Category Archives: Uncategorized

From a crowded field, the worst Turnbull government decision yet

I got the bit about the Prime Minister feeling under siege, from the weird array of weaponry at his Monday press conference. I understood he was projecting his worst fear – losing face – by posing with gas-masked muppets. It was clear this ludicrous pantomime would crowd the Referendum Council Final Report out of the top headlines.

But I did not think Turnbull could top off that hyper-contrived clownshow inside 24 hours.

That political editors choose terror announcements over propositions for constitutional reform has nothing to do with substance and everything to do with optics. The Referendum Council news footage showed a fidgety Bill Shorten and a tremulous Malcolm Turnbull cautioning against heroic failure.

Such dullness is no competition for inflatable zodiacs and special ops commandos. But by Tuesday, that crock of nonsense was surpassed. Out trundled the Prime Minister to announce that Peter Dutton will head up a super-ministry to respond to “the evolving terror threat”. The move was widely anticipated since at least April, because Dutton is a conservative thorn in the Prime Ministerial side. It is a terrible decision. Space precludes listing everything wrong with it (Sean Kelly has helpfully enumerated many reasons), but it also highlights a broader theme.

Meritocracy mythology and government by gamesmanship.

In our system, it is absolutely routine to reward those in power for ineptitude and wrong-doing. Remember the death of Ms Dhu? Two of the police officers whose neglect killed her were promoted. Remember how we traded wheat for weapons in breach of United Nations sanctions while at war in Iraq? The responsible Minister Alexander Downer was gifted the London High Commissionership. Look at Joe Hockey, a Treasurer so innumerate he was nicknamed eleventy. Now he is our man in Washington:

Peter Dutton was voted worst ever health minister by 1100 doctors (the field includes Tony Abbott). He speculated that Lebanese Australian Muslims who migrated over forty years ago caused terror threats. The “dour and plodding former policeman” said:

“Out of the last 33 people who have been charged with terrorist-related offences in this country, 22 of those people are from second- and third-generation Lebanese-Muslim background.”

All 33 people are innocent, because they have been charged, not proven guilty. It is not surprising that a former police officer does not comprehend presumption of innocence.

Aside from this misleading and probably malicious racism, Dutton is responsible for monumental waste and cruelty. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection spends almost half-a-million dollars per off-shore asylum seeker per year. It spent over $2 billion on its off-shore detention regime without proper authority. The most recent pay-out to keep its torturous actions secret was $90 million. Even before the Home Affairs announcement, the department found $250 million for its new mega-HQ. It spent over $1 million on toy medals – more than the ADF spends on real ones.

It was the Abbott government that allocated over $400 million to set up a ‘Border Force’ incapable of running a lawful identity check. Dutton was the minister when Operation Fortitude was conceived and fell flat on its ridiculous face. He refused interviews on the grounds that the operation was an operational matter – when it was demonstrably inoperative.

All this was reported as ‘controversial’, when it was simply racist and unlawful. It was not unbelievable, or incredible. Expressions of surprise reinforce the lie that racist abuse of power is the exception, that there are serious consequences. But Quaedvlieg still has his job. Meritocracy mythology is aggressively prosecuted, but the exact opposite happens. Those with positional power who know where the bodies are buried are more likely to be promoted under government by gamesmanship.

Operation Fortitude was racist overreach of the first order, and we can expect more racist overreach from a Dutton-led Home Affairs Department. The only justification for all this – as well as for the citizenship law amendments and the embarrassing gibberish about the ‘laws of mathematics’ – is false.

“My job is to keep Australians safe” Turnbull claims endlessly, and the evidence of its falsity is on the public record.

 

Not all Australians

Turnbull does not mean his job is to keep all Australians safe. He does not mean Aboriginal people in custody. He most certainly does not mean Aboriginal children in custody. Or a black boy hunted down and killed [$] by an angry vigilante, reportedly after receiving information on the boy’s likely whereabouts from a police officer.

For 220 years, police and other armed personnel have rendered Aboriginal people unsafe. Take a recent report showing how NSW police and courts, and not crime rates, cause higher rates of incarceration of Aboriginal people. It works like this. Where an Aboriginal person breaches an AVO, police add more severe stalking offences to the charge. Bureau chief Dr Don Weatherburn suggested there could be 500 fewer Aboriginal people in jail per year but for police escalating charges. When asked why police bring more severe charges against Aboriginal people, Dr Weatherburn said “we don’t know”.

We don’t know.

Nor will the safety of Muslim women in public, a serious problem largely caused by political terror-rhetoric, be enhanced by the Homeland Affairs department. The new department will not make Muslim and other feminists who make perfectly legitimate comments online ‘more safe’. Turnbull is not talking about the safety of women and children trapped in households with a violent man. In NSW, ‘family men’ killed 192 women and children in the ten years to 2010. Nationally, men kill on average two women who were their wives or girlfriends every week. These killings are the tip of the domestic violence iceberg.

As an economist and domestic violence survivor, I note the misallocation of resources inherent to the ‘security’ spend; and am reminded how little our society cares about women and children. Governments spend billions conflating a racist and violent immigration regime with terrorism, but shut down women’s shelters.

For decades police told women that there was nothing they could do about stalking. The stalker ‘had not committed a crime’. Yet when the Lindt café siege report was handed down, NSW Police created a ‘fixated persons unit’ virtually overnight – while the years feminists spent convincing the law to take stalking seriously are used by police to send more Aboriginal people to gaol. The NSW police shot and killed an innocent bystander in the Lindt café. They were rewarded with new shoot to kill powers. Their failures prompted debate about whether the ADF should have been called in. The Prime Minister used this to beef up military call-out powers, and neutralise a factional opponent with a mega-ministry.

Politicians always seize excitedly on anything that can be passed off as evidence of an increased terror threat. This is not reward for merit. It is government by gamesmanship.

Consider this: the mega-department of Home Affairs will do nothing to address the greatest safety risks to First Peoples and Muslim women, to people of colour and all women and children. Together, these groups make up a majority of the population. And this: Peter Dutton is a ‘family man’ and former armed agent of the state. It is these two groups that pose the greatest safety threat to millions of Australians.

This post was first published by Independent Australia on Wednesday 19 July 2017

Holding ministers to account

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

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

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

Nobody is on trial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Implications at law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accountability in democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The human subjects of endometriosis research are humans with endometriosis

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

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

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

Research with human and animal subjects

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

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

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

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

Ethics research standards

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not all humans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Referenda and Recognition: Whose political leadership?

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

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

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

First Peoples, Colonialism, Constitutionalism (1770-2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

White leadership failures

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

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

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

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

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

Another way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

And here we are

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

 

 

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

[CW: one spoiler]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black women’s voices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caveats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THAT bomb. What was it dropped for? Absolutely nothing

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

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

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

War hardware and war software: Bombs and propaganda

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

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

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

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

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

One soldier? ISIS-K? Caves and tunnels?

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

So the usual dishonest and violent American interventionism is present.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to make sense of it all?

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

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

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

Abridged Timeline: on Twitter and in real life

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

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

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

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

But those are the domestic tweets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to start with this mess?

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

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

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

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

These implications are false.

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

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

So why the darling of panel shows status?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As old as the hills

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

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

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

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

Same conservatism, different year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conservative (adj): averse to change or innovation

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

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

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

‘Sucking hard’ on what?

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

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

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

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

Turnbull makes Nero look statesmanlike.

Politics and Policy 1: Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics and Policy 2: Policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High-taxing, high-spending, big government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And still, and still. What about the climate?

MYEFO mutterings: casual workers have heard it all before

This week I had the very familiar experience of listening to a neoliberal ideologue treat his audience as economic dunces.

It is symptomatic of neoliberalism that its public faces are well-remunerated to take economic claims at face value. Their task is to reproduce these messages to an audience of staff or readers or students or voters. The audience members are in turn expected to meekly be co-opted into the neoliberal project, just like the boss.

The boss prosecutes the case for increasingly precarious employment (for others, not for himself), for abolition of penalty rates. He may or may not understand that his claims rest entirely on ideological grounds, rather than actual economic efficiency measures.

The exorbitant cost of executive salaries – staff cars and subsidised fuel, business class travel, sabbaticals, superannuation – are invisible in these speeches. Yet the cost of paying casuals by the hour for work completed is framed as an expense to be economised. Meanwhile, high staff morale, reduced inequality, and the creativity and innovation that comes with a diverse workforce and social cohesion, lead to higher productivity. This is in contradistinction to neoliberal messages delivered by the boss to causal staff.

The causal work force

Neoliberal messaging is founded in a specific value system; and based on criteria developed by people who are very expensive to retain. For instance, an unspoken assumption is that paying an executive to travel to a conference is of value to the organisation; while penalty rates are a cost. No evidence is demanded for this kind of calculation.

It is not impact-neutral for the causalised worker to listen to this at our Christmas drinks event. The executive may benefit from delivering the message, but the worker does not. To be treated as expendable, to see our pay packets shrink, to be told our rates are unaffordable by people on hefty 6-figure salaries: such experiences are dissonant, and unpleasant, and take a long-term toll.

The causal worker can not ask whether another overseas trip for the boss is really better value for money than properly remunerating those who do the frontline work. The casual worker can not point to the efficiencies, the productivity gains, the savings in staff turnover that would stem from income security and basic conditions for the frontline workforce. It is much easier for senior management to denigrate young people as flighty or fickle than to recognise the unproductive privilege to which executives are accustomed.

And because it is easier, which is the opposite of hard work, that is what the executive does. This dynamic can be seen across the private sector; and its equivalent in public life.

The public sphere

People like Treasurer Scott Morrison and Finance Minister Matthias Cormann – and Barnaby Joyce and Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott – give every impression of being economically illiterate. They are a huge cost on the public purse. Yet these men have no hesitation in telling, say, welfare recipients how to live on a tiny budget in deeply unnecessary poverty.

A neoliberal government will characterise welfare recipients as a social problem lacking money management skills. In reality, people who rely on welfare to feed and clothe themselves and others – sole parents, carers, unemployed people, aged pensioners – are very adept economic managers. There is nothing unskilled, or lazy, or immoral, about maintaining a household on a pittance while the government of the day continuously attacks your very existence.

That government of the day, by contrast, is comprised of highly remunerated members who enjoy every social and financial structural advantage of a wealthy western nation. Many have been paid from Treasury coffers their entire lives. I have no personal knowledge of how ex-police officer and current Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton has amassed a $20 million property portfolio. But we can be sure Mr Dutton would claim this wealth is a product of hard work, or savvy investment or risk management.

Whatever risks Dutton has taken on behalf of himself and his family, it is only with money, and only while his base salary is paid – and thus the risk underwritten – by the state. The risks taken by Dutton on behalf of asylum-seekers, by contrast, are life-and-death matters: his decisions have directly resulted in mass human anguish, provided access for rapists to rape women and children, have triggered self-immolation, overseen forced child birth. We have paid upwards of $10 billion to see these lives destroyed on our watch.

Misallocation of resources

Organisations which propagate falsehoods such as an individual’s financial reward is commensurate with their hard work are really terrible economic managers, because the propagation of such messages requires resources. Every resource – time, money, labour, raw materials – allocated to the lies of liberalism could be spent on some other project, with some other return on investment.

It is a simple concept. Economists call it opportunity cost. Every dollar spent on one consumer choice is not available for every other possible spending decision.

The return on investment might be concentrated in the hands of the few, or it might produce long-term social good. Or harm. The $10 billion spent on Wilson Security and other interests to destroy the lives of asylum seekers has the return of electoral victory for a Coalition government.

Free market principle says that if people can amass vast private wealth through innovation and hard work – JK Rowling, say, or Bill Gates – they can do this without being subsidised or underwritten by the state. Similarly, public investment is for the long-term social good, or at least it is under principles of social democracy.

In contrast, principles of neoliberalism… just kidding. Neoliberalism has no principles, unless it is power (and wealth) for power’s sake.

The NBN is an example of the difference between social democratic principles and neoliberalism. The NBN is a national infrastructure project, conceived with a strong social justice component. High speed affordable internet for all would see delivery of knowledge and expertise to rural and remote areas, producing direct dividends in health and education; and indirect dividends in equality and social cohesion.

The NBN has since been transmogrified into a hotch-potch of inferior technology, private interests, and badly-managed compromises. It is costing more, for less social good – and more returns on investment concentrated in private interests (such as highly paid executives). Malcolm Turnbull has overseen this reallocation of resources from social good to private interests. While many insist he is innovative, is tech-savvy, those commentators ignore the fact that a man who amassed huge wealth from business decisions (and joined the Liberal party) is unlikely to be committed to, let alone skilled at, public-sector economic management.

Despite the dividends to rural, regional and remote areas, Turnbull’s deputy Barnaby Joyce is no more committed to the public good. Joyce was famously demoted by Tony Abbott for conflating household budgets with national fiscal policy. But while Barnaby was expendable on the point back in 2010, the current Treasurer has a tendency to do the same thing.

On top of his salary, Joyce claimed over $1 million in entitlements for the first half of 2015. Politicians together claimed $48 million for the same period. While welfare recipients must report any income within a fortnight, or suffer severe exacerbation of their existing poverty in the form of payment suspension and cancellation, the delay in expenditure reporting means we do not know yet the cost of politicians for 2016.

This year the costs will include most of that horrendously long election campaign. The one where Malcolm Turnbull gave himself 8 weeks, most of it on our coin, to secure the approval of the electorate to stare down his conservative back bench but instead lost 14 seats. It is unlikely the 2016 politician expenditure bill will come in under $100 million.

Again, that is on top of their $200-500Kpa salaries. Those 226 federal government MPs do not come cheap. But like the senior executive railing against the causal workforce payroll bill, this cost is all-but-invisibilised while a man with the morals and judgement of Scott Morrison is sent out demonise the unemployed, the carers, the sick and the aged.

It really is the most disgusting spectacle.

If the Coalition in government has grossly mismanaged the economy and can not maintain a triple-A credit rating, it should set out the causes, and the solutions. That is what agile innovative thinkers would do.

Warning: MYEFO ahead

Instead, Scott Morrison will come out tomorrow and tell lies about the state of the Australian economy. He will pretend all is almost well or sort of okay but what is wrong has nothing to do with him, the Treasurer, and his complete lack of any credentials for the job. He will resort to mumbo-jumbo on seasonal adjustment and commodities prices. He will claim there are international factors. He will say economic head winds are inevitable. He will put on his serious voice to say these are serious matters. Over which, alas! he has no control.

Morrison might mention globalisation as though it occurred recently – which it did, in conservative years. Conservative years are like dog years (with apologies to dogs) – one human year to seven conservative years. When you hear a mainstream commentator blathering about the problem of social media as space where people can comment? When facebook has been mainstream since at least 2009 and it is 2016? He is conservative.

Anyway. Morrison will lie about the dismal results of four years of Liberal economic management and wash his hands of his own gross ineptitude before turning to his favourite pastime: blaming Labor and demonising welfare recipients.

Australia avoided recession during the GFC under Labor, but looks unlikely to do so under the current Coalition government. Australia retained a triple-A credit rating under Labor, but seems less likely than ever to do so under the Coalition. No matter how nonsensical or the overwhelming evidence, Morrison will spend the time and expertise made available to him on the MYEFO to blame his political opponents and hate on the poor.

This is what economists call misallocation of resources. Morrison could be seeking and implementing solutions but instead, with the backing of the Coalition leadership, will decide that Labor-blaming and poor-hating is a viable option. There is no positive return on this to anyone but – surprise – the Coalition leadership team. Our polity is diminished by it. Welfare recipients are further disempowered.

Time and expertise, ever more so in the digital age, are subject to the same economic realities as any other resource. These public goods – Treasury officials, infrastructure investment, air time on the national broadcaster – continue to be misallocated by our government. To an economist, misallocation of resources is evidence of poor economic management.

The problem with White Ribbon Day: Everything

White Ribbon Day causes harm to women who have survived men’s violence.

Seeing a man like Mike Baird wearing a white ribbon, a man who ripped apart women-run services, re-traumatises women who have survived domestic violence. This is a man who, with great fanfare, announced the appointment of a Minister for the Prevention of Violence Against Women, while homicides by men against their intimate partners – that is, women who they lived with or who were trying to leave – increased by 40 per cent.

So the Baird strategy is an abject failure, with which women have paid with their lives.

Baird treats our safety from men who bash and kill women as an asset-stripping exercise. Baird and Abbott and Turnbull take women’s services, strip us of everything that has been built up over 40 years, and defund us on hyper-ideological pretences.

As a religious man, Baird then hands what is left – the social services equivalent of a shell company – to client donors, to organised religion, to Mission Australia and the Salvation Army and St Vincent de Paul aka the Catholic Church.

These are organisations which, on the evidence, should never be given responsibility over the lives of women and children. These organisations take children from mothers who have been traumatised by men; these organisations have, for centuries, been staffed by men who rape and otherwise mistreat children. And women.

In my household, where I alone have been responsible for feeding and clothing and educating and keeping safe three children, White Ribbon Day is a day to take a deep breath and remember that my society, and my government, sees us as an opportunity for a fancy breakfast and a lapel pin.

I remember back then, fourteen years ago now, wondering what it would be like to get through an entire day without thinking about safety first, without obsessing over where we had been, about what we had escaped. I remember wondering if I would ever live a day without the flashbacks every hour, the horrors every night.

But time really does heal all wounds. Through soccer seasons and camping trips and social media connections and being our fabulous selves, we have become people who are not defined by a man’s violence. Time and love and family and friends and music and having a job and education and sport and safety – all of these together healed the wounds.

Above all, safety.

Every time I unlock the front screen door, fourteen years later, there is still that tiny moment. I take a breath, and remember past fears, and give thanks for being able to walk into my front yard without checking for potential danger. It is a muscle memory thing, a bodily reminder. Moving into a house with a lockable screen door and a gate was a revelation. A gate! I could not believe how safe I felt. I had never felt so safe.

We are still safe. Due to eternal vigilance. Due to my strength and resilience, and that of my children, and to family and friends who supported us through hell and high water – where hell and high water is a euphemism for the violence and the threat of violence perpetrated by an adult man who said he “loves” us.

In those years, I completed a law degree. I enrolled in post-graduate study. I had the benefit of a comprehensive social safety net that allowed me to parent and to work. I bought the house with the gate. I have seen one child into the adult world, with two more on their way. I do this with enormous privilege, with tertiary-educated whiteness, with family support, with friends who praise and do not judge, with the universal education and universal healthcare – and income support when needed – that are the cornerstones OR SHOULD BE THE CORNERSTONES of our society.

And every year, I shed furious tears and shake with anger and pain when White Ribbon Day comes around. At this organisation made up of members who know nothing, absolutely nothing, about men’s violence against women and children. This organisation which causes trauma, by minimising and trivialising the cause, the source, the problem. This organisation which paralyses my otherwise normalised existence, which reminds me again, as though I needed reminding, how little our society cares about people like us.

White Ribbon compels women to mobilise, to donate free research, to volunteer valuable time, to combat the myths and victim-blaming which it unreflectively reproduces. White Ribbon is white patriarchy, it is men dominating the message, it is damaging and harmful to women and children. Like the organisations to which women’s services have been handed, the corporate interests and organised religion (same thing), White Ribbon does enormous harm and precious little good.

Dear White Ribbon. Please get out of the public sphere. Shut yourself down. Forever.