Election 2022: Prospects for a New Multidimensional Era?

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Dr. Binoy Kampmark is a senior lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University. He was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. He is a contributing editor to CounterPunch and can be followed at @bkampmark.

The Great Teal Tsunami: Arise Australia’s Independents

Rarely in Australian history has a governing party suffered such loss in the face of an opponent unable to claim complete victory. It said much about the disillusionment, and plain disgust, from that nebulous centre of the country’s politics. That centre roared on May 21, consuming sitting government members and inflicting a bloody reckoning.

That reckoning was made in traditional inner-city seats that have never known anyone other than conservative members. It was part of a “teal” electoral tsunami, comprising candidates who would not necessarily wish to vote for Labor or the Greens, but who had found the Liberal-National government of Scott Morrison impossible to stomach on matters ranging from gender equality to climate change.

In the Melbourne seat of Goldstein, held by the Liberal Party’s Tim Wilson, former ABC journalist Zoe Daniel stormed through. It was a showing most fitting: the electorate is named after Vera Goldstein, feminist and women’s rights campaigner who, in 1903, was the first woman to stand for election in a national parliament. “She ran as an independent several times,” Wilson said in a telling reminder, “because she was so independent that she couldn’t bring herself to run for either of the major parties.”

In the same city, the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, was overwhelmed by Dr Monique Ryan in Kooyong. (Postal votes are currently being tallied, but it does not seem likely that Ryan will lose.) This loss for the Liberals will be keenly felt, given Frydenberg’s leadership aspirations.

The story was repeated in Sydney, with the same narrative directed like a dagger at the Morrison government: You, fossil fuel devotees, mocked climate change, disregarded gender equality, and sneered at policing corruption in federal politics. Wentworth went to businesswoman Allegra Spender, who had, during the course of her campaign, managed to assemble an army of 1200 volunteers.

Spender’s team, comprising a number of company directors, many women, is a revealing sign that movements can take root in the arid soil of caution that is Australian politics. “You said you were standing for the community, not the party,” she told supporters, “for taking responsibility, not blaming, for compassion, not division and for the future, not the past.”

In the seat of North Sydney, held by the mild-mannered Liberal Trent Zimmerman, a victorious Kylea Tink reiterated the laundry list issues that had motivated the teal revolution. “The majority things for me,” she told Crikey, “are climate action, integrity and addressing inequality.”

The victory of the various independents was the Liberal Party’s version of the Trojan Horse, one that had found itself parked in their heartland seats and released on election night. It was a triumph of community organisation, not rusted party politics, despite Wilson’s fulminations about sinister external forces at work. It was the apotheosis of a movement that began with Cathy McGowan, the Victorian independent who won the rural seat of Indi in 2013.

This was also an election which delivered the highest Greens vote ever. Queensland, almost always the deciding state, may well furnish two, possibly three Greens members in the House of Representatives. The Greens leader, Adam Bandt, put much it down to the turbulent, vicious weather of recent times. “We’ve just had three years of droughts and then fires and then floods and then floods again and people can see that this is happening.”

Remarkably for the group, they managed to win the Liberal-held seat of Ryan in the process. They are also on the hunt in the Labor-held Melbourne seat of Macnamara. “We are now on planet Greensland,” exclaimed the Greens candidate Elizabeth Watson-Brown on realising her triumph in Ryan, “and we are taking it forward.”

While the Labor opposition have good reason to cheer the prospect of forming government in almost a decade, other facts are impossible to ignore. The Greens continued their now established historical trend of eating away at Labor’s vote in inner suburban areas, notably in Queensland.

Across several states, the party actually suffered, along the Liberal National coalition, a precipitous fall in the primary vote. To form government on such a low primary return is staggering and says much about the loss of appeal of the established parties. “It would be an unusual win for Labor,” noted a sour editorial from the Australian Financial Review, “with no grand policy ambitions or sweeping difference from the incumbent Coalition government.” Only Western Australia, keen to punish the Morrison government, arrested that tendency, and may end up giving Anthony Albanese a majority.

Labor also bungled in the previously safely held south-west Sydney seat of Fowler, where Kristina Keneally, who had only lived in the electorate for a brief spell, missed out to local grassroots independent, Dai Le. The swing of almost 18 per cent away from Labor shows that Keneally, when she suffers defeat, does so in grandly catastrophic fashion. The story of this debacle is also salutary to major parties who parachute heavy weight politicians into seats as part of party and personal ambition, rather than the interests of voters.

While the bruised LNP will lick their wounds and rue their ignorance of the community movement that gathered pace under their noses, Australia’s major parties will have to consider a new phenomenon: the non-career parliamentarian, one who enters parliament, not for party allegiance and faction but for voter representation and change. For the Westminster model of government, this is indeed a stunning novelty.

 

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Australian Disinformation Wonderland: The Federal Election 2022

All elections are filled with the half-truths, mistruths and full-fledged lies. Victory is rarely bought on a platform of complete honesty. But the road to the current Australian federal election has been potholed by more deception than most. This is bound to happen when policy platforms are weak and rickety, leaving the opponents large scope to undermine each other. The personal prevails over the substantive; ideas play little to no role.

Much of the influence of misinformation and its more aggressive twin, disinformation, is given a legendary status ahead of time. Commentaries abound about how to spot “fake news” from outlets that have themselves been prone to promote counterfeit material.

A study commissioned by digital security and privacy company Avast filled electors with little confidence about either the content of news or their talents in spotting irregularities and fictions. 38 per cent of those surveyed revealed they were not confident in identifying fake news online. The age group between 18-24 were said to be the least confident.

Misinformation has a tendency to multiply and amplify in the wildfire environs of the Internet. “In recent research,” claimed Avast security expert Stephen Ko, “our AI team found that 17.9 per cent of hyperlinks of misinformation sites link to other misinformation domains. If users visit a misinformation site, the risk is higher that they end up in a rabbit hole of misinformation sites.” His advice, resembling those cautionary words of an impatient parent to an inattentive child, is to check such matters as the publication date. News should, he remarked, be “current”.

The Australian Electoral Commission has also gone out on a limb in establishing what it calls a “disinformation register”. Doing so comes with a caveat. “The AEC is not the arbiter of truth regarding political communication and does not seek to censor political debate in any way.” A fine objective, except that the AEC is also authoritative in pointing out that, “when it comes to the election process we conduct, we’re the experts and we’re active in defending Australia’s democracy.”

A list of “prominent pieces of disinformation” follows, though the actual source is not overly specific beyond the platform. The first example: “The AEC has sent multiple copies of unsolicited postal votes to a single voter proving voter fraud occurs.” The unsurprising source: Facebook.

Others include claims that First Nations people “have been wiped from the electoral roll without their knowledge”; that applications for postal votes “are being submitted and processed for deceased Australians” and “Dominion voting machines will be used and will be ‘rigged’ to favour one of the major political parties.” That old favourite – that the AEC is itself politically aligned – also features.

Various ethnic groups have been the subject of interest in disinformation strategies. The ABC has reported instances of Liberal Party supporters using the WeChat platform to spread falsehoods about a number of Labor supporters and critics of the Morrison government.

Not to be outdone, some Labor supporters have targeted the incumbent Liberal member for the seat of Chisholm, Gladys Liu, the first ethnic Chinese woman to serve a term in the House of Representatives. According to a Facebook page hosted by an ALP branch located in the Queensland electorate of Wright, Liu’s loyalties were malodorously suspect. A post from April 19 insinuated that Liu was potentially linked to a Chinese plot to infiltrate the Australian parliament.

A particularly aggressive campaign of media disinformation has also blown through some seats where independents are running against threatened incumbents. Earlier this month, the New South Wales electorates of Mackellar, Warringah and Hughes woke up to a number of posters with independent candidates branded with the Greens logo. A statement from the Greens leader Adam Bandt made much of the deception, suggesting that there was “a good chance that whoever is behind this has also committed a criminal act.”

In the Melbourne electorate of Kooyong, a simmering campaign alleging the hidden allegiances of independent Monique Ryan has also been marked by the stain of inaccuracy and mistruth. Stickers have emerged at points claiming that a vote for Ryan is a vote for Labor. This has not been helped by an aggressive campaign waged by the Liberal Party and the Murdoch-News Corp cheer squad alleging much the same thing.

Zoe Daniels, running against the Liberal Party’s Tim Wilson in the Victorian seat of Goldstein, expressed dismay in a tweet about voting strategies set to undermine her candidacy. “In a new low, ‘people’ on social media are spreading the lie that it’s only necessary to mark me number 1 for the vote to be valid.” This was a matter of “orchestrated DISINFORMATION,” she capitalised in anger, “designed to cause informal voting.” Every box, she fumed, had to be numbered.

In its response to the message from Daniels, the AEC expressed its own disappointment. “Formality rules are very clear – in addition to them being printed on our ballot papers, our staff will also walk voters through what’s required.” In some cases, it will take more than just a walk through to dispel the miasma of falsehoods that will mark this election as voters cast their ballots.

 

 

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COVID Brain Fade at the Australian Elections

It’s the last week of an election between the uninspiring and the unspeakable. Australia’s conservative incumbents – the unspeakable ones – are even desperate enough to concede to a lack of popularity. Dislike us, but for heaven’s sake, vote us in. The times are wretched, the cost of living is rising, and we are going to look after you in the spiral. The opposition, in contrast, is being stingy on detail and sparing on scope. Memories of 2019 continue to traumatise the Australian Labor Party.

Scouring the election platforms, statements, and town hall debates, is a glaring absence of one particular field of policy. Virtually no candidate or major political party is mentioning that troubling issue of COVID-19 and the global pandemic. That was the dark past, and, like released jailbirds, voters find themselves preoccupied with other matters.

Sporadically, mention is made about the Morrison government’s tardy ordering and supply of COVID-19 vaccines – at least in the initial phase. At that time, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, rather infamously, dismissed the slow rollout. This wasn’t, he opined, a race.

In his first campaign video, Morrison burnished his own credentials as a warrior against COVID-19, having been responsible for saving thousands of lives. (The States and Territories, all far more engaged in the matter than Morrison ever was, are ignored.) But the primary message was that of, “A choice between an economic recovery that is leading the world, and a Labor opposition that would weaken it, and risk it.”

Despite Australia’s enviable record, the emergence of the furiously transmissible Omicron variant and a death toll this year surpassing the combined figures of 2020 and 2021, have seen a departure from previous policy. As Raina MacIntyre of the Kirby Institute remarked in January, Australia “swung from one extreme in pandemic control to the other – having great control of COVID, to now having the world’s highest rise in daily cases.”

Scenes of chaos ensued. The vulnerable had to queue for hours as testing centres were overwhelmed. A number of such centres were also closed, often without good reason. The Commonwealth and State governments tinkered with definitions on eligibility regarding testing, all the time refusing to expand capacity. MacIntyre was distinctly unimpressed. “There was no planning for expedited third-dose boosters, expanded testing capacity, rapid antigen tests, hospital in the home, opening of schools or even guidance for people to protect their household when one person becomes infected.”

None of this has made a difference in the political platform, nor, it seems, in voter interest. The COVID brain fade has well and truly set in. According to data generated by the ABC’s Vote Compass, a mere 1 per cent of Australians consider COVID the most important issue in this election. Vulnerable members of society are being seen as “collateral” to the overall scheme. Living with the virus has also meant suffering and even perishing from it.

The only party making much of COVID-19, and not from the perspective of praising vaccines and sound pandemic management, is the United Australia Party. Bankrolled by the quixotic mining magnate Clive Palmer, millions have been spent on media campaigns that have seen no discernible shift in the polls.

By default, health officials and experts have become crying Cassandras and the concerned oracles. Virologist Stuart Turville has observed, with exasperation, that the federal election campaign has been afflicted by “a case of COVID Fight Club. Don’t talk about it.” Future policies on the subject are virtually absent. “What will happen if we don’t get our third or fourth dose?” wonders Turville. “Will we see the death rate creep up from 40, to 60, to 80 before we start to talk about this again?”

Another figure of some woe and worry is Burnet Institute director, Brendan Crabb, who claims that politicians and governments have resolutely kept their “heads in the sand”. There was a dangerous sense of “COVID now”. Continuing high rates of transmission was “bad for business”. The longer health impacts were also being neglected. “How many of the 350,000 plus active cases in Australia right now will have chronic impacts? Overseas data suggests 20 per cent of them.”

Epidemiologist Nancy Baxter, based at the University of Melbourne, is another who can always be relied upon to deter any emerging complacency. “We’re at a point,” she gravely states, “where COVID is now one of the major killers of Australians, and probably by the end of the year is going to be one of the top three.” She adds further lashings of doom. “And with increasing case numbers, new sub-variants [will be] coming in. This may drive it even further, which would have a bigger impact.”

If the current mood prevails till May 21, we can expect little purchase from such attitudes at the ballot box. Fiscal responsibility, the consumer price index, climate change and the China bogeyman, are likely to feature ahead of the most disruptive pandemic in a century.

 

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Peter Dutton’s Defamation Defeat

The occasions when an activist, writer or commentator triumph over defamation lawsuits launched by a thin-skinned politician are rare in Australia. When it comes to matters regarding the law of reputation, Australia remains a place where parliamentarians, as a species, thrive in the knowledge they can use favourable provisions to protect their hurt feelings and soiled reputations.

The country, in also lacking a bill of rights protecting free speech and the press, has further emboldened politicians. At best, the Australian High Court has only left an anaemic implied right “to protect freedom of communication on political subjects,” which should really be read as a restraint on executive and legislative power, never to be personally exercised.

Defence Minister Peter Dutton, ever the nasty enforcer of the Morrison government, was one who had every reason to feel confident when he took refugee activist Shane Bazzi to court in April last year. In February 2021, Bazzi published a six-word tweet: “Peter Dutton is a rape apologist.”

The tweet was made some hours after Dutton had told a press conference that he had not been furnished with the finer details of a rape allegation made by former Coalition staffer Britney Higgins. The context here was also important. Dutton had, when Home Affairs Minister, characterised refugee women being held on Nauru, one of Australia’s carceral domains, as “trying it on” to get access to the Australian mainland for medical treatment.

The following month, this sadist-in-chief promised that he would start to “pick out some” individuals who were “trending on Twitter or have the anonymity of different Twitter accounts” posting “all these statements and tweets that are frankly defamatory.” It was an informal declaration of war against critics.

In instigating proceedings against Bazzi, Dutton claimed in the trial that he was “deeply offended” by the contents of the tweet. He accepted that, “As a minister for immigration or home affairs … people make comments that are false or untrue, offensive, profane, but that’s part of the rough and tumble.” But Bazzi had gone one step too far. “It was somebody that held himself out as an authority or a journalist.” His remarks “went beyond” the tolerably bruising nature of politics. “And it went against who I am, my beliefs … I thought it was hurtful.”

In finding for Dutton in November and awarding $35,000 in damages, Justice Richard White ruled that the tweet had been defamatory, and that Bazzi could not resort to the defence of honest opinion. Dutton failed to gain damages in three of the four imputations, while also troubling the judge with his hunger in pursuing the defendant for the full legal bill. But in his remarks on Bazzi’s claim of honest opinion, White was dismissive. “Bazzi may have used the word ‘apologist’ without an understanding of the meaning he was, in fact conveying.” If this had been the case, “it would follow that he did not hold the opinion actually conveyed by the words.”

On May 17, Bazzi found that he had convinced the Full Court of the Federal Court that the reasoning behind the six-word tweet, and the purportedly defamatory imputations it conveyed, was flawed. Justices Steven Rares and Darryl Rangiah, in a joint judgment, found that Justice White had erred in not explaining “how the reader would understand the whole (or any part) of the tweet to convey the imputation.” They also noted that Justice White had found the meaning of the word “apologist” was not that of an excuser but of a defender. “When the material is read with Mr Bazzi’s six words, the reader would conclude that the tweet was suggesting that Mr Dutton was sceptical about claims of rape and in that way was an apologist.” It was “very different from imputing that he excuses rape itself.”

The judges put much stock in the context of the tweet, and the need to read it alongside Dutton’s previous remarks on the women held on Nauru as recorded in The Guardian. “The reader would perceive that the message in the tweet consisted of both parts, Mr Bazzi’s six word statement and The Guardian material, read together.” When read together, the reader “would understand that the point that the tweet was conveying was that a ‘rape apologist’ behaves in the way Mr Dutton had in expressing scepticism about the claims of rape. That is a far cry from conveying the meaning that he excuses rape itself.”

Justice Michael Wigney also found that the primary judge had erred in finding the tweet defamatory and “substantially agreed” with the two other justices. It was “tolerably clear” that Bazzi’s statement “was about, or responsive to, the extract from The Guardian article.” The primary judge had erred in how the ordinary reasonable Twitter user would have read the tweet, downplaying, for instance, the significance of the link to the article.

Accordingly, “It was wrong for the primary judge, in analysing whether Mr Bazzi’s tweet conveyed the alleged imputation, to dissect and segregate the tweet in the way he did.” While the tweet did convey “an impression that is derogatory and critical of [Dutton’s] attitude to rape or rape allegations,” it did “not go so far as to convey the impression that [Dutton] is a person who excuses rape.”

Dutton’s litigious boldness was much in keeping with the Morrison government’s general hostility to social media outlets and the internet, in general. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has shown a willingness to do battle with social media and making the platforms assume greater responsibility for material hosted on their sites. Taking advantage of the killings in Christchurch in March 2019, he exploited the chance to pursue a global agenda of online censorship. “We urge online platforms to step up the ambition and pace of their efforts to prevent terrorist and VECT (violent extremism conducive to terrorism) content being streamed, uploaded, or re-uploaded.”

In the latter part of last year, the government announced that it was drafting laws that would make social media companies gather user details and permit courts to force the divulging of user identities in defamation proceedings. While a re-elected Morrison government will be a dark day for internet freedoms and expression, Dutton’s defeat is a cause for genuine celebration. It also heralds the need to water down the persistently draconian nature of laws that do all too much in protecting that strange animal known as the offended politician.

 

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Morbid Matters: Estimating COVID-19 Mortality

It has dominated news cycles, debates and policies since 2020, but COVID-19 continues to exercise the interest of number crunchers and talliers. While the ghoulish daily press announcements about infections and deaths across many a country have diminished and, in some cases, disappeared altogether, publications abound about how many were taken in the pandemic.

The World Health Organization, ever that herald of dark news, has offered a revised assessment across of the SARS-CoV-2 death toll associated either directly or indirectly with the pandemic. Between January 1, 2020 and December 31, 2021, the global health body suggests that the mortality figure is closer to 14.9 million, with a range of 13.3 million to 16.6 million.

The number considers excess mortality, the figure reached after accounting for the difference between the number of deaths that have occurred, and the number expected in the absence of the pandemic. It also accounts for deaths occasioned directly by COVID-19, or indirectly (for instance, the pandemic’s disruption of society and health systems).

The impact, as expected, has been disproportionate in terms of which countries have suffered more. Of the excess deaths, 68% were concentrated in 10 countries – Brazil, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Peru, Russia, South Africa, Turkey, and the United States. Middle-income countries accounted for 81% of excess deaths; high-income countries, for 15%, and low-income countries, 4%.

The United States, if only for being ascendant in terms of power, wealth, and incompetence in dealing with the virus, finds itself in the undistinguished position of having lost a million people. “Today,” remarked President Joe Biden, “we mark a tragic milestone here in the United States, one million COVID deaths, one million empty chairs around the family dinner table, each irreplaceable, irreplaceable losses, each leaving behind a family, a community forever changed because of this pandemic.”

Chief Medical Adviser to the President, Anthony Fauci, rued the fact that “at least a quarter of those deaths, namely about 250,000” might have been saved by vaccinations. He also warned about the ugly prospect of a resurgence in numbers, and not bringing “down our guard.”

In light of such figures, WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, reiterates the line he and his colleagues have done so for months. Pandemics demand more “resilient health systems that can sustain essential health services during crises, including stronger health information systems.” His organisation “was committed to working with all countries to strengthen their health information systems to generate better data for better decisions and better outcomes.” Much of this will be wishful thinking.

Figures, certainly when they concern matters of mortality, can become the subject of bitter dispute. COVID-19 has proved no exception. In Africa, 41 of 54 countries reported insufficient data. Some countries have released incomplete data sets; others, none to speak of. This meant, inevitably, that the WHO’s Technical Advisory Group for COVID-19 Mortality Assessment could only model the missing figures to fill gaps.

As a result, scrapping and arguments over methodology duly emerged. India, for one, has very publicly objected to the way the WHO has approached the compilation, communicating its concerns in no less than six letters between November 2021 and March 2022 and in a number of virtual meetings. Concerns have also been registered by WHO Member States, including China, Iran, Bangladesh, Syria, Ethiopia and Egypt.

The case with India is particularly telling, given WHO modelling showing 4,740,894 excess deaths, almost triple that of New Delhi’s own figures. Such figures imply, as epidemiologist Prabhat Jha of the University of Toronto claimed back in January, that the authorities were “trying to suppress the numbers in the way that they coded the COVID deaths.”

In an indignant statement from the Union Health Ministry released early this month, much is made of “how the statistical model projects estimates for a country of geographical size & population of India and also fits in with other countries which have smaller population.” This constituted an unacceptable “one-size-fits-all approach and models which are true for smaller countries like Tunisia may not be applicable to India with a population of 1.3 billion.”

The WHO model also returned two highly varied sets of excess mortality estimates when using data from Tier 1 countries and when using data from 18 Indian states that had not been verified. “India has asserted that if the model [is] accurate and reliable, it should be authenticated by running it for all Tier 1 countries” and the “result of such exercise may be shared with all Member States.”

WHO assistant director general for emergency response, Ibrahima Soće Fall, concedes that any accurate picture is only as complete as the data provided. “We know where the data gaps are, and we must collectively intensify our support to countries, so that every country has the capability to track outbreaks in real time, ensure delivery of essential health services, and safeguard population health.”

The degree of fractiousness that persists in public health shows that sharp fault lines remain in each country’s approach to the pandemic problem. Disunity and factionalism, petty nationalism and self-interest, remain imperishable, even at the direst of times. And all governments, given the chance, will err on the side of inaccuracy rather than risk acute embarrassment.

 

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Rogues and Spyware: Pegasus Strikes in Spain

Weapons, lacking sentience and moral orientation, are there to be used by all. Once out, these creations can never be rebottled. Effective spyware, that most malicious of surveillance tools, is one such creation, available to entities and governments of all stripes. The targets are standard: dissidents, journalists, legislators, activists, even the odd jurist.

Pegasus spyware, the fiendishly effective creation of Israel’s unscrupulous NSO Group, has become something of a regular in the news cycles on cyber security. Created in 2010, it was the brainchild of three engineers who had cut their teeth working for the cyber outfit Unit 8200 of the Israeli Defence Forces: Niv Carmi, Shalev Hulio and Omri Lavie.

NSO found itself at the vanguard of an Israeli charm offensive, regularly hosting officials from Mossad at its headquarters in Herzliya in the company of delegations from African and Arab countries. Cyber capabilities would be one way of getting into their good books.

The record of the company was such as to pique the interest of the US Department of Commerce, which announced last November that it would be adding NSO Group and another Israeli cyber company Candiru (now renamed Saito Tech) to its entity list “based on evidence that these entities developed and supplied spyware to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics, and embassy workers.”

In July 2021, the Pegasus Project, an initiative of 17 media organisations and civil society groups, revealed that 50,000 phone numbers of interest to a number of governments had appeared on a list of hackable targets. All had been targets of Pegasus.

The government clients of the NSO Group are extensive, spanning the authoritarian and liberal democratic spectrum. Most notoriously, Pegasus has found its way into the surveillance armoury of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which allegedly monitored calls made by the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and a fellow dissident, Omar Abdulaziz. In October 2018, Khashoggi, on orders of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was butchered on the grounds of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a hit squad. NSO subsequently became the subject of a legal suit, with lawyers for Abdulaziz arguing that the hacking of his phone “contributed in a significant manner to the decision to murder Mr Khashoggi.”

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, Defence Minister Margarita Robles, Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska, and 18 Catalan separatists are the latest high-profile targets to feature in the Pegasus canon. Sánchez’s phone was hacked twice in May 2021, with officials claiming that there was at least one data leak. This was the result of, according to the government, an “illicit and external” operation, conducted by bodies with no state authorisation.

Ironically enough, Robles herself had defended the targeting of the 18 Catalan separatists, claiming that the surveillance was conducted with court approval. “In this country,” she insisted at a press conference, “no-one is investigated for their political ideals.”

The backdrop of the entire scandal is even more sinister, with Citizen Lab revealing last month that over 60 Catalan legislators, jurists, Members of the European Parliament, journalists and family members were targeted by the Pegasus spyware between 2015 and 2020. (Citizen Lab found that 63 individuals had been targeted or infected with Pegasus, with four others being the victims of the Candiru spyware.) Confirmed targets include Elisenda Paluzie and Sònia Urpí Garcia, who both work for the Assemblea Nacional Catalana, an organisation that campaigns for the independence of Catalonia.

The phone of Catalan journalist Meritxell Bonet was also hacked in June 2019 during the final days of a Supreme Court case against her husband Jordi Cuixart. Cuixart, former president of the Catalan association Òmnium Cultural, was charged and sentenced on grounds of sedition.

The investigation by Citizen Lab did not conclusively attribute “the operations to a specific entity, but strong circumstantial evidence suggests a nexus with Spanish authorities.” Amnesty International Technology and Human Rights researcher Likhita Banerji put the case simply. “The Spanish government needs to come clean over whether or not it is a customer of NSO Group. It must also conduct a thorough, independent investigation into the use of Pegasus spyware against the Catalans identified in this investigation.”

Heads were bound to roll, and the main casualty in this affair was the first woman to head Spain’s CNI intelligence agency, Paz Esteban. Esteban’s defence of the Catalan hackings proved identical to that of Robles: they had been done with judicial and legal approval. But she needed a scalp for an increasingly embarrassing situation and had no desire to have her reasons parroted back to her. “You speak of dismissal,” she stated tersely, “I speak of substitution.”

While the implications for the Spanish government are distinctly smelly, one should not forget who the Victor Frankenstein here is. NSO has had a few scrapes in Israel itself. It survived a lawsuit by Amnesty International in 2020 to review its security export license. But there is little danger of that company losing the support of Israel’s Ministry of Defence. In Israel, cybersecurity continues to be the poster child of technological prowess, lucrative, opaque and distinctly unaccountable to parliamentarians and the courts.

 

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Barnaby Joyce: Election Gonzo and China Fears

Always looking, and sounding, a touch unhinged, the beetroot-coloured Barnaby Joyce, leader of the Australian Nationals and, for a time now, deputy prime minister, has made a splash. With the federal elections being held on May 21, he does not have much time to commit mischief and befuddle the political vultures. But the National Press Club gave him a chance to make some trouble, a task accomplished with some success.

At stages during his address, it seemed that trouble had followed Joyce. There was sniffing and sniffling. Then a nosebleed, brief intermission and tissues. The Twitterati thought this ominous; political commentators searched for omens about previous pre-election mishaps. “I know you are going to get 1001 photos of me with a Kleenex up my nose, congratulations,” he chirped, on being handed a fresh tissue.

Of more interest, and some bafflement, was the speech itself, a filling of meaty prejudices and concerns about China, a fairly dismissive take on climate change, and a warning about the threat posed by a number of independent candidates that are knocking at the door of traditional conservative seats.

As far as Beijing is concerned, Joyce presents the classic Australian paradox: a pathological suspicion of the Yellow Horde and its strategic interests, but a delight at the voracious appetite they show for Australian commodities. In recent years, Australia’s skewed and distorted pattern of wealth has developed on the back of that particular interest. The same can also be said about the China student market and witless Australian universities lazily disposed to easy cash.

The role played by China in aiding Australian wealth did feature, if only to enable Joyce to speculate wildly as to who would replace it as top customer in the importing of iron ore exports. This proved particularly pertinent on the issue of how Australian commodities were essentially going into Chinese war-making capabilities.

In his answer, Joyce recalled “talking to one of the large miners” and saying that “we have a big new customer.” That customer: Germany. “Germany is a big new customer. And I imagine Germany is using the iron ore for a whole range of things and of course, one the other Germany is redoing, rearming.” When “rearming” and “Germany” are used, however disjointedly, in a sentence, ghosts of wars past stir nervously.

Not, it would seem, now. A Teutonic replacement would be welcome in the face of Beijing’s regional ambitions. Chinese military expansion, Joyce stated unequivocally, was “without a shadow of a doubt” the most important issue facing Australians.

Inventively, and with a flourish, he took the view that China’s conduct in seeking security ties with countries such as the Solomon Islands was simple: the encirclement of Australia. “It is quite obvious through their desire to have military bases that they are starting a process of encircling Australia and that there is a wish, at the very least, to intimidate, or worse, to supplicate Australia.”

Joyce has never quite had the mind or sense to understand the historical basis of China’s own concern of encirclement, a psychic disturbance very much aided by the United States and the recent AUKUS security pact. The same can be said about his understanding of independent candidates, whom he rubbishes as being incapable of understanding national security.

Such novel, absurd and dangerous interpretations on the wishes of a power can become, at a moment’s notice, the bricks and mortar for conflict. “The thing that China will respect is strength. That’s why I say we have to become as strong as possible as quickly as possible. And respecting strength means you have to be strong across all facets of what you do.”

Giving the impression of being far-eyed and sagacious, Barnaby spoke of his role in preventing previous efforts by Chinese entities to acquire Australian assets and muscle in on domestic matters. “I refer to my successful endeavours to stop a Chinese state-owned enterprise takeover of Rio Tinto, our largest iron ore exporter, back as far as 2009.” He then boasted of his support for “changes in foreign investment laws which the Labor Party opposed.”

When asked about the touchy issue of climate change and disagreement within his own party and his Liberal coalition partners, he was unperturbed. Metropolitan, ecology-minded types, despite being threatened by the so-called “teal independents”, would not have their way on the issue of preventing coal projects. “Because what we are doing is … we have got to make sure our nation earns as much money as possible. We can’t do that if we shut down coal exports.” What vision, what clarity.

What about the issue of the Coalition’s “safeguard mechanism” in responding to climate change? In a sense, this looks suspiciously like a version of the demonised carbon tax, an idea considered pestilential in pro-fossil fuel circles. The mechanism requires polluting companies to purchase carbon credits or, in lieu of that, reduce emissions. “It’s like the ceiling on this,” the cryptic Barnaby intoned. “It’s out of the way but it stops you going through the roof. They [Labor] are going to bring the ceiling down to about head level for tall people. And about 215 [companies] are going to start belting their heads on the fans and the lights and being fatally attacked based on that.”

In all the hyperbolic, and at points inscrutable venting, Joyce struggled with the correct pronunciation of Labor opposition leader Anthony Albanese, the man vying to be the next Prime Minister. Several attempts were made, none quite hitting the mark. Labor will be hoping that such misfiring will translate into electoral returns. Given Joyce’s previous successes, this will prove a tall order, notably in regional Australia.

 

 

 

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Greg Norman: Saudi Arabia’s Sportswashing Emissary

As with previous breakaway religions thrilled by the prospect of the new, breakaway sporting competitions offer a chance to reassess doctrine, administration, and philosophies. It has happened in football, cricket, and rugby, often controversially, and almost always indignantly. The attempt to create a rival competition is now taking place in a sport famously described as the spoiling of a good walk.

The LIV Golf Invitational Series is set to run from June to October and promises to be an extravaganza played on three continents. The chief executive of the enterprise is the man of the eternal tan, golfer turned businessman Greg Norman, while LIV Golf Enterprises is itself majority owned by the Public Investment Fund, which operates on behalf of that inglorious institution known as the Saudi government.

Norman claims to have sent invitation letters to 250 players of the top-ranked players to compete in the tournament. “Our events are truly additive to the world of golf,” he claims in justification. “We have done our best to create a schedule that allows players to play elsewhere, while still participating in our events.”

Opposition to such schemes from the traditional golfing establishment has never been in short supply. Norman had previously pitched the idea of a World Golf Tour in November 1994, which would have featured eight events with $3 million on offer to the top 30 players in the rankings. Despite being initially outmanoeuvred, PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem retaliated by appropriating the breakaway challenge, announcing the creation of three $4 million World Golf Championship events in 1999 and a fourth the following year.

A disgusted Norman could only rue his defeat before such unsportsmanlike devilry. “I think there is only one word for it and that is control. Now control is there, in their mind, and let them have it, let them go with it, let them see what they can do.” Dreams of revenge at these closed shop operators were entertained.

This time around, the Tours are again readying their weapons and options. Retribution against the usurpers, they promise, will be severe: banning players who sign up, restricting entry into the majors, and preventing participation in the Ryder Cup. Lawyers will be smacking their lips at the prospect of legal challenges and bloated briefs.

The more troubling picture in the grand scheme is the sports washing hand of Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has become an aggressive strategic investor in sports events, hosting Formula One motor racing, boxing events, purchasing European football clubs and promoting wrestling. With each encroachment, human rights considerations and a regime’s brutality blur and eventually vanish before the size of the wallet.

This rebranding of the blood-stained image of Saudi Arabia using sports has been spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, palace coup plotter and figure behind the butchering of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. A good number of golfing officials have preferred to overlook that nastier side of the surly Crown Prince, not to mention such blemishes as the war in Yemen. In the words of European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley, the Kingdom’s “goal to make parts of the country more accessible to global business, tourism and leisure over the next decade” was to be appreciated.

Pelley is not the only ethically challenged enthusiast for Riyadh’s ventures. From the other side of the competition, Norman, otherwise known as the Great White Shark, shows no sign of having a moral compass. All he sees is golf and opportunity, promising his Saudi investors that the country will become a powerhouse of the sport under his guidance. As for Saudi Arabia, he sees cashed-up reforms, star studded progress. “It’s an eye opener to see how the country is investing into their people and opportunities from a health and wellness perspective, from a sporting perspective, from an education perspective,” he bombastically, and inaccurately told Arab News last year.

Attacks on his recruitment as Saudi Arabia’s sportswasher-in-chief are parried. “Look, I’ll be honest with you, yes, the criticisms have stung a little bit, but I’m a big believer that you can’t run through a brick wall without getting bloody,” he told The Telegraph last month. “I’m willing to run through this wall because I’m a big believer in growing the game of golf on a global basis.”

Such statements do not merely betray a crass insensitivity but a naked adoration for the agents of Mammon. When asked about the fortune he is being paid by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund – some put the figure at $50 million a year – he retorted with a question. “What’s the definition of a fortune?”

Despite acknowledging the brutal murder of Khashoggi, having previously called it “reprehensible”, he found comfort in the passage of time. “Every country’s got a cross to bear.” There was much guilt to go around. “I am the type of person who looks into the future, not out of the past, and see what Saudi Arabia has done in a very short time to invest in the game.” Well done, Crown Prince, you’ve certainly got an ally there.

On the issue of hypocrisy, Norman is quick to identify his archenemies in the PGA Tour as monumental culprits. While they had not specifically accused the entrepreneur of “sportswashing”, they had certainly gotten others to stump for them. “Yes, it’s ok for them to go into China, with the Uyghurs? Seriously? Step back and take a really good, honest, hard look at the facts and then you’ll see, ‘Hey, Greg Norman is not such an ogre after all.’” Not an ogre, but a most useful dolt for the House of Saud.

 

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Bongbong Politics: Rehabilitating the Marcos Family

Children should not pay for the sins of their parents. But in some cases, a healthy suspicion of the offspring is needed, notably when it comes to profiting off ill-gotten gains. It is certainly needed in the case of Filipino politician and presidential candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, who stands to win on May 9.

Bongbong’s father was the notorious strongman Ferdinand Marcos, his mother, the avaricious, shoe-crazed Imelda. Elected president in 1965, Ferdinand Marcos indulged in murder, torture and looting. He thrived on the terrain of violent, corrupt oligarchic politics, characterised by a telling remark from the dejected Sergio Osmenã Jr, whom he defeated in 1969: “We were outgunned, outgooned, and outgold.”

In 1972, martial law was imposed on the pretext of a failed assassination attempt against the defence secretary, an attack which saw no injuries nor apprehension of suspects. It was only formally lifted in 1981. Under the blood-soaked stewardship of the Marcos regime, 70,000 warrantless arrests were made, and 4,000 people killed.

The Philippines duly declined in the face of monstrous cronyism, institutional unaccountability and graft, becoming one of the poorest in South-East Asia. While Marcos Sr’s own official salary never rose above $13,500 a year, he and his cronies made off with $10 billion. (Estimates vary.) When revolutionaries took over the Presidential palace, they found garishly ornate portraits, 15 mink coats, 508 couture gowns and over 3,000 pairs of Imelda’s designer shoes.

Fleeing the Philippines in the wake of the popular insurrection of 1986 led by Corazon “Cory” Aquino, the Marcoses found sanctuary in the bosom of US protection, taking up residence in Hawaii.

Opinion polls show that Bongbong is breezing his way to office, a phenomenon that has little to do with his personality, sense of mind, or presence. A Pulse Asia survey conducted in February showed voter approval at an enviable 60 per cent. This would suggest that the various petitions seeking to disqualify him have had little effect on perceptions lost in the miasma of myth and speculation.

All this points to a dark concatenation of factors that have served to rehabilitate his family’s legacy. For the student aware of the country’s oligarchic politics, this is unlikely to come as shocking. For one, the Marcoses have inexorably found their way back into politics, making their way through the dynastic jungle.

Imelda, for all her thieving ways, found herself serving in the House of Representatives four times and unsuccessfully ran for the presidency in 1992. Daughter Imee became governor of the province of Ilocos Norte in 2010, and has been serving as a senator since 2019. Marcos Jr followed a similar trajectory, becoming a member of congress and senator and doing so with little distinction. In 2016, he contested the vice presidency and lost.

Bongbong has already done his father proud at various levels, not least exhibiting a tendency to fabricate his past. On the touchy issue of education, Oxford University has stated at various points that Marcos Jr, while matriculating at St. Edmund Hall in 1975, never took a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. According to the institution’s records, “he did not complete his degree, but was awarded a special diploma in Social Studies in 1978.”

A statement from the Oxford Philippines Society remarks that, “Marcos failed his degree’s preliminary examinations at the first attempt. Passing the preliminary examinations is a prerequisite for continuing one’s studies and completing a degree at Oxford University.” The issue was known as far back as 1983, when a disturbed sister from the Religious of the Good Shepherd wrote to the university inquiring about the politician’s credentials and received a letter confirming that fact.

Outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte, whose own rule has been characterised by populist violence and impunity, has played his role in the rehabilitative process. In 2016, almost three decades after dying in Hawaii, Duterte gave permission for Ferdinand Marcos to be buried with full military honours in Manila’s National Heroes’ Cemetery. The timing of the burial was kept secret, prompting Vice President Leni Robredo to describe the ceremony as “a thief in the night.”

A coalition of Jesuit groups claimed that the interring of Marcos in Manila “buries human dignity by legitimising the massive violations of human and civil rights… that took place under his regime.” Duterte would have appreciated the mirror-effect of the move, a respectful nod from one human rights abuser to another. Under his direction, thousands of drug suspects have been summarily butchered.

Bongbong has also taken the cue, rehabilitating his parents using a polished, digital campaign of re-invention that trucks in gold age nostalgia and delusion. Political raw material has presented itself. The gap between the wealthy and impoverished, which his father did everything to widen, has not been closed by successive governments. According to 2021 figures from the Philippine Statistics Authority, 24 per cent of Filipinos, some 26 million people, live below the poverty line.

Videos abound claiming that his parents were philanthropists rather than figures of predation. The issue of martial law brutality has all but vanished in the narrative. Social media and online influencers have managed the growth of this image through a coordinated campaign of disinformation waged across multiple platforms.

Gemma B. Mendoza of the Philippine news platform Rappler has noted the more sinister element of these efforts. Even as the legacy of a family dictatorship is being burnished, the press and critics are being hounded. The only movement standing in the way of Family Marcos is Vice President Robredo, who triumphed over Marcos Jr in 2016. Her hope is a brand of politics nourished by grassroots participation rather than shameless patronage.

The same cannot be said of the political classes who operate on the central principle of Philippine politics: impunity. This, at least, is how the political scientist Aries Arugay of the University of Philippines sees it. “We just don’t jail our politicians or make them accountable … we don’t punish them, unlike South Korean presidents.” The opposite is the case, and as the voters make it to the ballot on Monday, the country, if polls are to be believed, will see another Marcos in the presidential palace.

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Leaking for Roe v Wade

The US Supreme Court Chief Justice was furious. For the first time in history, the raw judicial process of one of the most powerful, and opaque arms of government, had been exposed via media – at least in preliminary form. It resembled, in no negligible way, the publication by WikiLeaks of various drafts of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the forerunner to the current Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The subject matter was positively incendiary: the potential overturning and judicial eradication of Roe v Wade, a 1973 decision which has generated a literature both for and against its merits of herculean proportions. In its draft form, Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health entertains a full-throated attack on the decision that had legalised abortion via constitutional fiat, even if the original grounds centred on privacy.

Such an inner illumination of processes was never the intention of the US Supreme Court. For over two centuries, it had not seen the like of this. For the most part, whatever their persuasion, the justices have kept religiously mum on the issue of a case till final publication. In an address to the American Constitution Society, given on June 15, 2012, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was not giving anything away to the audience about what fate awaited the Affordable Care Act. The justices had originally voted on the matter on March 30. By mid-June, opinions had already been drafted and circulated in the judicial conclave. “Those who know don’t talk,” teased Ginsburg. “And those who talk don’t know.”

The same, remarked Jack Goldsmith in The New Republic, could not be said about the national intelligence community, where the loquacious roam. Those knowledgeable and in the know on such matters were often the same ones willing to spill, babble and discuss.

The draft, published in unadulterated or abridged form, comprises 98 pages and 118 footnotes, with an accompanying 31-page length appendix covering the historical state abortion laws. Delivered by Justice Samuel Alito, it states with punchy certainty that, “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start.” The reasoning adopted in the decision was “exceptionally weak, and the decision has had damaging consequences.” It is a paean for state power over federal dictation. Laws on abortion should finally be returned to the fold of State legislatures.

Judgments do go through various iterations. This version stems from February. The fact that it is now circulating in public like a demon of agitation, stirring up the various party bases and groups, is an experiment of itself, bringing down the rickety façade of the Supreme Court as a non-partisan body. “Unquestionably, it drags the court into the political scrum and rubs some of the polish of it,” opines George F. Will.

A statement from the Supreme Court, in an effort to keep up appearances, claims that its operations has only suffered a minor hiccup. “Although the document described in yesterday’s reports is authentic, it does not represent a decision by the Court or the final position of any member on the issues in the case.”

Whether the justices congeal or adjust their current view on Roe in light of the Politico leak is, at this point, unanswerable. But a distinct sense of bloodlust has taken over in the effort to find the culprit. Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., in a statement, described the leak as “a singular and egregious breach of trust that is an affront to the Court and the community of public servants who work here.”

The message captivating the establishment is whether the leaker violated any laws and, if so, what penalty might fellow. While pro-choice supporters are well infuriated by the draft, but the conservatives seem intent on crucifying the perpetrator. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) fumed that this “lawless action” be “investigated and punished as fully as possible.” The editors of the National Review insist that this incident “is intolerable and cannot go unpunished.”

The Chief Justice, for his part, has directed the Marshal of the Court, Col. Gail A. Curley, to begin an investigation into the source. Doing so potentially rings off the process from the prying eyes of the FBI and the Justice Department. No judicial officer wants them to get involved.

The prosecution effort is unlikely to amount to much. In the first place, a Supreme Court draft decision fails to have the gravity, standing or properties of a legal document to warrant such action. “As far as I can tell,” submitted the seasoned UC Berkeley legal authority Orin Kerr, “there is no federal criminal law that directly prohibits disclosure of a draft legal opinion.”

 

 

The only real legislative foothold to use against the opportunistic leaker, if that even counts, is the statute known as 18 U.S.C.§ 641 which covers public money, property or records, namely prohibiting the theft or misuse of government-owned “things of value”. The lingering question here is whether the statute covers information and whether the concept of information could be said to be a “thing of value”.

The guidelines of the Justice Department also suggest that it would be “inappropriate to bring a prosecution” where an individual had legitimate access to the information or document and used such material “for the purpose of disseminating it to the public.”

As the Colonel gets busy with her investigation, the debate over how to cope with a world after Roe has begun in desperate fury. The Biden administration has reiterated its support for the principle of the case and notes, in the event of its overturning, that the onus will fall to the elected and the electors “at all levels of government.” At the federal level, it will pursue a process that codifies Roe. Either way, the politicians of the US imperium are going to get busier over matters of the foetus.

 

 

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Noise Matters: Wind Farms, Nuisance and the Law

For years, the Australian wind farm has been reviled as ugly, noisy and unendearing by a certain number of prominent figures. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott pathologized them, calling wind turbines the “dark satanic mills of the modern era,” being not merely aesthetically problematic but damaging to health.

The latter view has been rejected by the National Health and Medical Research Council, which found “no consistent evidence that wind farms cause adverse health effects in humans” though it accepted at the time “that further high quality research on the possible health effects of wind farms is required.” Literature examining the nature of wind farm complaints also notes “large historical and geographical differences in the distribution of complainants in Australia.”

Current Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce is another figure who never misses a chance to question the broader use of wind power. In New South Wales, where his electorate is based, he has warned the NSW government to “be careful” about using more turbines. “It’s not a bowl of cherries in this space,” observed the Nationals leader in characteristically gnomic fashion, “and that’s why you’ve got to keep your base load power going.”

This has placed him at odds with the State government and its renewable energy agenda. Criticism of the New England renewable energy zone as turning his electorate “into a sea of wind farms” did not impress NSW agriculture minister Adam Marshall in December 2020. In The Land newspaper, Marshall, who is also a member of the Nationals, regarded such criticism as “banal and binary and prehistoric”.

On March 25, the Victorian Supreme Court gave private citizens some cause for joy, and policy makers and corporations a potential cause for concern, in challenging the way such farms operate. The judgement found that the noise from the Bald Hills Wind Farm based at Tarwin Lower in South Gippsland, “caused substantial interference with both plaintiffs’ enjoyment of their land – specifically, their ability to sleep undisturbed at night, in their own beds in their own homes.”

There had been a sufficient nuisance to warrant the awarding of damages and an injunction on the company from continuing to cause the noise at night, Bald Hills having failed to establish “that the sound received at either [the plaintiffs’ houses] complied with noise conditions in the permit at any time.” While the relevant Minister for Planning might “initiate enforcement action,” it was up to the court or tribunal to determine whether compliance had taken place.

The two individuals in question – John Zakula and Noel Uren – sued the wind farm in 2021 claiming the infliction of “roaring” noise by the wind turbines. It transpires that Bald Hills had form of the most condescending sort. Since commencing operations in 2015, it had received “many complaints from neighbouring residents and landowners about noise from wind turbines.” In 2015 alone, the Bald Hill complaints register recorded 50 complaints, some from Uren and Zakula, and all about noise disruption.

The company’s behaviour in responding to the complaints did not impress the court. Justice Melinda Richards decided that awarding aggravated damages was entirely appropriate. “The manner in which Bald Hills dealt with the plaintiffs’ reasonable and legitimate complaints of noise, over many years, at least doubled the impact of the loss of amenity each of them suffered at their homes.” The judge decided that Uren should receive $46,000 in aggravated damages, with Zakula to pocket $84,000.

Justice Richards was not amiss to the implications of such a decision. Unlike the Australian Deputy Prime Minister, she showed no signs of pre-historic tendencies in her reasoning. Wind power generation, she accepted, was “a socially beneficial activity.” There was no reason, however, why it was not “possible to achieve both a good night’s sleep and power generation at the same time.” The evidence presented to the court “did not suggest […] that there is a binary choice to be made between the generation of clean energy by the wind farm, and a good night’s sleep for its neighbours.” The company could well have responded to the complaints of Uren and Zakula adequately “while continuing to generate renewable energy.”

When seen in its more specific context, the decision furnishes the renewable energy sector with a critical lesson. Even when engaged in socially responsible activities – in this case, renewable energy production – companies must be mindful of the implications of their behaviour to neighbouring residents. Being green and environmentally sound are noble ventures, but hardly enough when it comes to inflicting a nightmare upon residents.

Dominica Tannock, representing both plaintiffs, suggested after her clients’ victory that, “The implications are corporate Australia will have to be very careful about complaints.” It was incumbent on the company to behave reasonably, fairly and “protect people’s sleep and if they don’t there is a precedent [now that] they can be shut down.”

The owner of the Bald Hills Wind Farm, Infrastructure Capital Group, said little in a statement response to the ruling, merely that it was “currently absorbing the judgment and its implications.” They will not be the only ones.

 

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Panic in Kooyong: The Threat to the Australian Liberal Party

He has been seen, not always accurately, as the more moderate in an otherwise conservative Liberal Party, which has governed Australia since 2013 in an at times troubled alliance with the Nationals. He has served as party deputy to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and proudly promotes his role as the country’s treasurer during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Josh Frydenberg is nervous. There is also reason to suggest that he might even be panicking. The electorate he represents – that of Kooyong – is not quite so warm towards the sitting member as it has been in the past. The sitting MP has resorted to his home party base for comfort. “Incredible sea of Liberal blue at our Kooyong Campaign Launch, with more than 1,000 people present,” he tweeted on May 1. “So much energy in the room.”

The sitting member was certainly correct about the energy, in so far as it went to the head of one of his supporters in attendance. After voicing public approval for Frydenberg (“Liberals will win because of Josh”), volunteer Phil Elwood proceeded to become an impromptu “birdman”, imitating the sound of a Kookaburra and Sulphur-crested Cockatoo with gusto. Many political candidates have feared the distractions of the eccentric, dedicated supporter.

The seat has also been given licks and lashings of Liberal blue, with posters, placards and paraphernalia saturating the suburb. But all this extravagant expense of reminder in a seat traditionally held by the Liberals, there is a nagging feeling that a rude shock awaits on May 21.

That rude shock comes in the form of independent candidate Monique Ryan. “A vote for Dr Monique Ryan,” runs the standard line, “is a vote for climate action, integrity and a strong economy.” From her perspective, and those of similar candidates in other safe Liberal Party seats – Goldstein, Wentworth, North Sydney – the first two priorities, which have tended to find their way at the bottom end of the government’s list, stand out.

The Morrison government has made a name for itself in the field of corruption and a lack of accountability verging on the grotesque. Its members have shown little contrition on being exposed. In December 2020, when it was revealed that Morrison and Frydenberg had run up a bill of almost $5,000 for using the PM’s jet to attend Lachlan Murdoch’s 2018 Christmas party, it barely stirred a murmur.

Writing with some disgust about the episode, Nick Feik asked the relevant question: “How did we get to the point where the misuse of public money by our two most senior politicians provoked neither contrition nor embarrassment, and it scarcely even registered as a scandal?”

This is certainly not the case for the “teal independents”, who are insisting that the Liberal Party account for its sins and call out scandals and sleaze. They also support the establishment of an integrity commission with fangs, something which, according to a poll conducted by The Australia Institute, is endorsed by three in four Australians.

The momentum of such candidates has caused an outbreak of sweat among the sitting members. Frydenberg, for one, has resorted to attacking Ryan in a coarse, personal way. A central strategy, one fabulously juvenile and ill-informed, is to assume that an independent candidate can never, by definition, be independent. She would, for instance, have been incapable of flirting with various sides of politics in the past, to have voted for different and differing parties at different elections. She could not have been a swinging voter, but instead an unwavering member of a tribe from the outset.

This ossified veneration of the unchanging political mind came to the fore in remarks made by Frydenberg about Ryan’s own alleged lack of independence, telling his supporters that he was not “up against a true independent. I’m up against a political party.” Dark forces, he insinuates, lurk, and he risks being a victim of puppetry – the workings of the Climate 200 group created by clean energy advocate Simon Holmes à Court, or the “Voice of” movement.

He has even gone so far as to throw in anecdotes of desperation, including a chance meeting with the independent candidate’s mother-in-law, whom he had apparently bumped into at a “local café”. On receiving the good news that she would be voting for him, he recalled the answer: “Because you know what you’re doing and you’re a nice person.”

This march of the independents has terrified other former politicians such as John Howard, Liberal Prime Minister of Australia between 1996 and 2007. He has made it his personal mission to convince voters that the independent candidates are “anti-Liberal groupies” who do not represent the “middle ground”.

Showing a total lack of understanding as to how reactionary his own party became, largely due to his own demagogic handiwork, Howard could only wonder why the independent movement had not expressed an interest in running candidates against the Labor Party. “The only consequence of a victory for one of these will be to reduce the prospects of the Liberal Party forming the next government. It’s simple as that.” That, you would think, is the point of the matter.

 

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Slaying the Dragon of Net Zero Emissions

The Queensland Nationals Senator Matt Canavan is a jewel of parochialism, a darling of nutty consternation. As a member of a party historically hostile to cutting fossil fuel emissions, he has been, for the most part, at home. But some of his colleagues have had environmental conversions, hammering out an understanding with their Liberal counterparts about a net zero emissions target by 2050.

This understanding was only reached after much hollering and fuss prior to Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s visit to the climate change conference in Glasgow in 2021. But Canavan was having none of it and was delighted by the conference’s end that countries had agreed to “phase down” rather than “phase out” coal burning.

The communique of COP26 was, according to the Queensland Senator, a “green light” for Australia to keep digging and “supply the world with more coal because that’s what brings people out of poverty.” There had “never been a higher demand” for coal and a virtuous Australian fossil fuel market would be happy to feed it.

With an election campaign in full swing, Canavan has again attempted to slay the net zero emissions dragon, taking the lead from LNP candidate for the seat of Flynn, Colin Boyce. Boyce had suggested that the commitment to net zero was flexible, permitting “wiggle room” and a distinct lack of fidelity.

On the ABC’s Afternoon Briefing program, Canavan went one further in roundly proclaiming that “net zero is … dead.” With such remarks, the accord reached between the Liberals and Nationals about achieving net zero emissions by 2050 seemed, not only shaky but erased. “[UK Prime Minister] Boris Johnson said he is pausing the net zero commitment, Germany is building coal and gas infrastructure, Italy’s reopening coal-fired power plants. It’s all over. It’s all over bar the shouting here.”

With the election campaign in full swing, these remarks proved unwelcome to his government colleagues. “This is not the party’s position, that’s not the Coalition’s position and it’s not the government’s position,” Morrison confirmed. “That’s his view, it’s no surprise, he’s held it for a long time, it’s been resolved and our policy was set out very clearly.”

The Nationals MP Michelle Landry was less diplomatic. “Pull your head in, Matt,” she waspishly chided, while Victorian Nationals MP Darren Chester suggested that Canavan had lost not merely the argument but a sense of perspective. “Matt Canavan is becoming like the Japanese intelligence officer who refused to accept World War II was over and hid in the Philippines jungle for 30 years.”

Former Nationals leader, Michael McCormack, did the media rounds suggesting that Canavan’s remarks were “not helpful”. The issue of emission targets had been resolved. “There are enough sensible people in the National Party to ensure people know we are committed to it.”

The discordance in government ranks was a boon to the Labor Party. “The Liberal and National Parties are in open warfare about their net zero emissions policy, in the middle of an election campaign,” came the assessment from Labor Senator Murray Watt.

Anyone familiar with the Canavan copy book will be touched and dismayed by his entertainingly grotesque readings of climate change. In 2021, he tweeted photos of snow filled scenes in regional New South Wales mocking the idea that there was a rise in global temperatures. He has also been unsparing about the authors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “One of the IPCC authors was quoted as saying he hoped this report would scare people so it would help change their vote,” he recalled.

The senator has also become a socialist of sorts, at least when it comes to fossil fuel polluters. Far from being demonised, those in the industry should be coddled and cushioned from the predatory behaviour of banks refusing to fork out financing for new mines. “Global banks that want to control who has a job in Australia should be locked out of our country.” Australians should well “pay higher interest rates but that would be worth it to protect our independence”.

In 2020, he told an Australian national program that the idea of zero emissions was never something that had been put to the electorate. “The Australian people have never voted for net zero emissions… We seem to try and get bullied into these positions that the Australian people didn’t vote for.” He also attacked the Paris climate agreement as “transferring industrial wealth from the west and from Australia to China, a country that’s bullying and threatening us.” (It must surely strike Canavan as ironic that China’s demand for Australian commodities, notably iron ore, remains insatiable.)

With such attitudes, Canavan is bound to win a fair share of votes. His unabashed hostility to environmental activists and his adoration of coal continues to sell well as a message in parts of his home state. It is proving less convincing in Australia’s metropolitan centres, increasingly terrified by a planet on the boil.

 

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Fibbing on Anzac Day

April 25, 2022 was one of the less edifying days in the annals of commemorating the fallen. The day is regarded as special for Australians and New Zealanders for being a solemn occasion, a moment to consider those who gave their lives up for King (or Queen) and country. In recent decades, militarists and organisers of the occasion have found greater merit in focusing on that nebulous notion of “mateship” – friendship and collective spirit under fire. This serves as a suitable distraction from those malignant ignoramuses who put them there in the first place. Barely credible and competent commanders and politicians can be exempt from scrutiny so that the diggers can commune in memories of lost friends and valour.

But this day was a bit different. There was an election to fight, and Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was going to make the most of the occasion. There were fibs to be told, myths to hail. This was no occasion to talk about interest rates, rubbish and roads. There were veterans, families, and school children to convince or inculcate. The message: go home, those who cherish peace, and prepare for war. There were those who came before; there are more to come.

Yet again, it was a day for Morrison to use a naff analysis of the global political situation. “An arc of autocracy is challenging the rules-based order our grandparents had secured, and democratic freedoms.” An odd statement to make on a day born from a failed invasion of a sovereign entity, itself cooked up as part of a military gamble by the fiendishly adventurous Winston Churchill.

The dawn service in Darwin heard from the prime minister about another country suffering. “The world has been reminded in recent weeks that the strength and defence of any nation starts with the citizens themselves.” This reference was not to Tigray or Yemen. There was only one war that exercised the Australian leader, one so clear and devoid of historical complexity as to be digestible even to him. Ukraine, to put it simply, had produced the right sort of refugees – the fair-blue eyed sort – and the right sort of moral baggage to promote during an election campaign.

Then, a statement of the obvious, dressed up as a warning: the defence of a country depended on “the willingness of a people to give all.” “The defence of Australia depends on us.” Not untrue, but hardly explains the fact that the Commonwealth has only ever genuinely needed to defend its own shores once during its short history. Other conflicts have seen Australian soldiers as disposable pseudo-Gurkhas, mercenaries for empires, deployed without question and, it should be said, without wisdom, to conflict zones across the globe. Theirs not to reason why.

Morrison recalled some of these engagements – many defeats in the Gallipoli tradition. “From Gallipoli to Mosel, from the jungles of Vietnam to the sands of Afghanistan, from the skies above to the oceans below, what has compelled our soldiers, sailors, aviators, nurses and chaplains is the willingness to defend what they love.” Or at least what they were told to love.

In a manner condescending to the modestly learned and well-studied, the prime minister suggested that veterans of previous conflicts were not “naïve”, appreciating Australia as having a “liberal democratic” system. This came with freedom of speech, freedom of association, a free press and free elections. The remark is astonishing, as concepts such as free speech or freedom of association do not exist in Australia in any meaningful way – certainly not constitutionally or as a personal right. The only thing Australians can rely upon is a watered-down constraint on legislative power known as an implied right to communicate on political subjects. There is no constitutional personal right vested in a citizen against the government or executive.

As for a free press, Australian federal authorities have raided the homes and offices of journalists, including that of the national broadcaster, the ABC, for publishing and writing about atrocities and violations of civil liberties. The Australian Federal Police even went so far as to advise the Commonwealth Department of Public Prosecution that it could prosecute ABC journalist Dan Oakes, an important figure behind the publication of the Afghan Files. A reluctant CDPP decided against it, citing “a range of public interest factors, including the role of public interest journalism in Australia’s democracy.” Morrison’s idea of Australia as a political nirvana of freedom remains phantasm and fantasy.

Greater fibs then came from Australia’s Defence Minister, Peter Dutton, upon whom the muse of history, Clio, has never smiled sweetly. This was the occasion to push erroneous comparisons, the sort that any half-competent logician would have dispelled with sour contempt.

On Channel 9, the Minister encouraged peace lovers to prepare for war before searching the historical record for an anchor. “People like Hitler and others aren’t just a figment of our imagination or that they’re consigned to history,” he stated with implausible authority. “We have in President [Vladimir] Putin somebody at the moment who is willing to kill women and children. And that’s happening in the year 2022.” The Australian-backed Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is also doing the same thing in Yemen, but the House of Saud did not offer useful material.

With Hitler now in the comparative mix, Dutton could expand with comic effect. The People’s Republic of China, he suggested, could also be compared to Nazi Germany – at least in terms of the latter’s pre-Second World War guise. Both countries annexed territory, and Germany did so ahead of its invasion of Poland in 1939.

Details were otherwise sketchy, the history student found wanting, but the moral of the tale was clear. “We have to stand up with countries to stare down any act of aggression to make sure that we can keep peace in our region and for our country.” No “curling up into a ball”, he advised. To do so would result in repeating “the mistakes of history.” With Dutton and Morrison holding the reins of power, such mistakes are guaranteed.

 

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Bernard Collaery’s War Against Secret Trials

In terms of labyrinthine callousness and indifference to justice, the treatment of lawyer Bernard Collaery by the Australian government must be slotted alongside that of another noted Australian currently being held in the maximum-security facility of Belmarsh, London. While Collaery has not suffered the same deprivations of liberty as publisher extraordinaire Julian Assange, both share the target status accorded them by the national security state. They are both to be punished for dealing with, and revealing, national security information compromising to the state in question.

Assange’s case is notorious and grotesque enough: held in Belmarsh for three years without charge; facing extradition to the United States for a dubiously cobbled indictment bolted to the Espionage Act of 1917 – a US statute that is being extra-territorially expanded to target non-US nationals who publish classified information overseas.

Collaery’s is less internationally known, though it should banish any suggestions that Assange would necessarily face much fairer treatment in the Australian justice system. The barrister is being prosecuted under section 39 of the Intelligence Services Act 2001 (Cth) for conspiracy to reveal classified information. He was consulted by now convicted former intelligence officer Witness K, who was responsible for leading a 2004 spying operation conducted by the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) that led to the bugging of cabinet offices used by the East Timorese government.

The operation was instigated in the predatory spirit of corporate greed: Australia was involved in treaty negotiations with Timor-Leste regarding access to oil and gas reserves at the time and wished to privilege its own resource companies through spying on their counterparts. Former attorney general of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Collaery came onto the scene after Witness K, on being involved in a workplace dispute in 2008, revealed that he had directed the bugging operation. After going to the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security, the ethically agitated Witness K consulted the ASIS-approved lawyer.

The bureaucrats of secrecy were hoping that things might have been contained. Instead, a juggernaut of information began to leave the terminus of secrecy. Collaery considered the spying operation a violation of ACT law. In 2013, both men made themselves available for the East Timorese cause in testifying at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague. Australia’s illegal operation, and bad faith to a neighbour and purported friend, was being given an unwanted airing. The case being made against Canberra was that the treaty, because of the bugging, had been rendered void.

An unimpressed Commonwealth responded by raiding the Canberra premises of the two individuals. Nothing, however, was done till 2018, when the new and zealous Attorney General Christopher Porter commenced prosecutions against the pair. The Kafkaesque clincher in the whole affair was the effort by Porter to make most of the trial proceedings inaccessible to the public. Porter also imposed a national security order without precedent, preventing the parties from divulging details of the prosecution to the public or press.

Witness K, after pleading guilty, received a three-month suspended sentence and was placed on a 12-month good behaviour bond. Collaery has been left to counter five charges alleging that he communicated information to various ABC journalists prepared by or on behalf of ASIS and allegedly conspired with Witness K to communicate that same information to the Government of Timor-Leste.

In assessing the ongoing prosecution against him, Collaery observed in an interview with Sydney Criminal Lawyers, that he had been charged with conspiracy for giving “frank and fearless advice.” The charge against Witness K meant that it was “a crime to report a crime. Think about it. That’s Australia at present.”

Since then, Collaery has waged a relentless campaign against efforts by the Australian government to muzzle proceedings to conceal both embarrassment and blatant criminality. In June 2020, he had a stumble before the first judge, who made orders under the National Security Information (Criminal and Proceedings) Act 2004 (Cth) to prohibit the disclosure of compromising evidence that might be adduced by Collaery during the trial. The court found that Collaery’s right to a fair hearing would not be compromised by the nondisclosure orders, and that the need to protect national security outweighed the desirability of conducting proceedings in public.

In October, ACT appeals court reversed the decision, finding that six “identified matters” in the Commonwealth case against him should be made publicly available. The court found that the risk of damage to public confidence in the justice system was outweighed by any risk posed to national security. The open hearings of criminal trials “deterred political prosecutions” and permitted “the public to scrutinise the actions of prosecutors, and permitted the public to properly assess the conduct of the accused person.”

While a summary of the decision was made available, the full reasons for the decision have not. The current Attorney General, the otherwise invisible Michaelia Cash, has attempted to suppress the full publication of the judgment. The ploy being used here is a particularly insidious one: that the case involves “court-only” evidence which Collaery and his defence team are not entitled to see. The ploy, dressed up as an effort to update the evidence, is an attempt to introduce new material via the backdoor. The Commonwealth, in its desperation, is running out of ideas.

In March, ACT Supreme Court Justice David Mossop found that the court could receive such evidence through the office of an appointed special counsel who might be able to access the documents. The appointee would be able to advocate for Collaery thereby reducing “the disadvantage to the defendant arising from the non-disclosure of the material.”

This month, federal Solicitor-General Stephen Donoghue argued in the High Court that this modest compromise would not do. Not even a special counsel should cast eyes over such evidence in the name of protecting national security. “If this isn’t stopped, the (earlier ACT) judgment could be released without the redactions we need.”

The three High Court justices hearing the case did not conceal their puzzlement. Justice Michelle Gordon observed with some tartness that this was “a fragmentation of proceedings at its worst.” Justice James Edelman was bemused. “What you say is the error is that the [ACT] Chief Justice didn’t make the orders you wanted.” Donoghue’s feeble reason: that publishing the full ACT judgment should be delayed till the dispute on “court-only” evidence could be resolved.

This charade now continues its ghastly way back to the ACT Supreme Court. Even now, dates of the actual trial, times and so forth, have yet to be set. This will no doubt give prosecutors further time to cook up something. All rather galling coming from a government which has the temerity to complain about the way secret trials are conducted in other countries against its citizens.

 

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