Category Archives: oecomuse

The “embassy issue” will not go away

There was no issue until it was made into an issue; and there is no question that Prime Minister Scott Morrison heard what he wanted to hear, and did what he wanted to do.

What he heard and acted on, according to Morrison, was advice from ex-ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma. This is a man billed by his colleagues as the best and brightest of Liberal Party recruits, an opinion duly amplified by major media outlets. Yet his advice was so spectacularly poorly conceived – or poorly received, or both – that a month later it is still the chemtrail of Australian politics: a toxic threat, spun out of thin air.

As good an account as any of how the prime minister lit this flaming mess is from Katharine Murphy, the Guardian Australia political editor. There is more backstory of course, there always is, but Liberal Party factional in-fighting already gets way more attention than it deserves. From where I sit, the entire caucus is not worth a jot; and costs the Australian public a fortune in salaries and phone bills and jet travel and pork, for negative return on our investment, for nothing at all in the national interest.

Domestic politicking on Israel and Palestine inevitably stirs up anti-Arab and Islamaphobic feeling as well as anti-Semitism. It mobilises unhelpful interventions from people like Malcolm Turnbull and Bob Carr, people who posture as experts on matters which they failed to address while in office, when they had the power to effect positive change. That political reporters buy into their legacy protection racket is equally irritating, but the crux is that when these voices dominate debate, no real progress is ever made.

There is no excuse for Sharma advising the prime minister as he did; and no excuse for Morrison not knowing, if indeed he did not, that announcing a re-think on moving the Australian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is highly problematic.

Morrison had been in office less than two months at the time, and the by-election to choose a replacement for his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull was a mere five days away. Most commentators immediately noted that the seat of Wentworth has a significant Jewish bloc of around 12 per cent of voters; that strict adherents of Judaism would have likely cast pre-poll votes due to our elections being held on a Saturday; and that Jews are not a homogenous group of one mind on Israel, or Palestine, or pro-Zionist policy settings.

Oh, wait. Nobody said anything about Zionism. Nobody ever does.

The Holy City

I once spent two days in al Quds Jerusalem. The only places I saw outside the Old City walls were transport interchanges as I made my way from Ben Gurion airport (where I was later detained at length for perceived Palestinian sympathies) and back to Jaffa Tel Aviv. These Old Cities are incredible, like Uluru is incredible. I could feel the antiquity, a cellular memory buried deep in blood and bone.

I am not Arab or Jewish, or Christian or Muslim or Armenian or Greek (quarters in the Old Cities). The closest any of my forebears come to an ancestral connection is stirring renditions of the eponymous – and fictional, but the English are good at that – hymn Jerusalem. And I have the same bodily response to hearing bagpipes and the yidaki didgeridoo. Maybe I just feel sites and sounds, the way some people see auras. More likely the lessons learnt from Aboriginal friends and family, scholars and tour guides, are universal; lessons like listening to country, whichever country or whose country I am on.

Either way, my politics are grounded in universality and not in exceptionalism, or nationalism. These ideologies illuminate the embassy issue that wasn’t, until it was. This  utterly unnecessary nonsense is consuming political capital in Australia, in 2018, in the dying months of a Coalition government, thanks to advice the prime minister says he received from former ambassador to Israel and failed Liberal candidate Dave Sharma.

The Zionist position on Al Quds Jerusalem is of an eternal, undivided holy city and capital of Eretz Israel. At the opening of the newly relocated US Embassy, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said

The truth is that Jerusalem has been and will always be the capital of the Jewish people, the capital of the Jewish state… The prophet, Zechariah, declared over 2,500 years ago, ‘So said the Lord, ‘I will return to Zion and I will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem. And Jerusalem shall be called the City of Truth’… God bless the United States of America and God bless Jerusalem, the eternal, undivided capital of Israel.

There is no place in this Holy City for a shared capital with a sovereign Palestine, and no place for self-determination of the Palestinian people, under military occupation for over 50 years. There is more biblical imagery in the same vein [full English text here], designed to flatter baffled belligerents like Donald Trump.

The Netanyahu position puts the lie to Morrison’s claim that his embassy announcement on behalf of the Australian people supports ‘the two-state solution’. Al Quds Jerusalem as the eternal undivided capital of a Jewish state, and the international consensus on a two-state ‘solution’ (to ‘the conflict’), are mutually exclusive propositions. Morrison is ignorant, or lying, or both; and government ministers are now doubling down on this internally incoherent line of argument, in complete contempt of voters and whether we have any understanding of the relevant issues.

The Australian Embassy Issue

There is no real way of knowing if Scott Morrison understands the implications of his announcement. The man is a chronic motor-mouth, the more he blathers about listening and hearing the more you suspect he is incapable of either, or both.

Perhaps Morrison is a committed Christian Zionist, and is across all the politics of an ‘eternal undivided’ capital of Israel. Most Christian Zionists are from the same kind of Pentecostal sect to which Morrison belongs. Alternatively, all politics is local (see O’Neill and Hymel, 1995). Maybe Morrison was driven exclusively or largely by the Wentworth by-election. The major media outlets reported the embassy news as retail politics, but failed to interrogate the legitimacy of mobilising foreign policy for domestic purposes.

This is not unusual. When the prime minister decked out a big blue campaign bus without calling an election, the political press explained this was because the government is threatened in marginal seats in Queensland. Which we know. What the electorate really need the press to do is what we can not: directly question the legitimacy of a politician using government power and money – the political economy of conservative incumbency – to shore up his margins and splash the pork about.

Similarly, many predicted that the embassy announcement would jeopardise bilateral relations with Indonesia; and were widely lauded for doing their job. In certain circles, foreign affairs are the holy grail of seniority and mastery. The foreign affairs editor at the Murdoch-owned The Australian is incapable of not mentioning this kind of vanity. For instance, the presumed foreign affairs ‘inexperience’ of Barack Obama and Julia Gillard consumed many airtime hours and column inches; the obvious foreign affairs ineptitude of men like Donald Trump and Scott Morrison barely rate a mention.

Then there were the leaked ASIO memos showing that Morrison announced without consulting security agencies; Senate estimates concessions that Morrison did not work with DFAT diplomats or the Defence Minister; and that military chiefs found out after media briefings. This is important, but not for the reasons we see in most analyses. The claim is that announcing a potential embassy move may increase security threats in an actuarised world, where the pseudo-science of risk predictors funnels billions of dollars in funding to the military and security agencies.

It will increase the risk of terror attacks, the claim goes, which relies on the false assumption that Palestinians are inherently violent. Palestinians are no more violent or non-violent than any ethnic group: there is no violence gene. The reasoning here is bio-essentialist nonsense, and anyone amplifying such ugly untruths ought to be ashamed.

This messaging, however, coincides with why Zionism goes unreported: its ideology is in fact very violent. As mentioned above, Zionism is characterised by nationalism and exceptionalism: Zionists believe that Israel is the Jewish Homeland, on the basis of Chosen People exceptionalism. There is no place for the Indigenous Peoples in the Zionist worldview, not Bedouin, nor Palestinian or Arab. Many Israelis say Arab and not Palestinian to erase the identity and existence of countrymen and women.

The metaphysical – the Zionist belief system – is backed by extreme physical force in multiple forms, including the renewed military assault on Gaza immediately after the UN voted on Palestinian leadership of its G77 last month. As with targeting civilians, collective punishment is a war crime (Geneva Convention Art 33).

The predictable post-UN vote attacks by Israel on Gaza were apparently not predicted by diplo-genius Dave Sharma. The Liberal candidate unconvincingly told Australian media and Wentworth voters that our government’s embassy announcement was in anticipation of the Palestinian bid to lead the G77. This is straight up hasbara, and in terms of his by-election campaign, would convince nobody and please only rusted on Zionists, voters who would have voted for him anyway.

In other words, the policy is wrong, the rationale is wrong, and the domestic politics were also all wrong. The whole thing is an avoidable disaster, from the leaked texts between Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne to the official deployment of Turnbull – by Morrison – to represent Australia at an oceans conference in Bali and smooth over the mess, which then blew up in their faces.

Sharma has not been tapped for his role in all this, but he should be, because he has constructive knowledge of the fall-out: if he did not know, his socio-positional status says he ought to have known. This is the one piece of advice on the public record that we know he offered to a sitting prime minister, the first ever Pentecostal one in Australia, during a by-election in which he was the government candidate. Sharma is not Jewish, yet his much-touted resume shows that he should know this is not about his ambassadorial credentials, or capacity to raise funds for the Liberal Party.

It is personal, because religion is personal, because ideology is personal.

When Morrison stood at the despatch box in parliament and shouted in the face of former Attorney General Mark Dreyfus QC that Sharma knows more about Israel than anyone on the opposition benches, it was personal. When Josh Frydenberg went on the record to state the anti-Semitic record of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, it was personal. Major media are not noting the ethno-religious identity of Frydenberg in every report, of course, as is always done when Aboriginal people speak on Aboriginal policy, or feminists speak to reproductive rights.

This erasure of inherent biases is privilege. No Arab, no Muslim, no Palestinian gets to speak on Israel or Gaza or the West Bank or terrorism without being labelled in a way that invites audiences to dismiss their expert point of view. Meanwhile Israeli Defence Forces terrorise Palestinians on a mass scale every single day of the week and nobody highlights whether or not major media outlets’ Jerusalem-based foreign correspondents are Jewish.

So Josh Frydenberg can invoke the Holocaust and nobody points out that he is the first Jewish Liberal Party MP in the House of Representatives. I do not much like writing about all this, because of the genie-in-the-bottle effect. But I will say: what Frydenberg is doing can not and will not help his people. It is not possible to put Israel Palestine into the public debate without producing intractable hostility and increasing anti-Semitism.

Political journalists are acutely alert to this inevitability, yet remain compelled to report what Morrison said and did (he is the prime minister) while not necessarily compelled to remind readers or listeners of Sharma’s role (unless or until pre-selected for the next election, Sharma is basically nobody).


As Na’ama Carlin eloquently explains here, the ‘embassy issue’ was unworkable from day one, a cheap political stunt. It was an insult to Jewish communities, in Wentworth and beyond, with its simplistic and offensive presumption that Jewish Australians are single-issue and pro-Zionist voters. Not all Jews are Zionists, and not all Zionists are Jews.

At a march for Gaza at Sydney Town Hall in 2014, I was standing next to a woman and boy who I guessed to be mother and son, or maybe auntie and nephew (she was about my age, he was 13 or 14, the same age as my younger son at the time). When a group nearby set up their stall and unfurled a banner Jews Against The Occupation, she asked (I think, in Arabic) They are Jews? The boy replied in English They are Jews but they are not Zionists.

I tell this story not only because it would probably have taken me twenty sentences to communicate the same point. I work at Western Sydney University, where high-level multi-cultural and bilingual competencies are the rule and not the exception among the student body. I tell it because the young teen boy had a better grasp of Israel and Palestine than can be detected from the public pronouncements of the Australian prime minister, from the collective wisdom of the parliamentary press corps, or the advice of a former ambassador and Liberal Party candidate in an electorate with more Jewish voters than any other electorate in the country.


Malcolm Turnbull Keeps Getting History Wrong. Here is Why

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

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

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

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

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

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

The laws of war and the British invasion

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

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

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

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

The illogics of Australian public debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honouring the living

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why not right past wrongs instead?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The $100 million Sir John Monash Centre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The $50 million Kamay Botany Bay-Cook Plan

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

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

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

This is so frustratingly wrong, on so many levels.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indigenous Peoples have the right to determine their own identity

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

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

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

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

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

The colonial jurisprudence of imposing identity

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

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

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

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

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

Defining Aboriginality in 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new law, just like the old law

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

1 Section 3 5


Indigenous person means a person who is: 

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

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

4 At the end of section 24 18


(6) At least one Commissioner must:

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

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


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

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

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

In other words, a mission manager.

The three-part test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myths of Westminster democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myths of Westminster 1: Ministerial accountability:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fourth Estate

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

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

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

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

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

Why indeed?

The upshot

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The authority and efficacy of Royal Commissions

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

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

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

This matters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The likelihood of reform to ‘keep children safe’

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

What have these men had to say?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dots less joined

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

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

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

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

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

The legal question, and its answer

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

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

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

The political messaging, which is dangerous and wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New white nationalism

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

Here is how that is panning out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politically incorrect? Weatherboard and iron? Poor whites?

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

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

Just don’t say nobody told ya.


Farewell Comrade

What a day, what a moving and beautiful day, in turns solemn and funny, nay whitty, and sad. A day when we were reminded of politics as the art of possibility, equality, opportunity, inclusiveness, and visionary greatness. A day when Noel Pearson returned to his roots and spoke passionately and convincingly in that fiery Obamaesque preacher style, as an Aboriginal man and as an Australian.

A day when the supremely talented Graham Freudenberg deployed his craft for a most important and perhaps last time, weaving words into pictures and sentences into messages that none of us who were there could possibly ever forget. A day when the crowd joined in the chorus as Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly sang another anthem – as a masterly MC Kerry O’Brien so aptly described their retelling of the Gurindji story – a story that evoked poverty, patience and pride, a tall stranger, and a handful of sand.

This was the Whitlam Memorial at Sydney Town Hall that I attended, with my two younger children. They got the day off from school for the occasion. Afterwards we met up with my adult son, who had rung me – twice, because I was teaching when the first call came – on the day the news of Gough’s death broke. He rang first to make sure I had heard the news, and second to ask if I was alright.

I was not alright, of course. I taught six hours face-to-face that day, on injustice and inequality, at an institution that would not exist without our Gough: the University of Western Sydney.

Gough brought us so many things, and Pearson listed a fraction of them in a stunning soliloquy that went for several long minutes. Three stand out as most relevant and memorable and worth reminding the young people with whom I work.

The first is that Aboriginal people moved in leaps and bounds to articulate their identity, knowledge and law to the rest of us, those of us whose ears had been closed for so long. These great steps could be made because a true leader had listened, a leader who was across the grand principles of universal human rights and the aspirations of self-determination that had been denied by colonial governments for so long. Gough listened to Aboriginal leaders, their elders, their political realities and their ancient living knowledge of the land.

Noel Pearson evoked Gough the Roman, but I wax lyrical on Gough the Greek. The Romans were about power, as are all politicians. The Greeks were about civilisation, as all politicians ought to be. Pearson noted this distinction differently, and he most certainly, pointedly, noted the emptiness and destructiveness of a political class interested in nothing but maintaining power. Pointedness goes to the origins of the polity itself.

The point is – linguistically and actually – the Greek origin of the polis, the high point in the land – in Athens, the Acropolis – where lights burn in the night, and can be seen from far and wide, for the people have gathered to discuss matters of state. This is the Athenian roots of the polity.

We pay our respects to the Greek light thea whenever we evoke theory OR theology. For science and religion seek answers to the same fundamental questions of the human condition: who are we? Why are we here? How should we live? And most of all, what is a life well-lived?

Gough had a vision for answering these questions on behalf of us all. Not some of us. All of us. Whether Greek or Roman, our Gough was a classicist. It was Gough who ensured that Aboriginal people had a point of light, it was Gough who established pillars of civil society that form the foundations for equality of opportunity and a landscape of co-existence. It was Gough who understood the essential nature of Aboriginal Medical Service, Legal Aid, and Housing. These fledgling organisations founded a grand vision: the possibility that universal human rights would not be trampled by the state – when it came to Aboriginal communities.

And it is on this note that I turn to the two remaining legacies that have been drummed into my children and my students for years, and again most emphatically this fortnight.

Gough Whitlam brought tertiary education and the sewerage system to western Sydney. It may not sound too fashionable, but Gough thought poor people should be allowed to get university degrees AND flush toilets. The point of light was this: that university degrees and flush toilets are not merely for the rich.

Every time we call a plumber, we should thank Gough that the system worked every other day to keep us safe from disease and maintain public health due to sanitation across Sydney instigated by Gough. Every time we pass a unit and get that little bit closer to graduation, we should thank Gough. Every time a graduate gets a job, or a payrise, or associated quality of life, it is Gough as well as themselves who has earned gratitude and respect.

Education and health in university degrees and flush toilets: these are not the only answers, but they are two fantastically good ones. This is what a liberal democracy should look like, and what ours did look like, and what Australia can look like again.

A coda: I am reluctant to donate even five minutes of my day to the crushingly stupid beat-up that is the booing of Tony Abbott by the crowd outside Town Hall. But too many of my lefty friends have allowed themselves to be drawn into doing the work of Murdoch hacks. Tony Abbott is of course rubbing his hands with glee that a brief crowd reaction to his reptilian self has become the story, rather than the monumental achievements of a man in whose footsteps he can never hope to walk. So here is the response.

It does not matter that Whitlam’s people at Whitlam’s memorial briefly booed Abbott. It was a crowd moment, ephemeral, transient, amid many boos and cheers and calls and much laughter and many tears, singing and crying and chuckling, talking and sharing on this great day for the great man. If some people react negatively to a boo – BOO! – they are seeking an excuse to not honour Gough Whitlam. If anyone argues that mainstream voters will be alienated, they forget that mainstream voters are hip pocket voters.

If you claim that it was undignified, you were not there. If you judge the crowd from a media report, you are doing the work of the Murdoch press, baiting and switching and dissembling, for the purpose of avoiding any focus on a visionary politician. The news story of the day was that Australia commemorated a giant of a man who stood literally and politically above anything we have today.

The only people who want to change that story into petty nonsense and judgemental tut-tutting are those who refuse to honour Gough. No-one is going to change their vote. Let us not look to a brief instinctive crowd reaction to the nasty destructive petty hypocritical man who, uninvited, entered our space.

Let us look instead to the waves of emotion and uplifting words crafted in honour of a splendid visionary. A constructive man, a builder and a fighter, a man whose memory and legacy will outlast us all. Every time a highly trained professional serves us well, or brings us pleasure, or enriches our lives with their knowledge and wit (or I flush the toilet) I send a little message skyward: Thank You Gough.

Calling a woman a woman

The apparently vexed question of what men ‘should’ call women keeps resurfacing. It is not in fact a vexed question. It is a simple one.

If a woman states clearly that she would prefer not to be called a girl, then do not call her a girl. If a woman asks that you not refer to her as a lady, then do not call her a lady. If a woman says hey guys I know you are really confused and desperately oppressed so please, fill this conversation thread with your views on what women should or should not say or do, then go ahead. Derail the conversation, ignore women’s voices, and act as though men’s views on women-anger is the relevant issue.

Given the infinite variation of human opinion, it is not in the least surprising that women have different stances on how we refer to each other, or on how we are referred to by men. This is so whether we are talking about online conversations or the comfort of our own homes or those we love or in public by complete strangers. My own stance, and the reasoning behind it, are set out below.

But first, I mention the monotonous similarity of men’s voices on what to call women. I am referring to online comment threads when this simple question arises. Women take a variety of considered positions. By contrast, in most cases, men take reactive yet very similar positions (to each other) on the same question. Or those who stay in the conversation take very similar positions. Staying in the conversation in itself requires a stamina all of its own. A meaningless stamina, compared to (say) efforts for world peace, but there it is.

Remember, the answer is simple. If you actually do respect women and wish to assert that you respect women, here is what to do: listen to what the woman says she is OK with being called, and call her that. It is not difficult. It is easy. It is unlikely she is angry. It is likely she is tired of this shit. But for whatever reason, she has summoned the energy to have this tedious conversation again, and simply and clearly stated her preferred term for her womanhood. She probably paused before telling you, because she knows what will ensue. Either way, she has made an active and conscious decision to state what she thinks, knowing full well what the response is very likely to be.

The online conversation goes something like this:

Me: Mate, as a 44 year old mother-of-three, I am hardly a girl.

Him: Oh I just ran out of space/didn’t think/ got in trouble for saying ladies.

Me: All good, but saying women is fine.

Him: I know lots of women who call themselves girls.

Me: Do you think I don’t? We’re not talking about what women call women.

Him: Jeez I tells ya. Can’t get nothing right. I never say female, it sounds condescending.

Me: Yep. I prefer ‘woman’.

2nd Him: Impossible ain’t they? Can’t please none of ‘em.

Me: Just stating my preference.

1st him: I am done with this conversation. If I’ve offended anyone, I’m sorry.

Me: acknowledges comment, leaves conversation.

3rd Him: They’re all angry all the time.

2nd Him: You try and show respect and where does it get ya?

1st him (re-enters conversation despite previous sign-off): Hey, I respect women. I just ran out of room so I said girl.

2nd him, 3rd him, 4th and 5th hims, 1st him, more hims …. Endless comment thread about the onerous oppressive dilemmas encountered by good guys, men who respect women, who are just trying so hard to do the right thing.

…conversation becomes crude and includes references to masturbation.

This is a representation, but in my experience, it is a very typical one.

There is any number of problems with these threads, not least the dull and predictable repetition of the content; and the reliably reactionary trajectory of the narrative every time a woman states her preferred term of reference. Not once did the Hims in the above representation refer to women as women, or agree to refer to women as women, or complain that they have been corrected when they refer to women as women. This is because none of these things ever happen. Men who refer to women as women do not get asked ‘oh, please. Call me a girl’. Or ‘Hey mate, how many times have I asked you to say female’? Or ‘Dude, dude, dude, it’s not woman, it’s LADY’. These things never happen, because women prefer to be called women.

At the same time, women who state that we prefer to be called women are trivialised, and spoken over, and ignored, and sidelined, and above all, called ‘angry’. Not called women when we ask to be called women. But inevitably called difficult and angry when we ask to be called women.

It was probably at least twenty years ago that I decided that as a woman I would like to be referred to as a woman. Nothing has changed to change my mind. I am not particularly angry about this. I am angry about many things, but nomenclature is the least of it. And there is certainly nothing difficult about it. When men claim that such a simple stance is difficult and angry, they are usually finding feminism difficult, and are angry about it, and take the time-honoured stance of blaming women for the difficulties that feminism poses to their male lives, and the anger they feel about that.

Which is all a bit of shoulder-shrugging whatevs to those who do not struggle every day as a woman in a man’s world.

As an educated white woman, my struggle is usually invisible. My struggle is nothing like the struggle that Aboriginal people face in this sexist racist ablist sectarian homophobic country with its dark stain of dispossession that continues seemingly forever and has never been adequately examined, let alone remedied. My struggle is nothing like that of many migrant individuals and groups, or of those facing double and triple discrimination, abuse and hate due to their disability, sexuality, religion, or gender identity. My struggle is not the hardest struggle, or the most important struggle – the Aboriginal struggle is by far and away the most important for our national identity.

But in my jobs, empowering girls and using words well matter more than anything else. I have two jobs.

The first is that I am the only functioning parent in my children’s lives. By functioning, I mean I am the only provider and take full responsibility for not just their basic human needs but also their social and ethical relationships, their health and education and safety.

My second job is the paying job. I teach law to hundreds of future lawyers, and part of that role includes explaining, clearly, that our system asserts the use of words (over fists) to resolve disputes. The Rule of Law is the rule of words. Some take it down the back of the carpark to have it out. Some prowl the streets for vigilante justice when a paedophile is reportedly near. It happens, but it is not legal. The legal resolution to conflict is done with words.


Calling me a girl is inaccurate. I am not a girl. If, however, I am among a group of women who refer to us, collectively, as ‘the girls’, I do not protest. Why would I? We are together, having fun, in a space created by and for women. It is distinguishable from the rest of our lives on that exact basis. We spend most of the time in spaces created by and for men. And while we can and sometimes do have fun in these man-spaces, more often we are working and/or on our guard against tempers, criticism, put-downs and exclusion – various forms of sexism, misogyny, and abuse.

The number of women you have overheard referring to ourselves as girls is relevant in one way, and one way only. We are delineating a space for women. Please return to the man spaces you have created all around us.

Here is the tricky bit (except it is not difficult at all).

When we refer to ourselves as girls, it is not an invitation for men to refer to us as girls. In many cases, it is a message for you to leave. Back away slowly, make so-called jokes as so many men do, say Oops better not go in the kitchen, the girls are on fire. Blokes know this scenario. They have been there, done that. But hearing a feminist voice explaining it is somehow confronting. Even though they already know.

Remaining apparently jocular and completely unserious is a typical male approach to feminism. I mean, what can feminism really matter? Surely it is not that important right? There she goes again. Has she got a fucking point? Why check? The dominant man-narrative is so consistent, so ready-to-go, that feminism can be sidelined at the tweet of a wink. And with the side-lining of feminism, of course, comes the sidelining of women. No conspiracy required, just a common man mind-set that is so easy to join that those who out this bullshit are shouted down and often walk away, exhausted by the whole repetitive business.

It is not difficult to shut up and listen. Men do it around bosses and other dominant males all the time. Women are used to being told to shut up and listen (and obey). Most of us are – by our parents, for a start. These days, in the public realm, it even has a name: mansplaining.

And here is a tip to mansplainers and man-apologists everywhere. Whiny, needy, self-pitying and victim-role-hijacking men are not sexy. I mean, just not. Do not ever try to woo a feminist that way. Do not ever try to woo a woman that way and maintain self-respect. Self-pity may succeed with some younger and less experienced women, but this is no achievement. In fact it is a failure. And exploitative. And kind of gross.

My personal grounds for not wishing to be called a girl are that I am a 44 year old mother of three with a wealth of knowledge and experience. There is also a girl in the household, and we are not indistinguishable. She is beautiful and young and has her whole life ahead of her. I am none of these things. She is under 18, and as such especially vulnerable in our hyper-masculine world. I have long and practical experience in dealing with the patriarchy, and even spend some time as the leader in public spaces (the lecture hall) as well as private environments (head of household).

At the moment, it is school holidays. I have a friend sent straight by the goddess, another working mother and head of household. She came and collected my children so I could go about two days of lectures without worrying about the kids’ whereabouts or having to take them into work (they are at the age where this is no longer coercible). When we spoke on the phone the next night, my daughter said a group of mates – all teens – went to play Ultimate Frisbee (whatever that is) and she ended up on a team of all boys.

Did you show ‘em? I asked.

Yes, she said.

Did you win? I asked.

Yes, she said. At the end they made me Man of the Match.

Me: Haha, what did you say?
Daughter: I said “Ahem”.

Oh go you. That’s my girl.

I was raised by a feminist mother and traditional (but reasonably willing-to-learn) father, and can therfore safely say I have been a feminist all my life. As my mother before me, I do not especially discuss feminism. Sometimes I join an interesting seminar or online comment thread and express much of what I want to say about feminism. But for the most part I simply go about my days being a feminist, resisting sexism where possible. I also often ignore sexism where nothing I say or do will diminish its foreboding presence. But if an abusive, bordering on dangerous, response is likely, I put safety first, as every feminist knows to do. In those instances I remove myself, and my family if they are with me, as quickly and inconspicuously as possible.

My teenage daughter, what is more, has an experience that is completely foreign to me. My daughter is a talented and committed athlete. This requires a particular type of stamina and persistence and capacity to cope with disappointment, not least because the boys tend to get most of the glory. I have tried to develop some jokey, not-too-protective vocabulary to communicate around this phenomenon. But because I can barely catch a ball and am interested only in sport where one of my children is competing, it falls a bit flat. My daughter gets that I know nothing in this area. It is not an unusual parenting experience. Yet while we do not directly discuss feminism, my philosophy of life has, I hope, served her at some critical times, particularly when she is doing what she loves. She is smart enough to see that her mum knows next to nothing about sport, but quite a lot about surviving and thriving in the very many environments where the masculine paradigm dominates.

Raising a daughter who is remarkably good at sport focuses the mind in many ways. But moving on.

To all those white men who think I can be stopped, or shouted down, or ignored, erased, rubbed out, sidelined and otherwise silenced by their loud voices and supposedly superior expertise: here is breaking news. I have two sons. One is an adult white male. He pays his rent and he pays his taxes. Fancy that.

I raised this young man single-handedly. By single-handedly, I mean I had no financial – and very little in-kind – assistance, as well as massive hindrances, in multiple forms. I am responsible for the presence of a decent white man in the world. I watched him become a man. It was one of the hardest struggles I have ever seen. There was little I could do with and for him, because he was a boy learning to be a man in a man’s world. Seeing my boy negotiating the world we live in, the Australia that white men have created, and find his place in it was … a living nightmare.

Do not tell me I have no idea what it is to be a white man. I know worse: to be a mother watching my own flesh and blood learning to navigate a society dominated by white male behaviours – despicable abuses – that I do not condone, do not practice, and failed to prepare him for in many ways. He had to learn the hard way what a seriously terrible job white men do in the running of this country, and what compromises he will have to make in order to make his way in it. The sheer violence – verbal, emotional, physical and worse – is absolutely gut wrenching.

So I drop out of onanistic comment threads. I call some blokes out, and block others. I leave some arguments quietly, hoping no man ever follows it up. And I write, and raise children, and watch and learn and teach. And say: words matter. Being asked by a woman to call her a woman should be the least of any man’s problems, if the experience of becoming a man in a man’s world is anything to go by. It’s not a problem at all, in fact. It is just a simple request, easily met, with the simplest of tools: words. Words are the only way. The other way makes life worse.

On learning music and teaching law

I come from a maternal line of teachers. My mother teaches music, and her sister teaches drama. Their mother ran her own little school back in the day, with their aunty. Another sister ran yoga and dog-training classes. If there was one thing I swore never to do, not even a little bit, not even piano lessons on the side for pocket money, it was teaching. Even now, five years after I took my first class, it’s an open secret. How’s the teaching going? Mum will ask. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone. I LOVE it.

Teaching is one of the few professions that has been relatively open to women who want to establish and maintain an independent working life. Staff rooms are not free of office politics – no work environment is free of office politics – work environments have humans within. But it is nowhere near as threatening to enter a school and earn a living as it is to confront the rampantly sexist horrors that await women in construction, mining, engineering, and (still) medicine, science and law. Not to mention the corporate cowboys in finance, insurance and IT.

That social structures and the men who perpetuate their flawed values have actively limited our life choices is still apparent today. Minimalisation of the worth and value of working with children (and the elderly, the sick, people with disabilities and other women) is one of those breathtakingly ignorant features of the western tradition. It is much over-looked that while we hold forth as the pinnacle of human achievement, we have in fact only succeeded at producing a generation of the fattest, saddest, most sugar-addicted beings in the history of humankind. If that sounds far-fetched, consider the fastest-rising diagnoses in the wealthiest countries: obesity, depression and diabetes. It is our strange privilege – to deploy the trappings of “civilisation” to disconnect from life’s fundamentals. This disconnection shields and buffers and cotton-wools the middle classes from the howling suffering of humanity. It is so all-pervasive that many of us only notice it when we breed a new human of our own. Suddenly the utter disregard for women and children is front and centre, every waking hour (which is most hours, for some new parents). How to push a pram AND a supermarket trolley? Why do tradies only turn up when you have to be somewhere else? What do you THINK I did all day? HAS A BABY DIED OF HUNGER OR DISEASE HERE? DO YOU KNOW WHY NOT?

Anyway. The latest pedagogy repositions teaching. It is now located and defined as teaching, learning and engagement (not necessarily in that order). Makes sense: students must be engaged to learn, and teachers must engage students before teaching and learning can take place. Turns out that teaching is a lot like parenting, and simultaneously teaching and parenting – among a group larger than an adult or two, to make the obvious point – is a tried and true pedagogy. Been around a while. For the sum of human existence and beyond. Back up in the trees, down in the swamp, parents showing children, elders leading. Not new, nothing innovative, just a return to the deepest of deep-rooted practices: listening, learning, laughing, living.

No, I am not advocating a trip down Aquarius lane. In a roundabout and easily distracted by the realities of most of the world’s pain while sitting in the comfort of my suburban home way, I am trying to get to this. My mother teaches music. I am belatedly, eternally grateful that this is her chosen profession. I teach law. We are both mother-teachers. This delivers dividends, in commonalities that far outweigh the surface differences in our chosen fields.

It dawned on me slowly, as I took on two and then three and four classes. Then unit co-ordinator of this course, or running summer school for that. Each additional responsibility brought that which most teachers loathe – the designing of assessments, the accountability measures to the institution, the endless administration. I developed pedagogy around remembering names; and more on compulsory attendance. I developed a pathological hatred of medical certificates; and a gentle, almost fond, tone for explaining to eighteen year old law students that they are adults, and smart ones, who have worked hard to get where they are … and are therefore expected to work on successful life/study strategies. I am not your mother, the sub text screams, as I smile and nod reassurely (subtext: Ingrid is right. You are smart. It is up to you).

What was slowly dawning was an understanding that I had spent a lifetime in the company of a woman who holds a sophisticated universal theory on the place of music in human history. And that I was spending much of my intellectual energy working on exactly that, in the field of law. Neither of these are new enterprises, but as with much teaching and learning agenda, we humans are doomed to re-learn or repeat, like history itself says it will doom us to do. Music resonates through the body and the heart, and through the ages. Law resonates through the head and the heart, and the body politic. If the heart thing strikes you as incongruent, spend a day in a court room. If any social structure showcases everything that is wrong with our civilisation so-called, it is the cold pomposity of this environment. The power of men to judge others while holding back any emotion as the most despicable, most heart breaking and traumatising events are recounted and relived in the public domain – it is a terrible thing. It is barely an improvement on public hangings – the single redeeming feature is that Australian courts at least do not, directly, have the power to take a human life.

While I am nothing if not a complete ignoramus on all things Foucaultian, I think the resonance from head to heart to social body is the music that pumps in our blood, and law that regulates its beat. The great reunification of parenting and teaching, of music and law, of a life’s calling that is a living wage, may never have fallen into place if my mother had not been that special kind of teacher who not only loves what she does but is gripped by a passion to share it with all. Her teaching style is inclusive and generous but not altruistically – for it is her greatest life satisfaction too, this privilege to enhance a fellow human’s love and knowledge of music. Same thing, I hear her in my mind’s ear, as I type that AND between love and knowledge. Same thing, for more knowledge of music is more love of music, and it is here that the law and music education paths diverge.

My own love of studying law has as mixed a provenance as anyone’s interest in anything. My dad is an Anglophile, I am an Anglophobe. His old-school liberalism prompts me to shriek in frustration. They’re letting you down, dad! How can you stay loyal to an idea (here, liberalism) when its adherents are people who bastardise and corrupt everything you actually do and they say they do while doing the opposite? Push back! Tell em to get back to first principles, or go back to school! He won’t, of course.

My Anglophobia is, as far as I will argue, grounded in fact. The English are dangerous. Like the church they took with them across the globe, everything the English touch turns to gold for the English and death by English hands for all but the most dedicated of collaborators. Why anyone would join collaborator ranks for the dubious outcome of never being more than a curiosity, and never attaining full membership no matter what, has always left me cold and unconvinced. I always thought Al-Fayed senior, the Arab who bought Harrods, was the ultimate exemplar of how that particular dynamic plays out. He’s so rich he takes over the iconic jewel in the English retail crown, just purchases this piece of prestige. His son squires the fallen princess about town. Al-Fayed paid the same price as families across empire have always paid. It is an old, old story; the first born son, the sacrificial lamb. Everything old is new again, nothing is new under the sun (hello vanity, hello Ecclesiastes, and hello to my maternal grandma, who loved that chapter and verse).

But back to my dad: Our shared yearning is for a social order which actually reflects the noble pursuits and principles that “the” law (our legal tradiiton) claims to uphold. There is nothing wrong with subscribing to the principle that all are equal before the law and no-one is above it. There is everything wrong with complacent declarations that this is indeed the case, that it is a factual claim that can be validly made about England and the common law countries the English so violently corralled under their jurisdiction.

I have written elsewhere of my immeasuarable discomfort with the notion of a common law – or, as the English and their accolytes call it, the common law. It has an inherent problem that is overlooked in the same way the great claims for “civilisation” made by the west overlook its barbaric disconnection from life, mother earth, humanity, and all that sustains us. Similarly, the “common” law is elitist. It is inaccessible to most. It is overlaid with multiple interpretations and rules, manifest across continents in different permutations, continents which to this day suffer the searing, tearing chasms wrought by the English and their maps and pencils, Englishmen drawing lines with their unspeakable disregard for others’ traditions around land, law and property. And all the while here is the common law proclaiming its central consistency and practical evolutionary capacity, while both being and appearing to be inconstant and inconsistent, rigid and inflexible, and perpetuating injustice, to all but the privileged few. The common law, on even cursory inspection, is not common to all.

Nothing and no-one and can be all things to all people. Simultaneously, all humanity are one, a common species is what unites us. It does not matter whether a fellow human has so profound a disability that they can not speak our language, or skin so black they disappear, to white eyes, up to the whites of black eyes at night. We recognise people, as individual humans, even as we dismiss or overlook or talk down to or ignore them. It is in those acts of dismissal and ignorance that we confirm our recognition.

All humans gather into groups and say to one another ‘what are the rules?’ Across all of time and space, from one end of history to the other and across the planet, every human society, every culture, or clan or tribe or language group, has nominated law makers and law enforcers, identified law breakers, and thus law itself. It is this that law shares (has in common!) with music. Law brings order, and it does, in the formal sense. But so does music, for what is a birth, death or marriage, any ritual designed to give thanks for our continuing survival, without music? Is there a society or culture or clan or tribe or language group known to human kind that has not organised itself around rules and rituals, leaders who lead, in law and in song? I can not imagine such a peoples, or if I could, I can not imagine them surviving for long.