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Deconstructing a dog whistle

Tony Abbott’s government has taken some body-blows in recent weeks, and Abbott’s own leadership standing is suffering. Some say that this is due to a savage budget that seeks to address a non-existent budget emergency by penalising those who can least afford it and by punching the powerless, compounded by poor communications and head-scratching political decisions. If this were the case, one might be forgiven for thinking that the best way of recovering the party’s fortunes might be to revisit the thinking behind the budget, to seek to appropriately identify who the real lifters and leaners in the economy are, and to fix the way that the government goes about doing business.

Or you could go for the approach of sowing distrust and disunity, painting an amorphous group as the “Other” in order to convince Australians that you are “One of them” and being strong to protect them from the forces of darkness. This is a skill-set and a rulebook Tony Abbott inherited from his great hero John Howard and this weekend’s video message shows that he has enthusiastically embraced it.

If national security is so important that it has prompted an address to the nation, at the expense of attention to Joe Hockey’s “Never back to surplus” budget and Andrew Robb’s TPP negotiations and the likely forthcoming execution of the Bali Nine kingpins, then it would seem worthwhile to examine the detail of Mr Abbott’s speech.

When you look at what Mr Abbott had to say, it becomes clear that he is taking two specific incidents and generalising threats from them, generalising failures from them, and using them to beat up the necessity for changes. In two minutes and 23 seconds, he commiserates with the victims of violence, generalises the threat to all Australians, spruiks the actions of the government, reminds us of the threat and reassures us that he is keeping us safe.

An examination of the specific incidents to which Abbott refers, however, tells a more sobering story. There have been no significant failures of our immigration and border protection regulations, no breaches of our balanced and considered jurisprudence and bail system. There are no practical measures that could have prevented these specific events that prompt Abbott’s address. Once you understand that any measures the government might propose can have no possible effect on preventing these specific events, the low-brow dog whistle becomes crystal clear, and it becomes possible to see the real threat behind the words – the threat of further intrusive and unwarranted interference into people’s everyday lives.

A Message from the PM

Abbott begins by referring to the recent Lindt cafe attack by Man Haron Monis. It is perfectly appropriate to “acknowledge the atrocity”. It was one man with a shotgun and three people, including the attacker, died in the event. “Atrocity” is a strong word, but Abbott commences as he means to continue. In any case, the scene is set, the tone of the address is identified: this is a message about terrorism.

Abbott continues with a pledge to keep Australia as “safe and secure” as humanly possible. Federal and State governments are conducting a joint review into the siege, and the report will be released soon. The report will make recommendations and the government intends to take some actions. History has shown us that actions taken by a government are often only a subset, or sometimes a completely different set, to the recommendations of any given report, but we will reserve judgement. In effect, Abbott is attempting to take credit in advance for an announcement the government has yet to make. He is showing the government is strong, by pointing to the future when it intends to take strong action that it can’t tell us about yet.

We may get an inkling of the actions the government has in mind when Abbott addresses the Parliament on the topic of national security next Monday. But we may have a sneak preview as Abbott continues on.

“For too long we have given those who might be a threat to our country the benefit of the doubt. There’s been the benefit of the doubt at our borders, the benefit of the doubt for residency, the benefit of the doubt for citizenship and the benefit of the doubt at Centrelink. And in the courts, there has been bail, when clearly there should have been jail.”

When we unpack this statement, in the context of recent events and of the preceding text, Abbott is effectively telling us that we have not been strong enough in our immigration policies, and failures in our bail and justice systems. Abbott refers very specifically to the one example he has mentioned, Man Haron Monis, the attacker in the Lindt cafe event. Australians – particularly those in Sydney, Abbott’s home constituency – will be very aware
also of the arrest this week of two young men, home-grown potential jihadists. Despite not mentioning them specifically, the media has been quick to connect the dots between their arrest and this statement by Abbott.

The problem is that neither our immigration, residency, citizenship nor bail processes failed in any of these cases.

Man Haron Monis was on bail for a variety of criminal offenses at the time of his cafe attack. These cases were not religious in nature. He was accused of being accessory before and after the fact for the murder of his wife by his girlfriend. Separately, he was on bail on indecency charges. Neither case could have given indication that he was planning to turn into a shotgun-wielding maniac. [Read: How was Man Haron Monis not on a security watchlist?]

There were indications perhaps of mental instability, of paranoia, and definite isolation and marginalisation. Monis was known for holding “extremist” views. That’s easy to say in retrospect. His views on the West’s involvement in Middle-Eastern conflicts would not be out of place in a Greens party room meeting. He was, until very shortly before his act of terror, a well-dressed and urbane Australian.

Could the Lindt Cafe attack have been avoided if Man Haron Monis was denied bail? Certainly. On what basis could bail have been denied, though? This was not a wild-haired fanatic before the magistrate.

Bail is a State issue of law enforcement. As it happens, laws have already been tightened in NSW that would have prevented Monis’ bail. So what exactly does Abbott, in the Federal sphere, expect to do to make Australians still safer?

The recent arrests in Sydney were of two young men, Mohammad Kiad and Omar al-Kutobi. Allegedly they were arrested just hours before they intended to attack members of the public with knives. Could either of these alleged terrorists have been captured earlier with tighter border protection policies, or more intelligence resources? Were they abusing their Centrelink entitlements?

It would appear not. Kiad, now 25, came into Australia four years ago on a family visa to join his wife. al-Kutobi fled Iraq with his family ten years ago; he came to Australia in 2009. Shortly thereafter he received a protection visa and he became an Australian citizen in 2013. Neither man was a wild-haired fanatic, nor obviously a danger to the public.

The pair were not known to police. They were not known as religious extremists. Until recently, it doesn’t appear that they were. Instead, they were young Aussie men, fond of barbeques and American TV and luxury goods. Their radicalisation occurred over the last few weeks, perhaps triggered by the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices last month in Paris. Their rapid radicalisation was reported to Australian authorities by their own community about a week ago. Mere days later, police swooped.

How were tighter immigration rules four years ago going to prevent a planned terror attack that took months, at most, to be conceived and instigated, from men who by all reports only became extreme within the last six months, and on Australian soil?

The other problematic element of this densely offensive paragraph is the reference to Centrelink. In the context of this strident message, the inference is clear: that terrorists rely on Newstart. This is so ridiculous as to be laughable – yet it plays to the same crowd who lapped up the election rhetoric about boat people clogging up the motorways of Sydney.

The other possible reading is that people who rely on welfare are as bad as terrorists. I’m not certain which interpretation is the more offensive.

Abbott continues his address with the key message: all too often, “bad people play us for mugs. Well, that’s going to stop.”

Who are these bad people? That’s not been shown. Hopefully it’s not Man Haron Monis, because if we’re going to stop people like him from “taking us for mugs”, we presumably will no longer be providing welfare to those with mental issue. Hopefully it’s not Mohammad Kiad and Omar al-Kutobi, because in order to curtail the terrorist threat they pose, we would need to prevent muslims in general from entering the country.

Abbott makes a variety of references to the “Islamist death cult”. There’s a three-word slogan that’s earned him a couple of poll points before. It is also simultaneously emotive, highly offensive to large groups of undeserving people, and impossible to criticise without coming across as an apologist. Well, this author will criticise it. Islamic State might possibly be Islamist, but using the term paints all Muslims alike. IS is most certainly not a death cult. Yes, it uses unsupportable means and revels in bloodshed, but it does so not for the sake of killing people, but rather to attract those it considers devout. The killings are a means, not an end. And the idea of a world caliphate of muslims is dear to many. Nobody should seek to defend the actions or the Islamic State. However, belittling IS with a three-word slogan ignores the complexities and the real grievances and aspirations of millions of muslims everywhere.

Abbott goes on to talk about the much-discussed “new threats” of home-grown backyard terrorists, armed with “a knife, a flag, a camera phone, and a victim”. Terrorists are everywhere, around every corner, lurking under every bed.

By all means, do what you can to identify potential attackers before they take a life. But in the same way that it’s impossible to protect the public from an armed robber in a milk bar, it is impossible to protect the public from a quiet young man who just wants to be respected.

Abbott finishes his presentation by proudly boasting of working with other nations to degrade the Islamic State through military means; and improving the powers and resources of Australian intelligence agencies. Finally, he claims the need for stronger laws to “make it easier to keep you safe”. These include the data retention laws currently before parliament, but, worryingly, might also include other laws and regulations Abbott does not describe, but which will inevitably further encroach on our liberties and our privacy. Of course, it’s all for our own good. The government is being strong to keep Us safe from Them.

“As a country we won’t let evil people exploit our freedom.” As Kaye Lee has written today, it’s a pity that credo doesn’t stretch to include the current government.

He’s the Goodes all right

No doubt some of you will have heard about two documentaries, soon to be released, about the events leading up to the retirement of former champion Australian rules, Sydney Swans player Adam Goodes.

And I don’t use the word “champion” lightly. Firstly, he was a champion man who was chosen as Australian of the Year in 2014 for his activism and good works. Secondly, he was a champion of his selected sport having won two Brownlow Medals. The highest accolade any player can receive.

The better of the two documentaries is said to be The Final Quarter which is set against the story of his final three years of his career.

The other, named The Australian Dream looks at Goodes’ story from the point of view of the historical context of racism and the under view of our ongoing discrimination against our indigenous folk.

Apparently key personnel from all the clubs, players managers, and other vested interests have seen the two movies and as a result have issued Goodes with an unconditional, if not a belated apology to the champion sportsman for not doing more to stem the chain of events that abruptly ended his career.

There are elements within our society who condone racist behaviour simply because of a lack of understanding; some journalists do it to satisfy their masters.

Sensationalism sells. Others do so because it is handed down from the father. With others, it is nothing more than ignorance.

We should look upon them not with anger but with pity. They see what they are thinking and feeling; seldom what they are looking at.

Those who follow my words for The AIMN or on Facebook will know that racism deplores me and I write about it a lot. In the back of my mind, I knew that I had written much about that time and in particular I was disgusted with a piece written by Andrew Bolt.

Not just for his obvious racism but his untidiness in fact and his scant knowledge of our great local game.

Many words have been used to describe what Andrew Bolt does. Some describe him as a journalist – others a commentator. I believe Tony Abbott once declared him Australia’s premier intellect. For me, he is a specialist “scandalist”.

Scandal means a publicised incident that brings about disgrace or offends the moral sensibilities of society: Damage to reputation or character caused by public disclosure of immoral or grossly improper behaviour; Talk that is damaging to one’s character; malicious gossip.

Bolt is a person who specialises in all of the above. Scandals are developed for whatever reason or you can make them up.

So why am I repeating my piece on Bolt (below) I wrote in 2013? Well, in this review from ABC News Breakfast the author points out that an integral part of the documentary in question is the Bolt account of what took place.

“Another part of Goodes’s exit story explored by the documentary is a 2013 incident in which a 13-year-old girl called him an “ape” during a game against Collingwood at the MCG.

Goodes pointed to the girl after she made the comment and she was escorted from the grounds.

“In his press conference the next morning, about 17 times, he said ‘It’s not her fault, please don’t go after her,” Darling said.

“Goodes was supported by Collingwood president Eddie McGuire in the wake of the taunt, but only days later McGuire apologised after suggesting the dual-Brownlow medallist promote the musical King Kong.

Darling said the “narrative” which claimed the treatment of the 13-year-old girl was the reason for the booing of Goodes only emerged in 2015, two years after the event.

The booing of Goodes intensified throughout the 2015 season, during which he performed an Indigenous war cry after kicking a goal in a game against Carlton.

His former teammate, Lewis Jetta, later said the booing was part of what had motivated the display of the dance, which was created during a development program with young Aboriginal footballers.”

You can read the full review and watch video reviews and footage of the time here.

Deconstructing Andrew Bolt

I hesitated to write this probably because enough has been said about the nefarious personality of the journalist (or whatever) Andrew Bolt.

However, I have been affronted on a number of levels. His blatant racism, his elitism, his disrespect for the greatest game on earth (my bias) and his sensationalism but unquestionably his lack of journalist integrity.

This is his piece published 30 May 2013. I invite you to read it in full before I return to the issue.

“ EDDIE McGuire is of course a bigger racist than the 13-year-old girl he helped to smear last week. But I blame the AFL’s Indigenous Round.

First, let’s compare. On Friday, a 13-year-old Collingwood fan at the football with her Nan shouts “ape” at bearded Sydney player Adam Goodes.

She said later she did not mean the word in a racist way and tried to apologise when she was told he was upset. Yet Goodes pointed out this girl, as old as my year 7 son’s to security staff, who marched her out of the stadium.

Police grilled her for two hours, initially without her grandmother present, and threatened with charges. Her face was shown on national TV and she was publicly branded a racist.

On Saturday Goodes absurdly declared, “racism had a face – and it was a 13-year-old girl”.

The US has its Ku Klux Klansmen, Serbia its Ratko Mladic, Australia a teary 13-year-old. Spare me.

Eddie McGuire is not some 13-year-old girl from a single-parent family. He is 48 and a canny media professional. He knows perfectly well “ape” can be a racially derogatory term, since he’d berated the girl for using it.

Yet on radio yesterday he suggested the producers of the new King Kong musical “get Adam Goodes down” to promote it. I was astonished.

Sure, McGuire also says he didn’t mean the comments in a racist way, but if the 13-year-old girl’s excuses weren’t believed, why should McGuire’s, especially when Goode’s was said by his club to be “in more of an emotional state as a consequence of this than of the incident on Friday”?

I blame New Racism for some of this. The Indigenous Round is a fashionably racist event that encourages people to divide the world into a white “us” and an Aboriginal “them”. It assumes a grievance and a difference. It encouraged commentators to see in the 13-year-old the archetypal white racist rather than a scared and sorry girl who’d been naughty but now needed her mum.

It similarly encouraged them to see in Goodes the black victim, rather than a 34-year-old sports star taking outsized offence at the rudeness of a girl.

Enough. We are all humans and all apes. We should start seeing each other as individuals, rather than representatives of some “race”.

The girl is just a girl and not a “white”. Eddie is just Eddie and not that bright.”

Can we all get on with the footy?

My thoughts

Firstly, it must be said that Andrew is a convicted racist and has been found to on many occasions lie in his writing, particularly on the environment. In addition, he has been convicted of defaming a female magistrate. He wants the law changed so that in the future under the guise of free speech he will be able to vilify at his heart’s content. In addition, the federal opposition has openly said the law will be changed so that he will be able to do so.

I have no doubt that he is paid extraordinary amounts of money to proliferate the pages of the Herald Sun with this sort of gutter journalism. Let us not forget what Justice Bromberg, said about Bolt’s use of language. He said, “His style and structure is highly suggestive and designed to excite. His style was ”not careful, precise or exact” and the language not moderate or temperate but often strong and emphatic”. There is a liberal use of sarcasm and mockery,” he wrote. Language of that kind has a heightened capacity to convey implications beyond the literal meaning of the words utilised. It is language, which invites the reader to not only read the lines, but to also read between the lines.”

We should also remember whilst we are on the subject of Apes that during the London riots, of the not to distant past Bolt in one of his pieces used the word ‘aped’ to describe the copycat behaviour of some people. The use of the word was legitimate in that sense until you appreciate that he was talking about black West Indians, and then the word became racist.

Now it should be remembered that Mr. Bolt is of Dutch origin and there is nothing wrong with that of course except that he tends to proclaim it as some sort of European superiority. So much so, that he has this need to travel to Europe to attend the opera because he doesn’t think ours is up to scratch. I ask myself what might he know about Aussie Rules football. Well, I would venture to suggest he wouldn’t know a behind post from a goal post, but then Andrew seems to have a view on everything. After all, he is paid too, and the more outrageous the better.

Now let us examine what Mr. Bolt has written

She said later she did not mean the word in a racist way and tried to apologise when she was told he was upset.

Two points here. Firstly Mr. Goodes had no way of knowing how old the lass was. Teenage girls can look decidedly older. Secondly, she wanted to apologise when she was told he was upset.

Is Bolt saying that his actions didn’t already indicate it? And why does he mention that the girl is the same age as his son? Where is the relevance?

Who marched her out of the stadium.

Really I saw no one being “marched” out of the MCG.

Police grilled her for two hours, initially without her grandmother present, and threatened with charges. Her face was shown on national TV and she was publicly branded a racist.

The use of the word “grilled” is sensationalist unnecessary and inflammatory. How does he know she was questioned for two hours and it is illegal to my knowledge to question a minor without the presence of a parent?

Her face was shown in the “live” footage how could it not be” and later pixilated for the news programs.

Because of what she said, the media reported it as racist. She was not “branded” Again he uses inflammatory language.

The US has its Ku Klux Klansmen, Serbia its Ratko Mladic, Australia a teary 13-year-old. Spare me.

Good gracious, please spare me the quite nonsensical comparison. Why not include Hitler?

Eddie McGuire is not some 13-year-old girl from a single-parent family. He is 48 and a canny media professional. He knows perfectly well “ape” can be a racially derogatory term, since he’d berated the girl for using it.

No, McGuire is politically of a leftist persuasion and has never forgotten his roots. His parents by choice still live in one of the less affluent suburbs of Melbourne.

I draw the readers attention to Andrew Bolt’s use of the ape word as previously indicated. He knows all about the ape word. Again he uses a provocative word “berated” but I don’t think McGuire ever did that.

Sure, McGuire also says he didn’t mean the comments in a racist way, but if the 13-year-old girl’s excuses weren’t believed, why should McGuire’s?

There is no disputing this point except to say that in McGuire’s defence he is the only personality I have heard not mount a personal vindication of their actions.

I blame New Racism for some of this. The Indigenous Round is a fashionably racist event that encourages people to divide the world into a white “us” and an Aboriginal “them”.

In my lifetime, I do not think I have ever read a sentence more calculated to offend. Bolt seems to not only offend the great game itself but those who play it and the multitudes who follow it.

New racism. What is that? Racism is racism. There is nothing at all new about it.

The Indigenous round is a series of matches that celebrates the unique contribution that some of the most amazing players make or have made to our game.

I hardly think Bolt would appreciate that. When you see the way in which white teammates applaud their black counterparts. I do not see, any white us or black them. I think Andrews mind has gone “walk a bout” And I meant that to be insulting.

It similarly encouraged them to see in Goodes the black victim, rather than a 34-year-old sports star taking outsized offence at the rudeness of a girl.

I am a 79-year-old white former player. I think I grasp the emotion of our game and how he feels. I do not expect a person of the stature of Bolt ever could.

Enough. We are all humans and all apes. We should start seeing each other as individuals, rather than representatives of some “race”.

The girl is just a girl and not a “white”. Eddie is just Eddie and not that bright.

Can we all get on with the footy?

Science might tell me that I descended from apes. Darwin might also suggest that by virtue of mutation I am not one now. Just as Michael Long is of the Aboriginal race, I am of European descent.

Andrew Bolt is a journalist and white, but as with Eddie is not that bright.

These last couple of paragraphs I think reinforces the opinion of David Marr that Bolt is a journalist of little repute. To quote Marr on Bolt read this:

But Bolt’s ugly columns have not cost the Herald Sun much more than a fair dose of embarrassment.

There is in the office of the Editor of the Herald Sun (and dare I say those of other Murdoch newspapers) a four-drawer filing cabinet with a suspension file with a tab and the word “truth” on it. It has not been looked at in many years because it is the newspaper where the truth goes to die.

The statement from the AFL read as follows:

“The treatment of Adam challenges us, and our right to be considered Australia’s Indigenous football code,” says the joint statement. “Adam, who represents so much that is good and unique about our game, was subject to treatment that drove him from football. The game did not do enough to stand with him, and call it out.”

“We apologise unreservedly for our failures during this period. Failure to call out racism and not standing up for one of our own, let down all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players, past and present.”

My thought for the day

Champions get up when they can’t.

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Day to Day: Politics: The book that never Bolted.

Saturday 16 July 2016

1 I was walking through our local newsagency this week when I happened to notice a book titled “Worth Fighting For”. The author’s name was Andrew Bolt. Not knowing that it was a new title I thought it must have been the original book he had written. Anyway I picked it up wondering why anyone would want to read it and casually flipped through its contents. It was just a collection of his newspaper writing. I came across his piece about Adam Goodes and the girl at the MCG. A disgraceful exhibit of bad journalism if ever you have read one.

I recalled writing a rebuttal of his take on the events at the time; ‘Deconstructing Andrew Bolt‘. Coincidentally, the same day I was idly surfing the web and I came across an article about his book written by Osman Faruqi for Junkee. The writer said that the book was released in June and that to date had sold 713 copies.

Book industry sources confirmed that figure to Junkee today, citing the Nielsen Bookscan database that tracks book sales across the country. When it was first released Bolt accused booksellers of placing a “ban on its sale and quoted a number of commenters on his website who struggled to find the book in shelves.”

The article goes on to suggest the Bolt is upset that his work is not being displayed in conspicuous places in stores.

But Faruqi suggests that:

A bigger issue for Bolt was probably the fact that a number of bookstores simply refused to stock his book altogether. When it was first released Junkee thought it might be worth reviewing, given Bolt’s enormous national media profile and influence on Australian conservative politics, but we struggled to find a store that stocked it.

We checked more than half a dozen book stores around inner-city Sydney and none of them were stocking the book. A number of sales staff laughed in our faces when we asked for a copy.

The experience reminded me of when in a writing class I attended we would discuss journalism. Andrew Bolt and the Herald Sun or the Daily Telegraph would always be at the centre of our discussion. The course facilitator, herself a former journalist would observe that the articles were written for the intelligence of thirteen year olds with the attention span of six-year olds.

They were rarely more than 300 words. As a journalist she had little respect for Andrew Bolt who she said didn’t know how to construct a challenging sentence let alone use thought-provoking words.

And let us not forget what Justice Bromberg, said about Bolt’s use of language:

“His style and structure is highly suggestive and designed to excite. His style was ”not careful, precise or exact” and the language not moderate or temperate but often strong and emphatic”. There is a liberal use of sarcasm and mockery,” he wrote. Language of that kind has a heightened capacity to convey implications beyond the literal meaning of the words utilised. It is language, which invites the reader to not only read the lines, but to also read between the lines”.

Anyway I just thought I would let those of you busting your gut to get a copy just what the difficulty is. If you come across more than one would you please, in the interest of decent factual journalism please destroy them?

An observation.

“If a newspaper article is written in a manner to suggest objectivity but subjective words are scattered throughout it together with carefully phrased unsupported statements then dismiss the article as having no cogency“.

2 It seems donations to the Liberal Party are never out of the headlines. Usually for the wrong reasons. Now we read that Malcolm Turnbull has donated $1million from his own fortune to help the party get (or himself) through the election.

On TV Anthony Albanese bemoaned the fact that Labor didn’t have a multi millionaire.

Remember prior to the election the NSW Electoral Commission announced it was withholding $4.4 million in public funding from the NSW Liberals until the party formally disclosed who donated $693,000 to it via a controversial fundraising body, the Free Enterprise Foundation. We are still waiting.

Donations to political parties are always controversial. There needs to be more transparency but governments are loath to reveal the names of donors. For Turnbull it is surely a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.

The worry here is what sort of a precedent does this set? Are we heading down the track where the extreme rich will be able to purchase power?

3 Pauline Hanson is scheduled to appear on Q&A on Monday night. I’m wondering if anybody might ask her a question about her party’s policies and how she might answer given they all seem to have been lifted from various web sources.

Perhaps she should consider renaming her party The cut and paste policy party‘.

4 The first post-election Essential Poll has the parties on 50/50.

On the question. Do you think the issue of same-sex marriage should be decided by Parliament or should there be a national vote?

60% favour a national vote on same-sex marriage and 25% think the issue should be decided by Parliament.

This represents a shift away from support for a national vote since this question was asked in March.

5 Conservatives seemingly have some sort of angst against women. Representation of the female sex in this parliament will be half of what Tony Abbott had. A major setback for the fair sex. Only 14% of women will grace the floor of the House of Representatives. The lowest in more than twenty years and is an utter disgrace when 50% of the women. They urgently need to do something about it.

An observation.

“At some time in the human narrative . . . in our history, man declared himself superior to women. It must have been an accident, or at least an act of gross stupidity. But that’s men for you”.

6 In theory I suppose anyone elected can claim to have a mandate but when an election is so close who can honourably say they have one. When you have stood on the finish line and see just how narrowly you have won can you genuinely say you have one? No, when almost half of the people have voted against you, I think not. It’s little more than an excuse to keep on with what you were already planning to do.

My thought for the day.

People often demand free speech to compensate for the freedom of thought they rarely use“.

PS: Eighty people are now needlessly dead in France.

“In the cycle of life people we care most about are taken from us too soon. We struggle to come to terms with the why of it and there is no answer. It is only by the way we conduct our living that we salute the legacy they leave behind”.

Chipping Away at Our National Blind-spots: The Vital Roles of the National Archives and Disposal Shops in Canberra

By Denis Bright

The National Archives (NAA) in Canberra has a vital role in the investigation of some of the controversial issues in Australian Foreign Policy. On 1 January 2018, the open access season should cover Commonwealth records extending to 1995 and Cabinet notebooks to 1983.

However, under Section 33 of the Archives Act 1983, some historical documents within the time span allowed for the selection of documents are still withheld. There are still concerns about the need to protect historical intelligence sharing or even sensitive financial dealings of the Commonwealth.

Protection of the reputation of predominantly LNP national governments may also be a factor in maintaining all this archival secrecy. It is a similar matter with the recent haul by the ABC of cabinet documents found in the two locked filing cabinets from a second-hand shop in Canberra.

Chipping Away at Historical Blind-spots

Let me share some of my own experiences with the perusal of historical documents to re-enforce all this fuss about guarding the secrets of our history.

Way back in 2012, I applied to the NAA for some key documents about Australia’s continued recognition of the Khmer Rouge during 1979-81. I wanted to access this historical material for coursework at the University of Queensland. Thinking that the application had been over-looked, I was pleasantly surprised to find a polite reply from the Declassification Unit at NAA in the mail. It was dated 2 January 2018.

I was offered six documents from far-off 1979. Two of the documents were still marked for partial release only. There is a right of appeal on this decision is available to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). The cost would be close to two hundred dollars for the total digital order.

Surely this makes a farce of demands by Australian Conservatives for a more historically literate nation.

Are potential records of Prime Minister Lyon’s visits to Mussolini and Pope Pius XI fully opened? What of the infamous trading overtures by Robert Menzies to Japan in his capacity as Pig-Iron Bob? Was Robert Menzies official visit to Nazi Germany in 1938 encouraged by the British Foreign Office to generate a feed-back report to the heart of the Empire?

Closer to 1979, the long-saga of Australia’s involvement in Cambodia which was made possible by US inspired coup against Prince Sihanouk in 1970. Here are some of the facts of the foreign policy problem as I see them in the absence of more open access to historical documents to justify my interest.

Australian Foreign Policy Towards Cambodia

Under the Guam Doctrine of 1969, President Nixon sought to transform the US Global Alliance into a shared partnership between willing states who were required to do more of the heavy-listing to achieve localized strategic outcomes.

The extent to which Australia offered direct military support to the Lon Nol Regime (1970-75) in the context of the Guam Doctrine is still unknown.

Prince Sihanouk formed a Cambodian government in exile and was sentenced to death in absentia by the Lon Nol regime in 1970 but survived to return to Cambodia after 1975.

Prior to the Cambodian coup, Norodom Sihanouk (1922-2012) had been king (1941-55), sometimes head of state, regent and even prime minister. Prince Sihanouk resisted attempts to join the US Global Alliance but still wanted co-operation with the US as an independent sovereign state that had negotiated its independence from France in 1953.

Prince Sihanouk faced earlier attempted coups as far-back as 1958 with the support of Thailand, South Vietnam and the US Government itself.

This low-level file was cleared for release to an applicant in 1991. It is currently available online from the NAA at no cost to other users.

While the file contains no reference to the attempted coup in Cambodia, it does suggest that Australia played an ethical role in the difficult relationships between South Vietnam and Cambodia.



Our goodwill assisted in cooling border intrusions by the South Vietnamese Military against Cambodia and fostered the release of Cambodian prisoners taken in these intrusions.

Australia’s even-handedness may have been compromised in later years, but these potential changes must be assessed with fuller documentary evidence. Perhaps the documents released in 1991 released to satisfy readers on a fools’ errands.

Opening the later files can also assist in deconstructing Australia’s responses during the Vietnam War Era.

The intrigues continued after the fall of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975.

Following ongoing skirmishes between Vietnam and Cambodia, Vietnam mounted a full-scale offensive against its socialist neighbour on 21 December 1978. Vietnamese forces had occupied Phnom Penh in early 1979.

A Cambodian government, sympathetic to Vietnam, was installed with Heng Samrin as Head of State and Pen Sovan as Secretary of the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party.

The reputation of the Khmer Rouge Government after 1975 had been destroyed by some of the worst human rights atrocities in the history of humanity. Alas, Western governments continued to recognise the Khmer Rouge when it lost control of almost all areas in Cambodia after the Vietnamese military intervention.

The remnants of the Khmer Rouge continued to hold remote sections of Kampuchea with the support of some anti-Vietnamese resistance forces.

As the first anniversary of President Reagan’s inauguration approaches in January 1982, the US continued to recognise the Pol Pot Regime. This invited protests from prominent political and cultural leaders across the USA.

To his credit, LNP Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock argued for the de-recognition of the Khmer Rouge in a Cabinet Submission in mid-1980. Australia broke with the US under the Reagan Administration (1981-89) in de-recognizing the Khmer Rouge Regime in February 1981.

Tensions within the Fraser Cabinet on management of the Cambodian challenge may have prompted the resignation of Andrew Peacock as Foreign Minister. He was replaced by Tony Street on 3 November 1980 just after the surprisingly close 1980 national elections.

As foreign ministers, Bill Hayden and later Gareth Evans proved that Australia could play an independent role for Australian sovereignty within the US Global Alliance. Gareth Evans would tackle great challenges relating to the achievement of closure in Indochina in the post-Vietnam War era with Australia’s proactive involvement in Cambodian peace settlement.

All this secrecy seems to be an overkill after forty years. Documents from Prime Minister Fraser’s Office of National Assessment (ONA) do not seem to make it onto the NAA’s digital catalogue.

Let’s hope that a new generation of national leaders will reappraise the restrictions embedded into the Archives Act 1983 from a Whitlamesque perspective as the more recent cabinet documents have been retrieved by a raid on ABC offices and put back under lock and key. Opportunities for recent insights into Australian politics have been lost for another generation.

Denis Bright is a registered teacher and a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Denis has recent postgraduate qualifications in journalism, public policy and international relations. He is interested in promoting pragmatic public policies that are compatible with contemporary globalization.


The fluidity of tradition


Tradition is a word we’ve heard a lot these last few weeks, as the anti marriage equality crowd cast about, in increasing desperation, for valid arguments to make against the Yes vote.

I’m being generous here, in describing the No contingent as engaged in a search for valid arguments: there are no such arguments and the Nays are resorting to all manner of nebulous scare tactics, including, but not limited to, the threat same-sex marriage allegedly poses to “traditional” marriage.

Here is federal Liberal MP Andrew Hastie with his understanding of traditional marriage:

I could spend the rest of the day deconstructing Hastie’s evangelical Christian opinion of marriage as solely for procreation, but readers here are more than capable of doing that for themselves. Suffice to say the man has publicly revealed his sexual repression, commiserations to his female partner and back to tradition.

There is a sense in which people who call on tradition as a justification for perpetuating contested attitudes and actions hold the belief that tradition, in and of itself, entirely validates the status quo. Tradition is to them a numinous concept, and as such, unchallengeable.

A moment’s reflection ought to alert them to the perils of such an assumption: think of the many traditions our society no longer tolerates and one is immediately aware of the fluid nature of tradition, why it’s almost as fluid as gender, hey Mr Shelton?

There are many examples of traditional values that have revealed themselves, in a society struggling to evolve, to be bigoted, exclusionary and privileged, not to mention racist, sexist and genocidal. Traditional is not a synonym for good, or compassionate, or decent. It merely means that a certain set of behaviours has been naturalised or normalised at the expense of another set of behaviours. The determination is inevitably made by those who have the most power, and the most to gain by investing their favoured behaviours with the allegedly eternal quality of tradition. He (and sadly it usually is he) who controls the narrative controls what is to be considered traditional.

I’m going to venture out on a limb here and suggest that tradition, in and of itself, is bollocks. There’s absolutely nothing numinous or eternal or universal about it. It’s nothing more than reified repetition. There’s nothing wrong with doing the same thing generation after generation provided it isn’t damaging people, but please, let’s not pretend it carries a mysterious power of incontestable rightness, simply because it’s always been done that way.

So there you go, No vote. That’s fixed tradition for you as an argument. Next?

This article was originally published on No Place For Sheep.