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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.

Arise, Pandemic Profiteers

History’s annals are filled with war profiteers and hustlers for the opportunistic return. They come in the form of hoarders, arms manufacturers and wily business folk making a steal on slaughter and mayhem. But the other conflict – that of battling a pandemic – has also shown that profits exist for those willing to exploit the crisis.

With the global surge of SARS-CoV-2 in 2020, there were early signs that saving money, notably for large corporations, and earning greater revenue from such a lethal crisis, was possible. Work remotely as Zoom zombies – if you can. Retreat to the second or third abode, preferably in a remote location – if you have them. The sardine-packed proles toiling and providing essential services could endure the heavier burden of suffering.

Other historical periods also suggest sharp social inequalities in the face of disease and despair. That sublime Italian writer, Giovanni Boccaccio, who wrote The Decameron, a collection of 100 tales, gives us more than just a bird’s eye view into the horror of plague and affliction. The Black Death gathered somewhere between 40% to 50% of the European populace between 1347 and 1351. While Boccaccio cites the proverb that, “It is inherently human to show pity to those who are afflicted”, his colourful spread of characters suggests something quite different. The wealthy find fine seclusion amidst their provisions; the essential workers of the time go about their doomed labours, contracting the plague and dying in the process.

In October 2021, Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies Program on Inequality (IPS) found that billionaires in the US had seen their wealth balloon by 70%, or a mighty $2.1 trillion. The number of billionaires in the country had also spiked: from 614 to 745. During that same time, there were 89 million job losses among the less fortunate, 44.9 million attributable to COVID-19 illness, not to mention 724,000 deaths.

The culprits for such a huge wealth distortion are now familiar to us. The burgeoning online market during times of lockdown and stay-at-home orders enormously enriched the megalomaniacs of Silicon Valley and other industries.

There were some in the same income bracket who did not even need to lift a finger before seeing eye-wateringly improved accounts; asset prices shot up with jittery regularity, occasioned by enormous injections of taxpayer cash. In some cases, with the knowledge of government financial support, figures such as Australian billionaire Kerry Stokes could rake in corporate welfare while cutting the wages of workers. The spirit of pandemic generosity is rarely invoked.

In December 2021, the World Inequality Report, authored by a number of social scientists, estimated that the share of global household wealth owned by billionaires had risen that year from 2% at the start of the pandemic to 3.5% that year. “Contemporary global inequalities,” the authors of the report suggest, “are close to early 20th century levels, at the peak of Western imperialism.”

The one ray of reassurance in the otherwise discouraging report is the fact that government support, notably in wealthier states, did mitigate the more brutal effects of impoverishment. As lead author of the report, Lucas Chancel remarks, “in rich countries, government intervention prevented a massive rise in poverty.” The pandemic had demonstrated “the importance of social states in the fight against poverty.”

Oxfam has now added more material to the heaving shelves of inequality with a report released to coincide with that gathering of wealthy natterers known as the World Economic Forum. Not a smidgen of Oxfam’s dark revelations are original, but this does not make them any less relevant. The picture, filled in, shows a world of brutal, stratified inequality that promises to grow.

The opening is dramatic enough. “The wealth of the world’s 10 richest men has doubled since the pandemic began. The incomes of 99% of humanity are worse off because of COVID-19.” Good to throw the men into this, but it is also worth noting that there are some worthy representatives of the female sex, not least Australia’s wealthiest figure, iron ore magnate Gina Rinehart. This most unsympathetic of characters saw her own wealth soar from AU$16 billion to AU$36 billion. Not a bad return for someone who specialises in ruthlessly renting the earth while attributing this to hard work and genetic ingenuity.

All in all, 2,755 billionaires are raking it in globally, having received more in terms of their fortunes in the past two years than the previous 14 combined. “This is the biggest annual increase in billionaire wealth since records began,” the Oxfam report notes glumly. No wonder the hot-headed conspiracy theorists are champing at the bit, feverish at the prospect that plots have been hatched, and are being acted upon, in Davos and other champagne drenched venues.

The Oxfam account adds more texture to the arguments. As with other accounts about the increasing wealth disparity in pandemic times, the rise in revenues have occurred because of dizzying rises in stock market prices, “a boom of unregulated entities,” a greater prevalence of monopoly power, ongoing privatisation and that ongoing pattern of lower corporate tax rates and easing regulations. Workers’ rights and wages have also suffered, though Oxfam also makes the point that “the weaponization of racism” has its role to play.

Another parallel of the Black Death is worthy of note. The plague was so disruptive as to cause its own alterations of the feudal order. The wealthy might have scurried to their places of ornate and padded seclusion, but they were by no means guaranteed survival. Around them, aggressive depopulation fed the fulcrum of change. It emboldened the peasantry, resulting in a range of riots and a challenge to social and economic circumstances.

The likes of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg have yet to see a modern version of a peasant insurrection. Perhaps it’s time they did.

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One Drinks Party Too Many: Boris Johnson and Breaching Lockdowns

It might not be quite within the bounds of good taste to compare military calculations of a bridge too far – the title used in Cornelius Ryan’s work on the disastrous Allied airborne operation during the Second World Warwith the latest foolish, mendacious and buffoonish efforts of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but on some level, the analogy works.

Throughout the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020, the Prime Minister was pressing his own assault on the pandemic fortifications developed in response to SARS-CoV-2. He had already shown himself incapable of understanding, let alone following health directions, shaking hands with infected patients, and furnishing the British public with inscrutable information. But then came those libation, food-ladened parties held during the lockdown phases, gatherings which often eschewed social distancing.

The interest last December was initially on Christmas gatherings that had taken place in 2020. The Mirror first noted that a Christmas Party had taken place at 10 Downing Street on December 18, 2020, under lockdown conditions that prohibited indoor social and household mixing. The rest of the UK was told at the time that Christmas lunches or parties were deemed primarily social activities and “not otherwise permitted by the rules in your tier.”

The party was the subject of discussion in a clip released by ITV featuring a former spokesperson for Johnson, Allegra Stratton, who, giggles and all, is found conducting a mock press conference with colleagues. The video’s release pushed Stratton to a tearful resignation, but few others walked the plank. Johnson was certainly not going to be one of them, concluding “that guidelines were followed at all times.”

Evidence of more parties in government offices emerged, resulting in the establishment of an investigation led by Cabinet Secretary Simon Case. This mild effort, designed to distract and dissuade any investigations that might be conducted by the Metropolitan Police, went awry with revelations that the investigator had held two events in his own private office last December. Chase’s replacement, Sue Gray, once described by Labour MP Paul Flynn as “deputy God,” has been given more room to wander.

In the new year, Johnson finds himself facing a threat that promises to be graver to him than others, as if that was possible. It concerns yet another 2020 festive gathering that took place at Downing Street. Taking place in May that year in the Downing Street garden, the drinks gathering was held during the first lockdown and described by Johnson as a “work event.” This implausible understanding was reached after the PM’s Principal Private Secretary Martin Reynolds invited more than 100 Downing Street staff to “make most of the weather.” No. 10 has also claimed that it was “untrue” to claim that Johnson was “warned about the event.”

This is not deemed credible by Johnson’s former top advisor, Dominic Cummings, himself a seasoned breaker of lockdown rules and a master of the elaborate fib. Opining ever darkly, and with keen malice, he is of the view that Johnson “knew he was at a drinks party cos he was told it was a drinks party and it was actually a drinks party.” In his blog, Cummings claims that both he and one other advisor warned that such a gathering would “be against the rules and should not happen.”

At the start of the prime minister’s questions in parliament, Johnson tried to sound contrite. “I want to apologise. I know that millions of people across this country have made extraordinary sacrifices over the last 18 months.” He claimed to know “the anguish they have been through,” acknowledging that there were things “we simply did not get right.”

Other parliamentarians were incredulous. Labour’s Keir Starmer called Johnson a “man without shame” and asked whether the PM could “see why the British public think he’s lying through his teeth.” Chris Bryant, also of the Labour Party, proved cuttingly unsympathetic. “So the prime minister didn’t spot that he was at a social event? Come off it. How stupid does the prime minister think the British people are?”

The PM’s reactive strategy to being found out is one born in the cribs of privilege. Why take the blame for your own actions when you can find the locus elsewhere? According to veteran news reporter Robert Peston, a scorched earth policy is being considered against certain allegedly culpable civil servants. Once they have been cleared out, Johnson intends to “live securely ever after at No. 10.” Little wonder that Whitehall is both outraged and suffering a decline of morale.

Any hope of placing Johnson’s head on the block, politically speaking, will have to come from within the Conservative Party. So far, six Tories have publicly made their case that they lack confidence in the PM. In a functional sense, any leadership contest can only feasibly take place if 54 Tory MPs write to the chairman of the 1922 Committee, the powerful backbench body chaired by Sir Graham Brady. Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross is one MP who has promised to do so.

Despite the Tory rumbles, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi is strumming the tune of “he’s human and we make mistakes.” To BBC Radio 4’s Today program, Zahawi claimed that Johnson had done enough. “He came to the despatch box and apologised and said he will absolutely submit himself to Parliament, because that’s our parliamentary democracy.”

Much stock will be placed on Gray’s report and how it goes down among the Tory faithful. Downing Street has chosen to neither confirm nor deny a Daily Telegraph account that Johnson has been interviewed by Gray.

As a former minister told Peston, the findings by the civil servant will define “the rest of her life.” She will hardly be remembered well for sacrificing her own colleagues to avoid the scalping of Johnson. The PM’s response then is bound to be something he has adopted during the entire course of his public life: apologise and hope it all vanishes.

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Dangerous Precedents and Hypothetical Threats: The Deportation of Novak Djokovic

Australia’s treatment of Novak Djokovic, the tennis world number one, has been revelatory. Unintentionally, this has exposed the seedier, arbitrary and inconsistent nature of Australia’s border policies. The approval by the Australian Federal Court of the Immigration Minister Alex Hawke’s decision to re-cancel the prominent Serb’s visa left the country a heaving precedent that will be invoked, in future, with relish.

Djokovic had originally entered the country under the assumption that he had been granted a legitimate vaccine exemption. As the former Australian Tennis Open director Paul McNamee explained to the ABC, “every player and support member fills in a form, visa 408, and everyone does that, you are guided through it by Tennis Australia, every step of the way, and then you get approval, that is the process.”

On December 30, 2021, Djokovic received a letter from the Chief Medical Officer of Tennis Australia explaining that he had been granted a “Medical exemption from COVID vaccination” on the grounds that he had recently recovered from COVID-19. The exemption certificate had been furnished by an Independent Medical Review panel commissioned by Tennis Australia and approved by the Victorian state government’s independent Medical Exemptions Review Panel.

To cap things off, the Department of Home Affairs informed Djokovic that his Australia Travel Declaration has also been given the nod. His “responses [i]ndicated that [he met] the requirements for a quarantine-free travel into Australia where permitted by the jurisdiction of your travel.”

The story turned out rather differently. Such documentation proved insufficient for Djokovic on entering Australia on January 5. A delegated officer of the Australian Border Force hastily cancelled his visa, giving Djokovic insufficient notice to prepare his explanation on the morning of January 6. It was this procedural blunder that led to the Serb’s victory in the Federal Circuit Court, where Judge Anthony Kelly stated the following with some pungency: “Here, a professor and a physician have produced and provided to (Djokovic) a medical exemption. Further to that, that medical exemption and the basis on which it was given was separately given by a further independent expert specialist panel established by the Victorian state government […] The point I am agitated about is, what more could this man have done?”

The Commonwealth, for its part, rejected claims that any deferral of vaccination should not have been read as an excuse not to get vaccinated. The Tennis Australia exemption letter did not constitute sufficient information for the purpose of entering the country unvaccinated.

Exercising ministerial discretion

The Commonwealth’s defeat in the Federal Circuit Court did not end matters. Hawke was left to exercise his vast executive discretion in a none-too Solomonic way. The federal Labor opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, wondered whether the government was conducting a focus group in order to receive “the answer before it responds to the issue.”

As Hawke dithered, Djokovic was ritually torched in media and social media circles for incorrectly filling out the travel declaration. Much of the kindling had been provided by the tennis player himself. He had, it transpired, been in Spain; his agent had made a “human error” in stating that he had not travelled abroad in the 14 days prior to arriving in Australia on January 5.

He had also breached Serbian pandemic restrictions by avoiding isolating for 14 days after receiving a positive PCR result on December 16. Instead, on December 17, he breezily attended a tennis event in Belgrade where he presided over the giving of awards to children and, on the following day, conducted an interview with French journalist Franck Ramellaof L’Equipe. “The instructions were clear,” Ramella subsequently wrote on realising that the tennis star had done the interview after testing positive for COVID-19. There were to be “no questions about vaccination.”

This was all a bit much even for the otherwise supportive Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić, who told the BBC, “If you’re positive you have to be in isolation.” She did, however, leave it to Djokovic to explain the matter. “I do not know when he actually got the results, when he saw the results, so there is some grey area… the only answer to this can be provided by Novak.”

This growing resume of seeming shiftiness did not augur well for Djokovic’s already anaemically thin chances. The Minister had been furnished with fuel and duly ignited it. The cancellation came, timed with brutal effect, on January 14. It had been made “on health and good order grounds, on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so.” The Australian Open, for which Djokovic had started training for on court, was to commence on January 17.

The threat inflation factor

Within hours, the legal team began proceedings in the Federal Court of Australia in a speedy effort to overturn Hawke’s cancellation. The government submission was telling, consciously magnifying the Djokovic threat. He had “indicated publicly that he was opposed to becoming vaccinated against COVID-19.” He had “acted inconsistently with certain COVID-19 restrictions in the past.”

The second ground drew more attention to the first point, with the Minister insisting that Djokovic was stirring an anti-vaccination insurrection: “[T]here are some media reports that some groups opposed to vaccination have supported Mr Djokovic’s presence in Australia, by reference to his unvaccinated status.” The ground was barely credible, given that his reservations about vaccination were already known before entering Australia. As is often the case Down Under, the Australian public is treated as a potentially wayward child who might be tempted by anti-institutional contrarianism.

The third ground followed on from the first: that encouraging such resistance against COVID-19 vaccinations and restrictions “would present a problem for the health of individuals and the operation of Australia’s hospital system.” What a revolutionary monster the Serbian player was being made out to be.

Djokovic’s submission

The defence outlined, plausibly, that Hawke had engaged in a crude bit of threat inflation. It was one thing to deport an individual who, posing an individual health risk, had entered Australia lacking a medical exemption and inconsistently with the guidelines of ATAGI (Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation). It was quite another to do so to a person “who poses negligible individual health risk, enter with an exemption, and consistently with ATAGI guidelines, etc.”

Such reasoning, it followed, was “perverse, illogical, or irrational” and distinctly “out of keeping with the proper exercise of a power the purpose of which is to reduce risk to health.” This also ignored that the cancellation “creates a much larger health risk (or good order risk).”

The Minister had also not addressed “in express terms” what those dangerous consequences to health and good order Djokovic posed might be. This was a “counterfactual” that the Minister did not consider. The “anti-vaccination sentiment” approach was also at odds with the original delegate of the Minister for Home Affairs.

In attempting to hole Hawke’s argument, emphasis was placed on the Minister’s one-sided approach in considering the consequences of Djokovic’s presence, rather than absence. It might very well be that the visa cancellation, the Serb’s detention and deportation, rather than the player’s presence in Australia, could cause unrest. “Mr Djokovic’s point is that that material [suggesting that anti-vaccination groups were upset at the cancellation and his detention] is not referred to or considered in the Minister’s reasons.”

Valiantly, the defence also argued that Hawke’s discretion to cancel the visa could not be undertaken “on an evidence-free figment of his imagination.” The point on whether there was evidence supporting the contention that Djokovic’s presence “may foster sentiment against vaccination” was not addressed. The media reports cited by the Minister to supposedly show anti-vaccination support by groups in Australia failed to even mention Djokovic.

The mess became even more elaborate with the defence salvo that the Minister did not himself know what Djokovic’s actual views on vaccination were. This was despite claiming that his anti-vaccination stance was a “well-known” one. “This,” the submission bluntly states, “is illogical.” Djokovic’s statement for the record should, the argument went, lead one to an inference that his public views had been “taken out of context” and that he did “not accept the depiction by the ‘international media’ of his views on vaccination.”

All it would have taken was a request by Hawke that Djokovic furnish him with material on the issue. As the player had previously pointed out in other media reports, he was “no expert” on vaccinations and was keeping an “open mind” on the issue; he simply wanted to have “an option to choose” what was “best” for his body.

Dark consequences, sinister precedents

On Sunday, January 16, the decision of the full court of the Federal Court was handed down. (Full reasons are yet to be published.) In finding for the Commonwealth, Chief JusticeJames Allsop affirmed the traditional reservation shown by Australian judges to challenging exercises of executive power. The grounds made by Djokovic “focus on whether the decision was, for different reasons, irrational or legally unreasonable. It is not part or function of the court to decide upon the merit or wisdom of the decision.”

The Djokovic precedent presents the authorities with a large tarring brush, one to be used against other notable figures of certain opinions seen to pose a risk to Australia’s public interest. Hypotheticals will suffice, given that the Minister need only be satisfied that the person might be a risk to health, safety and good order.

Such latitude also grants authorities a heavy hand to target future dissent and protest. The Australian government will be able to justify, barrister and president of Liberty Victoria Mike Stanton warns, “the suppression of legitimate political expression because others might engage in unrest.”

With a stunning lack of imagination, the Djokovic precedent promises that the executive will not be accountable for the disorder and disruption arising from deporting individuals who might command a following. Oppression promises to be twinned with unpardonable stupidity.

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Enduring Stain: The Guantánamo Military Prison Turns Twenty

Anniversaries for detention centres, concentration camps and torture facilities are not the relishable calendar events in the canon of human worth. But not remembering them, when they were used, and how they continue being used, would be unpardonable amnesia.

On January 11, 2002, the first prisoners of the absurdly named “War on Terror”, declared with such confused understanding by US President George W. Bush, began arriving at the newly constructed Camp X-Ray prison at the US naval base in Guantánamo Bay. Structurally crude, it was intended as a temporary facility, remote and out of sight. Instead, it became a permanent and singular contribution of US political and legal practice, withering due process and civil liberties along the way.

After two decades, 779 prisoners have spent time there, many of whom were low-level operatives of minimal importance. Prior to being sent to the camp, the detainees endured abductions, disappearances, and torture in US-operated centres in allied countries. The previous director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Gina Aspel, had more than a nodding acquaintance with this process, having overseen operations at a black site in Thailand specialising in interrogating al-Qaeda suspects.

Guantánamo Bay was a mad, cruel experiment about how legal limbos and forged purgatories of the law can function to dehumanise and degrade. It was developed by people supposedly versed in a liberal legal tradition but keen to make exceptions in battling a supposedly novel enemy. The detainees were deemed “unlawful enemy combatants” – as if there was such a thing – thereby placing them outside the formal protections of humanitarian law. They were subjected to sleep deprivation, forced feeding, lengthy detainment, beatings, stress positions and an assortment of other torture methods.

In 2005, Vice President Dick Cheney sneered at suggestions that the inmates were being mistreated. “They’re living in the tropics. They’re well-fed. They’ve got everything they could possibly want. There wasn’t any other nation in the world that would treat people who were determined to kill Americans the way we’re treating these people.”

The closure of the facility has been constantly urged with minimal return. It was one of the electoral messages of the presidential campaign in 2007. Barack Obama and his rival, Hillary Clinton, endorsed the idea. As did the Republican contender for the White House, John McCain. As Obama declared at the time, “In the dark halls of Abu Ghraib and the detention cells of Guantánamo, we have compromised our most precious values.”

A joint US-European Union statement from June 15, 2009, noted, with welcome, the decision by President Obama to affect a closure by January 22 the following year. But it also acknowledged what has been a persistent problem: returning detainees to their countries of origin or a third country that might be willing to accept them.

In the dying days of the Obama administration, the facility, despite a reduction in the inmate population, remained functional. Congress proved recalcitrant and obstructive on the issue but there was also opposition to the closure from various arms of government, including the Pentagon. Lee Wolosky, formerly Obama’s Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure, could only marvel darkly at this seemingly indestructible piece of legal infrastructure. “In large part,” he wrote, this mess had been “self-inflicted – a result of our own decisions to engage in torture, hold detainees indefinitely without charge, set up dysfunctional military commissions and attempt to avoid oversight by the federal courts.”

In 2016, Donald Trump, the eventual victor of that year’s presidential contest, repeatedly insisted that he would “load it with some bad dudes.” In 2018, he signed a new executive order keeping the military prison open, reiterating the line that terrorists were not merely “criminals” but “unlawful enemy combatants.” Releasing any such individuals from Guantánamo had been, he observed gravely, a mistake. “In the past, we have foolishly released hundreds and hundreds of dangerous terrorists only to meet them again on the battlefield, including the ISIS leader, [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi, who we captured, who we had, who we released.”

On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the camp’s opening, Agnès Callamard, secretary-general of Amnesty International, was yet another voice to urge its closure. “President Joe Biden, like President Barack Obama before him, has promised to close it, but so far has failed to do so.” She insisted that each detainee’s case be resolved, be it through transfer and release, or via “a regularly constituted federal court without recourse to the death penalty.”

Despite being an enduring blot on the country’s credibility, the facility remains ingloriously open, a reminder that there are legal provinces where the US is willing to detain people indefinitely, without trial or scrutiny. Thirty-nine men remain, thirteen of whom are in indefinite detention. This is despite the latter having had their transfers out of the facility approved a decade ago. The calls for the military prison’s closure reach occasional crescendos, but these eventually diminish before the machinery of stifling bureaucracy. Tragically, there is every risk that the Guantánamo experiment will be replicated rather than abolished. Such creations, once brought into being, can prove deathless.

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Julian Assange: A Thousand Days in Belmarsh

Julian Assange has now been in the maximum-security facilities of Belmarsh prison for over 1,000 days. On the occasion of his 1,000th day of imprisonment, campaigners, supporters and kindred spirits gathered to show their support, indignation and solidarity at this political detention most foul.

Alison Mason of the Julian Assange Defence Committee reiterated those observations long made about the imprisonment at a gathering outside the Australian High Commission in London on that day. The WikiLeaks founder was wrongfully confined “for publishing the war crimes of the US military leaked to him by whistleblower Chelsea Manning.” She, along with supporters, had gathered before the High Commission “because Julian’s country could save him with a simple phone call.” Mason’s admirably simple reasoning: that Australia had “a bargaining chip with AUKUS and trade deals.” If only that were true.

The continued detention of Assange in Belmarsh remains a scandal of kaleidoscopic cruelty. It continues to imperil his frail health, further impaired by a stroke suffered in October last year and the ongoing risks associated with COVID-19. It maintains a state of indefinite incarceration without bail, deputising the United Kingdom as committed gaolers for US interests. “Julian,” stated his fiancée Stella Moris, “is simply held at the request of the US government while they continue to abuse the US-UK extradition treaty for political ends.”

A report drawn from unannounced visits to Belmarsh by the Chief Inspector of Prisons last July and August did not shine glorious light upon the institution. “The prison has not paid sufficient attention to the growing levels of self-harm and there was not enough oversight or care taken of prisoners of risk of suicide. Urgent action needed to be taken in this area to make sure that these prisoners were kept safe.”

The next gruelling stage of Assange’s confinement is being marked by an appeal against the High Court’s unfathomable, and even gullible overturning of the lower court decision against his extradition to the United States. The US Department of Justice (DoJ) continues to seek the extradition of the WikiLeaks founder to face 18 charges, 17 based on that relic of state paranoia and vengeance, the US Espionage Act of 1917. A successful prosecution could see him face a 175-year sentence.

The original decision, shoddy as it was for the cause of journalism, accepted that the extradition would be oppressive within the meaning of the US-UK Extradition Act. District Court Justice Vanessa Baraitser accepted the defence contention that such oppression arose from Assange’s “mental condition.” Despite relentless prosecution attacks on the neuropsychiatric evidence adduced by the defence, the judge accepted that Assange was autistic and would be at serious risk of suiciding in the US prison system. The prosecutors also failed in convincing the court that Special Administrative Measures would not be applied that would restrict his access to legal counsel and family, and ensure solitary confinement. They also failed to show that he would not, on being convicted, serve his time in the vicious supermax prison, Colorado’s ADX Florence.

The Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales Ian Burnett, and Lord Justice Timothy Holroyde, were having none of that. In their December ruling, the High Court accepted the prosecution appeal that the US could easily make assurances for keeping Assange in better conditions despite not doing so at the original trial. The Lord Justices also proved crotchety at the fact that Baraitser had not gone out of her way to seek those assurances in the first place. Besides, Britain could trust the good diplomatic undertakings of the United States.

So it came to pass that muddle headed judicial reasoning prevailed on the bench. There was no mention of the fabricated evidence being relied upon by the prosecution, or the discomforting fact that operatives in the US Central Intelligence Agency had contemplated kidnapping and poisoning Assange. Nothing, either, about the US-sanctioned surveillance operation conducted by the Spanish security firm, UC Global, during his time in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

Work on the appeal began immediately. Solicitors Birnberg Peirce, in a statement, outlined the importance of the application. “We believe serious and important issues of law and wider public importance are being raised in this application. They arise from the court’s judgment and its receipt and reliance on US assurances regarding the prison regimes and treatment of Mr Assange is likely to face if extradited.”

The wider public importance of the case is hard to measure. Authoritarian governments and sham democracies the world over are gleefully taking notes. Liberal democratic states with increasingly autocratic approaches to media outlets are also going to see promise in the way the United States is using extradition law to nab a publisher. Black letter lawyers will err in assuming that this matter is narrow and specific to the wording of a treaty between two countries.

Having already done untold damage to the cause of publishing national security information that exposes atrocities and violations of law domestic and international, the US is making the claim that the Extradition Act, in all its nastiness, has tentacled global reach. A phone call from Australia’s insipid Prime Minister Scott Morrison will hardly matter to this. He, and other members of Washington’s unofficial imperial court, will do as they are told.


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Anachronistic Frivolity: Australia’s Recent Tank Purchase

The operating doctrine of many a defence ministry is premised on fatuity. There is the industry prerogative and need for employment. There are the hectoring think tanks writing in oracular tones of warning that the next “strategic” change is peeking around the corner. Purchases of weapons are then made to fight devils foreign and invisible, with the occasional lethal deployment against the local citizenry who misbehave. This often leads to purchases that should put the decision maker in therapy.

Australia’s war-wishing Defence Minister Peter Dutton may be in urgent need of such treatment, but he is unlikely to take up the suggestion, preferring to pursue an arms program of delusional proportions. His mental soundness was not helped by last year’s establishment of AUKUS and the signals of enthusiastic militarism from Washington. Having cut ties with the French defence establishment over what was a trouble-plagued submarine contract, Dutton has been an important figure in ensuring that Australia will continue its naval problems with a future nuclear-powered submarine.

Submarines are seaborne phallic reassurances for the naval arm of defence. Stubbornly expensive and always stressing celebrated potential over proven reality, they stimulate the defence establishment. The land-based forces, however, will also have their toys and stimulants, their own slice of make believe. And Dutton is promising them a few, including tanks.

This month, the minister announced that Australia will be spending A$3.5 billion on 120 tanks and an assortment of other armoured vehicles, including 29 assault breacher vehicles and 17 joint assault bridge vehicles. All will be purchased from the US military machine. This will also include 75 M1A2 main battle tanks, which will replace the 59 Abrams M1A1s, purchased in 2007 and kept in blissful quarantine, untouched by actual combat.

Reading from the script of presumed military relevance, Dutton declared that, “[t]eamed with the Infantry Fighting Vehicle, Combat Engineering Vehicles, and self-propelled howitzers, the new Abrams will give our soldiers the best possibility of success and protection from harm.”

Chief of Army Lieutenant General Rick Burr was also of the view that, “The main battle tank is at the core of the ADF’s Combined Arms Fighting System, which includes infantry, artillery, communications, engineers, attack helicopters and logistics.” Tanks were versatile creatures, able to be “used in a wide range of scenarios, environments and levels of conflict in the region.”

To dispel any notion that this purchase simply confirmed Australian deference and obedience to US military power, the defence minister also claimed that the new Abrams “will incorporate the latest development in Australian sovereign capabilities, including command, control, communications, computers and intelligence systems, and benefit from the intended manufacture of tank ammunition in Australia.”

In other words, once Australia finishes with these cherished, dear imports, adjusted as they are bound to be for the ADF, they are more likely to be extortionately priced museum pieces rather than operable weapons of flexible deployment.

This latest tank infatuation is yet another example of how parts of the ADF and the Australian public service can never be accused of being historically informed, at least in any meaningfully accurate way. The same goes for the current defence minister, hardly a bookworm of the history muse Cleo.

The last time Australia deployed tanks in combat was during the Vietnam War, that other grand failure of military adventurism. They were never used in Australia’s engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite being lauded as being a necessary vehicle in beating down insurgency movements.

The 2016 Defence White Paper left room for a range of scenarios that make little mention of tanks. It labours over the US-China relationship, “the enduring threat of terrorism” emanating from “ungoverned parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia,” notes the threats posed by “state fragility” and the “emergence of new complex, non-geographic threats, including cyber threats to the security of information and communications systems.” At best, it throws away a line without elaboration: that the ADF will need “tank upgrades and new combat engineering equipment.”

Critics of the purchase have included otherwise hawkish pundits such as Greg Sheridan of The Australian, who spent some of last year shaking his head at the proposed acquisition after it was announced by the US Defence Cooperation Agency. The decision, he opined unleashing his talons, was one of “sheer idiocy,” an “anachronistic frivolity.” Tanks and other heavy, tracked vehicles would “never be of the slightest military use to us.”

Sheridan poses a range of questions. In any confrontation with China, could a tank defend shipping in the South China Sea? Or “take out enemy submarines?” Or “deliver attack missiles over hundreds of kilometres?” His solutions: buy more jets, manufacture more drones, and address naval capabilities.

Others also argue that Dutton, were he to be genuinely interested in Australia’s security and safety, would be spending more time on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and coping with the threats posed by climate change, or investing in pandemic responses. Now that would be a big ask.

The tank fraternity, a gathering of near cultic loyalty, are swooning in triumph. As Peter J. Dean, director of the Defence and Security Institute at the University of Western Australia remarked last year, their membership has never proven shy. Cults tend to show that utility is secondary to the importance of steadfast faith.


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Djokovic versus the Australian Commonwealth

January 10, 2022 will be remembered as one of the odder days in the annals of sport. For one, it had little to do with physical exertion. Tennis proved secondary to the claims of one Novak Djokovic, currently the world’s number one ranked player. Instead of finding himself training on court in preparation for the Australian Open, he found himself with a legal team in the recently created Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia. His purpose: to challenge the decision to cancel his Temporary Activity visa (subclass 408 in bureaucratic lingo), after his arrival in Australia just prior to midnight on January 5.

The visa was granted on November 18 last year and, according to his court submission, “was subject to no condition having the effect that his right to enter and remain in Australia was qualified in any way in regard his vaccination status.” On December 30, 2021 the player received a letter from the Chief Medical Officer of Tennis Australia noting that he had been granted a “Medical exemption from COVID vaccination” on the grounds that he had recently recovered from COVID-19.

The letter also noted a range of salient points. Djokovic, for instance, recorded the first positive COVID PCR test on December 16, 2021. Fourteen days had expired; the player had shown no relevant symptoms of a fever or respiratory symptoms in the last 72 hours. The exemption certificate had been provided by an Independent Medical Review panel commissioned by Tennis Australia and duly reviewed and approved by an independent Medical Exemptions Review Panel of the Victorian State Government. These exemption conditions were also deemed consistent with the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI).

On January 1, 2021, the Department of Home Affairs informed Djokovic that his Australia Travel Declaration had been assessed and approved. His “responses [i]ndicated that [he met] the requirements for a quarantine-free travel into Australia where permitted by the jurisdiction of your travel.”

It then came as quite a shock that his visa was cancelled after arriving in Melbourne International airport by a delegate of the Australian Border Force. He had been held, incommunicado, for eight hours (till approximately 8 am, January 6). After being notified of the decision, Djokovic was hurried off to the infamous Park Hotel in Melbourne where he, in his defence team’s words, was detained “notwithstanding his requests to be moved to a more suitable place of detention that would enable him to train and condition for the Australian Tennis Open should this present challenge to the Purported Decision be successful.”

Judge Anthony Kelly had to confront a veritable blizzard of legal grounds, eight in all. Among other things, these focused on the purported invalidity of the notice given to Djokovic in cancelling the visa. The immigration minister could only exercise a discretion to cancel the visa after considering that notice. There were also time constraints in making that decision, and considerations of natural justice.

The cardinal point remained the differing readings by Djokovic and the Commonwealth government on the nature of the medical exemption. For the tennis player, testing positive on December 16 exempted him from the vaccination requirement for six months, a reading based on ATAGI’s statement to that effect.

The Commonwealth rejected this interpretation, claiming that having a previous infection did not dispense with the need to be vaccinated before entering Australia. A deferral of vaccination should not have been read as an excuse not to get vaccinated. Placing such heavy reliance on the Tennis Australia exemption letter did not constitute sufficient information for the purpose of entering the country unvaccinated. The government also disputed whether Djokovic had an “acute major medical illness” last month. “All he said is that he tested positive for COVID-19. This is not the same.” (Djokovic did himself few favours in that regard, having been photographed at public events following the positive test.)



In terms of the constitutional pecking order, the government lawyers were eager to pull rank. It did not ultimately matter what Tennis Australia had concluded, or, for that matter, what the Victorian government had done. In submissions to the court, the government asserted that there was “no such thing as an assurance of entry by a non-citizen into Australia.” The Commonwealth had the final say.

Remarkably, and disturbingly, it is also clear that the same thing applies to Australian citizens, who have no formal constitutional guarantee of a right to return or re-enter their country despite such a position being protected at international law.

At points, the denseness of the legal argument struck a nerve. The number of acronyms used stirred the judicial bench. “You’re going to have to drag yourself back to the last century,” stated the judge pointedly to Djokovic’s lawyer, Nick Wood. “I hate acronyms.”

But the government lawyers fared worse, being told witheringly that, “Here, a professor and a physician have produced and provided to (Djokovic) a medical exemption. Further to that, that medical exemption and the basis on which it was given was separately given by a further independent expert specialist panel established by the Victorian state government […] The point I am agitated about is, what more could this man have done?”

Both sides eventually agreed that the notice requirement for Djokovic had not been adequately satisfied. In the words of the court order, the “decision to proceed with the interview and make a decision to cancel the applicant’s visa pursuant to s.116 of the Migration Act 1958 (Cth) was unreasonable.” This was because Djokovic had been told at 5.20am on January 6 that he would have until 8.30am to “provide comments in response to a notice of intention to consider cancellation” under that same provision. Impatiently, the authorities had sought comments at 6.14am, with the decision to cancel the visa being made at 7.42am.

Despite quashing the cancellation decision and mandating that Djokovic be released from immigration detention “without limitation thereto […] by no later than 30 minutes after them making of this Order,” counsel representing the Commonwealth made an ominous promise. The Minister for Immigration “may consider whether to exercise a personal power of cancellation” under the Migration Act.

In response, Judge Kelly insisted that he be “fully informed in advance” of such developments, warning that “the stakes had risen rather than receded.” Any cancellation will promise further litigation and the prospect that Djokovic be barred from entering the country for three years, though this requirement can be waived.

In this episode of pandemic bureaucracy has seen a number of inglorious achievements. The Commonwealth has done its bit to conjure up a monster of its own making. It failed to follow its own notice requirements of visa cancellation in shabby fashion. It created an exemption system lacking in clarity and liable to be interpreted, at points freely, by state and sporting bodies. It aided the tarnishing of tennis and an international tournament whilst almost causing a diplomatic incident with Serbia.

Even as the threat of cancellation for Djokovic hovers, the one thing that will not be cancelled will be the indefinite detention regime for refugees of which the tennis star sampled, if only briefly. That the prominent Serbian was ever asked to be an impromptu spokesman for those detained for years in Australia’s very own minted concentration camp system suggested, in Behrouz Boochani’s words, “that politics is broken there.” His advice: that true power lay within the borders of a country with its citizens, rather than that of a celebrity.



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The Mauling of Novak Djokovic

Rarely can the treatment of a grand sporting figure by officialdom have caused such consternation. Novak Djokovic, the tennis World Number One, has always had a tendency to get under skin and constitution, creating a large following of admirers and detractors. But his current treatment by Australian authorities, and his subsequent detention as an unlawful arrival despite being granted a visa to participate in the Australian Open, had the hallmarks of oppression and incompetent vulgarity. In time, it may well also prove to have been another example of provincial opportunism and crass stupidity.

It all began with the thick cloud of doubt over whether the Serbian tennis star needed to show proof of vaccination or otherwise in entering Australia. The Australian Open had become the first grand slam tennis tournament to require mandatory vaccination for all athletes subject to exemptions. This was a position also taken by the Victorian government. What remained unclear was whether dispensations could be granted, and under what conditions.

Djokovic was always unwilling to reveal his vaccination status. His response to the pandemic has also been patchy, even cavalier. The Adria Tour in June 2020, created as a response to the cancellation of various sporting events, proved disastrous. Organised by the Novak Djokovic Foundation as a “charity tour to help the coronavirus victims,” it saw players, spectators and officials contract COVID-19, including Djokovic himself, resulting in the abandonment of the tournament.

Along with other tennis players, his application to participate in the Australian tournament, assessed anonymously, was accepted, leading him to confirm his departure for Melbourne earlier this month. Two bodies were involved in conducting the review: Tennis Australia and an independent medical exemption review panel. The Victorian Department of Health confirmed that the exemptions had been granted to those with a “genuine medical condition.”



The next part of the story is revealing about Australian officialdom. On arriving in Melbourne, Djokovic encountered the nastiness that has made the Australian Border Force famous in celluloid, social media and print. It was all good to have received an exemption from two bodies; but the ABF retained the discretion to ask for further particulars and revoke any visa at their discretion. The Commonwealth, after all, is the final arbiter as to who crosses the border.

A statement by the ABF, never paragons of thoroughness or justice, claimed that “Mr Djokovic failed to provide appropriate evidence to meet the entry requirements to Australia, and his visa has been subsequently cancelled.” In the cobwebbed mind of bureaucratic reasoning, this could mean, and be, anything.

In the right royal mess that ensued, the Victorian government, on being asked by the federal government to supply evidence of Djokovic’s exemption, declined to sponsor him. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, showing that exemptions are viewed differently depending on which authority in Australia provides them, was satisfied that the right decision had been made. In his particular reasoning, “Rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders. No one is above these rules. Our strong border policies have been critical to Australia having one of the lowest death rates in the world from COVID, we are continuing to be vigilant.”

Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews also stated that all arrivals in Australia had to “provide acceptable proof that they cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.” Absent that, Djokovic “won’t be treated any different to anyone else and he’ll be on the next plane home.” Such words are rich coming from a government addicted to subverting the rule of law, convention and due process.

The view also went some way in making a mockery of the assessments by both Tennis Australia and the medical review board. As Australia Open director Paul McNamee explained to the ABC, “every player and support member fills in a form, visa 408, and everyone does that, you are guided through it by Tennis Australia, every step of the way, and then you get approval, that is the process.”

McNamee stressed that Djokovic “was following the rules. You might be angry that he was given an exemption, but players need to have confidence that the rules they abide by going are to be enforced, so if this is something to [do] with the vaccination in the exemption, for me that’s not fair.”

The legal challenge by Djokovic makes various assertions. The player received, the defence argues, a temporary activity class visa on November 18. Djokovic had tested positive to a PCR test on December 16 and was subsequently granted the exemption. It was then claimed that the Home Affairs Department had sent a note on January 1 informing him that he had met “the requirements for a quarantine-free arrival into Australia.”

The submission is in stark contrast to correspondence from the Health Department and the Commonwealth. The former’s First Assistant Secretary Lisa Schofield had informed Tennis Australia Chief Executive Craig Tilley that, “People who have previously had COVID-19 and not received a vaccine dose are not considered fully vaccinated.” Health Minister Greg Hunt, on following up Schofield’s observations, also confirmed that those who had contracted COVID-19 “within six months and seek to enter Australia from overseas, and have not received two doses of a Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA)-approved or TGA-recognised vaccine … are not considered fully vaccinated.”

Most tellingly, the Morrison government, and a good number of Fortress Australia types, have made it clear that the very concept of any right of entry, notably during times of emergency such as a pandemic, is irrelevant and has no bearing in a court of law or before any tribunal of justice.

While it will be of little comfort to Novak, he should not be surprised that Australian government officials are equally contemptuous of any right of return for Australian citizens, who remain at the mercy of a spray of weak High Court judgments and a total absence of constitutional protection. Tens of thousands have been stranded in other countries since 2020, left at the mercy of menacing poverty, lack of safety, reviled and mocked as disease ridden and undeserving of sanctuary. The Commonwealth and State governments have all done their bit to prevent such returns, imposing onerous requirements and even, in some cases, threatening punitive fines. The Australian passport has become a form of debased coinage.

The cancellation of Djovokic’s visa also led to another brush with institutional savagery. The tennis player is being detained at Carlton’s Park Hotel, a facility that has been used for refugees more than acquainted with the concentration camp system reserved for “unlawful” naval arrivals. He can at least count himself fortunate not to be rendered to the tropical torture centres of Nauru or Manus Island, two favourite destinations for Canberra’s undesirables.

When it comes to Australia’s refugee concentration camp system, celebrity or standing provides little by way of salvation. As former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull explained to his counterpart President Donald Trump in discussing a refugee transfer between the countries, Australia would be more than happy to jail Nobel Prize laureates if they did not have the requisite paperwork. “So, we would rather take a not-very-attractive guy that helps you out than to take a Nobel Peace Prize winner that comes by boat.”

Irate detainees, some having been in captivity for almost a decade, have also noted the sudden spike of interest, if only because of the celebrity calibre attention being paid to Djokovic. Protests in Serbia, Montenegro and Australia have taken place. Carlton’s Park Hotel has been the site of a hearty gathering of supporters. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has urged that the tennis player not be held “in that infamous hotel”.

This could but induce sadness on the part of Mehdi Ali, an Iranian immigrant who was fifteen when he sought sanctuary in Australia and is also being held at the Park Hotel. “I’ve been in a cage for 9 years, I turn 24 today, and all you want to talk to me about is [Djokovic],” he tweeted on January 7. “Pretending to care by asking me how I am and then straight away asking questions about Djokovic.”



To the hosts of an Australian television program The Project, Mehdi did take some heart that attention was finally being showered upon the grim conditions in the detention hotel. Those who “came here for Djokovic … found out about our circumstances and they were shocked.”

The appeal hearing against the decision by the ABF is taking place today (January 10) where some sense of the brutish nonsense that has transpired may be made. But for the likes of Mehdi, the Djokovic storm, whether it results in him playing or not in Melbourne, will pass. A country filled with the descendants of convicts and their gaolers will continue working to form.


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Sir Tony Blair: Bloody Knight of the Realm

Awards and honours bestowed by States or private committees, republican or monarchical, are bound to be corrupted by considerations of hypocrisy, racketeering and general, chummy disposition. From the Nobel Peace Prize to the range of eccentric and esoteric orders bestowed each year in Britain by Her Majesty, diddling and manipulating is never far behind. You are bestowed such things as a reminder of your worth to the establishment rather than your unique contribution to the good quotient of humanity. Flip many a peace prize over and you are bound to find the smouldering remains of a war criminal’s legacy.

The recently knighted Tony Blair is certainly not one to bother. His name appeared in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list, having been made a Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter. “It is an immense honour,” came the statement from the foundation that bears his name, “to be appointed Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, and I am deeply grateful to Her Majesty the Queen.”

Others begged to differ. Within hours, a petition launched by Angus Scott calling for the rescission of the award garnered thousands of signatures. (To date, the number is 755,879.) The award, says the petition, is “the oldest and most senior British Order of Chivalry.” It asserts that Blair “caused irreparable damage to both the constitution of the United Kingdom and to the very fabric of the nation’s society. He was personally responsible for causing the death of countless innocent, civilian lives and servicemen in various conflicts. For this alone he should be held accountable for war crimes.”

The evangelical Blair of war adventurism will be forever associated with Iraq’s invasion in 2003, though most current commentary avoids his role in promoting humanitarian imperialism in NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999. (Never one to be too firmly attached to his ideals, Blair is currently advising the government of President Aleksandar Vučić who, as information minister of the Milošević regime, knew a thing or two in how to demonise Muslim Kosovars.)

The Chilcot inquiry into the origins of the Iraq War did not openly challenge the legality of the Iraq invasion in 2003 by Coalition forces but noted that Saddam Hussein posed no immediate threat to Western states. It was also clear that peaceful options had not been exhausted. The slippery Blair preferred another reading. “The report should lay to rest allegations of bad faith, lies or deceit.”

Sir Tony’s performance before the Chilcot inquiry should be, for students of legal history, placed alongside that of Hermann Göring at the International Military Tribunal proceedings at Nuremberg in 1946. The latter’s sparring with the poorly briefed US Supreme Court justice turned prosecutor Robert Jackson was eminently superior, but the recently ennobled one could play the trained politician wary of being implicated in past misdeeds.

Defenders of Sir Tony can be found in the ranks, all of whom essentially follow institutional logic. The Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey insisted that calls to rescind the knighthood showed disrespect for the Queen. Sir Keir Starmer, his crown as Labour leader looking increasingly unsettled, defended the knighthood as rightfully earned, Blair having “made Britain a better country.”

Others preferred to see Blair’s critics as incurably diseased. “Blair Derangement Syndrome is a curious malady,” charges a smug Jack Kessler of The Evening Standard. Kessler’s point is sensible enough: The entire honours system is slimed and soiled, so much so that getting upset about Blair as the “least deserving” of recipients is an act of meaningless stroppiness.

Consider the entire awards system to begin with. “From major donors to political parties to chief executives of soon-to-be insolvent banks, even a cursory glance at the history of our honours system would suggest this is somewhat of a reach.”

Kessler’s parlour room logic presumes that a person party to what was described by the victors of the Second World War as a crime against peace can somehow be equated to rewarding banksters for financial misconduct or wealthy donors. It certainly cannot be equated to King George V’s decision to make Lord Lonsdale a Knight of the Garter in 1928 in what was described at the time by a courtier as “sheer tomfoolery.”

Others are simply indifferent to the culpability of a figure who richly deserves a grilling in the dock of the International Criminal Court. (So much for the liberal international order of things, including the rule of law.) The Spectator, through a piece by Stephen Daisley, shuns the issue, merely acknowledging Blair’s shabby treatment of Parliament, his “unduly presidential” manner, or a “New Labour project” spun to bankrupt politics. These are deemed valid criticisms but hardly an impediment to receiving a knighthood.

For Daisley, Blair Derangement Syndrome is a condition that must be rebuffed, rebuked and repudiated. “Blair’s gravest sin, what he cannot and must not and will not be forgiven for, is that he won.” He led his country “with moral imagination and personal fortitude and left Britain fairer, healthier, more modern and more at ease with itself.” Pity the same cannot be said of Iraq or Afghanistan.

It should be noted that this line of reasoning is entirely acceptable to a magazine that used to be edited by the current UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and who made the Labour Prime Minister its 2002 Parliamentarian of the Year despite him showing an utter contempt for Parliament. “It is hard to think of another party leader who, for eight years, has exercised such unchallenged dominance of the political landscape,” Johnson declared at the award ceremony.

It was the classic affirmation that the Tories had, if only vicariously, won through the guise of one Blair. Johnson, for his part, publicly mused that the award could aggravate the Cain-Abel relationship between Blair and his Chancellor Gordon Brown, “all other strategies so far having proved not wholly successful.”

The justifications advanced by Daisley have been used for leaders past who made the trains run on time, built spiffy, smooth roads for vehicles (military and civilian) and ensured that everything operated to a neat schedule, irrespective of whether death camps or slave labour were involved. Many made the mistake of losing the wars they began, facing noose, poison or firing squad.

In the British context, where the benevolent, benign ruler assumes the force of majesty, the latitude for forgiveness is even greater. Reducing colonies to penury, aiding the conditions of famine, initiating social experiments that distorted and destroyed, molested and plundered extant, thriving and sovereign cultures, has never been accounted for in a court of law, international or domestic. In the absence of a hanging judge, it has been deemed fitting that any such figures be given knighthoods and rendered into statuary instead.


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In Search of Shallow Doctrines: Joe Biden and Trumpism Shorn

The US presidential doctrine is an odd creature. Usually summoned up by security wonks and satellite personnel who revolve around the President, these eventually assume the name of the person holding office. They are given the force of a Papal bull and treated by the priest pundits as binding, coherent and sound.

Much of this is often simple mythmaking for the imperial minder in the White House, betraying what are often shallow understandings about global politics and movements. Clarity and details are often found wanting. Variety in such doctrinal matters, the Soviet Union’s veteran diplomat Andrei Gromyko noted in casting his eye over the US approach, meant that there was no “solid, coherent and consistent policy” in the field.

In the case of President Joe Biden, any doctrine was bound to be a readjustment made in hostility to the Trump administration, at least superficially. But in so many ways, Biden has simply pulled down the blinds and kept the US policy train going, notably in its approach to China and its unabashed embrace of the Anglosphere. There remain smatterings of nativism, doses of protectionism. There is the childlike evangelism that insists on enlightened democracy doing battle with vicious autocracy. This was, according to Foreign Affairs, the “everything doctrine”.

Such an approach would barely astonish. Former US Defense Secretary Bob Gates did claim in his memoir with sharp certitude that the current President’s record, prior to coming to office, was patchy, proving to be “wrong on nearly every foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”

At the time, a stung White House demurred from the view through remarks made by National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden. “The President [Barack Obama] disagrees with Secretary Gates’ assessment – from his leadership on the Balkans in the Senate, to his efforts to end the war in Iraq, Joe Biden has been one of the leading statesmen of his time, and has helped advance America’s leadership in the world.”

Anne-Marie Slaughter, writing mid-November last year, suggested that the world was finally getting a sense of “the contours of” Biden’s foreign policy, which was a veritable shop of goodies. “He has,” she claimed in reproach, much along the line taken in Foreign Affairs, “something for everyone.” For the China bashers, he has pushed “the QUAD” of India, Australia, Japan and the United States and created AUKUS, “a new British, Australian, US nexus with the … submarine deal, no matter how clumsily handled.”

A throbbing human rights narrative has also taken some shape, an approach neither convincing nor commanding. Again, China features as a main target, being accused of genocide and grave human rights abuses, though Beijing can be assured that the sword of US military power will be, at least for the moment, sheathed from attempts to protect them. What remains less certain is whether the same thing can be said about Taiwan.

The liberal internationalists can cheer the boosting rhetoric of international institutions: the gleeful nod towards the World Health Organization, the recommitment of the US to pursuing goals to alleviate the problems of climate change; the revitalisation of NATO, an alliance derided by President Donald Trump.

From Chatham House, we see the view that Biden’s “pragmatic realism,” which eschews sentimentalism to traditional allies while still respecting them, took European partners “off-guard” with Washington’s energetic focus on the Indo-Pacific.

Slaughter has charged that, if all are recipients of something, a doctrine remains hard to “pin down.” She remains unconvinced by the stacked pantry, wishing to see a more concerted effort that embraces “thinking that shifts away from states, whether great powers or lesser powers, democracies or autocracies.” Embrace, she commands, “globalism”, with an emphasis on cooperation irrespective of political or ideological stripes. “From a people-first perspective, saving the planet for humanity must be a goal that takes precedence over all others.”

This view is far from spanking in its novelty. With every change of the guard in Washington, opinions such as those of Slaughter become resurgent, often messianic urgings that claim to make things anew and see the world afresh. In her case, there is a recycled One World quality to it, with the US, of course, as central leader. As a presidential candidate in 1992, Bill Clinton insisted that it was “time to put people first.” In accepting the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1996, he spoke of building “that bridge to the 21st century, to meet our challenges and protect our values.”

How fine a vision that turned out to be, with the US ensuring its position as the sole superpower, with an amassed military able to strike, globally, any part of the planet with impunity and, as Clinton himself showed, frivolous, criminal distraction. Washington continued to bribe and coddle satraps and client states, seeking janitors to mind the imperium and keep any power that might dare to challenge the status quo in stern, severe check. Little wonder, then, that Beijing threatens such self-serving understanding.

The transcendent, humanity-driven view will not sit well in the Bidenverse, which remains moored in a brand of power politics that is Trumpism shorn, with a range of other antecedents. The “America First” ideals of the previous president have been retained, though the howling about the risks of a complex world has simply been delivered in another register. The open question, and one yielding a potentially troubling answer, is how far US military power will be used to shore up a shoddy, shallow doctrine that shows all the signs of the old.


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Voices of Concern: Aussies for Assange’s Return

With Julian Assange now fighting the next stage of efforts to extradite him to the United States to face 18 charges, 17 of which are based on the brutal, archaic Espionage Act, some Australian politicians have found their voice. It might be said that a few have even found their conscience.

Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce was sufficiently exercised by the High Court judgment overturning the lower court ruling against extradition to demand an end to the matter. In his opinion piece for the Nine newspaper group on December 14, he argued that rights were “not created in some legal sonic boom at one undefined point of our existence nor switched off like the power to a fridge because of a fear or a confusion as to the worth of their contents.”

The deputy PM proved mature enough to admit that “whether you like him or despise him”, the importance of the case transcended his situation. “So we must hope for the British courts to do so, and we will judge its society accordingly.” (They have not and, accordingly, should be judged.)

The Nationals leader has little time for the role of whistleblowing or disclosing egregious misconduct by a State; less time for Assange as the publisher in history, the exposer of crimes by a great power. “They are a separate matter to the key issue: where was this individual when he was allegedly breaking US law for which the US is now seeking his extradition from London?”

Joyce’s reasoning, while jejune on the historical contributions of WikiLeaks, has the merit of unusual clarity. He argues that the UK “should try him there for any crime he is alleged to have committed on British soil or send him back to Australia, where he is a citizen.” Assange never pilfered any US secret files; did not breach Australian laws and was not in the US when “the event being deliberated in the court now in London occurred.” To extradite him to the US would not only be unjust but bizarre. “If he insulted the Koran, would he be extradited to Saudi Arabia?”

The move by the Nationals leader also brought a few voices of support from the woodwork. Liberal backbenchers Jason Falinski and Bridget Archer are encouraging diplomatic intervention. Falinski suggested that the Morrison government “do what it can to get an Australian citizen back to Australia as quickly as possible” though he refused to entertain “a public spat with America.” Archer believed that “he should be released and returned to Australia.”

The announcement that Caroline Kennedy would be heading Down Under as the new US ambassador to Australia was also seen as an opportunity. Former Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr suggested that Prime Minister Scott Morrison take the chance to discuss the Assange case with Kennedy. (This, from a man who once claimed that Assange “has had more consular support in a comparable time than any other Australian” while admitting that he did not “know whether this is the case.”)

Morrison might, suggests Carr, point out that Australia had its own challenges in facing war crimes allegations, notably “war crimes trials pending for Australian troops in Afghanistan who might have done the very things Assange exposed in Iraq.” Washington’s treatment of the publisher could well “turn this guy into a martyr.”

Carr sees such advice as part of the capital of trust between allies. It was a “small transaction under the architecture of what each sees as a mutually beneficial relationship.” It might even show that Australia was capable of behaving “like a sovereign nation” in “one tiny corner of our alliance partnership.” If Canberra were unable to “take up the cause of an Australian passport holder, what scope for any independent action do we allow ourselves?”

The former foreign minister shows, at stages, flashes of ignorance about aspects of the proceedings (the US prosecution, for instance, made a special point in not mentioning the Collateral Murder video in its proceedings), he is at least cognisant of the monstrous defects in the case, not least the fact that a good deal of the indictment is based on falsified accounts from former WikiLeaks volunteer, Sigurdur “Siggi” Thordarson.

The latest stirring of principled awareness in Australia should be treated warily. Australian governments tend to protect their citizens with a begrudging reluctance, except in the rarest of cases. They are notorious in playing the game of surrender and capitulation. In the context of the US-Australian alliance, one given an even more solid filling with the AUKUS security pact, the hope that Australia would ever be able to exercise sovereign choices on any issue that affects US security is almost inconceivable.

The lamentable behaviour from Canberra regarding Assange’s welfare has also been brought to light by the tireless exploits of lawyer Kellie Tranter. Using Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, Tranter developed a timeline revealing how Australian officials were updated on Assange’s condition (legal and physical) yet did little in the way of addressing it. Kit Klarenberg, making use of Tranter’s findings, also discusses the extent Australian officials knew about Assange’s plight.

In April 2019, for instance, the lawyer Gareth Pierce, acting for Assange, wrote to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) warning that the publisher’s possessions were being held by the Ecuadorian authorities. These included a stash of privileged legal documents. DFAT, while claiming it would chase the matter up, concluded in May 2019 that Assange’s possessions were “under the authority and jurisdiction of the Judicial System of the Republic of Ecuador.” Australian diplomats, it followed, were unable to intervene. The result: Assange’s documents, held by the Ecuadorians, were seized by the FBI.

As extradition proceedings were taking place, Peirce wrote to the Australian High Commission that consular representatives would have “undoubtedly noted what was clear for everyone present in court to observe” – that the publisher was “in shockingly poor condition … struggling not only to cope but to articulate what he wishes to articulate.” DFAT’s report of those proceedings, intentionally or otherwise, was stonily silent on the issue.

Throughout, DFAT maintained that Assange had refused consular assistance or support. This was a point the publisher took up in a meeting at Belmarsh prison with consular officials on November 1, 2019, claiming that to be misguided nonsense. He also noted concerns by the prison doctor about his state, being “so bad that his mind was shutting down,” the appalling state of isolation which made it impossible for him “to think or to prepare his defence.”

Little then, can be expected from the compliant minions in Canberra desperately keen not to soil or sour relations with Washington. But it is at least mildly heartening that a few members of the Morrison government have woken up to the fact that this grotesque act of persecution against a publisher should end.


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Double Standards: The UK-Australian Free Trade agreement

Any agreement between governments led by the UK’s Boris Johnson and Australia’s Scott Morrison must be treated with a healthy dose of suspicion. A few minutes with the UK prime minister would lead you to believe that “Global Britain” is a meaningful term that covers loss and prestige. A session with Morrison will lead you to a brochure type of politics, policy implemented by glossy pamphlet and slogan.

The UK-Australia Free Trade signed last week has its predictable, chorusing champions. There are the free marketing dogmatists who assume that their dogma is based on fact and that such trade is a boon for all. “This is a historic agreement – it’s a true free-trade agreement. Everyone wins,” the admirably deluded Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan stated.

At least one party seemed to win more than the other. The BBC’s global trade correspondent tartly remarked that, “The UK has given Australia pretty much everything it wanted in terms of access to the UK agricultural market.”

There are those who see this agreement merely as a front for other prejudices, among them showing that the UK can make independent agreements without the approval of doddery, fussy types in Europe overly keen on regulations. Financial journalist Matthew Lynn delighted in an understanding reached between two countries “stripped of all the supra-national baggage that the EU and its dwindling band of supporters insist are essential to ‘free trade’ – and for that every reason is vastly superior to Europe’s creaking, overly-complex single market.” The empire delusion, nostalgic and heavy, prevails in such thinking.

Then come the calculating types in Downing Street and beyond who hope that this deal with Australia becomes some sort of mighty springboard to greener pastures. When the deal was agreed upon in principle earlier this year, the UK government claimed it would ease its move into the Asia-Pacific, with the eventual hope of joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Peter Jennings, a paid-up member of the Anglosphere and executive director of the partially US-funded Australian Strategic Policy Institute, sees the agreement as “an example of what can be done when two countries decide to put some priority and effort into cooperation.” Unblemished by the detail, he laments the fact those stubborn sorts in the European Union have made it just that much harder in free trade negotiations.

Those in 10 Downing Street suggest that the agreement would not only end tariffs on all UK exports to Australia but lead to £10.4 billion in additional trade. The more sombre types in the UK Office of Budgetary Responsibility predict a meagre return of 0.08% to the UK economy, but a loss of 4% in loss of free access to the EU.

All the swooning from the free trader advocates belies the critical faults in such arrangements. As a general rule, and one remarked upon by the co-authors of a RAND report from last year, “a free trade agreement (FTA), an instrument to eliminate tariffs, imposes costs and obstacles on two-way trade.”

The Australian Productivity Commission’s report on bilateral and regional trade agreements in November 2010 was also of the opinion that such “agreements can carry the risk of trade diversion.” This was certainly the case with the deeply flawed Australian-US FTA (AUSFTA) which, between 2005 and 2012, diverted US$53.1 billion of trade from other sources.

The authors of the APC report were also suspicious about evaluations arising from such trade deals: these tended to be based on political considerations rather than sound economic returns.

The potential costs to Britain have stirred representatives of 14 trade bodies and companies, who warned the then UK Trade Secretary Liz Truss that “the pace of these negotiations, particularly the free trade agreement with Australia, is too quick and denying the opportunity for appropriate scrutiny and consultation.”

British farmers remain justifiably worried. There are concerns that certain agricultural sectors will immediately feel the effect of Australian exports. As part of the agreement, Australian sheep meat will receive an immediate tariff-rate quota (TRQ) of 25,000 tonnes, rising to 75,000 tonnes over a series of instalments. The equivalent arrangement with beef covers an initial 35,000 tonnes, eventually rising to 110,000 tonnes. Both beef and sheep tariffs will be paired in a decade.

Earlier in the year, the NFU Livestock Chair Richard Findlay proved unequivocally hostile to the deal. Australian agriculture risked being a sinister Trojan horse, undermining British standards. “There is no comparison whatsoever between the robust production methods in this country and in Australia – they simply do not compare due to sheer size and scale.”

Australia, Findlay points out, was the world’s biggest beef exporter in 2019 (in terms of value) and second largest (behind Brazil) in terms of volume. Such scale meant fewer regulations, a lower “assurance burden” and significantly lower production costs.

With little by way of fraternal feeling between Commonwealth nations, the NFU livestock chair also pointed his finger at differing standards of animal welfare between the countries. The UK government was contemplating an arrangement with a country that exported “hundreds of thousands of live cattle and over a million sheep on long sea journeys to Asia and the Middle East every year.” The same UK government had also contemplated banning live exports for slaughter.

This point was picked up by Vicki Hird, the head of sustainable farming at Sustain, an agri-food group. Painting a picture of antipodean barbarity, Hird enumerated the darker aspects of Australian agricultural practices. Australia, for instance, permitted “the use of hormones and antibiotics to speed up growth as well as the removal of skin from live sheep [‘mulesing’, to prevent fly-strike], and they license almost double the number of highly hazardous pesticides as the UK.” And just to make things that bit grimmer, Australian farmers also used feedlots, battery cages and sow stalls.

As for the agreed protections for British farmers, NFU President Minette Batters found little comfort, suggesting they were neither extensive nor effectual. Dairy would be fully liberalised after six years, sugar after eight, and beef and lamb after 15. Phil Stocker of the National Sheep Association also noted the absence of “any resolution on how TRQs could be managed in a way to limit potential damage to our own domestic trade”.

A tone-deaf International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan sees little to bother the UK farming sector, or anybody else in Global Britain. For one thing, most Australian beef and sheep meat exports (somewhere in the order of 70%) made it to Asia-Pacific markets. “They’re closer for them and they get great prices.” She expected no “dramatic surge into UK markets” from Australian products but she was “very pleased to do things that will open up consumer choice.” That is a choice that promises to be very costly indeed.


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Forbidden Parties: Boris Johnson’s Law on Illegal Covid Gatherings

It was meant to be time to reflect. The eager arms of a new pandemic were enfolding a society with asphyxiating, lethal effect. Public health authorities advocated various measures: social distancing, limited contact between family and friends, limited mobility. No grand booze-ups. No large parties. No bonking, except within dispensations of intimacy and various “bubble” arrangements. Certainly, no orgies.

This was what Britain was told by the government of Boris Johnson, a man famed for his rutting proclivities, to behave, huddle and battle SARS-Cov-2, and its disease, COVID-19. But the manner he, and his officials, have done so have shown the country’s citizenry that Johnson’s Law on Illegal Covid Gatherings is in full swing, a glorious exemption that few can partake in.

There was Prime Minister Johnson himself gleefully shaking the hands of infected patients, thereby infecting himself despite telling others not to shake hands. There was the grasping, emotion starved canoodling of former Health Secretary Matt Hancock, whose amorous (and camera captured) embrace with senior aide Gina Coladangelo jarred with public health orders.

And who can forget the conduct of former special advisor and éminence grise to Johnson, Dominic Cummings, contemptuous of lockdown regulations in jaunting off to Durham, and then to Barnard Castle. His reasons for doing so – family safety, testing his eyesight – were riddled with goodly inconsistency and glaring deceits. But the statement was unmistakable: There is one law for subjects, and another for rulers.

All of this provided decent straw for the bricks that made up the next, sodding round robin of scandals. Again, they involved a breach of lockdown rules. Again, they featured government officials and advisors. The time for the first reported scandal: December 18, 2020. According to the Mirror, a Christmas Party took place at 10 Downing Street when all indoor social and household mixing was banned and punishable with fines of £10,000.

The official guidance from the time bears repeating: “You must not have a work Christmas lunch or party, where that is a primarily social activity and is not otherwise permitted by the rules in your tier.” The Downing Street gathering allegedly involved a Secret Santa, flowing wine, a quiz and numbered somewhere between 50 to 60 people.

Johnson, and some of his aides, kept matters textbook. Denying and dissembling, the hope was that visual evidence of such a gathering (or gatherings) would be hard to find. “I can tell you that guidelines were followed at all times,” an adamant Johnson insisted. “I’ve satisfied myself that the guidelines were followed at all times.”

Then ITV released a clip showing a former spokesperson for Johnson, Allegra Stratton, chuckling about the December 18 party in answering questions posed during a mock press conference with colleagues. Stratton is found giggling as prime ministerial advisor Ed Oldfield poses the question: “I’ve just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night, do you recognise those reports?” Stratton laughs, replying that she “went home.”

Then comes an exchange about Johnson’s views about such gatherings. “Would the Prime Minister condone having a Christmas party?” asks Oldfield. Stratton, all mirth, replies, “What’s the answer?” The reaction from Oldfield: “I don’t know!”

Another staffer chimes in with a remark that, “It wasn’t a party … it was cheese and wine.” Stratton’s response: “Is cheese and wine alright? It was a business meeting.” There is laughter all around, punctuated by another comment: “No! … I was joking!”

In cataracts of tears, Stratton, the sacrificial villain, chose to resign once the video itself went viral. “My remarks seemed to make light of rules, that people were doing everything to obey. That was never my intention.” She promised that she would eternally “regret those remarks”, forgetting that regret is only ever skin deep and temporary for a member of Johnson’s staff.

Others preferred to excuse the whole affair in the tried legal fashion of exemptions. 10 Downing Street was a specially carved space, freed of those constraints called rules and regulations. This was certainly the opinion of barrister Steven Barrett, who gave the tyrant’s excuse in claiming that “the regulations almost certainly never applied to No. 10 anyway.”

Charles Holland, another learned friend in the law, was not convinced. While admitting that there was a “Crown exemption rule,” the “restrictions on gatherings” provision in the regulations were “restrictions that applied to individuals wherever they were, including on Crown land.”

The Mirror followed up with grainy photographic snatches showing Johnson personally overseeing a Zoom pub quiz on December 15, 2020, all taking place in front of the watchful gaze of Margaret Thatcher’s portrait. The paper delighted in telling readers that “many staff huddled by computers, conferring on questions and knocking back fizz, wine and beer from a local Tesco Metro.” Johnson himself was flanked by two staff members.

In one room, four teams, each made up of six people, congregated. As is traditional in such games, team names were allocated in some vague stab at wit. In the spirit of the times, one included “The 6 Masketeers.”



While people had been encouraged to play the quiz from their home quarters, others remained in the office, being warned that they should “go out the back” of the building lest they be spotted.

The Mirror was on a roll of exposure, adding more misery to the pandemic party goers by revealing that Tory headquarters had, on December 14 the previous year, witnessed a grand shindig. Organised by the team of London mayoral aspirant Shaun Bailey, a spokesman admitted that, “This was a serious error of judgment and we fully accept that a gathering like this at that time was wrong and we apologise unreservedly.” Bailey subsequently resigned his place as committee chair in the London Assembly.

In typically unspeakable fashion, the Prime Minister, still denying that any wrongdoing took place, has resorted to a “parties probe” led by senior civil servant Simon Case. Such probes are internal, scrubbing affairs and almost never involve the prying eyes of the police. “Of course all that must be properly got into and you will be hearing from the cabinet secretary about it all.” Little will come of it, least of any prosecutions and convictions. That is the lesson of Johnson’s Law.


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Covid Testing Rackets and Flying Again

The young boy of seven or so was kissing a toy doll affixed with an alarmed face. The doll, no doubt of full Chinese make, was fully tarted up, lips glossy, eyes wide, a blonde with curls. “Stop making out with her,” cried her mother, sitting in the seat beside him with concern. “It’s creepy.”

The passengers on this Melbourne to Brisbane flight were taking a moment to compose themselves. The customary hard cushion seating, cool, slightly refrigerated, touched the skin, imposing itself upon the visitor. The cafeteria, plastic tray tables that must be put up prior to lift-off and descent. The sardine can phenomenon of being kept close and packed. The mandatory wearing of fitted facemasks, a rule constantly subverted by people nibbling snacks or sneaking a drink or too. People were flying again.

The mother and her child were awaiting to travel to the Queensland capital. She, weary and bleary-eyed, seemed fascinated with another toy her son had also taken on as hand luggage: a classic example of macho moronic strength, an elastic muscle man who could be abused and distorted into any shape of your preference. “Look,” she squealed, “I can tie his arms up.” Just what a traveller needs: a bit of cruelty inflicted on a plastic figure by a desperate human.

Prior to getting on board this Melbourne flight destined for Brisbane, travellers were subject to the delights that have marked out a new form of vaccine apartheid. It is not merely that Queensland will only accept visitors fully vaccinated against COVID-19. They must also perform a valid PCR test within 72 hours of the flight, receive a negative result, and make sure they have obtained a border pass. Evidence of double-vaccination status must be uploaded, along with the test result.

The application for the border pass is wordy, suspicious, and demanding. It is also far from welcoming, suggesting the spirit of the hermit kingdom or an old communist bloc country suspicious of insurrection. The voice of the entire process is threatening; false or misleading information will result in fines running into the thousands of dollars.

The PCR testing regime has become a bazaar of opportunities, a massive racket that shows a certain number of entities and individuals are making some ruddy cash. Governments give a misleading impression that the cost for such tests will be covered by the States, or the Federal Government or a mixture of both. But the devil lies in the detail, and that detail is fiendish.

At times, even the respective governments have little idea what the other is doing regarding the testing regimen. In the latter part of last November, the Queensland state government had a few testy words with their federal counterparts over the issue of costs. “Testing has been proceeding without incident for the last 18 months,” remarked Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt. “This includes testing required to support entry into another state or territory.”

Queensland’s Deputy Premier Steven Miles was only partially satisfied by the clarification, responding that he wished it had been sooner. “There was certainly an orchestrated campaign to confuse people.” He welcomed the fact that PCR tests “would be free for people travelling to Queensland.”

In practice, seeking such a subsidised test in good time prior to travel is impractical, and assumes you have a day to spare. Every testing site recommended by the Victorian state government has been, during the course of December, a picture of long queues and interminable waiting times. They feature submissive, masked citizens waiting quietly as they fiddle and toy with their smartphones.

On 227 Bourke Street in Melbourne, a sombre, passive line on December 14 stretched half-a-mile. When one of the marshals overseeing the barely moving procession was asked if this was the story at other testing centres, she regretfully confirmed that to be the case. “All of them, the same,” she said in an Indian sing-song manner, head shaking. And what about if you are arrived at 7 in the morning? “The same,” came the reply.

The result of such tardiness and chaos is obvious: seeking a PCR test at a pathology lab or clinic, many of whom are doing a thriving business in granting paperwork for imminent travellers. Even then, this field is uneven and inconsistent. Some refuse to do PCR tests for international travel. Others seem to remark on how they specialise in it.

What matters for them is the coin they charge, especially when the test is being done for asymptomatic patients. This will leave you out of pocket to the nice sum of $150 if you were silly enough to claim you were not suffering flu-like symptoms. If conducted on Saturdays, and here, a particular University based clinic comes to mind, the fee is $190. There are no student or staff discounts but you were guaranteed paperwork and a quick result.

With such generosity, the traveller can also look forward to doing another PCR test within five days of arriving in Queensland. Whether this one is subsided or not will depend on the fine print politicians tend to regard as beneath them. By that point, the rage and excitement of the Omicron variant may have changed minds again. The Queensland Premier, like a butler keen to shut the door on unwanted guests, may well close the borders again.

The aggressive reaction taken against 700 or so interstate arrivals is a case in point. With six new cases reported amongst interstate travellers soon after Queensland had opened its borders, a panicked health bureaucracy sprung into action: the passengers on two Virgin flights should self-isolate for two weeks. One of them, a Virgin flight from Newcastle to Brisbane, had recorded an Omicron case. The sunshine state’s Covid record risked being blotted, as was any suggestion that it really wanted travellers from other states coming in, despite being fully vaccinated and tested.

Within hours and a number of unspecified cancellations of holiday plans, the decision was refined: only a certain number of passengers – those sitting in the rows behind, front of and beside the infected passenger in question – would have to self-isolate over the Christmas period. The rest would only require a negative test result before being released from isolation. Queensland Health Minister Yvette D’Ath used that defence of long standing: caution. “We took the same cautious approach when we first started seeing Delta. Omicron is new but I welcome the advice of the Chief Health Officer in relation to these issues.”

One source of amusement did greet those arriving in Brisbane. During D’Ath’s December 16 press conference, an unwelcome visitor was spotted. A huntsman spider had found its way onto the health minister’s leg. “Can somebody please get that spider off?” she pleaded. The spider, having made its point, scarpered. The trip was looking up.


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Jailing Former Immigration Ministers: Denmark’s Inger Støjberg

It’s not the sort of thing you encounter regularly. A member of a government cabinet, responsible for arguably one of the country’s most important portfolios, found both wanting and culpable for their actions after leaving their post. But this is what former Danish immigration minister Inger Støjberg found when she was convicted for illegally separating asylum seeking couples arriving in the country.

A Danish court of impeachment, in finding the former minister guilty for intentionally neglecting her duties under the Ministerial Responsibility Act, sentenced her to 60 days in prison. Of the 26 members of the court, only one found for the ex-minister.

It was only the third time since 1910 that a politician has been referred to the impeachment court. The last was in 1993, when former Conservative justice minister Erik Ninn-Hansen faced proceedings for illegally halting the family reunification of Tamil refugees in 1987 and 1988.

Interest in the proceedings centred on an order the ex-minister issued in 2016, which directed that if a member of a married couple were underage, they should be separated and housed in separate centres. This was irrespective of whether they had children. At the time, Støjberg argued that the measure was necessary to protect “child brides”. “They have to be separated,” the then minister told the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, “because I will not accept that in my system there could be examples of coercion.”

Some 23 couples were mandatorily separated by the Danish Immigration Service without an individual examination of their circumstances. One couple, a 17-year-old pregnant woman and her 26-year-old husband, filed a complaint with the Danish Parliament’s ombudsman, who found the separation to be illegal.

The impeachment court also found the policy to be unlawful and a breach of European human rights law as the arrangement did not include exceptions and individual assessments by the immigration service.

Ministers tend to find such intrusions of the law into their discretion disconcerting. Were executive power to be curtailed by such legal actions, firm, tearless decisions would be hard to make. When the trial commenced, Støjberg was confident that the Court members would see good sense. “I know exactly what I said and did. That is why we are seeking an acquittal.” So confident was she of the outcome that the conviction came as something of a shock. “It’s the only scenario I had not prepared for because I thought it was completely unrealistic.”

Støjberg was quick on the draw regarding the principles which she followed in making her decision. “I think it wasn’t just me that lost today, it was Danish values that lost today.” (Every political figure found fouling the law is bound to hide behind a set of values.) If, she said, she “had had to live with the fact that I had not protected these girls – that would actually have been worse than this.”

The values game is always precarious and immigration ministers claiming to protect the vulnerable are rarely trustworthy sorts. Scratch the surface, and you are bound to find a sadistic reactionary. For Støjberg, it meant adopting a line against the swarthy hordes seeking sanctuary in Europa’s bosom populist, anti-immigration figures found attractive. Between 2015 and 2019, she served in a centre-right government bolstered by the support of the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party and presided over 110 amendments restricting the rights of foreigners. Memorably crass, she celebrated the passage of the fiftieth restriction on immigration with a cake.

Amongst those measures was the “Jewellery law”, a stipulation that asylum seekers surrender their jewellery and cash above 10,000 kroner to help fund their stay in Denmark. The Ministry of Immigration guidelines made modest concessions: wedding rings or engagement rings were to be left untouched, though individual officers could determine what sentimental value was attached to others.

Like her counterparts in other countries, Støjberg sought to place unwanted and undesirable arrivals on a remote island – Lindholm – a plan that raised eyebrows in the United Nations. While the facility was intended to detain foreign nationals convicted of crimes and set for deportation, UN Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet warned about “the negative impact of such policies in isolation, and (they) should not replicate these policies. Because depriving them of their liberty, isolating them, and stigmatising them will only increase their vulnerability.”

Støjberg, self-proclaimed protector of child brides, was merely contemptuous of such concerns. “I’m quite impressed that you can sit in New York and comment on a deportation centre when not a single shovel has yet touched the ground, and when we have clearly said that we will stay within the conventions we are signed up to.”

The modern immigration minister has become a plain clothes member of the country’s police force. Suspicion is preferable over charity. Judgment comes before understanding. Separating families, tormenting parents and children, are not infrequent things. But in all fairness to Støjberg, her measures did not lack parliamentary approval and degrees of public support. Not only was she encouraging cruelty, she also being encouraged to be cruel.

Indeed, Denmark’s harsh refugee policy is being further developed under the guidance of the centre-left Social Democrats, who have adopted some of the world’s harshest refugee policies. Recently, an agreement barring foreigners with suspended sentences from ever becoming Danish citizens was struck by the government with right-wing parties.

In June, Parliament gave the government a mandate to establish an internment camp system outside European borders to process asylum-seeker claims. “If you apply for asylum in Denmark, you know that you will be sent back to a country outside Europe, and therefore we hope that people stop seeking asylum in Denmark,” warned government spokesman Rasmus Stoklund.

The smug view expressed by such papers as Politiken, that no minister is above the law, ignores the point that Støjberg became a post girl for reaction, a model emulated rather than dismissed. Had she tinkered more with her “child brides” order, conditioning it with less severity, she may never have faced the impeachment court.

Immigration ministers in other countries should take note but the lessons of this case are unlikely to be learned in Australia. Down under, immigration officials act with brutal impunity confident that their callous decisions are unlikely to ever face stern judicial eyes. No Australian immigration minister has faced proceedings for culpability in returning people to lands they have fled, only to endure torture, persecution and disappearance. Or for ruining the mental health of asylum seekers locked in indefinite captivity in a subsided Pacific concentration camp system. They have set the standard, and countries like Denmark have been inspired. Støjberg might well count herself unlucky.


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