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If there is a Morrison doctrine, it is mission creep

On Saturday 4 January 2020, after returning from his overseas holiday during the worst bushfires this continent has ever experienced, prime minister Scott Morrison called a joint press conference with former Army Reserves Brigadier, Liberal Party staffer and current defence minister Linda Reynolds, and current Defence Force chief General Angus Campbell.

It was a rare Saturday outing for the prime minister who, when he is not absent altogether, maintains a strict Monday-to-Friday schedule. For this abject neglect of national leadership, certain press gallery members run cover for him with weak and jaded excuses like ‘he has a young family’. The line plays to a standard model, of all politicians having wives and grown children, that was jettisoned some two generations ago.

Apart from the tangential curiosity of the prime minister ‘working’ – from what I can see, he exploits party room hatreds and talks gibberish at media figures in return for his very generous public salary of $550k pa – on the weekend, the purpose of that early January press conference was to announce a compulsory call-out of 3,000 army reserves.

I watched this press conference closely, because I am familiar with the history of Liberal Party attempts to deploy the armed forces against the civilian population from its inception. As eminent scholar on [abuse of] executive power Professor Michael Head has written (Head Mann and Matthews 2015, p. 438, footnotes omitted)

after the 1949 election, in the wake of the coalminers strike, prime minister Robert Menzies claimed a ‘political mandate’ to place Australia on a ‘semi-war footing’ against communism. Against a backdrop of global anti-communism, the Communist Party Dissolution Bill 1950 was the incoming government’s first piece of legislation. The Bill’s recitals claimed that its measures were required for the ‘security and defence of Australia’ in the face of a dire threat of violence, insurrection, treason, subversion, espionage and sabotage. The High Court, however, rejected the use of these recitals to validate the government’s claim to be exercising the defence, incidental and executive power of the Commonwealth. The judges warned of the corrosive dangers of unfettered executive power. That stand was vindicated when Menzies called a referendum to override the decision and was defeated.

In other words, the lunge to foster fear in the populace as cover to expand federal executive power is a constitutive characteristic of the Liberal Party. It was there from day one. The Liberal Party was established during an actual world war, self-evidently by men with more energy for political strategising than the war effort. Its very first act on taking government was to try and leverage the power of incumbency to outlaw its political opponents. This politic is in their DNA.

And they are proud of it: upon successfully knifing his predecessor in 2018, Scott Morrison embarked on a pilgrimage to Albury to try his hand at Menzian oratory, an embarrassment best not mentioned further, lest we do ourselves an injury.

[For more on his mind-bogglingly unillustrious career, see this investigation by Karen Middleton at The Saturday Paper from June 2019. My own critique of Morrison dates to his horrific record as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, which includes escalating militarisation, secrecy and avoidance of accountability in refugee policy; and his shockingly punitive and corrupted tenure as Treasurer, also notable for his vast capacity for cruelty and the reflexive dishonesty that is a hallmark of all his positions in public office.]

Morrison government disaster response

Anyway, were we? Oh yes, the political comms strategy of the Liberal Party circa January 2020. The nation was ablaze, some communities in their fifth month of fighting fires. Across the south east, including most of Sydney and a few weeks later almost all of Melbourne, people moved about under a blanket of smoke.

In an increasingly familiar trajectory, the inadequacies of the Morrison government became so obvious that not even his legacy media cheer squad could ignore it. This was countered, as usual, by press gallery cover via the Liberal Party machine. It works like this. Liberal Party staffers and backbenchers pump out an endless stream of misinformation on social media behemoth facebook. From there it jumps, via government politicians with a public profile on friendly media outlets like racist Sydney radio station 2UE and Sky news, to the murdoch mastheads. Next, the hero narrative/outright misinformation is picked up and amplified by apparently serious commentators at ninefax and on the ABC, on the flimsy and irresponsible pretext that ‘arsonists’ or ‘Scott Morrison said thing’ are the big story of the day.

This is despite the fact that they know or ought to know that this is exactly how the Liberal National Party won Queensland and therefore the federal election in May 2019.

Responding to opinion polls rather than appalling misjudgement and catastrophic policy errors, Morrison starts with distraction. For 2020, he began on 1 January by releasing a saccharine video of his wife and himself talking barely concealed evangelical gospel on facebook. This contemptible crap was disseminated via pay-walled murdoch mastheads.

Meanwhile in the ninefax press, the worlds most awkward cricket visual since John Howard tried and failed to bowl an over, was released. Posing at Kirribilli House on an angle designed to misrepresent the smoke haze over Sydney Harbour, the photo opp features a scowling Morrison surrounded by a group of highly trained professional athletes who appear to be offended by him or scared of him. Probably both – I know I am.

(photo credit: Steven Siewert in the Sydney Morning Herald 1 January 2020)

The following day, HMAS Choules arrived to evacuate people who had fled their homes and were sheltering from wildfires on the beach, preparing to jump into the sea, at Mallacoota. The Sydney tabloid front page featured this photo of 11 year-old Finn Burns steering a boat carrying his brother, mother, and the family dog to safety. The incredible picture, taken by his mum, flashed around the world.

Photo credit: Allison Marion.

Pressure was building on the prime minister to do something other than massage his image at the publicly owned and funded harbourside mansion while an 11-year-old child takes the tiller in a tiny family boat on the open sea to escape out-of-control fires.

And so we got the 4 January compulsory reserves call out announcement. Morrison said:

We now must move our posture as a Commonwealth as we’ve agreed at the National Security Committee this morning from a posture of respond to request, to move forward and to integrate with the local response… we must move forward first as a Commonwealth, particularly with the work of our Defence Force, and then integrate with the local operations that are in place in those local communities. So today we are making a number of announcements in terms of what we will be doing to move into that move forward posturing. First of all, just around half an hour ago, the Governor-General signed off on the call-out of the Australian Defence Force Reserve to surge and bring every possible capability to bear by deploying Army Reserve brigades to fire affected communities across Australia… And what this means is we will deploying those more on a move forward basis and taking on these additional reserves which are being called out as a result of the decision we’ve taken and authorised by the Governor-General today.

All this was sandwiched between the usual streams of consciousness that marr Morrison press conferences. Throughout the rolling crises of his public life, many self-inflicted, Morrison is notable for garbled word salad, obfuscation upon evasion upon outright lies, and the jagged, jumpy, and rushed delivery of an extremely short attention span.

My ears pricked up because what I thought I heard was Morrison asserting that he sought and secured the authority of the Governor General, an authority which [purportedly still] includes uncodified “reserve powers”, to override the reserve power of the states to request military intervention from the Commonwealth in the event of disaster support being required. This is an important power check, the ‘convention’ that Premiers hold the constitutional power to request military assistance in their jurisdiction, rather than the Commonwealth having constitutional authority to unilaterally send in the troops.

Militarisation: a continuum

It should not be forgotten that the Commonwealth retains power to send in the troops for political purposes to the Northern Territory: in 2007 it did exactly that. The Northern Territory Emergency* Intervention legislation had to be tabled a second time with the word emergency added because it was otherwise unconstitutional – an insufficiently ‘special’ law under the race power (Australian Constitution Act 1901 (Cth) s. 51(xxvi).

But back to 4 January. Ensuing discussion on social media turned up this very useful and relevant analysis (Fetchik 2012), sent to me by a former ADF soldier on twitter. It examines Commonwealth-state arrangements with regard to deploying the military domestically with a case study on the catastrophic 2009 Victorian bushfires.

[As an aside, then-opposition MP Scott Morrison, the man who as prime minister went on a holiday to Hawaii during the worst fires in the history of the continent, told ABC flagship panel show Q&A in 2010 that the Victorian Police Commissioner Christine Nixon – typically, a woman being held to double standards by a Liberal Party male – should not have gone out to dinner during the 2009 crisis.]

I recommend the above article by Janine Fetchik to those interested in more detail of the constitutional questions. For a more general explainer on the institutional arangements of Australian federalism, I wrote this earlier in the pandemic. In this post, I want to focus on a deeply ingrained pattern, on the publically available evidence, of what I can only conclude is Scott Morrison’s ongoing desire to politicise the Australian military; to militarise the Australian government response in a range of policy settings; and ultimately to expand federal executive power over domestic military orders and actions.

It was obvious during his time as shadow minister for immigration, which a compliant and complicit Tony Abbott – who Scott Morrison later betrayed in pursuit of self-serving careerism, another pattern – renamed ‘Immigration and Border Protection’. This disturbing and continuing chapter in our history of racist and xenophobic policy settings was launched by ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, co-designed by Morrison with then-General and now-Senator Jim “butcher of Fallujah” Molan.

It continued through offensive, expensive defamatory and untrue claims about childrens charity workers; a 2013 ministerial directive to demonise refugees as ‘illegals’; and multiple violent deaths of detainees held without charge in immigration (executive) detention, including by suicides that are the tip of a mental illness iceberg.

Creating and exacerbating mental health conditions, up to and including suicide, is another hallmark of Morrison’s career – see #Robodebt and the incredible work of the #NotMyDebt team here. And an excellent volume (to which I contributed) on some of the many moral and legal failures of Australian refugee policy can be found in the 2019 edition of UNSW Law Society journal Court of Conscience. It is also worth clicking on the Save the Children link above for its account of Morrison talking exactly as he talks today, evading responsibility in the face of overwhelming findings by official investigations, insisting on his own personal version of reality so blatantly it is a wonder journalists continue to avoid the L-word.

As the meme goes, he is a lying liar who lies.

Post-bushfire pandemic responses

Fast forward to the global pandemic. It is clear to anyone who looks that Scott Morrison has mishandled every aspect of the federal response. We the public have been spared the worst of his incompetence, selfishness and bone-idle laziness by the industrious intelligence of Premiers and Chief Ministers. Even some in the press gallery are starting to break ranks [$$]. This is the same claque who collectively backed Morrison into office, covered for his Hawaiian holiday, defended his hypocrisies when keeping his own kids home while threatening and bullying the Premiers (and teachers, parents, and children) on public schools, and continue to run #ScottySplaining (hashtag credit: Noely Neate @YaThinkN) interference on his hasty misjudgements and subsequent panicked pivots.

Leaving aside the domestic deployment of defence force personnel to date, because this post is already too long, I turn now to reports this week that the prime minister has directed Attorney General Christian Porter to draft amendments to the Defence Act 1903 (Cth). The lengthy lead-in is for this purpose: to make clear how I reached this view. I do not wish to be alarmist. It may amount to nothing. After all, the bigotry expansion ‘religious discrimination’ bill was set aside while ‘culture wars’ are waged elsewhere.

But the record indicates that bills tabled or not tabled by this government are all in the same service: of politicising incumbency, which, as we have seen, the Liberal Party has done since its inception. Clearly Morrison adheres to the political adage to never let a crisis go to waste. My sense is that, on the evidence, Morrison will prioritise this one. He will also – like de-encryption and other ‘security’ – read surveillance and control – measures, prioritise wedging Labor on this one. From where I sit, his reported desire to amend the Defence Act 1903 looks like another item on his relentless agenda to expand federal executive command of the Australian military, for political objectives.

And despite inexcusable, unforgiveable commentary from the gallery to the contrary, Morrison is nothing without his politics. Everything, but everything he does, is a political comms strategy in pursuit of power.

The ninefax report on planned Defence Act amendments.

First, a couple of meta-points.

  • The writers are standard-credentialed for a news report of this kind, the foreign affairs and national security correspondent and the National Affairs Editor for Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. It is not an opinion piece. Both bylines are white males.
  • The headline is standard framing of not holding power to account. It offers the Morrison government rationale for amending ‘laws’ straight up, in quote marks. As with all Morrison government announcements, there are stated purposes and actual purposes. The success for every single Morrison government political comms strategy is contingent on the press gallery and their editors foregrounding the stated purpose; and framing this political statement as verified fact. Happily for federal Liberal Party politicians, and unhappily for the public interest, the press gallery and their editors invariably oblige.
  • The photo, which I choose not to publish here, is captioned ‘Members of Victoria Police, aided by ADF soldiers, patrol the Queen Victoria Market’. Whether deliberately or not, this blurs the supposedly strict line between domestic and foreign deployment of armed agents of the state. As Fetchik (2012, above) explains, the basic demarcation is domestic = police; foreign = ADF. And as Head (2015, above) has shown, conservative governments notoriously seek to blur this line, both in terms of authorising power and in the minds of the citizenry.

Next, the body of the article. The first two sentences are directly contradictory. By which I mean, the second sentence appears to contradict the first:

Australia’s military would be given more powers while dealing with national emergencies such as bushfires and pandemics under new laws to be drawn up by the federal government. The Morrison government plans to amend the Defence Act to hand the Prime Minister of the day the power to declare a national emergency or disaster and deploy the Australian Defence Force within Australia.

Either more powers to military officers – the constitutional head of the ADF is the Governor General – will be authorised by the proposed amendments; OR more powers will be ‘handed’ – by the process of both houses of parliament passing legislative amendment bills – to the prime minister of the day. The prime minister is not the military. Both claims can only be true iff the proposed amendments are designed to expand the authority of military commanders AND politicians acting in their capacity as the federal executive, which seems like a lot of expansion of powers.

Is this the plan?

The legal and constitutional limits on deploying the armed forces domestically has this year come into sharp focus after there was confusion about the deployment of troops in NSW during the summer’s bushfires and Victoria’s Andrews government repeatedly declined to accept the offer of ADF support for its hotel quarantine program. [original hyperlinks]

The claim here is that ‘confusion’ around legal and constitutional limits of domestic military deployment has brought the legal and constitutional limits of domestic military deployment ‘into sharp focus’. There is not, however, confusion about the convention that the states have reserve powers to request military support; and the Commonwealth does not have unilateral power to send in the troops. This is widely accepted.

Also, if naming practices were consistent, the last part would read ‘troops in NSW’s Berejiklian government during the summer bushfires and Victoria’s Andrews government reportedly repeatedly declined to accept the Commonwealth’s Morrison government offer of ADF support’.

By what we can only assume is coincidence, the unnamed governments in the article (Commonwealth and NSW) are Coalition governments; and the government identified by the name of its leader (Victoria) is a Labor government.

The next sentence opens with the accepted convention about which there is, by the authors own phrasing, by this paragraph, no confusion.

While states and territories would still need to make a request for ADF support, government sources with knowledge of the potential legislation say the changes will make it easier to deploy the military and clearly set out its roles and responsibilities. This would likely include giving defence personnel greater legal protections in the event they have to help police search a property or detain someone.

This is old news. In 2006, the Howard government passed Defence Legislation Amendment (Aid to Civilian Authorities) Act 2006 to amend the Defence Act 1903 (Cth) and provide ‘greater legal protections’. These ‘protections’ – for the military – include exempting ADF members from criminal liability (s. 51WB), with a federal override of state criminal codes (s. 51WA); and from wearing identifying name tags ‘during operations’ (s. 515(1)(b)). The government can designate infrastructure ‘critical’ and thereby enliven legal use of force by the ADF to ‘protect’ it (s. 51T(2A) (see Head and Mann 2009 p. 415). This a foundational principle of the penal colony, by the way: use of military force against the people to protect [stolen] property of the state.

During the subsequent APEC summit, which saw police, private security and ADF stationed around the city of Sydney, Liberal Party politicians spent their time doing the numbers in a futile bid to crowbar John Howard – a man who was, in the words of Paul Keating, araldited to the seat – out of the prime ministers office (they failed). Meanwhile, a group of comedians, one dressed as Osama bin Laden, breached the cordon so comprehensively that producer Julian Morrow, not security, turned their fake motorcade around.

The article then repeats the by now well-settled not-confused convention that states can request military support; and quotes a couple of experts who are all for ‘clarifying’ the Defence Act ‘powers’. [There is no comment from, say, pacifists. And the only named politican quoted is an 8-month old grab from Scott Morrison.] This is the ‘chain of command’ assumption that the military are an ideal solution to emergencies and disasters; and there are merely logistical and administrative issues to codify.

The assumption is wrong. Even during the Blitz, the City of London appointed civilian marshals to manage air raid shelters. Australia already has an ‘army’ of volunteers, and recruited thousands more for the Sydney Olympics, doing a vast range of tasks. Volunteer fire brigade and SES members are highly skilled and local community. They attend car accidents, bushfires, floods and cyclones, and other disaster sites.

Sydneysiders may recall that a central reason offered up for the abject failure to resolve the Lindt café siege more quickly and less fatally was command chain confusion. There is absolutely nothing to say that the military are better equipped to manage health regulations during a pandemic than civilian marshals; or that more laws would not further complicate the chain of command between police and domestically deployed military.

In fact, the evidence points the other way.

There are two more key issues I want to highlight. One is that the ‘sources’ for this story are ‘government sources with knowledge of the potential legislation’.

Under the changes, the law would be amended so the military could be called out to “national emergencies and disasters”, which would cover events such as bushfires, floods and pandemics. The callout would occur only if the Prime Minister, Defence Minister and Attorney-General agreed a state or territory was not able to protect the Commonwealth or itself against the threat.

The first sentence is a semiotic signal, designed to seamlessly shift from ‘natural disasters’ to ‘emergency [executive] powers’. In Australian jurisprudence – by which I primarily mean High Court case law – emergency powers are closely, almost exclusively, associated with wartime measures. The second is a sap to ‘safeguards’, which will receive increasing attention if or when this story develops. It highlights legal ‘protections’ that would be redundant if the executive were not expanding executive power in the first place.

Speaking of semiotics, a useful rule of thumb is that ‘protection’, in legal contexts, almost invariably means ‘control’.

The clincher is classic Morrison. It leads me to suppose that the ‘government sources’ for this story are almost certainly Morrison staffers.

The government wants to make the changes to the Defence Act ahead of this summer, but it will await the findings of the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, which is due to hand down its report on October 28, before making the changes. Other changes that will streamline the callout powers for ADF reserves will be put to Parliament earlier.

Apart from the inherent climate denialism of labelling last summers catastrophic fire season a “natural” disaster, this is why the ‘bushfire’ Royal Commission – a nickname suggested on the home page of the Commission itself – was tasked to investigate “national natural disaster arrangements”. It is why a military man, Mark Binskin, instead of a scientist, was appointed Royal Commissioner. It may produce a useful body of evidence on bushfire managements – and I am sure it will – but the political purpose is, and was all along, to provide rationalisation to expand ‘emergency’ executive power. Again, never waste a good crisis.

Finally, the article is bookended by yet more Morrison perspective. This bit is about what the prime minister “believes” is “a community expectation”. It contains the most common technique used by political operators enjoying the vast reach of incumbency. What this statement amounts to is the head of executive government stating his desire for more executive power, attributing his desire to the people, and backing this sleight of hand by nothing more than a statement of his belief.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in January he had been “very conscious of testing the limits of constitutionally defined roles and responsibilities this bushfire season… I believe, however, there is now a clear community expectation that the Commonwealth should have the ability to respond in times of national emergencies and disasters, particularly through deployment of our defence forces in circumstances where the life and property of Australians have been assessed to be under threat,” he said.

Regardless of what Scott Morrison says about community expectations, the reality is that he wants to expand militarisation of Commonwealth government responses, as he did to refugees, as he is doing on the climate crisis and now, handed a pandemic, to that as well.

Federalism 101

This post is written on unceded lands of the sovereign Darug people. I offer my respects to their elders and express my profound gratitude that our family may live safely here.

It has come to my attention that there are some gaps in Australian public knowledge of how Australian federalism works. While underemployed at home, I thought it might be useful to write up a bit of an explainer.

First Peoples First

There are two systems of law in this country, the first law of the land and the legal system imposed at gun point by the colonial power, the then-British empire, now reconstituted as the Commonwealth. This is not a controversial statement, it is historical and legal fact.

Historical because the law of the land was here when the British invaded and colonised the land and First Peoples; it is still here in the land and in the custodianship of First Peoples. These are ontological truths. To borrow from the Uluru Statement from the Heart, how could it be otherwise?

Legal because in 1992, the colonial law formally recognised the law of the land. I say ‘colonial’ because the High Court is a creation of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 (Imp), which in turn is a creature of the British Parliament (Imperial). The court found that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ traditional laws and customs pre-date the assertion of sovereignty by the British Crown; their laws survived invasion and colonisation; and can determine what English law calls ‘rights and interests’ in land. The relevant authority lies with Mabo v Queensland (No. 2) (1992) 175 CLR 1 and Native Title Act 1993 (Cth).

While the land is the source of the first law of the land, Westminster systems rely largely on ‘authority’ for legitimacy. Longevity and repetition are co-existent sources of common law legitimacy, where longevity maxes out to 1189 (Statute of Westminster 1275 (3 Edw I)), a long time in white years.

There are many other differences, and similarities, between the two systems of law in this country, which I will not elaborate on here. The purpose of these introductory points is 1) respect and protocol. As with everywhere else in the world throughout human history – when in Rome, as the saying goes – when on Aboriginal lands it is protocol to respect Aboriginal law; and 2) establish the foundational legal relationships before looking in more detail at the next level of institutional power arrangements.

That next level is the federation of former colonies into states and the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia.

Federation and federalism

The first thing to understand about English institutions is that everything is arranged hierarchically; and the hierarchy is incapable of accurately portraying its own dominance. For example, the common law is presided over by judges drawn from the landed gentry class, who apply the law to commoners. These same people declare common law to be common sense (my analysis of conservative ideology here).

You can see this same dynamic operating when Scott Morrison hectors the Australian public about ‘common sense’ as though there is such a thing as sensible positions, held in common by a whole population. There isn’t. In reality there is just a man who wields enormous socio-positional power, demanding that everybody conform to his perspective.

In a federation of former colonies such as ours, the key hierarchical concept is paramountcy. This relies on the fiction that English subjects travel overseas with the common law in their kerchiefs or wherever, and then make or interpret rules according to conditions on the ground (the Blackstonian school). But they must not make new rules that are repugnant (conflict with) the law back home, which is paramount.

Examples are when the Colonial Laws Validity Acts 1865 (28 & 29 Vict. c. 63) were passed in Westminster, laws passed by colonial legislatures were validated unless repugnant to laws passed in England to govern the dominions. In other words, imperial but not domestic British law was still paramount. Later, another Statute of Westminster 1931 (Imp) released former colonies from imperial paramountcy (eventually adopted in 1942 here).

Similarly, our Constitution has a paramountcy provision (s. 109). If the states pass a law that conflicts with Commonwealth law – such that the people can not obey both laws at once – the Commonwealth law prevails to the extent of the inconsistency.

These are institutional power arrangements, illustrated by a hierarchy of laws. We also have a hierarchy of courts, which brings me to the next set of structural frameworks: the three branches of government.

Branches of government

Most people are across the three branches of government: legislature, executive, and judiciary. In theory, each institution operates as a restraint on abuse of power by the other two. This is the ‘checks and balances’ you may recall from school civics class. Also in theory, the parliament (legislature) is sovereign.

This is a cherished but mythical democratic ideal: the parliament is sovereign because, unlike the executive and judiciary, it is elected by the people to represent us. It is cherished because democracy sounds like a nice idea (it is). It is a myth because some of the executive are appointed (public servants) while the most powerful (ministers) are also elected, ie they are politicians. This gets messy and reliant on ‘convention’ when it comes to the prime minister advising the Governor General; or partisan factions, comprised of politicians who are also legislators, defenestrating an elected leader and spilling cabinet positions in the party room.

Anyway where were we? Sovereignty.

Sovereignty is the legitimate authority to govern a territory and the population within its borders. Fun fact that illustrates this: the Vatican is not a sovereign state because it has no permanent civil population. The Australian parliament is sovereign but not supreme, contrary to what AV Dicey, who is dead, would say (little law joke for yas). This is because its authority is delimited by a written constitution. Pre-federation colonial powers – ie not encoded into the constitution as Commonwealth powers – default to the states (or, more controversially, the Governor General). You have probably heard of these ‘unwritten’ areas of governing authority as reserve powers

These are distinct ways in which the Australian federation, despite its Westminster pedigree, differs from British governance in Britain, while still being weighed down by many of its internal inconsistencies and confused lines of authority. The UK is not a federation, their constituencies are a mishmash of ‘home counties’ inextricably rooted in feudalism and boroughs, many of them ‘rotten’. And their constitution is what their law calls ‘unwritten’ which means it is not contained in a single written document.

For example, the monumental Supreme Court decision (judiciary) last year that the Prime Minister (executive) acted unlawfully when he advised the Queen (executive) to prorogue the Parliament (legislature) is not just a textbook case of ‘checks and balances’, although it is that. The judgement also seamlessly enters the body of the common law. By virtue of its authority and hierarchy of courts, the decision becomes part of their constitution.

But back to Australia.

So the judiciary is also fairly straightforward, a hierarchy of courts, from the local or county or magistrates, to the state and territory supreme courts, up to the High Court of Australia. The Supreme Courts have special status, both as constitutional (Chapter III) courts and legacy colonial institutions. More recently created courts such as the NSW Land and Environment Court or the Family Court of Australia are creatures of statute rather than the constitution and history (colonial power).

(If you are wondering about this language of created and creatures, these are legal terms of art and my little dig at northern jurisprudence, which obsesses over sources of law. In reality, the land is the source of the law where I live; and the human mind and male violence are the sources of law in the western tradition.)

The High Court sits in its original jurisdiction to determine constitutional matters. Nobody else can do this. Nothing is unconstitutional unless or until the High Court says so. If the federal parliament purports to pass a law and that law is challenged and found to be ultra vires (beyond constitutionally-endowed authority to make), the High Court will strike it down in whole or in part.

This is important: the legislature is proactive, it can draft and table and pass a law according to the ideology and platform of the party or parties in power (an aging explainer of mine (2014) here). In contrast, courts are reactive, there must be a matter filed before it and then the court determines the outcome. Occasionally the court or chief justice may be asked to provide an advisory opinion, which has the weight of high-ranking legal advice but not the authority of the court. It is profoundly undemocratic to cite advice like this to rationalise sacking a democratically elected government which has the confidence of the House.

So when people ask what is the constitutional authority of the national cabinet? the answer is not applicable. The correct question is whether there are grounds to challenge the formulation of the national cabinet in the High Court. The answer is probably no, because it is a political, not a legal entity. The answer to whether such a challenge would be successful during a pandemic is almost definitely no. The High Court tends not to intervene when executive governments are exercising emergency powers.

Why? In the current circumstances, there is global and national consensus that we are experiencing an emergency. The government, however corruptly, is elected. It is making arrangements to respond to the emergency, or so it says, with the imprimatur of state Premiers and it is the states which constitute the federation. Leaving aside the territories and their chief ministers for a moment, the states are the constituent parts of a federation created by a constitution which endows paramountcy on the federated whole.

This is Federalism 101, Commonwealth of Australia edition.

The High Court would not intervene in Morrison’s ‘national cabinet’ because such an intervention would be akin to a judicial coup. If they ‘struck down’ the national cabinet as unconstitutional, who would govern? The Governor General (executive)? The High Court bench (judiciary)? The state parliaments (legislatures), in a pre-federation arrangement of colonies, which would imply accountability to what is now a foreign power (Australia Act 1986 (Cth); Sue v Hill [1999] HCA 30)? Her majesty’s loyal opposition, without an election and thus consent of the people?

Whither democracy? Our problem is political, not legal. Before turning to a political solution, a closer look at the trickiest – and arguably most powerful – branch of the tripartite system.

Executive government

This is the branch that gives law students the most headaches, for good reason: it carries residual power of the crown. The English slaughtered each other in great numbers 400 years ago to shift sovereignty away from absolute (despotic) monarchs and toward the parliament. Yet the Crown hangs around, a proverbial bad smell, seemingly impossible to expunge entirely. Even a whole hemisphere away this remains a bit of a problem, because colonialism.

In its simplest form, the executive is the ministry (cabinet) and departments (public servants) plus the Governor General. Note that unlike in the USA, where the President appoints his (sic) cabinet, our ministers are also legislators. So there is no separation of powers, any more than there ever was, like when the highest UK appeal court was the House of Lords – the knights temporal (landed gentry) and spiritual (bishops).

Like democracy itself, separation of powers is a cherished ideal, and carries with it useful principles, erratically applied. All manmade (socially constructed) borders, such as fences and institutional power – delineations that are not rivers or mountains or oceans – the boundaries are a moveable feast, ultimately determined by armed force or threat of its use.

To illustrate, police are executive government, and so are Centrelink and prison officers, and Peter Dutton, and the Premiers and Chief Ministers, and the Governor General, and tax collectors and chiefs of staff and secretaries of Prime Minister and Cabinet. They have enormous power of governance. Decisions about denying income support to citizens, or locking you in a cell, or banishing non-citizens to off-shore detention, are all within their purview, their legal exercise of state power.

Armed agents of the state, from the army and navy and airforce to police and BorderForce, are executive government. This is even more important to know as courts shut down and Parliament sits intermittently, with a hugely reduced quorum. The traditional checks and balances on executive power are hobbled, while ever more draconian measures are introduced almost exclusively by exercising executive power.

There is no doubt that police abuse the power they have; and no doubt about which sectors of the population police target with those abuses, such as Aboriginal women and girls..

Consider the police power to issue on-the-spot fines for being in public without reasonable excuse. The exercise of police discretion is reported as a solution, but on the evidence, this is the problem. The authorities release thousands of cruise ship passengers, a known and high infection risk, to spread out across the country. They now account for 10% of all coronavirus cases in Australia. What price paid by any minister or department head for this monumental mistake? I know the public are paying – for international travellers to be isolated in 5-star hotels – now that horse has bolted.

Or what about teenagers, who genuinely need time with each other? (Google it. They really, really do). Will teens be fined $11,000 at a skate park, when the state has made no effort to create safe spaces where they can be supervised, physically distanced but not socially isolated? What are the penalties for bosses who force young workers to do dangerous and demeaning work in return for the publicly funded ‘job keeper’ payment?

It is these executive powers, which enable armed violence of the state, that are now without even the slow and inadequate mechanisms of parliamentary or judicial oversight.

National cabinet is executive government in this federation

One headline matter of concern is that the Australian government has once again shut down the federal parliament, this time for five months. It is not prorogued, or closed pending an election. It is risen, not sitting. Resting, not dead. The government has changed the schedule of sitting days to not reconvene until August, but it will probably re-open before then, with a minimum of 31 MPs, to pass appropriation bills (explainer here).

It is worth noting that minimisation of sitting days, and thus accountability of executive government to the parliament, has happened with disturbing regularity during the current regime. By current regime I mean the Coalition government which came to office in September 2013, replaced its then-leader Tony Abbott in September 2015, and replaced his replacement in August 2018.

In between these outbreaks of chronic indiscipline and factional disunity, the Parliament has been closed for trivial, political reasons. A good example is when the Turnbull government prorogued parliament on the flimsy pretext of recalling it to pass union-busting bills. You know the bloke the press gallery said is a moderate? He used the Constitution (s. 5) for the first time since 1977 to pave the way for a double dissolution election, a move which ushered our most famous racist back into the Australian parliament, who in turn brought an actual nazi onto the Senate cross-benches. So that went well.

I am going to deal with the FAQs around federal-state responsibilities – such as rents (states) borders (federal) and national cabinet (political, not legal) – in a separate post. This is because firstly, this piece is already too long; and secondly, I want to include two other issues here before I wrap it up. One is the role of the fourth estate; and the other is a question I am asked more often than any other: what can we do?

Does the fourth estate hold government to account?

No. Media organisations are corporations, and press gallery journalists are very privileged, mostly white, people on high salaries. They have not lost trust in the government because they form their views based on personal interactions with politicians instead of how those politicians conduct themselves in high office, the way the country is governed. They are comfortable with – or ignorant to – the looming jackboot roll out, because they have press passes, and consider themselves to be exceptions to the rule.

There is another dynamic here, which sees the fourth estate march in lockstep with (tory) governments. Journalists assume the worst of the public, and governments fear loss of social order more than anything else. So both tell themselves that concealing information from the public is in the public interest, because panic. This is false. To return to the catastrophic bushfire season we just endured, there were very few examples of panic; and vast evidence of communities working together.

Hoarding toilet paper is not a breakdown of public order, but pretending it is the ‘thin edge of the wedge’, a floodgates fallacy, is convenient for government and the press. It can not and should not be extrapolated to anarchy. There is no logical line from strained toilet paper supply lines to jackboots on the street criminalising kids at skate parks while the prime minister shouts and carries on about going to school until, finally, he stops and concedes his kids are being kept home instead.

The reality is that the fourth estate is a pillar of power alongside the other three; and we can not expect gallery journalists to sacrifice self-interest for the public interest any more than we can expect Scott Morrison to put the social good ahead of his political objectives. They never will, and he never will. Public health considerations aside, these are political problems and require a political solution.

So what can we do?

My own view is that the Premiers and Chief Ministers, the Opposition and Greens and cross-benchers, and Liberal or Nationals or LNP waverers like Llew O’Brien, should move to an orderly transfer of power. I think they should insist on the necessity of recalling the parliament, and pass a no-confidence motion in the Morrison government on the floor of the House. Fear of this is the true reason the parliament has been placed in hibernation, as the lengthy introduction to this post recapped.

I think all this should be done with the goal of compelling Scott Morrison and then Anthony Albanese to visit the Governor General. I think the Morrison approach is recklessly indifferent to human life, crassly negligent of workers including unemployed workers, and nothing more than a continuation of policies that relentlessly transfer public resources to private interests; but now with more money. He has not adapted and responded to the pandemic. He is continuing on the same path, with the same agenda, the agenda that the press gallery called ‘no agenda’ throughout the 2019 campaign (which I wrote about here and here)

The example I cite in these discussion is when Menzies went on an indulgent overseas trip during the Second World War, returned to find he had lost the confidence of his party – as Scott Morrison should have when he got back from Hawaii last year. The party lost the support of independents, lost its parliamentary majority, Menzies resigned, his party lost government, and then lost the subsequent election.

The crucial point is that Labor formed government from opposition without an election, because we are not equipped to safely hold a federal election during a pandemic. There was an orderly transfer of power, from an arrogant leader out of his depth to one who governed in the national interest.

I will not be lectured on the Dutton diagnosis by this press gallery

The second most powerful man in Australia is hospitalised with Covid-19. In a crowded field, few men have done more to tear at the fabric of the Australian polity than Peter Dutton.

In June 2018, Dutton claimed the cruel and compassion-free asylum seeker policy of his government – designed by Scott Morrison and Jim ‘butcher of Fallujah’ Molan – ‘could be undone overnight by a single act of compassion’. Here is a bloke who aggressively pushed to repeal the law that provided for medical evacuations from our off-shore detention camps. This is race-based denial of medical care. At any given opportunity he promotes racism, particularly by conflating specific ethnic identities with what, on the evidence, would seem to be a vastly over-inflated terror threat.

A former Queensland cop, the Dutton special is to drop an absolute clanger, about migrants from Lebanon, say, or the whole of Africa. After letting his racist messaging spread and fester for maximum impact, the Prime Minister of the day, whoever that is, rolls out the tired line about Australia as the most successful multicultural (Turnbull) or migrant (Morrison) society on earth (an heroic assertion demythologised in Overland here).

Rinse and repeat.

Dutton has been hospitalised for Covid-19 after he returned from the USA. There, he met with the nepotistically elevated Ivanka Trump among others, and achieved nothing – or nothing I can find on the public record – in the national interest. The ABC is now reporting that Ivanka will ‘work’ – whatever she does – from home after exposure to a known infected person, to wit, Peter Dutton.

After Dutton released his Covid-19 confirmation statement at the classic trash-taking time of 5:50pm on a Friday night, the Prime Minister declared that neither he nor any other member of cabinet needs to be tested for the virus, and nor are they required to self-isolate. He tweeted:

In advice provided this evening, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer has reiterated only people who had close contact with the Minister in the preceding 24 hours before he became symptomatic need to self-isolate. That does not include myself or any other members of the Cabinet.

Typically, for Morrison political communication strategy, this statement is hedged by deflecting responsibility away from himself and on to someone else, in this case the Deputy Chief Medical Officer. Earlier this week Morrison, who has ignored increasingly urgent messaging from Reserve Bank Governor Dr Phillip Lowe for his entire prime ministership, claimed that the recent business handouts announcement is informed by advice from, wait for it, RBA Governor Dr Phillip Lowe.

Another example is his aggressive insistence that he would be going to the footy. Morrison carefully spread the responsibility for his poor judgement: I’m very comfortable with that my colleagues are very comfortable with that, he claimed unconvincingly.

At the time of writing, there was no word from the prime minister on why the Deputy CMO rather than the Chief Medical Officer is advising the entire cabinet about direct contact with an infected person. That same CMO has been wheeled out – looking like a hostage from where I sit – blink twice if you have been kidnapped, Dr Murphy – to share the stage with the Prime Minister as he delivers his grandiose announceables like cancelling mass gatherings (over 500 people) from Monday for the cameras.

Does it matter? The nonsensical public denial about whether cabinet should be tested will surely be reversed. Morrison walked back his footy fuckwittery within four hours, on the purported basis that his attendance could be ‘misrepresented’. By who? The press gallery loyally report his every word, rarely criticise his bad decisions, and invariably down-play the risk he poses.

Here is the Morrison comms pattern: make a badly-conceived announcement, like going to the footy on the weekend, be condemned by experts and the public (but not, on the whole, by the press gallery). He then ungraciously and aggressively walks his ill-conceived statements back and lies about lying. He shamelessly tells the press – and via the press the public – look Leigh, he is being completely upfront and perfectly frank or whatever weasel words spring to the prime ministerial mind.

It is worth noting that the things Morrison says are influenced by his deranged and backwards religion. His faith, about which he shamelessly proselytises straight to camera while denying that he is doing so, is populated by deluded and materialistic opportunists with an unwavering devotion to extracting profit from human loneliness and misery.

In sum, on his record, we can assume the prime minister will soon also reverse his dangerously irresponsible position that cabinet ministers do not need to self-isolate or be tested. Not least because the boss does not get to decide personal health service access on behalf of others. No boss has that right, and a boss who tries that is acting in violation of fundamental human and legal rights.

Until that happens: Deconstructing the Dutton diagnosis

Of all the people to find room for in our hearts, I would place Peter Dutton stone fatherless last, alongside Morrison himself.

The diagnosis is not cause for the Australian public to be ‘wishing Peter Dutton the best’ as David Crowe, chief political correspondent at nine/fairfax newspapers, condescendingly told ‘twitter’ – a social media platform, demonstrating his deep misunderstanding of ‘new’ (12-year-old) media – on here.

It is unsurprising to see Crowe joining the likes of Chris coal-spruiking Uhlmann and Michael false-balance Rowland in their disdain for their audiences – and thus for the electorate. It is no coincidence that the worst offenders in the Canberra press gallery belong to the same demographic group, the demographic that holds the most unearned positional power and are most threatened by the expansion of media beyond legacy print and broadcast.

The emergence of social media platforms has created space that include and more widely disseminate the views and experiences and expertise of women of many backgrounds, of First Nations and Black people representing a multitude of communities, from People of Colour. This does not suit the interests of those white males who have enjoyed dominance for so long.

Because the rise of social media and the complicity of the parliamentary press gallery in absolutely horrendous policy outcomes produced by the Morrison and Turnbull and Abbott governments – which the press characterise as ‘no policy’ rather than drastically harmful policy, as I wrote during the 2019 election campaign here – are matters of urgency during a pandemic, I am going to take a closer look at what Crowe, as a typical example of his professional and demographic group, said.

First, the message is designed for maximum outrage-trawling and clicks. We can deduce this from the fact that the tweet links to his article about the Dutton diagnosis.

Bad news. We should all be wishing @PeterDutton_MP the best. Twitter makes it easy for us to turn against each other but it is sickening to see at a time like this.

Bad news. Bad news for who? Certainly not the public. Dutton not only presides over monstrous cruelty and deliberately spreads racist hate, he churns through billions of our dollars with no accountability. Here is a story about mismanaging the transfer of over $1 billion in public moneys to private sector interests. Here is another, about Dutton giving almost half a billion public dollars to a company that subsequent reports demonstrate is wholly unfit to do business. It was the PNG government that eventually stepped in to stop the rot. Dutton is also going full speed ahead on handing visa application ‘services’ over to the private sector despite the fact that the lead bidder, Scott Briggs, is on the Liberal Party donor list. The prime minister claimed his listing is a typo. I have a bridge to sell to whoever believes that.

So, no. Taking Peter Dutton out of the public domain for a fortnight is not bad news for non-citizens seeking asylum or visas, nor for the vast majority of Australians, people whose communities he attacks, whose money he wastes, in whose interests he refuses to act. Crowe’s view may be shared with some professional colleagues, a few senior public servants (but not staff – Home Affairs has the lowest morale among federal government departments), racist haters, and presumably Dutton’s family. That does not translate to the population at large.

We should all be wishing @PeterDutton_MP the best.

It is just so embarrassing to me that a senior gallery journalist would signal what AAVE calls ‘pick me’ posturing like this. The pickme component is tagging the tweet to Dutton’s twitter account, to let the minister know that good ol’ Dave is busy busy, pushing back on Dutton’s behalf, against meanies who say mean things on twitter.

But it is also a wider pattern of certain gallery journalists who deliberately trawl for clicks-via-imagined-outrage. In this, Crowe joins the aforementioned Uhlmann and Rowland and other faves like Peter van Onselen and Joe Hildebrand.

There are two specific components to the method. The first is to pre-empt a response that may or may not materialise. Uhlmann likes to proclaim what ‘leftie twitter’ is saying without checking to see if anyone is in fact saying it.  He may be a senior gallery journalist, he also just makes stuff up. Apparently Peta Credlin has adopted this technique too, telling her Sky viewer that progressives are hating on Dutton. None of this is new, of course – tory thinking is never creative or new. Gerard Henderson has been telling whoever will listen what ‘leftists’ think for decades. He never checks, or even defines who these leftists are. Presumably anyone more progressive than himself.

In other words, trolling for ratings has merely migrated stock-standard tory method across platforms. In his tweet, Crowe assumes, without evidence, that there are people who are not wishing Dutton the best. This is a fair bet, not because people are mean, but because Dutton is a monstrous character who causes unspeakable harm.

The second component is to generate outrage for follow-up ‘analysis’ and then more clicks. Joe Hildebrand has elevated this to an art form, sitting up past midnight to diligently retweet every single positive comment, no matter how bot-like the source, for maximum irritation factor. He has doubled his online following – and presumably pay-rise leverage with his employers – with this particular brand of racist hate. It is unbelievably annoying to see his unstoppable bad-faith self-promotion in action. It is not impact-neutral, either. He shouts down and crowds out actual experts on racism as he goes.

The other teeth-grinding aspect of Crowe telling us how to feel about Dutton being diagnosed with coronavirus is the self-righteous superiority of tone. It is laughable to suggest that the Australian public take moral instruction from the parliamentary press gallery. If they want to start dishing out sanctimonious advice, they can start with themselves. It is the gallery who collectively backed Morrison, and Turnbull, and Abbott, all of whom are drastic failures as national leaders, into office.

Twitter makes it easy for us to turn against each other…

Again, the vast ignorance of what social media is and how it works is on embarrassingly bold display here. Twitter is a social media platform. Each account holder curates their own twitter experience. Some block en masse, others follow everyone back, journalists use it to broadcast rather than socialise (except when talking among themselves). And to signal supportive stances to politicians. A well-managed social media account reflects real-world relationships and networks. It does not exist independently of human society, it is not removed from the slings and arrows, the flaws and foibles, of human community.

Twitter makes it ‘easy’ to connect with communities of interest. It also makes it easy for some people to attack others, especially those with existing socio-positional power, like gallery journalists. But Crowe is not even doing that. He is just shadow-boxing, straw-manning, fabricating an imagined community of people ‘turning against each other’. If people were posting gloating comments about the Dutton diagnosis, it is certain sure they were ‘against’ his politics long before he got sick.

For the record, I saw few comments wishing Dutton ill, although I agree with most of the ones I did see. The most common view expressed in my newsfeed was that Dutton should be sent for quarantine on Christmas Island, the policy Dutton implemented for people returning from China. It is a view that strikes me as perfectly reasonable in the circumstances.

but it is sickening to see at a time like this.

This is just wrong, and shows a horribly tin ear. If David Crowe feels ‘sickened’ by people responding to the Dutton diagnosis, he is not actually sick from it. Seeing twitter comments has not made him unwell. At a time when thousands of people are sick and dying from a pandemic, and our leaders are failing us on a national level, projecting his mild discomfort at reading what we really think of the hideously cruel Home Affairs minister as ‘sickening’ is a ridiculous degree of self-centred and dense.

Just my opinion.

As I write, ABC Sydney radio is reporting on precautionary action at the Sydney offices where cabinet met on Tuesday. I can not find the story online yet, but heard it on the 12 noon news, and assume it will appear here soon. There is footage of hazmat workers posted by channel nine news reporter Chris O’Keefe here. The reversal of the current Morrison government position that cabinet need not be tested or self-isolated must surely not be too far away. I give it until the evening news bulletins.





Heroes of Green Wattle Creek (and the leaders who abandoned them)

As one of the longest and hottest days of the year dawned, Australians woke up to the news that two volunteer fire fighters, Geoffrey Keaton and Andrew O’Dwyer, are dead. The photos, published by the NSW Rural Fire Service, of each man smiling proudly and holding his baby for the camera are gut wrenching. They are western Sydney dads in their 30s, Aussie everymen.

Geoff is a Deputy Captain of the Horsley Park Brigade. He grins broadly, sunnies lifted to close-cropped hair, pride and just a hint of nervousness for the precious bundle in his arms. You have bought a meat tray ticket from this bloke. He helped you put up a tent in strong winds.

Andrew is also from the Horsley Park Brigade. He has taken his baby girl for a bushwalk. Their eyes are a matching deep purple blue. He has drawn her attention to the camera, she points and smiles for a father-daughter selfie. You can see his joy at showing her the great outdoors.

There is no doubt in my mind that fatigue played a role in the deaths of these two men. This is not jumping to conclusions. It is simple deduction. The fire season usually starts to hit hard in January and peaks in February. This year it began in September. In the past, it was not unusual for firefighters to hold the line until the rains come. This year there has been no rain.

Fire chiefs have repeatedly told the political leadership that action is needed, on the unprecedented length and intensity of the fire season, and the undeniable fact that climate change is the cause of this length and intensity.

The NSW Premier, on a photo opportunity fire ground tour with the Prime Minister, told journalists ‘not today’ when asked about the impacts of climate change on the catastrophe. The Prime Minister, asked about fire fighting resources and equipment at a press conference on religious discrimination, his pet culture wars project, said

And the fact is these crews, yes, they’re tired, but they also want to be out there defending their communities. And so we do all we can to rotate their shifts to give them those breaks but equally they, and in many cases, you’ve got to hold them back to make sure they get that rest.

Morrison has no role in shift rotation, so this claim is disingenuous at best. It is also evidence that he was briefed on crew fatigue before he jetted off for a family holiday in Hawaii. His overseas trip was repeatedly lied about by his office; and defended by friendly media on the basis that he has no operational responsibility for the fires. In fact, only the Commonwealth can authorise deployment of ADF personnel to fire support duties; and Morrison has repeatedly claimed he is in control of a ‘nationally co-ordinated effort’. So both the shift rotation claim and the operational responsibilities claims are, in typical Morison and his mates fashion, bullshit.

A litany of lies, which is no surprise

The woeful inadequacy of his response to the fires, to the fire chiefs and the press and the public, is matched by signature Morrison characteristics: gross inconsistency and self-contradiction, obvious dishonesty and post-facto rationalisation, deflection and distraction. A motor-mouth of jumblefuckery, he spouts thousands of words and says nothing of value.

Morrison has been like this for as long as I can remember him in the public sphere. He was crow-barred out of an extremely high-paying job at Tourism Australia for what was almost certainly corrupted no-tender spending of government money, as Karen Middleton reports here [$]. It is extremely difficult to get a Liberal Party operative out of cushy publicly-funded jobs, but then-Minister for Tourism Fran Baily somehow managed it, an indicator of just how badly Morrison conducted himself in the position.

He did not stop, though. Just continued from a position of higher authority. The practice of handing out public money to corporate mates without process or tender is a hall mark of his government and its predecessors, in which he was a cabinet minister. The preferred Coalition government unit of public cash handouts is around half a billion dollars: $423 million here, $444 million there, a shady $500 million worth of Commonwealth contracts everywhere.

Before ascending to cabinet and ultimately the prime ministership amid bullying so sexist that even the press gallery briefly noticed, the Morrison ruthlessness was in plain sight to anyone who cared to look. Spoiler: not the press gallery. They told voters throughout the election that Morrison was campaigning on his economic record without bothering to check how disastrous that record is, as I wrote here at the time.

So yes, the Morrison MO has been known since at least 2007 as he formally entered public life. Here are a few highlights.

His pre-selection is a case study in ‘faceless man’ backroom bullying. As shadow immigration minister he opined that then-Victoria Police Commissioner Christine Nixon should not have gone out to dinner during the catastrophic 2009 fires by saying it is ‘incumbent on all of us in public life to make decisions following that in the best interests of the ongoing nature of the program’. I mean. Look at it.

As Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, under a policy he co-designed with Jim ‘butcher of Falujah’ Molan, he refused to answer questions about asylum seekers who we have surely towed to their deaths. He called this ‘on-water matters’. Yet just this week I heard an ABC News24 panel say that the secrecy surrounding the Morrison family holiday was ‘out of character’. No, it isn’t.

The policy that drives Centrelink income support recipients to an early grave was championed by Morrison as Treasurer. In the dying days of the interminable 2016 campaign in which the Liberals lost 16 seats, he brandished his punitive cuts to social security payments as a sword, crowing about how tough it is to target the poorest people to pay for his budget bottom line. Robodebt has since been found by the Federal Court to have no legal basis, but the government is digging in. Why? Because its budget headlines are based on a fabricated figure that requires the forward estimates of Robodebt repayments.

Headlines matter more to this government than the Rule of Law. If they can not change the law to suit their political desires – most governments can and do – they simply ignore it.

Perhaps the defining characteristic of the Morrison prime ministership is his capacity to stare straight down the barrel of a camera and tell shameless and obviously disprovable lies. He calls emissions increases “reductions”. He claims to be “suspending” campaigning for the holy days of easter and then invites the press into his place of worship, a prime example of the moron magnet.

None of this is called out. If the defining characteristics of the Morrison government are lying and bullying, the defining characteristic of the parliamentary press gallery is an infinite capacity to bow to his alternative reality. They report contradictory pronouncements without batting an eye. The most recent example is the ludicrous headlines claiming that Morrison has ‘cancelled’ a holiday and is ‘rushing’ home. He hasn’t, and he isn’t.

All power, no repsonisbility

More importantly, defenders of the Morrison government have bought the fatuous line that the prime minister does not really have a role to play in responding to the catastrophe. According to Morrison on Friday morning, talking to a friendly broadcaster at the home of racist Sydney radio, he does not hold a hose, mate. He is not sitting in a control room. It did not trouble the press or, obviously, Morrison, that the prime minister has also said, and this is just in the last week:

Yes, they’re tired, but they also want to out there defending their communities. And so we do all we can to rotate those shifts to give them those breaks but equally they, and in many cases you’ve got to hold them back to make sure they get that rest.

It’s a national co-ordinated effort from the Commonwealth’s point of view, pursued through emergency management Australia, and the control centre there is also bringing in the involvement of the Australian defence Force and the many other agencies of government.

[national co-ordination is] led by a Cabinet Minister who reports directly to me and I deal with it directly with the premiers of the states and chief ministers of the territories. I don’t think it can any higher than that.

As is the case with all fire events, or as is the case with all flood events and other natural disasters, this actual national co-ordinated effort is desiogned to constantly look at these issues, post these events.

The Government has been working closely, as part of the national co-ordinated effort, to address the national disaster of these fires.

When I was speaking with the commissioner at the weekend out at Wilberforce where we have the megafire in the north west at the moment, we were talking through the crew rotations.

These are all direct quotes from the Prime Minister who ‘is not in a control room’ except when he is boasting about being in a control room, or you know, in control.

Now you would think that somebody would say, as I would and my mother before me, you can not have it both ways, prime minister. You seem to want your cake and to eat it too. But there is no matriarchal authority in this government, and none in the parliamentary press gallery. The Liberal Party is awash with toxic masculinity, and Morrison has done what the very worst leaders do: surrounded himself with yes-men. The gallery cows to his ruthless bullying and relentless lies. In the grand tradition of liberalism, they put their own interests ahead of the public interest.

As I write, multiple fires have been burning continuously since early November. The biggest of these, the Gospers Mountain megafire, is within my ‘watch zone’ on the north west fringes of greater Western Sydney. We get Fires near Me app notifications, sometimes hourly, as it moves in and out of the perimeter, as it is classified and re-classified from Watch and Act at the lower end of the scale to Emergency Warning at the top. We lose music from our lives as the radio is permanently tuned to tirelessly professional ABC radio emergency broadcasts, which deliver the most ominous status of all, Too Late to Leave.

The stress is difficult to describe. The volunteer fire brigades are not equipped to hold the line, and there is no relief – not rain, not higher shift rotations – in sight. Yes, they are tired prime minister. And this callous disregard for properly funding emergency services, and the self-serving hero narrative, has contributed to the deaths of two dads in western Sydney. May they rest in peace.

A dedicated fundraiser has been set up by the NSW RFS with permission from the families of Geoff Keaton and Andrew O’Dwyer. Details are available here.


Love in the Time of Terror: Slam at Sydney Film Festival

A shorter version of this post (with proper spoiler alerts) was first published at ACRAWSA blog on 7 June 2019. Many thanks to director Partho Sen Gupta and to Prof Alana Lentin for entrusting me with tix to a film on a Sunday night in Randwick (in the pouring rain! see review, below).

Love in the Time of Terror: Slam at Sydney Film Festival

Review by Ingrid Matthews

[Alert: Spoilers]

Slam is a devastating film. It is devastatingly good, intensely sad, and oh so accurate in its portrayal of racism in Australia.

The camera turns its gaze on two institutions in particular: the media; and law enforcement. It was the unfolding complicity between police and journalists – to co-create a story out of thin air, to fabricate evidence of a fiction flying in the face of facts – that drove Slam home for me. While based further west, I recognised those brightly lit restaurant strips and dank police stations immediately. I live here, and work here, and observe the yawning chasm between perception and reality created by media and the law every day of my life. I could smell that wet road.

The film is set around Bankstown, southern wedge of Western Sydney, an Arab-Australian population centre, urban sprawl of multitudes. It opens with Ameena (Danielle Horvat) slamming straight to camera, the rhythm and cadence of her words not immediately apparent as poetry, or not to this stranger in her world. Her performance is suspenseful, masterful, brave; she speaks the truth of colonisation from power to power, her words grounded in earth and addressed to mother.

The close-up tells us that she is woman, she is poet, and she wears the hijab, before panning back to show an enthralled and applauding audience. Then the scene fades as a cameo by Uncle Ken Canning places us squarely on stolen Aboriginal lands.

A poetry slam and a bustle of neatly clipped scenes – an alleyway, on-screen text messages, a cigarette smoked, a car in the distance through the rain – are fleeting moments with Ameena. For the rest of the film we get to know her indirectly: through her words, her mother, her brother, her best friend; her most private space, a bedroom wall that calls for freedom, a bureau drawer with the heavy wrought iron key to a home long taken. The ghost of her social media presence, while pivotal to the plot, is obscured by the clamour of traditional media voices: the radio news bulletins, the scrum of reporters, the tabloid journalist who constructs a fictional journey as the truth slides away, neglected.

It is through the voice of mother Rana (Darina Al Joundi) and eyes of brother Tariq (Adam Bakri) that we hear first that Ameena is late home, and then gone. Tariq’s responsibilities frame his sister’s disappearance: a late-night phone call from his (their) mum, the menacing thump of his car windscreen wipers, cut only by the intrusive voice of the car radio newsreader. His white wife Sally (Rebecca Breed) comes complete with an impossibly annoying family, relatives for whom holding a gin-tasting substitutes for personality. Their hearty bonhomie, sentimental singalongs and performative loyalty, blur into the background for ‘Ricky’ (his white people name).

Tariq drives alone through pouring rain to a dimly-lit police station. He feels the radio news bulletins in his bones. An Australian military jet has come down over the Syria-Iraq conflict zone and its pilot, who is sure to be white and male, a poster-boy for Australian martyrdom, is reported captured and destined for a gruesome execution. Childhood memories of his own father’s execution crowd his mind.

This tension bifurcates throughout the film. Each encounter is defined by whiteness and otherness. When Tariq reports his sister to the missing persons officer Jo Hendricks (Rachel Blake), he knows the threats of racist violence he has seen directed at his sister online are substantive. But instead he must bat away the flimsy threads from which a story about his sister will be spun.

– Marriage pressure?

– No.

Sometimes people just don’t want to be found, says officer Jo, convincing neither Tariq nor herself.

In contrast to the deceptive frame-up that awaits Ameena, domestic details fill in so much truth about the people who miss her in familiar trips across western Sydney. There is the modest red brick exterior for the Nassers, a cramped kitchen for best friend Hanan (Abby Aziz), a neat semi-detached bachelorette for Jo. The cultural poverty of whiteness is witheringly portrayed, in the heavy luxury of the in-law’s furniture (and conversation), to the sagging balloons strung above a concrete patio at Jo’s joyless family birthday.

Joylessness turns to menace turns to violence when Jo’s ex-partner, the father of her late son who has been killed on military deployment, follows her out, begs for her attention, stakes out her house. His hulking, drunken neediness is terrifying. Unlike the terror narrative imposed on Ameena, this man is less stereotype and more typology, a moving mountain who alchemises pain into anger and turns both on the woman he says he loves.

Meanwhile, Tariq searches the city for clues. He is aggressively rebuffed by her love interest (?) Omar, who has troubles of his own. Omar is a man criminalised by the state for being of middle-eastern appearance. Omar has stories of super-max – for what? Reporters gather daily outside Tariq’s old family home, outside his new family home. He and mother Rana, Ricky and pregnant wife Sally and their six-year-old daughter, become grist for the terror-narrative mill, for the quest to nail that JIHADI WIFE? headline.

As his mother and wife and daughter orbit his responsibility, Tariq orbits the absence of his sister Ameena. The loss of his sister, her absence, is filling with flashbacks.To a checkpoint in the desert, to his terrified younger self, to the loss of his father at the hands of those who are nowhere near western Sydney, but oh so close to himself, his memories, his life.

All this tension around the grieving Nasser family and friends, those who know Ameena, who love her and fear for her, is cut across by the cruelty of crisp newsreader tones, bulletins like bullets, telling Tariq what he already knows, that the Australian state will punish him, a man of middle-eastern appearance, for the imminent execution of the pilot, the son they sent to the middle east in a warplane.

As Tariq snaps, first at Omar and then at the reporters, police officer Jo brushes off her bruises and goes to work. Like the press pack, the police are determined to create a terrorist narrative from a missing woman who wears the hijab and performs poetry. They have brought in the feds, who want a reason for their fancy anti-terror funding. But the personal violence in her life has tilted Jo’s perspective. She stares down the higher-ups, stating that the case remains a missing persons matter, given there is no evidence to suggest otherwise.

Jo’s boss, another white man who directs his anger and perceived inadequacies at her competence and truth, spirals out of control. ‘We are under attack’, he shouts irrationally, attacking her in the confined space of the police station corridor. ‘You made me look like a fool! You look like shit!’

The Nassers, who are in fact under attack from the combined power of the press, the police, and hegemonic whiteness, have to do something. After all, the white in-laws are aghast. They are not racist, butthose people. Left unsaid is the mirror held up: as Tariq struggles with the violence that has invaded his life, he feels their condemnation, the false accusation. It is he, the ‘man of middle eastern appearance’ who has brought this discomfort into their lives, not the aggressive press pack, not the vested police lies, not the person unknown who caused his sister to… disappear.

Wife Sally packs up their 6 year-old daughter and leaves for the safety of her parents house. The white pater familias, he of gin-tasting proclivities, brings in an image-manager spin-doctor called Brian who, grand(dad) announces, ‘will know exactly what to do’.

[The audience laugh, but resignedly. The thought of a white male grandfather and his paid Pr guy knowing ‘exactly what to do’ about the disappearance of a young woman poet of Palestine, an Australian hijabi who fights for freedom from assimilation, whose story is being re-authored into JIHADI BRIDE? They can not bring her back to life, and do not care that she is gone. It is so sad that we laugh.]

Perhaps the most devastating scene of all stems from this intervention. Having lost his father and his sister, his family driven first from their Palestinian homelands and then from their suburban Australian home, Tariq appears at a media conference. He is flanked by Brian the media minder and two Arab men wearing [Islamic skull cap] taqiyah. Australia has been good to us, intones Tariq-Ricky. Education. Security. Freedom.

His recitation echoes the common Australian sentiment, one Jo had also earlier insisted on hearing from him. But Australia has been to good to you, she says, rather than asks. Yes, he replies obediently. The gnawing hollowness – presumably deliberately  reminiscent of captured westerners, recorded for blackmail purposes by executioners overseas – is haunting.

But director Partho Sen-Gupta knows his audience well. Cut to a celebration of new life, bursting with joy, the happy sound of Palestinian pipe, of homeland drum. People are milling, talking, dancing, smiling. Grandma Rana has donned the hijab, smiling despite carrying the kind of melancholy that comes from a world which took your husband on the way to a safer place, only to take your daughter at its destination.

As she reaches out and embraces her son, the police arrive. Jo, who maintained all along that Ameena is a missing person, is there; her colleagues who eagerly collaborated in the fabrication of a terror tale for the tabloids are there too. As the news is delivered, insects hum. Every Australian, no matter our ethnic background, knows that sound.

A special mention before I wrap up my observations of this exquisitely told story.

The sound designer excelled. The insects were essential to placing us between flashbacks, in tacking from the militarised desert overseas to the urban landscape of western Sydney. Men in uniform who pose an existential threat are the common thread. When dream and nightmare blurred with reality, between childhood and adulthood, Australia and Palestine, day and night, it was the insect sounds and birdsong that grounded me in time and place.

The other perfect touch in sound design is the throb of windscreen wipers on those drives through Sydney downpours. That rhythm melded with the heartbeat of baby in utero as Tariq and Sally attend an ultra sound appointment? I noticed. Sally being pregnant, and baby arriving, are not a prominent narrative strand in this film, but are essential to both story and mood, to film and to audience, and to our humanity. Life, after all, goes on.

No Glory to this Story

According to the ABC election calculator, there was a 0.8 percent swing against the Liberal Party and a 1.0 percent swing against the Labor Party. The Liberal party leader is the prime minister and the Labor Party leader is headed for the back bench.

Where did the votes go?

There was a 3.4% ‘swing’ to the party formed by Clive Palmer. This amounts to 3.4% of the first preference vote, because it was a newly constituted entity after the collapse of his previous foray into federal politics. Palmer is a self-proclaimed billionaire and former financial backer of the Queensland National Party (now the Liberal-National Party) when Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the most racist and corrupt figure in Australian politics, was premier for nineteen years.

Palmer stood a candidate all 150 lower house seats, and preferenced the Liberal Party in a deal that was signed sealed and delivered before the election. His party did not win any seats but presumably soaked up the protest vote and delivered those preferences to the Liberal Party, as his 3.4% was the largest of the ‘micro’ parties.

There was also a 1.7 percent swing to the party headed by Pauline Hanson, for a total of 3 percent of the overall vote. Hanson is a former candidate for the Liberal Party who was de-selected after the ballots were printed, on the basis of being racist, and elected anyway. She did a preference deal with the Nationals, again soaking up protest votes and delivering them back to the Coalition parties, who then won the election.

At the time of writing, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) reported what is called the 2PP vote (two-party-preferred, in fact four parties but that is not the topic today) was at 51.19% to the Coalition (Liberal, Nationals and LNP) parties and 48.81% to the Labor Party. The reported 2PP swing was at 0.84 percent. This means there was an overall swing of 0.84 per cent against the Labor Party and to the three Coalition parties after all preferences were exhausted.

Background to the numbers

Labor typically benefits from Greens Party preference flows more so than the Coalition, but not at a 100% rate. There is always leakage, however, and no love lost between the two. Both parties have a substantial proportion of members and voters who would never preference the other, based on deeply-held principles and ideological commitment.

This characteristic of Greens and Labor voters provides one of several entry points for wedge politics. We often do not hesitate to back a political viewpoint with moral principle and ideological coherence. Yet being passionate and articulate about how the personal is political, and for wealth redistribution or gender equality (for example), are well outside Australian cultural hegemony.

A typically comfortable household, the doctors and lawyers, will avoid discussing political economy (politics/ideology and money/wealth) among anyone outside their own kind (they call this ‘in polite company’ or ‘manners’). The business owners, the people who profit from job agency tax breaks and plumbers who collect subsidies just for employing an apprentice and so on, laugh off serious issues. Yeah mate whatever, I just work hard to get ahead, is the general gist.

In contrast, the preference flow to the Liberals, Nationals and Queensland Liberal-Nationals (LNP) from Palmer and Hanson was probably decisive to the election win. Palmer is the party defined by mining interests and Hanson is the party defined by racism. Neither party won any seats in their own right, or met the minimum 4 per cent of first preferences required to then receive $2.756 per vote. This cash is provided by the Australian public, for the purpose of funding free and fair elections.

It remains to be seen whether Palmer will receive any other return on his $55 million (according to Palmer) or reported $60 million (relevant reform recommendations here) investment in the preference deal with Morrison. Within days, Palmer was back in the media demanding coal mining approvals and boasting about the success of his anti-Labor advertising and pro-Liberal preference strategy. The ads promoted a non-existent policy (death taxes) on social media (facebook and youtube), as well as major media (newspapers and commercial broadcast) to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.

This messaging was echoed by Liberal politicians like Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and the highly compromised backbencher Tim Wilson, which allowed the false claim to leap from fringe advertising to legitimate story. The main dynamic at work here is that journalists are trained to report what people in significant public positions say, and Frydenberg is the deputy Liberal leader and Treasurer. The same phrases – inheritance tax, death duties – are then repeatedly broadcast by the same major media who were enjoying advertising revenue from Palmer. From there, ABC journalists join in on the basis that the Treasurer said it, everybody else is reporting it, thus it is a legitimate story.

There were many microcosm-mirrors of this, but the slogan run by Palmer, to the tune of $55 million-worth despite containing not a skerrick of truth, was legitimised by major media and thus took hold in the mind of the electorate. Like franking credits, it appealed to embedded values. Liberalism says that income/wealth is exactly commensurate with effort (‘hard work’), self-interest is rational, and individuals acting in self-interest produce aggregate social good.

This meritocracy mythology is what Liberals voters say they believe in but, unlike Greens and Labor voters who advocate for equality and justice, Liberals do not passionately defend the myths with facts or evidence, moral principle or ideological coherence. They do not have to, given such widespread acceptance that these false assumptions are true.

I have written in detail about meritocracy myths here; and about the shared ancestry of these political players, located with the Queensland Nationals (Palmer) and the Queensland Liberals (Hanson), the commonalities of colonialism, destruction of country for profit, and neo-nazi rhetoric in the Australian Parliament, here.

To summarise the numbers: the combined first-party preference vote for Palmer and Hanson was just under 6.5 percent. The 2PP swing to the Coalition parties was less than one percent. So the Morrison-Palmer and McCormack-Hanson preferences deals, between the leaders of the Liberal and Nationals parties and the mining and racists figureheads, was more than enough to bring the election home.

But why? Why?

Who would do such a thing? Where does the strategising, the gamesmanship, the idea that everything said by vested interests like media and political players is so critical to ‘informing’ us during the campaign and yet are somehow entirely independent – once the count is in – of the outcome? Who are these people who think they can ride out inaction on climate? Who can stand by as Indigenous and youth suicide skyrockets, as people on welfare are driven to an early grave, as refugees self-immolate?

Why do they hate democracy? And people? The planet? (same thing, same thing)

Hi. Welcome to the socio-political economy of patriarchal imperialism, liberal democracy and industrial capitalism. Hold on to your hats. It is quite a ride. But first, because legal analysis is not the dominant framework of this post (my rundown on the fact that laws are made by politicians here), a disclaimer: what follows does not hold any specific player in any field to any particular action. This in itself is a function of hegemonic whiteness, of patriarchal systems of domination and control, and of law (one area of law in particular, which in times past were satisfied by pistols at dawn).


People who know me in real life: what do you think happened?

Me: happened? Did I finish marking 100 essays on Native Title (no)? How did my son’s basketball team go on Monday night (big win, 55-27)? Or the tutorial on ‘reception’ of English law this week, voluntarily decolonised because nobody pays for that work (you could have heard a pin drop)?

People WKMIRL: you follow politics and so [paraphrased] I will listen to what you have to say. The question is, What do you think happened? At the election? What went wrong, do you think?

Me: Went wrong? For who? If you are asking me about my politics, I voted for the Liberal candidate.

PWKMIRL: WHAT? I don’t believe you. Never happened.

Me: Yep. I live in a marginal seat. I received a text message from Josh Frydenberg, the Treasurer and deputy leader of the Liberal Party, saying not to trust Labor because death taxes. My vote counts. And as a graduate economist, who understands liberal ideology, I worked through the all the issues and decided to vote for the Liberal candidate.

PWKMIRL: You would never do that. It is just not you.

Me: What do you mean, not me? There is nothing wrong with advocating for abolition of franking credits and then receiving a message from a man with massive socio-positional power and deciding that because I live in a meritocracy he must be right. And then going into the voting booth and putting a number 1 next to the Liberal candidate. I am a casualised working single mum in western Sydney. I meet my full income tax liabilities before I see the money. I pay another 10% when I buy goods and services. Plus I spend that post-tax income on feeding and clothing and housing my three children, all of whom are now people who work and pay tax. They are PAYE workers, so obviously they are directly connected to me as legal persons – humans, corporations, whatever, you know, whatever is a legal person – and because I invested my post-income and post-GST tax in feeding them and keeping them alive, the tax they pay is also tax I paid. That is how it works. I researched it, based on what Josh Frydenberg said about death taxes, and as a graduate economist, I am confident of my conclusions. Because what if my parents leave an estate and I have to pay tax on that? Then I would not be able to be a responsible citizen and self-fund my old age by not paying tax on their estate that they left me which I did nothing to work hard for and I would become a burden on the state by not paying a death tax to the state to fund public education. I would feel so bad if I did not plan for my own old age, by voting against death taxes, so that under the Liberal party I can live off an inheritance that I may or may not get. I mean imagine if I became a burden on the state! Unthinkable. I think the best thing to do to not become a burden on the state is to not pay taxes that may assist people living in poverty oh sorry I mean people who are a great big burden on the state and instead reap the benefits of publicly-subsidised investment properties and publicly-subsidised share portfolios.

So I decided to vote Liberal. Because of what Josh Frydenberg said in a text message. And because if I vote in my best interests, and everybody does what I do, that produces an aggregate social good. Right? Which is fine! This is a free country, after all.

PWKMIRK and online: But I can not imagine you doing that, Ingrid. You are just not the kind of person who would ever do that.

Me: if I did, it would be totally morally neutral, right? Nobody could judge me for voting for the Liberal Party candidate on the basis of what Josh Frydenberg said in a text message. Especially after I saw the same message legitimised by journalists who work for the ABC. After all, I trust the ABC. Plus I can vote for whoever I want and the Liberal Party told me that Labor would bring in a death tax.

PWKMIRK and online: I can not believe I am saying this but did you not know that Josh Frydenberg, despite being the deputy leader of the Liberal Party and the Treasurer of the country, lied about an opposition policy?

Me: oh, did he? Wow! Amazing, right? Because what I did was, I took what Josh Frydenberg said to me in a text message at face value, on the basis that he is a significant and trustworthy figure in a liberal democracy, ie the deputy leader of the Liberal Party and the Treasurer of the country. Then I applied what he said using my knowledge, qualifications and experience ie tertiary degrees in economics, political science, and law; and applied his words also to my fifty years including the last eighteen years as a working single mum in western Sydney whose children are Aboriginal; and then reached a conclusion, based on this lengthy, considered analysis of democracy and capitalism… to determine my vote.

I thought everybody did that?

PWKM and people who do not know me [backing away slowly after I cited extensive expertise and endorsed dominant values, which are mutually exclusive to my principles and values that I have developed over a lifetime]: no, Ingrid. Not everybody does that.

Me: oh, my mistake. But each and every individual vote which was not necessarily determined by the process I described still adds up to an aggregate democratic good, right? The result is the will of the people, yeah? Whether or not any particular voter interrogated what Josh Frydenberg said in a text message sent to their phone about death taxes, influenced their vote, and then turned out to not be a thing?

PWKM and people who do not know me: Stop. Please stop.

Me: …

Them: …

Me:…[deep breaths] None of the following is directed at any particular person. It is what it is: a tiny little bit of what I know, based on those tertiary qualifications from white patriarchal institutions in the disciplines of money and power – sorry, political economy and law – that I mentioned, and happen to have. I worked so hard for those degrees (that’s a little joke for yas).

How was the 2019 Australian Election Won?

There are people who derive income from setting up meetings between politicians and industry executives. Mainly industry, but also every other institution, such as religions, universities, and media. They are called lobbyists.

These people are what political journalists and parties call ‘numbers men’. Yes, men. If there is a woman who is paid millions of dollars to introduce Mike Baird to the National Australia Bank, or Clive Palmer to Scott Morrison? Please. Drop me a name. Look forward to meeting her.

It works like this. The Liberals numbers man – Labor does not have the same business model because unions are organised labour, not business, and therefore false equivalence distraction rhetoric is based on dominant liberal norms as the default and a waste of all our time – sets up a business where he is paid huge amounts of money to put Scott on the phone to Clive. Or Mike on the phone to NAB. Lines up Angus to run it by Barnaby to chat with Matt and Tony.

Whoever. That’s it. That’s the story.

But it is legal? I hear you say. Yes, it is. Are you asking me whether politicians who sit in the parliament – they collect over $200K pa – they talk for living – literally talk, nothing else – will pass a law to make it more difficult for politicians who sit in the parliament to personally financially benefit from being politicians who sit in the parliament?

Hmmmm. Maybe they will. Or not. Maybe I voted for the Liberal candidate in my marginal seat because I was worried about paying tax on a possible future inheritance because I want any wealth they accrued, for which I did nothing, for myself.

Or, who knows? Maybe I am not that kind of person at all.


Lies, damn lies and the flatlining economy

There are two main layers to the misinformation that dominates coverage of the economy during this election campaign.

The first is the Coalition relying on major media to report its economic narrative for the entire ‘policy’ component of its re-election strategy. Everything else is meat pies and footy, horserace ephemera, church on Sunday, pub on Anzac Day.

Secondly, there is a complacent and unhelpful view which even well-regarded economists and journalists, who know (or should know) better, are kicking down the road. This is the demonstrably false notion that the Liberals and Nationals lack a policy platform.

There is no truth to the Coalition economic narrative, which I refuse to reiterate, we have heard it often enough. Nor is there any truth to the idea that the Coalition has no agenda.

Lets start with some medium-term context on Australian governments and economic management.

The Australian economy was successfully steered through the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) by the Rudd Labor government. At the time, Treasurer Wayne Swan explained its Keynesian philosophy, which boils down to counter-cyclical government borrowing and spending, to minimise the hardship and cost caused by steep economic downturns, which cause mass unemployment.

Swan and Labor colleague Paul Keating (later Prime Minister, 1991-1996) are the only two Australian treasurers to be recognised internationally for their economic competency. A detailed Labor-Coalition comparative analysis by economist Stephen Koukoulas (disclosure: former Labor advisor) can be found here; and Tim Dunlop wrote a necessary debunking of the debt and deficit hysteria, after the disastrous Abbott-Hockey budget in 2015, here.

The GFC was caused by neoliberal policy settings that peaked during the Howard era (1996-2007).

Neoliberal policy settings, briefly

Neoliberalism transactionalises human relations, and commodifies identifiable sectors of the population, such as First Nations people, welfare recipients, single mums, disabled people, carers – some of whom are ‘dependant’ children themselves – refugees. Many people belong to more than one of these groups.

Like its classical liberal parent, an ideology designed to rationalise the pervasive inequalities produced by the English class system and industrial capitalism, neoliberalism comes with multiple lies of convenience. ‘Trickle-down’, for instance, is reverse rhetoric. It describes the deliberate movement of wealth and assets up the economic scale as its opposite.

One example is the ‘job active’ network. This Howard-era re-structure, which abolished the Commonwealth Employment Service, is made up of ‘small business’ whose only income is from the government. These private sector entities qualify for the $20,000 tax write down pitched to ‘Tony’s tradies’. The ‘business’ is paid by government for doing ‘case work’. Its employees can authorise cutting an unemployed person off Centrelink income for up to three months, for a ‘breach’ of their ‘contract’.

An unemployed person can receive no service at all, while the agency is paid public money for ‘managing’ them.

The Parents Next program is pretty much the same (see Luke Henrique-Gomes’ work on welfare recipients of many stripes here). A ‘provider’ can authorise cutting single mums off Centrelink for not attending an approved activity like playgroup or swimming lessons. This obviously also impoverishes our children, on top of the social stigma we experience. (Disclaimer: I am a single mum, no longer reliant on Centrelink payments. Reports on Parents Next are viscerally distressing to me. I often avoid these news stories for reasons of residual trauma).

So the ‘provider’ agency can cut single mums, and therefore children, off income support for failing to attend an activity – say baby was sick – that mum was otherwise attending before the ‘provider’ got involved. What happens is, Centrelink puts mum on the Parents Next program, and assigns her to a ‘provider’ who gets government money for having her on the books. This person says oh its okay, tick the box for the thing you are already doing.

The agency then claims cash from government, for mum taking her kids to an approved activity like swimming lessons, which she was previously doing, because she is their mum. But now she is subject to surveillance and compliance, and the provider can cut off her income on multiple pretexts. It is traumatising for anyone, but particularly domestic violence survivors, to be subject to this level of control.

A parallel model operates for NDIS and aged care ‘packages’. The money is paid to a ‘provider’, which has no income other than from government. The agency head sets up as a small business, complete with brand new cars and computers and smart phones, all tax deductible.

Does the government check that this public money is spent on the elderly or disabled people who are on their books? Take a guess. Are there any consequences if the provider trousers the cash and does nothing for the client, nothing for their carer, for the household? What do you think?

This is commodification of people, real people, who belong to specific, identifiable sectors of the population. If this shocks you, if it is a thousand miles from your lived experience, if you had no idea, the best response is to listen to those who are affected. If you can, offer support. Real, material support.

Also central to neoliberalism is the transfer of public resources to private interests. In this context, financial markets were deregulated beyond any effective oversight, while public assets were sold off to the highest bidder. In New South Wales, then-Premier Mike Baird sold all the information about all the land. This, in a society where land as the source of wealth (Edgeworth et al 2017 p. 2) is the central organising principle of property law.

A religious man and corporate banker, Baird then handed womens refuges built by feminists to the corporate arms of organised religion, like Mission Australia. Hundreds of women, and many children, have been killed by male relatives since then.

We were also told that ‘competition’ would drive electricity prices down when the poles and wires were flogged off. What happened? Widespread price-gouging, with electricity bills skyrocketing at four times the rate of the general price increases.

Meanwhile, across the globe, political leaders allowed the vested predictions of credit ratings agencies to hold enormous, unwarranted and ultimately catastrophic sway over fiscal decisions. This is the real sovereign risk, a term bandied about by economic illiterates who never point to the austerity imposed by the IMF on developing countries, for example, or by the EU on Greece.

That is neo/liberalism (same thing) in a nutshell.

Back to the federal election campaign

The twin failure by legacy media, of uncritically broadcasting the Coalition ‘going negative’ while pretending that same Coalition has no policy platform, is partly a self-fulfilling dynamic. The prime minister endlessly serves up repetitive and dishonest criticism of Opposition policy. He refuses to campaign on his record.

Reporting whatever lies the Liberals tell about Labor is a reversal of the public interest responsibility of the fourth estate. Major media outlets, or its more romantic conceptualisation the free press, are supposed to report what the government is doing, and what the opposition offers in the alternative.

The point is for voters, in a democracy, to have a meaningful choice at the ballot box.

What is the government doing, you ask? How can we glean the Liberal and National party policy platform from all this carnival barking? Well. First, canvas what the Coalition has done over the past five years in power. Then, check whether any Liberal or National Party candidate or representative – whether officially or by the traditionally worst political gaffe of all (accidentally telling the truth) – has repudiated or deferred or suspended or cancelled that policy position (eg Parents Next), the policy that we can all see with our own eyes, if we care to look.

It is not that hard.

The only actual argument the prime minister deigns to put on fiscal policy – other than the stunts and piecemeal announcements designed to dominate the news cycle – is that he, Scott Morrison, has a better one. Better than what? you may ask. Labor Labor Labor, is the answer, and the answer is not an honest one.

A growing list of eye-wateringly expensive allocations – the preferred unit of cash wastage seems to be a half-billion dollars – is sufficient evidence that Coalition claims about its economic management are untrue.

Back in 2014, the Abbott government announced it would slash over half a billion dollars from Indigenous Affairs, and it did. In 2017, the Turnbull government outright rejected the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and referendum proposal for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, by press release. In 2018, the former Nationals deputy leader and Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion, approved ‘Indigenous’ funding to mates in the cattle and fishing industries, including to fight native title claims. When questioned, he appeared unable to grasp what could possibly be wrong with that.

On Turnbull’s (and Morrison’s and Frydenberg’s) watch, $443 million was handed to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a tiny organisation run by a board peppered with mining industry executives. Under Morrison, $499 million dollars were allocated to the Australian War Memorial, which is run by an ex-Liberal Party leader who courts donations from, and sits on the board of, weapons manufacturers.

This was after said ex-Liberal leader Brendan Nelson entertained the idea of memorialising Operation Sovereign Borders at the AWM, an unspeakable proposition.

Speaking of how we have militarised asylum seeker policy, how about that $423 million approved by Home Affairs in a not-open tender to the beach-shack registered ‘security firm’ Paladin? Of course that is in addition to the ten billion+ dollars spent on off-shore detention, including $187 million to re-open and then close the cages on Christmas Island for no reason other than pre-election scare campaigning.

Going back a little further, to when Morrison was co-designing then-opposition coalition policy with James ‘butcher of Falujah’ Moylan, there is the estimated $400-600 million that Morrison and Abbott spent militarising our refugee policy. The rationalisation for this breathtaking outlay is the ludicrous claim that asylum seekers who arrive by boat are a national security threat. There is not one skerrick of evidence for this nasty rhetoric. None.

Add to that the $8.2 billion spent, with nothing to show for river health, on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Incredible that a $10 billion announcement in the dying days of the Howard government, when Malcolm Turnbull was Environment Minister, brought a sounder of swine to snuffle at the trough.

Note the $80 million spent on non-existent water that may or may not have flown downstream to Cubbie Station if there was a flood (see Anne Davies’ extensive body of work on water buy-backs here).

Then there is the mortal injury that is Robodebt. This oppression costs as much to administer as it recovers from welfare recipients, if you only count the dollars. Over 2,000 people have died after receiving AFP-branded notices of government-fabricated debts, according to the department that administers the program. The debt notices only go to working people of working age. In other words, they are probably not dying of natural causes, and they are certainly not dying of old age.

Is it irony that, other than for aged pensioners and veterans, the social safety net has been wholly dismantled? No, it is travesty.

Moving on.

Despite consistently dishonest claims by Liberal and National MPs, most notably chief carnival barker Scott Morrison, negative gearing almost exclusively benefits well-off households. You may have heard of opportunity cost, which I explain to students with the simple adage you can not spend the same dollar twice. The public cost of property owners, via negative gearing and rent assistance, pension asset tests and CGT exemptions, was estimated at $36 billion a year in 2013.

All that foregone revenue is a lot of public housing not built.

And then – deep sigh – what passes for climate policy. Like many others, I have written so much about this, including as a social researcher examining the entrails of the 2010 election, as well as during this campaign. It is desperately disheartening. I am exhausted by the sheer bloody-mindedness of it.

In brief:

The Abbott government repealed the price on carbon and replaced it with ‘Direct Action’, or paying big polluters to modify their plant and equipment. Emissions have increased ever since. Turnbull left this demonstrably ineffective nonsense in situ while his hapless environment minister, the now-Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, fiddled around with a ‘national energy guarantee’, which took out the Turnbull prime ministership. It was never legislated, and is now Labor policy.

Morrison re-branded this deliberately impotent free money approach as ‘climate solutions’. Rebranding is quite literally the only tool in his kit.

So I guess my question is:

Does taking billions of dollars from welfare recipients and First Nations people and PAYE earners and single mums buying school shoes, and giving it to mining companies and landlords and private off-shore prisons… does that sound like a government with no agenda to you? Like a party with no policy platform?

One final point

In February 2017, the Orwellian-named Fair Work Commission – which the Coalition, as with other federal statutory bodies, has stacked with political appointees – cut penalty rates (the top-up pay for working on Sundays and public holidays) to some of the most insecure, underemployed, and casualised workers in the country. A recent McKell Institute report found that if the Coalition are re-elected, some $2.87 billion will be transferred from low-paid workers to business owners and shareholders.

As any economist can tell you, the multiplier effect of $2.87 billion spent by members of low-income households, on essentials and in their local communities, is vastly more beneficial to the Australian economy than $2.87 billion in the pockets of people who have disposable income to spend on shares and overseas holidays and luxury imports.

In addition, PAYE waged workers pay tax before we see it. There are few – basically, no – tax deductions available to casualised workers in the retail and hospitality sectors. Business owners and shareholders, on the other hand, enjoy access to a huge array of tax write-down options.

This means that government revenue will decline as a result of the decision to transfer wealth upwards, in this case from low-income workers to business owners and shareholders. Why? Because we meet our tax liabilities in full, while business owners and shareholders are invited, by fiscal policy settings, to evade and avoid and minimise at every opportunity.

As with the reverse rhetoric mentioned earlier, the trickle-up nonsense so beloved by neoliberalism, this fiscal effect is the exact opposite of dominant economic narratives – about low-income workers and business owners – in the public domain.

To conclude

The 2019 budget, with its fabricated future bottom line, has sunk without a trace. And that is even with Treasurer Frydenberg, as part of his budget sell, releasing a picture of young Josh half-naked on his childhood bed. I am not joking. I wish I was. But it serves as a handy metaphor for this election. The public are poorly served by a campaign where the emperors are fully clothed, while legacy media pretend they are naked.

Imagining A Parallel Campaign

[This post was first published on the evening of 11 April at the group blogging site Ausvotes 2019, which I have signed up to for the duration].

After confidently calling the end of the 45th Parliament on Thursday 4 April (‘as we head towards the final hours of the 45th Parliament…’), the press gallery was forced to walk back these premature statements of fact within 36 hours (‘Morrison likely to delay election campaign by another week…’).

Turns out that ‘sources say next weekend has firmed as the preferred timing’, a prediction from the above article, was also wrong. The ABC News Twitter account posted at 06:37am on Thursday 11 April that Morrison had left the prime ministerial residence to call on the Governor General.

And no, this is not a post about political journalism in particular, or major media generally getting it wrong, although I often do write a lot of words [waves hands vaguely] along those lines.

Instead, I picked the above example from the last week to illustrate why I want to counter the overload of what we call ‘retail politics’ and ‘horserace reporting’. There is no good reason to report that the parliament is over when the claim has not been verified; or that the election will be called on a specific date – especially when it wasn’t.

The Great Moral Challenge of Our Time

There is every reason, in contrast, to report on the significance of climate policy stasis which Australia has endured over the last decade and beyond. Intergenerational equity is an internationally accepted principle that has informed global efforts around biodiversity and environmental sustainability at the highest levels since 1972 (United Nations Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment).

In more recent years, the principle has been supplemented by intergenerational solidarity and intergenerational justice, not least because we have failed to honour this basic commitment to our children.

It is a dismal reality that the current and previous Liberal party prime ministers have used the statement above (correctly ‘declared’ by the last Labor prime minister, Kevin Rudd), to beat up on their political opponents rather than enact meaningful policies on climate change.

Since the Coalition government repealed the price on carbon, emissions in Australia have increased every year (charted by Guardian Australia economics writer Greg Jericho here). Australians have the heaviest per capita carbon footprint on the planet.

And the UN reports that we are unlikely to meet our obligations to the international community, to intergenerational justice, or to the planet. This is so regardless of whatever comforting lies we are told by the Coalition about reaching our Paris targets ‘in a canter’.

Voice Treaty Truth

If climate change is the moral challenge of our time, the Uluru Statement from the Heart is the moral roadmap to our collective future.

Yet after this most gracious of invitations was issued to the non-Indigenous people of Australia, then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull rejected it. He did this five months later via a press release signed off by then-Attorney General George Brandis and retiring minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion.

The Voice Treaty Truth movement encapsulates priorities nominated by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples during twelve regional dialogues and the 2017 Uluru Convention. The near-unanimous consensus from these processes is firstly a referendum to amend the Australian Constitution to include an Indigenous Voice to parliament; and then Makaratta, a word gifted by the Yolgnu, meaning ‘coming together after a struggle’.

That the Voice be constitutionally entrenched is essential, because past institutional representation of Aboriginal people, such as ATSIC, have been created and abolished by successive governments. That Treaty come before Truth is also essential, because the truth-telling must be led by First Peoples.

In other words, the sequencing is integral. I learnt this at Uluru Statement events I have attended, from Dialogues facilitator and Uluru Convention delegates Teela Reid, a proud Wailwan and Wiradjuri woman and lawyer, and Thomas Mayor, a Torres Strait Islander man living on Larrakia lands and union secretary. (Any errors are my own.)

One of the most substantive messages on Voice Treaty Truth is the reality that ‘the people are ahead of the politicians’. Research conducted by Reconciliation Australia found that:

almost all Australians (95%) believe that ‘it is important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to have a say in matters that affect them’ and 80% believe it is important to ‘undertake formal truth telling processes’, with 86% believing it is important to learn about past issues (Karen Mundine, CEO, Reconciliation Australia, 11 February 2019).

We are unlikely to hear much about Voice Treaty Truth this election campaign; we typically hear little of First Peoples justice and rights in any timeframe. This does not mean future sovereign relations are moot.

Should it win government, the ALP has promised a referendum in its first term. So any reluctance by Labor to campaign on the courage of its convictions is surpassed only by the failure of the Coalition to grasp the import of the Uluru Statement from the Heart at all.

It’s the economy, because it always is

Announcing the election date at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Mr Howard said it would be a decision for voters about who they trusted most to look after Australia and its economic future.

“This election, ladies and gentlemen, will be about trust,” he told reporters. “Who do you trust to keep the economy strong, and protect family living standards?” – Sydney Morning Herald, 29 August 2004

I intend to write more about fiscal policy during the campaign. In the meantime, I offer a few observations about the Morrison slogan on economic management, which is a myth based on a lie

First, like his other set-pieces – repeating the Turnbull trek to Tumut, re-branding Abbott’s ‘direct action’ (giving public money to big polluters) as a ‘climate solution fund’ (ditto) – Morrison’s catch-cry is copied from a previous Liberal Party prime minister.

The notion that this government has out-performed the previous Labor government on the economy does not stand up to the most cursory scrutiny. It is an absurd and dishonest proposition that a record of doubling the national debt, while presiding over growing inequality, exacerbated by falling or at best stagnant real wages, is somehow superior to management of the 2008 GFC so deft we dodged a recession.

The Labor economic strategy in 2008, at a time when greedy and destructive neoliberal chickens came home to roost on the watch of a new government, was praised globally, including by no other than Nobel Economics Prize laureate Joseph Stiglitz. For a moment there, everyone was a Keynesian, not that fiscal intelligence has a hope of prevailing in the birthplace of the Murdoch press.

Anyway where were we? Oh yes, the unoriginal branding without substance, and marketing rooted in dishonesty, disseminated by Scott Morrison. In my view, this duplicity and intellectual dishonesty goes to character.

Actions speak louder than words, so what does this sloganeering tell us about Morrison? That the prime minister has no creative thought or problem solving skills, alongside a complete absence of conscience?

As Minister for Immigration and Border Protection he was condemned by the UN Committee Against Torture. As Human Services Minister, as Treasurer, he presided over the most damaging welfare policies of three generations. You have to go back to captain inertia himself, Bob do-nothing Menzies, to find worse treatment of the lowest-income people in our society than by the incumbent.

Like most politics-watchers in this country, I am alert to the ‘preferred prime minister’ polling which shows that voters do not warm to Bill Shorten. And to be honest, I do not warm much to Shorten myself. But that does not matter, because it is public leadership that matters.

Possibly the worst metric on which the average punter could rely is personal judgements formed by journalists whose duty is to communicate policy choices to the voting public.

And that is why I have signed up for Ausvotes2019.




Blood on all their hands

In the 2010 federal election, the Liberal Democrat Party in New South Wales polled around 96,000 votes. In 2013 their first-placed candidate polled around 416,000 votes. This analysis shows that the party increased its vote by over 50 times, or 5000% between 2007 and 2013.

Wow! That party is on the up and up! It must be quite something, right?

Well, no. According to the winning candidate, some people “voted for us because we were first on the ballot paper – there is always a sizeable number of people who don’t care… Then there are some people who mistook us for the Liberals, probably the Liberals, but they could also have mistaken us for the Christian Democrats or even the ordinary Democrats.”

In his own words, David Leyonhjelm was elected by the donkey vote, lazy Liberal Party supporters, a few illiterate Christians, and someone who forgot that the Democrats disappeared in a puff of GST smoke (watch that space).

Here is the same information in formal logic terms. There are correlations between the facts – exponential increase in the vote, the number one spot on the ballot papers (which is drawn from a hat), the apathy of rusted-on Liberal Party voters – from which we can draw conclusions. Correlation is not causation. Correlation can, if researchers have sufficient context and skill, be evidence of causation. What this means is that there are plausible reasons – correlated facts – that explain what probably, in all likelihood, ahead of other random non-correlative or non-fact based explanations, caused the outcome.

Of particular note: the candidate posits that he was not elected on his policies or abilities or appeal, but due to the party name and its lucky ballot paper placement. He is an elected representative who is not representative of the electorate. In the parlance of liberalism, his achievements are not on merit.

This pro-gun, anti-feminist, aging white male ‘libertarian’ nevertheless took a seat in the Australian parliament on the recently increased backbencher salary of $203,020 a year (plus expenses). Not bad for a lazy liberal constituency and some donkeys. At the same time, penalty rates have been cut for some of Australia’s most insecure and lowest paid workers. The government has legislated future income tax cuts of over $7000 a year for people who are paid – wait for it – over $200Kpa. Low and middle income workers get about $10 a week.

The total cost to the budget bottom line is an estimated $140 billion over ten years – the time period chosen by a government facing certain defeat in the next 18 months to sell what are basically budget booby-traps. Structural deficits in the Howard-era model. Pre-legislating to sabotage an incoming administration may seem extreme, but is really nothing more than variation on a very familiar theme. The post-electoral budget blackhole scream was long a best-selling performance, until then-Treasurer Peter Costello introduced the Charter of Budget Honesty in a moment of panic. Like all tory policy, this became an opportunity to tell lies in set pieces designed for the dissemination of dishonesty.

Meanwhile, the unemployment payment for people who would notice $10 a week – or $7000 a year – remains unchanged. The conditions for income support have been made, by the usual method, which is by passing legislation, ever more immeasurably, horrifically, breathtakingly, cruelly, and fatally worse.

Anyway where were we? Oh yes. Before coasting into the Senate on the previously unexplored opportunities of the lazy Liberal donkey combo, Leyonhjelm was a failed candidate for Liberal Party pre-selection. And since then, collecting millions in AEC campaign allowances on the way – on top of that $200Kpa – he has, like the racist Hanson, voted with the conservative Coalition government 60 per cent of the time.

Who cares? Well, very few people, until the day the parliament rose for the 2018 winter recess and South Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young stood to read into the Hansard the disgusting remarks this aging white male ‘libertarian’ regularly shouted across the chamber – sexual harassment, given the Senate is her workplace – under parliamentary privilege. What followed was a full week of media coverage.

The ABC, among less credible and trusted news organisations, chose to provide a platform to the sexist senator to repeat his revolting remarks, multiple times. This is entirely predictable. There he was, talking talking, given every opportunity to legitimise, validate, disseminate and amplify his crass and nasty message… by the 730 Report, on ABC Sydney radio, on Radio National.

This is irresponsible and dangerous. Here is the evidence.

David Leyonjhelm speaks directly to a group in our society euphemistically known as MRAs, or Mens Rights Activists (predictably, a white man has been given a platform to opine on this obvious fact without noting the complicity of the media. It is in the Guardian feel free to google it). These men are aggressive, angry, violent or potentially violent, and their core culture is derived from separated fathers. Violent men who have less domination and control over a woman who has left them and their children than they once exercised are extremely dangerous.

In a developed country with universal health care, the most dangerous time in a woman’s life is leaving an abusive male. One third of all homicides were preceded by domestic violence. Not coincidentally, the vast majority of mass shooters in the USA are men who have previously abused women they know. The same is true of the ‘terrorist’ Man Haron Monis, a man who probably was mentally ill, unlike all the white males who kill family members and are unreflexively offered this benefit of the doubt. Monis sent letters to then-Attorney General George Brandis, flagging his questionable stability, but nothing was done. His actions were later used to justify more ‘anti-terror’ laws; but not to increase funding for women’s shelters or mental health services.

The angry violent men who blame women for their inadequacies are the audience Leyonhjelm wants to reach. His purpose is simple: re-election to the Senate. This is the workplace where he harasses Senator Sarah Hanson Young with nasty innuendo that he has repeated widely courtesy of legacy media, including three times on the ABC Sydney radio drive program in one half-hour segment.

Every time, Leyonjhelm is increasingly enabled to reach his audience of angry men. It does not matter what false equivalence is later offered up as ‘balance’, such as interviewing Senator Hanson-Young the next day. Any media professional who thinks that irrational and angry men will tune in the next day to carefully weigh up the ‘other side’ is a fool who a) knows nothing about angry violent men; and b) has been played. The damage is done.

At the end of a week when Leyonhjelm was indulged all over the airwaves and his hideous opinions discussed at length in print and online, a separated father shot dead his two children in cold blood and then killed himself. Another man has been arrested for burning down a house with a woman inside. He was reportedly her ‘carer’. She is dead. Think about that. Two more men have been arrested for murder. Both victims were women with whom they were or had been in a relationship with the killer. Think about that, too.

Here are the facts which correlate. A pro-gun, anti-feminist politician who speaks directly to angry violent men was provided with widespread exposure to espouse his nasty hateful views across multiple media platforms. These decisions by editorial teams amplified his views well beyond an otherwise tiny audience. Given the credibility and trust in which the ABC in particular is held, these decisions validated and legitimized him as an elected representative. Remember, he was elected by a donkey vote and some lazy Liberal Party supporters. He needs exposure to survive, and was given it.

By the end of that week of saturation coverage, the average rate at which men kill women in this country – which is one per week – had tripled. Then there was the child-killer. So four times as many men killed five times as many victims as are killed on average in what are euphemistically called ‘domestic violence incidents’.

That is the correlation. Is there a causal connection?

My answer is yes. First, the increase is so great as to not be statistically insignificant. Sorry to be so cold, but this is the kind of logic that males with influence, but who are none too informed on male violence, demand of women. I said earlier that correlation is not causation, and that correlation can be evidence of causation, if the person joining the dots has the context and skills to do so. When the person with the requisite skills and knowledge is a woman, and a pro-gun anti-feminist has been given a platform to communicate with his constituency of angry men, the Science is Facts!! crowd start shouting in defence of violent men at women survivors of domestic violence.

So, we muster more logic, tedious and unnecessary to anyone with an ounce of humanity as this ought to be, and do the thing, which is to account for other possible variables. For example, we know that men are more violent to more women in particular sets of circumstances. These circumstances include big sporting occasions, holiday periods, and the hotter months. The football factor is so pronounced that there are advertisements in the UK showing how many more men will beat up women when England loses, which it just did, in the World Cup.

Were these factors present during the week in which Leyonhjelm broadcast his misogynist views to his angry male audience via a complacent and complicit media which can only perceive ‘balance’ from its own programming perspective? No. There was no footy grand final, no long weekend, no commercialised religious tradition. It is the middle of winter.

There is one other conclusion available: that at the end of a week when the media widely disseminated and legitimised the crass and misogynist norms of a male parliamentarian, we saw a significant but completely random increase in the number of men killing women and children. Maybe.

In news that will surprise nobody who knows anything about male violence, in the aftermath of the slaughter this week, an even less plausible thesis has been offered.

Like David Leyonjhelm, the institutions in our society are white and patriarchal. This is true of politics, the parliament, government, bureaucracy. It is true of media and families, corporations and industry, religion, universities, the arts. What this means, and it is not a complex proposition, is that the executive, the people with the most authority and influence over other people’s lives, is dominated and controlled by white men.

What has this apparatus in its wisdom ponied up in response to saturation coverage of a man whose politics encourage violent men? A campaign to reinstate the womens shelters which were smashed by premier Mike Baird in New South Wales? Funding and support for women to secure safe and affordable housing for themselves and their children? A spotlight on the billions wasted on anti-terror measures when men terrorise women and children in their own homes every day of the week?

In the midst of peak violence week, Fairfax produced this headline: Leyonhjelm has ignited outrage that is years overdue. It is not a terrible article. Its author, the highly respected Stephanie Dowrick, has many good points to make. And I, too, hesitated to write about Leyonjhelm at all, given a week of exposure culminated in a week of men killing women and children at such a massively increased rate.

But this is just my own little platform and I felt strongly that the case for correlation as evidence of causation had to be made. Sometimes a blog serves the simple purpose of saying, yes, I do think these phenomena are related. I have done my homework. I do understand the arguments. And I wrote about it.

My response is both emotional and logical. I am a domestic violence survivor, and so are my three children. And? None of us should have to parade our pain to legitimise an emotional response to the levels of violence that are tolerated and enabled by white hetero-patriarchy, which cares only for its own. I am also a teacher to future lawyers on logic and critical thought, and co-authored a text book in the field. So I have extensive scholarly knowledge and extensive lived experience. This does not stop many men in multiple contexts presuming to hold greater insight than I do.

Violence is emotional, and I should not have to out myself as a survivor or tout my academic credentials to make such a straightforward ontological point. But I do, because here we are. None of us get to resign from patriarchy.

I am not here for the absurd argument that a gun-loving woman-hater started a conversation or that this is a good thing™. I am not here for the erasure implicit in the bland observation that people are talking about it now when we have been talking about it for years. I am vehemently not here to allocate credit to a vile politician, and the media who legitimised his views, with having done anything, anything at all, to assist women and children escaping from a violent man. If you think ‘police can’t do anything’ or the courts ‘hands are tied’ or that AVOs are ‘just a piece of paper’, wait until I tell you about the efficacy of the commentariat congratulating themselves for having a conversation.

If you can see the blood on all their hands, and are stuck in workplaces and social environments and conversations with people who can not, this post is for you.





Like Valentines day and Halloween, which were non-events when I was growing up, the twenty-first century incarnation of ANZAC Day bears no resemblance whatsoever to when World War vets were alive and marching and telling interviewers that war is an unmitigated disaster of the human project that we should always, always caution against under any and all circumstances.

My memories are as clouded by time and nostalgia as the next person. Commonality of human trait is not an easy thing to pin. As a student and scholar of jurisprudence, I often examine such questions; and I tentatively offer that nostalgia, like curiosity, is a characteristic shared, if not by every individual human, then by most if not all human cultures.

From the 1970s: colour television. Seeing someone we knew on screen was a BIG deal. Nowadays it is practically impossible to not see people we know on screens, given how widespread is the smart phone as a medium. But back then the old black and white television behaved the same way as those TVs in the Mad Men scenes, vertically scrolling without anyone tapping a touch screen; fizzing and zapping and jumping at the slightest movement of an aerial or the weather.

Both my parents were born during the second world war. Each wedding photo of my grandparents shows a beautiful woman in a stunningly elaborate white gown, and a man in uniform. When my own children were born, and when I left and became a single mother, I gleaned a strength from those photos that defied how little I really knew of their lives. I would talk to my grandmothers in the car when I felt alone; or late at night when the children were asleep.

The context is not what government or politicians or media tell me ANZAC Day is about. It is the oral history passed on by my mother. It is the sure knowledge that both my grandmothers were alone with a baby, my mum and my dad, and that my grandmas knew how difficult that can be. Keeping a baby alive, keeping baby fed and clean and clothed and happy, is not easy. It is not easy in isolated circumstances, beyond our control, because of violence, like wars and domestic violence. This is how I connected to my grandmothers in those moments when I thought I might go under, and here is what they – and the existence of my mum and dad – reminded me: we are not entirely alone. Baby is a person too.

The human condition is social. The human spirit is geared for company. The baby, the child, the young person, the tween and the teen and the adult, is a person. One of the hardest lessons I learned from my children, and there are many, was the simple insistence: I am here too mum. Yes, I struggled with housing and utility bills and the uselessness of the law to ‘protect’ us hur hur and education and sport and all the responsibilities, of course I did.

But here is the thing. Not only were my kids always there, they are great company. Being around them is fun, and enlightening, and uplifting. And they had no choice. What were they supposed to do, compete in a free market of more or less terrible parents? The only adult human who could negotiate this treacherous world on their behalf is me.

When I was five and six and seven, on the 24th of April, my mum would ask if we wanted to be woken up to watch the march. A big drawcard was that we might see grandad on television.

Two memories: the ecstatic excitement, always with a tinge of doubt, as the parade passed the cameras. Was it our granddad? There he is! It’s Dee! We called my mum’s dad Dee, he was David, named for his maternal uncle who was in turn overseas in 1918, when my grandfather was born. In case he never came back, my mum would share gravely, a story passed down as families do.

And then it was Don’t Touch! Don’t put your greasy fingers on the screen! For years I thought I had uniquely greasy fingers. Many years later, when the greasy finger marks of my children obscured blindspot vision checks while driving, I came to appreciate why greasy finger marks should be discouraged. Lol.

After we watched the ANZAC Day march, and saw – or maybe saw – grandad on TV, we went about our day. Dad would tell me and my sister to pick up the dog poo and the damn bones so he could mow the lawn, a task we hated (we hated all tasks). Mum would tell us to put away the dishes, and clean our rooms (ditto). In other words, a normal day. Domestic tasks. Household chores. Family matters. A household headed by two people whose lives were irreparably shaped by the second world war, and their parents were more so, literally lived and born into it.

This is my ANZAC Day memory. This is my knowledge of what is called world war. Not the Bean or the Monash, nor the Greste or the ABC. My grandmothers are why I am here today and I pay my respects to everything they did.

*my mum’s dad his family in WWII there were 5 siblings Barbara, a WAC, her husband Colin, all the brothers Ted (Edward), Derek, David and Leonard their surname is Giblin thank you