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