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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.

Saving the Planet One Child at a Time: Children, School Strikes and Global Climate Action

Children’s crusades do not necessarily end well. During the years of armed missions to the Holy Land, when Jerusalem meant something to the sacredly inclined in Europe, children were encouraged to take to the rough and dangerous road as it wound its way towards Palestine. In 1212, a boy of 12 is said to have begun preaching at Saint-Denis in France. God had supposedly taken some time to communicate a pressing wish: Christian children were to head to the Holy Land and liberate it from the Infidel. How they would do so was not clear.

They subsequently starved, suffered deprivation, were killed and enslaved en route to their destination. The modern student movement against climate change stresses another Jerusalem, that there will be nothing to salvage if nothing is done now. We are all, in short, for the chop if climate change is not arrested. As an Oakland high-schooler by the name of Bruke told Wired, “My GPA isn’t going to matter if I’m dead.”  And much else besides.

To such movements can also be added other acts of striking in peaceful protest. Tens of thousands of US students did so in 2018 swathed in the grief and despair of gun shootings, the most immediate being the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. The National School Walkout of March 14 and the March for Our Lives ten days later had a biting clarity of purpose: students and staff were entitled to feel secure in the teaching and learning environment. The movement was characterised by much eloquence wreathed in anger and tears, not least of all Emma Gonzalez, who chided those political representatives “who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have been ever done to prevent this”.

Criticism of such movements emphasises helplessness and delusion; they are children and so are vulnerable, idiotic and irrelevant. They are to be taught and have nothing to teach the adult world. Leave it to the big boys and girls to stuff up matters. The critics, often estranged from the very political processes they have been complicit in corrupting, see embryos in need of a constructive voice, expressed constructively without inconvenience, not coherent agents keen to affect change. There is, as Kari Marie Norgaard observed in 2012, a lag between the accumulating evidence of doom on the one hand, and the absence of public urgency, even interest, in response. “Although not inherently unproblematic,” surmised Norgaard, “local efforts may provide a key for breaking through climate avoidance from the ground up.”

Greta Thunberg

The global climate change strike movement by children, blown and swept along by the efforts of Swedish student Greta Thunberg, have suggested the possible short-circuiting of this dilemma: to combat the global by being stridently engaged in the local. (Such statements can become feeble mantras but do operate to galvanise interest).

For Thunberg, the issue of change is unavoidable. In her COP24 Climate Change Conference speech in December, the plucky youth did not believe that begging world leaders “to care for our future” would make much of a difference. “They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again.” What mattered was letting “them know that change is coming whether they like it or not.”

Protests were registered on March 15 across 2,052 venues in 123 countries. There were 50 in Australia; and protests in every state in the United States. Often forgotten in these movements is the role played by children themselves in the organisational side of things, often clear, fathomable and inherently coherent. In the United States were such figures as 12-year-old Haven Coleman of Denver, Colorado, Alexandria Villasenor of New York City, and 16-year-old Israr Hirsi of Minnesota.

Squirrel scholars suggest that these actions represented a “transformation” at play. Associate lecturer Blanche Verlie claimed that her research revealed how “young people’s sense of self, identity, and existence is being fundamentally altered by climate change.” It can be tempting to read too much into matters, to see flowers grow in fields initially thought barren. But there is little doubting climate change as a catalyst of active and noisy encouragement amongst youth, one akin to the anti-war movements of the Vietnam War period.

There has been much finger-wagging against the children from, for instance, politicians who just cannot understand how a striking student could ever get employment. How dare they take time off learning in a classroom while taking to the classroom of the streets? The spokesman for UK Prime Minister Theresa May, for instance, argued that such protests increased “teachers’ workloads” and wasted lesson time. Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, in contrast, signalled his preference for the marchers and strikers: “Climate change is the greatest threat that we all face but it is the school kids of today whose futures are most on the line.”

In Australia, New South Wales Education Minister Rob Stokes preferred to brandish the rod of punitive action: both students and teachers would be punished for participating in the March 15 rally. By all means, find your “voice”, suggested the threatening minister, but avoid doing so during school hours. For such scolding types, climate change and injustice have strict timetables and schedules, to be dealt with in good, extra-curricular time.

Australian Resources Minister Matt Canavan’s views on the youth climate action movement are childishly simple and representative, suggesting that Thunberg is correct in her harsh assessment. Recorded in November last year, the minister sees education as an instrumental affair. “The best thing you’ll learn about going to a protest is how to join the dole queue. Because that’s what your future life will look like […] not actually taking charge of your life and getting a real job.” Forget the environment’s durability; drill it, excavate it, mine it, drain it and burn it to a cinder. Australia, and the world, do not need environmentally conscious citizens, merely automata consuming and feeding the commodity markets. For the likes of Canavan, it is too late. For the children, the battle to change the beastly status quo is urgent, pressing and inevitable.

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The Dangers of Values: Brenton Tarrant, Fraser Anning and the Christchurch Shootings

The argument that the Christchurch shooter, suspect Brenton Tarrant, or the views of Australia’s Senator Fraser Anning, seemingly holding a lone torch, are somehow not representative of the broader whole, be it Australia or New Zealand, is a self-deflecting exercise. They are the uncomfortable mirrors of ruin, actual and perceived. They are the voices of people who can either be marginalised and confined or addressed.

Tarrant’s views sizzle with clenching anxiety, shot through the desire to recover what has been lost and what has been taken. It is deprivation, and it is not so much nostalgia as castration and insufficiency. How to overcome that? The response is spectacular violence, one that seeks to “show the invaders that our lands will never be their lands, our homelands are our own and that, as long as white man still lives, they will NEVER conquer our lands and they will never replace our people.”

Australian Senator Fraser Anning, with the bodies still warm, decided to wade into the debate. “Does anyone still dispute the link between Muslim immigration and violence?” he posed on Twitter. He had no time for the “clichéd nonsense” that the Christchurch killings were the result of poor gun laws or those “holding nationalist views”. “The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.”

Marginalisation, coupled with severe muzzling, is the preferred formula to such individuals. A petition to remove Anning from parliament, for instance, has reached 750,000, a move that will do wonders to martyr him and make way for crude shrines. “We call on the Australian government to expel this man who blames victims for their own violent deaths, and uses references to genocide to further his hateful agenda.”

Repeatedly, remarks have been made across the politically smug spectrum that neither the shooter, nor the reactionary senator, represent the “values” of Australasia. Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Penny Wong, has dismissed Tarrant’s views as alien and incompatible. “He is not who we are.” Ditto Anning, deemed a freak. “I say to the people of New Zealand, I say to all people, Mr Anning does not represent Australia, he does not represent our values, he does not represent who we are.”

This is self-denying, camouflaging guff; individuals like Tarrant and Anning are, in of themselves, representative of a particular strain of thinking of alienation, morbid fear of extinction, a terror of being subsumed. Call it bruised White ego, the governing classes left out in the cold. Call it a sense of drowning and asphyxiation and falling into social and political irrelevance. They are the ones whose views suggest a loss of control, and, fundamentally, a loss of power. Consider Anning’s remarks on March 12: “I can see what happened in the UK where 429 Muslims are in political office now and hold massive influence over law making including introducing Sharia law.” Those of Wong’s persuasion would do well to consider that many Australians of a certain ilk and background are, however delusional, terrified about the incompatibilities of Islam and the Anglo-Australian legal system.

In August last year, Anning made the claim before his Senate colleagues in his maiden speech that Australia needed to finally redress the issue of immigration. He reflects on the era of Sir Robert Menzies, one where change was slow and wealth abundant; he then looks the country now, and sees welfare seekers everywhere. (A touch shabby on the actual success of Australia’s immigration program, is Anning). “In the days of Menzies, immigrants arriving here were not allowed to apply for welfare and that attracted the right sort of hard-working people this country needed.”

Such a program, one that had been taken out of the hands of the Australian people, needed a “final solution”. Whether Anning’s choice of words was intentionally vulgar, or simply ignorant and convenient, is impossible to know. But few listened or consulted the full text of that speech, which has a number of surprises. Anning mentions, for instance, the methods of the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, the inspiration behind an “insidious revolution”. Understand Gramsci, and you will understand the dangers posed by cultural Marxism. Anning misses the boat by a good stretch on why individuals concur with their institutions (people can be seduced not to revolt), but his views nonetheless draw the customary lines in the sand in the culture debates.

His words got their predictable reaction, fodder for his brand label. As a minor politician, publicity is pure oxygen. In the kingdom of clippings and short takes, his message was simplified and amplified. It is also worth noting that Katter’s Australia Party, to which he initially belonged, endorsed his claims about immigration only to have a dramatic change of heart.

Playing the values game is a dangerous one. What, exactly, are “Australian values”, inchoate and slippery as they are? We see those two words repeated with machine automated promptings. Australian values were not reflected in the killings; they were not reflected in the extremist sentiments of the suspect shooter or the senator with a loose tongue. But Australian values have just as easily been ones of expropriation, dispossession and racial fear, a product of British colonial mentality, frontier conflict against the Indigenous population, and the deputy sheriff essentials so keenly embraced by this extension of the US imperium. How pleasant it is to assume that something else is at play, that Anning and Tarrant are the exceptional monsters in the playground.

The poisoned well of anxiety and resentment is a deep and broad one, common to Islamic State and the right-wing fundamentalism that supplies their counter. They are, as journalist Stan Grant noted on ABC News quoting from Mark Lilla, the shipwrecked minds; they catastrophise the world, see it as calamitous. They nourish each other, supplying the nutrient of hate. To not understand the fundamental unity of these seemingly opposite positions, and seeking ways to remove that polarity, will be to mask the condition. Talk about values, to that end, is pernicious.

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Death in New Zealand: The Christchurch Shootings

Five weapons were said to have been used, all inscribed with symbols, numbers and insignia. The individual charged with the shootings at two Christchurch mosques that left 49 dead was an Australian with, it is alleged, a simple purpose: inflict death, and on specific communities in worship. Even as the carnage became clear, Christchurch was already the epicentre of twenty-four hour news television, supplying a ghoulish spectacle. Saturation coverage followed, and continues to do so, a point that will warm the attacker’s blood (his entire effort was streamed on live video on Facebook).

The alleged perpetrator, one Brenton Harrison Tarrant, left an unstirring piece – to call it a manifesto would be far-fetched – for those interested before the attack. It is a document of banality and off target assumptions. “Who are you?” he asks himself, suggesting an inner voice in need of reassurance and clarity. “Just an ordinary White man, 28 years old. Born in Australia to a working class, low income family.” Stock: “Scottish, Irish and English”; a “regular childhood without any great issues”.

He did not like education, “barely achieving a passing grade.” Universities did not offer anything of interest. He invested money in Bitconnect, then travelled. A sense of cognitive dissonance follows; Tarrant had recently worked part time “as a kebab removalist”.

No criminal record, no watch list, no registry. Nothing to suggest a tendency towards mass murder, disrespect or mania. What Tarrant did have was a desire to avenge individuals he felt a kinship for, suggesting that the dull witted are just as capable of killing as the charismatically ideological. The “radical”, rooted nature of violence lies dormant in many; all that is required is a match.

The simple language of the note resembled that of various European populist platforms, albeit trimmed of deep historical flourishes: fear the Islamic invader; take to the barricades to repel the forces of Allah. Interestingly enough, Tarrant leaves the detail of the invaders unclear, given that European lands have received all manner of invasions over its existence, of which the Ottoman and Islamic is but one stream. The broad statement strikes a note of nonsense: “To take revenge on the invaders for the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by foreign invaders in European lands throughout history.”

Other statements of motivation follow: the “enslavement of millions of Europeans from their lands by the Islamic slavers”; “the thousands of European lives lost to terror attacks throughout European lands”. Rather conveniently, and in manipulative fashion, the spirit of young Ebba Åkerlund, who died in 2017 in a terror attack in Sweden, is also channelled. It was not sufficient to merely mention her; the eleven-year old inspired the shooter to name rifles after her. “How the hell,” expressed stunned father Stefan Åkerlund, “can we ever get to mourn in peace?”

The problem with any such event is the risk of immoderate response. Sensible comments have been noted: the risks posed by non-Islamic terrorists have tended to be neglected in budgets and rhetoric, though US President Donald Trump is, unsurprisingly, insisting that militant white nationalism is fringe worthy rather than common. Under the John Key government, the overwhelming focus of funding intelligence and security efforts was directed at the phantom menace of Islam, burrowing deep into the suburbs. Watch lists of suspects were constantly noted; the fear of returned “radicalised” fighters was constantly iterated. To add a greater sense of purpose to the mission, New Zealand troops were deployed to Iraq to fight the troops of Islamic State. “Get some guts!” exclaimed Key to his opposition counterpart, Andrew Little, who seemed somewhat half-hearted in committing to the effort.

Other policy recommendations, still embryonic and possibly never to fly, are making their errands. There are suggestions of deploying around the clock security personnel to mosques in various countries, something that risks militarising places of worship.

Vengeful rebuke can also find room in legislative and executive action. In New Zealand, reforms to gun laws are being promised. (These are already strict, and it is by no means clear if safety would be improved by such changes). In Australia, Tony Burke of the Labor Party suggests punishing hate speech and denying visas to certain right-wing advocates of the white supremacist persuasion. Australia’s immigration system is sufficiently intolerant and erratic enough to deny visas to those who might interfere with the false tranquillity of its society but a suspicious paternalism remains the enemy of free speech. Debate, in short, cannot be trusted.

The move to further push tech companies to reign in violent content will also receive a mighty boost. The response from such companies as Facebook thus far is one of optimism: last year, some 99 per cent of content linked with terrorism content promoted by Islamic State and al-Qaeda was successfully purged by artificial intelligence. Calls to do the same for other sources of inspiration are bound to follow.

There is also a stark, uncomfortable reality: no one is safe. The entire field of terrorist and anti-terrorist studies is replete with charlatan impulses and the promise of placebo styled security. There are fictional projections and assessments about whether an attack is “imminent” or “probable”. There are calls to be vigilant and report the suspicious. Political leaders give firm reassurances that all will be safe, a point that, quite frankly, can never be guaranteed.

The actions of Friday demonstrate the ease with which an act of mass killing can take place, the damage than can arise from attacking freely open spaces where people commune. Extremism is said to lack a face or an ideology, but on Friday, it manifested in an all too human form.

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Lobbies and Belated Groundings: Boeing’s 737 Max 8

Lobbies, powerful interests and financial matters are usually the first things that come to mind when the aircraft industry is considered. Safety, while deemed of foremost importance, is a superficial formality, sometimes observed in the breach. To see the camera footage of the wreckage from the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 was to be shocked by a certain irony: cameras was found lingering over an inflight safety cards on what to do in the event of an emergency. For those on board that doomed flight, it was irrelevant.

The deaths of all 157 individuals on board the flight en route to Nairobi from Addis Ababa on Sunday might have caused a flurry of panicked responses. There had been a similar disaster in Indonesia last year when Lion Air’s flight JT610 crashed killing 189 people. Two is too many, but the response to the disasters was initially lethargic.

Concern seemed to centre on the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), deemed vital to prevent the aircraft from stalling.  Sensors within the MCAS might, according to accident investigator Geoffrey Dell, have sent “spurious signals to the flight management computers and resulting in the autopilot automatically pushing the nose of the aircraft down”. If so, then the ability to manually counter those actions, a safety design feature of previous aircraft autopilots, would have to be questioned. Troubling Dell was another question: why did the pilots fail to disconnect the autopilot when it played up? Ditto the auto throttle system itself.

When it comes to safety in the aviation industry, powerful players tend to monetise rather than humanise their passengers. A company like Boeing is seen as much as a patriot of the US defence industry as a producer of passenger aircraft. The company’s presence in Washington is multiple and vast, characterised by the buzzing activity of some two dozen in-house lobbyists and twenty lobbying firms. Lobbyists such as John Keast, a former principal at Cornerstone Government Affairs, have links with lawmakers such as Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi nurtured since the days he was chief of staff. Wicker spokeswoman Brianna Manzelli was, however, keen to narrow that influence supposedly wielded by Keast in a statement made to CNN. “While at Cornerstone Government Affairs, John Keast lobbied for a variety of clients including Boeing on defence issues only.”

Such combined lobbying efforts cost $15 million last year alone, which makes Boeing’s contribution relatively small to trade groups, but significant in terms of outdoing such competitors as Lockheed Martin. Added to the fact that CEO Dennis Muilenburg has an open channel to the White House, the campaign favouring the Max 8’s continued, and unmolested operation, was hitting gear. A Tuesday call made by the executive to Trump after the president’s tweet on the dangers posed by complex systems suggested some serious pull.

For a time, it seemed that the lobby was doing its customary black magic, and winning, attempting to douse fires being made by the likes of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA Union calling for a temporary grounding of the Max 8. Certain pilots had noticed control issues while operating the Max 8 over US airspace.

Boeing initially convinced the Federal Aviation Administration, which failed to note in a surly statement from Acting FAA administrator Daniel K. Elwell any “systematic performance issues” worthy of grounding the model. “Nor have other civil aviation authorities provided data to us that would warrant action. In the course of our urgent review of data on the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash, if any issues affecting the continued airworthiness of the aircraft are identified, the FAA will take immediate and appropriate action.”

This statement stood in stark contrast to that of the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand.  “Currently, there is no clear indication for the actual cause of accidents in Indonesia & Ethiopia, and no evident risk management measures or any mechanism to ensure the safety of 737 Max 9 aircraft from the aircraft manufacturer.”

The lobby’s traction has gradually slowed on the Hill, and its tittering has, at least for the moment, started to lose conviction. Calls started to come from lawmakers that the 737 model needed to be looked at. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) suggested grounding the aircraft as a “prudent” measure. “Further investigation may reveal that mechanical issues were not the cause, but until that time, our first priority must be the safety of the flying public.” Democratic senators Edward Markey (D-MA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) were also itching to convince the FAA to ground the Max 8 “until the agency can conclusively determine that the aircraft be operated safely.”

Other lawmakers, ever mindful of Boeing’s influence in their states, preferred to leave the regulators to their task. Till then, the planes would be permitted to continue taking to the skies. “Right now,” cautioned Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), chair of the subcommittee overseeing aviation and a political voice for a state hosting an important Boeing facility, “the important thing is that relevant agencies are allowed to conduct a thorough and careful investigation.”

It was President Donald Trump who ultimately decided to reverse the earlier decision by regulators permitting the aircraft to continue flying. The emergency order put the US in step with safety regulators in 42 other countries. “I didn’t want to take any chances,” explained Trump. But ever mindful of Boeing’s shadowy hold, the president added a qualifying note. “We could have delayed it. We maybe didn’t have to make it at all. But I felt it was important both psychologically and in a lot of other ways.”

The FAA’s continued “data gathering”, previously deemed insufficient to warrant a grounding despite the quick response in other countries, had led to the opposite conclusion. This included “newly refined satellite data available to the FAA”. But Elwell was unwilling to eat anything resembling humble pie. “Since this accident occurred we were resolute that we would not take action until we had data. That data coalesced today.” A coalescence demonstrating, in more concrete terms, how safety, while important, tends to lag in the broader considerations of profit and operation in the aviation industry.

Image from wktv.com

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Lies in the Branding: Justin Trudeau’s Implosion

“Trudeau came out and asked for strong women, and he got them.” (Michelle Rempel, Conservative Party MP, The Atlantic, Mar 12, 2019).

The gods have various roles, and most of them are intrusively irritating. They select humans, and drive them mad. They select them for special missions, praise them and drive them to death. They also select them to, if the time comes, commit foolish suicide. The going might be good for a time, but they shall utterly be vanquished, mortal snots that they are.

The situation with Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will either ensure his survival for some time, or his destruction. For many, his looks, his manner and his sense of presence have been prime excuses for avoiding sternly critiqued policy, pushing him up charts of aesthetics and chat shows. Like the Camelot of the Kennedys, the substantive nature of achievements have given way to a nimbus of awe and praise.  In an appropriate observation from Jesse Brown, Trudeau was a “social media savant”, “the political equivalent of a YouTube puppy video. After your daily barrage of Trump and terror, you can settle your jangled nerves with his comforting memes.” Serious issues could hang, and Canada could resist growing up and challenging the lies of its label.

On some level, he was excused for simply being a half-decent, bearable presenter after nine years of the conservative Harper administration, one who caused the occasional flutter and quiver in appropriate audiences. Tickling an audience will get you some way.

He also, much like Tony Blair of the New Labour wave in Britain in the late 1990s, decided to fan progressive tendencies while caking them in the most god-awful spin. He preferred conciliatory approaches. He ticked the boxes of the progressive report card, because ticks matter: go for a gender-balanced cabinet; chew over climate change policy; be sensitive to the First Peoples and seek their representation.

In 2015, when asked why he felt his cabinet should be evenly divided in terms of gender (on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill, he sported the fine distribution of 15 men and 15 women), his response reverberated on the tarted waves of social media. “Because it’s 2015.”

Jody Wilson-Raybould, was one of the faces of that cabinet, appointed justice minister and attorney general, and the first indigenous person to attain that post. Full marks were given to the new leader. He was walking, not just on water, but well.

That period of uncritical Trudeau-ism is over. The dirt is coming in. The brittle realities of politics have become apparent. The glory boy has lost his shine, his coat looking that much more ragged. Wilson-Raybould has resigned from the cabinet claiming interference from Trudeau in her efforts to prosecute engineering giant SNC-Lavalin, a company which has thousands of Canadians in its employ and a certain smell of bribery and corruption touching a number of Libyan business contracts. (The Qaddafi era still casts its shadow.)

Wilson-Raybould proved to be a true spoil sport to the Trudeau image. Jobs were playing on the prime minister’s mind, and became a dominant intrusion. Going heavy on the company for grounds of fraud or corruption would lead to job losses, notably in Quebec. A criminal conviction would fetter the company from bidding on government contracts for a decade. Best keep SNC-Lavalin up and running, in a fashion. The company would be encouraged to confess, spanked with a manageable fine and be made to promise improvements. Wilson-Raybould refused.

On February 27, in extended testimony to members of the House of Commons Justice committee, the former Attorney General explained that between September and December 2018, she had “experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion [in her] role as the Attorney General of Canada in an inappropriate effort to secure a Deferred Prosecution Agreement with SNC-Lavalin.”

Her refusal to accede to the deferred agreement for SNC, she surmised, led to her shuffling out of her cabinet position on January 7 this year. She duly resigned. Before the committee, she reminded members of the role of the attorney general, one who exercises discretion to prosecute “individually and independently.” Cabinet’s views on the matter were irrelevant in making such decisions.

The extensive cloud was irritating and morally vexing enough to compel another resignation, a certain capable Jane Philpott of the treasury board. “Unfortunately, the evidence of efforts by politicians and/or officials to pressure the former Attorney General to intervene in the criminal case involving SNC-Lavalin, and the evidence as to the content of those efforts have raised serious concerns for me.”

If there is nothing more pronounced in outrage, it is those who felt faith and lost it; who adored stupidly, idiotically, only to understand that politics has a habit of feeding, and promoting, certain acts of self-interested and damaging imbecility. Trudeau’s actions were those of a person caught up, concerned at the loss of jobs and votes. Accordingly, he massaged any principles.

Other parties have started to express interest at this fall from grace. Investigations have been mounted by the Justice Committee and the federal ethics commissioner. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has expressed concern over the SNC-Lavalin affair, feeling that it poses a challenge to Canada’s reputation for upholding the rule of law. NDP MP Charlie Angus insists that the perception of Canada on the “world stage” was at stake. (Canada’s sense of virtue tends to assume a strained rhetorical quality at points.) “If Canada is seen as a jurisdiction soft on corporate corruption, Canadians lose out.”

SNC-Lavalin may well be the undoing of the prime minister in every sense, starting with members of his own party, though he seems to have retained support – at least for the moment – within his caucus. The two resignations did not precipitate movements for an imminent coup.

If he had simply set his sights lower, clinging to the grime of politics and the arithmetic of amorality, the fall would not only have softened but be lower. Not so. He felt better; elevated and irritatingly cocky, he could gaze from Olympus on the miscreants and assume that he had become exceptional in the frothy nonsense that is social media and goggle-eyed celebrity. He could dabble in the world of moose shit and look puppyish and cute. That time is at an end.

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Publicised Cruelty: Scott Morrison Visits Christmas Island

His visit struck a sour note. The Australian prime minister Scott Morrison was making an effort to show he cared: about those intangible things called borders, secure firm and shut to the unwanted human matter coming by sea. The distant Australian territory of Christmas Island was selected to assist in coping with arrivals from Manus and Nauru Island needing medical treatment. Having lost the vote in parliament on preventing the move, the Morrison government has done its best to ensure that a cruel element remains.

During the visit, Morrison rationalised the re-opening as the fault of the opposition. “As Prime Minister, I closed the Christmas Island detention centre and got all the children off Nauru.” The Labor Party had “voted to weaken our borders and we have acted on official advice to reopen Christmas Island.” The facilities provided “a deterrent to people smugglers and to anyone who thinks they can game the system to get to Australia.” The mythology persists.

There are parallels with atrocity and jail tourism (fancy seeing concentration camps?) in a man being filmed going through such facilities, though this time, they are intended for full use rather than being a site for instructive purposes or moral outrage. Should Australians ever wake up to the full implications of what their government does in their name, such camps might become appropriate measures of a gulag mentality that paralysed any sensible discourse on refugees for a generation.

Being a man obsessed by the moving image (once and adman always an adman), Morrison ensured that cameras never left their focus; the prime minister was keen to push the credentials of the North West Point Detention Centre. He made a pit stop at a library. (Cue necessary movement of arms to bookshelves; expansive hand movements). He even found himself gazing at a lavatory. “It was short,” recalled a disgusted resident, John Richardson. Small businessman Troy Watson was also a touch bitter. “It’s got be some sort of publicity stunt.”

And stunt it is. It belies the fact that Australia is facing, under its current Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton, a record number of asylum seekers who are entering as tourists and economise on their status. They simply prefer to do so by that more approved mode of transport: the plane. As former Department of Immigration official Abul Rizvi points out with sharp relevance, “People arriving on visitor visas and changing their status onshore constituted an astonishing 24 percent of net migration in 2017-8, the mark of a visa system out of control.” Dutton, he charges, has no genuine immigration or refugee policy to speak of.

The re-conversion of Christmas Island into a detention centre has also provided some encouragement to locals. With refugee arrivals comes a market, an opportunity to expending cash. Human cargo can have its value: increased number of personnel, more individuals to clothe and feed on the island, more, for want of a better term, services, however poor. As Watson had to concede, “The economy on Christmas Island has been low for a good 12 months now, all local businesses including our own have certainly suffered.”

The company providing such services Serco, is a UK-based security outfit that deserves being reviled. Self-touted as adept in taking over outsourced services, the company specialises in running defence, health, transport, justice and immigration, and “citizen services”. Forty percent of its work comes from the UK, with about half that share drawn from Australia, where it is involved in some 11 Australian immigration detention centres.

Lodged in the trove of corporate devilry known as the Paradise Papers is an assessment by a Mauritius-based law firm Appleby which regards the company as replete with “problems, failures, fatal errors and overcharging”. This, it’s fair to say, comes with the troubled territory and again reminds us that privatising the swathe of public sector services does much to drain rather than save the treasury. It also serves to corrupt the delivery of such services. Again, deterrence comes before quality; harshness before vision.

The legal firm in question furnishes eager corporate watchers with a spicy note: in 2013, Serco was exposed, along with another charming counterpart, G4S, for overcharging the public purse by millions in the field of electronic tagging. His delightful resume leads to the inevitable conclusion: the company is a “high risk” client that leaves more problems than solutions.

Despite such a patchy record, the company’s 2017 annual report is bright and confident, though concedes the following: “governments have become much more skilled at contracting and focused on risk-transfer; as a consequence margins and risk-adjusted returns earned by many suppliers to governments are much lower today than they were ten years ago”. Not to be discouraged, the report picks up with the confident assertion that “the world still needs prisons, will need to manage immigration, and provide healthcare and transport, and that these services will be highly people-intensive for decades to come.” Crudely and abysmally, the company might just be right, awaiting the commencement of the Christmas Island contract with mawkish eagerness.

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Grand Jury Efforts: Jailing Chelsea Manning

“I will not comply with this, or any other grand jury.” So explained Chelsea Manning in justifying her refusal to answer questions and comply with a grand jury subpoena compelling her to testify on her knowledge of WikiLeaks. “Imprisoning me for my refusal to answer questions only subjects me to additional punishment for my repeatedly stated ethical obligations to the grand jury system.”

Manning, whose 35-year sentence was commuted by the Obama administration in an act of seeming leniency, is indivisibly linked to the WikiLeaks legacy of disclosure. She was the source, and the bridge, indispensable for giving Julian Assange and his publishing outfit the gold dust that made names and despoiled others.

The sense of dredging and re-dredging in efforts to ensnare Manning is palpable. She insists that she had shared all that she knew at her court-martial, a point made clear by the extensive if convoluted nature of the prosecution’s effort to build a case. “The grand jury’s questions pertained to disclosures from nine years ago, and took place six years after an in-depth computer forensics case, in which I tesified [sic] for almost a full day about these events. I stand by my previous testimony.” Before Friday’s hearing, she also reiterated that she had invoked the First, Fourth and Sixth Amendment protections.

Grand juries have gone musty. Conceived in 12th century England as a feudalistic guardian against unfair prosecution, they became bodies of self-regulating and policing freemen (often barons with a gripe) charged with investigating alleged wrongdoing. Doing so provided a preliminary step in recommending whether the accused needed to go court. The US Constitution retains this element with the Fifth Amendment: that no “person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury.”

The independence of that body of peers has been clipped, modified and fundamentally influenced by the prosecutor’s guiding hand. The federal grand jury has essentially become a body easily wooed by the prosecutor in closed settings where grooming and convincing are easy matters. The prosecutor can also be comforted by that level of procedural secrecy that keeps the process beyond prying eyes; Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 6(e) makes the point that the jurors and government attorneys “must not disclose a matter occurring before the grand jury.” Sealed and confined, the participants accordingly forge a narrative that tends to encourage, rather than dissuade a finding, of guilt.

That influence is hard to deny, leading to reluctance on the part of any empaneled grand jury to reject the plausibility of a prosecutor’s claims. The US Bureau of Statistics, looking at 2010 figures on the prosecution of 162,000 federal cases, found that grand juries only failed to return an indictment in 11 cases. As Gordon Griller of the National Centre for State Courts reasoned, “The problem with the grand jury system is the jury. The prosecutor has complete control over what is presented to the grand jury and expects the grand jurors to just rubber stamp every case brought before it.”

Manning’s other relevant point is that the grand jury process has, invariably, been given the weaponry to target dissenters and corner contrarians. “I will not participate in a secret process that I morally object to, particularly one that has been used to entrap and persecute activists for protected political speech.”

Manning explained to US District Judge Claude Hilton that she would (think Socrates, hemlock, the like) “accept whatever you bring upon me”. When her defence team insisted that she be confined to home, given specific needs of gender-affirming healthcare, the judge was unconvinced.  US marshals were more than up to the task (how is never stated), though certain “details about Ms Manning’s confinement,” claim Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne, “will not be made public due to security and privacy concerns.”

She will be confined till the conclusion of the investigation, or till she feels ready to comply with the subpoena. Manning’s defence counsel Moira Meltzer-Cohen is convinced that the very act of jailing Manning is one of state-sanctioned cruelty.

There is a distinct note of the sinister in this resumption of hounding a whistle-blower; yet again, Manning must show that the virtues of a cause and the merits of an open system demand a level of cruel sacrifice. “This ain’t my first rodeo,” she told her lawyer with some reflection.

This rodeo is one dogged by problems. Manning’s original conviction was a shot across the bow, the prelude to something fundamental. Journalists long protected for using leaked material under the First Amendment were going to become future targets of prosecution. Such instincts have seeped into the US governing class like stubborn damp rot; consider, for instance, the remarks of Senator Dianne Feinstein in 2012 on the issue of leaks discussed in The New York Times. Having published details of the Obama administration’s “Kill List” and US-orchestrated cyber-attacks against Iran, the paper had “caused serious harm to US national security and… should be prosecuted accordingly.” While The Grey Lady might prefer to distance itself from WikiLeaks in journalistic company, prosecuting authorities see little difference.

This latest rotten business also demonstrates the unequivocal determination of US authorities to fetter, if not totally neutralise, the reach of WikiLeaks in the modern information wars. Having been either tongue-tired or reticent, US officials, notably those in the Alexandria office, have revealed what WikiLeaks regarded as obvious some years ago: that a grand jury is keen to soften the road to prosecution.

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A Fancy Hypocrisy: China, Australia and Coal Mania

Fear them for their technology; fear them for their ideology and their authoritarianism. But embrace interference and involvement in the economy if it involves coal. This is the fancy hypocrisy of Australian politics, one driven to lunacy and inconsistency by that dark and dirty love.

The contrast between fear of Huawei, on the one hand, and an eager opening for a Chinese state-owned enterprise barging its way into the Australian market suggests that those in Canberra have finally twisted themselves into knots. The latter is particularly striking – the China Energy Engineering Cooperation (CEEC), the designated monster behind what promises to be 2000 megawatt of coal generation in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney. Two plants billed as users of efficient coal-fired technology will supposedly take root in the “failed industrial zone” and give it life. The cost would be in the order of $8 billion and generate over $17 billion worth of carbon liabilities.

Australia’s dinosaur political class is delighted at the latest foray into environmental spoliation. “This is exactly what the market needs,” chuffed Coalition backbencher Craig Kelly. Furthermore, to show that the conservative wing of politics is happy to forfeit any laissez-faire credentials regarding the economy when needed, Kelly is keen for generous taxpayers’ support. “If the Government needs to underwrite it, if it needs a little help, then that’s what we should be doing.”

Gone from the conversational babble was China’s February announcement through the Dalian Port authorities restricting Australian coal imports. “The goals are to better safeguard the legal rights and interests of Chinese importers and to protect the environment,” explained Geng Shuang of the Chinese foreign ministry. The point is worth reiterating, since similar bans were not applied to the coal from other states. The indefinite ban was the bitter icing on that particular issue, confirming prolonged clearing times for Australian coal since the start of February.

The announcement of the mining venture had its predictable reaction in the environmental movement in Australia. The Greens federal member for Melbourne was aghast, and as is his wont, got into the realms of hyperbole. Protests would ensue; mass disaffection would take to the streets. These latest coal plans, according to Adam Bandt, “will make the Franklin Dam campaign look like a Sunday picnic.” What of, he said, any acknowledgment of the recent climate shocks gripping the continent? “We just had our hottest summer on record. If Labor and Liberal [parties] give this project the tick of approval then you will see civil disobedience in Australia on a scale never seen before.”

Interference by China in Australian matters is enchanting printing presses and stalking the corridors of power in Canberra. Like other obsessions, it is clear that this one is inconsistent and variable, manifesting in various forms like an inconsistent fever. James Laurenceson’s Do the Claims Stack Up, Australia Talks China, concludes that “in each case, the evidence base [on interference] is shown to be divorced from the claims found in headlines, news reports and opinion pieces, revealing just how widespread has become the discourse of the China Threat, China Angst and China Panic”. When it comes to coal, the threat transforms; China Blessing, or China Grovelling come to the fore. (The Yellow Peril becomes the Yellow Salvation.)

The divorce in terms of reality is also evident in the finance side of things; the mining projects being proposed have yet to find the necessary capital, a point that is proving increasingly difficult for any such concerns. Kaisun Holdings, the other company involved in the enterprise and also noted for being a “Belt and Road” company, is still on the hunt for “potential investors”. As with the Indian mining giant Adani, such companies will have to convince those who finance them that coal is good in an increasingly hostile environment. No money, no project; the equation is uncomplicated. On paper, Kaisun has a market capitalisation of $33 million. The Australian joint-venture partner has a mere $25,000 on paper.

The Australian Financial Review has also pointed out that the scheme, inspired by Parramatta’s Frank Cavasinni, is being “driven by a small businessman from Western Sydney with no experience in the energy industry.” Ignorance can be golden, but not in certain areas of economic planning. Such a plant has already received reproach from EnergyAustralia’s executive Mark Collette, who claims that the plant will not provide the flexible capacity in the grid required as users move to the use of low-cost wind and solar power. “Coal as an investment works best as baseload but the market signal is calling for something different, which is flexible capacity.”

Australian politicians, when it comes to mining, prove fickle. Their views are changeable, climactically variable and their principles are always up for purchase. They are in office to be bought by the commodities industry, but the New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, is firm: there are no plans in the pipeline to approve any coal-fired power stations. “We are the most resilient state when it comes to our own energy needs.” But given that the Australian federal government lacks a coherent, sustainable energy policy, coal lovers feel they are still in with a chance.

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The Cardinal Can Do No Wrong: George Pell’s Defenders

The powerful have always had defenders.  Power seeps into the system, corrupts, controls and, ultimately, assumes an authority that does wonders to destroy an appraisal of fairness.  To be there is to assume that matters are natural, a habit. As David Hume made clear, such an instance creates the basis of error: because it has been accepted for generations and through precedent does not make it a law or an acceptable practice.

To be fair is, in a sense, to relinquish the advantages of power and accept the levelling nature of balance.  To be fair is to understand power as a danger. For the highest cleric in the Catholic Church to receive a formal conviction in terms of historical child abuse is an example of bringing a certain power to account.  “He did have in his mind,” observed the County Court’s chief judge Peter Kidd in the pre-sentence hearing, “some sense of impunity.”

The Pell conviction is also an example of defenders running to barricades in the name of protection, hoping that faith prevails over evidence, belief over the allegedly crude advances of the secular realm.  As that philosopher of revolution Frantz Fanon appositely noted, those holders of a strong core belief, when “presented with evidence that works against that belief” repel what is placed before them. Cognitive dissonance must be avoided.

The issue for some of Pell’s defenders is not one of finding justice but its impossibility for those who see a being beyond capture, and past conduct beyond censure.  Forget the victims and what the convicted person did to them. Some other ploy is at work.

Guy Rundle got heavy at Crikey, claiming that the conviction of Pell had to be a significant moment in the culture wars. “The full court press by Bolt, Henderson, Akerman, Devine et al marked them off pretty decisively from the parliamentary wing of the right (with the rule-proving exception of Craig Kelly), who were quick to ring-fence Pell from what remains of their politics.”

This has assumed fabulous contortions.  To know a man is to presume an all-conquering, wilting innocence, pushing evidentiary findings to the outer limits.  No legal system could possibly corrupt this personalised sense of he of certain cloth of Church; to have met a creature in garb, even not necessarily believing him, is to acknowledge a person as beyond guilt.

The matter must, therefore, be far more fundamental, a big picture plot as to why Pell must suffer.  It might be the vengeful in search of a sacrificial lamb, the Cardinal’s conviction as a rite for purification.  It might be the Church in search of a cleansing alibi. It is not possible to claim that Pell is guilty, shouts reactionary columnist Miranda Devine because no jury could possibly claim to be unbiased.  Would that problem be alleviated by a jury of other peers, priests, maybe?

Devine, herself a Catholic, has never been shy to suggest a conspiracy.  There is always something else at work. In 2017, she claimed in an off-the-edge tweet that Victoria’s Police Chief Graham Ashton was “desperate or a distraction from the crime epidemic he’s incapable of stopping”. Catholics, she suggested in the language of sectarian fear, were being hunted.

Andrew Bolt, who holds court at Sky News and The Herald Sun, similarly cannot fathom what has been done to the fallen cleric and assumes that self-opinion can become canonical.  “Declaration: I have met Pell perhaps five times in my life and I like him,” admitted the one-dimensional polemicist. “I am not Catholic or even a Christian.  He is a scapegoat, not a child abuser. In my opinion.”

The opinion caveat is important for Bolt.  Having landed in hot water previously for not clarifying that his opinion as just that, the Federal Court gave him a good wrapping over the knuckles for what was, at its core, shoddy journalism on “White Aboriginals”.  But on this occasion, the self-proclaimed rabble-rouser felt he was on to something. “Cardinal George Pell has been falsely convicted of sexually abusing two boys in their early teens. That’s my opinion, based on the overwhelming evidence.” 

Not that Bolt actually saw the evidence or was exposed to it, but he is nonetheless content suggesting that the victims’ reluctance to initially report the abuse (has he any understanding of Church history?), and the business of the room where the abuse was said to have taken place, suggested innocence.  Furthermore, “the man I know seems not just incapable of such abuse, but so intelligent and cautious that he would never risk his brilliant career and good name on such a mad assault in such a public place.” Bolt, ever the purveyor of the shallow view and ignorant formulation of human nature. Perhaps he suggests that the cleric was simply too intelligent to have been genuinely caught?

A dangerous twilight zone has developed.  The critics have shown, in searing fashion, that they do not believe that guilt could ever be associated with certain figures of office.  In this sense, they betray a posh-boy, aristocratic perversion: people of a certain class can never wrong; people of some groups (African migrants, for instance) always do.  Kill, maim, rape and maul, yes, but never assume that any code, criminal or otherwise, applies to certain members.

This is entertaining if teasing idiocy.  The very people who believe in necessary rules assume that these should be selectively applied.  There have always been pleasant, decent murderers, but thinking otherwise changes it. There are entertaining child abusers of high standing, and thinking them charming and ambitious makes abuse improbable.  There are bon vivant genocidal maniacs, dressed well and hoping for a historical kill, and thinking them good company turns them into miraculous innocents.

Such conduct, including messages of support from former Australian Prime Ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott, brings to mind the good character references, and beliefs, of the recently canonised Mother Teresa (now St. Teresa of Calcutta), who kept good company with the dictatorial likes of Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti, and swindling millionaires such as Charles Keating. The latter, an anti-pornographic crusader of frothing fanaticism, liked talking about God and family values even as he perpetrated financial fraud with sociopathic enthusiasm.  The Saint simply believed they were incapable of crime. For some, that is all that matters, and laws should be best forgotten.

The process will have to run its course and the cardinal’s run of the legal system is far from over.  Pell’s defence team will no doubt be reassessing the evidence with forensic aptitude, and point out errors or doubts.  But that does not discredit a verdict arrived at through formal processes in the presence of a jury and a well summing up by the judge. The danger in such doubting circumstances is that those good souls who are duly selected to serve on a panel of peers are deemed, if not expendable, then dangerous to the health of the defendant.

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Militarised Conservation: Paramilitary Rangers and the WWF

Think charity, think vulnerability and its endless well of opportunistic exploitation. Over the years, international charity organisations have been found with employees keen to take advantage of their station. That advantage has been sexual, financial and, in the case of allegations being made about the World Wild Life Fund for Nature, in the nature of inflicting torture on those accused of poaching.

BuzzFeed, via reporters Tom Warren and Katie J.M. Baker, began the fuss with an investigative report claiming instances of torture and gross violence on the part of rangers assisted by the charity to combat poaching. It starts with a description of a dying man’s last days, one Shikharam Chaudhary, a farmer who was brutally beaten and tortured by forest rangers patrolling Chitwan National Park in Nepal. Shikharam, it seems, had been singled out for burying a rhinoceros horn in his backyard. The horn proved elusive, but not the unfortunate farmer, who was detained in prison. After nine days, he was dead.

Three park officials including the chief warden were subsequently charged with murder. WWF found itself in a spot, given its long standing role in sponsoring operations by the Chitwan forest rangers. As the BuzzFeed report goes on to note, “WWF’s staff on the ground in Nepal leaped into action – not to demand justice, but to lobby for the charges to disappear. When the Nepalese government dropped the case months later, the charity declared its victory in the fight against poaching. Then WWF Nepal continued to work closely with the rangers and fund the park as if nothing had happened.”

The report does not hold back, insisting that the alleged murder of the unfortunate Shikharam in 2006 was no aberration. “It was part of a pattern that persists to this day. In national parks across Asia and Africa, the beloved non-profit with the cuddly panda logo funds, equips, and works directly with paramilitary forces that have been accused of beating, torturing, sexually assaulting, and murdering scores of people.”

The poach wars are a savage business, throwing up confected images of heroes and villains. They do not merely involve the actions of protecting animals, but military-styled engagements where fatalities are not uncommon. Anti-poaching has become a mission heralded by the romantically inclined as indispensable, its agents to be celebrated. Desperate local conditions are conveniently scrubbed out in any descriptions: there are only the noble rangers battling animal murderers.

The Akashinga, for instance, are an anti-poaching enterprise of 39 women operating in Zimbabwe who featured with high praise in a report from the ABC in October last year. Who are the victims, apart from the animals they protect? There is little doubt in the minds of the reporters: the women themselves, victims of assault, many single mothers from Nyamakate. Laud them, respect their mission.

It is clear is that these women are feted warriors, armed and given appropriate training. They “undergo military-style training in unarmed combat, camouflage and concealment, search and arrest, as well as leadership and conservation ethics.” Their source of encouragement and support is Damien Mander, formerly a military sniper and founder of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation.

Mander’s own laundry list for being a “good anti-poaching ranger”, as featured in an interview to the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre in 2015, is unvarnished: “A passion for nature, strong paramilitary base, and ability and willingness to work in hostile environments for extended periods of time as part of a team.”

The line between the mission of charity and its mutation into one of abuse is tooth fine. In February 2018, The Times, assisted by information supplied by whistleblowers, sprung the lid off Oxfam GB workers in Haiti, suggesting that charity workers had received sexual favours for payment in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. (Nothing like a crisis that breeds opportunity). It was duly revealed that the organisation had done its level best to conceal the fact. The UK International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt’s statement to Parliament in February took most issue with the latter. “In such circumstances we must be able to trust organisations not only to do all they can to prevent harm, but to report and follow up incidents of wrongdoing when they do occur.”

In the course of its conduct, Oxfam did not, according to Mordaunt, furnish the Charity Commission with a report on the incidents. Nor did the donors receive one. The prosecting authorities were also left in the dark on the subject.

Defences have been mounted by those working in the aid sector. Mike Aaronson, writing in August last year, pleaded the case that aid organisations were being unduly singled out, the scape goats of moral outrage and privileged ethics. “Aid organisations carry a lot of risk, operating in chaotic and stressful environments where in trying to do good they can end up doing harm.” In condemning them, it was easy to ignore the fact that they had “done most to address the issue”.

The WWF situation, which has moved the matter into the dimension of animal protection and conservation, has hallmarks that are similarly problematic with the humanitarian sector in general. And the reaction of the organisation has also been fairly typical, laden with weasel-worded aspirations. “At the heart of WWF’s work are places and people who live with them,” an organisation spokesman for WWF UK asserted in response to the allegations. “Respect for human rights is at the core of our mission.” There were “stringent policies” in place to safeguard “the rights and wellbeing of indigenous people and local communities in the places we work.”

Students of the broad field of humanitarian ventures suggest four instances where militarisation takes place. Charities and relief organisations have become proxy extensions in armed conflict (consider Nicaragua and Afghanistan during the 1980s); creatures of embedment (the Red Cross in the World Wars); agents of “self-defence” – consider the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem in the twelfth century; and engaged in direct conflict (the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War).

The WWF case suggests a direct connection between the mission of a charitable organisation and its captivation by a dangerous militancy. It has become a sponsor, and concealer, of vigilante action, obviously unabashed in cracking a few skulls in the name of shielding protected species. Along came the networks of informants, surveillance and exploiting local issues. No longer can this be regarded a matter of altruistic engagement in the name of animal conservation; it is a full-fledged sponsorship of a paramilitary operation with all the incidental nastiness such an effort entails.

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British Labour’s Fractious Jaunt: The Politics of the Independent Group

They could not hold on. A small – and in the scheme of things negligible group – split from the British Labour mothership last month in an effort to salvage some self-described form of credibility. In truth, they were the original sceptics of Jeremy Corbyn, the pro-New Labour grouping indifferent, even disbelieving, about the predations made by Tony Blair during his reign. Thinking that he would remain on both backbench and in museum, a historical relic of Labour values supposedly done away with under Blair’s rule of spinning and cunning, some even put Corbyn up for the Labour leadership. As things transpired, the tired technocrats, focus groupies, and a range of other associates of Tone’s worldview were given a rude shock with the ascendancy of Corbyn and Momentum.

The split, comprising Chris Leslie, Luciana Berger, Ann Coffey, Chuka Umunna, Mike Gapes, Angela Smith and Gavin Shuker, should have happened sooner. But times are good to make shallow decisions short on policy but noisy with neglected values. Britain remains chaotically disposed and unruly; its Prime Minister remains desperate and hoping for an extension on negotiations regarding an exit from the European Union. Papers associated with the left of British politics were chewing over the decision to form a new grouping. The resignations, claimed the Guardian, “are a mistake, but they are also a warning. Like it or not, and a few on all wings have always disliked it, the Labour party is not a centralist party.”

Chris Leslie used the familiar themes of hostage taking that have come to symbolise the divide in Britain’s left. “The Labour Party we joined, what we campaigned for and believed in is no longer today’s Labour Party… it has now been hijacked by the machine politics of the hard left.” Labour had betrayed Europe and enabled, according to Leslie, the conditions for May’s Brexit to take place. The “public” had been denied “a final say”. (Matters of the public are relative: the public did have a say in 2016, but a narrative that is digging its way into the books is that it was illegitimate, stolen, an act of grand and cruel deception, ergo invalid).

Berger felt “embarrassed” at her party, claiming that its values of equality had been “undermined and attacked.” For her, the movement had mutated, fed by “a culture of bullying, bigotry and intimidation.”

The Independent Group, as they have termed themselves, have also been swelled by three Tory recruits, a point which made the Financial Times exaggerate its significance (no less than “the fifth largest bloc in the House of Commons”!). In a sense, they were merely peelers from the periphery, and fairly flip-floppy on that score. All have now reached the conclusion that Brexit is a bad idea, wish for a second referendum to reverse the rot and loathe the Eurosceptic grouping within their party. Amongst the three, though, are curious streaks of variation. Sarah Wollaston had embraced the Eurosceptic stance but felt troubled by the claim from Brexit campaigners that leaving the EU would result in £350m being put into the National Health Service. Heidi Allen, by way of contrast, was always a Remain supporter.

The language of departure, and of being left behind, is standard political fare. Anna Soubry spoke about not leaving the Conservative Party; it was her party, rather, that had left her. And so Tom Crewe reminds us in the London Review of Books of Joseph Chamberlain when he founded the Liberal Unionist Party in an act of defection in 1886: “We are liberals and unchanged, even though our leader has deserted us.” The issue then for the Liberals was Home Rule for Ireland; the Liberal Unionists went on to get 77 MPs elected.

If Labour does succumb to a cathartic slaughter, these are things best done in collective drubbings. There is not yet the feeling that this could be another “Gang of Four” moment that led to the formation of the SDP in the 1981, along with the gathering of 35 MPs into its ranks.

And Corbyn’s popularity remains undervalued and hard to estimate in any polling performance, even if he has not acted, in decisive terms, as a fully engaged and constructive opposition leader. Like other political phenomena who have managed to burst through the conventional tedium of statistical prediction and dull projection, he not only survived but came through mightily at the last general election. This served to show the sheer divisions present in British politics. The Independent Group, as has been pointed out by Rod Liddle, cannot merely survive on anti-Corbyn mania. At some point, it will have to come through with a few ideas to hang on a hook or two.

Anti-party parties eventually have that perennial habit of becoming another political movement that will either sink, float or be absorbed. In this case, the obvious disruption to the Independent Group will come from Vince Cable’s Liberal Democrats, who are currently polling at 7 percent. The question to ask in 2019, poses Crew, “is not whether a ‘centre’ exists but whether political circumstances have once again made ‘centrism’ a viable political strategy.”

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Walkout in Hanoi: The Second Trump-Kim Summit

“Sometimes you have to walk and this was one of those times.” That was US President Donald Trump’s remark about something he has been doing a lot of lately: walking away from agreements or understandings in the hope of reaching the ultimate deal. North Korea’s Kim Jong-un had been pressing his advantage in Hanoi with an attempt to convince Trump that sanctions needed to be eased. He ended up seeing the back of Trump after the appropriate handshakes.

The loose drama at such events is often hard to detach from the firmly rooted substance. Trump’s relationship with the accurate is tenuous and free flowing, so we have little to go on. Ahead of the meeting, the White House was busy sending various signals designed to baffle and confuse friend and foe alike. The president was keen to praise the “special relationship” with Kim, the sort of term reserved for gatherings such as those between the UK and US.

At the end of January, Stephen Biegun, designated special representative for North Korea in the US State Department, suggested that Pyongyang had made a commitment in pre-summit talks to eliminate uranium and plutonium enrichment facilities for a price. His mood seemed to jar with the more bellicose stance taken by national security adviser and pro-bombing enthusiast John R. Bolton and fellow belligerent companion and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

In carefully chosen words, the representative noted how, “Chairman Kim qualified next steps on North Korea’s plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities upon the United States taking corresponding measures.” Biegun was optimistic at the time, drawing upon themes of flexibility and novelty. “Neither leader is constrained by traditional expectations that might doom their teams to try the exact same approach as in the past, with no expectation of anything but the same failed outcome.”

The president’s preliminary chats over dinner with Kim prior to the formal summit did not give much away. “Great meetings and dinner tonight in Vietnam with Kim Jong Un of North Korea,” he tweeted. “Very good dialogue. Resuming tomorrow!” Those aching for detail were left disappointed. By breakfast the next day, things had cooled. Cancellations of a working lunch followed.

The smoke has yet to clear, and may be hovering for some time yet. But Trump was impressed by Kim’s offer to dismantle the enrichment facility at Yongbyon in its entirety (though it is clear that the totality of the DPRK’s capacity goes beyond it). The discussion and proposed transaction list seemed somewhat threadbare; a total lift of sanctions for Yongbyon’s dismantling? According to Trump, “Basically they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, but we couldn’t do that.”

The response was not long in coming. Ri Yong-ho, North Korea’s foreign minister, suggested another version, somewhat more nuanced, less absolute: that only some sanctions be lifted in exchange for the permanent and complete dismantling of the main facility, verified by US experts. “Given the current level of trust between North Korea and the United States, this was the maximum step for denuclearization we could offer.”

Prior to the summit, there was a transfixed terror that Trump was going to give all earthly concessions, and a good number of goods on gold platter, to the North Korean leader. A bemused Trump simply deemed it “false reporting” on his “intentions with respect to North Korea.” Both parties would “try very hard to work something out on Denuclearization & then making North Korea an Economic Powerhouse.”

This was far from the case. As Joel S. Wit and Jenny Town note with some accuracy, “It’s ironic that while most pundits and the media kept up a steady drumbeat that he was going to give away the store, he did just the opposite, holding out for a better deal.”

The issues at stake here on the Korean Peninsula seem monumental, but when seen together, constitute the pieces of a jigsaw. Any comprehensive talks will have to address these, and this summit was evidently not going to do that. To only see one or two pieces in isolation (abductees, for instance, or the issue of exclusive, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation) is to ignore the numbers of steps in the entire affair.

Trust needs to be restored, a peace treaty neutering the war status of the Peninsula signed, undertakings against the use of force and hostile intent made with heft, and ultimately, an understanding that the parties at the negotiating table aren’t going to bump you off. Pyongyang is being asked to relinquish its highest grade insurance in the face of a superpower which has shown more than an unhealthy tendency to inflict regime changes with catastrophic consequences. Brinkmanship and theories of managed lunacy in the diplomatic realm will only get you to a point.

With Trump being advised by the likes of the gun slinging Bolton (known in North Korean circles as the paternal inspiration for Pyongyang’s nuclear program) and Kim ever mindful about the vulnerabilities of his regime, more walkouts are bound to happen. As Jeffrey Lewis rightly noted, the old guard (Bolton and company) represent “the cold wind” and “pretty much the rest of the government bureaucracy.” The warmth of reform in securing peace on the Korean Peninsula, spurred on by the fanning of South Korea’s Moon Jae-in and the likes of Biegun, act as counters. This walkout, at least, means that each can live to talk another day, though it will keep their respective public relations teams busy.

As matters stand, there will be no resumption of North Korean ballistic and nuclear testing, and a promise for more negotiations. The chatter will continue, and channels will remain open. As for Trump itself, “This wasn’t a walkaway like you get up and walk out. No, this was very friendly. We shook hands.”

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The Chagos Islands Case, WikiLeaks and Justice

Let this be a lesson to its detractors, doubters and stuff shirts of the secrecy establishment: the documents sourced from WikiLeaks can have tangible, having significant value for ideas and causes. They can advance matters of the curious; they can confirm instances of the outrageous and they can add to those fabulous claims that might change history. While Julian Assange and the publishing organisation have been sniped at for being, at various instances, dangerous, unduly challenging and even less than significant (odd no?), its documentary legacy grows.

Nowhere has there been a tangible demonstration of this than the issue of litigation. With gradual but relentless commitment, advocates and activists have been introducing documents obtained from WikiLeaks into court proceedings. The judicial benches have not always been consistent on how best to cope with the adducing of such matters. Would, for instance, a document obtained improperly still be relevant in proceedings? Or should be excluded on grounds of confidentiality? This state of affairs sits oddly with reality, but then again, the law is more often a fiction that resists reality.

The technological imperative here should be obvious. Such documents lose their factual character of confidence the moment they appear on the website, however obtained. Millions have the means to access it, even if, legally, the document might retain a certain character. In this regard, state officials remain jealous of their secrets and their correspondence, keen to ensure that prying publics are kept in the necessary dark.

The case of removing the inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago is a particularly ugly one, deeply mired in political considerations and diplomatic intrigue. The islands, located some 1,800 kilometres from Mauritius, became part of an arrangement between Britain and the United States, the latter particularly keen to acquire a military base in the area, the former keen to be in the good books as Greek advisor to all-powerful Rome. 

In 1965, with cards firmly kept to their chests, British diplomats disaggregated the Chagos Islands from Mauritius. Mauritius, in turn, received four million pounds for the favour. This underhanded arrangement became the prelude for the removal of all 3,000 occupants from the Islands. The UK Permanent Under-Secretary overseeing the sordid business was intent on being brutal, suggesting in 1966 with all the crudeness of an ethnic cleanser that Britain be “tough about this. The object of the exercise was to get some rocks which will remain ours; there will be no indigenous population except seagulls who have not yet got a Committee (the Status of Women does not cover the rights of Birds).” 

The handwritten note appended by D.A. Greenhill on August 24, 1966, on the same document was filled with lashings of vulgarity: “along with the birds go some few Tarzans or Men Fridays” who had to be moved on. Once done, “we must be very tough and a submission is being done accordingly.” What followed was a forced eviction of the inhabitants and the construction of the US base on Diego Garcia.

This nastiness proved perennial.  The Chagossians took up their claims of return, including unacknowledged fishing rights, badgering the UK government repeatedly in their efforts. One ploy adopted by the good officials in Her Majesty’s Government was its attempt to turn the area of claim, known as the British Indian Ocean Territory, into a marine park or reserve. 

This is where WikiLeaks proved particularly valuable, with cables clearly outlining the improper and frustrating motive of UK officials. This wily and heinous move, went one summary on May 15, 2009, of a discussion conducted by US political counsellor Richard Mills at the Foreign Office, would make it “difficult if not impossible, to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands if the entire Chagos Archipelago were a marine reserve.” The assent of the United States would also be required – a mere formality.

That cable in question became the subject of a legal claim by the Chagossians that wound its way through the British legal system, culminating in two approvals of the use of WikiLeaks cables, the first being the Court of Appeal in 2014, and the second being before the UK Supreme Court in 2018. The latter duly acknowledged that the principle of inviolability would normally “make it impermissible to use such documents or copies in a domestic court of the host country” except in extraordinary circumstances or instances of a waiver by the mission state. In this case, the cable in question did not form part of the London Embassy archive, meaning it could be used in court proceedings. Even more significantly, the very fact that it came into the public domain “even in circumstances where the document can be shown to have been wrongly extracted from the mission archive” destroyed its inviolability.

Such proceedings formed part of a momentum that saw the UK referred to the International Court of Justice via vote in the United Nations in 2017. Many European states that might have voted for the UK decided to abstain, a result of Brexit fever. The ICJ duly found that “the process of decolonization of Mauritius was not lawfully completed when that country acceded to independence in 1968, following the separation of the Chagos Archipelago.” Accordingly, the UK was “under an obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible.”

The UK Foreign Office has been snooty in response. This island dot continues to irk, worry, and gets under the skin of the establishment. “This is an advisory opinion, not a judgment.”  Besides, “The defence facilities on the British Indian Ocean Territory help to protect people here in Britain and around the world from terrorist threats, organised crime and piracy.” When in a tight corner, always aspire to universal relevance and importance. In the meantime, the fortunes of the Chagossians and international opinion, have turned.

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The Showbiz of Conservation: PETA, Google and Steve Irwin

The world of conservation has thrown up various voices of tenacity.  There was Aldo Leopold, a vital figure behind establishing the first wilderness area of the United States when he convinced the Forest Service to protect some five hundred thousand acres of New Mexico’s Gila National Forest.  There was Robert Marshall, the founder of The Wilderness Society. There was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), a solidly aimed blow at the use of DDT and its environmental effects.

Then there are the savvy showmen, the exploiters few short of a scruple, and manipulators keen on lining pockets.  The animal kingdom, for such types, is entertainment, much in the way that the automobile world is there for a figure such as Jeremy Clarkson.  Awareness of the existence of animals – their importance, their relevance – is drummed up by means of display and provocation. The more dangerous, in a sense, the better, for here, humankind can be shown to be jousting with crocodile, stingray and lion.  Humankind can return to savage roots, confronting other species in gladiatorial encounters with a film crew and an extensive promotion strategy. This is bullfighting, with a conservationist twist.

Such a figure was Steve Irwin, who made his way from Australia to the US, assisted by the solid contacts of his American wife Terri Raines, to build a name in the animal show business.  He became – and here the language is instructive – the self-styled Crocodile Hunter, audacious, brash and vulgar in his animal chase. He established Australia Zoo, which sports a vision of being “the biggest and best wildlife conservation facility in the entire world, and” (note the entertainment gong here) “there is no other zoo like Australia zoo!”  The emphasis here is also vital: zoos vary in history in terms of what they have done for conservation, turning species as much into museum species for spectacle as any act of preservation.

Irwin teased out the voyeur in the spectator: would he be added to the crocodile’s next meal?  Or, even more daringly, would he add his baby to it? Punters, take your pick, and wait for the outcome – you know you are in store for something grand and grisly.  

This assertion is not far-fetched; in 2004, the showman introduced his one-month-old son in what was promoted as “Bob’s Croc Feeding Debut” to a crocodile at feeding time, real fun for the family. While apologising for his actions in the face of strident protest, Irwin’s rather particular view on animal advertising came through.  He had, for one, been professional in keeping “a safe working distance with that crocodile when that took place”.  He would also have been “a bad parent if I didn’t teach my children to be crocodile savvy because they live here – they live in crocodile territory.”  Responsible, indeed.

His unique interpretation of safe working distance was again at play when he met his death on the Great Barrier Reef near Port Douglas in the course of making an instalment in September 2006 for the series Ocean’s Deadliest.  The ingredients were all there: identifying a species that could kill rather than anything cuddly or cute; chasing a choice sample of that species; recording, for camera, its behaviour, using whatever means necessary. In the process, the barb of a stingray pierced his heart.  Marine biologists and zoologists make it clear that “they are not aggressive, reacting only when stepped on or improperly handled.”  The throngs of grieving supporters were revealing about how sapping the cult of celebrity can be.  Critics were few and far between.

One was fellow Australian, herself a superstar of sorts, Germaine Greer.  Greer reproached Irwin for not having “a healthy respect for stingrays, which are actually commoner, and bigger, in southern waters than they are near Port Douglas.”  Irwin never seemed to comprehend the vital fact “that animals need space.” No habitat was sacred to Irwin’s celebrity predations; creatures “he brandished at the camera” were distressed.  Left in such vulnerable situations, their options were limited: succumb or strike.

Irwin, whose birthday was commemorated by Google in one their “doodles” on Friday, did enough to drive the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to a state of sheer consternation.  Google described the doodle as a celebration of “the legendary Australian wildlife advocate & TV personality whose bravery & passion opened the eyes of millions to the wonders of wildlife.”  

PETA begged to differ.  Irwin, the organisation tweeted, “was killed while harassing a ray; he dangled his baby while feeding a crocodile and wrestled wild animals who were minding their own business.” The doodle sent “a dangerous, fawning message Wild animals are entitled to be left alone in their natural habitats.”

The organisation also reiterated that Irwin was distinctly off message in terms of conservation.  “A real wildlife expert & someone who respects animals for the individuals they are leaves animals to their own business in their natural homes.”

This did not sit well in the Twittersphere and other social media outlets where outrage, not debate, characterise arguments.  Unsurprisingly, Irwin’s methods are irrelevant to the persona of challenging, sporting buffoon. He entertained, and did so well; that was what counted.  His cheer squad ranged across the fields of entertainment and sport, fitting given the same fold he came from. Baseball writer Dan Clark scolded PETA for not accepting the premise that Irwin had “saved the lives of countless of animals in his sanctuaries”, “loved animals and cared for them greatly.”  Love, and shoddy pedagogy are clearly variable things.

Irwin had even won over certain wildlife conservationists such as Anneka Svenska, who claimed on BBC Radio 1 Newsbeat that he “has inspired the next generation of conservationists.”  Even she had to admit that “now it wouldn’t be looked at as so good to touch the animals like he used to.”

The problem with the Irwin legacy is how consequences are divorced from actions.  Certain actions, be it the business model of display and torment, and the encouragement his actions supposedly did for conservationists and the cause, are blurred.  

PETA might be called out for some of its more shonky and inconsistent protests when it comes to the world of animal ethics, but in the scheme of things, their notes of protest were valid.  Irwin was, first and foremost, a man of business, a rumbling combination of yahoo, entrepreneur and Tarzan. That business might well have involved an element of conservation, but this was ancillary to the man, to his yob image, a person made wealthy on the fate and good deal of harassing, to use PETA’s term, deadly members of the animal kingdom. For that, he paid the ultimate price.

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Turning Screws: China’s Australian Coal Ban

Overly reliant economies are dangerously fragile things. As it takes two parties, often more, to play the game, the absence of interest, or its withdrawal by one, can spell doom. The Australian economy has been talked up – by Australian economists and those more inclined to look at policy through the wrong end of a drain pipe – as becoming more diverse and capable of withstanding shock. In truth, it remains a commodity driven entity, vulnerable to the shocks of demand. Think Australia, think of looting the earth.

Such carefree, plundering optimism lays bare the jarring fact that Australia remains obsessively and maddeningly committed to King Coal. To coal, she pays tribute, runs errands and sponsors with conviction. And it is coal that keeps the country tied to hungry markets which, for the moment, see use for it. But such hunger is not indefinite. India and China, traditional destinations for Australia’s less than innovative dig it and export it approach, have made it clear that their lust for coal is temporary. The appetite is diminishing, despite occasional spikes. Renewables are peeking over the horizon, forming the briefing documents of energy and trade departments.

To this comes another problem. Australia has been rather bullish of late towards the country that receives most of its earthly treasures. The People’s Republic of China has made it clear that it does not agree with the ambitiously aggressive line Canberra has taken on a range of fronts. There is the issue of blocking Chinese influence in the Pacific, notably through the provision of alternative cyber infrastructure whilst excluding Huawei in bids to secure 5G telecommunications contracts. There has been a campaign to combat purported Chinese influence on university campuses and claims of meddling in the political process. (Meddling by the US, by way of contrast, remains gloriously free to continue.)

All of these acts have shown Beijing less Australia’s independence and sovereign will than its unqualified, traditional commitment to the United States, for which it remains undisputed, kowtowing deputy. What Washington dictates, Canberra disposes.

Which bring us to Australia’s lingering weakness. According to Reuters, customs officers of the Dalian Port Group have stopped Australian coal imports, specifically coking coal central to steel making, and announced a plan to cap imports at $A12 million tonnes a year. This comes after the noticeable increase in delays at Chinese ports handling both coking and thermal coal over the course of last year. So far, Australia’s coal problem seems confined to the northern port.

The anti-panic campaign is already in full swing, which might also be read as an alternate universe in motion. Prime Minister Scott Morrison insists that “people should be careful about leaping to conclusions about this.” Local ports make decisions on local matters; no reason, then, to break into a sweat. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg feels there is really nothing to see here. “Our exports with China will continue to be strong as they have been in the past.” Trade Minister Simon Birmingham has said, banally enough, that China was “a valued partner of Australia and we trust that our free trade agreement commitments to each other will continue to be honoured.” Hiccups have previously happened in the relationship (“occasional interruptions to the smooth flow”), but this was nothing compared to the common goal: exporting and using more coal.

Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe prefers to focus on the amount of coal being stopped at Dalian as negligible and, in any case, transferrable. (The Dalian port receives some 1.8 percent of Australian coal exports.) “The amount of coal that is being blocked is the equivalent of two months’ exports from Australia to China. It’s entire possible that if it cannot enter the Chinese market then it can go to other markets.”

The justification from the Chinese Foreign Ministry remains vague, pegged to the language of regulation and quality reassurance. Spokesman Geng Shuang relies heavily on the issue of compliance. “China’s customs assesses the safety and quality of imported coal, analyses possible risks, and conducts corresponding examination and inspection compliant with laws and regulations.” In so doing, China “can better safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese importers and protect the environment.”

Geng was also in a playful mood. Did the reporter ask him on “coal” or “cow”? The issue is less amusing for Australian exporters, who have received special attention distinct from their Russian and Indonesian counterparts. This is despite the claim that there is a glut in coal, necessitating a temporary halt for domestic reasons.

The spokesman was also firm: China-Australia relations had not been impaired. “As we have stressed many times before, a sound and stable China-Australia relationship serves the common interests of both countries and peoples.” The subtext is hard to ignore: Canberra will need to be taught periodic lessons, bullied when necessary, and reminded about being too overzealous.

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