an ABC radio news bulletin. I set my clock radio to 6.00am and the theme rings out and I listen to the news and weather as I begin preparing for the day. For the last few days the lead story has been the Australian Prime Minister’s decision to send the country to war again. Each piece of rhetoric I hear, every piece of propaganda dressed up as rational argument, from the so-called experts and leaders and commentators, describes the disregard our enemy has for humanity. Each description also communicates exactly what “we” are doing to “them”. Over and over I heard a head of security, or intelligence, or government, or police, using language that would not be out of place at a fiery sermon from the middle ages. Or at a radical mosque, temple, synagogue, or tent of the roller variety. It all sounds the same. I heard someone saying of the enemy that ‘some people are attracted to the thought of the end of days’. Well Christians certainly are. It is all there in the Book of Revelations.

The sad thing , the cause for despair, is this. The task of demonising the “other” is an easy one, because there the patriarchs have been doing it for centuries. It is embedded in the languages and cultures that have sprung from across the ancient world, in the collective memory of humanity.

This leaves me in no doubt that there are patriarchs of communities across Australia preaching hate. Here’s the main difference between these various patriarchs of various cultures, languages and faiths, from my perspective.

Our chief patriarch is waxing lyrical about the barbarians at the gate, with very little evidence. (By waxing lyrical I mean Abbott is awkwardly stumbling over his words which contain either religious imagery or vacuous rhetoric or both). I do not doubt the blood thirsty intent and actions of Islamic patriarchs in Iraq and Syria. I do doubt that Islamic extremists represent as serious a threat to Australians as we are told.

I also do not doubt the blood thirsty intent and actions of patriarchs in the USA and Australia. We are going to other peoples’ countries to blow up human beings and their ancestral homes, from a massive (and probably previously safe) distance.

I most certainly do not doubt that our current actions will ensure that the rate of slaughter of women and children in Iraq and Syria, by us and by them, will become much much worse. And it is women and children who ensure the survival of humanity.

Legislation is policy. Law is politics.

Not really. Not precisely. But now I’ve got your attention, legislation is all about policy, and politics is all about law.

While going about my communications in the Twitterverse this week, many people asked me whether there is a legal process by which we can get rid of an obviously incompetent and distressingly cruel government. It dawned on me that there is a profound misunderstanding about the relationship between politics and law; and more specifically the relationship between policy and legislation.

Most of us have a working knowledge of democracy and its basic tenets. Not law so much. There is a widespread set of assumptions that the law is somehow all-powerful, internally consistent, and apolitical. These false assumptions are carefully cultivated by the ruling class. In a democracy so-called, the ruling class is made up of political elites and the corporate donors who invest in political power-holders.

People break the law every day and get away with it. So the law is not all-powerful.

Cases are regularly successfully appealed, and often decided by a majority of the bench rather than unanimous view. So the law is not internally consistent.

Legislation is made by politicians. That is in fact their day job – to pass legislation on our behalf. The notion that this process could somehow be apolitical requires a complete suspension of disbelief. It is too silly a proposition for words. Laws are not apolitical because laws are made by politicians in their role as politicians. Politicians have other roles than passing legislation, but the passing of legislation is their core business. Law is inherently political.

Arguing otherwise is like talking to those people who say they are ‘not into politics’, but can not understand that their stance is a specific political position.

The relationship between policy and legislation is a specific iteration of the relationship between politics and law. Legislation is codified policy. It is a policy, or political promise, codified into law. That is how the system works. It is designed to work like this. I am not exposing a scheme any more corrupt than democracy itself – a system of government created by propertied white men for propertied white men. Much has changed, but not so much that we can not make our democracy more democratic.

Here is how a law gets born.

A group of people, mainly men and mainly led by men, and operating in a hyper-masculine patriarchal space, get together and form a political party. They encourage others of same mind to join their party. They establish all sorts of infrastructure for their party: membership, meetings, and policies. Their policies are made up of political positions on the best way to govern a society and its economy. These are bundled together and called a policy platform. The political party stands on its platform and campaigns for votes, to garner political power, in order to implement their policies. When they win government the members of the political party (the politicians) draft and pass legislation. Now they can legally implement their policies, because they have followed the accepted process with legal authority to govern in a certain way. They have codified their policy into a statute which has been passed by both houses of parliament.

Some political parties care about the planet as well the society and its economy. This is a relatively recent resurgence of understanding: that the environment is crucial to the existence of humanity. In Australia, humanity’s first responsibility to the earth was understood for millennia, but much of that vast knowledge was destroyed between 1788 and the present. Thankfully, the custodians of this knowledge are incredibly strong and resilient survivors who are also generous with much of their knowledge, as it is embedded in a culture of inclusiveness and sharing. Nevertheless, non-Aboriginal Australians are re-learning the hard way that the law’s preoccupation with people and property is anthropocentrically selfish, ignorant and destructive; and that the planet matters too.

If the political party that has come into office – by the accepted method, which is ‘free and fair election’ – and passes a piece of law that is not lawful, they can be brought to account by people with sufficient time and money to challenge the legislation in the High Court of Australia. The court is made up of seven judges. All courts are made up of an odd number of judges, so that a majority can decide closely contested cases. It is not unusual to see laws struck down, or precedents over-turned, by a majority of the High Court. A unanimous decision on the other hand is rare indeed. Not even Mabo, the most powerful High Court decision of our time, was decided unanimously. Dawson J dissented (and I never read another judgement he wrote. Not even if it was a set text. I read Justice Kirby’s judgement instead).

As most people are aware, the High Court decides the matter based on the facts and law. This is a judge’s job description: apply the law to the facts and reach a decision, and put the reasons for the decision on the public record. The arguments of over which law and which facts are put before the court by lawyers for each party to a dispute. This is the bit that tells us why persuasive arguments are so important to democracy. Remember, the politicians have already persuaded you to vote for them, based on the appealing arguments they have put about their policies, the best way to govern the society and its economy (and possibly the planet). Now someone has observed that the government may have overstepped the power handed to it by the voters, and asked the High Court to decide on the matter.

That decision will depend on the arguments submitted by lawyers about different ways to interpret words that have been arranged into sections and clauses and schedules and regulations and all the other ways that law is manifest. All of this in its entirety is a legal process originating in a political process. The point is that every aspect of it entails human beings in specific power relationships. The rights of other humans and their power relationships are always at stake. Again, think of the Mabo case, the iconic decision of a generation. How was it done? Who made it happen?

Eddie Mabo was a groundskeeper at James Cook University when he fell into conversation with one of the academics, Henry Reynolds. That conversation triggered more conversations which led to even more, ritualised conversations such as formal submissions to first the Queensland Supreme Court and ultimately the High Court. When Mabo was first recognised at law as having native title rights, the politicians stepped in and passed another law to quickly and retrospectively extinguish any remaining property rights of Indigenous peoples in their land. The High Court found that the state of Queensland had wielded power it did not have. The governing party of the state had acted ultra vires, beyond power.

Democracies are characterised by power-sharing. The shorthand used to communicate this is ‘checks and balances’. The formal name is ‘the doctrine of the separation of powers’. Power is distributed across separate arms of government so that not all power rests with a single body. The power to govern originates with the voters. The restraints on government power are the upper house, the High Court, and elections. The best illustration of the system working is a story about the Communist Party of Australia.

The story is set during the post-war Menzies era. Keep in mind that voting-age Australians had lived through the war. They had seen pictures of the liberation of Auschwitz. Anyone who had read a newspaper had a working grasp of the dangers of unrestrained power. The world had just witnessed some of the most devastating results of unrestrained abuse of power known to humankind. Not just the Nazi death camps but the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the whole steaming killing frenzy of war on a mass scale. Into this environment we must add Stalinism and the Cold War propaganda machine. The entire post-war era was saturated with communist propaganda until recently. These days, the same tired old techniques are used to create fear of terrorism instead. Even the most cursory of glances through history reveals that the end of a war brings not peace but a frantic search for new enemies and markets. The military-industrial complex has dominated the modern human experience, although it is rather unfashionable to speak of it. In those brief moments between foreign war waging, the state mobilises the prison-industrial complex instead, and wages war against its own people, such as the ‘war’ on drugs.

So when the Menzies government tried to ban the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) it was always a politically risky move that required truckloads of anti-communist propaganda to support the case. Propaganda is wheeled out when there is no rational, logical argument for a transfer of power, a shift in the power-sharing arrangements. Men in power always seek to transfer power from the citizenry to the state, because they run the state. In this case, the government sought to outlaw a political opponent, and a savvy political opponent at that.

The Communist Party lawyers took the case to the High Court and persuaded the bench, using logical, rational legal argument, that it is unconstitutional to outlaw a political opponent in a democracy. This should be a no-brainer. Where governments seize power to outlaw the opposition, we end up with a one-party state, which is the opposite of a democracy.

Being nothing if not cognisant of the law and the political system, the Menzies government then took the question to the ultimate arbiters in a democracy. A referendum was drafted, and put to the people at an election. All of this was of course accompanied by frenzied propaganda, enthusiastically reproduced by media cheer squads. The propaganda and fear-mongering were necessary for the same reason it is always necessary: the idea itself was a poor one. A stupid idea. An anti-democratic policy.

The Menzies government was returned, but the referendum was not passed. The Australian people effectively said to the Menzies government: here, we will elect you democratically but not confer on you the power to diminish our democracy. The system worked. Australians safeguarded their democracy from excessive power of the state, in this case to outlaw a political opponent.

There are lessons, as always, in this history. Last time the anti-terror frenzy was whipped up by a Coalition government, the Greens tried to make commitment of Australian troops to a foreign conflict a necessary decision of parliament. In other words, the Greens presented a sensible, moderate, restrained limit on executive power by arguing that taking the nation to war required the Parliament, rather than the government of the day, have the power to make the decision. Of course the major parties united in their own common interest and voted the amendment down. All major political parties can smell a power grab and rush it through. It doesn’t matter which major party proposes the power grab. The other major party will rub its hands with glee at the prospect of its future grabbing of the levers of power.

The same thing is happening today. The money-grubbing power-hungry policy-vacant minds of the Commonwealth government are talking gravely of a terrible threat to the nation, enthusiastically brandishing imagery of swords and witches’ brews and other fermenting cauldrons of mediaeval primitive Muslimish threats. The Australian people are gravely assured that we must ‘sacrifice’ some freedoms for security. They tell us the problems are deeply complex, but can be solved with new legislation and military aggression. It was ever thus. The proposed legislation is simply a transfer of power from the citizenry to the state and its heavily armed and extremely powerful agents (ASIO, the ADF, the AFP).

The actual complexities, such as the role of the west in producing todays problems, are never mentioned. According to teh dominant narrative, the arguments that are made by politicians and reproduced by the mainstream press, none of the mess in Iraq, or Syria, or Kurdistan is of our making. Rather some random extreme danger has sprung out of nowhere and is lapping at our shores. The only possible cause raised other than super terrorist Islamic Islamicness is social media. Yep, that’s right. Nothing to do with weapons manufacturers or ill-conceived military adventurism by profiteering warmongers of the west, but maybe social media played a role. Power-holders hate being held to account by people using social media. This is because so many of their lies and mediocrities are distributed so rapidly. So they decide that social media could do with a little bit of demonising while we are in demonisation mode.

To the people who seek answers on what to do with this appallingly inept government, who inquire as to legal solutions to a political problem – and political problem manufacturer – I am sorry there is not a better answer. I hope this post has at least provided some clarity on how our democracy works and why we can not just fire the PM for being a fearmonger and a liar and a sexist racist homophobe. I wish we could.

The law can not stop the state unless the citizenry insist that the law at least examine the actions of the state and determine the legality of its actions. What makes its actions legal are the drafting and passing of statutes through both houses of parliament by a vote of our elected representatives. When the government of the day is doing a terrible job, when it can not pass the legislation that has been drafted to codify its policies – such as what to spend the nation’s tax receipts on in the case of the spectacular failure of its first budget – the government turns to propaganda. And the most time-honoured topic of propaganda is war. And that is what we are watching today in badly-governed, geo-politically safe but very racist Australia.

Naming the enemy: Why Abbott has switched to saying ISIL

The Australian government has decided that Australian taxpayers should spend half a billion dollars per year fighting a war against someone.

Not so long ago we had a budget emergency. We were drowning in a debt and deficit disaster. The problem was so dire that it justified starving people under 30 to death. It justified gouging pensioners to see a doctor. It justified disinvesting in people with disabilities, disinvesting in universal education, hindering access to university for all but the wealthy. This talking down of the economy as though there is no relationship between confidence and economic growth justified gutting the most important 21st century infrastructure and productivity boost the country ever attempted, a national high speed broadband network. These appallingly brutal policies, which are terrible for business and consumer confidence and will have a negative multiplier effect, had to be installed because the government’s political opponents. That is the argument. Plus something about poor people and car ownership. Really. Leaving aside foreign minister Julie Bishop, who has stood loftily above mundane domestic issues like whether young people can eat, we have a room full of white men and one wannabe white man, a group whose combined education cost millions. Here is what they decided: hey we can kick the poor people yay because the Labor Party.

So we are dealing with a bunch of heartless economic illiterates for whom power is its own end. They do not want political power to run the country for all Australians, to invest in our future, or to make sensible fiscal decisions based on a coherent ideology and our shared, national future. They do not even have a coherent ideology. They did once, but it has been jettisoned. Cogency? Principles? Values? Nah, no need. This is the age of neoliberalism gone mad, a ramshackle outfit of nasty incompetent brutes who have their greedy hands on the levers of power and are determined to bring the rest of Australia across to their grim and destructive outlook. That way they are returned to power, and that is all they seek. Nothing more.

When domestic politics go wrong, as with the spectacular failure of this first Coalition budget since 2007, men in power look for a distraction and a common enemy. I would call this an old trick except it is something more serious than a trick. It is a tired unimaginative political ploy, but it is also stupidly expensive and globally destructive. The current Australian government has chosen ISIS. Or ISIL. Or is it Islamic State. Hard to know.

We could be spending half a billion dollars a year on foreign aid. Or combatting Ebola. Or re-building Gaza, a recurring, urgent need that will never go away, or not for as long as Israel refuses to get over itself. We could invest that money in education, or health, or infrastructure. We could just distribute it evenly across the Australian population and save millions in welfare compliance costs. It would pay for itself in the year, easily. But instead, the government is pouring massive amounts of our own money into scaring the shit out of us. For the same old shitty reason: to stay in power. That is it, that is all. Nothing more.

Putting to one side all the constructive efforts in foreign affairs we could be doing instead, here is the problem with naming the enemy. The enemy calls itself Islamic State. This is clever. It is brief and pithy and to the point. Islamic, and a state. No need to use the word caliphate, but a caliphate is clearly implied. It is the same with the capital of Pakistan, Islamabad. Apart from colonial imperatives, which were numerous and powerful, Pakistan was created as the territory neighbouring India for people of the Muslim faith, and as such named its capital Islamabad. It is nigh on a teetering failed state, of course. No people can be at the whims and tides of colonial imperatives for centuries and then be expected to function democratically when the coloniser cuts and runs. It never works, and it will never work again in Iraq and Syria.

For a while, the news media went along with most Western leaders and called Islamic State Islamic State. There was an exception, however, and an important one. President Obama resolutely and consistently referred to ISIL. This is an acronym for Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. Obama conspicuously did not refer to ISIS, the alternative acronym which stands for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. This week, the Australian Prime Minister finally got the memo and switched his language too. He had already committed the death and destruction machines, the money, and the human beings, to fighting this super terrible threatening horrific terrorist terrorist terrorist threat. Remember, it is a threat. No Australian has been harmed in any way. Then yesterday the Prime Minister also worked out what he was supposed to call the enemy. Well done, Tony.

Words matter. Words are powerful and influential and important. Using words in war is always as important as the killing machines. This is why we quote the ancient and modern iterations of that famous phrase ‘the first casualty of war is truth’. It goes to such truisms as ‘we have to win the battle for hearts and minds’. So naming the enemy is a pretty basic starting point for committing our country’s resources – human and capital resources – to an obviously poorly considered, expensive, unwinnable war.

Here’s the thinking behind the words, or the best explaination I can figure, which is not easy, because I don’t think the way these war-mongering idiots think.

Naming the enemy by its own preferred moniker is giving succour to the enemy. We can not call Islamic State Islamic State because we want to demonise its Islamicness but not credit it with statehood. It is a powerful armed group seizing territory by force, just like England and France and Spain and Portugal and all the other imperial powers have done in the past. But we must not allow this now because Islam. Or democracy. Or subjugation of women. Take your pick.

Or barbarian hoards at the gate. Aha. Here it is. Invoking barbarism is a typical appropriation by imperial powers, in this case of the Berber identity, dehumanising and demonising a whole group of people. The Greeks saw the Berber as ‘aliens’ or ‘foreigners’ as they came from across the Mediterranean, the sea at the middle of the territory. The Berber of the ancient world, from North Africa, or the Mughrabe, provide the linguistic origin of the imagery invoked by barbarism. Much the same was done to the Philistines by those who wanted their country and identity. The Philistines are the Palestinians, and thus it is a cinch to invoke notions that Palestinians are uncivilised in the western/Christian mind. Bethlehem and Nazareth are of course in Palestine, hence the desire of the Christian west to appropriate Palestinian identity and cast a whole people as deserving of subjugation, dehumanisation and, in the case of Western support for Israel, mass murder.

Whatever, just keep arming this side or that and profiteering from the sale of weapons and the deaths of human beings. This is obviously the work of violent and inept men in thrall to the military-industrial complex, but it is unfashionable to say so.

That little journey through geo-political history and nomenclature brings us to why Obama and now Abbott call the enemy ISIL and not ISIS today. Islamic State of Iraq and Syria presents a problem: it names Syria. The western intervention wants to stop at the imaginary line, drawn by colonial powers in the first place, between Iraq and Syria. As the enemy has so neatly captured in its name, the actual human beings who live there did not consent to this border, and it has been used ever since by powerful leaders for their own ends rather than for the good of local populations. Iraqis and Syrians have always had cross-border family and friendships and tribal connections and enmities and all the other relationships that humans create. But it suited Assad and other Syrian and Iraqi leaders before him to go along with the borders of a nation state. As Palestinians know only too well, it is nigh on impossible to function in the contemporary world without the rights and interests that are conferred with the existence of a nation state with borders. This is so for individuals and for groups, for societies and religions and polities. It is a relatively recent development, and it feeds all sorts of violence and problems and vested interests of rich and violent men. But there it is.

Australians tend to overlook the significance of borders and the colonial powers that created them at huge cost and heartbreak for local populations because our borders are so clearly delineated. As a great big island continent, we know where we are and who we are more clearly than possibly any other country. It is only when some minor short-lived clamour is raised, like that around our navy entering Indonesian waters to tow back asylum seekers – more human costs and misery – that we are reminded that we even have borders with other countries.

The point of writing Syria out of the story is that its regime has killed almost 200,000 of its own citizens in just three years. This mass slaughter, this crime against humanity, this revolting atrocity, is not apparently worthy of Western intervention. So if we name the enemy Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, we risk awkward questions about our failure to give two hoots about the lives of the Syrian people. And as the meme goes, awkward questions are awkward. So to spare the sensibilities of a gung-ho war mongering buffoon like Abbott, we don’t mention the war. Or not the Syrian civil war.

That leaves the final label, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. This one is tricky. The ancient world was understood and labelled as Mesopotamia, the Levant, and the Mughrabe. Mesopotamia centred on modern day Iraq. Think the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The starting point of Abraham’s journey. The Levant is further west. Think the twelve tribes of Israel. Hold that thought. And finally, the Mughrabe, the northern swathe of the African-Arab world. It stretches across much of the area where the Arab Spring, that moment of hope, originated.

Why on earth would we in the west choose this invocation of the Levant, with its anachronistic imagery and biblical overtones, to refer to our present-day enemy?

Easy. It triggers all the associated geo-political and religious imaginations, the clash of civilisations thesis. It implies that Israel is in danger, again. Israel is always in danger in its collective Israeli mind despite being the most heavily armed territory in the region, with the fourth biggest army in the world, on a permanent war footing and undisclosed numbers of nuclear warheads. Saying ISIL feeds this and other useful imagery. It implies the backwardness of those violent sectarian Arabs, always at war with each other. It erases the massive damage wreaked upon the region by the imperialist west, from colonial times to the 2003-09 carpet bombing of Iraq. It shifts responsibility from us, us who clearly have the most fire-power, global power, and capacity to harm. It simultaneously evokes biblical overtones while managing to imply that Muslims are sword-wielding primitives who nevertheless pose a grave terrible horrific terrorist terrorist terrorist threat to our way of life over here in wealthy, distant, peaceful Australia.

And remember, it is still a threat and a threat alone. No single Australian has been harmed by the enemy. Not one.

Tony and his ways. Yes, it is all about him

Recently I wrote a piece on why Australians should care whether the person in the highest elected office in the country was eligible to stand for public office in the first or second instance. As with any online activity, it garnered its share of naysayers, trolls, weirdos and attention seekers. But mostly the response was positive.

Aside from teaching law, one of the things I do for a living is text analysis. This means analysing a piece of text, usually media articles, for its complex and hidden meanings. I identify implied premises, weak or false presumptions, and whether cultural norms like sexism, racism and homophobia are reproduced in the piece.

For this work, I use two main tools. One is a text processing software program and the other is the human brain. The two work in tandem. The software would be useless without a human brain to make sense of the results (and many human brains to design, deliver, install, trouble shoot and otherwise supplement the shortcomings in my tech skills, which are many). The human brain is possibly the most incredible processing tool on the planet, but it has its limits, and I could never process as much text in the time that I currently do without the whizz bang invention of computers, the internet and a little bit of software called Leximancer. Naturally, with a name that invokes the Greek word for word (think lexicon) and the Latin word for law (lex-legis-legislation) it was love at first sight for me and Leximancer.

Happily, there is also a little known facet of the human brain that can be loosely described as transferability. We humans have not yet used our smarts to bring about world peace, but we could if we put our minds to it. The brain capacity is there, the trick is to use it. Transferability refers to the fact that a skill or experience or knowledge practice that is gained in one area of our lives (like employment) can be transferred to another area (like writing blog posts). These may sound interchangeable, but they are not. One of the chief criticisms of academia is that we refuse to climb down from the ivory tower and communicate in the everyday world with people who do not have the luxury of being paid to think and talk and write. We should, but many do not.

Because I am a strong advocate for academics engaging with people beyond the academy, I use social media to communicate about ideas. Communication necessarily involves more than one human being. It is more and more multi-channelled these days, but at the absolute bare minimum, communication must be at least a two-way process, a dialogue between two people. Otherwise you are simply talking to yourself. I also do this sometimes (or more often, shout at the radio) but I am venting, or processing, or pondering. I am not communicating.

In this spirit of human communication, I decided to use the tools and skills of text analysis to understand the response of readers to my earlier post. In other words, I transferred the tools and skills I have gained from academia to the everyday to better understand responses to my piece on Abbott and his citizenship status.
Several themes emerged among those who took the time to comment (and thank you to everyone who did, even the trolls. To a text analyst, you all provide a rich seam of data collection).

The first can be broadly titled ‘who cares?’ This theme more or less claimed that Australians are disengaged from a disgraced and disgraceful parliament, and wish a pox on both their houses. This is known as ‘conflation’. The Labor Party is a political party. It seeks political power and is populated by people who seek political power. It blew its tenure after 2010 because these power-seeking factors were not subordinated to good governance, but should have been. The ALP nevertheless has a robust body of policy development. It is the party of social equality as a method of striving for social justice. A truly national high speed broadband network for example is a social equaliser. People in rural and remote areas are generally worse off than those in metropolitan areas. The NBN would be one way of narrowing the inequality, through better access to information. Reforming the sneaky school funding model that subsidises elite private schools, a systemic overhaul to improve our abysmal support for people with disabilities – these are social equalisers. The policies are designed to narrow the gap between advantage and disadvantage, rich and poor.

The Liberal Party has no such social conscience, grasp of nation building, or understanding of long term investment, in either essential modern infrastructure or social and cultural capital. Its policy on paid parental leave is modelled on the same greedy amorality as the unnecessary private school funding subsidy. It forces a fork lift driver to pay for the lifestyles of the wealthy, as one Mt Druitt man put it to the then Leader of the Opposition in Rooty Hill last year.

Make no mistake: if you are on $100Kpa in wealthy, sunny Australia, you are in an extremely elite club. You are among the luckiest people on the planet. You want for absolutely nothing. And if you cry poor because of your own stupidity and greed (that’s called “overcapitalisation”) and put your hand out for government subsidies, you are spoilt and ugly and wrong. A government that redirects tax receipts to you, instead of to where it is actually needed and will do long term cumulative good, is also ugly and wrong and does not deserve your vote.

This is not complex stuff. We don’t need more evidence that greed and dishonesty – and racism and sexism and homophobia, to name a few other preoccupations of the powerful – among elites is what actively impoverishes and marginalises everybody else. The evidence is in. Inequality increases under LNP governments. The question is what to do about it. The answer is to vote the LNP out of office. This is the dilemma for the double pox crowd. There are only three parties who ever form government, two in a coalition and the other in its own right. The ‘who cares?’ mob are disengaged from politics because they dislike the alternatives on offer.

This is not an unreasonable position. Both parties are led and populated by unpleasant power-seekers. But the problem is not solvable at this level, because all political entities are led and populated by power-seekers. That is the whole point. Just as business entities exist to generate profit, political parties are formed to seek power.

Another theme that emerged among the commentary on citizenship and election to high office was dismissal of a breach of the Constitution by our highest elected office holder as a “legal technicality”. This language drives lawyers crazy. There is no such thing as a legal technicality. There is such thing as a law, in this case the foundational legal instrument of the nation, and Act of the British Imperial Parliament, the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia. It is the law that founds Australia as a nation and a federation, and it authorises every other law in the country. If a Parliament or a court – the two sources of law in our system – makes a law in breach of the Constitution, it is struck down by the High Court. The law-making body is sent back to the drawing board to redraft its law such that it is not in breach of the Constitution. This can not be overstated. It is unconstitutional, in a constitutional monarchy such as Australia, to make a law that is not within the bounds of, and thus authorised by, the Constitution itself. Can an act be illegal but not unconstitutional? Or unconstitutional but not illegal? Think about that for a moment. You don’t have to answer, or get the answer right, to grasp the argument. You only have to briefly ponder the two questions or why each has been posed.

The way to find out if something is unconstitutional – such as the appalling funnelling of hundreds of millions of dollars to homophobic religious proselytisers in our public education system, for example – is to take the argument to the High Court of Australia. The High Court is constituted of seven human beings. Each is appointed by the government of the day when the previous member compulsorily retires at the age of 70 years. The vast majority of High Court justices in its 114-year history have been heterosexual white males from elite backgrounds. The parents of these men have inherited and amassed considerable private wealth, send their children to elite private schools, and further support them through study at elite sandstone universities. Again, this is a group of the luckiest people on the planet. No member of this group wants for anything, and if they say they do, they are lying. Yes there are a few recent exceptions. There always are. This does not change the history or the dominant culture of the court. And while the history can not be changed, our understanding of it, as well as of the dominant culture, is changing. That’s progress.

The point is that to belong to this elite group and still not abide by its rules is a special kind of arrogant. It is easy enough to fall foul of the law. It is easy enough to remain ignorant of the law. But the front line agents of the law, the police, concentrate the use of their power and resources – and police are an extremely powerful group of individuals, heavily armed with legal use of force by taser, spray, baton, gun and physical wrestling and restraining actions – on particular groups.

Police place young people under much heavier surveillance than old people. Young men cop heavier surveillance than young women. Olive-skinned young men, particularly those ‘of Middle-eastern appearance’ (whatever that means) are more closely monitored again. And if you are a dark-skinned young man, whether African or Aboriginal or Islander, you are the most likely of anyone in our society to be under extreme levels of surveillance, followed, stopped, searched, your rights violated and your very existence criminalised. The police take a deep and abiding interest in the thoughts, actions, and movements of dark-skinned young men. The police treat these people very violently. The police frequently violate these people’s rights. The chances of these people ending up in the criminal justice system are high, and out of all proportion. Consider the threat to humanity and the planet posed by big polluters, for example, big mining, big coal. Or mainstream media outlets whose employees deliberately distort messages to the public to profit the proprietor, or big tobacco, big pharma. Weapons manufacturers are the worst, yet no-one is effectively policing their behaviour.

Like the law, these powerful entities are run, in the main, by rich white men for rich white men. For rich white young men to come to the attention of the law, they have to seriously draw attention to themselves. The young Tony Abbott came to the attention of the law a number of times. He wheeled out the QCs, as rich white people do. Each incident is enough to leave a reasonable human being breathless with disgust; and a rich white man laughing off such actions as ‘harmless’ or ‘a joke’.

This is a standard practice of the powerful. While frequently and persistently violating others in pursuit of their own ends, only the bit about pursuing their ends is meaningful to the elites. The violation is not. The violation is meaningful to the person they have violated, but not to the power-elite who perform the act of violation. They do not care. This is the same for police officers who violate the rights of Aboriginal people and for most of the vast history of the legal system we inherited from the English. The entire existence of modern Australia in its current form is the product of just such violations: English men pursuing their own ends at the expense of violating others’ rights.

The Australian Prime Minister was born an elite English man, rich and powerful. He applied for Australian citizenship for the purpose of pursuing his own ends, namely, an elite scholarship to an elite university. Whether he was eligible to stand for public office when elected in the first or second instance is not a legal technicality. Such a violation of the Australian Constitution is the embodiment, the absolute epitome, of all that is wrong with the law that was imposed on this continent, and all that is wrong with Tony Abbott. Such a breach would accurately represent the way powerful elites pursue their ends without regard for others, or for the law. Just like Tony Abbott and everything for which he stands.
To be continued. At length
IM

On citizenship and election to high office

In the USA, being born in the USA is a constitutional requirement for standing for the Presidency. Anyone born outside the USA is not eligible to stand. There was once some talk of changing this so that Arnold Schwartzenegger aka the former governator of California, would become eligible to run for president. A sex scandal broke, he disappeared from public life, and so did the debate.

This is a constitutional matter. A legal fact. The political and cultural requirements are different, numerous and complex. For instance, there is no requirement in the constitution that a presidential candidate also be a Christian. But the current political reality is that candidates are compelled to state their adherence to the Christian religion, and end their speeches with ‘God Bless America’. This is so despite the fact that the framers of the American Constitution were determined secularists. Freedom of religion and freedom from religion is the secular liberal tradition. The private letters of US Constitution framer Thomas Jefferson clearly show his secular outlook and contain the phrase ‘separation of church and state’ to explain the First Amendment, which opens with this line:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

Atheists are usually required to demonstrate our knowledge of your religion in order to refute it. In this tradition, Jefferson supported his argument by quoting the gospel of Mark (12:17):

“Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him.”

Because Barak Hussein Obama is a black Democrat with a funny sounding Muslim-ish name, a group of right wing conspiracists made up a story: that Obama was not born in the USA. This is simply a lie. It gained traction in all the usual ways: via the lie-spreading machine that is Fox “news”, funded by millionaire Donald Trump, who donates generously to the Republican Party and increases his already obscene wealth under the demonstrably terrible “economic policy” measures favoured by the extreme right wing. The whole shrieking mess can be translated into a simple invalid argument: Obama is black, therefore he is not eligible for the presidency.

The situation in Australia is different. Not for the first time, we have a foreign-born Prime Minister. This is neither a legal nor political problem. The constitution does not even mention the prime minister, let alone direct that the person holding that office be born in Australia.

The Australian constitution does, however, require all elected members of the Commonwealth Parliament to only hold Australian citizenship. That is, if you want to take up an elected position in the highest governing authority in our democracy, it is unconstitutional to do so if you also hold allegiance to a foreign power in the form of citizenship of another nation. You must be neither a non-citizen nor a dual citizen. You must be an Australian citizen and an Australian citizen only. This is in section 44, which sets out the conditions and requirements of election to the Commonwealth Parliament.

Section 44 of the Australian Constitution lists the grounds for disqualification on who may become a candidate for election to the Parliament of Australia. It states in particular:
44. Any person who –
(i.) Is under any acknowledgement of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign power, or is a subject or a citizen or entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or citizen of a foreign power: or
(ii.) Is attainted of treason, or has been convicted and is under sentence, or subject to be sentenced, for any offence punishable under the law of the Commonwealth or of a State by imprisonment for one year or longer: or
(iii.) Is an undischarged bankrupt or insolvent: or
(iv.) Holds any office of profit under the Crown, or any pension payable during the pleasure of the Crown out of any of the revenues of the Commonwealth: or
(v.) Has any direct or indirect pecuniary interest in any agreement with the Public Service of the Commonwealth otherwise than as a member and in common with the other members of an incorporated company consisting of more than twenty-five persons:
shall be incapable of being chosen or of sitting as a senator or a member of the House of Representatives.

Here’s the thinking behind the provision on foreign powers. While the states run day to day internal matters such as health, education and policing, the Commonwealth must deal with external affairs on behalf of all Australians. So if a member of the Commonwealth Parliament holds dual citizenship, they immediately risk a conflict of interest where the Australian government is negotiating with, or going to war against, a foreign power. This is an unacceptable level of risk, because national security.

So to stand for public office as a dual citizen is in breach of our founding legal document, the law that authorises all other Australian laws. Again, this is not necessarily a problem. If the constitutional breach is seen as inadvertent, a mere oversight, we extend the principle of charity. This is the same rule that gives the batsman the benefit of the doubt. People make mistakes all the time. Where there are humans, there is human error. In the first instance, we give them the benefit of the doubt. They said it was an oversight, and it probably was. It’s a small problem with a simple solution.

Renounce the other citizenship, become an Australian-only citizen, if necessary hold a bye-election. If you win the bye-election after renouncing the non-Australian citizenship, the citizenship of a foreign power, both the legal and political problems are resolved. That’s it.

It is a different case altogether to stand for public office not once, but twice or more, while not being eligible to stand. The principle of charity no longer applies. You can no longer enjoy the benefit of the doubt. You’ve got form. It is certainly a substantially different matter if the person who did this is the Prime Minister, a person who holds qualifications from an elite university, a highly paid member of parliament who knows or ought to know that what they are doing is in breach of the constitution. Someone in this position is attributed with constructive knowledge, that is, if you say you didn’t know, the law says you ought to have known, in this case on the basis of the responsibilities and remuneration of your office, and the foundational principles of the Westminster system, such as ministerial accountability.

There is no crazy conspiracy ‘birther’ movement in Australia. There is a group of people on social (and now some traditional) media asking whether the Prime Minister has stood for public office while ineligible to stand, and if so, how many times. Comparisons with the birthers should be dismissed out of hand as weak analogy. That is, there are too few similarities, and those similarities are very broad (both arguments are founded in political oppositionism and use the constitution to make their case). There are too many highly relevant differences, and the differences are very specific. These are long-standing logical principles for identifying a weak analogy. It is an illogical comparison. The birthers seek to discredit the president and their campaign is racist as well as political. In Australia, we are asking whether the Prime Minister’s tendency to lie goes all the way to his election to public office itself.

The question is easily answered. The Prime Minister’s Office tells us he has renounced his British citizenship. It refuses to say when. The fudging and blocking and delaying from both conservative governments, in Australia and Britain, suggests the date will be politically harmful to the Prime Minister. My guess is that the date he renounced British citizenship is relatively recent, and will show that he wilfully, not inadvertently, stood for public office more than once, while being ineligible to do so.