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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.

Crocodiles and Freedom Fighters: Zimbabwe, Colonialism and Violence

The strongman lost some muscle this week. Robert Mugabe, a leader of the liberation movement that transformed colonially pressed Rhodesia into post-colonial Zimbabwe, had issued a letter of resignation. There had been no orgy of blood, no ordering of grievances with a vast butcher’s bill – at least for now. Over 37 years Mugabe had become one of bad boys of the international scene, singled out for particular treatment by those whose scruples had been ruffled and bothered.

The admiration for Mugabe was always tempered by a sneer, one focused on tribalism, and the belief that black liberation was a monstrosity that would not amount to much. The British had been teachers on two levels, leaving the country, claims James North, “the harsh lesson that violence works, and a grotesquely unequal distribution of farmland.”

Mugabe himself had been hardened by a prison term of ten years, during which his son died. The white leadership, under Ian Smith, did not feel it necessary to permit him to attend the funeral. Nor did Britain, keen to keep various other subjects in the unravelling imperium in check, feel it necessary to combat the issue on white rule in any forceful way. A white supremacist was less a problem than a rampant black freedom fighter.

In the course of Mugabe’s rule, the school of violence yielded its sanguinary lessons. To maintain rule, disgruntled dissidents led by rival nationalist leader Joshua Nkomo were massacred after attacks in southwestern Matabeleland, home to the minority Ndebele people. The carnage from that period is still unaccounted for, and estimates place the number of civilian dead at 1,500.

The other impetus for violent resolution came from efforts to redress the landowning inequalities that saw a relative handful of white farmers – some 6,000 or so – in possession of half the rural areas of the country. The situation was always an open invitation to forceful appropriation, with four million others looking on with smouldering resentment.

Talk shifted to the possibility of compensation in the 1978 Lancaster House Agreement, though the pledge repudiated by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1997 was crudely small in comparison to farmer buyouts initiated after Kenyan independence in 1963. In true New Labour fashion, Blair had decided that aspiration mattered more than concrete targets. By 2000, land invasions, initiated by veterans from the war of liberation, were taking place. White farmers were evicted and slain. Mugabe sensed an opportunity. Judgments in the western press, freed of colonial context and the wrinkles of history, proliferated.

For some years afterwards, Mugabe seemed to fall into self-parody, the African strongman keen to right the wrongs of white colonial perversions to the tune of necessary justice. “I am still,” he said in March 2003, with full intention to shock, “the Hitler of the time.”

The proceedings of the Johannesburg earth summit in September 2002 were marked by Mugabe’s tirade against Blair, with whom he will always be associated. In justifying the forced evictions of white commercial farmers, Mugabe pointedly told the prime minister to “keep your England and let me keep my Zimbabwe”.

Such comments make the remarks of UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson unremarkable, despite the note of striking disingenuousness. “I will not pretend to regret Mugabe’s downfall. Today is a moment of hope for the people of Zimbabwe. The UK will support them.” To his credit, and eternal confusion, Johnson, when London Mayor, conceded that “Zimbabwe was not always like this, and did not have to be like this.This [Robert] Mugabe tyranny is no accident – and Britain played a shameful part in the disaster.” Oddly lucid at times, is old Boris.

Leaders and political groups outside the country have been tiptoeing in their observation, exuding praise and, in many instances, sheer relief. Condemning the Zimbabwean leader never lacked that sense of self-accusation, the muddying of a freedom fighter’s legacy. In doing so, they would be gazing at the mirror of colonial poison and self-doubt, and post-colonial loathing.

Alpha Conde, president of Guinea and chief of the African Union, feared a carnival of violence in the country. While it had been a “shame” for this “African hero” to “leave through the back door” he was relieved that Mugabe had made a decision to resign.

All too familiar espousals of the value of popular will and democratic imperatives have come, ignoring the obvious fact that the military was the body that ultimately acted as the coercive corrective. With little surprise, these have streamed from opposition figures and entities keeping a close eye on politics at home.

South Africa’s Democratic Alliance would still see, in what was effectively an overthrow, “a victory for the people of Zimbabwe who have suffered greatly under the latter years of Mugabe’s reign”. Another opposition figure, Zambia’s Hakainde Hichilema, deemed the Zimbabwean change as a product of “power by the people for the people and to the people”.

Such a system is hardly likely to produce a gentle hearted, rose growing pacifist. Where power is currency, the mint is bound to be stacked with the appropriate staff, creatures of the moment. The ruling ZANU-PF party was itself the progenitor of internal struggles that eventually saw military intervention.

One of those members is Mugabe’s veteran enforcer Emmerson Mnangagwa, a figure who has pressed, and hacked, the appropriate flesh over the years. His sacking as vice president on November 6 by Mugabe stimulated the taste buds of power, though the aspirant had to initially flee to South Africa fearing for his life.

The global intelligence company Stratfor was wise enough to pick The Crocodile and serial kleptocrat as a potential successor to Mugabe in a briefing note in August 2011. The suspicious death in a house fire of Solomon Mujuru, former commander of the Zimbabwean National Army and husband of deputy president Joyce Mujuru, opened “the door for top rival Defense Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa [to] secure [his] control of the succession situation in Zimbabwe”. The battlelines had been effectively drawn between the Mujuru faction and Mnangagwa’s supporters among the Joint Operations Command.

In the lingering scuffle, Mnangagwa has capitalised and swooped in. However much the spirit of non-violent resistance evident in previous Zimbabwean opposition campaigns will survive his ascension to power is questionable. Against the spirit of traditionally violent resolution has been the daringly courageous work of labour leader Morgan Tsvangirai, a figure who survived three assassination attempts, and various beatings. But this is unlikely to impress The Crocodile, a true product of his time.

A New Movement of Rights and the Right in Australia

Scholars have wondered what “triggers” might be in the social furniture of a culture that might propel a people to embrace a bill of rights. Australia remains proudly, and idiosyncratically, opposed.

Previous efforts to enshrine a charter of rights have failed, accused of being totalitarian usurpations, dangerous incorporations of foreign laws, and a straightjacket on political will. Rights, in actual fact, are considered the smutty sprinklings of a suspicious mind, best modified by a fatherly obsession with obligations.

No trigger for a bill of rights will move the Australian people; no catalyst great enough to warrant a deviation from an unswerving faith in the magic of the common law, and the wisdom of British-made institutional stability. The indefinite detention of refugees will be tolerated. Shabby treatment of terrorist suspects will be permitted. The advice of the Australian Secret Intelligence Organisation will be given greater weight than solid judicial review.

Suspicious about the abstract, fundamentalist pragmatism demands something that issues from Parliament which, the assumption goes, tends to be reasonable. The soil, however, is due for a fresh turning. This time, it is the turn of the conservatives, who feel that that their social offensives have failed before the might of the Rainbow movement. Conservatives, rather than accepting the findings of a postal survey on same-sex marriage, have decided to frame the problem differently. Now, their rights are in question.

From a position of strength, they feel weakness, vulnerability, a fear that sanitised prejudice may not be possible. But importantly, the issue here is one of translation and political realisation: How will those conservative, religious voices find form in the parliaments across the country?

The fascinating problem here is that such conservative voices have made a category error in the legal sense. It is not a “right” to not do (bake cakes for a gay wedding, for instance, or celebrate a wedding), but a “power” to do (in this case, refuse to serve). It is the power to discriminate, to seek a different avenue of traditional recognition of a form of conduct, covered by that oft misused term of conscience.

Whatever the lexical problems faced by members of the Australian Christian Movement, and for that matter other religious groups, they are on to something. The postal plebiscite may well have registered overall approval – 62 per-cent – but it also suggested that 38 per cent of Australians are far from content with changing the heterosexual context of the Marriage Act. The stage props are set for splinter parties and religious groups to make their political debut, most notably in those electorates where the No vote registered a majority.

In the federal seat of Blaxland, which registered the highest vote against same-sex marriage coming in at a dizzy 73.9 per cent, celebrations are absent and trouble brewing. The students at the Bankstown campus of the Western Sydney University were noted in the Huffington Post as “visibly shaken”.

The showers of analysis that have followed have had to find some coherence to such votes. “Cultural differences” have been underlined and jotted down as culprits. This, goes the Huffington Post, comes with “the obvious conclusion that migrants have homophobic values, spurred on by their homophobic religions.”

This leads to another tendency: the pointed accusation that estranged, pontificating elites of the affluent areas enjoy a pastime that has become staple for the set: “Western Sydney bashing”. Class divisions are blended with value divisions, creating a new political mix.

While this takes place, the conservative Australian government is suffering fits of indigestion. Many of its members were vocal opponents of same-sex marriage, and continue to be. Opinions sent in by vote hardly matter – they were always intent on voting against the same-sex change. Having been outgunned, another approach, most probably legislative in nature, is in order.

One concern is to trumpet religious freedom amendments that will be added to any legislation that will change the definition of marriage. These will include provisions permitting civil celebrants to reject weddings and protections for religious charities (Interestingly enough, such entities already have considerable scope in terms of choice).

Nationals Senator Matt Canavan is one such figure. Suddenly, talk of rights is not obscene or questionable. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a document long regarded as a nuisance by Australian parliamentarians, is being seen as a guide.

Article 18 claiming that “everyone shall have the freedom of thought, conscience and religion” is being singled out for special mention. As Treasurer Scott Morrison has insistently pushed, “There are over 4 million people who voted No in this survey who are now coming to terms with the fact that, on this issue, they are a minority.”

Whatever changes occur to the Marriage Act proper, political momentum for a different type of conservatism has been generated. It may well come from the self-designated “standing army” of the Australian Christian Lobby, or from other sources keen to foment an alternative narrative. The political fault line, overseeing the creation of a more religious orientation keen on social and moral values, may well be in the offing. Without realising it, those behind the same-sex marriage have become the progenitors of a new political impetus in Australia.

The Veiled Threat: Australia’s Campaign Against New Zealand Refugee Policy

Another twist in the farce over the stained treatment of refugees on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island has surfaced. New Zealand has been insisting for some time that it is more than willing to welcome some 150 to its shores. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, much to the irritation of Australia’s Turnbull government, has been particularly enthusiastic.

Australia has remained resolutely cold to the offer, insisting that such an arrangement would undermine its own blunt approach of discouraging boat arrivals and the industry behind it. For the perplexed on this issue, Australia keeps funding alternative camps on Manus, hoping for the remaining refugees to shut up and slide quietly to other destinations. A number are being encouraged to go to the United States in a deal US President Donald Trump deems “dumb”.

Now, New Zealand’s angle has shifted, largely prompted by the crisis following the closure of the Manus Island facility at the Lombrom Naval Base. The PNG government is being asked directly as to whether some arrangement might be reached, thereby avoiding Australian intransigence.

The response from the Australian Immigration Minister was characteristically sinister and appropriate for a former police officer. With barely veiled menace, Peter Dutton suggested that New Zealand “would have to think about their relationship with Australia and what impact it would have”. “They’d have to think that through, and we’d have to think that through.”

Dutton’s playground remarks did not stop there. He also rebuked New Zealand’s announcement that aid money would be offered to those on Manus Island and Nauru: “Well, it’s a waste of money in my judgment, I mean give that money to another environment somewhere, to Indonesia, for example.” Found wanting, Dutton has taken to lecturing a sovereign state.

Dutton then did what every Australian politician glancing across the Tasman does: suggest that New Zealand was somehow benefiting from Canberra’s punitive approach to boat arrivals. Not that New Zealand has been ever openly asked about this take of the unwanted sacrifice.

“We have stopped vessels on their way across the Torres Strait planning to track their way down the east coast of Australia to New Zealand … We have put many hundreds of millions of dollars into a defence effort to stop those vessels … We do that frankly without any financial assistance from New Zealand … If new boats arrive tomorrow these people aren’t going to Auckland, they’re going to Nauru.”

This is a repeated Australian gripe: its small neighbour benefits from having a natural shield to the north; it can afford to be more moral on issues and idealist in its aspirations. Hard, realistic Australian politicians and policy makers must underwrite this. They, goes this straw man reasoning, are the ones making the hard, unsavoury decisions.

To beef up Dutton’s claims, Australian papers have been receiving classified material (or so it is claimed) that New Zealand has become a more attractive “target” for people smugglers in recent weeks. The Queensland based Courier Mail, hardly the high priest of journalistic integrity, has been the grateful recipient of claims that “chatter” on this subject is becoming effusive.

Australian border protection forces have, according to the classified sources, also been busy, intercepting four boats destined for New Zealand, with 164 people on board. This latter point is notable in flying in the face of the military grade secrecy such interceptions supposedly command. Operation Sovereign Borders, as it was termed by the previous Abbott government, was a means of stifling the disclosure, and discussion, of any “operational matters” at sea. Boat arrivals remain mysterious and enigmatic.

The assault on Prime Minister Ardern’s position is assuming tangible form through Australian channels. A conscious and very public effort from Australian government sources is underway to diminish the humanity of refugees who have, for all intents and purposes, become subjects of mental disturbance.

Damaged and psychologically ruined, they have become the subjects of further demonisation, portrayed as opportunistic, rapacious and venal. Leaks have found their way to The Australian Financial Review, timed to ill-effect, suggesting that a group of Manus Island asylum seekers have been wooing underage girls with sexual intent.

The intelligence cable which was the subject of the leaks outlines advice from PNG from early October making a set of claims. “In addition to broader allegations of drug taking and dealing (Marijuana), there were overarching community concerns regarding allegations that some resident were engaged in sexual activities with underage girls.” Certain “residents were renting rooms throughout Lorengau and luring underage girls between 10 and 17 years of age, with money, goods, and food.”

These claims, the report concedes, were never investigated. There were never any formal complaints, and no investigations ensued. No matter – the report goes on to advance the claims of the local provincial health authority concerned by “increased interaction between the residents and the young girls from a health perspective, saying they had seen an increase in sexually transmitted infections and HIV”. In a world of innuendo, anything goes.

The report is clearly an effort to square the ledger, neutralising the concerns by asylum seekers and refugees at their general safety in being in the Manus Island community. Encounters with the local populace have been frowned upon; relations between the men and local females have also triggered the ire of community leaders. The inevitable thrust of such reports is simple: they deserve it, so why care?

The report avoids the obvious point that Australia’s pseudo-colonisation policy – of relocating refugees of considerably diverse background to the homogenous Manus Island community rather than abiding by the Refugee Convention – is itself the problem.

Ardern is also facing local opposition to her refugee stance. Bill English of the Nationals insists that this is a “showpiece”, a dangerous moral binge. The Australians need to be acknowledged. New Zealand, he suggests, ought to take the efforts made by its neighbour to stop boats heading to his country seriously. And so, the wheel turns, the old arguments on power, cynicism and brown nosing, entertain us once more as people suffer.

A Tale of Two teams: Australia, Italy and the World Cup

Australia chose a rather round about, and dangerous way, of getting to the finals of the FIFA World Cup. Qualifying by playing a South or Central American opponent has its pitfalls, the most memorable being Argentina at the Allianz Stadium in 1993. On that occasion, the valiant Australians went down, if only just, losing the return leg in Buenos Aires after drawing in Sydney.

The Honduran side could not boast players of the ilk of Argentina, but they did have the element of anonymity and surprise. Their coach, Jorge Luis Pinto, was in a conservative frame of mind, attempting to asphyxiate play in the middle of the park. The hostilities at San Pedro Sula would also have benefited.

As matters transpired, the Australians managed to hold their own in the first away leg. With Honduras failing to squeeze anything into the Australian net at home, it was left to the Socceroos to do the rest in Australia, scoring three times, twice from penalties.

Luck was finally on the side of a team scolded and berated for stretches of the campaign.  Their previous encounter with an unfancied Syria drew barbs of criticism. But after 22 games played over 29 months, Australia had booked its place in the 2018 World Cup in Russia, a point that took time to settle among the seventy thousand in attendance.

Seeing the Australians qualify belied a gruelling struggle and a campaign of hostility against the Australian coach, Ange Postecoglou. Last month, a swirling question mark hovered over his future. Was his head on the chopping block? Had he, in fact, put it there himself? “My focus,” he felt compelled to say in rather fatalistic fashion, “is these two games. If we don’t get through these two games, there’s no decision to make. That’s the one certainty.”

Australian fortune could be contrasted with violent sharpness of the fate of Italy. To not see the Azzurri reach the World Cup or the first time since 1958 was seismic, even unsettling. Not that Australian fans would have minded. Many still remember the encounter in round 16 of the 2006 World Cup, when Australia’s Lucas Neill tripped Italy’s Fabio Grosso in the Fritz Walter Stadium in Kaiserslautern. The resulting penalty was the only goal scored in the match. Italy would go on to win their fourth World Cup.

As Grosso would subsequently say, “In this instance when Neill slid in, maybe I accentuated it a little bit. However, you must remember it was the last minute of an extremely difficult game and everyone was tired.” Australian fans were less forgiving about the showmanship: Grosso, so went the line, had cheated.

Before the spectators of the San Siro in Milan, Sweden managed to hold the Italians to a scoreless draw, winning by an aggregate of one goal over both legs. The Swedish side had effectively done what so many Italian sides have done before: defend their way to victory.

La Gazetta dello Sport went so far as to term the failure “the apocalypse”. “We will not be with you and you will not be with us. Italy will not participate in the World Cup. There will be inevitable consequences.”

The most immediate consequence was the fate of Italy’s coach, Gian Piero Ventura, who seemed fairly phlegmatic about the axeman. “Until the playoff we were progressing as foreseen, then we’ve been unlucky not to score against them. I apologize to the Italians. Only for the result, not for the effort we put in every game.”

It was certainly an effort that prompted questions. At home, the Italians could only muster a one all draw against Macedonia. In UEFA World Cup qualifying Group G, it finished five points behind group winners Spain, pitting them against the Swedes.

Ventura did not have long to wait for his fate. “During a meeting called by FIGC president Carlo Tevecchio,” came a statement on Wednesday from the FIGC, “the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia was discussed.”

Rather brutally, the note goes on to mention the “first order of business” with finality: “from today onwards, Gian Piero Ventura is no longer coach of the national team.” Ventura’s initial reluctance to resign, rather than face the sack, seemed to have been prompted by false hope, if not a total lack of awareness.

Oddly enough, his counterpart in Australia will not necessarily be faring much better. Postecoglou has never felt supported in his role in Australian football, and has his eye on an international football club. Australian football, he feels, has yet to discover self-respect.

Sweden’s Janne Andersson, in contrast, will be merrily preparing for their campaign in Russia. For football boffins of a slightly superstitious bent, the occasion of Sweden’s most successful World Cup was the very same tournament Italy failed to qualify for: 1958.

The Expensive Affirmation: Australia Says “Yes” to Same-Sex Marriage

The overall figure was comfortable, though hardly dashing. Sixty-two per cent of Australians (7.82 million) decided that same-sex marriage was a perfectly feasible, even desirable notion, while 38 per cent (4.87 million) did not.

Out of 150 federal seats, 133 registered affirmative totals in returning their response to the question “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?”. All states featured majorities, while some so-called conservative states – Queensland and Western Australia, for instance – registered higher percentages than, for instance, New South Wales. Notable federal seats with large yes votes were Melbourne (84 percent); Sydney (84 per cent) and Brisbane (80 per cent).

The result for New South Wales was deemed an odd one by some commentators, given that Sydney is the place of the annual Mardi Gras, vulgarly cosmopolitan, brash and open. But this reductive simplicity belies the important fact that Sydney, and New South Wales, more generally, have diverse populations, many non-English speaking and reluctant to embrace the language of rainbow sexuality.

The pattern in Western Sydney was of deepest interest to Antony Green and the political science fraternity keen to peer through the electoral glass darkly. Twelve seats in Sydney, nine Labor and three Liberal, voted against marriage equality.

Blaxland, the seat of former Labor Prime Minister, Paul Keating, registered a thumping no vote of 74 per cent. Watson, the seat of Labor front bencher, Tony Burke, furnished the Australian Bureau of Statistics a figure of 70 per cent. These results again showed how postal plebiscites that require scrutiny of what would otherwise be private matters tend to ruffle, even damage. The bag of prejudice is always a deep one.

It also followed that such strong no votes in specific seats would face some tip-toeing candidates keen to avoid those culturally sensitive voters. Particular interest will be paid to the seat of Bennelong, whose previous sitting member, John Alexander, had to resign for being a dual national.

Same-sex marriage, noted Green, does not fit into the class structure of Australian political thinking. Even today, however odd that note rings in discussions, electoral assessments tend to fall to demographic variables, and brute figures of income and living, rather than abstract values. Cultural values, in other words, tend to be nudged into the background, if, indeed, they actually figure at all.

It is precisely these cultural values that are going to play out in Parliament. This ceremonially farcical show, costly and non-binding, was meant to give conservatives enough ammunition to avoid a same-sex marriage vote while giving the false impression that this was plausibly democratic. (Should prejudice ever be democratised?)  The same tactic had been deployed in sinking the Republican debate in the 1990s by Prime Minister John Howard.

Having confronted the spectre of a significant yes vote, the strategy now is to water the pre-existing Dean Smith bill, embraced across parties, in favour of more discriminatory provisions under the guise of human rights. The discussion, claimed Senator Matt Canavan, had to continue, parliamentarians not being automatons in the service of the elector.

Unfortunately for Canavan, it was precisely the fact that parliamentarians had abdicated their legislative role in this matter that perpetuated this exercise. Conservative members of parliament are already insisting that parents have rights to shift children from schools that insist on a radical sex education agenda. Specific dispensations for prejudice will be sought.

Members of the same-sex marriage community have also jumped the gun in some instances, presuming that the passage of legislation will be automatic, a smooth matter without hiccups. Proposals were made on the lawn of the Victorian State Library in Melbourne. Corks were popped, champagne guzzled.

The celebrity circuit, ever keen to lend loud voices to causes, was triggered in communal enthusiasm. “It’s a g’day,” tweeted US talk show host Ellen DeGeneres. “Way to go Australia.” Singer Sam Smith jumped on Twitter with a sequence of crying face and rainbow emojis.

Much of the delight and ebullience centred on this vote being one of love. Such formulations on human institutions are rarely accurate. Marriage and love were only coupled as a fairly modern, middle-class phenomenon, and a general postal vote favouring same-sex marriage is probably more accurately termed one of fairness than emotional indulgence.

Few other communities in a social sense have been singled out as singular, marginal, and peculiar relative to rights and liberties. Such private realms should rarely be the preserve of the state. But the state will now determine whether the Marriage Act will be altered. Now, the tune may well change, but it is bound to be jarring at points. The judgments are far from over.  

Trans-Pacific Follies: Australia Asleep as Canada Wakes Up

It was as dreary as listening to the formulaic assessments of political economy by an unreconstructed Leninist. But Sunday morning with Steve Ciobo, Australia’s trade minister, was such an occasion.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, withering away on the branch of false optimism, has been an instrument of deserved suspicion and opprobrium from popular movements across countries suspicious about the paternalistic follies of their governments. It was precisely opposition to such a proposed agreement, negotiated in total secrecy away from the prying eyes of public interest groups, that fuelled the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump during the 2016 US presidential elections.

Even Hillary Clinton, whose husband was a vital figure behind initiating the North American Free Trade Agreement during the 1990s, began to chew some of the anti-free trade cud close to her ignominious defeat.

No free trade faith quite matches the monomania of Australian governments. Since the 1980s, liberalising and opening the economy has been an unshakeable trajectory, a punishing, stripping dogma that insists that being economically open is liberally good, and closed, parochially bad.

While other states have wised up to the idea that total openness is a recipe for local instability, estrangement, and disaster, the Australian response has been unshakeable: keep borders open and corporations content, except when it comes to refugees who arrive by boat. As Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull has insisted with staid predictability, the TPP “creates rules of the road to match the new economic world in which we’re living.”

For all this, Australia’s own industries have been supplanted. Energy and banking oligopolies have been given free rein to operate. Property prices in Sydney and Melbourne are reaching stratospheric heights, and the current government is promising to partly subsidise what will become one of the world’s largest, and environmentally destructive, of white elephants: the Carmichael coal mine in Queensland.

Most telling of all is that the free traders have no interest in considering data of such irrefutable weight it should put an end to that unfortunately lingering religion. The US-Australian Free Trade agreement remains a matter of considerable loss to Australia, limiting rather than extending markets and access to Australian producers, and showing the country’s diplomatic crew as inept, ill-informed and, in the final analysis, sycophantic.

None of these points concern the bemused Ciobo. Ideology has already set the tone in this field. When the United States announced, through President Donald J. Trump, that it would have no truck with the TPP, the Australian delegation was left baffled but unmoved. The remaining states would keep the ship steady.

Now that Canada’s Justin Trudeau has decided to give the remaining countries a grand snub, Ciobo has been left searching for justifications. On Saturday in Danang, the Canadian Prime Minister did not so much decide to leave the party as ask for another one with a new set of provisions. In the spirit of Trump, he wished to negotiate for a deal would be far more beneficial to Canada than what was already on the table.

Trudeau insisted at his closing APEC news conference that the Canadians “were not going to be rushed into a deal”. It was a matter that came as “no surprise and it actually didn’t come as a surprise to people who’d noticed that I was saying that and have been saying that all week.”

It certainly did come as a surprise to the lethargic Australians, already convinced that a revised deal had plugged all holes, and settled all differences. The problematic intellectual property restrictions, for one, were supposedly to be suspended. Concessions had been made.

Lindsay Murdoch of the Sydney Morning Herald insisted that the Canadian leader had “sabotaged the endorsement of a pact to salvage a multi-billion dollar, 11-nation Pacific Rim trade deal at the last minute, surprising other nations, including Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull.”

Murdoch even went so far as to speculate that Trudeau had engaged in an entirely unilateral move, one that went against the wishes of his own cabinet. “Mr. Trudeau’s walk-out is deeply embarrassing for his Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne, who has agreed to the deal.”

On Sunday, Ciobo suffered what can only be an episode of denial, having himself been asleep for a good deal of Trudeau’s conversion. “Having lost a bit of momentum on the back of the decision by the Canadians not to attend the leaders meeting on the TPP11, we’ll have to keep working methodically through it.”

Notwithstanding the Canadian rebuff, Ciobo could still insist with an unmoving, humourless face that matters would work out for the free marketers. “I’m very confident. And I know my counterparts in the 10 other countries, we all feel that we can accommodate the various questions that are outstanding.”

The new approach was to suggest that Trudeau’s behaviour could be managed and tempered. Exemptions on culture, notably those touching on French-speaking Quebec, might be considered. After all, claimed Ciobo, the TPP was of the very highest “quality”, a deal maintaining “high standards and would have been seen benefits flowing to the countries.”

That these benefits are speculative and almost entirely corporate based rather than focused on the commonweal, suggests why the Australian delegation, along with its likeminded colleagues, has been left in the lurch. It remains for others to wake up from this self-imposed hibernation from sense and sensibility.

The Tragic Declaration: Colonial Legacies, Balfour and Israel

So much after the fact; so much in terms of opportunism gone to seed and destruction. But planned historical calamities tend to be rare. There are only absurd moments, dastardly opportunities, and tragic convergences. History is less the outcome of wise deliberation than folly dressed up as reason, occasionally tinged by a touch of malice.

On November 2, 1917, the British government published the Balfour Declaration (one of “sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations”) by means of a letter written by Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur James Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild. It suggested forthcoming British assistance for the establishment of a Jewish National Home in Palestine.

Problems soon emerged, showing what Arthur Koestler would suggest as the solemn promising of one nation to a second the country of a third, all happening even before the Ottoman Empire had ceased to exist.

This was British imperial opportunism at its worst, or, if you fancy that sort of pluck, best.  It played on the aspirations of Zionists; it also went counter to the promise of liberation for Arabs in the event they overthrew their Ottoman overlords. The moral tic only came later, a sort of retrospective imposition.

Submerged in the Declaration are a series of questions writ large. There is the Eastern Question – one of Ottoman-eastern influences on Europe and more broadly, the Occident. Then there was that overall niggling problem of where European Jewry persisted as carriers of an eastern legacy in Europe, “which Enlightened and un-Enlightened European Christians,” poses Joseph Massad, “found intolerable.”

This became, with all its paranoid fixations, cultural mania and concern, the “Jewish question”, an absurdist fantasy that attempted to press Jewish influence in Europe as a matter of unreformed, eastern practice. How much better, then, to have that influence exiled altogether?

This task also assumed the oddest of forms, and the creation of uncomfortable bed fellows in what effectively became a colonial project of collusion and complicity. Theodor Herzl, founder of the First Zionist Congress in August 1897, revealed the realpolitik caste of mind that would also be mirrored by the politics behind Balfour. Those “anti-Semites,” he proclaimed, “will become our most dependable friends, the anti-Semitic countries our allies.”

The Balfour letter itself retained those various contradictions. Having pitched for a Jewish state, it then went on to suggest that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status of Jews in any other country.” This was imperial parcelling of the worst sort, making claims about racial, religious and ethnic reordering without a mind to consequence.

Over time, reading the Declaration suggested the workings of a psychodrama, teasing historians into adventurous analyses. Historian Barbara Tuchman in her classic Bible and Sword, England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour (1956) imputed to Lord Balfour a religious motive, morally biblical more than realpolitik imperial. The Jews, went this line, needed repaying in some form, a gesture of historical recompense.

Tuchman, it must be said, then proceeded to acknowledge good old little Englander power plays at work. It was Britain’s intention “to take Palestine anyway for its strategic value; but they had to have a good moral case”. By proclaiming “that Britain would enter Palestine as trustee for its Old Testament proprietors would fulfil this purpose admirably and above all would quiet the British conscience in advance.”

As appropriately noted by Michael J. Cohen, reading the British response here requires an understanding of public show and private intimations. A degree of duplicity in diplomacy – the public self adorned differently to the private – is always demanded.

Take, as an example, the meeting between Prime Minister Lloyd George and Chaim Weizmann held on July 21, 1921 at Lord Balfour’s home, with the Colonial Secretary Churchill present. Weizmann, it is noted, was reassured that the British “had always understood and meant the eventual possibility of a Jewish state.”

The 1922 Churchill White Paper supplies an example of the public show, a case of hedging, avoidance, and qualification as to what the intention of the Declaration had been. There was, for instance, never an intention to create “a wholly Jewish Palestine”. To think so was to sport an “impracticable” expectation.

Indeed, the paper went on to suggest a reassurance: that the Declaration had not envisaged that “Palestine as a whole should be converted into a Jewish National Home, but that such a Home should be found in Palestine.” A home, as it were, within a home – or perhaps a spacious room in a large abode.

The terminology “National Home” was picked up by the Peel Royal Commission in 1936 as a problematic formulation, having caused “unrest and hostility between Arabs and Jews”. That term, it is also worth noting, was a confection, less of British foreign policy than that of the First Zionist Congress in 1897.

The language does not suggest promise, but a degree of wooliness. But there was enough certainty to propel modern relevance.  It has encouraged urgings on the part of the Palestinian Authority’s Foreign Minister, Riyad al-Maliki, to press for an international law suit fronted by Arab states against the United Kingdom citing the Declaration as the cause of the mass Palestinian eviction in 1948 that became the Nakba.

The complexity behind the machinations of Balfour have now been washed away by moral absolutes and declarations. The gala dinner on November 2 saw British Prime Minister Theresa May speak of British pride in “our pioneering role in the creation of the state of Israel” yet careful to insist on a two-state solution negotiated by fictionally equivalent partners.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also afforded thanks, and suggested with force the ultimate triumph of a colonial venture that had to be swallowed, consequence and whole. “A hundred years after Balfour, the Palestinians should finally accept a Jewish national home and finally accept a Jewish state. And when they do, the road to peace will be infinitely closer.” A truly bitter history pill to swallow.

Fixations of Propriety: The Manus Closure Scandal

When confronted with the spectacle of the malnourished, the impoverished, the famine stricken, and the desperate, the Australian political instinct is simple: Why did these poor fools get themselves into this mix? With each wave of refugees arriving in the country’s young history, the cold shoulder has mixed with the lukewarm welcome.

At no points have refugees been welcomed so much as grudgingly accepted. Australia, after all, has a humanitarian intake, and boasts about it like a vulnerable child who feels her grades the best in class.

Like a necessary pantomime, Australia’s distant, estranging middle-class tediousness treats human rights as the necessary costume at the international human rights party. To be such an international citizen, conventions are signed, and modestly implemented. Some are even abused with a degree of legalised gusto.

In a country with no bill of rights, it can hardly be any other way. The rights culture, it can be said, is one of smugness and suspicion. Supremacy resides with Parliament, and a misplaced belief that the executive will somehow be compliant.

The sentiment towards refugees and asylum seekers taking the sea route hardened after the 1990s, when the means of arrival became an issue in Australian politics. (You cannot be punished or discriminated against on the manner of travel under the Refugee Convention, but the lawyers were obviously napping at stages). Decent people, after all, took planes, and if they did arrive by boat, would surely do the appropriate thing and fly a decent class.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the issue of pressing concern was the arrival of Vietnamese boat people fleeing the Communist Republic. Then, as now, the issue of how these people were arriving bothered certain Australian figures, most notably John Howard.  Aqueous borne arrivals, notably of the Asiatic sort, terrified him.

The currently broken, and easily refutable theme in the practiced inhumanity against those now defiantly assembled on the closed Manus processing facility at the Lombrum Naval Base, is that of the “market model”. Refugees and asylum seekers should never partake in a system of exchange.  Money for passage is a smutty exchange best stamped out.

To that end, refugee and asylum seeker policy in Australia resembles that of a tax meeting or Reserve Bank board gathering. The agenda never changes: what markets are appropriate, and which ones are not?

The market that encourages the pursuit of the Refugee Convention, its articles, its spirit, is discouraged by the denizens of propriety. To flee persecution, harm and mortal risk, forms the quintessence of international refugee law, but best take a number and wait your turn.

The problem with this approach is simple: awaiting that vital turn in this artificially contrived queue can lead to interminable periods of processing, detention and waiting in camps of varying degrees of comfort. Often, these are located in impoverished states. Rarely are they found in wealthier ones.

Inevitably, this situation of crippling stagnation has produced, over the decades, individuals who facilitate the movement of peoples. Money, often life savings, exchange hands. Risky routes are traversed. Death can never be ruled out as a possible outcome.

Rather than providing solace and comfort to those who brave such routes, the propriety-driven market modellers in Australian Immigration and Border Protection prefer to discourage, and criminalise, the smuggler. But more to the point, the product – individuals availing themselves of the means to reach Australia – are also to be criminalised. Like drug producer like drugs; like pornographer, like porn. All, to be frowned upon, jailed, detained.

The reduction of the entire issue to a business model has similarities to another absurd and futile argument: the puritanical efforts to criminalise prostitution. Where there is demand, there will be supply.

As sex has been a commodity for sale since humans discovered the primeval delights, and desperate pitfalls, of copulation, supply has been forthcoming. The only way you abolish prostitution would be to abolish sex, and, perhaps, lobotimise the entire human race. (This is a proposition that would, no doubt, rest well with the Catherine McKinnon-Andrea Dworkin school of totalitarian, and essentially sexless human relations).

In refugee politics, a similar type of totalitarian thinking on human relations has taken hold. The refugee must be proper, decent, and very well disposed to begin with. Fleeing poverty and bombs, one must do so with a stoic determination without mental strain, concern of debility. But importantly, in fleeing, one should wait one’s turn. Shut up and put up – Australians are generous.

Those who have bucked this have ended up in such places of tragedy and travesty as Nauru and the Manus Island Centre. The Australian state, through its subsidised satraps, has effectively relocated and dehumanised individuals that could have been processed and resettled far more cheaply in Australia. But that would not be proper.

The language of propriety is neatly tied to the language of property, ownership, and liberal market values. It would be inappropriate to pay a smuggler to assist you in discharging obligations due under the Refugee Convention, but it would also be inappropriate to refuse to relocate to other processing centres where safety at the hands of the local population is questionable.

The 570 men who remain at the facility are therefore deemed, in the words of government minister Christopher Pyne, “squatters”. They supposedly have a choice, a distinctly bankrupt way of assessing the problem given that they never asked to be placed on Manus to begin with.

These obstinate souls are now told they have three centres to be relocated to in Lorengau, faux refugee Hiltons with running water, food and in some cases spending money, yet refuse to heed the direction of authorities. They are, essentially, asserting rights that Australian and PNG authorities regard as non-existent. Forcible removal is deemed imminent.

The term “squatter” has a curious historical salience: Australia was essentially settled (read conquered, plundered, appropriated) by squatters. Indeed, the entire Australian psyche was shaped by squattocratic values. Fascinating, then, when confronted with such a spectacle, it should offend.

As the Manus Island brutality show persists, human rights advocates issue pleas, politicians in Canberra issue cant-filled rebukes, and officials in the Immigration ministry insist on the nonsensical notion that detaining individuals on land is a humanitarian response to preventing deaths at sea. The mendacity of refugee politics knows no end, but obscene propriety, at whatever cost, shall prevail.

The Deepening Crisis on Manus

What a weekend it has been. The Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea may well have closed, but the protests, and those resident at the camp, continue to defy and prevaricate. At a protest in Melbourne on Saturday, Australian Greens MP Adam Bandt decided to get down and indignant with his calls to the Australian government.

“These people,” claimed Bandt, referencing those refusing to leave the Lombrum naval base, “have committed no crime other than to do what every single one of us would do if we thought our lives, or our family’s lives, were at risk.”

The immigration minister, Peter Dutton, stonily silent, was singled out for special mention. “To look at the face of Peter Dutton is to stare into the eyes of someone who is prepared to kill people for political gain, and it’s time he was held to account for his crime against humanity.”

Dutton, for his part, insists that the new facilities are better, a sort of accommodation promotion. On Channel 9’s Today Show on November 2, the minister explained that the new residences constituted a “much better facility that where people are at the moment and I’d just say to the advocates here who are telling people not to move, to resist moving centres; that they’re not doing those people any favours.”

The new facilities, comprising three sites for accommodation, have been given a curiously travel touch up in some reports. Peter Hartcher of The Age, for instance, describes the East Lorengau Refugee Transit Centre as having “room for 400 people” with healthcare and “security for the protection of the residents.”

West Lorengau Haus has room for a further 300 refugees. “For confirmed refugees, the PNG government pays an allowance for food and other necessities but they need to cook their own food.” The third facility, Hillside Haus, covers those whose claims for refugee status have failed, one which will receive catered mills.

The sting in Hartcher’s commentary lies in pouring cold water, and more, on the claims that there is a crisis, or at least one that has not been manufactured by Australian or PNG authorities. The former detention facility at Lombrum navy base, for instance, had been open for some 18 months, “with asylum seekers able to come and go as they pleased”. They merely had to return to the centre at night.

These descriptions fortify the line of the irresponsible refugee, dandified, coddled, indignant and even fraudulent. This, despite the legal ruling by the PNG Supreme Court that such a facility was illegal, not to mention the numerous accounts of violence that have been documented by Human Rights Watch.

On the ground, not much coddling is taking place and few are buying the paradise packaged rhetoric that hope is around the corner. One such unflappable sceptic is Behrouz Boochani, who has been incessant on his Twitter account, streaming updates with pious, pilgrim-like dedication. Of latest concern in the next chapter of whether a move to the designated sites at Lorengau will take place centred on the heart condition of one of the refugees.

The refugee with heart problems just arrived in Lorengau, about 40 kilometres from here [the camp]. Such a terrible night, will write about it later.” Then followed a tweet that the situation was “critical in Manus” and that a doctor was tending to the patient after four and a half hours. “Such a long time for emergency cases.”

Boochani, as is his wont, then shot a moral warning, a call to Australian authorities on complicity. “Anything bad [sic] happen for the refugee with heart pain Australia is responsible. You can not continue to kill people because of medical neglect.

The infliction of death is a matter of relative assessment. The Australian government, backed by the Labor opposition, holds that a policy detaining people in tropical centres in the Pacific away from the mainland saves foolish lives and retards the “people smuggling industry”.

This fine cut fiction is based largely on a brutish assumption that the problem vanishes, when it, in fact, merely moves elsewhere. Where there are means to flee, and individuals happy to capitalise on assisting, there will be trade, however bestial and risky it may be. (What would Dutton make of the people smugglers of the post-Second World War period?)

The global problem on accepting and processing refugee claims, and the issue of settlement and integration, remain ones where wealthy states, on the whole, remain stern and austere in the face of desperation. Poorer states, challenged by a lack of infrastructure, are left to foot the bill, the modern serfs of the international humanitarian system. The Australian solution, singular and very colonial in inspiration, is to pay middlemen states and outsource legal obligations.

An Acceptable Obscenity: Adani Cultivates Queensland


The cicadas are studding the night with their sound, and occasionally, the curlews manifest with calls that string out a melody of mournful death. The reminder of Queensland, and certainly this part of the Australian state, is total.

As the dawn breaks, an election is being fought for the state, and its politicians are generally of one unchanging mind: Adani’s Carmichael coal mine is good for Australia and Queenslanders, and ratepayers need to help.

A conspiracy of sorts has been made between Adani and various collaborators it has gotten on board, those individuals on the ground who have essentially become the commissioned harlots for the Indian giant down under.

The sense of Adani’s generous largesse and mind swaying techniques have been evidenced by its extensive campaign to win over the relevant mayors of Queensland and the premier of the state. Rockhampton’s Mayor Margaret Strelow received over $1,600 in an assortment of hospitality gifts, which were recorded in the Rockhampton Regional Council’s official register in April this year. (These officials have no problem sharing Adani’s capacious bed of incentives).

Another dipping into this pot of subsidised corruption is Mayor Jenny Hill of Townsville, who has decided that going with the mining momentum, however archaic and fictional it might be, is the way to go.

Her explanation to the 7.30 program on ABC is worth noting for its hair-tearing perverseness, its near gargoyle like disingenuousness. Not only was it fine to fund a billionaire with public money, it was also entirely appropriate to be corrupted in doing so. “We accepted a gift to fly to Mumbai to see their solar plant because are very keen to set up solar facilities in the north.”

This, from a labour crippling poisoning coal giant keen to muddle along in crude extraction mode, demonstrates either the mayor’s sense of moral arrested development, or Adani’s stunning act of deeply penetrative seduction. Never mind the foreplay and the rough love: Adani has managed to convince politicians at the local level that they are worth it.

Both Councillor Strelow and Mayor Hill, it is worth noting, are bending over in grotesque contortion to assist Adani with using money that is not theirs (the good rate payers’, in short) to fund a $36 million airstrip at the proposed Carmichael coal mine. Neither seen a problem with their conduct.

The Townsville City Council, for instance, made their decision to supply $18.5 million in shrouds of pure secrecy, refusing to seek consultation with public figures or groups. The explanation supplied was as crude as it was unsatisfactory: throwing such money at Adani was feasible given the savings achieved from the redundancies of 300 people.

All, it seemed, was above board, including Adani’s own gravy train of mayoral sponsorship. In Hill’s words, “I don’t think there’s an issue with that – it’s been properly declared and the community can find out on our website.” This is the sort of dizzying honesty that deserves a gold medal and a singular bullet, the latter to reassure the elector that such members should never reach mayoral office. They are happy to betray confidence and independence to a foreign despoiling entity in plain sight and expect resounding thanks.

There are voices noting the absurdity of the stance. “Why does a billionaire,” argues Peter Newey, convenor of Townsville Residents and Ratepayers Association with steely sensibility, “want two councils in Queensland to pay $36 million for an airstrip?” As convenor of the Townsville Residents and Ratepayers Association, Newey insisted that Gautam Adani “would be able to afford at least two dozen of them and then gold plate them.”

Other local figures are simply concerned that such money could be well used to fund local infrastructure projects instead of coddling a mining monster. “I despaired, to be honest,” claimed a member of the city’s city image committee, Lucy Downes, “because that money could have been used to reactive the CBD.”

An interesting sentiment that seems to come out is the sense of cleverness: the local, trough skimming officials here are intent on making sure that they fawn and butter as long as they can, but still assure the “people”, those sad estranged electors, that they have their backs. If Adani does not come good with their bank finance, the air strip is not going to happen.

Hill is particularly one who believes she can straddle two chairs and still claim a Zen like balance. Embracing Adani and loving the environment are two fundamentally consistent principles in this muddled acquiescence. “We put extra regulation into areas like licensing requirements while rate payers up north pay to make sure our wastewater is handled in a way that wont hurt the Reef.” A perfect world, one that reconciles insatiable plunder with immaculate conservation.

Local councillors are acting as any councillor in any malnourished, post-colonial state would. They are up for purchase, and they are proud of it. To that end, there is no room to be smug, self-satisfied and exceptional here. Dictators rolling in the sponsorship of the US Central Intelligence Agency would have been envious.

This is Australia, where the term post-colonial suggests, and is loaded, with other meanings. Not, however, when it comes to a molesting, mine renting giant like Adani. That cap has been doffed, and local government is happy to fork out.


Madness on Horseback: The Charge at Beersheba

“The tradition of man and horse is part of us. It is part of Australia.” (Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, Oct 31, 2017).

Exaggerated truths have been flowering in the rhetoric following the visit of Australian politicians to ceremonies commemorating the light horse charge at Beersheba. Not a single wisp of objectivity has manifested itself in covering the proceedings, the re-enactment, and the flowing guff. Even the national broadcaster has decided to play along.

Reporting on this event has often been prefaced with the sense that a regretful amnesia has set in. The Allies should be grateful to those of the Australian horsemen who rode their cause into history. “From a solemn ceremony to a dusty desert re-enactment,” went an ABC account, “it was a day of commemoration in southern Israel to mark 100 years since the Battle of Beersheba.”

That battle had been but a subset of other skirmishes and engagements between the Allied forces under the command of British General Sir Edmund Allenby and the forces of the Ottoman Empire. The aim of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force was simple and ruthless: capture Gaza, enter Palestine and knock out Imperial Germany’s ally.

The Australian angle on this, aided by New Zealand enthusiasts, is equally simple. Allied efforts had stalled in the Middle Eastern campaign. An assault on October 31, 1917 as part of third Battle of Gaza had failed to make an impression. Furthermore, water was needed – desperately.

Then came the assault by the 4th Light Horse Brigade at dusk. Turkish defences at Beersheba, manned by some thousand or so riflemen, nine machine guns and two aircraft, eventually capitulated. But what florid, alloyed Australian accounts often fail to note is the role of softening played by three British divisions the morning of October 31.

Shelling from 100 guns had alarmed the Turkish forces sufficiently to force them west and south west of Beersheba. The wells, however, were still in their control. As Brigadier General William Grant put it, “men you’re fighting for water. There’s no water between this side of Beersheba and Esani.” The fall of Beersheba emboldened the British forces to break the Ottoman line near Gaza on November 7, leaving the way open into Palestine.

There is nothing like a military re-enactment to thrill the jingo lurking under the flesh, readying the chests to be given a true thumping. “The leaders of our three nations are here assembled,” intoned Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, “because we are honouring an extraordinary battle, an extraordinary campaign, which made history, which fulfilled history.”

The Israeli Prime Minister saw this as a lesson of worthy history and true character building, a fine example of Australasian prowess in the Negev Desert. “We learned about the ethos of courage of Australian and New Zealand’s soldiers.” It was, continued Benjamin Netanyahu, the sort of “spirit of fortitude and courage and willingness in the defence of our land and our values.” The observation is so anachronistic as to beggar belief, but such is the power of the union between patriotism and real estate, between rushed blood and disturbed soil.

Australian and New Zealand forces had tasted a number of decent, murderous defeats, with these countries’ youth butchered at Gallipoli in a Winston Churchill-inspired effort to inflict defeat on the Ottoman empire. They suffered even more in the lethal trench battles of the Western front.

The charge of the 4th Light Horse at Beersheba a century ago, for that reason, seems a moment of ecstasy, one freed from the lethal constipation of the Western front, the inability of forces to make headway and forge victory. It was also a murderous stalemate held together by industrial slaughter, the machinery of modern war.

The cavalry charge was a form of retro-warfare, an example of nostalgia on horseback and daring risk. It could well have gone so wrong, and it was drawn from the old British fantasy of previous charges, not least of all that of Lord Cardigan’s efforts in the Battle of Balaclava in October 1854 against Russian forces. Despite the slaughter inflicted upon them then, hasty glorification followed. “All in the valley of Death,” went poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Rode the six hundred”.

There is, of course, a law of consequence operating here. Beersheba, for one, is now in Israeli territory. If we were advocates of Pascal’s Cleopatra nose theory of history, we could say that even a victory of this small magnitude altered the political geography of the region. The point is again made by the ABC. “The victorious campaign redrew the map of the Middle East.”

Prime Minister Turnbull was even blunter, almost to the point of boasting. These men “spurred their horses through that fire, those mad Australians […] and took the town of Beersheba, secured victory that did not create the State of Israel, but enabled its creation.”

Since that painful redrawing, nation states have warred, bickered and slaughtered. New states emerged, the offspring of part treachery, part opportunity, and colonial fantasy. Undertakings were ignored as the Ottoman Empire sundered. Irritable tribes were artificially captioned by fictional boundaries. Fitting, then, that the Beersheba commemorations should take place on Israeli soil.

Chaos on Manus Island

There are standoffs, threats and continuing tensions over the imminent closure of the Manus Island Detention Centre. (The politically palatable term here is “processing centre”). This closure, instigated by legal ruling by the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court in April 2016, has led to a degree of window dressing, prevarication and stalling by all parties connected with the institutionalised barbarism that has been inflicted on refugees and asylum seekers.

A vital stumbling block in this involves the removal of 718 men from the Lombrum Naval Base to alternative, purpose-built accommodation in the town of Lorengau. Even CNN decided the crisis was newsworthy: “Powder keg on Manus Island as refugees refuse to leave immigration centre.”

Central to the PNG tactics of removal will be the deployment of the PNG mobile squad, famed for their brutality and expert mishandling. Extra personnel are being deployed ahead of the closure on the pretext that they are the ones to protect the populace. The actual ones in danger are the refugees and asylum seekers in the camp itself who fear marauding locals indifferent to the dark deals done between PNG and Australia.

As Kurdish refugee Behrouz Boochani, who has made a name for covering the camp’s accretions of wearing brutality and tedium over the years explained, “The refugees don’t feel safe in the community, because the local community is not ready to accept them.”

The social nightmare that has arisen was a case of pure engineering on the part of the Australian government, keen to sustain a gulag-styled system of camp processing and control supposedly designed to deter arrivals. Absurdist claims that refugees could settle in PNG as a land of smooth milk and enticing honey have become the fare of successive administrations in Canberra.

The PNG politicians tend to have mixed feelings about their large, insistent neighbour. The refugees, spanning a range of countries as diverse as Iran and Myanmar, are sore intrusions into a locality of 6,000 residents. White man’s burden is a testy one, and shouldering it in a modern pseudo-colonial context has not been a thrill.

“It boils down to if everyone behaves themselves it’s all good,” suggests the local Manus Island MP, Ron Knight. “You have young men who have been locked up for four or five years. They get a taste of freedom. You have young women in town who are attracted to these guys. They keep these relationships hidden. The fathers find out, or the families find out, and it becomes a big issue.”

PNG immigration minister Petrus Thomas has also shown that he is far from impressed by the moves of the Turnbull government to eschew responsibility. In an act of truly determined hand washing, Thomas insisted that, “PNG has no obligation under the current arrangement to deal with these two cohorts and they remain the responsibility of Australia to pursue third-country options and liaise with respective governments of the non-refugees for their voluntary or involuntary return.”

Human Rights Watch has been on the case of the Manus Island Centre for some time, and the picture has merely become more hideous with time. In 2015, the organisation noted instances of severe abuse, inhumane treatment and neglect. Another report released on October 25 makes for grim reading. Knife attacks have taken place. Beatings are not infrequent. As is robbery. Gangs of intoxicated youths roam and prey upon those daring to mix in the community.

“While many Papuans have welcomed the new arrivals to Manus Island,” state the findings, “nearly every refugee and asylum seeker Human Rights Watch interviewed described how they had experienced or witnessed violence, threats of violence, or robberies by groups of often intoxicated young local men.”

PNG Police Commissioner Gari Baki attempted to paint a picture of even-handedness and fair play, that all would be in good hands come the day of the facility’s closure. “The safety of both the refugees and government workers plus staff of leading agencies is not to be taken for granted given the tension that is now being expressed by the locals on Manus Island.”

But a PNG police force statement was far more frank about what will happen this week: “Extra manpower is on standby to be deployed to Manus Island to assist the local police in addition to the two Mobile Squad now on the island.”

The response from the Australian government, fringed by the complicity of PNG authorities, is crude in its simplicity: cut the water, the electricity, and the supplies. Starve the residents, more appropriately inmates, into submission. Drag them out; relocate them; deport them. What is startling is how conscious a strategy this has been, commencing, in fact, earlier this year.

This is a mission of viciousness. Having been given a frightful ticking off by judicial officers for their role in facilitating breaches of the PNG constitution, the political figures are doing their best to scuttle and vacillate. The aim, it seems, is less the resolution of a problem than the continued infliction of harm upon individuals with legitimate rights to flee persecution and distress.

That officials in Canberra persist in subverting international refugee law, not to mention colluding in behaviour that would, in many instances, be criminalised domestically, has corroded the integrity of Australian institutions.

Strafing Parliament: Australia’s High Court Citizenship Ruling

And they fell like ninepins. Weeks of predictions, optimistic readings, and hopeful signs were dashed as the members of the highest court of Australia laid waste to members of Parliament. Citing a section in the Australian constitution that has become something of a heavy footnote in popular consciousness, the judges ruled five out of seven applicants ineligible to sit in Parliament.

The applicants have come to assume a title more commonly associated with criminal gangs or wrongly accused terrorists: the Citizenship Seven. But of the seven, only Senators Matt Canavan and Nick Xenophon survived. Barnaby Joyce, the Deputy Prime Minister, Fiona Nash, Larissa Waters, Scott Ludlam and Malcolm Roberts all became confirmed victims of section 44(i).

That section, read strictly, is onerous in application, making ineligible anyone “under any acknowledgment of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign power, or is a subject or a citizen or entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or a citizen of a foreign power”.

It had been a true battle. Submissions varied. Joyce and Nash had suggested that s. 44(i) required that a foreign citizenship be actually chosen or maintained, its “essence,” noted the judges, being “knowledge of the foreign citizenship”. Ludlam and Waters insisted that a person be “put on notice” where the person is alerted to “primary facts” of possessing citizenship of another country.

A third, one advanced by Canavan, Roberts and Xenophon, was that foreign citizenship be voluntarily obtained or retained. This enabled a distinction to be drawn between naturalised Australians and “natural born” Australians.

The former placed the onus on the naturalised Australian to have taken all reasonable steps to renounce citizenship of another country. The latter would be disqualified if he or she took active steps to acquire a foreign citizenship or, after acquiring knowledge of that citizenship, did not take reasonable steps to renounce it.

The High Court, much against the spirit of any true widening of the section’s purpose, kept matters narrow. Constitutional history suggested no need to change that stance. As for the impact of a foreign law, that, in of itself, could never determine the operation of the disqualification provision. Fine words in theory, but in practice, a far from easy proposition.

A notable limb of reasoning in the judgment was its dismissal of the mental element of the potential parliamentarian. The section made no reference to the state of mind, and investigating “the state of mind of a candidate” was undesirable to the stability of the process.

What, then, of the survivors? Xenophon was spared the cull as he was not truly a “subject or citizen of a foreign power” or entitled the rights and privileges of one. His foreign citizenship was “residual” in nature, one rooted in British practice towards overseas territories – in his case, Cyprus. He was neither a subject nor a citizen of a foreign power for the purposes of the section.

Canavan was similarly graced by the good will of the court. When he was born, the court noted, his parents and grandparents were Australian citizens and only Australian citizens. As for the senator, never one to be entirely honest in press conferences on his background, he had never visited Italy nor taken steps to acquire Italian citizenship. The court, fortunately for Canavan, took the view that registration of Italian citizenship was different to a declaration of it, effectively meaning that the right to it lay dormant.

The Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, had had moments of hope over experience in claiming that the High Court would give a clean bill of constitutional health to his deputy. His statements prior to the court ruling came close enough to a directive, a point that would not have been missed by the judicial officers. What transpired was a predictably conservative ruling.

The sense that Australians, certainly those with dual citizenship, have received a good blow is palpable. The expert commentary on the section certainly point to its archaic formulation, one that takes aim at diversity in favour of one citizenship. Adrienne Stone, director of the Constitutional Centre for Comparative Studies, feels that such an eligibility requirement should be inapplicable in a multicultural society.

“We would be missing out on terrific representatives. But also it’s a matter of the most basic fairness that people ought to be able to contribute or participate on equal grounds.”  Waters similarly backs the point that the reading of section 44(i) “would eliminate a good half of our population from running for Federal Parliament.”

The other side of the coin is a less forgiving one. The paperwork on background, familial links, and efforts to renounce, were not done in five cases, and convincing Australians that a constitutional amendment to permit dual citizens to sit in the highest chambers in the land is not one that will fly easily, should it even grow wings. The electorate’s kindness only extends so far.

The only possible textual change will have to be by a mechanism of a double requirement: a majority of electors in a majority of states and a majority of the country, a truly high bar to satisfy.

Referenda have a habit of dying in brave efforts to cross the line – a mere 8 out of 44 seeking to amend the constitution have succeeded, the last being 1977. As constitutional law professor Anne Twomey rightly notes, “It is not the sort of thing that people march on the streets for.”

Environmental Protest: Bob Brown wins in Australia

Environment activists and watchers will be detaching themselves briefly from their various points of resistance to observe the implications of a High Court decision in Australia that was handed down last week. The decision found that various anti-protest provisions of the Tasmanian parliament found in the Workplaces (Protection from Protesters) Act 2014 were invalid.

The Protesters Act had been passed to muzzle and control protesters concerned that the Lapoinya state forest was going to be felled for the Malaysian logging company Ta Ann. The Tasmanian government seemed enthusiastic enough with Forestry Tasmania to wish for the operation to go ahead.

To that end, Premier William Hodgman promised targeted action against “radical” environmentalists. What he got were those very “man and dad” protestors he was attempting to avoid. It fell to the former Greens leader and senator, Bob Brown, to take the standard and march the issue into the chamber of the Australian High Court.

No experience in the English language is more painful than wading through the constipating exercises of an Australian High Court decision. Grand principles expire in procedural dryness; ideals freeze over in explanations of murderous boredom. Principles and rights often seem like afterthoughts rather than mountainous feats of human endeavour, the stuff to revere rather than wear down.

To win a High Court action requires, not an understanding of Cicero and the medium of justice in its ideal form, but an awareness of an accountant’s counting apparatus, its dulling effects, it conservative values.

Brown was fortunate to have the spirit of the accountants on his side, specifically on the issue of convincing the court that the Protesters Act was an unwarranted intrusion on Australia’s mild, even lukewarm version of free speech. Five judges favoured the position; two (Justices Gordon, in part, and Edelman) did not.

A glance at the definition of protest activities in the legislation alerts us to the problem. Section 4 breezily covered protest activities as those taking place on a business premise or access area in relation to a business “in furtherance of” or “for the purposes of promoting awareness of or support for” an “opinion, or belief about a “political, environmental, social, cultural or economic issue”.

What Chief Justice Kiefel, joined by Justices Bell and Keane, found was an unwarranted burden on the implied freedom of political communication magically conjured up by the High Court in previous decisions:

“Even if the plaintiffs were not on business premises or in a business access area the police officers who arrested and removed them were unable to correctly determine whether they were on those premises or in that area. As a result of their error the plaintiffs’ protests and their communications to others about the forest operations were silenced.”

The judges also noted the impact the legislation would have had on protesters in general, including a broadening of areas of operation and consequences for not complying with directions given by police officers and forestry staff, not to mention stiff penalties. These would have deterred “protests of all kinds”, and were hardly reasonable in the context of achieving the act’s purpose.

The judges’ view is hardly remarkable, though it is couched in ginger footsteps of reasoning. Caution is expressed. Striking the balance, for instance, on what might be an appropriate burden on political communication has yet, according to Justice Nettle, been settled in Australia. But his honour did find that the legislation gave unwarranted discretion to police officers to remove and prevent people from returning the forestry areas. Justice Gageler went so far as to call such powers “capricious”.

When looking at the purpose of the Protesters Act, there could be no other reason for its design: to frustrate and prevent conduct that could damage a business or disrupt its activities, while also deterring protesters who might harm those activities.

A look at the dissenting judgements suggests how difficult defending such implied political rights can be. Justice Edelman, in a manner typical of an Australian High Court, finds expanding rights problematic. They should be narrow, preferably to the point of a needle. The good judge decided, for instance, that the Protesters Act only applied to unlawful activity which was independent, an odd formulation, to say the least. It was only applicable “to State or Commonwealth legislative power if there is a ‘burden on the freedom’.”

Both judges in dissent could not quite see why the challenge to the Protesters Act could succeed because of vagueness, though Justice Gordon found the four-day prohibition on entering a business premises after an officer directed a person to leave lacked a legitimate purpose “other than for the suppression of political communication”. The question, in other words, is always one of degree, and the legislative drafters of future anti-protest legislation will be taking note.

The stifling setting, and language, of the High Court did not discourage Bob Brown. This was a famous victory for the environmental movement, even if the court had not passed judgment on Premier Hodgman’s “decision to flatten the Lapoinya state forest in northwest Tasmania”. The catch-all nature of the legislation, the fact that it applied to all protestors of whatever ilk, sank the legislation.

What this supplies the Australian pro-environment protester is a potential weapon for future activity, though much it will depend on a drafter’s keen eye. Other governments across Australia, including Queensland, are promising to enact similar anti-protest acts to protect coalmine operations. The Lapoinya forest may well have been razed, “but it has proved,” concluded a satisfied Brown, “a pyrrhic victory for the destroyers.”

When Conspiracies Meet: Donald Trump and the JFK Files

It seems the perfect recipe, a union of minds and fates. A case, long disputed, deliberated over, conspired over, meets a modern US president who favours the notion of birther theories, rigged systems, corrupt elites and corrosive establishments. As President Donald Trump announced over the weekend, “Subject to the receipt of further information, I will be allowing, as President, the long blocked and classified JFK FILES to be opened.”

Having himself been seen as a conspiracy theorist with some clout, Trump fittingly finds himself releasing files that are supposedly meant to shed light on the period in US history known as Camelot, along with its rude and violent conclusion with the slaying of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.

Trump has himself been, as he continues to be, an inspiration for the conspiracy aficionados. These tend to come in all political shades in a country where the paranoid strain, as Richard Hofstadter identified with forensic accuracy, nags and convinces.

Be it Senator McCarthy’s claim in June 1951 of communist infiltration on vast scale; the assertion by leaders of the Populist party in 1895 that treacherous “gold gamblers” had forged an impoverishing conspiracy in 1865-6; or the inroads of Papal influences in the White House in the 1850s – all have left their mark on the traumatised psyche of US political unease.

The current set of conspiracies regarding Trump is becoming bibliographic in nature. Is he brain damaged or permanently impaired, the basis to rationally explain his frequent lapses into infantile effusiveness and sporadic bullying? Is he really an out-of-the-closet Russian operative singing and swinging to the score sheet of the Kremlin and strong man figure Vladimir Putin?

One particularly enduring one, even if its legs seemed terribly wobbly, was the claim that he was Hillary Clinton’s true standard bearer, holding the false flag for the Clinton campaign even as he was debunking every campaign tactic in the electoral rule book. Once that particularly flag caught fire, there had to be other explanations: Trump as avenger, vengeful exterminator of the Democrats.

The central problem to the conspiracy advocate is a system of permanent and impervious irrefutability, fuelled by the smallest kernels of truth. Nothing presented is empirically credible to alter convinced minds. For Trump’s own view, the Zeitgeist of the moment is Fake News writ large, a point that is only laughable to a point.

Any cursory understanding of news gathering and dissemination entails an understanding of mechanisms of self-censorship, the restrained (or planted hysterical) voice, the fiction of objectivity. Fabrication is impossible to divorce from news cycles, however stable. Not all news is counterfeit, but much of it is distorted by the lenses of power, decision and editorial consideration.

All evidence obtained can only point to affirming the conspiracy, rather than challenging it. In this context, the view of John Maynard Keynes – that changing facts duly changes opinions – is not only ignored but deemed impossible.

The legend of Camelot has had a decidedly devastating effect on the sober appreciation of US government institutions. The Kennedys were the US variant of the Royal Family and even more to the point, seemed photogenic, intellectual, glamorous.

The Kennedy family was itself the architect behind the faux aristocratic fantasy, the fiction, if you like, of an administration awash with shiny competence and brain heavy awareness. In truth, it was essentially piloted by a medically challenged and heavily medicated figure who suffered, amongst other conditions, Addison’s disease.

President Kennedy’s rocky stewardship, as Robert Dallek notes in considerable detail, was marked by anti-anxiety agents, sleeping pill popping, stimulants, and pain killers. The public image of a formidable, robust Cold War warrior was itself an elaborate fantasy, padded by its own conspiracy of deception. As if realising the implications of his medical burrowing, Dallek had to reiterate the point that Kennedy was still functioning and capable and was at no risk at cocking up during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

The Kennedys were successful enough, be it through their army of ideological acolytes and publicists (think of the unquestioning pen of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.), to create the impression of knight-like purity, intellectual sagacity and calm. To kill, then, what is noble, became an essential American trope: JFK, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. Behind each had to be a gargantuan conspiracy, an establishment puppeteer.

The Kennedy files that are promised for release are hardly going to rock the boat, alter the world, or change a single mind. Historians will be able to bring out modestly updated versions of old texts; official accounts might be slightly adjusted on investigations, locations and suspects, but the conspiracy set is bound to stick with grim determination to ideas long formed and re-enforced by assumptions that refuse revision.


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