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Media and imbalance in the Conservative tradition

One of the many benefits of incumbency is that traditional media models and journalism methods favour the current government over the opposition.

This style of reporting is justified by citing the public interest. The claim is that the incumbent government position is more newsworthy. It is the government that is in a position to make decisions that directly affect citizens, and therefore it is the government pronouncements that should be foregrounded in the news bulletins.

(Of course it is governments, and not oppositions, that are in a position to directly affect media interests too; and these do not always coincide with the public interest.)

Structural advantages and self-interest

Foregrounding is particularly significant in election campaigns. It looks like this: the dominant message of the day is reported ‘above the fold’ – it is presented more prominently, in more detail, and more often.  It is more likely to headline and appear in off-the-hour updates; and be repeated as we ‘recap our top story’.

The inherent benefits are that the top ranking story is 1) more likely to be heard/read than other stories; and 2) more likely to be perceived by audiences as more important or more credible than an alternative position.

This is the prominence privilege dynamic. It favours the incumbent government. It is not in the public interest, but it is said to be.

At some point during an election campaign, traditional media decide whether to shift away from giving more prominence to the incumbent. Any shift depends on whether the opposition has become more likely to form the next government.

This is not a simple yes or no question, because so many interests are at stake. Suppose the Labor Party is now more likely to win, but it is not the preferred winner of heavyweight media interests. The shift may be put on hold. Some reasons are in the shadows: the influence of proprietors and pollsters; the desire of press gallery members to be participants in, as well as observers of, the political process.

Other reasons are more overt. Like voters, the media, its proprietors and employees are vested in electoral outcomes. Like voters, the media must source political information somewhere.

The obvious sources are face-to-face meetings with politicians, and political reporters. Some hardy voters attend town hall meetings or similar, and plenty of media monitor other outlets. Nevertheless, the vast majority of voters rely on political reporters; and the majority of political reporters are more likely to speak directly to politicians – at press conferences, interviews, debates, or for leaks, backgrounding and off-the-record quotes.

Prominence privilege and inherent conservative biases 

Leaving aside rumblings like Abbott’s agitating or who has been mothballed this week (is it Dutton? Ley? I can’t keep up) the core point of election campaigns is to choose between the parties. The parties have policies, which are units of ideology. Every policy is an articulation of social circumstances and how the next government will neglect or shape, subsidise or curtail, those circumstances. The parties design and sell their policy – legalise marriage equality, build more roads – in line with an ideology, such as neoliberalism or social democracy.

Take the NBN. A policy of affordable, high speed national broadband for all, regardless of corporate or shareholder interests, is grounded in a progressive, social democratic ideology. In contrast, a policy of concentrating the benefits of high speed broadband in the hands of the comfortable and wealthy, while neglecting people who are, say, unemployed or house-bound, reflects a neoliberal ideology.

That is an ideological divide. But there is also an ideological bias in traditional reporting methods. So-called media balance, like the system itself, is inherently conservative. It vigorously resists change. And high-platform media voices who call the election outcome are usually also inherently conservative.

So while one NBN policy is clearly of greatest benefit to the greatest number of citizens, to economic integration and to growth, to equality of opportunity and to regional areas… the other is currently being implemented. Its currency is its currency: this is how the public interest justification works to provide incumbent governments with prominence privilege.

NBN policy also has differential impacts on mainstream media: audience fragmentation, ownership of broadcasting rights and other media power bases. And this too is a factor for editorial decision-makers when calculating which story to foreground – on the front pages, at the top of the hour. The call on when (or whether) to shift on who will benefit from prominence privilege is reserved to the most senior editorial voices.

It is obviously unwise for high-circulation media outlets to cross a likely victor who has a vengeful streak – and democracy be damned.

These observations do not require a conspiracy, or an especially cynical outlook. It is a description of the political-media landscape, of the long-standing relationship between the various public estates. The relationship reflects multiple vested interests doing the self-interested thing that neo/liberalism insists is human nature (despite the many non-Western cultural traditions that give the lie to this claim).

During an election campaign, the prominence privilege dynamic operates in two ways. First, for the public interest justification given above, the dominant coverage is allocated to the incumbent (the first audio grab or quote or footage, the most airtime, the biggest and most frequent headlines, and ‘top story’ billing).

Second, or later in the campaign, the privilege is bestowed on whichever party is perceived to be most likely to form the next government. This perception is formed and reinforced in a homeostatic feedback loop by editors and their respective pollsters, by the message-makers and gate-keepers, the opinion writers and political commentators and press gallery, who then shift editorial decisions accordingly.

It is this second stage that we are in now, and it is this second dynamic that makes a call from a high-platform voice like Chris Uhlmann significant. While it is tempting to ask who cares whether Chris Uhlmann has called the election for the Coalition? Isn’t Labor going for underdog status anyway?

But Uhlmann is the political editor at the national broadcaster. He makes electoral editorial decisions at the ABC. He matters, whether we know he is hopelessly compromised and partisan or not. This is why we should care about blatant manoeuvring and participation (rather than observation and reportage) from well-placed media figures. A call like Uhlmann’s is timed to when more voters, particularly the all-important undecided voters, start to engage.

Uhlmann’s call, and his decision to make it now, was not only a very clear call for the Coalition to win, but also a very clear call which favours the Coalition. It provides scaffolding for the feeble public interest justification to be used to continue foregrounding Coalition speakers, Coalition talking points.

I can not over-emphasise the significance of this. Like the political editors at Fairfax, and the Murdoch press, and the commercial radio and televisions networks, these high-platform decision-makers determine what to cover, how prominently, for how long, and how often. If traditional media were going to shift away from its more prominent showcasing of the incumbent government, it would start to happen about now.

The decision of whether to shift tends to coincide with who the media wants to form the next government. They know how prominence privilege works., and have their own interests to safeguard. And because media interests do not always coincide with the public interest, prominence decisions only seem coherent when the two do coincide. When these interests are at odds, and the call has preferred media over public interests, we hear engaged voters asking why Uhlmann (or whoever) is calling the election for the Coalition (or whoever).

The Conservative Line, then and now

There are additional structural advantages when the incumbent and the expected winner (as claimed by media heavyweights) are conservative. The prominence effect accumulates and compounds, like financial interests of the wealthy (not a coincidence).

These dynamics stem from two related propositions: 1) the system is historically, inherently conservative 2) incumbents abuse incumbent power to maintain prominence and credibility and thus power.

The system is inherently conservative because the system was designed by conservatives: propertied white men. Remember, these were men whose property included legal ownership of human beings under a legal system designed and constructed by themselves. They also built mechanisms for favouring conservatism into the structural norms and conventions of the Westminster system. They called these design features checks and balances and said the purpose was stability.

This is not to say that conservative conventions are not also abused by conservatives. They are. This is also inherent, to the ‘born to rule’ nature of conservatism. Born-to-rule, by the way, is not some made-up slur. It is a centuries-old tradition of the British system that they forcibly imposed here. The formal term is primogeniture. It denoted which offspring (the oldest son) would inherit all the property and a seat in government (the House of Lords) through no merit whatsoever, merely an accident of birth. 

The default tendency towards incumbency is founded in these various formal structures – our stabilisers, or checks and balances – and has been reproduced down the centuries.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and the upshot is that apparently intelligent people say things like Malcolm Turnbull has gravitas, or the Liberal Party are the better economic managers. And the stubborn humanity and pride of some means that people will continue to make such nonsensical claims despite overwhelming counter-evidence.

Then there is the fact that conservatives will pull any lever, and use any tax-payer funded resource, to stay in power. After the lie of meritocracy, this is the next most crucial feature of conservatism, and it is enabled by inherent biases in traditional journalism methods.

The classic manoeuvre this time round was the way Turnbull, with the support of legal advice from his Attorney General, called a double dissolution despite no discernible democratic reason to do so. The double dissolution trigger was pulled for purely political reasons, specifically, to shore up the political power of our default, anyone-but-Abbott Prime Minister.

This was done because Turnbull has utterly squandered his political capital. In language even the dimmest Liberal apparatchik could understand: the high-risk strategy to invest in Turnbull’s popularity has delivered a negative return on investment. No dividend. And like most rich folks faced with this scenario, the party turned to lower-net worth individuals, the Australian taxpayer, to bail them out of a truly terrible venture capital decision.

This is not to hold Labor up as some kind of squeaky-clean golden role model (see: Eddie Obeid). But Labor are not in power, nor reaping the structural advantages of incumbency and prominence privilege in this election campaign. Quite the opposite.

So it is the conservatives who will, collectively, stop at nothing, no matter how extreme, unprincipled and in breach of conventions designed to ‘stabilise’ the system. After all, nice guys finish last, right? We may not want to believe that this continues, year in, year out, Parliament after Parliament. That we have progressed so little.

But progress is not linear. For every step towards equality and justice and rights for all, conservatives are on stand by to aggressively push back and reinstate their preferred – and rigidly unequal, unjust – status quo.

The events of 1975, unprecedented and unrepeated, are the prime example of this in Australia. The 1975 legacy includes even apparently progressive voices reproducing, to this day, the trope that Whitlam was reckless. This retrospective justification for conservatives breaching their own conventions is never balanced with an accurate observation as to how aggressively and unscrupulously the Coalition did everything in their power to bring down an opponent – and in so doing, destabilised the whole system.

Yet somehow, being conservative and destabilising the entire system, trashing the stabilisers designed by their own, is not as reckless or dangerous or destabilising as when progressives establish progressive policies for which they have a clear mandate from the electorate in a democracy. That is how it works.

And commandeering legacy, a very high priority for the conservative side of politics, works in other ways. Why stop at retrospective justification for deeply unprincipled actions? In a similar way, conservatives will commandeer any legacy they can not destroy. According to this narrative, the Hawke-Keating economic reforms were ‘bipartisan’, while attacks on Medicare and affordable tertiary education continue right now, in 2016.

So as we enter the final stage of this campaign, it is important to know the historical context, this deeply ingrained and vigorously prosecuted position that conservatives are supposedly the more credible governing body – which continues, as mentioned, in the face of overwhelming counter evidence, via abuse of incumbent power.

In this context, major media voices make both instinctive and calculated decisions about how and where to bestow prominence privilege. Where the call is that the conservative incumbent will win, it is not merely an observation or a punt or an informed prediction. Nor is it only a vested interest. It is a call that overtly favours the conservative incumbent. The call will vest in the conservative interest, for the remainder of the campaign.

 

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Always was, always will be Aboriginal land

Late in 2015, as part of the Breeza and Liverpool Plains Harvest Festival, I camped for a couple of days with friends and colleagues on Gamilarray Gomeroi land near Gunnedah, not far from Tamworth, in north-west NSW. We were there to participate in, and document, the campaign against five Watermark Shenhua coal mines slated for the go-ahead by the NSW Coalition government.

After a group photo, the chant went up: ‘always was, always will be, Aboriginal land’. As a vocal minority called out this message, local farmers shifted their feet – and eyes – uncomfortably.

The night before, a group of said local farmers – young men all – joined us at the campfire, got rollicking drunk, and voiced the kind of racist statements we hear at any gathering of the agricultural elite.

One young cocky interrupted a conversation to ask a 21year old Gamilaraay man whether he is Aboriginal. On being told ‘yes’, the cocky described his experiences employing Aboriginal farm hands, and commented on the physical build of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.

After we listened politely for a while, and then backed away slowly, the young Gamilaraay man asked me if I thought the cocky was, well, a bit of a eugenicist. How we laughed. What can you do? The guy actually confirmed that he was speaking to an Aboriginal person before spouting false and racist commentary about supposed traits – both physical and work-ethic – of Aboriginal people.

I am white, but to the best of my knowledge this is par for the course, in the 21st century.

A racist polity: does it matter?

I do not tell this story to deny the constructive partnerships that have been built between traditional owners, activists, and the agricultural elite (and researchers, and small business owners, and scientists and city and country) as we work together to stop coal and coal seam gas mining. These relationships have taken a lot of work to build, together. These relationships exist, and matter.

But such relationships do not nullify the fact that we live in a racist country. Our very identity as a single nation-state, when the continent and her islands are made up of over 300 sovereign Aboriginal and Islander nations, is a product of racist violence.

This is a difficult and confronting fact. The incident of the racist cocky – and of our chant at the coal mine protest site – came to mind when I heard the audio clip of Bill Shorten speaking at the 2016 Reconciliation Dinner. It is why, for me, it is noteworthy that in his speech, Bill Shorten said ‘this continent is, always was, and always will be Aboriginal land’.

The accepted political wisdom is that there are very few votes in this statement.

For the first time ever, National Reconciliation Week (NRW) has fallen during a federal election campaign. This is not in itself particularly noteworthy. Federal elections fall due every three years, and NRW was established by Reconciliation Australia in 1996, a mere twenty years ago. Twenty years is approximately 0.0004% of the period of human occupation here.

Recent racism

The year 1996 was the last year of the Hawke-Keating governments, the year the High Court of Australia recognised the partial survival of native title in lands under pastoral leases in its Wik decision. It was the year John Howard was elected to the Prime Ministership of Australia, on a policy platform that included extinguishing native title.

John Howard is renowned for exploiting our inherent racism for political gain. He never hesitated. His racist rhetoric followed a trajectory in lockstep with views expressed by Pauline Hanson, just as his parallel actions were designed to distance himself from her.

Naturally, Hanson copped a lot more opprobrium than Howard. It is not as if the Australian electorate is any less sexist than we are racist. Howard was hugely ‘successful’, with his ‘plausible deniability’ and his dog-whistling technique. He has ‘inspired’ and nurtured at least two generations of nasty racist young Liberals (so far): the morally moribund ‘black ops’ who have now come of age.

Not least of the Howard acolytes was the self-proclaimed bastard son Tony Abbott, whose meanness and madness was carefully nurtured as only a grossly hyper-masculine organisation can ‘nurse’ such creatures (for the Freudians: this is womb envy). Abbott’s development was eventually arrested only by a bigger ego, our current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.

And the nation, or at least the media and their polling partners, dominated by the same white male demographic, proclaimed that this Turnbull, another (richer) white man, could solve the problems of the nation, a systemically, endemically, sexist, racist polity.

For who? And how is that working out? Not by citing gun control and looking back on John Howard with rose-coloured glasses. Such an approach is delusional.

But then conservatives always put legacy before actual achievement. It is inherent to conservatism, devoted as it is to the past and maintenance of the status quo. Conservatives put retaining power first and legacy second. Governing the country comes a very distant third.

Could the Liberals be less terrible?

Look at it this way: Menzies had an excuse.

Yes, self-determination emerged in the post-war years as a central principle of human rights, along with the most endorsed document in the history of humanity, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights itself.

Yes, it was not until the late, great Gough Whitlam won the 1972 election that Australia was dragged into operationalising post-war human rights principles such as self-determination and thus land rights. Yes, Menzies was an Anglophile, a relic from an era when all Australians were born British subjects and it meant something – or it meant something to the white Australians.

But maybe Menzies was not completely terrible. He signed us onto the Refugee Convention (1951) and codified it into law (Migration Act 1958 (Cth)). In his limited and pompous way, Menzies represented Australia as a responsible member of the international community. White Australia, which was (legally) a half-century old by then, was not dismantled on Menzies’ watch, but post-war immigration boomed and white Australia became doomed. There was no way white Australia could remain intact under Menzies’ successors, no matter what their political hue.

And Howard? Howard is now a Menzies biographer no less. A self-seeking, legacy-profiteering acolyte. What is Howard’s excuse for being a backwards relic of another era, not just now, but while in government? Is it that he grew up under Menzies, and had arrested development throughout the civil rights and women’s liberation movements? That does not wash.

The entire ideology of liberalism is constructed on the assumption that men are rational. This, says the liberal tradition, is what differentiates men from other creatures. These socially constructed assumptions of superiority over, say, dolphins, rely on social Darwinism, while refusing to evolve. This in turn is founded in its own self-interest, or reasons, while calling self-interest rational.

See how that works? And we wonder why conservatives are incapable of dealing with, for example, climate change.

The refusal to evolve, the resistance to change, is inherent to the conservative project. Like its two icons, Menzies and Howard (Fraser rejected the party before the party rejected Fraser), the Liberal Party is deeply conservative.  Even its name is a lie.

It was not that long ago

In many ways, the Howard era (1996-2007) was defined by racism. It is his signature legacy, his lasting contribution to the Australian polity. he set out to see any progress toward racial equality or self-determination or Aboriginal rights forged by Whitlam, Hawke and Keating  – and even Fraser – under whom he was the worst treasurer this country has ever seen – be rolled back, undermined, attacked, destroyed.

Howard’s immediate and unreconciliatory amendments to the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) set the scene for years of racist policy- and law-making to come. Later campaigns included demonising asylum seekers as terrorists (2001); and the abolition of the only national, elected, representative Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander body in the land (ATSIC).

The final Howard election campaign (2007), in an effort to not lose his seat and government (he lost both) the then-Prime Minister and his ex-military Indigenous Affairs man Mal Brough announced they were sending in the army to Northern Territory communities because look at all those mining riches well black men you know what black men are like.

Just some of the indescribable damage we caused under the so-called Northern Territory Intervention is described here.

Nobody did more than Howard to ensure that post-war developments in human rights, in racial and gender equality, in land rights, recognition of Aboriginal rights and interests in land, in women’s liberation, environmental sustainability, climate change … were trashed, broken, swept away, kicked to the kerb. The man stood for nothing and nurtured no-one but his own: politically invested white patriarchal industrial, corporate, and social interests. And no-one did he nurture more than Tony Abbott.

This destructive impulse, or more likely frank incompetence, is evidenced by the fact that Howard failed utterly to ensure any form of succession. If anything, Howard completely bollocksed the potential succession out of spite towards his Treasurer and deputy. Although to be fair, Costello was no better in the political skills stakes by then. After ten years in power it would be beyond naivety to expect anything more from the Liberal Party than incompetent, lazy, born-to-rule complacency.

This is one key reason Howard lost his seat as well as lost government. People put up with the old man rapidly losing relevancy for so long, out of loyalty and respect and deference, but if he can not even handle succession?

Not all cultures are like this. But Howard and Costello benefit from a specific form of social organisation: white patriarchy. It is women and children who will continue to show loyalty and spend time and provide meaning to Howard in his dotage. Howard was sacked, but most claim to leave in order to ‘spend more time with family’. After a lifetime of grasping and game playing and destroying people’s lives, one or two may come to understand what actually matters. The huge cost to other people’s children and grandchildren, such as of the elders struggling under the Northern Territory Intervention, is unlikely to cross the tiny mind of a Howard or Costello.

That was then.

This is now

There is a reason I recount this disaster of a Prime Minister, a man whose reign is hailed as a success because he ‘won’, despite the lies, the massive and continuing damage, the racism and sexism and backwardness. Despite the meanness (Howard) and the madness (his protégé and chief head kicker, Abbott), that is this legacy.

This is the Australia in which our young cocky grew up. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? This person came of age, his entire high school years and development towards adulthood, was dominated by a backwards racist sexist, a small and nasty, petty and mean-minded, talentless suburban Liberal Party hack with no original ideas, no creativity, no vision, and no greater articulation for the future … other than that Australians be relaxed and comfortable.

To be a young white man coming of age in this period meant to win at that? How foul. Whoops! I mean what a time to be alive.

The point is not to defend these men, either old or young. The point is that they inherit and hold more social, political and economic power than anyone else – without having done anything for it, let alone having worked hard. It is axiomatic that the beneficiaries of structural advantages perpetuate the mythology of meritocracy most aggressively.  Under white patriarchy, when a trope is demonstrably untrue,the white men who benefit from it most are always in the forefront when it coms to reproducing the lie.

The point is to note that very few federal election campaigns see a robust Aboriginal policy platform at all, let alone a policy plank around Aboriginal identity, sovereignty, or rights.

In 2007, Kevin Rudd added an official Apology to the Stolen Generations to his policy mix, a promise he delivered on 13 February the following year.  It had been a while since a major party had the courage to put up what would be done for Aboriginal people, rather than what a future government would promise to do to harm Aboriginal people.

Few people would claim that the Apology had tangible benefits for the material circumstances of Aboriginal people. Many argue the opposite. Nevertheless, as a campaign policy, the Apology was couched in the language of democratic principle: a Royal Commission had made a recommendation, which was to Apologise, as a nation, to the Stolen Generations, to take collective responsibility for our actions. A social-democratic political party stated that if it won government, it would implement this recommendation, because social democratic ideology subscribes to collective action and collective responsibility.

This is how our democracy works. And it is in this context that we must understand what Bill Shorten said:

This mighty continent is, was, and always will be Aboriginal land.

Religion rhymes with prison

The Tim Minchin song Come Home Cardinal Pell arrived like an avalanche in my news feed this week. This is not surprising. I’m a Minchin fan and atheist; and am friends with people who see no reason to believe in the existence of things for which there is no evidence and have cool taste in music.

The mainstream media caught up the next day. Kristina Kenneally penned a highly lauded piece published in The Guardian which also questioned the place of god in a world where the Catholic Church continues to protect rapists and the protectors of rapists.

The pope was also in the news this week, for snapping at one of the faithful. In Mexico. That was the day after the Minchin song hit the headlines. No coverage I saw linked Francis’ loss of composure to the possibility that providing sanctuary to a man nicknamed Pell Pot would create considerable cognitive dissonance for a man who is assumed to have a moral compass.

Being trained in law and not in psychology, my comment is that it seems highly unlikely that these sets of circumstances – Pell being publicly requested to face the music, the Vatican choosing to safeguard Pell from a Royal Commission, il papa losing his cool – are unrelated.

Much of the commentary on the Minchin song is collected and criticised in this excellent post. The discussion I heard on ABC radio, between four journalists – Richard Glover, Jennifer Hewiit,  Joe Hildebrand and Emma Alberici (in order on which they spoke about the song) – was unanimously critical of the – wait for it – language that Minchin used.

The four were ‘in furious agreement’ (Alberici) in their offence at Minchin and defence of Pell and his apparent rights. These rights remained unspecified, for the obvious reason that every courtesy has been extended to Pell and none of his rights have been violated.

Here are some of the highlights:

Tar and feather him

Shouting scum scum scum

Celebrities jumping on the bandwagon of the cause de jour

Hurling abuse

Lynch mob mentality

Pitchforks at dawn

Abusive

We all know paedophiles are evil of course…

Yes there were a lot of mistakes made…

 

This is four highly trained and remunerated journalists commenting on the release of a song – a song which says scum once, not three times – which suggests Pell should front the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Assault.

The reason Pell should answer the questions of the Commission is that his institution, the one for which he was the most senior representative in Australia, is a known recruiter, harbourer and protector of paedophiles. Priests who rape children. Men of god who use their purported moral superiority to gain access to children and rape those children. That is the problem. They are the wrong-doers. Not Minchin. Not the Royal Commissioner. The rapist priests. We seem to have lost track of this fact somehow.

The most repulsive illogic here is commentators who draw false equivalences between the gross crimes and cover up by Pell and a man singing a song with the word scum in it. These are not comparable moral questions. The word scum is not even offensive to anyone when used in other contexts. But say it about the pope’s man and suddenly those who hold themselves as king mediator of messages call offence.

In the stampede to defend the very important man, we hear all about his rights when his rights have not been breached in any way shape or form. What are we not talking about while blathering about Pell and his not-breached rights? Yes. The victims and survivors of priests who rape children.

Mainstream media feels under threat from social media and the diversity of voices that are now heard in spaces for which they never had to compete, except among each other. The only way they know how to fight back against this threat to their monopoly on controlling the message is to side with power. So they minimalise and trivialise the horrors exacerbated by Pell.

This erases victims from the story. It also directly contradicts the claim that our society condemns adults who sexually assault children in the harshest possible terms. We say we do, and politicians have ramped the child rape sentence up (to a maximum of 25 years) to make it appear equivalent to murder.

Of course this grandstanding has not been and will not be matched by our political leaders loudly condemning the institutions which have failed victims and survivors at every turn.

We do not condemn all men who rape children in real life. Just some of them. We excuse priests and teachers, and burble about their rights and presumption of innocence. To be held innocent until proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt, by the way, is a principle of the criminal law, not investigatory proceedings like a Royal Commission.

At the same time we mobilise millions of dollars to further oppress and violate the rights of Aboriginal people in remote Northern Territory communities on far less evidence than has been collected by the RCIRCSA. A specific group of men are routinely portrayed as sexual predators and condemned en mass across our media landscape.

Where do they think the blue-eyed babies came from?

Children are still not believed. Lives are still wrecked. Families still shun survivors who speak out. Opinion makers still say things like ‘yes mistakes have been made but…’ The Case for the Pope being indicted at The Hague for Crimes Against Humanity – the hundreds of thousands of victims of rapist priests – has been made by none other than Geoffrey Robertson QC. And all we ask of Pell is to answer the damn question: what did you know?

 

HOW DYSON HEYDON RULED ON HIMSELF: IT’S CONVOLUTED

 

 

After several false starts, we finally learnt this week that Mr Dyson Heydon will continue in his role presiding over the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, despite submissions of apprehended bias, as determined by himself.

The reasons for his decision, presumably written in long hand, run to some 67 pages. Few would find it entertaining reading. As befits his reputation as a black letter law man, the document is wordy and complex, replete with minute detail as to what the Commissioner perceives to be the relevant facts and law.

As with any text, the reasons also contain unwritten assumptions. For instance, the Commissioner assumes that it is possible for a decision maker such as himself to bring an objective and neutral mind to his decision-making tasks. This assumption pervades our legal system, yet is questionable at best; and at worst, it is simply untrue.

Are judges impartial?

Consider the fact that decisions in lower courts are routinely overturned on appeal; or that a unanimous bench (such as a 7-0 decision of the High Court), is extraordinarily unusual. Judges make these decisions, and judges all have the same basic task, which is to apply the law to the facts and circumstances of the case at hand. If all judges are impartially carrying out their duties, in accordance with consistent legal reasoning and training, how to explain successful appeals and dissenting judgements?

Human error is inevitable, but if this was the only explanation, we would not see High Court cases almost always decided by majority (rather than unanimity). So there must be some other cause or causes. To explain the parallel universe of the legal system, we must look outside the legal system; and bring understandings from sociology, intersectionalism, and cultural studies to our understanding of the law.

Every person is a product of their background and training, of their experiences and their knowledge of the world. It is unlikely that Dyson Heydon has reflected on the social facts of his demographic privilege. There is no evidence that Heydon is alert to the dominance of white men in the process of defining what is or is not a binding precedent, for example. The harsh realities of oppressive social constructs – such as sexism or racism or homophobia – are not part of Heydon’s lived experience. He can only understand such prejudices, harms, and wrongs in the abstract.

This may seem obvious, but it goes to the heart of whether the 67 pages of reasons as to why Heydon will remain as Royal Commissioner are based on a false assumption. To accept his reasons for his decision, it is necessary to accept the claim that Heydon can bring a neutral mind, and rule impartially, on submissions as to his own apprehended bias.

 

Is Dyson Heydon a judge?

The claims made in support of this proposition are that it is the norm, at law, for judges to decide on their own recusal in the first instance. This is accurate. If a judge rules against his or her own recusal and a party is still troubled about apprehended bias, the next step is an application to a higher court, where another judge will rule on the question. So yes, this is common legal practice, which does not make it right, but it is lawful.

The ground for making a distinction between Heydon and all the claims made about him based on his judicial experience, or on what judges do, is this: Heydon is not a judge. So what? I hear you ask. He was a judge, a High Court judge, he retains all his judicial knowledge. And indeed he does.

But Heydon is ineligible to be a judge in 2015, under s. 72 of the Australian Constitution. Second only to the overwhelming vote to amend the race power in 1967, Australians voted a resounding yes in 1977 to make it compulsory for judges to retire at 70 years of age. Incidentally, that referendum co-incided with Sir Garfield Barwick’s tenure as Chief Justice of the High Court and operated prospectively, so Barwick was not subject to the amendment and stayed on until he was 77 years old.

Either way, and despite our Prime Minister’s apparently cavalier attitude to the Australian Constitution, it would be unconstitutional to re-commission Heydon as a judge. So Heydon is not a judge.

 

Is Commissioner Heydon impartial?

Heydon is however an appointee of the Abbott government, commissioned by letters patent signed by the Governor-General, to investigate ‘governance and corruption’ in trade unions. There are important implications here – in law, and in real life.

The oldest political party in Australia was formed as the workers’ party, the political branch of organised labour, otherwise known as trade unions. This is a perfectly legitimate political activity, and if it were not, the conservative forces would have abolished it by now. Sir Garfield Barwick himself, when Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, advised then-Governor General Kerr on dismissing Gough Whitlam. The immortalised Bob Menzies tried to abolish the Communist Party – and was defeated by referendum.

It is folly to underestimate the irrational anger of conservatives when they do not get their way. It is important, also, to note that referenda are powerful. We should be alert to this as Abbott throws around thought bubbles on marriage equality and recognition of First Peoples.

So. Any attempt to obscure the fact that Heydon is presiding over an investigation into Abbott’s political opponents is sophistry of the worst kind. Our two-party adversarial system is borrowed from Westminster, the English having already imposed the ‘absolute executive power’ model (in the form of Governors), on the true owners of the continent and her islands.

As Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, the Labor Party in 2015 has a duty to hold the government to account and propose alternative policies, so the people have a choice in a democratic election. Again, this is a conventionally legitimate role in a Westminster system of government. Yet Abbott, ever acting like an Opposition leader, establishes a Royal Commission to look into the governance and corruption of trade unions.

The terms of reference, as was ever thus, define the findings. That there is corruption among trade unions is not left open to the evidence but is instead a pre-determined finding. (The terms of reference do not, however, point to with whom these corrupt dealings are done. Other trade unions, perhaps?)

In addition to the terms of the reference and the Constitution, the evidence suggests that Heydon is not alert to his own privilege, politics, and ideological beliefs. This is tricky territory. Heydon’s privilege is a matter of fact, shown by his race, sex, family background, and so on. We only have to identify the known empirical facts on inherited privilege such as white male property ownership, income, and power-holding positions from politics to the judiciary, professorships, corporate boards, and prominent media platforms. See for example Dylan Matthews’ analysis of Trump’s wealth and lack of investment skills here and George Monbiot on Mitt Romney, Gina Rinehart and other perpetuators of ‘self-made man’ mythology here.

 

Legal reasoning for non-lawyers

While the social facts are known on how our father’s status is a determinant of our own, (for example, Heydon’s father was a senior public servant under the Menzies government, when Garfield Barwick was Attorney General) assertions about Heydon’s politics or ideological beliefs are not matters of fact.

Heydon has not expressly stated that he is a supporter of the Liberal Party. Rather, he has said that accepting an invitation to speak at a Liberal Party fundraiser is not necessarily, in and of itself, indicative of any political support for the Liberal Party.

Here is how it is done:

 

The definitional question is important because under the Ebner test it is necessary to see whether the selected definition, if the facts indicate that it is applicable, reveals the characteristic and meshes with the issues which it is said may as a result not be decided impartially.

 

Heydon accuses the ACTU submission of imprecision [at 75] because counsel variously described the Barwick dinner as a ‘Liberal Party’ fundraiser, function, and event. Had counsel only described the dinner in one way (a Liberal Party function, say) then Heydon could just as easily have replied that the event was more properly described as a lawyers’ professional event than a Liberal Party one, as indeed [at 79-80] he did.

 

…an address about a topic unrelated to the possible goals of the Party with which the two lawyer groups are associated cannot give rise to an apprehension of bias. In that example there is no proselytizing and no substantial Party activity. In the present case, the additional element must come, if at all, from the suggestion that the Address represents substantial Party activity or involvement in raising funds.

It is a familiar and legitimate technique of legal reasoning to include definitional concerns, for instance when the judge sets out the ‘material’ facts of a case. This defines the parameters within which the case will be decided, what is relevant and what is to be discarded as irrelevant; thereby nudging the ‘legal reasoning’ towards the preferred outcome. The problem is when judges or Commissioners propose that the decisions and reasoning they bring to this mental task is neutral and impartial, or in tune with or inspired by the real world. It isn’t.

For instance, we could try and picture Heydon accepting an invitation to speak at a Greens party fundraiser. Would he? Of course not. But there is no evidence to support that conclusion. The facts are that Heydon did accept the Barwick address invitation and has never spoken at a Greens fundraiser. Or we could look at it the other way: would a Labor lawyer accept an invitation to address the Sir Garfield Barwick dinner? The answer is no, not unless she was extremely gutsy and prepared to turn up in order to attack everything the audience holds dear. How do we know this? Because, in obvious and flagrant breach of the doctrine of the separation of powers, then-Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, Sir Garfield Barwick, advised then-Governor General Sir John Kerr, on the dismissal of Gough Whitlam.

But at law, this does not prove anything about Heydon’s politics. Back in the real world, it is abundantly evident to anyone who is awake that accepting the invitation to speak at a dinner organised by the Sydney lawyers’ arm of the Liberal Party is strongly indicative of where Heydon sits on the ideological spectrum. Some may even say that accepting the invitation, the facts of his elite background, and the many judicial decisions available on the public record, are conclusive: that from these known facts and decisions, we can conclude that Heydon is a deeply conservative old man.

 

The law and the real world

But this is not how the law thinks. A sociologist could probably be found to agree with this assessment, if they have the courage to upset the establishment. It is in sociology and cultural studies that we find a more accurate understanding of social constructs. Such social constructs include classism, sexism, racism, and homophobia. Or more radically (and more accurately) we might speak of socially constructed systems of oppression that overwhelmingly benefit white male hetero-normative cis-gendered neuro-typical crony capitalists.

The standard response to these claims is that the wealth and comforts of the modern world are products of this system. The answer to this grandiose claim is to identify those groups of human beings who are not in fact the slightest bit comfortable in the modern world; and to ask: if human ingenuity and progress are not for all humans, who is it for? This brings us back to the privileged elites exemplified by men like Dyson Heydon (and Tony Abbott).

These are difficult arguments to put, because the dominant hegemony invisibilises the norm. Few people are raised to recognise that whiteness is privilege. In contrast, many people are trained to recognise that non-whiteness is ‘disadvantage’. This obscures the human agency involved in creating groups of disadvantaged citizens. We have whole swathes of legislation outlawing discrimination on grounds of sex and race, marital or pregnancy status, sexuality or religion or ethnicity. Someone must be perpetuating all these discriminatory practices.

In this context, it becomes undeniable that white men do not experience sexism and racism, and thus can only understand such harmful behaviours in the abstract. We must then ask whether white men are uniquely ill-equipped to make decisions in this area: questions as to discrimination, for example, or in the same general category, questions of prejudice and bias, or impartiality, objectivity and neutrality. Here is what Heydon found:

I have concluded that it is not the case that a fair-minded lay observer might apprehend that I might not bring an impartial mind to the resolution of the questions which the work of the Commission requires to be decided.

Lawyers love double negatives, which are deployed to obscure the weaker aspects of convoluted legal argument. If you are reading a legal document and spot a triple negative, pay close attention. It is a signal that the claims are on shaky ground.

Heydon has not concluded that the fair-minded layperson might apprehend that he may bring a partial mind to the resolution of the questions which his role as Commissioner requires that he decide. This torturous re-working of his sentence has a point.

It would be a cinch to find a person on the street who thinks Heydon is biased. A non-lawyer who apprehends that Heydon is biased. Who comprehends that even if they themselves do not necessarily think Heydon is biased, there is a public perception that Heydon might be biased. This is a simple empirical proposition, easily tested by standing on the street and asking people.

But the law does not work this way. It is not established legal practice to ask ordinary people what the ordinary person thinks. Instead, the law creates hypothetical constructs of fair-mindedness and reasonable persons and ordinary bystanders and what-not, all of which are euphemisms for non-lawyers. The law then appoints extremely senior lawyers who are immersed in the law and have been for decades – judges and Royal Commissioners – to pronounce on their own neutrality, according to their learned legal reasoning, as applied to what a hypothetical non-lawyer thinks.

The law then reproduces and hands this process down through the ages, for the law is what the law says the law is, even on the topic of what a made-up non-lawyer is thinking, inside their non-existent non-lawyer head, but without asking the many non-lawyers available to be asked. This is accepted by other lawyers as normal in terms of legal reasoning, because it is the law. Meanwhile, around the country, actual fair-minded laypersons are tearing at their ears and crying ‘what did he just say? Was that a double or triple negative? How is he assessing his own neutrality?’ And, also echoing down through the ages, ‘The law is an ass!’

 

 

 

The national conversation on citizenship we should have

The current federal government has a raft of proposals to radically change the extent of government power over basic citizenship rights. This story is over six months old, but in its lazy, dishonest, way, the mainstream media are reporting each announcement and comment as though each outlet is breaking the story yesterday.

There is so much mis-information, deliberate obfuscation, outright lying, including to parliament, and other complete wastes of time and money and intellect that I have put together some of the more important arguments, facts, contexts and historical details that might be of use.

At present, Australian citizenship is Australian citizenship, whether conferred by the state or inherited by birth. These proposals will create different classes of Australian citizen, which some would argue is unAustralian in itself.

On closer inspection, however, the changes would entrench categories of citizenship along racial lines. This is in fact very Australian indeed, if we understand Australian in terms of the dominant culture since 1788.

Under the proposals, the top category in these classes of citizen would be Australians whose parents and grandparents were born in Australia or the United Kingdom. I am in this category, and I can categorically state that many in my demographic, privileged by the luck of birthright, are entertaining the idea of two-tiered citizenship.

The line goes like this: oh I can understand revoking the citizenship of terrorists.

This is not okay, for a raft of reasons, but most fundamentally because it breaches principles of equality. Two classes of citizenship, based on racial lines? Really? You are okay with that how? Because terrorism? What terrorism?

The ugly reality is that many of us whose citizenship is not at risk – of being suspended, cancelled or revoked in whole or in part by the state – are reasonably comfortable with others not feeling so secure – in the name of national security. This in turn tells us an even uglier fact: national security is not for all Australians. It is for those who are already the most secure.

According to a now infamous leak to Fairfax, Tony Abbott and Peter Dutton argued for legal power to ‘strip’ citizenship rights of all Australians, irrespective of conferral or birth status. Weird as it sounds, this would in fact be more consistent with principles of equality. Attack all of us, or none of us. That’s the Australian way, isn’t it?

Others, including Julie Bishop, Christopher Pyne, and Malcolm Turnbull, raised the obvious point that the policy would breach international law (United Nations Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness 1961). Their defence of *only* attacking certain migrants’ rights was perceived and reported as the more moderate view. It is not. It is an abomination. Either you are Australian, or you are not.

The next class is sole citizens whose parents were born overseas (again, ignore Britain). These people potentially hold dual citizenship – they have access, in theory, to citizenship elsewhere and thus would not necessarily be rendered stateless by us.

Scott Morrison made an alternate case, for suspending some residency rights of sole nationals. He likened this to ‘the right to vote if you are in prison or something like that’. In fact, only prisoners serving a sentence longer than three years are legally barred from voting, and only since 2006.

While Morrison implies that all prisoners are barred from voting, his claims are misleading at best. When former conservative Prime Minister John Howard drafted a statute to bar all prisoners from voting, it was struck down by the High Court of Australia.

In other words, what Morrison implies to be legal fact is, in legal fact, unconstitutional, as declared by our highest court. Prisoners retain the right to re-enrol on release, which is a different question from how many actually do.

It is clear that Morrison is a key player here. His parliamentary secretary, Senator Concetta Fiaverentti-Wells, has been appointed by the Prime Minister (alongside former Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock) to ‘lead the national conversation’ on citizenship (more on this development below).

Additionally, Morrison was the Minister for Immigration when the Australian Citizenship Amendment Bill 2014 foreshadowed most of these changes last year (Hansard 23 October p. 11744). There is an analysis of the second reading speech for that Bill, which the Senate referred to the Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee on 30 October 2014, here.

The last category is actual (not just potential) dual citizens. For this group, regardless of where they or their parents or grandparents or spouses were born, the government is unequivocally seeking the power to suspend or revoke the Australian half of their dual citizenship.

The grounds for such revocation would be this: the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection forms a view that the Australian person is a terror suspect.

You may be old enough to remember when former Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews (now defence minister. Defence!) formed a view, on character grounds, about Dr. Mohammed Haneef. Off to indefinite detention for Dr Haneef, supposedly to keep Australia safe. It cost us millions of dollars, in legal processes and ultimately in damages. Millions. For nothing but a shameful exercise in terror-mongering.

Think how many public housing units those millions of dollars could have built, or how many respite care hours it could have provided.

So despite the nature of rights being necessarily universal – in moral and democratic principle, and as codified into international law under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – our government wants us to choose between these options:

– expand executive power to suspend, cancel or revoke basic rights over all Australian citizens, in breach of inter alia doctrine of separation of powers, presumption of innocence, and international law; or

–  expand executive power over some Australians but not others, effectively creating a two-tiered citizenship regime where more recent migrants have fewer rights, in breach inter alia of the Rule of Law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Asserting breaches of such fundamental principles is a serious matter, so it is worth setting out some brief definitions.

Executive power: the exercise of power, in this case over the most fundamental of rights, by the minister, at his discretion, based on a view he has formed.

Doctrine of separation of powers: The power-sharing arrangement by which democracies establish ‘checks and balances’ to limit the power of the legislature (both houses of the Parliament), the executive (Ministers in cabinet and the staff of their departments, such as immigration officials) and the judiciary (the High Court can strike down unconstitutional laws, that is, law that is enacted without the constitutional authority to do so).

Presumption of innocence: Every person accused by the state of breaching our criminal law is innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt, as decided by a judge, or by a jury of their peers, in a properly constituted court of law.

Rule of Law: Everyone is equal before the law and no person is above the law.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights: All humans are born equal in rights and dignity… (Article 1).

What is the national conversation about? National security, citizenship and reporting

These changes are sought, as erosion of democratic rights always are, on national security grounds. The threat is variously labelled ISIS or ‘the so-called Islamic State’ (most mainstream media), ISIL (President Obama and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop prefer this term) Da’esh (Bishop again and occasionally Prime Minister Tony Abbott) or the death cult, the apocalyptic death cult, the millennial death cult (Prime Minister Abbott again).

As is the way with a deeply fragmented media, the government positions are presented in an ahistoric and decontextualized way. For example, look at who is saying no, stop. None of this should be entertained. It is an abomination. Wherever that discourse appears, the speaker is attacked by government.

The media then foregrounds government’s aggressive, irrational response to a calm and balanced observation from a highly-qualified and dignified professional; and this is called “balance”. Knowing this, the government repeats the strategy.

In fact, government is not interested in a national conversation at all. If it was, the contribution of as esteemed a person as Gillian Triggs, in her capacity as president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, would be welcomed rather than vilified.

As mentioned, the second option is canvassed as somehow more palatable. This narrative implies that the government should not attack all Australians’ citizenship rights but some – well, maybe. So the media and the polity lean towards an option that disregards equality as a fundamental value.

It is not surprising that this option is gaining the most traction. Entrenched inequality on the basis of migration status is as old as white Australia itself; and has become particularly poisonous under the current government.

Another narrative is that our citizenship rights have been set in stone since the dawn of the nation-state. This is not true. It took almost 50 years after federation before the Australian Citizenship Act 1948 (Cth) was passed (more on its history and context below). Malcolm Turnbull referred to the 1948 Act, putting the conservative position that ‘an old law is a good law’. His claim ignores that the previous conservative government of John Howard, in which he was a minister, amended the Act in 2007.

Another media standard is to assume that ‘balance’ is achieved by presenting the three options outlined above and the question as to whether or not the other major party will agree to, or oppose, the policy. This is not true either. We do not necessarily need to know the Labor party position to conclude that these proposals should not, and should never have been, on the table at all. The relevant information is available in the discussion paper, the citizenship amendment bill, the media releases and press conferences and reports and rhetoric.

In discussing citizenship on social media, the ‘what will Labor do?’ question looms large. Labor will not be wedged on national security, is what Labor will do. I can not add further analysis here – to my raw disgust for this position. I understand it, I do not have to like it. But Labor are not in power; and when they are, terror-mongering is less rampant. The Liberal-National Coalition are in power, and the Liberal-National Coalition government are the problem.

It is the government that has the power to pass these proposals into law. It is what the government is saying that matters most. Thus we can not dismiss these ideas out of hand, and academia – and the citizen scholar, as we visualise something broader and more universal than the citizen journalist – must step up.

Something as fundamental as violating basic citizenship rights can not be properly debated, and should not be presented to the people, without context and history.

 

Is Australian citizenship an old law and a good law?

The Australian Citizenship Act 1948 (Commonwealth) was passed by the government of Labor hero Ben Chifley and came into force on 26 January 1949. Until then, all Australians were British subjects.

Like colonisation (terra nullius), and the Constitution itself (s. 51 xxvi, the ‘race power’), these historic events were deeply pre-occupied with race. The assertion of white superiority and thus a fixed racist mindset were key drivers in the formation of the Australian nation state, as evidenced by the debate at the time and the race power, above.

Section 51 defines the federation itself. It lists which powers were transferred from the former colonies to the Commonwealth, and thus which powers were retained by the new states.

A central concern of the establishment of Australian citizenship in 1948 was the influx of post-war migrants, and particularly southern and eastern European migrants. We were not so concerned, and never have been, by British migrants. In fact, Britain was only declared a foreign power at law by the High Court in Sue vs Hill [1999] HCA 30.

Ironically enough, given that no-one seems privy to the date on which Tony Abbott renounced his British citizenship, this was the case that challenged the constitutionality of dual citizens sitting as elected members of the Commonwealth parliament.

This may seem like a snide aside, but there are serious underlying points. Firstly, Malcolm Turnbull’s assertion that the current arrangements are old and good is demonstrably false. In fact, the arrangements favour Britain and British migrants (unequal = not good, under the principles set out above); and are in living memory for anyone born before 1985 or thereabouts (1999 ≠ 1948; sixteen years ≠ old).

Secondly, Abbott’s allegiance to Britain is abundantly evident. His aggressive and divisive campaign during our Republic referendum; and his reference to pre-1788 Australia as ‘nothing but bush’ are but two examples.

This is not to say that Abbott can not also show allegiance to Australia. But in the current context, he has proffered ‘Britain does it’ as a substantive argument for the ‘strip citizenship’ provisions he wants to introduce here.

This is not relevant. Britain is a former colonial power – of Australia but more importantly in the Middle East. Britain has many more migrants from the Middle East than we do.

Further, Britain is next door to France, which also experiences periodic outbreaks of Islamophobia and subsequent unrest, principally among its Algerian-French population, also a legacy of colonialism. Britain is in the same hemisphere as, and not buffeted by the largest ocean on earth from, Iraq and Syria.

In summary, our geopolitical realities are enormously different to Britain and always have been, yet Abbott does not see it that way because he is British-born and in many ways remains British at heart.

The developments of 1999 aside, the 1948 Act, like all statutes, is not set in stone either. Late in 2007, as he faced electoral defeat for the first time in twenty years, the Citizenship Act was amended by the conservative Coalition of John Howard.

Political and social commentators have long noted racist dimensions to Howard’s leadership: his 1988 comments about Asian immigration; his refusal to denounce the racism of Pauline Hanson even as she was disendorsed by his own party; the infamous ‘Tampa election’ of 2001, where the Coalition unashamedly conflated asylum seekers with terrorism (which no-one has been willing or able to disaggregate since); the Northern Territory Emergency Intervention, which included sending the army into remote Aboriginal communities.

Each of these highly influential and harmful machinations was designed to attain or retain power – which is no different to any other politician. As a class, politicians are people who, by definition, seek power.

These sections have attempted to fill in some of the missing history and context that the mainstream media has neither the space nor the inclination to communicate to the populace. What follows is a more detailed examination of the flagged changes through the specific lens of the structural racism of the Australian polity.

Is Australia racist?

The university where I work is home to the most racially and culturally diverse student body in Australia, and to the largest Muslim-Australian student body, and the biggest Arab-Australian student body too. I have written thousands of words on the demographic realities of my students, their rights and interests and freedoms and courage and incredible achievements.

The main point here is that Muslim- and other Arab-Australian young people (young men, to be specific, but the side effects already have triggered attacks on Muslim women) are by far the most likely to be affected by these sorts of changes to the citizenship laws.

We know this, because the justification for the amendments to citizenship law is the threat of Islamic State. Firstly, Islamic State-controlled territory is in an Arab region; and secondly, the organisation is, by definition and self-identification, an Islamic organisation. It is Sunni Islam, but this distinction is rarely made by Australian government MPs.

This becomes relevant when we look at the inquiry into the actions of Man Haron Monis, who was of Iranian origin, which is a Shi’ite state and sworn enemy of ISIS. In fact, it is regularly reported that only the Shi-ite militias are having any ‘success’ against Islamic State (where success is killing, destroying property, and taking back territory) – and this is not unrelated to extensive co-religionist networks that intersect Islamic State and the Iraqi army.

That is the same Iraqi Army that we are expending blood and treasure to ‘train’, while publicly refusing to engage with Iran. The Foreign Minister has in fact engaged in some limited communication with Tehran. Yet the dominant narrative remains: no talking to Iran for all the same reasons we are told to be scared of Islamic State.

These reasons are, in their crudest terms, Islam and terrorism.

In Western Sydney, these distinctions do matter. We have already seen that white racists are more likely to attack Muslim women than any other group. And we can strongly predict, based on the political rhetoric and known policy developments and their impacts, that the proposed new citizenship law will disproportionately impact young Muslim and other Arab (and other brown) people.

It is not as though law enforcement authorities, or anyone really, can accurately distinguish on sight a young Colombian-Australian man who was born here, say, from a Lebanese Australian whose parents arrived in the 1980s, or an Afghani-Australian whose family has been here since the nineteenth century camel trains. I know I can not, despite living and working in the most diverse Australian population centre for the past twelve years.

One reason for mentioning our university and its demographic profile is its founding character as a vehicle for social justice and equality; another is to say, clearly and at times angrily: I talk to young people whose parents were born in Iraq and Syria and Lebanon every day; young people who identify as Assyrian and Muslim and Christian and refugees and migrants. Many raise the impacts of radicalisation rhetoric in conversation. The government talk is harmful. Its policies are problems, not solutions.

To return to the most recent developments: It was 26 May 2015. The Prime Minister called a joint press conference flanked by three colleagues. Senator Concetta Fiaverentti-Wells and former Minister for Immigration (and multicultural affairs, as it used to be called) Phillip Ruddock had been appointed to ‘lead a national conversation’ on citizenship, announced the Prime Minister.

The current Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton, was there too. Note how the change to the name of the ministry crystallises the false asylum-seeker-terror nexus.

As argued above, the announcements risk creating two-tiered citizenship: the better, stronger more inalienable version for old Australia (no, not Indigenous Australians, just those whose parents were born here); and the more tenuous version for those Australians who were born overseas and their children.

What evidence is there for these concerns?

Firstly, it is not rocket science to surmise that those in the first category are more likely to be white: Australians of European and British heritage. Those in the second category are more likely to be Australians of African, Asian, Arab and South American heritage.

The racist dimensions of these changes are multiple and manifest. As such, the conversation we should actually be having is about the racist foundations of the Australian polity, and how this foundational law and culture manifests today.

It is manifest in the false nexus created, by government, between asylum seekers and terrorism. It is manifest in the risk, created by government, of legally entrenching even further inequalities between white Australians and everybody else – except, in this particular instance, of Aboriginal Australians.

While the current public debate is centred, by government, on the false migrant-terror nexus, it should be noted that the basic rights of Aboriginal people – as Australian citizens, as First Peoples, and as human beings – are routinely violated by the state on the basis of their Aboriginality. The forced removal of traditional owners from their lands in Western Australia violates the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

But this is not a binding document (and it would not matter to this government if it were); and state-sanctioned racism is authorised by the Australian Constitution (the ‘race power’ s. 51xxvi) and upheld by the High Court of Australia.

These points should be noted for two reasons. Firstly, the violation of Aboriginal rights by governments are routinely ignored, or understated, or whitesplained. In addition, the most damaging commonality, from the foundation of the nation-state as a liberal democracy, to the establishment of Australian citizenship and the proposed amendments, is racist oppression as practiced by the dominant hegemony.

It is important to understand this dimension of the dominant Australian culture (as shown in the example of Lang Hancock, below) because it is currently being further promoted and legitimised by the current government, in violation of international law.

Decoding government messages

According to the DIBP media release these are the objectives of the national conversation we are going to have on citizenship this winter:

– consider whether the rights and responsibilities of citizenship are well understood and how we can better promote these, including among young Australians

–  Seek the public’s views on further possible measures, including the suspension of certain privileges of citizenship for those involved in terrorism

The first point encodes its own answer thus: no, the rights and responsibilities are not well understood, otherwise there would be no need to ‘better promote these’. Australian citizenship rights and responsibilities are least understood by young people, which inevitably, inexorably, leads to meddling with the civics education curriculum.

For example, the Minister for Education has already flagged his desire to change the civics curriculum in favour of ‘Western civilisation’. The Attorney-General has released a few frightening thought bubbles on teaching school children to report those who are ‘different’. The aim of this aim is therefore abundantly clear.

The second point further encodes the pre-conceived conclusions that will be reached via this conversation we have not yet held. There is no particular reason Australians would suddenly start talking about citizenship rights as privileges; or about suspending the rights of citizens who were born overseas, or whose parents were born overseas.

White Australians tend to be racist, but we also tend to be largely disengaged from political process and the mechanics of government. Individual racism is ugly and disrespectful and harmful, but it is micro-aggression, on an individual scale.

Opening these topics for discussion is different: it is entirely government-led. Despite the dearth of quality political leadership, the government still leads on national debate. It is governments that violate human and civil rights through structural oppression of particular groups, as this government is seeking to do, on a mass scale.

On my reading, the ‘national conversation’ is designed for nothing more than reassuring those conservative voters who might feel uncomfortable about supporting a government intent on violating basic rights to non-white Australians.

The objectives ignore the vast amount of literature on citizenship, both Australian and international, including on teaching citizenship. It is ideologically driven: there is no evidence that teaching school children to report those who are ‘different’ is an effective national security measure.

There is voluminous counter-evidence: that such attitudes in fact centre and normalise social injustice and inequalities; and that these sorts of oppressions not only lead to higher rates of violence but are a recognised form of violence in themselves, known as structural violence.

Moreover, the ideas announced at the press conference, in the accompanying media release, in federal cabinet, and contained in the discussion paper have already been tabled in the federal parliament. Legislating to place the power to suspend, cancel or revoke citizenship rights at the discretion of the Minister are all there in the Hansard.

This preview is in the form of the above-mentioned Australian Citizenship Amendment Bill 2014, drafted under the former Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison. The bill and the second reading speech, delivered on 23 October 2014 by Paul Fletcher, the member for Bradfield on Sydney’s North Shore (Hansard p. 11744) foreshadows the same changes as the discussion paper, including the attack on the citizenship of minors if their parents’ Australian citizenship was conferred rather than a birthright – despite it being those minors’ birthright.

All government policies contain traces of the factional manoeuvres of the party in power, so I note, briefly, that one newly-appointed ‘leader’ of the national conversation on citizenship is Morrison’s current parliamentary secretary. The other, Ruddock, had been demoted from the position of Chief Whip after a party-room move against Abbott’s leadership. The appointment is thus easily readable as a signal of appeasement to Morrison as well as public rehabilitation of Ruddock after that petty humiliation by his leader.

It goes without saying that these are deeply serious powers. A Minister of the Crown, without the benefit of evidence tested before a court of law, will have legal power to traduce the citizenship rights of children who were born here, if their parents were born elsewhere.

The incredibly wide scope of this law means that assurances about judicial review are meaningless. Judicial review only determines whether the Minister has acted within the authorising law. If the authorising law gives the Minister such extensive power, judges (other than the full bench of the High Court if deciding on its constitutionality) will be compelled to find that he (sic), the Minister, acted within it.

When that first review is submitted, and the judge is so compelled, the government will trumpet the decision as somehow representing judicial approval of their disgusting law. It will represent nothing of the sort, but the government will exploit ignorance of the law nonetheless. Whether this is despite, or because of, the fact that this is a government of lawyers … Well. Most governments are.

There is much more evidence that the dominant racist Australian hegemony is being centred and privileged, and that this centring and privilege is being normalised, by the citizenship ‘conversation’.

While this post is already too long, I have deliberately put all this context and detail in one place. Its purpose is to serve as a reference point or handy link for anyone who is committed to refuting the dominant narratives.

So. There remains the matter of an absence of terror threats; and the content of the discussion paper, which sets the tone, and confirms for the text analyst that the migrant-terrorism nexus is being reinforced in the national consciousness by these government actions.

The paper begins by reproducing one of the most cherished tropes by which white Australia legitimises itself, while simultaneously rejecting and denying the structural racist oppression ingrained in, and practiced by, the Australian polity.

Citizenship is a cornerstone of Australia’s inclusive and pluralist democracy. Together we have built a modern nation on the idea that people can get ahead if they are prepared to ‘have a go’. Still, in a world in which terrorists are reaching out to our community, we cannot be complacent about our future as a strong, safe and cohesive society. It is time for a national conversation about the role of citizenship in shaping our future.

This may sounds reasonable to the naïve reader, to someone who accepts the invisibility of whiteness and other meta-narratives, but who can not see this accepting stance they hold in themselves. This someone has implicit faith in the sound motivations and good will of political leaders, and reads government-approved claims at face value.

Typically this person is a white middle class man with a wife and two children and a mortgage and some superannuation (but not enough). He belongs to a sporting or other community club, and sees nothing in the way he is treated by authority or how he is depicted in the media to trouble his relaxed view of himself as a good bloke.

He is cis-gendered, neuro-typical, hetero-normative everyman.

Citizenship is a cornerstone of Australia’s inclusive and pluralist democracy.

As mentioned, citizenship was no cornerstone in the creation of our nation. White Australia was considered enough of a priority to write racist clauses into the Constitution, but not citizenship. Half a century passed before this omission was addressed. Australian citizenship is more of an afterthought than a cornerstone.

Whether the country is inclusive or pluralist is also highly contestable. Take a look at any powerful entity, institution or corporation in Australia: its senior ranks are mono-cultural. This is not to ignore the many amazing achievements of First Peoples and non-white migrants and women. But nor does it change the facts.

Cabinet now has two women (up from one) and one brown person whose parents were born overseas. The political leadership, loudest and even most mundane media voices, heads of large companies like banks and miners, senior police officers and the judiciary, the religions and vice chancellors and sporting elite – all are dominated by white men. It is axiomatic that if we were in fact ‘inclusive’, these demographics would shift.

Together we have built a modern nation on the idea that people can get ahead if they are prepared to ‘have a go’.

This idea is heavily circulated and endorsed. But the facts do not support the claim. Over 90 per cent of Australian wealth is inherited. It is derived from rent-seeking and plunder. The embodiment of this is Gina Rhinehart. Not only is her wealth inherited, it is sourced directly to the mining leases over traditional Aboriginal lands, granted by government. Her benefactor father famously referred to ‘no-good half-castes’ and advocated sterilising Aboriginal people, a people whose land he destroyed for personal gain.

This is not wealth creation, any more than deploying armies of lawyers and tying up court resources to squabble with her children over money, as Gina does, is justice. It is not having a go; it is being born white into a family who have accrued monstrous benefits from the dispossession of First Peoples.

Still, in a world in which terrorists are reaching out to our community, we cannot be complacent about our future as a strong, safe and cohesive society. It is time for a national conversation about the role of citizenship in shaping our future.

Consider the sources of fear and insecurity in Australia today. What are they? Are people in fact complacent about those risks?

Terrorism is not the chief cause of fear and insecurity in Australia. Poverty, racism and other forms of structural oppression, domestic violence, suicide and despair, youth homelessness, any homelessness, unemployment and under-employment and job insecurity and housing insecurity: it is these, and not terrorism, that undermine what could, potentially, be a strong, safe and cohesive society but is not.

A society is not strong and safe and cohesive (or democratic, or liberal, or equal, or just) if it is only some of these things to some people. Universality is, by definition, an essential element of these values and social goods. Where structural oppression continues to deny basic rights to Indigenous Australia and people with disabilities and more recent migrants and women and children and the LGBTIQ community, there is no justice.

Yet the government narrative would have the Australian public believe that we are under attack. This is also common strategy. There is precious little evidence of a terror threat to anyone in Australia. The few details and incidents we are told about are announced by government members flanked by security personnel (the head of ASIO, the Australian Federal Police) and filtered by mainstream media.

The only actual ‘terror-related’ attack (other than by white people against women who wear the hijab on public transport, which is terror-rhetoric related) is that of Man Haron Monis, a torture survivor and known criminal with a mental illness who was on bail for accessory to murder and over 40 sexual assault offences.

Monis had written to the Attorney General seeking advice as to the legality of contacting senior ISIS religious leader caliph Ibrahim. The letter became the subject of parliamentary questions. The Minister for Foreign Affairs had to “correct the record” as to whether the letter had been submitted on request to the state-federal inquiry into the siege.

In the meantime, the government had used the non-mention of the letter by the state-federal inquiry – the letter that AGs had not, in fact, supplied – to imply that it was unimportant. Just like misleading parliament – unimportant to this government.

So. Monis was known to authorities state and federal. He killed one person, café manager Tori Johnson (the NSW police force killed twice as many: Monis and barrister Katrina Dawson). This is the only recognised ISIS-related act of violence on Australian soil. The only actual documented connection to ISIS was a letter to the AG (the flag he unfurled was not in fact an ISIS flag), who merely referred it on to ASIO, who did nothing.

There is nothing but speculation by politicians and commentators to suggest that this was a terror attack, which is to say there is nothing at all, at least until the inquest reports its findings.

The rest of the public chatter is equally evidence-free. There are high profile ‘anti-terror’ raids which are spoken of by the Prime Minister as though every person arrested has been found guilty beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law.

This is untrue. That is, there have not yet been any convictions of an accused who pleaded not guilty from recent raids. Yet the Prime Minister talks endlessly of ‘terrorists’ immediately after every raid. He cites the fact of the raids themselves as though a police raid is itself evidence of a terror threat. Under the legal principle of presumption of innocence, the raids are not evidence of anything.

Then there is the police killing of a teenager who allegedly lunged at them with a knife. These claims will never be tested because police are never charged with murder when they kill citizens, and there is no-one else to put on trial. That killing was the subject of appallingly sensationalist and error-ridden reporting, enough to undermine any trust in the media, certainly for the (living) boy whose picture was erroneously splashed across the front pages of the Fairfax press calling him a jihadi.

Finally, there are the oft-cited claims that Australians are fighting for ISIS. The numbers are usually placed at around 100 fighters and approximately 30-35 killed. For this, in a population of over 23 million, the Parliament, with bipartisan support, enacted the Foreign Fighters Act 2014 (Cth) and the National Security (Data Retention) Act 2014 (Cth).

It stands to reason that if foreign fighters are the problem, and these statutes were the solution, then the problem is now solved, and there is no cause to threaten basic citizenship rights of Australians born to foreign-born parents. Yet it would appear that the government either does not have faith in its enacted solutions; or it is concerned with something other than counter-terror measures.

If there is something other than attacks on fundamental rights disguised as counter-terror measures the Australian polity should be having a conversation about, it is this:

Racist oppression is a cornerstone of Australia’s dominant hegemony. White Australians have plundered these Aboriginal lands for immense profit, on the idea that only white people can and should get ahead while lying about the source of their wealth. Still, in a world in which governments are impoverishing and oppressing many in the community, we cannot be complacent about our desired future for a strong, safe and cohesive society. It is time for a national conversation about the increasingly dangerous attacks by government that violate the most fundamental of political, civil and human rights if we want to shape a shared future based on equality and justice.

What’s in a name? Mt Druitt, western Sydney

What is in a name is one of the oldest struggles on earth. Do you say Uluru? others say Ayres Rock. Have you heard of Warrane (now Circular Quay)? What about Kamay? This place is now Botany Bay, named for the pursuit of scientific knowledge which at the time included measuring human skulls in order to ‘prove’ some kind of ‘natural’ superiority, and other gross dehumanisations.

When Google added Palestine to its search algorithm, Israel had a fit. Why? Who cares?

This post is not so much a critique of the show Struggle Street on SBS as of some of the debate surrounding its making and airing. I watched it because I had joined the buzz. I joined the debate on social media after some students raised their well-founded concerns about postcode discrimination the day the first episode was about to go to air.

As young people from Western Sydney, they are acutely aware of the barriers and prejudices that the privileged coastal fringe (or ‘Sydney’, as most people call it) puts on the largest and most diverse population in Australia, that is, Western Sydney. Postcode discrimination is not so much discrimination but structural oppression and snobbery.

It is not unusual for students to ask advice about resumes, or to inquire about the value of a degree from UWS. I tell them that our students are better potential employees. The vast majority have reached university via impoverished western Sydney high schools. UWS students are usually in paid work and thus have work experience, work ethic, work readiness and maturity. Many are bilingual, care for siblings, translate for parents or grandparents. Most have faced racial discrimination – which again is in fact structural oppression. It would take a deeply discriminatory employer to let racism or Islamophobia trump the achievements of such young Australians, but there it is.

My point is not to pile on to the buzz around Struggle Street (the caravan has moved on already anyway). But those concerns of students coincided with a lecture on ‘interrogating the metanarratives’ – which just means indentifying a trope and testing it for accuracy.

By tropes, I mean claims and unspoken assumptions that we accept and circulate, or that underpin our conversation, but which we often fail to question as to truth or meaning. This is common enough – accepting claims as true, or as containing some truth (usually because we trust the source, or due to repetition) is a familiar and often agreeable (literally) human trait.

Firstly, it has been reported that SBS is looking into whether SBS breached any SBS guidelines. And? I can tell you how that will end. The same way investigations by the police into the police end. SBS staff will be delighted at the publicity surrounding the show, which reportedly generated viewer numbers over 1 million, a record for the niche broadcaster. This is not cynicism. It is fact. Producers of television make television shows for the purpose of being watched. One way of getting more people to watch a show is to create buzz. Buzz has been created, more people watched than would have otherwise, and that is the purpose of the show. It’s not complex.

The discussion gets more complicated when commentators insist that some of this benefit accrues to the people in the show. No, it doesn’t. The SBS team are better off, because they have produced a show that lots of people watched, and that is the job for which they are paid. The participants in the show are not better off, or no-one has any evidence that they are better off. Yet the unfounded assumption – that the subjects of the show are better off – still does the rounds.

One of our most dearly held tropes is that Australia is an egalitarian society, that upwards social mobility is available to anyone who works hard. This is not true. Most wealthy people in Australia inherited the money and attached privilege. As elsewhere in the world, demography is destiny.

Nothing predicts social status more strongly than the social status of the father. George Monbiot makes the case here and a fellow tweep makes it here.

The key demographics that predict quality of life are sex and race and, by definition, class. Age, sexuality and gender are also key predictors. The strongest indicator of all is disability, which Australia doesn’t too well. As the late Stella Young reported here, ‘a report released by PricewaterhouseCoopers told us that people with disabilities living in Australia have the poorest quality of life among people with disabilities anywhere in the developed world. We rank 27th out of the 27 OECD countries’.

At some level, nearly everybody knows this. Ask any random group of people: who is more likely to be rich and powerful, a black person or a white person? A man or a woman? A young person or an old person? Few people get these answers wrong. It is the causes and explanations where disagreements emerge.

Do those who control the meta-narrative have a vested interest in reproducing the notion that we are all born equal and have equal opportunities to make of our lives what we will? The myth is not true, yet is aggressively inserted into every public debate of this nature.

Take race, because social justice matters, and “race” – racism – is a key determinant. Struggle Street was a white show. There was one Aboriginal man on screen and he was amazing: with an eye like a trained gun and a terrible but typical story of dispossession, displacement, poverty, survival, and love. The show did not feature any Aboriginal women, but it did feature white people (not discounting the likelihood of fair-skinned blackfellas among the ‘white’ community).

One reason this matters is that SBS has a ‘special’ brief to represent multi-cultural Australia. Sydney is the heart of multi-cultural Australia. Not those privileged coastal fringes so much, but certainly the geographical and population centre of Sydney. In a hugely diverse suburb like Mt Druitt – over 40% of Mt Druitt residents were born overseas (ABS 2012) – located in our hugely diverse region of Western Sydney, we got a crassly stereotypical Australia through English eyes. If white dregs of society and a lone blackfella in his humpy are not colonial clichés, I am not Australian.

But I am middle class white Australian so I asked a mate in Mt Druitt if she would volunteer her time to pen a few words from the frontline, which she did:

I live in Mt Druitt, or Mounty County as the locals call it, and have for ten years come September. I’m a “houso”,welfare dependent, single mother, caring full time for my adult son, who is 19, has non verbal, autism spectrum disorder and an accompanying developmental delay, and I, like the members of my community featured by SBS on Struggle Street, am not actually representative of Mt Druitt.

Mt Druitt is one of the most culturally diverse places in Australia, we rub shoulders with people from every quarter of the globe when we head down to Westfields, and we have many residents practicing an assortment of religions, as evidenced by the plethora of places of worship dotting my urban landscape.

Seriously, they’re everywhere, in industrial bays, offices next to Emerton Shopping Village, spilling out of otherwise unused community halls. We even have a mosque standing opposite Westfields, and an Islamic school, as well as several denominations of Christian school. We’ve got various orthodox churches, Anglican, catholic, Pentecostal, baptists, churches of both Samoa and Tonga. I don’t go to any of them, and I don’t think church going proves moral superiority in any way, but we must have a lot of church going folk to support all these places of worship. Is that what you think of when you hear of Mt Druitt?

We have sports ovals, and we seem to have gyms opening every other week, and they’re not closing again. There are at least eight gyms in walking distance of my home, and a walking /exercise track, and an historic walking track. And trees everywhere, eucalypts and jacarandas spreading in the same blue sky that sits over your postcode.

There’s always someone walking a dog, or jogging, or riding a bike past. Again, is all this green and healthy living being accessible what you think of when you think of Mt Druitt? There’s development happening everywhere, my local corner shops recently got a brand new supermarket, a hairdressers and a healthy cafe, to add to the butcher, the takeaway, the chemist and the general type store, there seems to blocks of flats going up everywhere, and road works being done and new, shiny fences and electronic signs added to all the schools.

The notoriously unattractive Emerton Shopping Village is getting a makeover and raising the rents, so the local Women’s Activities and Self Help (WASH) run op shop had to move out. Yep, parts of Mt Druitt are even attempting to gentrify. Is development and progress what you think of when you think of Mt Druitt?

What do you think of when you think of Mt Druitt? Do you think of people living in poverty, in dysfunctional relationships, smoking and drinking, neglecting their children, drug addiction and public housing tenants, or “housos” as they’re now known, again with thanks to SBS? Generations of bludgers living off taxpayersmoney™, skipping school and breeding more uneducated bogans who will also leech off the system due to the piss poor prototypes that unfortunately couldn’t keep their legs together or just use contraception? Eating junk food and being obese, and generally not being at all sophisticated or attractive?

Only 8% of Mt Druitt is public housing. Eight per cent. Now guess what percentage of Mt Druitt residents earn $1500-$1999 per week? It’s 12.6%, and statistically more representative of Mt Druitt than the welfare beneficiary, but it’s still not representative of the majority, which would fall somewhere in the middle, getting some government assistance, be it rent assistance, child care benefit, or the family tax benefit system, or Medicare, or the education system, first home buyers grants.

We’re just as economically diverse as we are religiously and culturally diverse out here, and our struggles and aspirations are also that diverse. And yet, SBS managed to find residents with dementia and drug use, living in public housing, on welfare, because the rest of Sydney insists that is what we are.

In the time I’ve lived and raised a family here, I’ve met three people who used drugs. Two were cannabis smokers and the third was the only ice user I can confirm I have met, and I never saw this person display any signs of that use, and they have generally been very helpful and community minded despite admitted drug use.

The majority of the people I’ve met in ten years have been of an anti drug stance in general, regardless of whether they lived in public housing, been buying their home or renting privately. I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to the percentage of the population that uses drugs, but it would be nowhere near the majority and the number with a serious problem would be minuscule, which is not to minimize the issues faced by those grappling with addiction at all, it’s just that addiction isn’t postcode exclusive, and the damage it does to individuals and families also isn’t postcode exclusive. Harriet Wran certainly didn’t live in Mt Druitt, she had a life of education and privilege, and addiction felled her as surely as it would no matter where she lived.

I’ve known two families, other than my own, who were totally welfare dependent. Two, and bear in mind that I’ve been involved in playgroups and preschool, and by now a second primary school in Mt Druitt, and so I have had met plenty of families. The rest, while maybe receiving some form of government assistance, have at least one person working full time.

Yes, we have unemployment, and unemployed people, but even if it was 40% local unemployment, which would be dire, the majority would still be working, paying taxes and going to those places of worship and gyms, and the clubs and pubs too, and paying their bills and saving for their holidays.

Single parents? I know four, locally. Everyone is married, engaged or in a de facto relationship. So, why must Mt Druitt be characterized by a minority who could be found anywhere in Australia? And, do you think Struggle Street maintained the propaganda that welfare recipients can’t be trusted to make good decisions with cash and therefore need income management in the form of healthy welfare? I don’t see how it can have been designed to do anything else. It certainly isn’t going to help the people you saw on your screens with their problems. It did give SBS it’s biggest ever ratings win. I guess everyone wins but the people featured on the show. Bravo.

And more truth talk straight from Jesse here.

So. A team of English people set out to replicate Benefits Street, an English show whose title didn’t even try to obscure its classism (we do. We pretend). They went into Mt Druitt, filmed a bunch of white people and one blackfella, added a gravelly doomsday Australian man voiceover, and called the thing a documentary. A documentary of what?

Yes, there were uplifting stories that featured love and family, of course there were. Maybe it is possible to do a fly-on-the-wall show somewhere on the planet that is irredeemably, relentlessly filled with violence and hopelessness and hate. But generally speaking, where there are humans living in social groups, there is love and there is family.

The commentary on the show is a mixed bag: of vitriol, compassion, thoughtfulness and thoughtlessness. It is dominated by white people who are not from the suburb, or even the region. This is nothing new. Some honourable exceptions include the AIMN article above, a piece by former Toongabbie MP Nathan Rees, and this SMH Domain piece from a resident property reporter.

The outside-looking-in comments on social media tended to be qualified with some claimed connection to Mt Druitt, like ‘I worked there’ or ‘my wife was a social worker there’ or, more credibly, ‘I grew up there’. I didn’t see any comments that said ‘I live in Mt Druitt’ or ‘I have been in prison for a crime I did not commit’ or ‘I used to be on ice’ or ‘the judge gave me a fine too’.

Does this signify anything? Perhaps Mount Druitt locals do not use social media? Just kidding, I’m not that stupid. But it was interesting to see how people wanted to lay claim to the County. The idea, from what I could see, is to project authenticity; and assert that one is not a suburb snob. All Sydney-siders are suburb snobs. All of us. When a man says ‘my wife is a social worker/teacher in Mt Druitt’, I question whether being married to someone who travels to Mt Druitt for employment provides any special insight into the suburb. In fact I am tempted to say, so, Mt Druitt is kicking in for your mortgage? How is that working out for the good people of Mt Druitt?

I do not say such things directly, because the aggression with which these odd connective assumptions are defended is very unpleasant. Either way, the mythology of egalitarianism is reinforced.

The weirdest bit was those who insisted that raising awareness of the hardships and impoverishment of Mt Druitt is ‘a good thing’. How? Will fewer people say ‘get a job’ after watching the show? Will governments stop routinely criminalising and demonising poor people? Will anyone do anything?

Then the penny dropped. The benefit was to the viewer, because he now feels more informed about the people of Mt Druitt, and this is a feeling he values highly. The ‘awareness raising’ was good for the “non-Mt Druitt” resident, at the expense of the people of Mt Druitt. Again, nothing new.

The awfulness of the stereotyping in the show was one thing; the way it opened up space on media platforms for the reproduction and perpetuation of liberal tropes – middle class awareness of poverty is ‘a good thing’ (like we didn’t know there are poor people? We needed the visuals to believe it?) – was worse. Perhaps being a saintlyAustraliantaxpayer™ buys the right to excuse and legitimise the packaging of poverty for the middle-class gaze.

Even Nathan Rees’ otherwise sharp piece reproduced the trope that Bailee’s hugely courageous efforts to complete her education were about ‘getting back on track’. This was narrated in the show as ‘trying to get her life back in order’. Her life was never ‘in order’. It was never going to be in order. If she managed to get her life ‘in order’ it would be a miracle of strength, persistence, and conformity. If she had got her life in order against all odds, she might be featured on some other show, but not this one.

The implied assumption here is that the system works to produce an orderly society. Some individuals fail the system, but overall it functions well. This is not true.

The system is charity-based rather than rights-based. Charity does not work. If it did, the poor would no longer be with us. Charity is also demeaning and humiliating and divisive (the un/deserving poor myth) and strips people of their human dignity. Human dignity, by the way, is encoded into the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The first article, and we can’t even get that right.

At the same time, we are taught that it is a matter of individual strength and hard work and will-power to overcome ‘the odds’. This one is slightly more honest. At least it recognises that the demographics we are dealt in life is chance-based. But overcoming these ‘odds’ (being born into a wealthy or poverty-stricken family, with a disability or with black skin) is the American dream transposed across the Pacific. As long as we can point to those people who ‘worked their way up’, we can condemn those ‘left behind’ for not working sufficiently hard.

This is comforting to the middle classes, whether they joined the middle class through luck (birth) or commitment (or fraud, theft, exploitation). But we know who is most likely to have a rags-to-riches story. It is less likely to be a woman. It will almost certainly not be a person with a disability. A neuro-typical white man will find that doors open more quickly and more often to him than to the next person – not that he is likely to notice. We do not ask white men to show gratitude for the ‘social inclusion’ he enjoys. We rarely identify who is the cause of all this social exclusion we hear about. It is either discussed in bizarrely passive terms, or reverts to victim-blaming.

This could be seen in the claim that the people shown in Struggle Street – and they were interesting, nuanced, impressive people – had ‘fallen through the cracks’. This is not true either. The cracks of what? Society? This trope is so pervasive as to be near-invisible, and attempts to make visible are strongly resisted by the dominant culture.

The basic point is this: the social fabric is already fractured and frayed and downright dysfunctional for the people who are seeking essential social services. Where this deep hardship and pain is painted as ‘cracks’ in the social fabric, we avoid bigger admissions – that Australia is not egalitarian, that the system that pays its employees’ mortgages is not achieving its stated goals for the client group. The implication is that there is a functioning whole something, which is not broken but has a few cracks in it, through which some random people randomly fall. Again, check the demographics. Are people with ten children more likely to ‘fall’ through these cracks, or people with two? Are people with higher education likely to have fewer children? Are people with lower education likely to inherit more money? The usual answer is that it works well for most, or for some better than others.

But again, we know who it works for, and this is not the ‘most’ – it a privileged minority. The system does not work for poor people, and within this strata, it works even less for young people and Aboriginal people and people with disabilities and LGBTIAQ people.

If the system is designed to assist those in most need, but in fact does more to provide middle class incomes than resolve pressing hardship and pain, how is it ‘working’ at all? If there are many more stories of trauma and impoverishment than the mythologised success story, the system is not working: those rare, mythologised success story characters would have made it anyway, through innovation and hard work.

This is not to deny the work done by the employed people shown in Struggle Street. It is a critique of structural oppression, not of individual social workers or teachers.

Finally, if the people on Struggle Street have ‘fallen through the cracks’, where have they landed? Are they now outside of society, having fallen through these cracks? Or are they still falling?

Clearly, they have landed in Mt Druitt, which is very much a part of our society. Bailee was a child, with no agency over housing or income, when she was viciously assaulted, thrown on the street, viciously sexually assaulted, and driven mad by violence, homelessness and the desperate fight to survive. She did not ‘fall through the cracks’ of some otherwise benign, generous, warm-hearted society. She was born into a violent, misogynist society and as a young woman she was then violently assaulted by one man after another. She is not trying to get her life back on track. She is trying to get off the track on which she was born, a track leading directly to violent assault by men.

The show went on, of course it did. The second and third episodes – the ones that SBS assured the participants would show them in a redemptive light but refused to provide a screening – were conflated into one programming block. It is being reported that the participants are preparing to sue SBS, and further that the production company, Keo films Australia, is considering suing the Blacktown mayor for defamation. I guess there is one trope I can confirm (as containing truth) to the future lawyers in my class: in the end, the lawyers win.

On the Armenians, and why their centenary matters

These past few weeks, the very eminent Geoffrey Robertson QC has been home from London for a visit. I am a huge admirer of the man and have read all his books. The volume of his prodigious output is matched only by its fine legal argument and scope of analysis. As a very lowly employee in the same field, I have nothing but professional respect for his work.

The venue was City Recital Hall in Angel Place, central Sydney. Robertson had already spoken at the vigil held during the execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in Martin Place. And at the Sydney centenary commemorations for the genocide of Armenian people by the Ottoman Turks. Few people are better qualified for all three engagements.

The Angel Place gig was always designed to be more light-hearted, with more showmanship, a quality all good barristers must possess. And it was good, but it wasn’t ground-breaking.

Some of the anecdotes were overly dated: I remembered the punchlines from reading The Justice Game about fifteen years ago. The show also appeared to be an early or amateur foray into use of multi-media. There was at least one major unforced error as well as a few instances of poor judgement as to what to show on the screen, and for how long. The Abbott jokes were weak enough to go for the ears. That’s not so funny.

And much of the more substantive legal talk was pitched unnecessarily low. I’m not convinced that an audience who can pony up over $70 to hear witty bon mots from the Old Bailey really need the abomination that is the second verse of our national anthem pointed out for amusement. More to our shame, really.

But anyway. I caught up with the folks and we had a lovely meal and bumped into old friends from the old neighbourhood. I bought a copy of Robertson’s latest book and taught my dad how to check in and post a selfie. Only one friend – a woman whose father was whisked from Germany to the safety of Palestine in 1933, and who as an adult came on to Australia after he was conscripted into the horrors of 1948 – commented on the incongruity of my grinning mug and the title of the book I was holding up.

The book is called An Inconvenient Genocide: Who Now Remembers the Armenians? A few pages in, I learnt that the subtitle was derived from a Hitler quote. The title in full signals the main argument Robertson sets out to persuade the reader. His argument is that holding the perpetrators of the genocide of Armenians to account is important. Had the world done so at the time, we may have been more alert to indicia of the Nazi Holocaust.

The argument, in brief, goes like this. Hitler specifically referenced the Armenians. Britain had committed to putting the perpetrators of that genocide on trial. Germany, an Ottoman ally, whisked the key architects away to safety in Germany. The British leadership condemned this ‘crime against humanity and civilisation’ and held the remaining Turkish leaders on Malta to await war crimes proceedings.

Inevitably, ‘jurisdictional issues’ caused delays to holding such trials. There was no universal jurisdiction at the time, nor international criminal law. Until 1948, customary international law was concerned with matters like law of the sea (duty to rescue, piracy), jus ad bellum (and post bellum and other ludicrous and unenforceable laws of war), and trade.

Leaving aside any concern for Maltese sovereignty (the island was just used by the bigger powers, like Guantanamo today) Wilson and Churchill and Acton and Ataturk decided to let geopolitical expedience trump justice. This came in the form of a prisoner swap, or what Robertson calls Turkish prisoners swapped for British hostages.

World leaders had moved on from the Armenians – the formation of the League of Nations, the Treaty of Versailles. Like Baltimore and his 1917 promise to European Jews of a goodly slice of Palestine, these men did not negotiate lasting peace or justice. History shows the results of their settlements and treaties and promises and expediency to be unquestionably catastrophic.

The second key strand in Robertson’s argument is that Raphael Lamkin specifically had the Armenians in mind when he coined the term, and drafted the elements of the crime, of genocide. Lamkin was the driving force and chief architect of the Genocide Convention (1949). This is backed by the fact that Hitler specifically and pointedly said “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” (Obersaltzburg, 22 August 1939).

This evidence has multiple implications. Firstly, the word genocide had not yet been coined, but the annihilation of the Ottoman-Armenian population by the then-ruling party of the crumbling Ottoman Empire was contemporaneously accepted as fact.

The incoming Turkish nationalists under Atatürk brokered the prisoner swap deal with the British on the basis that the previous leadership would and should be held accountable for their crimes against the Armenians. The argument for shifting the legal process back to Turkey was to resolve jurisdictional problems of holding British-controlled trials of Ottoman war crimes in Malta. The negotiating parties apparently accepted that this would be consistent with the precedent of (alleged) German war criminals being tried in Germany (the Leipzig War Trials).

So the genocide of Ottoman Armenians by their own government was understood at the time to be a horrendous crime of international seriousness and magnitude. There was agreement that the CUP leaders should be charged. This shows acquiescence by Atatürk to the principle or legality of holding an incoming government responsible for actions taken by the previous government.

In the event, those released from Malta instead took up senior positions in the new Turkish nation state. Was this predictable? Did the British make diplomatic noises about a chap not keeping a chap’s promise to execute a chap’s idea of justice once back home? Those dastardly untrustworthy Easterners? Was that the narrative of the day?

Robertson makes a forensically detailed and brilliant case for recognising ‘the events of 1915’ as the apologists now euphemistically call the death marches and mass murders, as genocide. He does not mince words at the base betrayal and gross scale of violence and requisite intent to physically destroy a specific group ‘in whole or in part’ (Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide 1948 Article II). He is very clear that his case is that of a barrister, and not a historian; and he is specific about the role of both. The historian is one of many sources for the facts and record, while the lawyer applies the law to the verifiable material facts.

I am neither historian nor barrister, and Robertson’s legal argument is, obviously, of the highest quality. There is no reason why an intersectional retrospective analysis of the predictable failings of the British would occur to him. But it certainly occurs to me.

The detail that leapt off the page as I started reading An Inconvenient Genocide was this: the British navy, alongside the French and Russians, headed into the Aegean in 1876 to ‘defeat the Ottoman fleet’ and ‘liberate’ Greece. This detail is provided without much context, because it is context: to the Treaty of Berlin 1878. The point of this Treaty was ostensibly to recognise the independence of Bulgaria, Romania and Montenegro from the Ottoman Empire.

But we are talking about Europe, so it was not as simple as that. In 2015 in the West, we are daily bombarded with images and messages about tribal warfare and sectarian violence in other parts of the world. But Europe has long been an internecine blood bath of ethnic and religious hatreds.

In 1878, Britain, France, Germany-Prussia and Austro-Hungary were all at the table to ‘negotiate’ over the defeat of the Sultan in the Balkans. What business was it of the British? Why on earth was France there? Did any of them really think that humiliating and condescending to (and squabbling over the spoils of) an Imperial leader – a leader who was presiding over his empire as it crumbled away – would end well?

At the risk of sounding frivolous, world leaders are not immune to ‘kick the dog’ syndrome. This is the pattern whereby the boss humiliates the (man-provider) worker, who goes home and humiliates his wife or partner, who in turn takes out her pain and hurt on the children, who then kick the dog. The dog may bite back one day, but the point is the abuse of power. We think power is about struggles between players, but it is nearly always about those with greater power abusing it, to violate and otherwise (further) disempower the disempowered.

World leaders are generally men of giant ego and viscious tendencies who unleash the most horrific violence on the most flimsy of pretexts. They are the boss’s boss, the top of the chain in any kick-the-dog prototype. They have power over men, women and children, territory, huge arsenals of weapons. They intone gravely on peace and justice while commanding tsunamis of preventable deaths by murder and killing. This happens across the globe on various scales, depending on access to weaponry. It is not that the British are more savage or the Arabs more civilised or the Turks more religious or the Greeks more barbaric. Nor is it universal. Not all humans behave like this. But leaders of empire, none of whom are women or children, do.

Humiliating a man who is already humiliated is a terrible idea. It is moronic, idiotic, rash, dangerous. If a woman did such a stupid thing she would be seen as ‘asking for it’. On a global scale, up to and including genocide, it seems that these men are blind to the basic problem because they are the problem.

The rest is squabbling over account: the equivalent of an imperial sandpit, which is how many world ‘leaders’ behave: your murders are worse than my murders. The way you blow up women and children is more inhumane than the way I slit their throats or he orders them on death marches.

It would take a true leader to not be like this. True leadership was not on display when the so-called ‘Great’ Powers – they whose actions and decisions set the scene for two world wars and genocides – negotiated the Treaty of Berlin.

Here is what Article 61 said: “The Sublime Porte engages to carry out without further delay the ameliorations and reforms which are called for by local needs in the provinces inhabited by Armenians, and to guarantee their security against the Circassians and the Kurds. It will give information periodically of the measures taken for this purpose to the Powers, who will watch over the execution of them.”

This just beggars belief. The Ottoman Empire was known as a caliphate. Its eastern European states were cutting themselves adrift, some into the arms of Russia, which was not a Muslim nation. The Christian European powers sat a humiliated Eastern leader down, and told him to sign a piece of paper agreeing that he was a loser at war and empire, and to be nicer to the Armenians and report to the Christian West on how he was going with that.

It is not difficult to imagine, or predict, how this kind of humiliation on the world stage would translate into stirring racial hatred at home. Empires are not headed by rational reasonable people who refuse to blame others for their own decisions and stupidities. Empires are run by bosses who indulge in kick-the-dog irrationality on a monumental scale. The larger the scale, the uglier the metaphorical kicking.

Large scale massacres of Ottoman Armenians were perpetrated in 1894 and 1896, with estimates of up to 200,000 killed (in a population of around 1 million). Recall that the Armenians were a Christian minority, persecuted on that basis. The killers were Ottoman military (conscripted, so basically Turkish men); Kurds who were also marginalised (but as co-religionists of the ruling class, less so than the Christian Armenians) and gangs of released prisoners (who Robertson stops just short of saying were released for the purpose of persecuting Armenians).

This is not to revisit past ethno-religious hatreds, not least because the same hatreds are evident today. It is a brief reminder of the depth of religious malignity that was all around – again, as inter- and infra-religious hatreds exist today.

Robertson rightly points out that the massacres of the 1890s were a sufficient harbinger to fear the 1915 genocide. He argues that the British and axis powers should have known, in 1918, from the war they had just ‘won’ and the fact that the Ottomans breached Article 61 of the Treaty of Berlin, to hold the genocidaires of 1915 to account – or it would happen again.

This is the point of the subtitle of his book containing a sentiment derived from Hitler: because genocide was done again. These failures are depicted as multiple and complicit: failure of political will, of global leadership, of an international criminal law in its infancy that could and should have been moved forward but was not.

But this narrative contains an implicit faith in an international world order that I do not share. Punishment after the fact does not have a deterrent effect on sovereign leaders who are, by definition, power-seekers. There have been many more wars since Nuremberg. Some leaders have been held to account (from Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia) and some have not (Bush, Blair, Howard, Netanyahu).

History and international law show that for centuries, western-Christian Europe and the British have parked themselves at the global table as brokers of justice and peace and have demonstrably failed at both. Yes, so have many others. But add the USA, another imperial Christian-West power, and the fact that we in the West are force fed the dominant narrative that these powers combined are somehow “better” than some scary alternative. Better at what? Not peace, that much is clear.

This is the flaw in placing undeserved faith in Western global leadership. Does it matter? If the contemporary world order is anything to go by, if recognising the genocide of Armenians in 1915 matters, then yes, it does.

Conservatism, and other grumbles

It gets worse and worse and worse. And just when we think it can not get any worse – the way the Prime Minister conducts himself, the behaviour of the political leadership as a whole, the quality of public debate – it gets worse again.

In a series of exciting events for political junkies and a set of woeful fizzlers for everyone else, Prime Minister Tony Abbott survived a party room spill vote this week.

The events were ultimately non-eventful. On the bright side, Australians possibly ended the weekend with a stronger grasp of the workings of our parliamentary democracy than we started it.

The lack of written rules to guide Liberal Party room proceedings got an airing, but that’s just conservatives doing what they do best. Here is how it works: claim to have rules, assert that said rules are unwritten, further assert that said unwritten rules are followed by convention, get a senior figure who is beholden to the power-holders to declare the (new, made-up, obligation-based) rules, seed the trope that the new rule was always the rule – by virtue of convention – and ta-da! A rule that was not a rule yesterday and may not be a rule tomorrow is the rule and has always been the rule. Until it is not. Magic.

But enough about conservative conventions. It was the repeated assertions by the Prime Minister that he was “elected by the people” that prompted media coverage of our Constitution, the two-party system, and democracy itself.

The Prime Minister was lying of course, as anyone who has dipped into Australian politics over the past year or so could tell you – in their sleep. We do not have a Prime Minister capable of telling the truth, but we do have written statutes which must fall within the purview of our constitution, so that’s something, surely.

For a start, it is compulsory at law (Commonwealth Electoral Act 1901) for enrolled Australian voters to attend a polling booth on election day. This is a simple task. There are polling booths at every local public school, and local public schools are in walking distance of nearly every Australian, thanks to a basic universal right that is traditionally respected in this country, called public education.

We collect our ballot papers and our name is marked off a roll. If we are so inclined, we number boxes for a local member to go to the House of Representatives and mark another sheet of paper to elect state-based Senators. Elections are held on Saturdays, so we then go and have a beer.

The leader of the party with the most members in the House of Representatives – or who heads a coalition of parties as is currently the case with the Liberal and National parties – becomes the Prime Minister.

This arrangement is reasonably well understood and usually taught in schools as a hybrid of the Westminster and federal systems. Most commentary refuting the Prime Minister’s claim was on the basis that we have a Westminster system and not a Presidential system of government.

In fact, the Australian system borrowed primarily from the United Kingdom but also from the United States. Our Senate is not made up of landed gentry wielding inherited power via primogeniture, as the UK House of Lords does, or has for most of its long life. The Senate is based on a federal model, where Senators represent their state, as is encoded into the very name of the United States of America from which the model was drawn.

But nor do we directly elect a president who appoints an unelected cabinet, as occurs in the US. The Australian Prime Minister assigns Ministerial roles – to social services, immigration, health, defence and so on. The minister is then advised by senior public servants, the heads of the department and their staff. Professional bureaucrats, in the Weberian typology. Qualified professionals with an understanding of their role, portfolio, areas of responsibility and so on; as opposed to political operatives. In practice, the professionals are shouted down by ministerial appointments running interference on political imperatives, staffers who bring partisan bullshit, at enormous cost to the taxpayer, to the workings of government. Perhaps no-one has taught them the difference between politics and government. Abbott shows every sign of not knowing the difference.

So the Prime Minister asserted that he was elected by the people as opposed to by the party room – while on the brink of a party room spill that could have seen him replaced by the party room. This is to deliberately mislead the nation, and to attack what little civics education has been provided in schools. The Prime Minister chose to confuse the hybrid model we have for a different hypothetical hybrid model that we could have chosen at Federation, and again in 1999 when the Republican referendum was held, but did not. As a key player in the campaign against a Republic, Tony Abbott knows this as well as anyone. It goes without saying that as the Prime Minister (at the time of writing), he ought to know anyway.

To ‘know or ought to have known’ is a legal principle called ‘constructive knowledge’. When a person in a position of significant power and responsibility claims ignorance, the law in its wisdom can attribute constructive knowledge to our handsomely paid executive. We know this person is a well-remunerated power-holder because we have eyes and understand the context of the principle. If the person is in a position to wield significant political power, they are also a person on substantial salary. If the same person claims not to have known of this or that malpractice, reckless indifference or endangerment or other harm being caused on their watch, the law (in certain circumstances, on the merits, with sufficient evidence etc etc) recognises that this highly paid and highly influential power-holder ought to have known, and thus holds constructive knowledge of the situation.

In the case of a Prime Minister elected by his party room, who is claiming to be elected by the people, we can safely say that he knows or ought to know that he is lying. On the basis of another handy principle we inherited from the English, the principle of charity, we can also conclude that Tony Abbott is deliberately lying. The principle of charity extends the benefit of the doubt in the first instance, because people make mistakes. Most people, says the principle of charity, when sharing a thought with a fellow human, do not deliberately construct falsehoods and share those instead. If, however, the communicator has form – if for example, every time the person opens their mouth a lie falls out – there is no further obligation to extend the principle of charity. Thus in the case of Tony Abbott, there is no obligation to extend the principle of charity.

So our polity is largely but not exclusively based on Westminster, with its two-party system, its parliamentary democracy, its representative government, and its separation of powers between the legislature and the executive and the judiciary, the last of which functions as the common law. Accompanying these are a slew of principles and conventions and practices that are passed down through the centuries in the conservative tradition, said by their proponents to work in the service of equality and justice, while doing nothing of the sort.

It is impossible to understand any of this critically – that is, to see more deeply than the purposeful dishonesty of the political leadership – without a working grasp of both conservative tradition and liberal ideology.

Conservatism, like the common law, reveres longevity and repetition. It is deeply self-interested, politically opportunistic and inherently hierarchical. If a convention can be traced beyond the mists of time, and serves perceived interests, conservatives will favour that way of doing things. If it can be credibly claimed, with a completely straight face, that this is how the thing has always been done, and it suits their perceived interests, that is sufficient grounds for conservatives to twist any rule under the sun.

The perception of interest is important, because it can align lower-class tabloid reader interests with that of the newspaper proprietor. Through the kinds of perspectives that are reproduced in the tabloid media, the interests of the mega-rich are framed as consistent with those of the working poor. In this way, the conservative poor may become as resistant as the mogul-level rich to perceiving aggregate social good as a negative. Examples include public broadcasters, investing in cultural capital, and a basic level of income support for the destitute.

In other words, Rupert Murdoch and the opinion writers who he employs can convince Daily Telegraph readers to hate dole bludgers and ABC watchers (and asylum seekers and terrorists and to be afraid of garlic or Arabic or whatever); and this is in Murdoch’s interests as a media proprietor. But back to the point, which is ideology, or conservative and liberal ideology (in today’s lesson).

It is the conservative tradition that can see a secret ballot, following unwritten rules that are held in collective memory and mutually accepted convention, put the nation on notice that we may have a new Prime Minister by 10.00am on a Monday morning – even though that same Prime Minister had told the people he was elected by the people. The key to following unwritten rules is mutual acceptance, or consensus. The rules are what certain persons of authority and seniority say the rules have always been – if this perception of the rules is accepted by the rest. The legitimacy of the rules, the authority of the rules, whether the rules are followed, are based not on documentary evidence, nor on a single articulation of the rules, not on interpretation of a written clause, but on what the people in the room accept the rules to be and to have always been.

There were two interesting manifestations of the conservative tradition in the Australian polity in the last week. One was in the Northern Territory, where the Chief Minister was voted out of the leadership position, in a process that did not befall Tony Abbott, but could have, by both the rules of the Liberal Party and the Australian Constitution. Adam Giles, however, simply refused to go. Cue constitutional law experts, talk of ‘technicalities’, and political punditry. Who would prevail? Is politics really just a staring contest? What about the law?

Giles won his battle. He was ‘re-instated’ despite not having yielded his position in the first place. Or, he was ‘re-instated’ having been voted out in the party room. Which is it? Who knows? The issue is resolved. Like Queensland for more than a week now, the Northern Territory did not implode on itself just because no-one seemed to know who was – or ought to have been – governing the place. Yet it was a neat case study in the ultimate conservatism of the law, where resolution of a legal stand-off that is not governed by written rules was understood in terms of convention, such as whether the Administrator has the power to recall parliament, or issue writs for an election, in the absence of an invitation/request from the elected leader.

Happily, English history is awash with instances of leaders wielding sovereign power erratically. So we can comb the dusty shelves for precedent, as conservatism, common law and convention legitimately allow us to do. This is despite the fact that England itself, as defined by our High Court, is a ‘foreign power’ for the purposes of s.44 of the Australian Constitution (in Sue v Hill). In the end, neither the constitutional law experts nor the Governor General (or the army, as happens in many countries) were needed. A vote inside the Liberal Party room resolved an absurd stand-off that may or may not have otherwise been resolved by staring contest, executive power, or an election.

The federal Liberal Party ballot didn’t leave us without a leader this week, not even for a split second. It did demonstrate its incompetence in terms of certainty in governance, to add to its incompetence and cruelty across other portfolios – Treasurer Joe and his economic illiteracy; Communications man Turnbull and his trashing of the ABC, SBS and the NBN; the ongoing shame that is our treatment of First Peoples, asylum seekers, welfare recipients, and students.

Yes it is the uncertainty and instability that will probably, eventually be the downfall of the current leader. We have endlessly been told that these are failings of the previous government. We have endlessly been told that certainty is what we the people want. Much of the population craves certainty in governance – this was captured by Rousseau in his famous observation that man is born free but is everywhere in chains. In the western tradition at least, when man is not enslaving others, he seems intent on enslaving himself. Yet it is the conservative tradition that plays on fear of uncertainty. It is a tradition for frightened and frightening cowards and bullies.

Conservatism likes to keep everybody (else) in their place, while reserving to itself the power to reinterpret rules, according to seniority. Again, read: bullies and cowards. For evidence, take a look at the days leading up to the call for a leadership spill. A trope developed that cabinet members are “obliged” to vote against the spill. According to which rules? Were ministers legally obliged to support their leader? Only publicly? Was it a moral duty? Who can say? No-one, because there was no such obligation. It was a pissing contest, no more and no less.

Giles and Abbott stared down their opponents. They won. Well done them. But the one thing an elected leader fears most is an election. Look no further than the classic rooster-to-feather-duster case of Campbell Newman. This is a democracy, however diluted, however compromised. The people will prevail. To use Abbott’s own flawed grasp of the Australian political system, we will not re-elect this man as our Prime Minister.

Reflections on 26 January 2015

For the past few years, I have mixed it with the flag bearers on the 26 January long weekend. This is not because I think jingoistic and cringe-worthy flag fetishism, as rekindled by the terror-mongering wedge-master John Howard, is a worthy reflection of our national character.

No. My choice of company on the 26 January long weekend is rather because I am middle-aged, and can no longer attend gigs with the gusto and regularity I one did, and still love going to live music events. For over two decades the 26 January long weekend offered the opportunity to see a years’ worth of live music in one jam-packed day and night.

And so I would book Big Day Out and totter along and hang with the flag capers and bikini fashionistas and people who choose to get neck tattoos and do a spot of participant-observer data collection (cultural studies – Australia) and see a great cross-section of new music, techno, and bands I first heard back in the 90s when TripleJ went national.

Not a Nirvana veteran, I came late to the charms of Big Day Out. But it became something of a family tradition, and this year was to be the first BDO for my youngest son, he having turned thirteen and started high school last year.

Never mind. We attended a different concert as a family, and went to Yabun for the first time since BDO Sydney moved back to “the actual day”. The BDO/26 January nexus was recalibrated, you may recall, because of outbreaks of overt racist violence in December 2005 in Sydney.

Ah, yes 26 January and racist violence. Is there anything more Australian?

There is nothing particularly new about racist violence in Sydney, or anywhere else in Australia for that matter, or not since these places have been called ‘Sydney’ and ‘Australia’. Overt, physical, structural, institutional racism, violence and racist violence are endemic across this continent and its islands. It is not difficult to see, nor is it difficult to trace. And nowhere is the structural racist violence more starkly apparent than in the public eye on the 26 January long weekend. This year was an absolute doozy.

But first, Yabun. The Sydney celebration of Aboriginal survival has moved from Redfern Oval to Victoria Park. This gorgeous site on the corner of Broadway and City Road nestles in the shadow of the sandstone glory of Sydney University. Despite less than ideal weather, there was a great turn-out, and the day was an absolute pleasure. Everyone looked happy and friendly and committed to the optimism and dialogue of the day. The Aboriginal and Islander music, dance and culture on display, from the stage to the Corroboree ground to the food hall to the services stands to the clothing stalls, were beautiful and moving and spirited – creative people with a shared outlook in a peaceful space.

And as someone who switched off analogue at the last possible moment, I have to confess a whitefella moment when I saw the NITV set-up and coverage afterwards. I was so seriously impressed at just how good is that station. I know how that sounds, I really do. I can’t seem to express these thoughts clearly without some kind of patronising tone creeping into my voice. But I am saying it anyway (rather than avoid saying it altogether): NITV did the most fantastic job.

And I am saying this (on less shaky ground, because it goes to my people, the white Australians): The survival of Indigenous people and culture, in the face of overwhelming violence and destruction, enriches us all. I continue to wonder when this self-evident truth will become a mainstream Australian value. We all share in celebrating the unique strength and pride and beauty of Aboriginal culture at events like the Sydney Olympics. Yet so many of us do so without recognising the incredible resilience of the holders of that culture; without honouring the strength, resourcefulness and integrity that has seen the culture passed on, generation after generation, in the face of unrestrained oppression and aggression by the coloniser and descendants.

It is the unrestrained aggression of the remnant colonial state that marks the downside of our 26 January long weekend. This year, as usual, there were many: historical, contemporary, jingoistic, parochial, cringe-worthy, elitist, exclusive and as always, illogical. For a demographic that insists it has a monopoly on what is rational, reasonable, and logical, your conservative leadership and commentary – your paid shill white man and wannabe Devine types – rarely make any sense at all. When the obviousness of this is noted, the range of responses is narrow and, again, aggressive: shout down, attack the messenger, change the subject, whinge.

Whether heartless politicians traumatising asylum seekers, or paid shills doing whatever it takes to push the dole-bludger line, or large groups of drunk white men wearing flag capes and shouting the old two-word six-beat slogan, these people are dangerous. They wield enormous power and lack conscience. It is not particularly necessary to compare them. Large groups of drunk men such as we encountered on the way home from Yabun (on public transport) are frightening. Powerful elites who cut essential services are frightening. They are less frightening to me than to some others – because I am less vulnerable. The relevant comparison is this: the power-drunk pollie and the alcohol-drunk flag caper are much more frightening than a  day in the company of a group who are regularly demonised as aggressive and drunk. But moving on.

The reconstruction job awaiting us, when the Abbott government falls, boggles the mind. The economic incompetence alone is breathtaking. When was the last time a budget delivered in May was still not passed by the following new year? Yet Abbott insists this is due, and only due, to an “obstructionist” Senate. It is as though Abbott has no political memory, no historical sensibility, and no understanding of the role of the House of Review. Abbott in this mode strikes me as the epitome of an old meme that kicks around online political debate in the USA (or US electronic graffiti, as Abbott would have it): IOKIYAR. This stands for ‘It’s OK if you’re a Republican’. Our very own LNP speak and act in much the same way.

A high-ranking unmarried woman who is in a relationship but who is not a mother? IOKIYALNP.

A government that crafts its message to the 24-hour news cycle? IOKIYALNP

Policy backflips based on polling and public opinion? IOKIYALNP

Deals with macro/minor/independent Senators to pass your legislative agenda? IOKIYALNP

And that’s just the examples where ALP government actions are remotely comparable to the current fiasco. When it comes to the hundreds of lies, vested interests, and broken promises; to people broken and abandoned to their fate, be it domestic violence, mental illness, or caring for those with a disability; to legislation that actively dehumanises some of the most vulnerable people on earth and policies that actively impoverishes the poorest Australians; not to mention the creepiest political leader we have ever had the misfortune to see elected … all this and more … is OK if you are LNP.

Abbott talking about obstructionist Oppositionism should have anyone with the memory span of a gnat snorting into their teacups or crying into their beer. He is a one-man obstructionist machine. He knows nothing but oppositionalism. He admits that his only qualification for captain, his single skill, the one thing he does better than the next bloke, is sledging. That is, Abbott has the same cricket skills as his oily paterfamilias, the man who gave us this monster, John Howard: can’t bat, can’t bowl, can’t field. Yet Abbott rose to captain because he can win in a single capacity: bullying. The sports-field-specific term for bullying is “sledging”.

If chess is a battlefield, cricket is an English politico-legal system. Every day, commentators on government invoke foundational principles, rules and conventions shared with a common ancestor: elitist and eccentric rationales born of the upper class English mind. The landed gentry, your aristocratic gent, is lord and master. His common sense is the common common sense. He wants to appear fair, and compels others to agree that he is, but has not the remotest desire to cede power. Incredible, enormous, exhausting work – wars, civil wars, armed struggle and peaceful revolutions – have been prosecuted to achieve the most obvious and incremental transfers of power away from his monopoly on privilege (they are not rights until we all have them). Suffrage for those who do not own real property. Suffrage for those who once *were* the private property of the white man.

In cricket, the bowler is the prosecutor and the batsman is the defendant. The bowler appeals to the judge, but it is the batsman who gets the benefit of the doubt. Like a minister of conscience held accountable by Westminster convention, a batsman who knows he snicked and was caught is supposed to walk. Yet neither Minsters nor batsmen fall on their swords these days. In cricket, batsmen don’t walk anymore because of technological uptake – the third umpire – and new rules around it. Batsmen stand their ground, either brazening it out or letting their opposition exhaust the appeals process. Traditionally, batsmen walked because it was the right thing to do – even when the umpire missed the snick.

In politics, ministers also brazen it out when they are caught behind, or rather, with their snouts in the trough. This is because the judge is the electorate, and the technology is the 24-hour news cycle, social media, endless message management, and gotcha journalism. Ministers, like batsmen, brazen it out because they can. The rise of sledging, like the rise of Tony Abbott, is just not cricket – but then when did power-seekers ever abide by the rules that are designed to curb their power? If there is an option not to do so and a chance to get away with it?

Cricket was traditionally played on the green. The green was the commons, yes, just like the House of the same name in English tradition. The Lords are called peers although they were only peers of each other and their title which stemmed from their entitlement was your Worship which, like the term lordship itself, hopelessly muddled political leadership with godliness. On and on it goes, the deployment of language to crystallise in the mind of the Englishman the inherent place of the Lord and the commoner (who is simply a peasant with a vote). The commons were always defined by the Lords, whether we are talking about the houses of parliament or the feudal land ownership system. The two were inextricable, of course: eligibility rested not on reaching the age of majority but on land ownership, which in turn rested on the outstanding achievement of being born first, and with a Y chromosome.

It is claimed that monarchy has been replaced by democracy, and that feudalism has been replaced by a meritocracy. These sorts of claims are made by those who have benefitted most from massive mal-distribution of wealth and power, as entrenched during centuries of brutal and irrational systems of colonial imperialism. Despite widespread acceptance and reproduction, such claims are demonstrably false. Try googling ‘men property ownership 99%’ or ‘women world income 90%’ and see what kinds of results are sent back.

Likewise, contemporary democracy is taught as some kind of principled transition of power, the same kind of pedagogy that exhorts teachers to be apolitical, or omits the unicorns and fairy dust from stories about judges being impartial, or legislators acting in the interests of all. Democracy was – and would be, should we ever achieve it – revolutionary. Political power was not handed from landed gentry to commoner because someone asked nicely. It never is, as women suffragettes and black freedom fighters and contemporary feminists and rights campaigners of all descriptions can testify.

Like slavery, disenfranchisement of all but white male property holders is no longer socially or legally acceptable. Few would publicly suggest that outright ownership of human beings is a defensible position, or advocate banning women or people of colour from voting, or support re-criminalisation of sodomy. It takes a special kind of privilege to continue to spout the kinds of views that are consistent with such abominations. This is so despite the long long tail of the legacy of primogeniture, with its concomitant entitlements: literally, titles – whether Your Grace or M’Lord or titles as in deeds to land, which as mentioned carried such privileges as owning people and property, and voting for governments.

Yes, I am cherry-picking. Of course this is an unapologetically meandering stroll through the annals of feudal and colonial times. It is a blog post. I am writing it. All writers have to start and finish somewhere. That the past co-exists with the present, that particular slants on history are chosen by particular groups, is nothing new. It is the perogative of the writer: the blogger on their blog, the academic must meet different standards, the novellists set or conform to another set of norms altogether. But it has a point. And the point is this: the Knighthood nonsense is not a joke. It is symptomatic of the rottenness of the Australian polity.

I appreciate the resilience inherent in laughing at our leaders, and feel enormous gratitude to the satirists who have declared satire dead, and the commentators who have attempted to dismiss the Knighthood to the Duke of Edinburgh as a mere aberration, a brain fart from toxic Tony. And indeed, it is all these things as well, and we must remain sane and not too despairing as we see out his term, however long that may be. But it is not nothing, this noxious stupidity, this fawning embarrassment. Yes, there are far more important issues. But this one is a very loud, bright signal as to all that is wrong with Tony, his government, the political debate and commentary thereon, AND OUR FAILURE AS A NATION TO ADDRESS THE COLONIAL LEGACY.

The colonial legacy will never be redressed if we dismiss contemporary actions that reproduce and reinforce that legacy as a joke. It is not a joke. It is a disgrace. It is an actively, knowingly, arrogantly deliberate gesture that one fellow blogger and tweeter called immediately as ‘thumbing his nose at Indigenous Australians’. This is exactly what Tony is doing when he makes himself Minister for Indigenous Affairs while cutting essential services such as the Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme and Aboriginal Legal Aid. It is exactly what Tony did when he “knighted” a racist old chauvinist of the first order.

The announcement has re-ignited the Republic debate. Did Tony not see that coming? How could anyone not? It has re-ignited leadership speculation. Could he seriously have not known that would happen? It has confirmed that Murdoch has dropped his support. That was already coming, but still. Does Abbott really think he would have got into power without it? Questions continue to be raised about his mental capacity. Has Tony really not heard the chatter about his punch-drunk lizard-man demeanour? Even hardened lefties are reeling at the scale of audacity and thick-skinnery. The claim that social media is “electronic graffiti” confirmed his idiocy: Tony does not even know to use “digital” in this context, not “electronic”.

The knighthood nonsense is gobsmacking, but only in its scale. The move itself is Tony in a nutshell. It reeks of everything we know about him, and everything we know about the LNP, from the “oh this is a distraction” apologists to the “he stuffed it up” dissemblers. He didn’t just stuff up the politics. The distraction is from the budget, which is not just a problem of an obstructionist Senate. It is not an indulgent blunder, nor a “captain’s pick”. It is landed gentry eccentric English entrenched privilege on steroids, and Tony has either been or aspired to be that the whole way along.