When former independent MP Rob Oakeshott spoke at Epic Fail recently, he shared what his time in federal parliament taught him about power, money, the influence of corporate interests and the benefit of hindsight.
‘This is epic!’ yells my three year old son Ben last weekend as he lets his legs go on a steep rocky trail, his arms spread wide and his head up. He’s looking at the canopy of one of the last east coast literal rainforests in a small pocket of green at the end of our street in Lighthouse Beach, Port Macquarie – otherwise known as Biripai country.
It was always going to end in tears – an epic fail, three year old style; nothing a dust-off and hug can’t fix. But in the highs and lows of that fifteen second emotional rollercoaster of a young boy’s life on a walking trail last weekend lies a reaffirmation of a great truth.
If you want to live – and I mean really live, with all the ‘epicness’ that truly living requires – then wise up to the ‘Greek tragedy’ bedfellow that Epic shares. A pillow partner called Failure.
It is why the seat belt was invented. Failure is expected when an epic tool like speed is given to us.
Like a hand in a glove, Failure wraps its ever present self around anything Epic. It is the strangler fig of our own human rainforest, forever present in the bird shit of human activity. The most colourful tree with the juiciest fruit attracts the birds – who turn this epic beauty into the seeds of a brown distorted stinking mash of death.
It is the zero sum game of where Epic and Fail collide. My son chooses to use the word Epic as a reflection of his new generation – let’s call them Generation ABC – and it is shaped around a popular kids movie by the same name. So what was once cool, or wizard, or funky, or deadly, or massive, or unreal, or awesome, or happening, or even it, is now epic.
The movie Epic is best summarised as a kids version of Avatar. And if you haven’t seen this, it is summarised in exactly 25 words as:
Forest creatures fighting forest-destroying monster. Humans get involved and stuff it up. Happy ending where all decide to get on and play nicely.
It’s The Lorax meets the great, great Graham Base’s Uno’s Garden – and any number of books and movies about the theme of environment versus the economy.
My epic fail is not what I see in the collective thought bubble above all your heads – that question you all seem to be asking yourselves about how on earth this guy is going to do a 10 minute speech about a 17 minute one.
And it was neither epic nor failure to do what I said I would do when I stood, successfully, at two federal elections and stayed true to my personal platform of getting an emissions trading scheme and the National Broadband Network rolling in Australia.
The Fairfax press defined me on day one, after the 2010 election, as a ‘rural progressive’ who wants both of these issues resolved. They even had a breakout box describing how my home was used for refugee Australians as part of Rural Australians for Refugees. That the News Limited media, and others, then chose to turn this all into some act of disloyalty and betrayal is their problem, not mine – and therefore not any reflective epic fail on my behalf at all.
No, my epic fails are many, but not there.
Rather, they are in the policy areas of biodiversity loss and carbon pricing. And they are in my inability to recognise, and then handle, the big shift happening in Australian politics: a shift towards what I call corporate conflict theory, and the flow-on consequences of this shift where I, and we, have failed in epic proportions to put a check on the privatisation of democracy in Australia today.
Firstly, the epic policy failure of climate change. In 2010, my thinking was fairly brutal, and simple. I knew Peter Costello had tried and failed in 2001 to get an emissions trading scheme through cabinet. I knew former prime ministers Howard and Rudd had both taken the advice of scientists and economists seriously and promoted an ETS at the 2007 election, and now famously, I knew the bipartisan deal was nearly done in 2009 between Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull.
My view at the time was that bipartisanship on evidence and common sense wasn’t really under threat, and that the 2010 election idea of Direct Action was really just a quickly cobbled together marketing tool by the LNP to neutralise the electoral pain and stop the internal bleeding amongst their own ranks.
So my view was to help ram an ETS through, clean up the edges as we go, and then let the scientists and economists – as well as logic, common sense and evidence – win the politics. How wrong I was. I lived the birth of the false tax debate, I watched it grow, I watched it win. I watched an emissions trading scheme get reframed as a carbon tax, and die as a consequence. An epic fail all round.
It is my view that it’s actually biodiversity loss that is Australia’s greatest environmental challenge by a country mile. Yet trying to initiate discussion or programs in this regard have politicians running that same country mile, as they all remained locked in carbon wrestlemania.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but if I was dropped back into 2010 and had this opportunity again, I would make biodiversity loss the top of the pyramid of what we were trying to address, instead of making the science of a gas the top of the pyramid. By doing so, community engagement on some simple facts like the death of the species known as a koala in our lifetime – without behaviour change – would be an easier conversation than the more challenging discussion around a colourless, odourless gas.
More importantly, the broader suite of tools required would have also been an easier discussion. Things like a national bio-banking scheme, national biodiversity corridors of scale and significance, the use of biomass and the role that the public tree can play in energy security and emissions trading, a serious (as opposed to the current piecemeal) crack at invasive species – and importantly, how urban planning can better embrace biodiversity gains, as compared to the current planning realities of death by a thousand cuts.
By doing some of this broader work, we could have lowered the temperature on carbon politics, and we’d have had – still could have – a much greater chance of getting a long term ETS. It would have been a broader, more bipartisan conversation on a number of fronts – reducing the chance for all the concentrated hoopla of $100 lamb roasts and Whyalla wipeouts.
Now, the deeper question on all of this is the one about advice. When every single MP is getting exactly the same strong and urgent advice, the unanswered question is how on earth have we all allowed this epic fail on carbon policy to happen.
My answer is money – political donations – and the extreme influence of the Business Union in Australian democracy today.
And this is where my other two epic fails combine. I lost in politics to money. I poked power in the eye and got an almighty punch in the nose in return.
Sociology textbooks don’t talk about conflict theory being used by the powerful to create dissent and division and uncertainty in a community. Conflict theory is supposed to be the tool of the marginalised and disadvantaged. It’s the basis of the concept of unionism, and the concept of street protest.
But if this was all true, why was Australia’s richest woman getting off the bus to personally street protest, as if she was marginalised and disadvantaged?
Or why were other high profile West Australian mining magnates photographed weekly in their hi-vis safety wear, presenting themselves as a worker in an effort to position themselves as power-poor?
Or why was the late Paul Ramsey, the LNP’s biggest donor in 2010, handing out pamphlets to patients in regard private health insurance reform, or getting a $300k salaried CEO of a local hospital to manufacture a protest outside my electorate office with paid nursing staff – captured as a lead story on Prime Television, which happened to be owned by the same Paul Ramsey?
What was it with the radical but early and repeated calls for an ‘early election’ by the Murdoch media – based on a completely false premise that an elected Parliament that didn’t suit their business interests was enough of a trigger to accuse it relentlessly of being, of all things, undemocratic?
How poor and marginalised and disadvantaged this mob were, I say sarcastically. But oh how skilful they were in the use of conflict theory for their own return, I say with non-sarcastic respect.
Throughout that period of 2010-2013, I met and personally dealt with six of the top ten richest people in Australia. I did not ask to meet any of them. They chased me. At the time, they were all, individually, a pleasure to deal with. But as a collective noun of wealth in Australia today – a whale of money, or a pride of oligarchs – their behaviour throughout that period confirms for us all just how much they are intimately involved, and crawling all over your democracy.
In truth, real democracy was the strongest it has been for a long time in that 43rd Parliament, because no-one, or nothing, owned it.
The epic failure was the Business Union of Australia using a new corporate conflict theory to allow our Parliament to be perceived as undemocratic. They did it successfully, and now we have the select few back in their happy place of command and control. The pussycat called Power is purring again.
The epic fail of our time is that right when we had the chance to embed real democracy, we have in fact entrenched a privatised model of democracy.
So my most epic of epic fails is that I am part of a Generation X and Y that is a really a Generation Zzz. We will be looked back on by my three year old Ben, and many others, as a failed generation, asleep to the great challenges of real democracy for our times.
We seem comfortable being the first generation to consume and waste more than we can produce and collect.
We seem comfortable to allow our children a shorter life expectancy than our own.
And specifically in Australia, we all know future standards of living will be higher with comprehensive tax reform that involves some bad medicine being swallowed now – and we all know our children’s future is more secure with real action on climate change. Yet we choose do reject doing anything on both. If actions speak louder than words, we do not care about tomorrow.
So the sequel to today’s kid’s movie Epic will be the adult version called Fail. They’ll watch it in about thirty years’ time. It will be about us, sloth-like and asleep.
Thankfully, it will frustrate and bore them. Thankfully, the circle of life – the yin and the yang, the whatever you want to call it – will, I believe, inspire a great generation. One of epic innovation and entrepreneurship. A time of progress based on evidence and logic, not inertia-based on shrill adversarial politics.
They will be great and epic, because they have to be. They have to be, because of our failures today – epic failures that I carry as a burden more than most.
So run, Ben. Run. Run fast down that hill. Scream ‘epic!’ until your lungs burn. Because you are Epic, and your Generation ABC is the one that will have to be more Epic than ever before.
We, Generation X/Y/Zzz, have left you no option.
Optimism is not something we commonly associate with a life in politics, but recently retired Greens leader Bob Brown is an exception in more ways than one. His biographer, James Norman, reflects on Brown’s life and career – and his contribution to Australian life.
Bob Brown defies most stereotypes we hold about politicians, and transcends much of the cynicism.
Whenever I speak with him these days, he asks how my boyfriend Tanel Jan is going. They have met a few times at Greens functions and at Bob’s recent photographic and poetry events. The first time they met Bob asked Tanel Jan where he got a feather that was behind his ear from. Bob notices those kinds of details, because he cares deeply about people.
When Bob Brown announced last year that he would resign from Australian politics in April 2012, the party he had led for 16 years was at its prime. He exited as one of the great survivors of Australian politics, having endured six changes of Labor leadership and four on the Liberal side since he was first elected to the Senate in 1996 after 10 years in Tasmania’s state parliament.
The reasons for Brown’s departure seemed simple enough − he turns 70 in December this year, so he knew he was not getting any younger and felt confident the Greens were a strong enough team to continue into the future. It was surely a decision he didn’t arrive at lightly; he may have mixed feelings today about the fate of the party he helped found.
Brown has recently rearranged his life in Tasmania, given his famous bush property in Liffey to Bush Heritage Australia (an organisation he founded in 1991 that has gone on to preserve close to 1 million hectares of bushland around Australia) and moved to the idyllic farming town of Cygnet in the Huon Valley.
Since leaving parliament Bob has remained in the public eye – joining a number of national protests, including the successful bid to stop mining company Woodside build a massive gas factory at James Price Point in the Kimberley, setting up the Bob Brown Foundation that has galvanised national outrage against the federal government’s attempts to wind back the World Heritage listing of the Tasmanian forests, and becoming an Australian head of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
As if those tasks weren’t keeping him busy enough, Bob also has his 20-year relationship with Paul Thomas, a Tasmanian former sheep farmer and shopkeeper. The two men have certainly had more time for long hikes in nature since Bob escaped the tiresome drudgery of parliamentary sessions, but it’s worth remembering that none of the many things he achieved in his personal and political life have come easily.
As a young medical student in Canberra he struggled to accept his homosexuality, submitting to gay conversion therapy and at one point contemplating suicide on the banks of Lake Burley Griffin. Later in Tasmania, as a young GP, he finally ‘came out’ as gay by first knocking on the doors of his neighbours and then writing a letter to the Launceston Examiner. This ability to merge the local with the national, the personal with the political, is surely one of Bob Brown’s most endearing qualities.
He has never been one to keep up with the passing fashions of the times. Indeed, he says the closest he got to the 60s counterculture was when he was a young medical orderly in London and Jimi Hendrix was brought in on a stretcher.
Later, as a young GP in Launceston, Brown was drawn into the battles over Lake Pedder and the Franklin Dam; he emerged somewhat reluctantly as an environmental leader. He still suffered from crippling nerves at the thought of public speaking, and was always more of a political figure by necessity, rather than being driven by ego or lust for power. These early experiences ensured he has always retained his empathy for the underdog.
The idea of transformation is central to Brown’s story. Just as he has had to overcome personal demons and transform himself into the man we know today, he has been able to take that power of transformation into national and even international political spheres. During the Howard years, Brown was regularly called the ‘de facto leader of the opposition’ and was frequently a lone political voice against that government’s involvement in the Iraq war and increasingly draconian refugee policies. He told mass rallies around the country in 2003 that, ‘The prime minister has never, ever been given a mandate by the people of Australia to go to war with Iraq. The prime minister has abused the terms of freedom and democracy in his own country.’
Brown’s words cut through the cynicism that many Australians feel towards politicians and gave much-needed voice and heart to a movement that would become one of the largest anti-war movements in history.
Although the focus of Brown’s activism has changed over the years, the fundamentals have remained: the attempt to keep in check the forces of rampant industrialisation, inject humanism and compassion into national politics, and preserve what is left in the natural environment for the sake of future generations. His story begins and ends in the lush, silent fertile forests of Tasmania.
One of his favourite quotes is from Machiavelli: ‘If you want to change the world, prepare to feel the full force of the reaction against you from those that have the most to lose.’ Even from his enemies there is grudging respect. It’s telling that although News Ltd papers in particular have attacked and criticised Brown at every turn, The Australian recently voted him the most influential politician in the country.
Bob Brown threatens the big end of town because his politics are the politics of democratic revolution: sustainability over capitalism; compassion over profit. He will be remembered as one of Australia’s true revolutionaries. As his recent return to grass-roots activism has demonstrated – Bob Brown’s contribution is far from over.
James Norman is author of Bob Brown: Gentle Revolutionary, published by Allen & Unwin.
Bob Brown will be speaking about optimism, and his life in politics, in three big events with us. He’ll be in Melbourne on Tuesday 5 August, in Geelong on Monday 4 August, and in Hobart on Wednesday 6 August.
Evie Wyld has won this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award for her second novel, All the Birds, Singing. Judge Richard Neville said, ‘Flight from violence and abuse run through the core of the novel, yet never defeat its central character. All the Birds, Singing, an unusual but compelling novel, explores its themes with an unnervingly consistent clarity and confidence.’ Born in London, where she now lives, Wyld spent periods of her childhood living on her grandparents’ farm in New South Wales; she holds dual nationality, and the novel is set between Australia and the UK. She was named one of Granta’s 20 Best British Writers Under 40 last year.
Wyld was a guest at the Wheeler Centre earlier this year, where she was interviewed by Benjamin Law. You can watch the video below.
Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, banned in the Soviet Union, was ardently admired elsewhere – including by the CIA. ‘Pasternak’s humanistic message—that every person is entitled to a private life and deserves respect as a human being, irrespective of the extent of his political loyalty or contribution to the state—poses a fundamental challenge to the Soviet ethic of the individual to the Communist system,’ wrote a CIA staffer in a 1958 memo. Later that year, the agency slipped clandestine copies of the book to Russian readers at the World’s Fair in Belgium.
There’s a new David Sedaris personal essay in the New Yorker, available to read online for free. Among other things, he’s pondering the joys of a Fitbit (an electronic bracelet that measures your steps taken per day) for obsessive types … and he kicks off in an Italian restaurant in Melbourne, hearing about housekeepers, cataract removal in remote China, and the Fitbit.
Foetal alchohol syndrome is a serious problem in Alaska; its prevalence is linked to a high rate of accidental pregnancies (nearly one half of all pregnancies in the US). In a novel approach to solving the problem, Alaskan researchers are about to install free-pregnancy-test dispensers in the bathrooms of bars, emblazoned with warnings about the dangers of drinking while pregnant.
Julian Assange has been asked to star in a fashion show as part of London’s Fashion Week (from his Ecaudorian Embassy base), by Ben Westwood, son of the legendary Vivienne, who is a supporter of Assange’s. Ben says Assange is ‘good looking’ and a ‘popular hero’.
Indira Naidoo calls for a new conversation about refugees in Australia – one based on compassion, empathy and ethics, rather than fear.
She speaks from experience, as a refugee from apartheid South Africa to a racist 1970s UK, then a welcoming Australia – followed by a return to Africa, in the form of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, then a second refugee’s journey back to Australia again.
She also looks at the politics and history of our current hardline (and hard-hearted) stance, and its roots in the original mass boat arrivals to Australia: The First Fleet.
If you had to describe me, what descriptors would you use?
Migrant? Refugee? Woman? Indian? Ethnic? Tamil? Hindu? South African-born? Australian? TV newsreader? Journalist? Writer? Author? Minor celebrity? Chardonnay-sipping bleeding-heart leftie − or just plain annoying?
Most people will engage with me through one of these stereotypes.
None of us seem to be able to avoid ‘labels’… being put into boxes that have become a short-form way of explaining who we are, how we think…. what our hopes and dreams might be.
But like all of you, I am much more than the sum of my parts.
No group is more stereotyped in Australia than refugees.
The word ‘refugee’ invokes so much emotion that it’s almost impossible to utter the word without immediately polarising your audience.
As Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers takes us into our darkest days since the White Australia Policy, I’ve been questioning my values and the values of the country I have called home since my family migrated here almost 40 years ago.
I thought I knew it well, this Great Southern Land of ours – from its eucalypts and bush rock, to its footy ovals and cricket pitches, from its meat pies and kebabs, to its sun, surf and zinc cream.
These days I’m not so sure.
The Australia I see reflected in the media, on the floor of our national parliament, on the world-stage, looks more foreign to me every day.
I want to explore some of the issues I believe have brought us to the moral impoverishment of our current refugee and asylum seeker policy and how we might begin navigating our way through the current hysteria to a more humane, compassionate and thoughtful approach.
Firstly, I’d like to give you some insights into my perspective.
This is me. One of the earliest photos I have of myself. I’m about a year old − and those who know me well would say my mood hasn’t improved much since!
The arrival of a new baby is usually met with great joy. My parents should have been imagining all sorts of exciting things for my future. But they already knew precisely the way my life would unfold.
You see, I was born an Indian girl in apartheid South Africa in 1968.
As a fifth-generation South African Indian, I was destined to live a life where everything I did would be dictated by my gender and the colour of my skin.
As a non-white citizen, the state would determine where I lived, where I went to school, what park benches I could sit on, which beaches I could swim at, who I could marry and where I would be buried. A life of dehumanising discrimination lay ahead for me.
But fate intervened and gave me courageous parents who decided to leave South Africa, their family and all they knew to find a new home for their growing family.
In fact when we left, my parents had to actually smuggle me across the South African border into Zambia because at the time it was illegal for non-white children to leave South Africa.
My mother still talks of her terror as I slept soundly in the back seat covered by blankets as South African border guards prodded the bundles on top of me with their rifle butts.
My parents’ search for a new home took me and my two younger sisters on an extraordinary sixteen-year adventure across five countries, straddling three continents, twelve homes, six schools. The only thing that remained constant – and possibly not accidental if you know my family – is that every country we migrated to was obsessed with cricket!
From South Africa we went to Zambia, then England, then Tasmania, then back to Africa to Zimbabwe and finally back to Australia, to South Australia.
In our search for a new home we crossed paths with hundreds of people who were doing the same thing … at airports, at railway stations, at ports, at border checkpoints … people looking for a safe place where they could bring up their families.
Most of these people would never have left their homes if they could have built a good, safe life where they were born.
We conveniently categorise people into economic migrants, migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, but the reality is most people permanently leave their homeland reluctantly.
It’s only a privileged few who choose when they leave, how they leave, where they go and if they come back.
My parents’ professional qualifications and English-speaking skills gave them more choices than most.
In the global labour market of the 1970s they were in demand – particularly my father’s dental skills.
When the Whitlam government came to power in 1972 we were living in England and having a pretty tough time of it, like many of the waves of Eastern European and South-East Asian immigrants. My father’s dental qualifications, gained in India, weren’t recognised by British authorities and he had to re-sit the last part of his degree again.
Our family was struggling financially and when Gough Whitlam introduced his Assisted Passage Migration Scheme, which provided financial assistance to new migrants, my parents didn’t hesitate. With my father’s professional qualification our entire family would be resettled in Australia with a house and job.
This is how we found ourselves in 1974 in the tiny country town of St Mary’s on the rugged east coast of Tasmania. Population?
….20,000 kangaroos ….
…….. and 400 people …. give or take a few.
St Mary’s was a sleepy little hamlet. Most of the townsfolk were fourth and fifth generation Tasmanians, with a few newly arrived Eastern European immigrants.
The Indigenous population had been decimated and there was little Asian immigration which up until then had been directed towards the major mainland cities.
So our arrival in the hamlet was certain to cause a stir.
What my parents didn’t expect, given the racism they had experienced in South Africa and England, was the rock-star welcome we would receive.
To the townsfolk of St Mary’s we were exotic and novel.
The town’s local socialite – the bus driver’s wife − arranged an afternoon tea for my mother and my sisters to meet the other families. They were all dressed in their finery – some even wearing hats with flowers. They’d prepared these exotic delicacies we’d never seen before: lamingtons, butterfly cupcakes, fairy bread. We were greeted in a line as if we were the royal family … everyone taking turns to shake our hands.
I remember it well. I was six years old. One little girl even asked if she could touch my skin. She’d never seen dark skin before. She was fascinated. Of course we all had British accents as well so we must have seemed very odd!
We were so welcomed by that town. We were made to feel so included and special. Children wanted to sit next to us in class. We were invited to weekend BBQs and fishing trips.
That sense of specialness bestowed on us by the people of St Mary’s has stayed with me ever since.
I know my experience contrasts vastly to the mixed or lukewarm welcome many immigrants can receive.
Why were the townsfolk of St Mary’s so open and accepting?
Some would argue that my family was treated differently because we came via the ‘proper channels’… we weren’t ‘queue jumpers’… we weren’t ‘illegals’….we arrived on a plane with a visa and went through immigration and customs.
But of course the people of St Mary’s didn’t care how we had arrived. We were part of the community making a contribution. And they knew how difficult it was to get a good dentist in a rural town. Sadly something that’s still difficult to do.
They showed us compassion and empathy. They wanted to get to know us as individuals, to find the commonalities, to learn about our experiences.
After all, this was 1974.
Television hadn’t yet brought the worst of the world’s stereotypes and fears into their lounge-rooms.
9/11 was still three decades away.
The people of St Mary’s didn’t have many pre-conceived ideas of what someone from South Africa ‘was like’ or what ‘God’ an Indian person would worship. And if they did they just wanted to get to know us.
Personal contact will temper most of the prejudices we can fall prey to.
If you want to kill compassion and demonise difference, segregate people.
It’s what apartheid South Africa did so effectively.
It’s what Australia is doing now by putting asylum seekers – including children − behind razor wire thousands of miles off-shore, removed from the Australian community.
My family soon got a dose of life away from the protection and privilege of Australia when, eight years after we arrived in Tasmania, my parents decided to move back to Africa to Zimbabwe in the early 1980s.
Yes − as well as being courageous, my parents are a little nutty. They wanted to be closer to their family in South Africa, they thought their professional skills would come in handy in the fledgling nation and they wanted to give their children a taste of Africa.
All admirable goals, but when we arrived in the central town of Gweru, Zimbabwe was still healing from a vicious civil war.
I was 13 years old.
We got a front-row seat to war, conflict, racial upheaval − some of it played out in the school playground.
It very quickly became apparent that Prime Minister Robert Mugabe was going to be no Nelson Mandela.
He began an ethnic cleansing campaign against the minority Ndebele people, took control of the media and the army and set up one of the most bloodthirsty regimes Africa has ever seen.
As food and petrol shortages swept the country, there was a mad scramble to leave. Some of our school-friends and their families fled to South Africa and Botswana, a lucky few made it to Great Britain, and our family were able to escape back to paradise because we possessed a little piece of paper – an Australian passport.
I’d never understood the preciousness of my citizenship and nationality more so than on that day, as a 16-year-old, when we boarded a plane back to Australia via South Africa. I saw why some people risk everything to one day be cloaked under its protection.
Given my experiences and my background, it wasn’t surprising that I would build a career in journalism.
What did surprise me were the sorts of students I met in my journalism course. They were mostly from Anglo, English-speaking middle-class, private school backgrounds.
I was the only non-white student in my graduation year of 33 students.
And really, for the rest of my career in broadcast journalism in Australia, that was to be the statistical mix I would encounter.
Even when I moved to SBS, our multicultural network − to anchor the Late News in the late 1990s − I was the only non-European person on my late news team.
While the mix has changed slightly in the past 20 years, Australia’s media is still dominated by journalists from Anglo, English-speaking backgrounds.
This cultural imbalance has been one of the reasons I believe we get a skewed media view of the refugee debate in Australia.
It’s much easier to frame the debate as ‘us’ and ‘them’ when you don’t look much like ‘them’.
Many people in the mainstream media simply can’t relate to refugees, and lack the cultural awareness to empathise with their experiences. Sometimes, rather than connecting you, seeing the world only through a camera lens can put an enormous gulf between you and your subject.
Of course there are media outlets – mainly at the ABC and SBS and a few press outlets – that give refugee issues balance and deeper analysis.
Often they do so at their peril.
Critical assessments of government policy can lead to threats of funding cuts – as we’re witnessing at the moment − or unrelenting campaigns, public pillory and accusations of left-wing bias from conservative media outlets.
Cuts to public broadcasting have also limited the time and resources journalists can spend investigating refugee and asylum seeker issues.
The journalists and editors who continue to pursue this story are courageous and to be applauded.
But as Australia’s traditional media industry contracts and more news services are axed many journalists are forced to find work elsewhere.
The ranks of public relations firms and government spin doctors inevitably swell. Some are then employed to pump out more anti-refugee sentiment.
It was revealed last year that the previous Gillard Government engaged 72 media advisers and communication staff in the Immigration and Health departments alone. The total staff employed in public affairs was five times the number of journalists and staff employed in the entire Canberra Press Gallery.
And the spin doctors are achieving their goal.
The dehumanisation of refugees is complete when a young, vulnerable soul under our protection is killed in one of our facilities and the national outrage is barely audible.
Four months after Reza Berati’s death on Manus Island, an investigation and an ongoing Senate inquiry later, and the Australian public still doesn’t know the details of who killed Reza and how it happened.
We took away Reza’s hope and then we took away his future.
Can there be a greater stain on our national soul?
Why are those fleeing their homes now locked up indefinitely like criminals with no charge, in prisons we euphemistically call ‘detention centres’?
‘Detention’ is a short-term punishment you give naughty children who haven’t done their homework. ‘Detention’ is one of the many ‘weasel words’ we have corrupted to hide our inhumanity.
From the most recent figures from the Australian Human Rights Commission, there are currently 5,867 people locked away in Australia’s 21 immigration detention facilities. 1,006 of them are children.
3,391 people are a little better off in community detention and 1,631 of these are children. 119 people have been in detention for over 2 years. Two years of traumatic incarceration to add to the untold horrors they have fled.
And what our political leaders and the shock jocks won’t tell you is that 90% of asylum seekers who arrive by boat are found to be refugees. So, we’ve spent almost $3 billion this financial year on Temporary Protection Visas, mandatory detention, migration excision zones, and offshore processing arrangements with Nauru and Papua New Guinea to persecute vulnerable people who – in the end − are found to be, mostly, genuine refugees.
And on top of this it was revealed last week that the Immigration Department is paying asylum seekers $10,000 each to voluntarily return to the tormentors and bullets they have fled.
And this is all held up as sound economic management?
Once a human rights defender, Australia is now being condemned internationally as a pariah. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has repeatedly found Australia to be in breach of its obligations under Article 9 (Section1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Our problem is not refugees.
Our problem is the fear industry that has been allowed to grow and profit from exploiting refugees.
This industry includes the politicians who use refugee-bashing as an easy way to get re-elected, it includes the well-paid newspaper columnists who lack the compassion or cleverness to talk about the complexities of the issue, it includes the media shock jocks who use their loud megaphones to bully the moderate voices and incite the extreme ones, and it includes an inattentive public who would prefer to talk about real estate, renovations and recipes.
Despite what we are constantly told, our refugee numbers are small.
In 2012 a total of 17,202 asylum seekers on 278 boats arrived in Australia. By mid last year 14,000 people had made it to our shores. While significant, the reality is that Australia still receives less than 2% of the 50 million people fleeing persecution, conflict and war across the world. Less than 2%.
Let me put this into context. Lebanon, for instance, has taken in almost 1 million refugees, mainly from the Syrian Civil War. It only has a population of 4 ½ million people, so these refugee numbers pose a grave threat to its stability but it still keeps its borders open.
Climate change refugees – the near future
While our refugee intake is tiny in comparison, my concern is that with the growing challenges climate change will place on our fragile world, Australia will face in the near future an influx from ‘climate change’ refugees in our region.
And unless we can begin formulating a sensible policy based on ethics − about refugees and about climate change – we will encounter a very real humanitarian crisis we will be ill-equipped to deal with.
Just in the past year, typhoons and cyclones have hit low-lying parts of the Philippines, India and Bangladesh leaving millions homeless.
And we already know how vulnerable many of our Pacific neighbours are to rising sea levels. Some communities in the Pacific and South-East Asia will be forced to relocate to safer regions, and Australia will be one of the obvious destinations. Interestingly under the wording of the UN’s pre-climate change 1951 Convention on the Rights of Refugees, people fleeing ‘natural disasters’ are currently not classified as refugees. No doubt this definition will need to be revisited.
Australia is the most climate-change-at-risk developed nation on the planet. Throwing more money at ‘border patrols’ or ‘border protection’ will not save us from a changing climate.
‘Border Protection’ will not stop climate change. ‘Borders’ aren’t real. They are not a force of nature like gravity. They are man-made. They are artificial constructs that can be redrawn, absorbed, extended or extinguished in a nanosecond by a red pen in a distant office, or by a tank in a battlefield. It’s happening right now in The Ukraine as I speak.
Asylum seekers pose NO THREAT to our borders.
While we obsess with ‘turning back the boats’ the real menace to our way of life has already arrived in our atmosphere, unchecked, moving freely and it gets harder to turn back every day we keep ignoring it.
Let’s concentrate our efforts on turning back climate change.
It is time we closed our off-shore processing centres in Nauru and Manus Island.
It is time we ended mandatory detention.
It is an inhumane and expensive policy that does no one any good.
It is a policy that breaches Australia’s international obligations and persecutes the very people we have committed ourselves to protecting.
We’re diminished as a nation every day we allow it to continue.
Detention in these facilities is unlimited and arbitrary and those detained are denied legal aid and avenues to challenge their detention in a court of law.
The Australian Human Rights Commission has found that our detention facilities ‘inflicted serious psychological harm’ on detainees that amounted to ‘cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment’.
The Commission recommended that a person should be detained only if they are individually assessed as posing an unacceptable risk to the Australian community and if that risk could not be met in a ‘less restrictive way’.
Asylum seekers should be permitted to reside in the community while their immigration status is resolved. This can be achieved through the use of ‘community detention’ or with ‘bridging visas’. This is happening at the moment for some detainees and is working very well. They should also have a right to pursue paid work, which will give them some dignity. Community detention and bridging visas are both alternatives that allow for the wider community to be protected from identified risks while ensuring at the same time that people are treated humanely and in line with internationally accepted human rights standards.
Australia needs to reset its moral compass.
We know there are no queues for these people to jump.
We know there is no such person as an ‘illegal’. Everyone has the legal right to seek asylum. If we turn back the boats at our borders, their occupants could possibly die somewhere else due to our intervention. They may not die within our borders, but is this still not something we should feel a responsibility for? Of course we should. It is heartless to feel otherwise.
We should refocus our resources on resolving the issues which force refugees to flee their homes and undertake risky journeys in the first place.
In places such as Afghanistan and Iraq where we contributed to the war we have a duty to contribute to the peace.
We should use our influence with countries such as Sri Lanka to curb its human rights abuses not make excuses for them.
We must redouble our efforts to work more closely with Indonesia and Malaysia and the UNHCR in the processing and resettlement of refugees.
Australia needs to resume its moral leadership in the region rather than bullying poor nations such as Cambodia and Papua New Guinea into doing our dirty work for us.
The Dalia Lama showed his great insight when he said that ‘compassion is the radicalism of our times’.
To show compassion publicly on this issue takes great courage. It is to step outside the mainstream. It is to swim against the tide.
We are attacked and condemned for showing kindness, even though that is what we teach our children to display in the playground.
All too often we see a chilling coldness in the eyes of a politician explaining on the news why some people are more equal than others. Getting rid of national debt seems to justify every abuse. We may eradicate debt but don’t we risk replacing it with a new moral bankruptcy?
Our fear of boat arrivals is nothing new. In fact, it can be argued that since the first boat people came here on the First Fleet, boat arrivals have occupied a paranoia in our national psyche that few other fears have.
I’ve often wondered ‘why?’ when the perceived threat has never matched the reality – and when those who arrive by plane and overstay their visas far exceed boat arrivals in numbers.
Recently a philosopher at Deakin University Patrick Stokes offered a theory that I do find compelling.
He argues that boat arrivals remind us that we haven’t earned what we have.
‘Our prosperity rests on happy accident rather than cosmic justice.’
Just as we took this land illegally from the First Australians, we subconsciously fear that someone will come along and take it from us.
John Howard’s now infamous declaration −‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’ − comes from a frightened place of deep insecurity.
The emphasis is on sovereignty, not on mercy…. ‘if I don’t defend my patch someone will take it away’.
While the truer reality is that while we fight over borders and sovereignty, and who we let in and who we don’t, climate change is stealing our future away from us inch by inch.
I am very blessed and very proud to be an Australian but I am also a global citizen. I have an allegiance to this planet as well.
When we talk only about our world in terms of borders, and countries, and nationalities, cultures and religions, all we’re doing is creating damaging divisions when we should be strengthening our shared humanity.
People often ask me where I’m from or where I consider ‘home’ to be, given my nomadic childhood.
This is my home. This is our home. Let’s start a New Conversation.
This is the edited version of a talk that was given at the Wheeler Centre this week, Are We There Yet?: Searching for Home in a Globalised World.
Tony Birch connects the lack of genuine remorse within Australia’s colonial psyche with our regressive stance on climate change – and our lack of will to protect environment.
In recent times I have been fortunate to have experienced the friendship and wisdom of other Aboriginal people working for the recognition of our culture and history, in concert with environmental protection for both Aboriginal people and the wider community.
In a recent conversation with my good friend, Bruce Pascoe, he spoke of the absence of any genuine sense of remorse within the colonial psyche. He was not referring to the momentary guilt that some white Australian experience in relation to the theft of Aboriginal land and a history of violence against our people.
I believe Bruce was considering something far deeper. Inhabiting a relaxed and comfortable view of colonisation in Australia requires little thinking at all, let alone responsibility for the sins of the past. True remorse, while asking more of people, would produce invaluable outcomes for all Australians. With remorse comes reflection. With remorse comes recognition – and with will – mutual respect. This was Bruce’s point.
I see strong connections between this lack of remorse, the subsequent absence of thought and Australia’s regressive stance on climate change generally and the degradation of our environment more specifically. I also see a clear connection between a lack of will to protect the environment and the Australian government’s abuse of Aboriginal country. Equally, an abuse of Aboriginal cultural and sovereign relationship to country is ultimately an attack on all Australians.
The Australian government is currently attempting to reverse the World Heritage listing of 74,000 hectares of old-growth forest in Tasmania, in order to allow logging to recommence. Within the World Heritage area important Aboriginal sacred sites will again come under threat if the heritage listing is reversed. This is a shameful act. Considering the history of violence and repeated attempts of dispossession and extermination that the Tasmanian Aboriginal community have faced, one would hope that the wider community would not allow this violence to continue. If were were a truly remorseful nation, hopefully due consideration and thought would result in a more informed view. But in a country that plays lip service to Aboriginal rights, such reflection is not possible.
Reading the newspaper yesterday morning (Age - 14 June 2014), in an essay by Andrew Darby, I read about the courage of Ruth Langford and Linton Burgess, two Aboriginal people, among many others, who are fighting to save their country and protect the World Heritage listing of the rain forest surrounding important cultural sites. On a visit to the area recently, the couple ‘called to the old fellas … we let them know we are still here.’
We are still here.
Please consider for a moment the deep courage of this act. Consider that the Aboriginal nations of a land that came to be called Tasmania by British colonials, have resisted proactive attempts of genocide for more than 200 years and today stand tall to protect both their ancestors and their children. Ruth Langford, Linton Burgess and the Aboriginal people of Tasmania are heroes to Aboriginal people throughout Australia. They should also be regarded as heroes to the nation, as they are fighting to protect their country and environment. In doing so, they are protecting the planet.
Next week, Ruth Langford will join scientists and environmentalists at the annual meeting of the World Heritage Committee in Doha, Qatar, in an effort to stop the Australian government’s move. I wish her, and her brave people, every success - always was, always will be.
This piece was originally published on the Weather Stations blog.
In Japan, cat cafes – where you pay to eat coffee and cake, but visit to be in the presence of cats – are a phenomenon. And Australia is about to get its first, in the hipster mecca of Melbourne. Why are these cafes so popular … and what does it say about the insecurity of our times that we want one here?
Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA turns 30 this week. Politico looks at the history of the album being co-opted by political figures for their own purposes, from Ronald Reagan to John Kerry. And he traces how Reagan’s name-checking of Springsteen and his ‘songs of hope’ turned the singer from a fairly apolitical non-voter who championed the working-class to someone who openly acknowledged the political roots of his songs, and put out tables for local charities at his performances.
Above: The video for Born in the USA.
At last week’s Emerging Writers Festival, there was a series of closed industry forums designed to brainstorm concrete ways to work towards change. One of them focused on women in writing and publishing, and the resulting Women in Writing Manifesto has just been published on the Emerging Writers Festival website. It’s well worth a look.
A six-month investigation by the Guardian has uncovered a slavery ring in Thailand connected to the harvesting of prawns for sale to US and UK supermarkets, with slaves forced to work for years on boats with no pay, ‘under threat of extreme violence’. The conditions described to the Guardian included ‘20-hour shifts, regular beatings, torture and execution-style killings’, as well as the supply of methamphetamines to keep them going.
The $1000 Bodyguard Blanket is the latest product to be marketed at school students in the US, where there have been 74 school shootings since the shooting in Newtown in 2012. The idea, according to the manufacturer, is that the blankets can be stored in classrooms and pulled out at short notice in the case of an incident. Bulletproof backpacks, jackets and whiteboards already exist.
From October 2012 to June 2013, Mark Isaacs worked for the Salvation Army performing support work and humanitarian aid for asylum seekers in the Nauru Regional Processing Centre. After resigning from his role in Nauru, he spoke out publicly against Australia’s offshore detention policy, and wrote about his experiences in The Undesirables: Inside Nauru.
Image by DBIP (CC).
Every person has a breaking point. When you are pushed and prodded towards the brink, it is inevitable that eventually you will jump.
The DIAC public servants made themselves scarce around the men’s camp. They only ever entered to make official decrees. The day of the riot DIAC was due to make an announcement to the Iranian asylum seekers. The Salvation Army was determined to have the Iranians’ stretcher beds moved from the Green Room and back into their tents before DIAC arrived. It was a show of authority that the men did not appreciate. ‘Salvation Army loves injustice. This is Guantanamo,’ they shouted and waved their arms in the air, but in the end they complied.
Later that day a Salvo was caught attempting to instil hope in the Iranians. It was a risky game of trying to uplift downtrodden men without patronising them. The Salvo erred on the side of exuberant goodwill. ‘How ya going, mate?’ she said with a large smile.
‘How am I going? What do you think?’ Atash, one of the Iranian men, was spoiling for a fight.
‘Oh, come on. It’s not so bad. You have food, you can eat,’ the Salvo cajoled, underestimating the tone in his voice.
‘We are treated like animals,’ he said. ‘Caged animals.’
‘Do animals get to watch TV? Get to use the internet?’ the Salvo responded.
It was an attitude all too common in Australia. The existence of perceived luxuries was latched onto as an example of how these men were leeching off the Australian government. Television may be a luxury but it is used as a distraction, not a basis for life. There is only so much comfort watching television can provide when it is all you have to do.
Atash erupted. He kicked his chair across the Green Room. The camp was placed on high alert. By the time DIAC arrived the mood in the camp was volatile. The Iranians and the Iraqis congregated in the Green Room to hear their futures. A DIAC official announced that they would not have their visa applications looked at for at least six months. Processing could take three to five years to complete and even then there was no guarantee that their applications would be approved. For those whose visa applications were approved, there were no assurances that they would be going to Australia. In the space of twenty minutes, fifty men had their futures blackened with the knowledge that they faced years of incarceration. Mustafa asked permission to address DIAC.
‘The conditions in this camp are violations of human rights. If you don’t agree with this, you don’t believe in human rights. If you do agree with this, it is your obligation to change this. So I ask you, do you believe in human rights?’
‘We believe the camp provides sufficient amenities,’ a DIAC spokesperson responded.
‘Would you sleep in these tents?’ Mustafa asked. ‘I’m different,’ said the DIAC spokesperson. Atash stood up and screamed. One can not begin to understand the range of emotions that scream was born from. It tore through the people around him. A scream and then nothing more.
The DIAC staff returned to their office, 10 metres from the camp, and allowed the Salvos and the Wilson guards to deal with the fallout. To understand what exactly occurs during an anarchic event such as a riot is a difficult thing to do. In the days after the riot the Naurumour mill was working hard. Everyone had a story to tell about what happened to them during the night, service providers and asylum seekers trading information. Eventually there emerged common threads that pieced together made a story that everyone could agree upon.
That night a small group of the Iranians went wild. They jumped on tents, slashed roofs, kicked in fridges, smashed lights. The Tamils endured a frightening night of ghosts in the dark wielding weapons. The men entered the kitchen, laid waste to $10,000 worth of food and damaged the bain-maries.
The Salvation Army workers were evacuated early in proceedings. There were no emergency guidelines to follow. Salvation Army staff milled about at the Menen Hotel, worrying for the men inside the camp and, wondering where missing colleagues were. Those Salvos who hadn’t been at the camp, and therefore were not evacuated with the majority of staff, remained in their rooms unaware that a riot was taking place.
Wilson evacuated the camp and waited for the Nauru police to arrive. By the time the sirens approached Topside the men’s energy was spent. The alleged ringleaders of the riot, identified by Wilson’s intelligence, were arrested by the police and placed in jail cells overnight. The Salvation Army heads were present throughout the arrests and vouched that no physical harm was done to the men. How much of this process was legal was difficult to judge. Nauru’s police commissioner, an Australian, stated that the police would enforce Nauruan law within the camp. It was said that the men had broken visa restrictions, however, it was unclear whether the men even possessed Nauruan visas. If such visas had been issued it would’ve been done without the consent or knowledge of the men.
In the same sentence the commissioner admitted that the Nauruan government was still working on the legislation that would legalise the camp. Nauruan law was still catching up with Australian policy. The Nauruan Refugees Convention Act 2012 didn’t come into force until 10 October 2012, more than one month after the first asylum seekers arrived in Nauru.1 Had the Australian government brought the asylum seekers here illegally? Was there a Nauruan law that legally kept the men in detention? What law was keeping them in the camp? Did international law support the Australian government’s detention of these men on the island? Why did Wilson Security evacuate the camp? Did it have any authority to physically stop the men? If the men walked out the camp’s front gate, what would happen to them? Could the Nauruan police legally convict the men of crimes? Could the men be forcefully deported? The operations manager of the Salvos described the legitimacy of the camp as a game of smoke and mirrors.
Men without passports, without identities, imprisoned in a place that had no legal legitimacy. No men locked nowhere. The men were frightened. They feared that they would go crazy. They feared that they would die in Nauru, that they would be forgotten; that they would become non-people.
Mark Isaacs is the author of The Undesirables: Inside Nauru (Hardie Grant). This is an extract from the book, which is available in bookshops now.
Mark delivered a Lunchbox/Soapbox address for the Wheeler Centre earlier this year. Watch our website for the video.
We’re excited to be welcoming the marvellous A.M. Homes, author of the bestseller (and Women’s Prize for Fiction winner) May We Be Forgiven, to the Wheeler Centre next Monday night. Just before ‘running away to Australia’, as she puts it, she’s written an affecting blog for Penguin US on motherhood and what it means to her – as a mother and a daughter.
‘Mothers are the one soup to nuts relationship in your life; you’ve got them from beginning to end, and so I am all about celebrating it. There are things about the mother/child relationship that should not be unique to that intimate bond but in fact should be part of our culture, the way we live–think about compassion, acceptance, the idea that you matter, your needs, desires and dreams have a place here. Wouldn’t it be nice if the world could be a little more like a “good-enough” mother?’
Emerging Writers Festival director Sam Twyford Moore had a terrific piece in the Guardian yesterday in passionate defence of the dole as a safety net for young people, while they figure out what they want to do with their lives, and in times when they’re between jobs as they start their careers. He speaks from personal experience, explaining how the dole helped him to find his feet and his career.
‘We need to fail to find out what we are good at. To carve the right path, you need to head down many. And without a safety net of unemployment benefits during periods of uncertainty – when you’ve found one path is a dead end, before taking the next – well, you’re creating an unimaginative workforce, fearful of taking risks, right at the stage when they should be doing exactly that.’
Wes Anderson’s latest movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, was inspired by the writing of Stefan Zweig, particularly his books The Post Office Girl and The World of Yesterday (his memoir). In a fascinating interview at the Telegraph, he chats to Zweig’s biographer, George Prochnik, about his passion for the author and how Zweig’s life and work inspired the film, from its content to its storytelling structure.
‘Vienna was a place where there was this great deep culture, but it was the equivalent of rock stars — it was the coolest thing of the moment. It was completely popular, and that was Vienna. Zweig was living in the dead centre, ground zero place for this. And he was living there up to the point that it came to an end. ’
The Wall Street Journal looks for the moment when John ‘The Fault in our Stars’ Green went from being internet famous to just plain famous. Two weeks ago, at the first screening of the film, the author attracted cries of ‘I love you!’ that he had to quiet in order to speak, finding himself more the centre of attention than the film’s stars, also in attendance. Despite this, Green says he’s better known for his internet persona than his novels – and he spends most days making his ‘Crash Course’ YouTube videos.
It was the tenth anniversary of Mean Girls last week, and a spate of articles about its classic status, most of them proving that its snappy dialogue is key, as they revel in quoting it. At the New Yorker, Richard Brody does all that, but also takes a thoughtful and insightful look at the mechanics of the movie, and why it works so well. It’s a nice mix of personal engagement and professional knowhow.
‘When I mentioned to my daughters that it’s the tenth anniversary of the release of Mean Girls, it was no news to them: the firstborn, now twenty-one, is wearing her “You can’t sit with us” T-shirt, and her sister, sixteen, is dressed in pink (it’s Wednesday). ’
Ben Zygier, an Australian-Israeli citizen, took his own life in Israel’s maximum security, ‘suicide proof’ Ayalon Prison in 2010. In this extract of his recent Lunchbox/Soapbox talk on the Zygier espionage saga, Rafael Epstein explains that there were serious gaps in Australia’s handling of the case – both before and after his death.
I knew Ben Zygier as a young boy in primary school, when he was in my care in a Jewish youth movement called Netzer. He was a kind, and not overly gregarious boy, who grew up to be one of the more charming teenagers, hanging out in another youth movement called Hashomer Hatzair. There were just a few hundred of us in Zionist youth movements, university and high school students, in this small tribe-within-the-tribe of the Jewish community. We were committed idealists, reveling in self-empowerment and the allure of believing that we could really change the world.
Most of us did not go on to live in Israel, but Ben Zygier did. Two years into his law degree at Monash University, he decided he was going to become an Israeli citizen and do more than the bare minimum of service on Israel’s army. So Ben Zygier went to Israel, fought in its Army, and then joined its feared intelligence agency Mossad. While undercover for Israel, he worked inside a European company to try and penetrate Iran’s military and its nuclear program. He did this using Australian passports, one of which he’d used to get a visa at the Italian consulate in Melbourne. Later, on leave from his Mossad work, Ben Zygier returned to Melbourne in 2009, to once again study at Monash University.
It is what happened to Ben Zygier from this year onwards, and how he was treated in Australia and Israel, that are my core concerns in Prisoner X.
Concerned by Zygier’s misuse of his passport, he was followed in 2009 by Australian intelligence and his phone calls were monitored. One of the agents who tracked him on the streets of Melbourne later revealed his identity as Mossad agent to Australian journalist Jason Koutsoukis. At the time, Ben Zygier told friends he thought he was being followed, but they dismissed his concerns.
As this was unfolding, I was told that Ben Zygier was talking to people at Monash, and this talk is what led to his downfall. I was told that he had let slip details of his work in Europe targeting Iran. He’d spoken with an Iranian businessman who was on the same campus. This Iranian knew that what he’d heard was valuable information and it was passed back to Tehran. Because Israel has good surveillance of communications in Iran, Mossad eventually found out that Ben had been saying too much to the wrong person, while studying in Melbourne.
So by the end of 2009, he was being monitored by intelligence agencies from three countries: Australia, Israel and Iran.
Mossad was concerned enough by Ben’s loose talk in Melbourne, that they asked him to return to Israel. He was arrested within a few weeks of his return at the start of 2010. Just two days later, the world was told of a spectacular Mossad assassination in Dubai. This is important because it should have given Australian authorities great cause to be discussing Ben’s case. He’d had nothing to do with the assassination in Dubai, but when the Hamas leader was killed in the Gulf state, the Israelis used three fake Australian passports among others.
Curiously, this audacious operation involved stealing the identity of three Melbourne Jews, who had gone to live in Israel, just as Ben had done. This misuse of Australian passports set up 2010 as a year of tension, with Australia’s national security establishment furious with Israel. Mossad’s man in Canberra was expelled and the ALP government confirmed for the first time that Israel had previously misused Australian passports. ASIO Chief David Irvine was sent to Israel to try and get some answers.
This should have been when where two disparate cases intersected. Despite ASIO’s position at the centre of this standoff over Dubai, and despite their concerns about Ben Zygier’s misuse of his passport, the agency does not appear to have pushed for Ben’s case to be discussed by our elected representatives. This is more than strange at a time when Israel’s misuse of passports in Dubai was “an abuse of our national sovereignty,” according to then Foreign Minister Stephen Smith. As far as we know, Ben’s illegal use of his Australian passports – and his surveillance by Australian agencies – was never passed on to any minister other than then Attorney General Robert McClelland. Even more curiously, the A-G never raised it with his cabinet colleagues.
Even if it is not the case that considerable Australian resources were used to track Ben Zygier in Melbourne in 2009 – and I am told this was done – when he was arrested in Israel, someone should have told then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd or his successor, Julia Gillard. That this didn’t happen was odd – and that’s an understatement. In Opposition, Julie Bishop believed these were important concerns. “Interestingly, this was at the very time that the Australian Government was in a lather about Australian passports being used by Israeli intelligence agencies. So somebody must have thought maybe there was a connection, maybe there are questions to ask.”
Those who were told of Ben Zygier’s arrest include our current ambassadors to China and Indonesia – who were Canberra bureaucrats at the time – and Dennis Richardson, currently the top public servant in the Defence Department. For various reasons, including officials’ lack of ‘recollection’, relevant ministers say they weren’t informed. And that’s despite paperwork detailing his arrest being sent to offices of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister.
I tried and failed, formally and informally, to interview various politicians and bureaucrats about this curious lack of joining-the-dots at the very apex of Australia’s political and security establishment. I never received a reply anywhere close to an answer. Australians deserve better than the retort from Bob Carr when he was pressed about these strange facts: “Listen pal, I wasn’t in the Parliament at that time, I can’t shed any more light on it!” We only know about Canberra’s curious lack of curiosity because of an internal DFAT inquiry, instigated by then Foreign Minister Carr. He’d unknowingly misled the ABC, saying the government only learnt of Ben Zygier’s incarceration at the time of his death.
Ben Zygier’s family never requested consular assistance, and any Australian discussion of his fate may not have changed the sad end to his life. But there were politicians and bureaucrats with access to Australia‘s most closely held secrets, and we don’t know if they asked the questions they should have. There is too much that the public just don’t know, and are simply not told.
This is an edited excerpt from Rafael Epstein’s recent Lunchbox/Soapbox talk, of which we’ll post a video on this website soon. Epstein is the author of Prisoner X, published by Melbourne University Press. He hosts Drive on 774 ABC Melbourne.
Last month, the federal government announced a review of the just-completed national curriculum, with a view to correcting what it sees as a skew to the left. Rachel Power, a journalist with the Australian Education Union, gives her view on what the review will mean – and why she believes its focus on values is a diversion from Australia’s real education problem: equity.
Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne is determined to shift the education debate from one about funding to one about ‘values’.
Despite last year’s Gonski debacle, when public outrage thwarted Pyne’s attempt to scrap the needs-based school funding reforms, the minister remains confident that he has a ‘firm mandate’ to pursue his agenda for fixing Australia’s education system.
His next target: the national curriculum. The Abbott Government claims parents and teachers are calling for a review, despite the fact that the new curriculum is barely finalised, let alone implemented.
Much like his attempt to fast-track changes to schools funding, Pyne seems certain that by next year he’ll have whipped up a better curriculum than the one devised over five years by independent experts.
Along with greater school autonomy, better teachers and more parental engagement, reforming the curriculum is one of ‘four pillars’ Pyne sees as the key to improving student outcomes.
He claims that Australian students have been ‘going backwards for a good decade’ in OECD statements, NAPLAN data and other studies. This is his ostensive basis for wresting back all aspects of school education − from teaching methods to the curriculum − from the clutches of the lefty, tree-hugging progressives dominating educational thinking in recent decades.
High-achieving school systems in Finland, Korea, Singapore and Japan show that moves to ‘cut it right back to basics’ instead of teaching ‘edgy babble’ are most effective, says Pyne.
The Coalition Government is convinced that the Australian Curriculum is skewed left − evidenced by ‘two references to trade unions, four references to progressive ideas and associated movements’ and not enough focus on what conservative parties have done for this country.
Pyne is particularly concerned about whether the curriculum’s three themes − Australia’s place in Asia, Indigenous Australia and sustainability − really need to be factored into subjects like maths and science.
‘I’m not going to pre-judge the outcome of the national curriculum,’ Pyne told a media conference on January 10. ‘But suffice to say there has been criticism of the national curriculum over a lengthy period of time.’
The two men comprising the ‘objective’ review panel, Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire, have already been among those making their criticisms clear.
Ken Wiltshire, Professor of Public Administration at the University of Queensland Business School, has publicly condemned the national curriculum as having ‘no apparent values serving as its foundation’.
Conservative commentator and former Liberal staffer Kevin Donnelly has argued that under Labor governments, schools have been ‘forced to adopt a politically correct, dumbed-down curriculum that ignores the basics and that preaches a politically correct view of subjects like English and history’.
No matter that Barry McGaw, chair of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), defends the curriculum has having already been ‘shaped by careful analyses of the curricula in high-performing countries’ and that the three curriculum themes are only addressed where relevant and barely covered, if at all, in courses such as maths.
Pyne is determined to resuscitate John Howard’s ‘black armband view’ of Australian history, suggesting that the curriculum is too heavily weighted towards the nation’s Indigenous history rather than recognising the ‘benefits of western civilisation in our society’.
The Anzac spirit has ‘informed our Australian culture and our character ever since [colonisation],’ he wrote in the Australian, ‘and I don’t think that lining it up with NAIDOC week, Reconciliation Day, Harmony Day and so on gives it the central focus that it deserves in our curriculum.’
Donnelly has made similar points, saying: ‘Instead of Asia and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, why not define the curriculum in terms of Australia’s Western heritage and Judeo-Christian tradition?’
Amid all this focus on Christian values, however, Australia’s long-held value of equity seems to have been lost. The latest OECD report exposed a widening gap in outcomes between the lowest and highest performing students in Australia, with student achievement clearly linked to wealth, location, gender and background.
But Pyne dismisses any correlation between disadvantage and performance, insisting that there is ‘no equity problem’ in Australian schools. The only reason students in non-government schools ‘tend to perform better’, he asserts, is that private schools are more autonomous and their parents more involved.
By his calculation, a school’s capacity to effectively operate autonomously, attract parental involvement and meet student needs has nothing to do with its resources or the socioeconomic status of its families.
In the lead-up to the election, Pyne described the funding debate as an ‘asinine distraction’ from the real issues and that rather than more resources for schools, his priorities would be a return to ‘more traditional’ and ‘didactic’ teaching methods.
Pyne conveniently ignores the weight of evidence showing that equality of opportunity is a crucial factor in producing high-performing schooling systems. One of the most striking aspects of Finland’s well-funded education system is that its central aim is equity − but as a direct result, it achieves excellence.
But Pyne believes that any school’s funding model should ‘reward … rather than penalise private investment’ by parents.
The Gonski Report found that a major boost in government investment, particularly in the public sector, is necessary to improve results. Even the Business Council of Australia has backed the Gonski funding model as ‘an important step towards lifting the quality of Australia’s education outcomes’.
Member of the Gonski review panel Ken Boston has argued that, ‘If there had been no Gonski report, there would be no review of the national curriculum.’
If Pyne can convince Australians to blame the curriculum, bad teachers and a lack of parental engagement for our drop in performance, he will have succeeded in diverting us from the real problem: the inequality of opportunity caused by years of inadequate funding.
Rachel Power is a Melbourne writer (and parent) who is a journalist with the Australian Education Union.
Our first Intelligence Squared debate for 2014 has an education focus. Join us to hear the arguments for and against whether Faith-based Education Has No Place in Public Schools. With Tim Costello, Professor Marion Maddox, David Vann, and more.
Last night, the Wheeler Centre was involved in Anne Summers’ Town Hall conversation with former prime minister Julia Gillard.
The event covered Gillard’s time in power, the challenges, struggles with the media and the then-Opposition, and her own sometimes controversial positions on issues including misogyny, gay marriage and the price on carbon.
We chatted with attendees of the packed-out event afterwards, to get their views.
‘Julia Gillard has meant a lot to women in my age bracket,’ said one young woman, a political and lifestyle blogger. ‘Even though it’s been hard to watch what we hoped she’d represent initially falter, tonight gives me a great sense of hope for the future.’
Another woman, a former law colleague of Julia Gillard’s who has followed her career with interest, said that she was ‘a bit unhappy’ with how Gillard was treated in public life. ‘I thought the misogyny was extraordinary, and I thought the way that she met it, with her grace and her refusal to be too affected by it, or too drawn into it, was just extraordinary.’
‘I think Julia Gillard has been one of the most important people of our lifetime,’ said one man. ‘It was important for me to be here to listen to her, and to pay tribute to what she’s done for this country.’
Like many in the crowd, he was surprised at ‘her clear lack of bitterness at what has happened to her and her optimism for the future, and her optimism for women in public life’.
‘I watch her misogyny speech weekly,’ said one unabashed fan, a young woman who is a member of the Labor Party and was visibly excited at the chance to hear Gillard speak. ‘When she left the leadership, it was just such a shock.’
Another woman was pleasantly surprised by Gillard’s reasoning for her position on gay marriage. ‘I think her position about the state’s involvement in people’s personal relationships has some merit. To hear her say that was the real reason is the first real time I’ve heard her speak from that position. That was a surprise, and a relief in some respects.’
The lifestyle and political blogger said Gillard’s response to gay marriage seemed ‘so far left, it’s in some ways Marxist – in that there should be no marriage at all for anybody’. She was sceptical that Gillard’s position was ‘relevant to the community’.
‘We need strong moral and political conversations – and more of them – in this country,’ said one man, on his way home from the event. ‘Tonight was a taster. It was terrific.’
Julia Gillard has kept a deliberate, dignified silence since her departure as Labor leader in June. But last week, she announced a series of public events with Anne Summers – which sold out almost immediately. And on Saturday, she published a substantial 5000-word essay in the Guardian about her legacy, the future and purpose of Labor, and the pain of losing power.
She criticised Labor’s eleventh-hour decision to replace her as leader with Kevin Rudd, saying it ‘sent the Australian community a very cynical and shallow message about [Labor’s] sense of purpose’. The decision was rooted not in an embrace of a new policy agenda, but a belief that ‘Kevin Rudd had the greater talent for governing’.
Labor frontbenchers Chris Bowen, Joel Fitzgibbon and Bill Shorten have emphatically defended the decision, though they haven’t contradicted Gillard’s reasoning. Bowen told Weekend Sunrise that Rudd made Labor ‘competitive’, while Fitzgibbon told Insiders that Labor held onto 10 or 20 more seats than they expected to under Gillard.
‘Labor unambiguously sent a very clear message that it cared about nothing other than the prospects of survival of its members of parliament at the polls,’ wrote Gillard of the leadership change.
She says that Labor’s first task in opposition is to re-embrace its purpose. This includes making decisions about how much of its record in government it seeks to own, and how much it seeks to reject.
Gillard pleaded for the ALP to stand behind carbon pricing, despite its public unpopularity. ‘Climate change is real. Carbon should be priced.’
She called on Labor to ‘claim and explain’ policies like fair work, education reform, disability care, health and aged care reform and the demands of the Asian century – and to learn from the mistakes of 1996. After that election loss, the party distanced itself so comprehensively from the Keating government (hoping to leave behind negative associations like high interest rates and high unemployment) that it lost the opportunity to be associated with achievements like modernising the economy, turning the nation towards Asia and ‘appropriately and fairly responding to the native title decisions of Mabo and Wik’.
‘Labor must not make that error again,’ she said.
Gillard also believes that the party needs to value the kind of work that’s done behind closed doors, rather than on our television screens. She says that bringing policy development work into the public arena would ‘show purpose to the public’ as well as highlighting the value of that work to parliamentary colleagues.
James Button recently made a similar observation, at our Australian Democracy in 2013 event. He criticised the divide between the inside world of politics and the outside world of the voting public, and called for the ALP to conduct its policy debates in public again, like it used to.
‘Rather than having the shadow ministry debate difficult policy questions, parliamentary party policy seminars should discuss them, open to the media and live on 24-hour television,’ Gillard proposed. ‘Policy contests could then be taken out of the back rooms and into the light … By being open from the start, the debate can be put in the prism of purpose. A norm would be set that ideas matter and those with the best ideas are the most valued.’
The idea of open public debate may be put into practice immediately, with the contest for the Labor Party leadership. Contenders Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten will engage in a month-long contest; they’re still deciding whether debates will be open to party members only, or to the general public. Televised debates are also being considered.
Shorten and Albanese have agreed that whoever wins should remain leader until the next election.
‘'We’ve got to conduct these next 28 days civilly, and that once the verdict’s over, that’s it, and we get behind each other for the next three years,’ Shorten told Weekend Sunrise.
The video of the 1 October event with Anne Summers will be published here at wheelercentre.com the day after.
Dennis Altman looks back on forty years of work as a gay rights activist and author – and the ‘extraordinary’ changes that have been made to how we imagine sex and gender since the gay rights movement began in the early 1970s. He asks what those changes mean for homosexuals today: both his generation and new generations, who have grown up in a very different world.
In 1975 I was invited by a student group to speak about homosexuality at the Townsville campus of James Cook University. The local paper reported my talk, which led to hostile questions being asked in the state parliament, where I was referred to as ‘a bare-footed practising homosexual’, and an attack upon me by Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Thirty-five years later I was invited by the vice-chancellor of Central Queensland University to Rockhampton to give a similar talk, chaired by federal Liberal MP Warren Entsch. This time the local paper editorialised its support for the event, and I was a guest on both local radio stations.
Flying north from Brisbane, I was tempted to believe I was entering a different country; the men in the departure lounge – one with a T-shirt proclaiming ‘Jesus Saves’, others with surfers gear and heavy tats – would not have been a common sight back at Tullamarine. But walking around Rockhampton, with its slightly stuffy and old-fashioned downtown area, reinforced my sense that Australia is a remarkably homogenous country, and that apparently different attitudes between regions are more likely to reflect economic status and demography, not some particular essential difference between state cultures.
This was in fact my fourth visit to provincial Queensland to address gay issues. At the end of 1993 I first visited Rockhampton for a conference at the university entitled ‘Voices of a Margin’, which brought together speakers from all the predictable indicators of disadvantage.
Seventeen years later, Rockhampton appeared to have changed little. However, The Boy From Oz was playing at the town’s theatre – an interesting reminder that Australia’s two most successful musicals (the other being Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) are, as they used to say, as camp as a row of tents. What had changed was the assumption of a kind of normality around homosexuality, so that the vice-chancellor could joke publicly about his wife’s attraction to the men pictured in a Queensland gay calendar. It was inconceivable that a vice-chancellor would have felt sufficiently relaxed about sexuality to make such comments twenty years earlier. Of course, prejudice and hostility remain: a week after I was in Rockhampton, the visiting American author Armistead Maupin encountered blatant homophobia in a restaurant in Alice Springs, when a barman told him the toilets were ‘reserved for real men’. Tourism Central Australia was quick to apologise, and the Melbourne Age followed up with an apologetic editorial.
Anyone over fifty in Australia has lived through extraordinary changes in how we imagine the basic rules of sex and gender. We remember the first time we saw women bank tellers, heard a woman’s voice announce that she was our pilot for a flight, watched the first woman read the news on television. Women are now a majority of the paid workforce; in 1966 they made up twenty-nine per cent. When I was growing up in Hobart it was vaguely shocking to hear of an unmarried heterosexual couple living together, and women in hats and gloves rode together in the back of the trams (now long since disappeared). As I look back, it seems to me that some of the unmarried female teachers at my school were almost certainly lesbians, although even they would have been shocked had the word been uttered.
In 1955 Princess Margaret had been forced to repudiate marrying a divorced man. Since then, three of Queen Elizabeth II’s four children have divorced, and the current heir to the throne is married to a woman with whom he obviously had an affair during his previous marriage. Most of my female schoolmates who went to university were on teachers’ scholarships, and would be expected to resign from the department if they married, which not infrequently happened because of unplanned pregnancies. Abortions were illegal but were often performed under appalling conditions; the occasional girl was known to have suddenly made a trip ‘to Melbourne’ in search of one.
Homosexuals were invisible, at best referred to in guilty jokes that I generally failed to understand. Barry Humphries wrote of this period that ‘Pooftahs were happily confined to the small hermetic world of ballet and window dressing’, but this was a snide half-truth. (Not surprisingly, Humphries did not appear to think lesbians were even worth a snide reference.) In the same way, our cities were overwhelmingly racially homogenous: an overt white supremacy was dominant, reinforced through the notorious White Australia Policy and through the legal inequality of Aborigines, and deep prejudice existed against the few non-Caucasians living in Australia. When I was growing up I recall several Chinese-Australian families, but they were regarded as alien and exotic, even though some had been in the country for a century – far longer than the families of many of my classmates, who treated them with contempt.
During the 1970s, when Australia saw the first public affirmations by gay men and women, homosexuality was regarded with deep suspicion – as a vice, as a crime or, at best, as an illness. Sexual behaviour between men was illegal in all states, and very few women or men publicly acknowledged their homosexuality. Even if the anti-sodomy laws were rarely applied, police harassment and entrapment, and fear of disclosure to families and employers, maintained a low-level reign of terror sufficient for most homosexuals to spend considerable effort managing constant subterfuge and evasion. The current world, in which there are openly gay politicians, judges and even the occasional sports star, was literally inconceivable. We used to worry about being bashed for walking hand-in-hand. Young queers now worry about wedding planning, even though the threat of violence is still real, and in some areas possibly increasing.
The last decade, in particular, has seen extraordinary progress towards the normalisation of homosexuality across the western world. Legal protection exists in most jurisdictions against discrimination based upon ‘sexual orientation’, and same-sex partnerships are increasingly acknowledged by civil (if not religious) institutions. Openly homosexual politicians are increasingly evident, and a significant ‘pink vote’ is now courted during elections. No mainstream television series seems to be without its gay and lesbian characters, and there is a well-established targeting of a gay/lesbian market in travel, real estate and consumer advertising. In 2012 the high-rating television station Channel Nine resuscitated the reality show Big Brother; the winner was openly gay and proposed to his partner on live television.
Those of us old enough to remember the period in which a large-scale gay movement began have lived through a revolution, and it is difficult for us to make sense of it. Change occurs at a number of levels simultaneously, and is often contradictory and uneven. Looking back over four decades, one can trace major shifts in the discourse, representation and regulation of homosexuality – all of which terms are open to multiple meanings. Nor does change occur without cost. Many activists find that, as they age, they feel a nostalgia for a remembered past, which seems increasingly preferable to the present. Gore Vidal, of whom I have written elsewhere, wrote a novel that identifies the ‘golden age’ as the decade following World War II, but in effect he is writing about his youth, which is where most of us locate that period.
The changing Australian attitudes reflect a much larger global story, where new images of the self and possibilities for activism circulate increasingly rapidly. The American influence has been particularly significant, and through its media the US has shaped how most of us imagine the world. Americans have been role models and reference points for changing images of sex and gender from Marilyn Monroe and James Dean through to the characters of Glee and Sex in the City. Our generation lived through a major shift in emphasis from British attitudes and culture to an increasing embrace of that of the United States, a change that paralleled the steady increase of non-British immigration to Australia. At the same time, the realities of globalisation, in all its diverse meanings, mean that even local stories have to be told through an awareness of the wider world.
Of course, for me it is difficult to disentangle what has changed in the larger world from the realities of my own ageing. As soon as one relies upon personal observation, one has to recognise the extent to which these observations are distorted as well as enhanced by the personal. A friend wrote several years ago on Facebook:
I’ll be in New York this weekend, and it turns out to be the Black Party. That used to get me as excited as when I was a little boy about to open presents on Christmas Eve. Now the person who could get excited about either seems impossibly remote, barely half-remembered, from another lifetime.
Another friend, browsing recently through a gay bookshop, remarked that The Joy of Gay Sex seemed to have been replaced by The Joy of Cooking, although it is worth noting that The Joy of Gay Sex, originally published in 1977, has been reissued and revised several times by writers drawn from my generation.
To make sense of change requires us to focus on a number of arenas simultaneously. As change occurs, it creates new possibilities but it can also reinforce old patterns – which may be why so many young people today regard ‘hippies’ with distaste. In a familiar cycle, yesterday’s radicalism becomes tomorrow’s nostalgia. So it is with sexuality. The changes over the past forty years have not replaced one mode of being homosexual as much as they have added new ones. The world of hustlers, drag queens and self-denial described in John Rechy’s 1965 novel City of Night can still be found, alongside well-dressed professional women and men at gay business fundraisers. The simultaneous existence of old-fashioned ‘queens’ and edgy transsexual ‘queers’ illustrates Raymond Williams’ discussion of ‘residual and emergent cultures’, whereby new forms don’t necessarily displace as much as they complement existing modes.
It is not hard to sit in a clearly gay urban space and see both the past and the future of gay life; what was once shocking is now taken for granted. A casual passer-by on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, for example, can watch go-go dancers clad in the most revealing of briefs, while young pierced and tattooed queers walk by, largely disinterested. Rather like individuals, all cultures have complex and multiple identities, and change often means the incorporation rather than the replacement of old forms. During my most recent visits to that strip – one of the few remaining clearly gay zones in the United States – I saw three generations of queer life, from an elegant lesbian couple walking their matching dogs, to young guys, uneasily still in their teens, half-cruising for money and opportunity. ‘Ghettoes’ function as sites for both nostalgia and initiation, and if places like West Hollywood, the Castro and Chelsea have traditionally functioned as spaces to which young queers come from rural and small-town America, they are now increasingly playing this role internationally.
Major changes in the understanding of homosexuality reflect larger social and cultural shifts. One example: it is likely that the invention and spread of the internet has changed patterns of sexual behaviour as widely as did the contraceptive pill forty years ago. In both cases the changes were neither foreseen nor intended, and in both cases the impact of new technologies was partly dependent on political and ideological forces. Memory has suddenly become a major topic in queer circles: in 2012 thousands of people signed up to websites for ‘lost gay’ Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland and so on, while in Brussels a special colloquium was organised to remember the ‘homosexual militancy’ of the 1950s.
In some ways, these moves grew out of a number of celebrations of the fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in 2009. A raid in June 1969 on the Stonewall Inn, a well-known homosexual bar in Greenwich Village, New York, provoked a number of patrons and passers-by to fight back against the police, triggering several nights of riots that have since been mythologised as the founding event of the contemporary gay movement. Much has been made of the coincidence that the riots took place on the eve of Judy Garland’s funeral, and Garland’s character in The Wizard of Oz probably gave rise to the euphemism ‘friends of Dorothy’ to describe homosexual men. In 1988 Edmund White declared Stonewall to be ‘the turning point of our lives’; certainly the years between 1969 and 1972 represented a major tipping point in homosexual awareness and assertion across the western world.
Books from the early period of the gay movement are now being reissued, and ‘vintage’ (that is, pre-AIDS) pornography is now widely dispersed through the internet, and in some cases has become collectable. Even so, there are still very few ways in which young people discovering their homosexuality have the means to learn much of the history of their sexuality, and of the ways in which homosexuals have been regarded historically.
Maybe there is something about forty years, which marks the coming to adulthood of a third generation since Stonewall; whatever the reason, I find myself talking increasingly with far younger people, for whom my memories help make sense of their history. Intergenerational friendships have their own particular challenges, involving as they do implicit assumptions about motives and hierarchy; older men, in particular, are assumed to want sex, while younger women and men are usually thought to be cultivating their elders for financial or career advancement.
One of the greatest pleasures in writing my latest book has been the discovery that we learn from each other, and often in ways that seem counter-intuitive.
Maybe, too, there is a desire amongst younger queers to find an equivalent to the family-tree version of history that is so strong in ethnic communities.
This is an edited version of the introduction to Dennis Altman’s book The End of the Homosexual?(UQP), available now.
Dennis Altman will be giving a Lunchbox/Soapbox address, The End of the Homosexual?, at the Wheeler Centre this Thursday 12 September at 12.45pm.
As the federal election looms on Saturday, we thought it was a good time to look back on our political events earlier in the year, for reflections on the state of our politics.
In our Australian Democracy 2013 event, James Button was one of several prominent Australians who spoke about the challenges and opportunities of democracy right now.
He spoke candidly about the problems he sees with our democracy – which he located with the growing divide between the ‘inside world’ of Canberra and the ‘outside world’ of the general public.
‘That inside world has stopped talking to the outside world,’ Button said. ‘The consequences of that are very serious.’
He talked about the decline of the quality of Australia’s MPs, over time – and the corresponding shrinking of the pool of Australian society that MPs are drawn from. Farmers, teachers, doctors and the like are now uncommon.
‘You work in an electoral office, become an advisor, and if you play your cards right, you eventually get preselection for a seat.’
Button said that the problem with that system is its internal focus. People are focused on getting preselection, so things are settled inside the party, rather than taking policy debates into the open.
‘The ALP no longer conducts its debates in public as it used to do. One consequence of that is that issues are dropped on the public without debate – like the mining tax and media law reforms.’
The number of political staffers has hugely increased. ‘You don’t hear much about them, but they’re very important. They’re the people who advise ministers.’
Button estimates that they’ve ‘probably doubled’ in numbers.
We hear even less about the role of the public service in the political process, but Button emphasised the importance of their role – and of institutional experience within the public service.
‘Australia’s excellent response to the GFC was the public servants who remembered the lessons of the 1991 recession and gave advice to the government to do particular things.’
‘They had the corporate memory.’
Button believes that the decline in the quality of our politics is reflected in our media, where the pool of experience is also shrinking.
The cuts to mainstream media organisations mean that they don’t have the funds for serious policy work – or the interest either.
‘Weirdly, both the media and politicians are obsessed with opinion polls – and that’s part of the dance.’
Button cited the examples of business’s fierce opposition to the ALP’s carbon price in 2009, and the fact their public campaign resulted in many of the changes they wanted made. The hostile campaign against the mining tax resulted in a backdown, too.
‘Our academics, with some notable exceptions have switched off from being involved and engaged with complex, difficult areas of public policy,’ said Button. ‘It’s a longstanding problem.’
Button concluded with the reflection that even when politicians have had the bravery to back unpopular policies, they haven’t backed them.
‘Julia Gillard did a very fine job on the carbon tax, but they’ve walked away from it. They never speak about it now, because it’s unpopular.’
‘You have to do unpopular things sometimes in politics.’
Above: Watch the full video of Australian Democracy in 2013.
She was a political journalist until her retirement in late 2005, after five years writing and editing Webdiary on the Sydney Morning Herald’s website. She has also worked for the Age, the Canberra Times, the Courier Mail and A Current Affair.
Margo was Phillip Adams’ Canberra Babylon journo on Late Night Live for five years. Margo has written two books: Off the Rails: The Pauline Hanson Trip (Allen & Unwin, 1999) and Not Happy, John! Defending our Democracy (Penguin, 2004, 2007).
She tells us how covering Pauline Hanson’s 1998 election campaign transformed her view of journalism, how she overcame her phobia about the ‘I’ word, and advises against going into a journalism career.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
I had a breakdown in my mid-twenties while lecturing in business law. During my recovery my sister, a reporter on Brisbane’s Courier Mail, suggested I write a travel piece for the paper. Two pieces about my recent trip to India were published, and on the back of that I wrote to the editor asking for a cadetship. The paper had decided to move away from employing school leavers and he put me on as a D grade journalist. Big luck.
What’s the best part of your job?
Seeking out and fostering new writing talent.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Succumbing to the vortex of virtual reality and forgetting to take a walk and enjoy nature.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing and journalism career so far?
Getting down and dirty in the real Australia on Pauline Hanson’s 1998 election campaign, which I covered full-time for more than a month. The experience was so confronting I wrote Off the Rails: The Pauline Hanson Trip (Allen & Unwin, 1999) as therapy. It also transformed my view of journalism, and convinced me that there were two Australias, neither of which could communicate with each other.
The experience heavily influenced my approach to Webdiary, the Sydney Morning Herald’s 2000-2005 experiment in online interactive journalism. I sought to facilitate civil conversation between Australians of vastly different backgrounds and opinions.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
In the 1980s the Sydney Morning Herald sent me to Mt Etna near Rockhampton to report on the controversy between a mining company and protesters trying to save a bat cave. Activists smuggled me to a cave at night, but we were sprung by a mining employee and threatened with prosecution for trespass. I asked my then chief-of-staff how to write the story since I had become a part of it, and he said a journalist should never use the ‘I‘ word and that I should report that ‘the writer‘ was threatened with arrest.
A decade later I had no choice but to use the ‘I’ word in writing the Hanson road trip book because her relationship with her press pack was central to the story. It was very painful and confronting to do so, but since then I invariably use the first person in my work. I have come to believe that personal transparency actually engenders trust in readers, not takes away from it. I also believe that the concept of objective or detached journalism is a convenient and untenable myth.
If you weren’t a journalist and writer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I deferred my final year of nursing studies this year to do journalism again after a break of seven years. My goal is to be a palliative care nurse.
There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?
In the 1970s I did a writing subject at the University of Queensland as part of my Arts Law degree with a double major in English literature. The idea was to submit assignments following the conventions of different genres. I did very, very badly because I tried to experiment within the genres. I was shattered and did not pursue further writing studies.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a journalist?
Don’t! The industry is in existential crisis. There are very few full-time jobs, and people in them are run ragged. Freelancers are invariably unpaid or underpaid. I am into citizen journalism, where people interested in reporting news and views do it for enjoyment and challenge.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Generally in a bookshop: I haven’t got into ebooks.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character (or figure), who would it be and why?
Jane Austen. I fell in love with her work at university and see every movie and TV adaptation. I’ve read several biographies, and am totally fascinated.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
The Grapes of Wrath. It blew my mind when I read it in Grade 11, and I feel it solidified and even influenced my political beliefs.
Margo Kingston is the editor and co-publisher of No Fibs, a citizen journalism website.
By Jacinta Le Plastrier
When Albert Camus died, he had been sidelined by his fellow left-wing intellectuals for his opposition to Algerian independence and his condemnation of Stalin’s gulags. Fifty-five years later, writes Jacinta Le Plastrier, his stance on both issues has withstood the assault of time far better than those of his contemporaries.
And the long overdue release of his final book, Algerian Chronicles, translated into English for the first time, reveals the fault-lines of Camus’s approach to his birth-country, in passionate reportage that spans the 1930s through to the 1950s.
Albert Camus published the final book of his lifetime, Algerian Chronicles, in Paris in 1958. The great writer’s final work – his own selection of his deeply haunted articles on his birth-country Algeria and the question of its independence − was met by an almost complete critical silence. That silence continued to reverberate following his early death two years later.
The reason for this public disdain was twofold. Camus had been traumatically sidelined by other European-based left-wing hommes engages such as Jean-Paul Sartre, not just for his opposition to Algerian independence, but for his condemnation of Stalin’s gulags.
Fifty-five years later, Camus’s passionate discourse − and his almost solitary intellectual and activist stance, on both issues − has withstood the assault of time far better than his contemporaries. In the light of this, the long-overdue, full English translation of Algerian Chronicles is presciently relevant.
‘Dismissed or disdained in 1958, Algerian Chronicles has a new life in 2013, a half-century after the independence Camus so feared,’ writes editor Alice Kaplan in her introduction to this new edition. ‘The book’s critique of the dead end of terrorism − the word appears repeatedly, with respect to both sides of the conflict − its insistence on a multiplicity of cultures; its resistance to fundamentalisms, are as meaningful in contemporary Algeria as in London or New York. Camus’s refusal of violence speaks to Algerians still recovering from the civil war of the 1990s – “the dirty wars”, or “black decade” that resulted in an estimated 100,000 civilian deaths.’
In Algerian Chronicles, which gathers his reportage on his birth-country from the 1930s to the 1950s, Camus meshes the machinery of journalistic ‘on-the-grounds’ reportage with what would become his literary hallmark: an austere styling of language whose results are both exquisite and intensely humane.
In the book’s first series, Camus describes the ‘misery’ of the mountain-based Kabyle community, which had suffered a cruel famine in 1939. He writes, ‘The reader will have seen, at least, that misery here is not just a word or a theme for meditation. It exists. It cries out in desperation. What have we done about it, and do we have the right to avert our eyes? I am not sure that anyone will understand.’
Eighteen months after Algerian Chronicles was published – breaking Camus’s self-imposed, almost-complete public silence of 29 months on Algeria – the writer was dead. He died, aged 46, in an auto accident, alongside his publisher Michel Gallimard, who was driving the car.
The final words of his preface to Chronicles, characterised by his customary astringent order, would become valedictory: ‘This is my testimony, and I shall have nothing more to say.’
The absence of the book’s English publication until now speaks to the terrible sentence of silence that was then imposed on this work. This may surprise those who have grown up familiar with his famous writings, such as The Stranger and The Plague.
Camus’s final few years were lived in a form of exile, from both the country of his birth and his Paris-based community of writer-activists. This was despite his being awarded the Nobel Prize laureateship in 1957 − the second-youngest writer after Kipling to have received it.
Camus was denounced within the Algerian milieu, by both colonialists and members of the independence movement. When he last visited Algiers, in 1956, to helm talks discussing a possible French−Algerian solution to the country’s civil conflict, ultracolonialists in the crowd called for his death.
In Chronicles, Camus writes: ‘I know from experience that to say these things today is to venture into a no-man’s-land between hostile armies. It is to preach the folly of war as bullets fly. Bloodshed may sometimes lead to progress, but more often it brings only greater barbarity and misery.’
For 20 years, Camus maintained a consistent approach to Algeria, supporting full reparation for the Algerians and formal reforms that granted equality to both Algerians and French-Algerians (while maintaining a French-based government). His views had led to a virtual ‘exile’ when, following his articles on the ‘misery’ of Kabyle for a left-wing Algerian newspaper, Camus was blacklisted by the French government. He was forced to move to Paris in order to earn a livelihood. Camus’s stance on Algeria, then, was a long and chronically solitary one.
While waging that public silence, broken only by his Nobel speech and a single published letter to Encounter magazine, Camus is estimated to have personally intervened, via private letters of plea to French President René Coty, in 150 cases where Algerians were condemned to die after being charged for participation in pro-independence activities. He did not save all their lives, but he did save a number. Camus intimated, in press interviews around the Nobel Prize, that he had acted on behalf of the Algerian cause in ways that were not known. He did not reveal explicit details of his actions though. His silence, says Kaplan, was being read as ‘a metonymy for cowardice’.
Kaplan is clear about the fault-lines of Camus’s approach to the Algerian issue. When he returned to the country in 1956, the place was unfamiliar after his long ‘exile’. The post-colonial academe attacked his representation of Arab characters. I read Chronicles close on the heels of Camus’s final, incomplete, semi-autobiographical novel, The First Man (published in English in 1995, one year after France). The novel, which narrates his impoverished yet sunlit childhood in Algiers, is evidence that Camus’s own blood, and its Algerian spawning, pulses intimately within the lines of his reportage. Camus also came from the disentitled: he was born into the dirt-poorest pied noir community of Algiers. His father died in the first year of Camus’s life, in World War I and on French soil. This was the household of Camus’s childhood and adolescence: a mother, deaf, almost mute, and illiterate; an uncle, intellectually disabled; and his grandmother, domineering, tyrannical.
Camus described his motivation on the Algerian issue during the presentation in Algiers in 1956. ‘I thought it possible, and even considered it my duty, to come before you to issue a simple appeal to your humanity, which in one respect at least might be able to calm tempers and bring together a majority of Algerians, both French and Arab, without asking them to relinquish any of their convictions … Let me say first − and I cannot emphasize this enough − that by its nature the appeal falls outside the realm of politics …’
‘I am only here under the pressure of the situation and the way I sometimes conceive of my profession as a writer.’
Algerian Chronicles, ed. Alice Kaplan, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, is published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (2013).
Jacinta Le Plastrier is a Melbourne-based writer, poet and editor. She is blog editor at Cordite Poetry Review, publisher at John Leonard Press, and is presently a Hot Desk Fellow at the Wheeler Centre. She blogs at www.jacintaleplastrierofficial.blogspot.com.
The Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships are designed to give writers space to work on their projects, and made possible by the generous support of the Readings Foundation. In 2013, twenty writers were offered a $1000 stipend and a workspace in the Wheeler Centre over a two month period.
Michelle Grattan is one of Australia’s most respected and awarded political journalists. She has been a member of the Canberra parliamentary press gallery for more than 40 years, during which time she has covered all the most significant stories in Australian politics.
As a former editor of the Canberra Times, Grattan was also the first female editor of an Australian daily newspaper. She is currently associate editor (politics) and chief political correspondent at The Conversation.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
Some articles in Broadside, which was a short-lived magazine which was about the Labor Party, and also an academic article on the Kooyong by election, which followed Menzies' retirement.
What’s the worst part of your job?
The worst part is there is always too much to get across adequately because we have to deal with so many specialised issues, and also journalism involves a lot of waiting around.
What’s been the most significant moment in your journalism career so far?
No one moment, just being able to observe at first-hand a whole lot of other people’s dramatic moments, like the dismissal for example.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about journalism?
The best advice was always to make one more phone call, and I’ve managed to forget the bad advice.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?
I’ll have to pass on that one. I’ve always resisted the temptation to Google myself, as I think that would be bad for one’s psyche.
If you weren’t a journalist, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
Probably being a farmer.
What’s more important for a budding journalist: experience or study?
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a journalist?
Realise that journalism these days is not the same as the rather romantic image that it’s had in the past, that it is quite a difficult road, persist but keep other options open by gaining a wide education.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Usually in a physical bookshop, occasionally online if I want something specific that I can’t get easily in a physical store.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
Some of the characters in Anna Funder’s All That I Am, because I found it a really powerful book and the lives they were forced to lead were so moving and difficult.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
No one book, I have read a lot of biography and I think that the stories of people’s life and work do influence you, not in one knockout sense, but more subtly.
By Hugh de Kretser
Whether it’s our treatment of asylum seekers or the current debate around free speech, we seem to be confused -about the notion of free rights for all. Australians care about human rights, but we’re also dangerously complacent about the lack of protections that exist – and conflicted on the question of who deserves human rights protection. Looking back into our rights history to examine today’s issues, Hugh de Kretser outlines a vision for stronger, universal protection of rights in Australia.
Australians care about human rights and making sure they are properly protected.
A major survey conducted as part of the National Human Rights Consultation (2009) confirmed that most Australians think human rights are important and a majority support stronger rights protections, including an Australian Human Rights Charter.
It also confirmed most Australian want to know more about human rights and they want both the government and the courts to protect rights.
But dig deeper and our support for human rights depends on who the humans are.
The survey asked 1200 randomly selected Australians whether the amount of protection given to some groups should be more, less or the same as it currently is.
About three quarters of respondents thought that the disabled, the elderly and people with a mental illness need more human rights protection than they currently get.
A slim majority thought that children and Indigenous Australians living in remote areas need more protection.
Less than a third thought gays and lesbians need more protection.
And more respondents thought asylum seekers need less human rights protection than more. In other words, there’s more community support for stripping back asylum seeker protections than there is for increasing them.
The results confirmed what many might intuitively suspect – that when it comes to rights protection, there is a hierarchy of sympathy in public opinion.
But more than that, there is also a perception that our rights aren’t threatened.
For many Australians, human rights violations are something that happens to other people in other places: either to people overseas in Syria, North Korea or the Congo; or to people living in very different life circumstances; in remote Aboriginal communities, detention centres, aged care facilities or psychiatric institutions.
Only 10% of survey respondents reported they had ever had their rights infringed in any way and only another 10% reported that someone close to them had their rights infringed.
This is good news for the 90% who say their rights haven’t been infringed. It should genuinely be celebrated – and it probably leads to the next survey finding, that 64% of people agreed that human rights in Australia are adequately protected.
This, I think, is plainly wrong.
Rights aren’t adequately protected in Australia
The perception that rights are adequately protected sits uncomfortably against:
• the large gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians
• the fact that Indigenous Australians are 15 times more likely to be in jail than non Indigenous Australians
• the 100,000 or so homeless people in Australia
• the fact that less than 10% of directors in the 200 largest publicly listed companies are women
• the fact that around 1 in 3 Australian women over 15 has experienced physical or sexual violence
• the even higher rates of sexual violence against women with cognitive disabilities – mental illness, acquired brain injury and intellectual disability
• the research showing Australians with foreign sounding surnames are less likely to secure job interviews
• the high rates of verbal and physical abuse and discrimination experienced by gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians
• the 1,000 or so children detained in immigration detention
I could go on.
We ran some figures comparing imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men with higher education enrolment.
Indigenous men between the ages of 18 and 34 are more likely to be in jail than enrolled in higher education (and that includes TAFE). In 2010, there were 4530 Indigenous men in this age group in jail – but only 3745 Indigenous men of any age enrolled in higher education.
Compare this with non-Indigenous men and the picture is dramatically different: 10,367 men in this age bracket in jail compared with around 380,000 non Indigenous men of any age in higher education – and that’s excluding international students.
While Indigenous imprisonment rates are getting worse, it is good to see improvements in the rate of Indigenous involvement in higher education.
Relative comfort on rights protections is nothing new.
Former Prime Minister Robert Menzies proclaimed in 1967 that ‘the rights of individuals in Australia are as adequately protected as they are in any other country in the world’. He meant what he said – as did other commentators who made similar statements.
With hindsight, we can look back and point to the gaping holes in these sentiments. The government policies until the late 1960s that caused the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families. The criminalisation of consensual homosexual sex. The White Australia policy. Entrenched institutional sexual discrimination. And the fact that, in 1967, it was perfectly legal to refuse to employ someone because of their race, religion or sex – because there were no anti-discrimination laws or equality protections in the constitution. (Except in progressive South Australia, which introduced the first racial discrimination laws in 1966.)
My father’s family are Dutch Burgher Sri Lankans – the descendants of Portuguese and Dutch colonial settlers who arrived in Sri Lanka in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and who are of mixed European and Sri Lankan descent.
The only reason my father’s family was able to immigrate to Australia in 1949 under the White Australia policy was by proving their European heritage – tracing our lineage back to the Dutch sailor Cornelis de Kretser in the 1600s.
But apparently the arrival of ‘European’ Sri Lankans with non-European appearance caused some consternation. In August 1951, the Department of Immigration issued guidelines to the Australian High Commission in Colombo which advised that it ‘should not authorise the entry of persons who are likely to cause adverse comment on arrival here or be restricted from landing by immigration officers at the ports, as being predominantly non-European in appearance’.
One of the best cases that shows how far we’ve come involved a Victorian pilot, Deborah Wardley, who applied in the late 1970s to become the first female pilot at Ansett.
Ansett refused her application. The general manager wrote : ‘Ansett has adopted a policy of only employing men as pilots. This does not mean that women cannot be good pilots, but we are concerned with the provision of the safest and most efficient air service possible. In this regard, we feel that an all-male pilot crew is safer than one in which the sexes are mixed.’
She challenged the refusal to employ her under (then) recently enacted Victorian anti-discrimination laws; she won and went onto a successful career.
So we can look back in hindsight and be shocked at these attitudes and the lack of protections.
But in a similar way, I have no doubt that in 40 or so years, Australians will look back on today’s society and think, What were they doing?
There was majority support for same-sex marriage yet neither major party supported it.
They locked up thousands of refugees fleeing persecution, arbitrary detention and torture in remote detention camps in Australia or outsourced the detention and rights abuses to former colonies in the Pacific.
They had one of the strongest economies in the world and yet income inequality was increasing, the gender pay gap was increasing and babies born to Aboriginal mothers died at twice the rate of other Australian babies.
The challenge for us, as human rights advocates, is how to broaden the realisation that while most Australians are doing well, there are some who aren’t.
The challenge is how to change ’human rights for some, but not others‘ to ‘human rights for all’.
Human rights issues impact on all of us, every day. Being stopped for a random breath test or receiving a parking or speed camera fine that reverses the presumption of innocence against the registered owner of a car are two minor, common examples or rights issues – where, I should say, the balance drawn on limiting rights is appropriate.
When we get old, many of us will get dementia. Rights issues then become more acute – what does the law say about when do we lose the ability to make our own decisions about how we spend our money, where we live and what medical treatment we receive? And about who makes decisions on our behalf when we do?
But while rights issues affect all of us, they affect some more than others – and in more intense ways.
I had a privileged upbringing: attending a private school and studying at Melbourne University.
I studied human rights in the abstract: studying the Holocaust as part of my arts degree and studying human rights law as part of my law degree.
I went on to work in one of the top corporate law firms where large corporate clients had almost limitless resources to get the best advice.
The law firm generously agreed, as part of its admirable commitment to pro bono work, to loan me for six months to work in community legal centre in Deer Park, in Melbourne’s West. This is where I got my real human rights education.
One of my first clients was a Roma – a gypsy and a real gentleman. He told me childhood stories of being moved, as he said, ‘from pillar to post’ wherever his family went – people complaining to the police about them and then being moved on. They never stayed in the one place for more than three months. He never received an education and as a consequence, he couldn’t read or write. He came to see me because his wife needed dialysis; he’d drive her to hospital several times a week, but couldn’t read the parking signs properly and repeatedly received parking fines.
Another client was a young man who was a heroin addict and ended up in jail, where he was bashed by prison guards. After he was released, I took a statement from him in his mother’s house about the bashing. I remember his mother crying as he told me what happened to him and how he’d now become a hardened criminal.
Other clients were victims of childhood sexual abuse; often I was the first man they ever told what had happened to them. They’d tell me how hard it was to trust people and live a normal life and how they overprotected their own children. One of them, whose stepfather had filmed the abuse, shared her fears that the images of her abuse were circulating on the internet – and how this impacted on her whenever a child pornography arrest aired on the news.
Other clients were victims of family violence or random street violence, or were struggling with debt issues, relationship breakdown or ill health.
I’d see these clients by day, and live my comfortable life at night and on the weekends – and it made me uncomfortable, which is a good thing. The experience perhaps reflects the reality of human rights protection in Australia. Rights, in practice are enjoyed by many of us but for some they aren’t.
For me, my immediate experiences working in a community legal centre brought home the lack of human rights protection in Australia.
For some, this experience is far more personal and comes through their own existence as person with a disability, a migrant or a victim of violence.
For others it comes through proximity to these people – caring for a relative with dementia, seeing a friend discriminated against, working in a sexual assault crisis centre.
We need to communicate this experience, through the media, through social media, through education, through volunteering, through forums like this to broaden the support for tackling these issues.
At my first national community legal centre conference in Hobart in 2003, I sat next to leading gay rights activist Rodney Croome at dinner. Rodney played a leading role in the campaign in the late 80s and early 90s to overturn Tasmanian laws that made consensual gay sex illegal – with a penalty of up to 21 years jail.
I’d read about the campaign’s successful complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee, which ruled that the laws violated international human rights protections.
I wanted to talk to him about his success in proving the unjust local laws violated international law. But he wanted to talk to me about how they won over public opinion in Tasmania. How over the course of their campaign they turned minority support into majority support through a mixture of education, advocacy – and the legal cases. How Tasmania is now leading Australia on legal protections against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Majority public support certainly makes rights protection easier.
But the protection of human rights shouldn’t have to rely on majority support.
Human rights tend to matter most when they lack majority support, whether it’s asylum seekers, people charged with terror offences or people in prison and our society as a whole is diminished when the rights of vulnerable minorities are undermined.
The key human rights treaties which bind Australia and over 160 other nations around the world embody the fundamental principle that rights are universal – they attach to all of us by reason of our being human, regardless of popular support.
These treaties stem from the landmark 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a document forged from the horrors of World War II where the Nazis treated the Jews as less than human.
The two key treaties enjoy bipartisan support: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Whitlam government signed them and the Fraser government ratified them; both steps were required to bind Australia.
These treaties and the rights set out in them are intended to place limits on government actions. They protect against popular will overriding the fundamental freedoms of a minorities.
Yet the treaties aren’t adequately incorporated into Australian law. International law doesn’t automatically become incorporated into domestic Australian law when we ratify a treaty. It needs to be implemented by legislation passed by the federal or state parliaments.
And the principal way to implement key international human rights is through a Human Rights Charter or Bill of Rights.
Unlike every other western nation, unlike the UK, Canada, the US and New Zealand, we have no legislative or constitutional bill of rights. Instead, we rely on a patchwork of individual pieces of legislation and judge made common law. And the patchwork has holes in it, with key rights like freedom of speech, privacy and freedom from arbitrary detention suffering from inadequate protection.
We have come a long way in protecting rights in Australia, but the advances in our rights protection didn’t come easily at the time. Yet, they are easily taken for granted now.
Today, it is clear that there is still inadequate rights protection for some groups – particularly where those groups don’t enjoy majority support.
I’m confident we’re seeing a positive evolution of rights protection in Australia. But if we want to realise the promise of human rights for not just some, but all, we need to do more.
How can we improve rights protections in Australia? We need better education about human rights, a stronger human rights culture within government and the broader community – and an enforceable Human Rights Charter or Bill of Rights.
This is an edited transcript of Hugh De Kretser’s Lunchbox/Soapbox address, given at the Wheeler Centre.
The Wheeler Centre Lunchbox/Soapbox addresses are hosted every Thursday at the Wheeler Centre, 12.45pm to 1.15pm. Admission is free, BYO lunch.
We share some of our favourite finds from around the internet this week.
Take a coffee break and have a long look at these eerily stunning images of 30 abandoned places from around the world – most of them caught in the process of being reclaimed by the natural world. (Though a few of them seem more the result of beautiful photography than intrinsic beauty.)
The internet has been buzzing with debate over Tony Abbott’s ‘women of calibre’ paid maternity leave plan. Eva Cox has asked whether feminist criticism of Abbott’s plan is personality rather than policy based. She believes that Abbott’s version of paid parental leave ‘meets so many traditional feminist demands’ and supports its basis that parenting leave is a workplace entitlement, rather than a form of welfare.
On Overland, Zoe Dattner takes a radically different point of view, arguing against the idea of paid maternity leave altogether, calling it ‘a toxic and potentially harmful idea’. She argues for employers to find ways to integrate children and family life into the workplace, rather than paying women off to go away and parent.
There’s a terrific interview with actor, writer and film-maker Rashida Jones in the current edition of The Believer, which touches on the changing movie business, roles for women, why she doesn’t want to date actors, her writing partnership with her best friend, making Celeste and Jesse Forever and growing up as the daughter of Quincy Jones.
I do think that if we’d made this film ten years ago, we wouldn’t have gone through so many machinations. Executives are so into their ‘quadrant language’ that they don’t know what to do with a movie that is romantic, and has some comedy, and is also a drama. You can’t have movies like Broadcast News anymore because they’re like, ‘We have a romantic comedy here… and we have a drama over here… and we don’t know where to put this.’
Is Oprah’s book club saving literature as a pursuit for the masses, or trivialising great novels – and patronising reluctant participants like Cormac McCarthy and Jonathan Franzen? A New Yorker article looks at the growth (and approach) of Oprah’s book club, and asks whether the quintessentially female mark of approval of an Oprah’s Book Club sticker on a book’s cover might scare away male readers. (As Franzen famously feared.)
she seized on the novel’s dedication page and, leaning forward, asked [Cormac McCarthy] gently, ‘Is this a love story to your son?’
It was the quintessential Oprah moment, the kind that made the Book Club thrive and her critics cringe. She was taking a novel about the end of the world, one that includes an image of a baby roasted on a spit, and making it palatable for talk-show television.
This short video, made by Canadian university students, delivers a sharply effective (and occasionally chilling) message about how advertising persistently casts women as the lesser sex – in highly sexualised terms. It then cleverly reverses the roles in some of the ads it shares, including a topless man in suspenders suggestively licking a lollipop, kneeling on the floor wearing knee socks. The violent advertising images for high-end brands are especially shocking – like the Jimmy Choo ad featuring a woman lolling in a car boot in the desert, while a man beside her digs a hole.
Warning: some of these images are disturbing.
By Joel Deane
People with disabilities – and the everyday challenges they face – have been in the spotlight over the past week, as the national Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) has dominated headlines and political coverage. For Joel Deane, the political is deeply personal: his daughter Sophie has Down Syndrome. Last week, he attended a public high school open day, looking for a high school for his daughter – and was sadly reminded that discrimination is alive and well in today’s Australia.
Social progress, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
For instance, we like to think that Australia is less racist than it was. Considering the heritage of terra nullius and the White Australia policy, there is some validity to that belief; after all, the Federation of Australia may have been founded on notions of egalitarianism and racism, but racism has since been superseded by multiculturalism. Still, none of that would have mattered to the four Indigenous Australians left standing by the side of the road by four taxis last week in Melbourne because of the colour of their skin.
The same applies to disabilities. We like to think that times have changed, that the institutions have been closed and people with a disabilities are no longer locked away from the world, but the truth is some are still living in institutions and hundreds of thousands are shut out of mainstream Australian life – treated as second-class citizens because they have a disability.
I don’t have a disability, my daughter Sophie does.
Sophie is 12. She was born with Down Syndrome; it hasn’t stopped her. She reads and writes, mucks around on the monkey bars, can be well behaved and badly behaved, runs like a billy goat, and is a budding photographer (her portrait of Julia Gillard was retweeted more than 400 times over the weekend).
Sophie will be ready for high school in 2015 and, according to all the professional advice we’ve received, should go to a mainstream school.
With that in mind, my wife Kirsten and I went to an open night at a high school in the north-eastern suburbs of Melbourne last Tuesday night. It was not an enjoyable excursion.
This is the email I sent to the principal, whom I will call Ms M, last Wednesday.
I’ve been advised not to name-and-shame the school for legal reasons. The reason why I’m abiding with that legal advice is that the soft-shoe discrimination my family experienced at that unmentionable high school is not unique, but endemic. It could be your local high school. I refer to that unmentionable school as Discrimination High.
Consider this email a complaint, a wake-up call, a shot across the bows; whatever you like. My wife, Kirsten, and I have three children. Our oldest two, Noah and Sophie, will be making the transition to secondary school in 2015. Sophie has Down syndrome.
Kirsten and I have been visiting secondary schools, looking for the right fit for both Noah and Sophie. To say your school was the wrong fit would be putting it politely.
Why is Discrimination High the wrong fit for our children? Let me count the ways. The first reason it’s the wrong fit is that only three out of 1300 students have a disability – that’s less than 0.3 per cent.
I found that figure surprising given the nearest primary feeder school … has a large number of students with disabilities. ‘Why aren’t there more students with disabilities?’ I wondered. Then I mentioned to two staff members that Sophie has Down Syndrome and had my question emphatically answered.
The automatic response from both staff members (and, in case you’re wondering, this is the second reason why Discrimination High is a big nyet) was, ‘Does she have funding?’ For parents, this is usually a red flag, telling us that the school sees students with a disability not as a part of the community they serve, but a drain on resources unless there’s a bucket of money hanging around the child’s neck.
For the record, Ms M, yes, Sophie does have funding, not that it’s any of your school’s business until she enrols (don’t panic, she hasn’t and won’t).
Kirsten and I then had a more in depth conversation with a staff member we were referred to who, according to our guide, was the authority on how Discrimination High handled students with a disability. This brings me to my third reason why Discrimination High is on my when-hell-freezes-over list of schools to send my children. This staff member spoke artfully, very artfully; finding new ways to tell us why our daughter was better off elsewhere.
She opened up by saying that Discrimination High was geared towards tertiary education (apparently tertiary education is verboten to people with a disability). She then said that Discrimination High was a mainstream school – emphasising mainstream, which made me wonder whether she thought Kirsten and I had contracted a learning delay (don’t worry, Down Syndrome isn’t contagious). On a serious note, by this stage your staff member had been made aware of the fact that our daughter already attended a mainstream school. The staff member then said, ‘You might be better going to a school with more community links’ … meaning outside mainstream education, employment and life. Community links! That, Ms M, was a stroke of genius – I’ve never heard ‘community links’ used euphemistically before. I was stunned to silence. I felt as though I should make a run for the car while I could, but was persuaded by Kirsten to stay and hear your address. So I did.
You know what, Ms M, your address didn’t make me feel better.
You spoke a great deal about the new buildings that the school has; and how you had the power to expel students; and how a school over in China had heard about how great Discrimination High was and wanted to partner with you; and how the Education Department kept coming out to visit and film because your school was so ace (OK, you didn’t say ace, you said something about excellence); and you spoke about multiculturalism.
Curiously, you didn’t talk much about the teachers that make the school work. The school buildings seemed to be more important than the school culture. And, in case you were wondering, I love the new basketball stadium, too, (it reminded me of High School Musical) but, seriously, talking about the millions invested doesn’t make Discrimination High sound like a private school; it makes it sound like a cashed-up-bogan school.
By the way, I liked the bit about multiculturalism; I really did, Ms M. But it also saddened me. Let me tell you why. What saddened me (OK, annoyed, too) was that your school was failing to roll out the same welcome mat to students with a disability. That’s why Discrimination High may be multicultural, but it is not diverse because its student body does not reflect the mainstream (there’s that word again) community of which people with a disability are very much a part.
Let me tell you another thing, Ms M, Discrimination High is failing to meet if not the letter of, then the spirit of, the Disability Discrimination Act. Ever heard of that law? I suggest you Google it.
Have a nice day.
Later that day I received an emailed reply from Ms M. She said she was disappointed I had ‘formed such a negative opinion of the school’ and invited me to visit Discrimination High’s website ‘for a more detailed outline of our college.’ No apology. No counter argument. No suggestion that there was anything worth talking about.
Legally, people can’t be discriminated against in Australia, but one thing I’ve learned as the parent of a child with a disability is that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
Joel Deane is a poet, speechwriter and novelist. His debut novel is The Norseman’s Song. He has worked as chief speech-writer for Victorian Premiers John Brumby and Steve Bracks.
Last night, the news broke that Margaret Thatcher – Britain’s first female prime minister (and the twentieth century’s longest serving one) – had died, aged 87, of a stroke.
‘Margaret Thatcher succeeded against all the odds,’ said serving British prime minister David Campbell, on hearing the news. ‘As our first woman Prime Minister, She didn’t just lead our country, she saved our country. I believe she’ll go down as the greatest British peace-time prime minister.’
Australian prime minister Julia Gillard tactfully offered her condolences, acknowledging Thatcher’s history-making achievement as Britain’s first female PM and recognising her ‘strength of conviction’.
‘Margaret Thatcher arrested the decline of Britain and gave the British people renewed confidence,’ said opposition leader Tony Abbott. ‘She ensured the British people no longer simply dwelt on the glories of the past but could enjoy a strong and prosperous future.’
In death as in life, her legacy is divisive.
In areas of England and Scotland, partiers are celebrating with champagne and songs of ‘ding dong, the witch is dead’. In a party of over 300 people in Glasgow, the ABC reports that ‘anti-capitalist campaigners shouted, “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie” while the crowd replied “dead, dead, dead”.’
In keeping with the tributes being paid to Thatcher’s conviction and ideological strength, a tongue-in-cheek (we assume) e-petition has been launched to privatise her funeral.
In keeping with the great lady’s legacy, Margaret Thatcher’s state funeral should be funded and managed by the private sector to offer the best value and choice for end users and other stakeholders. The undersigned believe that the legacy of the former PM deserves nothing less and that offering this unique opportunity is an ideal way to cut government expense and further prove the merits of liberalised economics Baroness Thatcher spearheaded.’
In the Guardian, Sunny Hundal applauds the move. ‘Surely the serious point behind this petition is to ask how far ideologues are willing go. Wouldn’t Thatcher prefer the first privatised funeral instead of a state one? After all, why go out on a state subsidy?’
In fact, Thatcher will be given a ceremonial funeral, one step below a state one (and the same level as that given to Princess Diana).
The Guardian takes a balanced look at her legacy, and five areas in which she imprinted her personal legacy most: the Falklands war of 1982, the dethroning of trade union power, economic policy and the New Right, the poll tax, and her ‘strident’ relationship with Europe.
The paper’s editorial concludes:
She was an exceptionally consequential leader, in many ways a very great woman. There should be no dancing on her grave but it is right there is no state funeral either. Her legacy is of public division, private selfishness and a cult of greed, which together shackle far more of the human spirit than they ever set free.
Respected conservative political commentator Andrew O’Sullivan says that he owes his ‘entire political obsession’ to Thatcher, the one person in British politics who refused to accept an ‘insane’, largely government-run, Britain that he likens to ‘the dark side of the moon’ in its gloom and decay.
I was a teenage Thatcherite, an uber-politics nerd who loved her for her utter lack of apology for who she was. I sensed in her, as others did, a final rebuke to the collectivist, egalitarian oppression of the individual produced by socialism and the stultifying privileges and caste identities of the class system.
Sullivan’s university classmate John Cassidy has written his take on growing up in Thatcher’s Britain for the New Yorker. ‘To Britons of my generation, she wasn’t merely a famous Conservative politician, a champion of the free market, and a vocal supporter of Ronald Reagan: she was part of our mental furniture, and always will be.’
‘Every few months, I’d go down to London to protest,’ he writes. ‘Walking around Hyde Park and bellowing “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie – Out! Out! Out!” was good for the spirit, but it didn’t make the blindest bit of difference.’
When we think about cities of the future, we think about edgy architecture and technological breakthroughs. But what we should be thinking about is how to plan for a Melbourne that seems likely to be four degrees warmer by 2080. Unfortunately, Victoria – along with Brisbane and New South Wales – has weakened controls on planning for climate change, even in the face of recent fires and floods.
‘If we don’t prepare well, people will die,’ writes Michael Green in this sobering report. ‘At the moment, we are not planning well.’
By Michael Green
The sky was black on February 4, 2011, and by late afternoon, Melbourne was teeming with rain. Over the clatter of the storm, John Richardson noticed the wail of car alarms and sirens.
Richardson – who leads Red Cross’s disaster preparedness program – had only just returned from Brisbane, where he’d been doing recovery work in the aftermath of the devastating floods. He had returned to his home in Elwood so he could drop off his daughters that morning, the first day of school.
At 7.30 pm, Richardson and his family walked into their street, which runs parallel to the Elwood Canal, and saw water rising toward them, up the road. They learned from a neighbour that high tide was due at 2 am, and that more thunderstorms were predicted before then.
They decided to evacuate. Richardson asked his daughters what they wanted to take: his older daughter chose a blanket she’d had since she was a baby, the younger one picked her skateboard and a giant teddy bear. As they were leaving, she burst into tears and asked, ‘Are we going to see our house again?’
Forget driverless electric vehicles, forget telecommuting from arty cafes, forget idyllic renderings by landscape architects. Forget vertical gardens.
In 2080, Melbourne’s future is in Leeton, western New South Wales.
Leeton is 550 kilometres west of Sydney, and the climate there is hot and dry – it’s about four degrees hotter than Melbourne on average, and it receives a third less rain.
This is CSIRO’s ‘analogue township model’: a way for people to understand immediately how our climate could change. But the analogy only goes so far. Lower rainfall and hotter days are just the unpleasant backdrops for the biggest risks we face: droughts, heat waves and bushfires; floods, storm surges and rising tides.
Last December, the state Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability, Professor Kate Auty, issued her Climate Change Foundation Paper, in preparation for the State of the Environment Report, to be released this year.
Here are a few points: global emissions are tracking higher than the worst-case scenario in the last IPCC report; each decade since the 1950s has been warmer than the last; and disaster relief and recovery cost Victorians nearly five times as much between 2009 and 2012 than it did a decade earlier.
‘In Australia we are vulnerable,’ Auty concluded. ‘In Victoria our seaboard, our biodiversity, our infrastructure are all at risk. Native species and agricultural production are both exposed. The risk of extreme events is elevated.’
‘Impacts cascade and compound … To read them is to be deeply concerned.’
An intense storm can cut off communications, release sewage, and damage roads and houses. And in turn, it can send businesses broke, and render people sick and stuck at home. During heat waves, we can lose power – and therefore, air conditioning, refrigeration and phones – and that causes food spoilage, heat stroke and premature deaths.
The paper notes that if ‘the Eureka Tower in Melbourne lasts as long as the Royal Exhibition Building (1880) has already, it will have to deal with the climate of the year 2144’.
Planning for a city’s future involves many interconnected things: our food, water, power, waste and transport, our offices, homes, parks and gardens. Most broadly, it considers health and equity – the distribution of our ghettos and our Grollos.
It is not possible anymore to consider these things – to consider the present or future – without considering climate change. If we don’t prepare well, people will die. At the moment, we are not preparing well.
The Victorian government last year scrapped a requirement to plan for 0.8 metres sea level rise by the end of the century (except for new ‘greenfields’ developments). The Minister for Planning, Matthew Guy, described his measure as ‘based on common sense’.
The previous government’s ‘extreme controls’ had ‘locked many towns out of being able to grow sensibly,’ he said.
Professor Barbara Norman, chair of urban and regional planning at University of Canberra, says all three eastern states have weakened their controls on planning for climate change.
‘If you have flexibility in policy and flexibility in process then you really don’t have planning at all,’ she says. ‘In the context of climate change, it means you open the door too widely for development on land that could be subject to environmental risks: to coastal inundation, extreme fire risk and floods.’
One of the biggest risks, Norman says, is a ‘coincidence of events’. In this year’s Brisbane flood, rising rivers combined with a king tide to create a disastrous inundation.
‘We are not managing the impacts of current weather now, let alone being prepared for what climate change might bring,’ she says.
‘We need better discussions between scientists, planners and the emergency services to analyse those scenarios. What could be the consequences? What does that mean for planning today, and the next five years?’
Within the next two weeks, the Victorian government will table its climate adaptation plan in parliament. If its update on climate science – released in March 2012 – is any guide, we shouldn’t expect much. That document devoted only two-and-a-half pages to climate modelling and to the state’s future climate, and drew largely on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s now outdated 2007 report.
A more up-to-date appraisal would have looked like the World Bank’s report from late last year, called Turn down the heat, which combined a review of recent climate science with analysis of the likely risks and impacts.
It stated that even if all nations fulfil their pledges to reduce emissions, we’re still on track for 3.5 to 4˚C warming by the end of the century. ‘The longer those pledges go unmet, the more likely a 4˚C world becomes’, it said.
And exactly what does a 4˚C world mean? ‘Extreme heat waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.’ All of which adds up to this: ‘there is no certainty that adaptation to a 4˚C world is possible’.
For citizens and governments alike, mitigating global warming – reducing carbon dioxide emissions – is inseparable from adaptation, because adaptation alone is not feasible. ‘The focus absolutely has to be on mitigation,’ Norman says, ‘because we are not going to be able to survive in a four-degree world, so far as I can tell’.
And yet, Minister Guy’s 111-page discussion paper Melbourne – let’s talk about the future includes the word ‘climate’ only four times. It refers vaguely to ‘a changing climate’, but not to climate change. This document will feed into the new metropolitan planning strategy.
‘In Victoria, climate change is missing in action,’ Norman says. ‘Whatever your views are, the solution is not to sweep it under the carpet. We have to deal with it, and we have to plan for it.’
Good planning, she adds, requires transparency and accountability, but also, a link to budgets. Given the seriousness of the issue – one where many lives are at stake, here and now – a good adaptation plan will include specific measures, costings and timelines. It will set about strengthening natural barriers, investing intelligently in engineered systems, buying back the land most at risk, and educating citizens to deal with some risks themselves.
It will focus on measures that mitigate climate change while also adapting: low-energy retrofits for low-income households; expanded public transport for the outer suburbs; more shade and open spaces to reduce the heat trapped in our city.
It will steer away from maladaptations, such as desalination plants and the spread of air conditioning, which give temporary comfort at the cost of future pain. And it will do these things immediately.
If only we could rely on the Minister’s common sense.
On the night of February 4, 2011, the forecast second wave of thunderstorms passed by Melbourne. The floodwaters receded before they reached the Richardsons’ home. While thousands of other residents weren’t so lucky, the full coincidence of events, as Norman puts it, did not coincide – this time.
Even so, the storm resulted in insurance claims of $384 million across the city. This year, after another summer of flooding and extreme weather, insurers have hiked their Australian premiums, driven by higher costs for reinsurance. Last week, the Age reported ‘some residents of Frankston, bordering Carrum Swamp to the east, have been asked to pay at least $5000 more for flood coverage’.
Elwood was built on the Southern Swamp. The construction of the canal began in 1889, but before long, the developers’ dreams of a Venetian waterway had been replaced by a muddy, smelly ‘plague canal’.
If the tide is coming in, a rush of water has no place to go. The land is low-lying – vulnerable to sea-level rise, storm surges and flash flooding.
It is also vulnerable to infill development and poor planning. ‘In the past when it has flooded, the catchment has been fairly permeable,’ Richardson says. ‘Now as more and more houses are bowled over and flats and apartments put on them, that is decreasing the permeability. And that only increases the potential for flooding.’
On the night of the floods, once his wife and daughters had evacuated, Richardson went out into the street. He checked on his neighbour Pat, who is in her eighties. ‘It’s a reasonably tight-knit community – we run street parties and stuff like that – which is really good because we knew who was here and who might need some help,’ he says.
The next day, he went door-to-door and handed out information on flood recovery. A few weeks later, he and his neighbours held a barbecue for people from surrounding streets. In the months that followed, residents established the Elwood Floods Action Group. The members meet once a month at the St Kilda RSL. They held a large community forum and attend local fetes. The group’s website includes local history and safety information, as well as a compilation of citizens’ suggestions for flood mitigation. There is a map with projections of the flooding risk associated with sea level rise and storm surges.
If our governments were to take climate adaptation seriously, this is the kind of neighbourhood they would be encouraging. American sociologist Eric Klinenberg studied the impacts of the 1995 heat wave in Chicago – the natural disaster that has killed the most people in the country’s history. In a recent article for the New Yorker, he described Englewood and Auburn Gresham, adjacent suburbs on the ‘hyper-segregated South Side of Chicago’. Both had similar proportions of elderly residents and high rates of poverty, crime and unemployment. But during the heat wave Englewood had one of the highest death rates, and Auburn Gresham, one of the lowest.
Auburn Gresham, it turned out, was the kind of place where ‘residents walked to diners and grocery stores. They knew their neighbours. They participated in block clubs and church groups.’ As the heat wore on, people knocked on each other’s doors. In Englewood, older people were apprehensive about leaving home.
‘During the severe heat waves that are likely to hit Chicago and other cities in the near future,’ Klinenberg said, ‘living in a neighbourhood like Auburn Gresham is the rough equivalent of having a working air-conditioner in every room.’
Richardson says many Elwood locals have been calling for new infrastructure investment, to cope with more intense deluges. ‘That’s all well and good for the long term. But what happens if it floods again tomorrow?’
We are already experiencing weather extremes more often, and on a warming planet, they will only get worse. Left alone, this is the future of Melbourne. If our urban planning system does anything at all, it should be doing something about this.
‘We’re looking at a completely new climate paradigm,’ Richardson says. ‘We used to seriously flood here once every 25 years. If that’s changing, what does that mean for people?’
This is the last in a three-part series of articles by Michael Green, exploring Ideas for Melbourne in three hot-button areas: homelessness, racism, and this week, planning for the city of the future.
Michael Green is a freelance journalist who writes about environmental, social and community issues. He has been published in the Big Issue, Meanjin and Overland. Michael also has a weekly spot in the Age, where he writes on sustainable living.
Our Ideas for Melbourne events web series, by journalist Michael Green, explores three topics that loom large in local debates, each Wednesday for three weeks. Last week he explored homelessness through the lens of a life-changing response to a Big Issue article.
Today, Michael reports on the investigation into the death of a young Ethiopian man whose body was retrieved from the Maribyrnong River a year and a half ago, just over a day after being released from police custody. Though the assistant police commissioner and the homicide squad had declared the investigation ‘very thorough’ and ‘first class’ at the time, last week it was revealed as woefully inadequate, at best.
Michael also delves into allegations of constant police harassment of African-Australian men – and this week’s settlement of a racial discrimination case with Victoria Police, lodged by six young men when they were teenagers. ‘It’s not about one police officer,’ said one of the men, Daniel Haile-Michael, ‘it’s about changing a whole system’.
By Michael Green
Last week, the State Coroner began an inquest into the death of a young man whose body was found in the Maribyrnong River. The hearing didn’t make it halfway.
On Friday the coroner, Ian Gray, suspended it, directed police to reinvestigate on his behalf, and requested that a more senior detective lead that search.
It is already over a year-and-a-half since Michael Atakelt disappeared. It will be many months yet before his family and friends learn more about what happened to him. After a week of public evidence, only one thing was apparent: the investigation by the Footscray police was woefully inadequate, at best.
Atakelt was 22 years old when he went missing on a Sunday evening, June 26, 2011. His body was spotted by a fisherman, and retrieved from the Maribyrnong River in Ascot Vale, eleven days later.
Overland Journal contacted me in early August 2011 and asked me to write about the case. The editor said that while the details were unclear, Atakelt seemed ‘to have died either in, or directly after being released from, police custody’.
Before long, I learned the situation is not so simple, the institutional violence not so overt. In the early hours of the Saturday morning – more than a day before he disappeared – Atakelt was held in the Melbourne Custody Centre for drunkenness and then released without incident.
But the facts are still far from clear. The coroner heard from crucial witnesses who had not previously been interviewed, and about whole avenues of enquiry that were not followed. The most glaring error was this: the police brief said Atakelt had likely entered the Maribyrnong River near Smithfield Bridge, approximately four kilometres downstream from where his body was recovered.
On the fourth day of the inquest, Sergeant George Dixon from the water police gave evidence that it was ‘very unlikely’ Atakelt’s body had entered the river near Smithfield Bridge. He said that although the river is tidal in its lower reaches, the body could only have entered the river ‘a very short distance’ downstream from where it was found; it was more likely to have entered the river upstream, possibly as far as two kilometres.
Dixon has been in the water police since 1986 and he gave evidence for almost a whole day, about currents, tides, water flows and body recovery. Yet the investigator, Detective Senior Constable Tim McKerracher, had not spoken to him before the hearing began.
It was an extraordinary omission. But even so, you shouldn’t need three decades working on the water to form a hunch on which way a river flows. The Footscray police had not looked into the possibility that Atakelt entered the river upstream of where he was found.
The sergeant’s evidence cut the previous investigation adrift. The barristers clutched at improbable new theories until it became clear that there was no sure footing from which to continue at all.
Atakelt arrived in Australia in 2006, from Ethiopia. He was from the Tigray ethnic group, who live in the country’s north and in Eritrea.
A week after his body was found, over 250 people from several African-Australian communities attended a public meeting in North Melbourne. It was fronted by assistant commissioner Stephen Fontana, who was then responsible for the north-west metro area.
Among the speakers he heard that day were many young men who complained of constant harassment by police; and Atakelt’s mother, Askalu Tela, who said Footscray police hadn’t taken her missing person report for three days, despite repeated visits and phone calls.
Shortly afterwards, several young people started a group called Imara Advocacy, to help them speak out on issues such as racialised policing. When the inquest was suspended, one of the founders, Reem Yehdego said the community had been ‘demanding an independent and comprehensive investigation from the moment Michael Atakelt’s body was found’.
On Monday, I joined a swarm of journalists outside the Federal Court, where six young men had just settled a racial discrimination case with Victoria Police. It is five years since they first lodged the claim with the Australian Human Rights Commission, when they were all teenagers. They say the police regularly stopped them around Flemington and North Melbourne for no legitimate reason, and assaulted and racially taunted them.
Despite the settlement, Victoria Police denies the allegations and maintains that the teens were stopped for legitimate policing reasons. But it has agreed to a public review of its cross-cultural training and the way officers deal with ‘field contacts’.
It also agreed to release documents prepared for the case. One document – statistical evidence based on police data – shows that young African-Australian men in the area were policed out of all proportion: they were two-and-a-half times more likely to be stopped and searched, even though they committed relatively fewer crimes than young men of other ethnic backgrounds. Before the cameras, one of the men, Daniel Haile-Michael, said the courts alone wouldn’t be sufficient to put an end to racial profiling. ‘It’s going to take all Australians and the media and huge community support to get these changes to happen.’
An ABC journalist pressed him on why he’d settled the case, if police had really assaulted him. ‘I myself have been beaten up,’ he said, ‘but it’s not a personal thing. We understand it’s a systemic issue and that’s why we’re trying to address it in a systemic way. It’s not about one police officer, it’s about changing a whole system.’
In the police force, the system starts at the top. Chief Commissioner Ken Lay had been subpoenaed to give evidence in the racial discrimination case, but when it settled, he was excused. ‘The Police Commissioner is off the hook,’ said Justice Shane Marshall, to the amusement of the court.
Later, despite the statistics, Lay dismissed the idea that racial profiling is a problem within the force. He told the Age: ‘I do not believe our members would identify people and harass or continually check them simply because of their ethnicity.’
The case of Michael Atakelt goes just as high. In December 2011, Assistant Commissioner Fontana attended a second public meeting in North Melbourne. He assured the large gathering that the brief prepared for the coroner was ‘a very thorough investigation’ and that he had ‘total confidence’ in the officer who prepared it.
At the same meeting, Detective Sergeant Sol Solomon, from the homicide squad, said he had overseen the investigation and that it was ‘first class’ and ‘all possible leads have been explored’. Later that month, Fontana repeated the same claim to me, over the phone: ‘We have had closer oversight of this particular case than we have of others,’ he said. ‘The homicide squad were involved all the way through, in terms of a very close supervision, as were the Ethical Standards [Department].’
At the inquest, as I watched the police investigation unravel, it was difficult to believe those words could have been true – or if so, to accept what it implied about the quality of our detectives.
Worst of all, it was difficult to believe the investigation would have been so poor if it were me who had disappeared instead.
Something has gone badly wrong, whether wilfully or negligently. And because of that, Atakelt’s family and friends may never find out how and why he died.
Michael Green is a freelance journalist who writes about environmental, social and community issues. He has been published in the Big Issue, Meanjin and Overland, who first asked him to cover the Michael Atakelt case, a year and a half ago. Michael also has a weekly spot in the Age.**
Next week, Michael Green will explore urban planning and Melbourne’s future.
He’s pretty popular.
And he currently predicts a nine-in-ten chance of an Obama victory.
A former sports statistician, Silver accurately predicted the outcome of 49 of the 50 states and all 35 senate races in the 2008 election – using pure numbers as his tools.
In his final estimate, he gave Obama a 91 percent chance of winning, estimating the Electoral College tally at 313-225 and the popular vote at 51-48 Obama.
Silver argued on The Colbert Report recently that his methodology is really quite simple. ‘People treat it like it’s Galileo, something heretical,’ he said. ‘There are many things that are much more complicated than looking at the polls and taking an average and counting to 270, right?’
Silver’s huge hit rate isn’t explained just by his followers, though. (And by the way, some of those followers have admitted that they’re not simply seduced by his way with numbers, but are Obama supporters, comforted by his consistent predictions that their man will win.) Silver’s critics read his blog religiously too. Some claim that his model is wrong, while other believe that you can’t predict an election by math alone.
‘I do understand that math can be ironclad,’ said Jonah Goldberg at the LA Times. ‘But I like to think that people are different, more open to reason, and that the soul – particularly when multiplied into the complexity of a society – is not so easily number-crunched.’
It’s a clash between those who believe that numbers don’t lie – and can tell the full story – and others who believe that numbers don’t allow for the twists, turns and inconsistencies of human nature. And that’s why some are calling this ‘the Moneyball election’.
‘In a way this is a perfect test case of the Michael Lewis Moneyball hypothesis,’ said James Fallows at the Atlantic. ‘Apart from Silver’s own background as a sports-stats analyst, we have an exceptionally clear instance of people judging from their experience, their ‘bones’, their personal instinct, etc that things are going one way (like veteran scouts saying that a prospect ‘looks like a Big Leaguer’), while data (on-base efficiencies in one case, swing-state polls in another) point in the opposite direction.’
Today, Adam Gopnik continued on the theme for the New Yorker’s blog, clearly outlining the pro and anti Silver arguments.
‘What [Silver and co are] saying is that you can look at much, much less evidence, but be confident in what it tells you just because you are confident that the future will be like the past – that polling averages, properly adjusted, are a nearly infallible guide to the results of elections. The pro-pundit class is saying, echoing those scouts and pros, that there are just too many variables – too much uncertainty with tens of millions of individuals acting according to the whims and moods and strictures of the moment – to think that this is so. As with ballplayers, so with politicians, the pros say: only a seasoned and practiced eye can suss out, exactly, the tools of each campaign – who they reach, what they say, how they react – and get the right answer. It’s a gut-level thing, they say, and they point, not unreasonably, to the many cases where polls are wrong, missing the point that, on the whole, they’re right.
There’s a lot riding on this election – for America and the world, yes, but also for the way that elections are reported on and predicted. If Nate Silver’s predictions prove accurate once again, that will surely have an impact on future elections, as well as minting his own career. But if they fail, he’ll become, as some pundits have predicted, a ‘one-election analyst’. If your career is built on accuracy, you’d better be right.
‘One thing you’d rather not have happen when you’re seeking to make a forecast is to influence the attitudes of the people whose behavior you are trying to predict,’ Silver told BuzzFeed. ‘It’s clearly a very close election and conservatives and liberals who are concerned about the outcome probably ought to channel their angst by making sure that they vote, rather than either demonizing or deifying a blogger with a statistical model.’
With the US presidential election held next week, we thought we’d share five of the most amusing, clever or simply interesting celebrity endorsements for the two presidential candidates. (Not including Clint Eastwood’s Chair Moment.) Enjoy!
The quick-witted Buffy creator and aficionado of all things sci-fi has come out with an endorsement for Obama that predicts a zombie-ruled apocalypse if Romney takes the reins. Stock up on canned goods, y'all!
It’s a very different world now, and Mitt Romney is a very different candidate — one with the vision and determination to cut through business-as-usual politics and finally put this country back on the path to the zombie apocalypse.
Girls creator Lena Dunham aims at getting her fellow twentysomethings to vote (and while they’re there, vote Obama) with this quirky – and hugely controversial – recommendation that other girls follow her lead, and pop their voting cherry for Obama. Some conservative commentators have suggested that the ad ‘degrades the highest office in the country’.
Meat Loaf has been an object of derision in Australia since his universally panned AFL Grand Final performance. Now, he’s taken the stage for an important national event in his home country. Watch him serenading Romney with America the Beautiful, in a performance described by Gawker as sounding ‘as if it were emanating from a dying cat that just had its tail stomped on’‘.
Action star Chuck Norris and his wife Gena have made a video urgently arguing for the election of Mitt Romney, and against the ‘socialism’ of President Obama. ‘Our great country and freedom are under attack,’ says Norris. Gena quotes former president Ronald Regan:
‘'You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into 1,000 years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children’s children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.’
Samuel L. Jackson offers a new slant on his viral recording of the satirical storybook Go the F**k to Sleep with this video, Wake the F**k Up for Obama, imagining a new version of the book’s bedtime story, where a little girl galvanises her family to campaign for Obama’s re-election.
With the US presidential election just a week away, some of Australia’s savviest political writers and commentators gathered at the Wheeler Centre – with a packed and engaged crowd – to talk about how it’s playing out. Fifth Estate host Sally Warhaft was joined by seasoned journalist George Negus, the ABC’s Eleanor Hall and former speechwriter Don Watson.
Download the podcast: mp3
George Negus was in the US for the election of Barack Obama four years ago. ‘The whole country felt like it had a hangover,’ he said. ‘But there was a backlash straight away.’
Eleanor Hall says that while we assumed the 2008 election was about Americans voting for a black president, she spoke to a prominent pollster who said that his race had in fact been a disadvantage – it had pulled him back ‘about three percentage points’.
While (of course) people don’t directly say that they wouldn’t vote for a black president, if you ask other questions, it becomes clear that many Americans would never vote for, or celebrate, having a black president.
Don Watson mentioned that this year’s Republican convention was ‘the whitest and most deliberately white Republican convention anywhere’. He described Mitt Romney as ‘very white’ and his wife as ‘even whiter’.
‘The first debate really turned it around,’ said Eleanor Hall, who described Obama’s performance in that first debate, which he so spectacularly lost to Mitt Romney, as ‘very petulant’.
The smallest details can make a difference in these debates, she said. For example, Clinton used to colour his hair greyer for the foreign policy debate and browner for the domestic policy debate.
‘The debates weren’t meant to be important, but Obama made them important.’
‘Everyone thought Romney was wooden and hopeless, but he came out and did what Obama normally does – he started telling stories. He sounded like a warm human being.’
Host Sally Warhaft said that the high point of the campaign speeches so far has been Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic convention.
‘The election has been content-free,’ said Don Watson. ‘Americans now revert so quickly to the grand narrative. There is something grand about American narrative, but a good speech does need content.’
‘If the candidates keep saying America is the greatest country in the world, the hollowing out of America is quickly forgotten, including by the hollowed out.’
He described being at one of the early Tea Party rallies, with people who ‘wouldn’t know a tea party from a tea bag’. Some of them, he said, had guns stuffed down their tracksuit pants.
‘People underestimate how hollow American society is in the middle. In all sorts of ways – educationally and nutritionally – America is way down the bottom.’
‘It’s a paradox from beginning to end,’ said George Negus. ‘The best of it is the best and the worst is unbelievable.’
‘Americans have a funny idea of the middle class,’ said Don Watson. ‘They never use the term working class anymore.’
The Tea Party people are not middle-class, but what we’d call working-class people – people who have not done well in contemporary America, and have adopted a ferociously conservative view of the world in response.
‘If I was a middle-class American before 25 years ago, I would have voted Republican,’ he said. ‘The Republican Party is not what it used to be. It’s fallen into dangerous hands.’
‘If Mark Twain walked into the Republican Party now, he’d be thrown out.’
Eleanor Hall agrees with this idea. ‘Genuinely intelligent Republicans are being knocked off,’ she said. ‘Tea Party people like Paul Ryan rule the joint.’
While in the US recently, she asked an analyst which Romney we’ll see if he’s elected president: the relatively small ‘l’ liberal Massachusetts governor, or a Romney who reflects the platform of the contemporary Republican Party. (‘Netanyahu running foreign policy and the Tea Party running the economy.’)
‘We’re not going to get the Massachusetts governor,’ was the response.
The panellists agreed that the hurricane and ongoing bad weather may affect voter turnout. Don Watson said this could be a problem for the Democrats. ‘If it’s bad weather, it’s the Democrats who don’t turn up.’
On the other hand, the fact that Obama is the incumbent during this time of crisis for so many Americans will work in his favour. ‘He can look presidential.’
Both candidates have called off campaigning for a few days.
‘This storm is massive,’ said Eleanor Hall. ‘It’s even going to affect Ohio.’
George Negus believes Obama will win another four years as president.
‘It’s strange they should even be considering someone as inappropriate as Romney,’ he said.
‘Romney unfortunately is not only the face of American politics, but of the world. We’ll be living in a western world where people won’t be doing much, they’ll just be doing deals. That’s all Romney knows about.’
Eleanor Hall thinks Obama will win, too. ‘He really only needs to win those key states and I think he’s poured enough money into Ohio and the car industry to win them. I don’t think Romney is charismatic enough to win them over.’
George Negus said that Barrie Cassidy, host of ABC1’s Insiders, recently shared his opinion that Obama will get 290 electoral college votes. He needs 270 to win.
Don Watson thinks Romney will win. ‘I might be trying to cover myself against despair,’ he said. ‘I didn’t think Bush could win in 2004 or 2000.’
He believes that the immense amount of money the Republicans have accessed for this campaign will make the difference. While last time, Obama outspent his Republican opponent John Cain by far, in this campaign that spending has been reversed.
‘The consequences will be pretty terrible for America and the world,’ he said. ‘More conservatives on the Supreme Court, the end of Rose versus Wade [meaning abortion would become criminalised], Iran, and foreign policy would go back to the Bush era.’
As we gear up for the final showdown between presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, in the form of the final debate, you might like to distract yourself with this less conventional (spoof) version: an epic rap battle.
Watch the Epic Rap Battle version of Obama versus Romney – with Abraham Lincoln thrown into the mix.
Best lines include:
‘I’m not going to let this battle be dictated by facts.’ (Fake Romney)
‘Raw rhymes/stronger than my jawline.’ (Fake Romney)
‘So rich and white it’s like I’m running against a cheesecake.’ (Fake Obama)
‘Don’t talk about change, just do it/I fought for what was on my brain until a bullet went through it.’ (Fake Abraham Lincoln – don’t ask, you’ll see how he comes into it.)
Our next Fifth Estate will focus on the circus of the presidential campaign, and how it reflects American culture. Don Watson, George Negus and the ABC’s Eleanor Hall (just back from covering the first presidential debate) will be talking to Sally Warhaft.
This free event will be held at the Wheeler Centre on Tuesday 30 October at 6.15pm. Bookings are open now.
During this week’s presidential debate, Mitt Romney answered an audience question about creating opportunities for women in an unfortunate way.
‘We took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said, “Can you help us find folks?” and they brought us whole binders full of women.’
The nonpartisan group who assembled the ‘binders full of women’ (Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus) are now saying that they presented the binders to Romney on their own initiative.
The moment in the debate where Romney unwittingly created an internet meme.
Ironically, while Democrats have jumped on the phrasing to highlight Romney’s ‘woman problem’, it should have been a strong point for Romney. He initially filled 42 percent of senior-level appointments with women, which was the highest number in the country. Just 25% of President Obama’s initial cabinet appointees were women.
Here are five of our favourite ‘binder’ memes.
Our next Fifth Estate will focus on the circus of the presidential campaign, and how it reflects American culture. Don Watson, George Negus and the ABC’s Eleanor Hall (just back from covering the first presidential debate) will be talking to Sally Warhaft.
This free event will be held at the Wheeler Centre on Tuesday 30 October at 6.15pm. Bookings are open now.
We share some of our favourite links and articles found on the internet this week.
The US presidential campaign has taken another bizarre pop culture twist in the past week. First, there was Clint Eastwood and the chair. Now, Sesame Street’s Big Bird has reluctantly taken the stage. In the first presidential debate (which Obama thoroughly lost), Mitt Romney stated that he would cut subsidies to PBS. ‘I love Big Bird,’ Romney said. ‘But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.’
The Obama campaign responded with a funny (though dubiously useful) ad that jumped on the Big Bird statement. ‘Big. Yellow. A menace to our economy. Mitt Romney knows it’s not Wall Street you have to worry about, it’s Sesame Street.’
‘You have to scratch your head when the president spends the last week talking about saving Big Bird,’ Romney told an Iowa crowd this week. And most media commentators (including The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart) think he has a point. On his show last night, Stewart showed a clip of Will.i.am addressing a university crowd with Obama, grinning and playing the Sesame Street song. The Children’s Television Workshop, the makers of Sesame Street, have asked the Obama campaign to remove the ad.
The Atlantic has a slideshow of images created by the internet to mark this pop cultural moment.
It was Banned Book Week recently in the US, and to commemorate the occasion, Lawrence Public Library commissioned a set of seven Banned Book trading cards, with artwork submitted by local artists and facts about why the books were banned, and how they affected the artists' lives. The titles chosen included Charles Darwin’s On the Origins of Species (banned in Tennesee from 1925 to 1967) and George Orwell’s Animal Farm (banned in Soviet Russia for its political theories, banned in the US for its political theories, banned in the United Arab Emirates for imagery contradicting Islamic values).
As western culture becomes ever more food-obsessed, elevating chefs like Jamie Oliver and critics like Matt Preston to the status of artists or rock stars, a discomfort with our culinary worship is starting to creep in for many. Steven Poole’s new book, You Aren’t What You Eat is a clever and often funny skewering (pun intended) of the cult of foodism. A lengthy and fascinating extract in the Guardian will give you a taste.
It should be obvious that a steak is not like a symphony, a pie not like a passaglia, foie gras not like a fugue; that the “composition” of a menu is not like the composition of a requiem; that the cook heating things in the kitchen and arranging them on a plate is not the artistic equal of Charlie Parker.
If you’ve ever ironically tweeted or complained about ‘first world problems’ (and how many of us haven’t?), this ingenious ad campaign will make you feel a little ashamed and a lot lucky. Created by relief organisation Water For Life, this one-minute video feature Haitians standing in front of their houses, in ruins or among pigs and chickens, reading ‘complaints’ like ‘I hate it when my neighbors block their wifi’ and ‘I hate it when I tell them no pickles and they give me pickles’. Moving and thought-provoking.
In a beautiful and inspiring essay, Maria Tumarkin considers the afterlife of books – how they touch readers' lives and what they can mean for the individuals who connect with them. Some of the books she looks at are Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man, Anthony Macris’s When Horse Became Saw and Maggie Mackellar’s When it Rains. She asks the question:
What books can sustain you, hold the pieces of you together, remind you of who you are and what matters to you, not ever lie to you no matter what?
We look at the aftermath of an extraordinary week in politics, talking to Ben Eltham, national affairs correspondent of New Matilda, Stephanie Convery of Overland, feminist writer Alison Croggon and philosopher Damon Young – and drawing on the week’s news coverage.
Julia Gillard’s parliamentary attack on Tony Abbott, calling him out for various cited instances of sexism and misogyny, has dominated headlines for the past two days. But the coverage has been wildly divergent: between the Australian mainstream media and the world media, and between the mainstream media and social media. It’s almost as if different versions of the same event were viewed in different places.
‘I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man,’ Gillard said, responding to Abbott’s call for Peter Slipper to be fired as Speaker, argung that his private texts comparing women’s genitalia to ‘mussel meat’ make him unfit to hold office. ‘If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia,’ Gillard continued, of Abbott, ‘he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror.’ She supported her argument by quoting comments by Abbott on abortion being ‘the easy way out’, his appeal to the ironing housewives of Australia, and his implicit support of protestors calling her a ‘witch’ and ‘a man’s bitch’.
International reactions ranged from US feminist website Jezebel’s admiring of Gillard as a ‘bad-ass mother**ker’ and commentators at the New Yorker and Salon wishing they could ‘borrow’ Gillard to call out notorious US politicians like Todd Akin (who believes women’s bodies shut down to prevent pregnancy in cases of rape), to the UK Telegraph’s acknowledgement that Gillard’s failure to condemn Slipper could cost her politically, while admiring her ‘political nous’, ‘aplomb’ and ‘composure’ in deflecting attention onto Abbott.
Meanwhile, in Australia, the mainstream media seemed to respond more slowly to the event than the international media, and more critically. Michelle Grattan’s comments in the Age were typical of the Canberra press gallery reaction: ‘The Prime Minister threw everything into her argument, which revolved around trying to pin the “misogynist'” label on the Opposition Leader. It was perhaps the only weapon available to her, but it sounded more desperate than convincing.’ In the Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Hartcher called her speech a refusal to stand up for respect for women, saying, ‘The Prime Minister gained nothing and lost a great deal.’
Why were the local and international media reactions so different? New Matilda national correspondent Ben Eltham told the Wheeler Centre that he thinks it’s partly due to the Australian political media being too close to the story, and thus missing its broader significance.
‘Perhaps it’s because overseas journalists don’t have the baggage that comes with domestic politics,’ concurs philosopher and writer Damon Young. ‘They’re not privy to the Machiavellian machinations, but they also lack the prejudices and biases. In Gillard’s televised speech, foreign journalists simply see the most obvious thing: a strong woman attacking sexism and hypocrisy.’
‘The Australian media often misses the story,’ says feminist writer Alison Croggon. ‘In this case, it really exposed how badly they can miss it … It baffled me how the press gallery, in unison, could be so blind to the significance of that speech. Whatever you think of Gillard – and I have serious criticisms of many aspects of her policies as PM – this was a stunningly successful political moment.’
Today, feminist commentator Clementine Ford questioned just how offensive Slipper’s comments are. ‘The vast majority of women I’ve canvassed about the issue are either wholly unmoved or merely embarrassed for him at having such a naff approach to courtship,’ she said. She suggested that perhaps ‘people are so uncomfortable with talk of vaginas that they can’t help but assume any mention of them at all is depraved and unseemly’.
John Birmingham, on the other hand, believes that Slipper’s texts are evidence of ‘a much deeper problem with women than the Leader of the Opposition’; a view that seems to be shared by the majority of writers published on the subject.
‘It was great political rhetoric and I’m sure it will be much remembered, but it was also done for political reasons,’ Overland blogger Stephanie Convery told the Wheeler Centre. ‘This wasn’t done to make a point about how abhorrent sexism is – even though that’s how it will be remembered. It was made in the context of a broader political struggle – one that has everything to do with the increasingly rightward-moving Labor Party’s bad polling and the very real prospect of them losing the next election, and very little to do with women’s rights.’
Convery was just one feminist to voiced her concern that, ironically, Gillard’s policies did not match her rhetoric yesterday, when she helped pass legislation that will move 100,000 single parents (mostly women) off the Parenting Payment and onto NewStart, reducing their already miniscule incomes by $100 per week.
‘Abbott got the serve he has so richly deserved for so long, and I was riveted to every second,’ said Shakira Hussein, in Crikey. ‘But at the end of the day, I will not be lectured on sexism or misogyny by Julia Gillard on the very day that she has driven so many women deeper into poverty.’
‘I thought it was her most important speech as prime minister,’ says Ben Eltham. ‘Ordinary punters care little for the internal tactics of parliamentary politics,‘ he wrote on New Matilda. 'In contrast, many Australians care deeply about the increasingly nasty tone of the attacks on Julia Gillard as a woman.’
He cites a recent poll that shows a 19 point gap between men and women on perceptions that Gillard has been subject to more personal criticism than a male prime minister would be (61% of women agree, though only 42% of men). Feminism is a growing force as a social movement in Australia right now, he believes, and yesterday’s events will only underline that.
‘The most powerful politician in Australia has stood up and made her views count. That will matter, whatever the press gallery thinks.’
Philosopher Damon Young believes that having a female prime minister makes the issue of feminism and the treatment of women ‘harder to ignore’.
But Stephanie Convery says ‘it would be unwise to think that, on its own, [the speech] will make much material difference for women. It’s our response that will make the difference.’
One reason that many women have responded so passionately (and positively) to the speech is that Gillard openly addressed an issue that has been brewing beneath the surface, or as a subtext, of political life for some time.
Indeed, since she became prime minister (and before that), she has been attacked for her childlessness, her lack of domesticity (the famous empty fruit bowl), her unmarried status and her wardrobe (the last, by Australia’s most famous feminist, Germaine Greer) – not to mention the more sinister gendered insults such as ‘Bob Brown’s bitch’, and, just last week, attacks on a Facebook forum ostensibly to discuss education policy that called her a ‘slut’, among other things.
Alison Croggon believes that the speech was embraced for its ‘strong public statement that clarified some of the toxic debate about misogyny that’s been fouling the political air recently’. She says it was ‘a genuine defence of the right of women to exist in public life’.
One aspect of the debates that has some commentators uncomfortable is the conflation of sexism (prejudice or discrimination based on gender) and misogyny (hatred of women). There is the question of whether it is fair to call Tony Abbott sexist, but even if that case can be proven – is it fair to extend that to misogyny?
‘It muddies the debate considerably,’ says Alison Croggon. ‘If Tony Abbott is accused of being a misogynist – a hater of women – that’s a serious personal accusation that can sincerely be addressed by, for example, his wife, who can quite rightly say, well, I know Tony, and he doesn’t hate women.’
‘However, he is clearly sexist, which is not about whether or not you like women (or men), but whether your attitudes and actions towards people are prejudiced and filtered by gender. That is clearly the case with Abbott, and that sexism is what can be properly addressed and criticised.’ ‘I’ve seen no evidence that Tony Abbott feels hatred towards women,’ says Damon Young. ‘I have seen evidence of sexism in Tony Abbott’s statements. For example, in 1988 Abbott questioned whether under-representation of women in power was a “bad thing”.’
Ben Eltham believes that sexism and misogyny ‘shade into one another in a spectrum-like manner’.
‘I don’t think Tony Abbott is a misogynist is the way that Alan Jones is. I do however think that Tony Abbott has done far too little to combat the sexism and misogyny that is rampant in conservative politics in Australia; indeed, he has stoked that misogyny for his own political purposes.’
In the aftermath of the speech, Abbott has called for Gillard and Labor to ‘stop playing the gender card’, and promised to keep up his criticism of Gillard ‘when she does the wrong thing’.
For her part, Gillard has vowed to continue to ‘call out sexism and misogyny’ wherever she sees it.
Join us for our event discussing Gillard, Abbott, politics and feminism, Destroying the Joint, held in partnership with Overland. The event is at the Wheeler Centre on Friday 12 October, 6.15pm; entry is free.
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