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Lucy Hamilton is Melbourne born and based. She studied humanities at Melbourne and Monash universities, until family duties killed her PhD project. She is immersed in studying the global democratic recession.

The Right is toxic: what next for conservatives?

The international right is cynical and dangerous. It is crucial we look beyond the surface rhetoric to understand what it represents because Australia is not immune.

The global right is pervaded with “expert and prodigious liars”: truth is irrelevant to their pursuit of power. The American experience is key to Australia: from the Civil Rights era, conservatives understood the future to be demographically grim for them. Instead of finding an electable path, they have increasingly developed deceptive strategies and gambits to con enough voters to enact their oligarchic agenda. The most dangerous lies have been delivered in the service of commercial interests such as fossil fuels. Now our very future stands in doubt.

Equally frightening is the degree to which the right is becoming honest: bigotries which were unmentionable in public or dog-whistled, these politicians now speak openly. The conspiracies that wind through the internet’s social spaces are spread by politicians and their media allies. Religion is used to dignify the ugly prejudices and fantasies.

One would be naïve not to expect lies and deceptions in the games of politics, but when one side destroys the bases of trust, the contest can no longer function. Constant lies gushed from President Donald Trump. The question of Scott Morrison’s honesty was deemed worthy of an entire book by Bernard Keane.

The Albanese government has granted Australians a pause in which to take stock. Around the world old divisions and alliances are unstable and shifting. The trajectory is towards profiteering amongst the richest in the face of mounting crises, and the subjection of the masses. The climate emergency’s catastrophes pile on the pressure. We need to stop assuming that our old truths remain true, our old alliances remain worthy, and that our moral bearings are intact.

It has become clear that formerly conservative parties are willing to work with anyone in the pursuit of power. It is also clear that they can be willing, in emulation of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, to use election victory to dismantle the structures that allow others to remove them.

In his essay on the results of the latest Israeli election, “The Israel we knew is gone,” David Friedman observed that “Israeli political trends are often a harbinger of wider trends in Western democracies.” The fact that Bibi Netanyahu has made a pact with the devil to regain power should stand as a stern warning to us all.

Netanyahu has formed government with figures that belong to the most extreme positions in Israel, who believe that shooting Palestinians should not be criminal; they won their election largely on mistrust of Israeli Arabs, threatening greater persecution of non-Jewish parts of the nation, including startling projects like separate beaches for Jews and Arabs.

A number of “conservative” parties in the West are beginning to work more overtly with the far right. The Neo Nazi-born parties are donning suits and detoxifying the worst of their rhetoric; in return, they are being accepted as partners in the political process. In Sweden, for example, three conservative parties have formed government by agreeing to work with the party of Neo Nazis to guarantee supply. The quid pro quo entails an array of harsh policies on immigration.

In France the far right has shown itself content to work with the left, to challenge Macron, but also to build a misleading façade of normalcy. These decisions to hide their ugliest faces in pursuit of power is one of the more chilling aspects of the movement.

In other countries, including Australia, the UK and US, our “conservative” parties are not so much cooperating with far-right parties as devouring them. John Howard’s lurch rightward from the 1990s to capture Pauline Hanson’s radicalised supporters was only the beginning of Australia’s “conservative” party’s moral destruction. Australia has, in turn, helped radicalise our anglosphere allies: our brutal policies against asylum seekers have infected our AUKUS partners, helping make their copycat actions shocking to rule of law representatives in those nations.

Victoria’s Liberal Party has presented itself as moderate to suit the electorate but is crippled by the branches gradually being overwhelmed by religious conservatives. Thus its policy platform includes support for conversion therapy, and its leader refuses to condemn candidates with a deeply reactionary mission. It has even preferenced known antisemite far-right candidates in its ethics-free desperation.

This reflects the American radical right development called the Nat Con movement. The billionaire-funded youth of the Republican Party now parades itself as fighting “the perfidy of the ruling class.” There it parades its bigotries as the defence of the little people.

The right has shown itself adept at co-opting left ideas and banners. The academics’ defining of relativism, which granted that there is no single truth for colonisers that is also the truth for the colonised, has been taken by the right to say that there is no truth.

The far right and the left share discontent with neoliberal orthodoxies. There are uncomfortable sympathies between the “poles” that have emerged over the pandemic. Resentment at government public health policies that they saw as precursors to totalitarianism melded with rampant (and often justified) mistrust of Big Pharma on the left to allow them to see the far right as fellow travellers. In a similar way, some feminists, particularly in the UK, have been co-opted by the far right into the anti-LGBTQI movement. Even Queer women join these attacks on trans existence – depicted as an affront to women – failing to realise that they too will become targets down the road. Thus, the far-right misogynist movement adopts a “feminist” face.

Antisemitic thought is as central to the radicalised right as anti-Muslim thought. Strange alliances are born. Orban’s Hungary has made George Soros a boogieman. This expat Jewish figure’s demonisation illustrates the hollow nature of Orban’s claim not to lead an antisemitic regime. Despite this antisemitism, his shared hatred of Muslims has made him a strong ally for Israel’s Netanyahu.

The Liberal Party, in federal and Victorian elections, chose to play duplicitous games, pitching themselves to the centrist voter as rational. They chose, however, to play also to the conspiracy and religious fringes. This American strand of right-wing politics has been rejected by Australians.

Those of us who hope for a future for our children cannot vote for the current right, infected by international strains of bigotry and deceptive authoritarianism as it stands. The centre right must evaluate what it has to offer, rather than cowering under the threatening might of its extreme partners.

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Victorian Election: Liberals under siege from extremist religious groups

The Victorian election is a mess. This is the product of the destruction of our conservative forces by international right wing radicalism; for people in that sphere discrediting democracy is the desirable first step in dismantling the status quo. For the rest of us, it is a threat.

The Liberal Party in Victoria is caught in a trap. It pitches itself as the moderate old party of its forebears. Unfortunately, too many of the moderates who ran it or voted for it are disenchanted both by shambolic efforts in the state, and by its damaged federal reflection.

Around the state, branches are under siege by extremist religious groups, mostly Pentecostal but also Mormon. The state’s governing body is also gradually filling with these members.

Opposition leader Matthew Guy pushed Eastern Victoria candidate City Builder Renee Heath out of the Liberal fold last week, but there are others in this election with similar views from which he cannot separate the party. Too many seats would be lost in this campaign’s desperate effort to defeat the favourite.

Earlier this month a document was finally covered in The Age that is purported to have been designed by Liberal Candidate for the 2019 election Peter Killin. It sets out a “roadmap” for the religious right to “infiltrate” the Liberal Party at all levels. Killin was forced to resign at that time over ghastly homophobic commentary but now sits on the state assembly assisting in the running of the party.

In 2020, Marcus Bastiaan resigned from the Victorian Liberal Party after “having created a powerful network of religious “social conservatives” in branches across the state.”

Investigations into the branches suggests that Pentecostals have coopted Gippsland, South Gippsland and Morwell branches. There is concern about the Dunkley Branch on the Mornington Peninsula also being colonised. In January this year, moderate Liberals asked the party to “dump” a preselected candidate for Ringwood because her “recruitment of Mormon members and religious right views maker her unelectable.” In 2018, The Age reported on “conservative” Mormons winning seats as party officers at the state conference.

Bernie Finn was removed from the party when his praise for American total abortion bans proved the final straw for Guy’s team. The Western Metropolitan Branch has, however, been coopted by a religious majority and the replacement preselected is Moira Deeming. Aside from being Finn’s acolyte and, for a long time, his sidekick at the March for Babies extreme anti-choice body, Deeming has a long record of reactionary positions on LGBTQI rights.

One of the latest scandals has been the comments recorded from Timothy Dragan, aged only 26, compromising his candidacy for the Narre Warren North seat. He ranted about how colonising Australians “won this land fair and square,” arguing that respect for Indigenous Australians is unwarranted, and the nuclear waste should be dumped on Alice Springs. He also spouted anti-abortion views and climate denial. Matthew Guy chided Dragan for “disrespectful” and “silly” comments, but accepted his apology.

The state Liberals struggled during the pandemic’s worst to get traction despite constantly railing against “the world’s longest lockdowns.” Working together with News Corps’ Herald Sun, the constant attacks on the Premier and the state added to the pain Victorians experienced, helping drive “freedom” ralliers into violent attacks on the police. Victorian opposition politicians appeared at the rallies near a full-sized gallows and other violent threats on the government.

Two weeks ago, the Liberals released an ad which placed themselves in the thick of those anti-science, anti-health policy riots, demanding the “cookers” remember when “we” hit the streets to fight against Dan Andrews and vaccine mandates.

As Josh Burns MP has collated, the Liberal Party has agreed to give preferences to a number of figures who have made ugly threats. The list includes Rebekah Spelman who called for the Premier to be hanged, as well as co-orchestrating the rally featuring the gallows. Another is independent upper house member, Catherine Cumming, now standing for the “Angry Victorians Party,” who called for the Premier to be turned into a “red mist.” This term alludes to military jargon describing the impact of sniper hits. She was standing next to violent anti-lockdown protest organiser Harrison McLean, who has written that “Hitler had some good points”, when she made the speech at the “worldwide” rally for freedom.

One of the first acts of the next government should be the redesign of the upper house voting mechanism in Victoria. The state is alone in granting the voters a single choice above the line, allowing the parties to negotiate preference deals that are automatically allocated. Voters have to nominate a minimum of merely 5 selections below the line, but few choose to do so. This mechanism has enabled the scandal over Glenn Druery’s lucrative career as a “preference whisperer” where he assists parties to gain enough lower preferences to win a seat despite gaining few first preference votes.

Another key reform ought to be removing the “exceptional circumstances” block on IBAC’s ability to hold public hearings. The slow path through the process of giving natural justice to people facing adverse findings is holding up the release of corruption findings. More public hearings will allow greater public confidence in the ability of the anti-corruption body to hold politicians and public servants to account. Accusations being levelled at both main parties of corruption are undermining faith in the process.

Another systematic flaw is the behaviour of the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC). It has executed some petty blocks on independent candidates, known as Teals, in a way that appears punitive and has been perceived as partisan by those candidates. VCAT overturned the Commission’s ban on their how to vote cards.

It is crucial that the VEC’s behaviour remain absolutely meticulously nonpartisan. The combination of its bans with the slow IBAC appeal process and preference-whisperer scandals has led to calls from the “freedom” conspiracy sector for the election to be postponed as unworkable. A Dan Andrews victory is being preemptively described as evidence of a corrupt electoral process in those corners of the internet.

Democracy depends on transparency, reliable information, nonpartisan systems and trust. The failure of the corporate media to adhere to that tradition is a critical attack on the ability of voters to select their next government in a responsible fashion. The Victorian Liberal Party’s attempts to suppress discussion of their gradual takeover by the religious right is deeply problematic. Victorians need to know that a “Liberal” vote is becoming increasingly neither liberal nor conservative.

America’s flawed electoral processes have compounded the crisis of trust. It is critical that we don’t follow them into that chaos. Dan Andrews is correct: we don’t want that Americanisation of politics here.

First published in Pearls and Irritations

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Greed is the problem, not workers

Of course, The Australian republished Andy Kessler’s ridiculous Wall Street Journal column, “The decline of work in a spoiled society.” Those News Corp bedfellows continue to miss that they are at the core of the problem.

The pandemic drew back the curtain for the workers of the West, casting a glaring spotlight on the fact that they were cogs in a machine churning profit for the power brokers. Billionaires took off on joyrides to space, in rockets built of the workers’ stolen wages. Emergency workers received mere thanks for dying in excessive numbers to keep the upper echelons safely serviced in their beach home escapes. Nurses saw that their dedication had been exploited for unfair pay as their shifts ballooned. Teachers learnt they were actually childminders to allow capitalism untrammelled access to parent workers.

This edifying revelation only built on the growing crisis of 2008’s financial crash. Taxpayers’ money was demanded to refund the financial sector that had gambled away its wealth. In the US, 10 million Americans lost their homes, mostly left sitting empty. In the UK, bankers got their bonuses back as austerity policy savaged the lives and communities of the taxpayers who’d funded their bailouts.

Over the Cold War, a combination of factors kept the gap between rich and poor narrow. Partly the financial circumstances of the era; partly a society that required a large educated and healthy workforce to maintain mass-employing sectors. Partly, though, it was the bowel-clenching fear of the rich and powerful that their own masses could revolt to seize the means of production.

The resultant conditions meant that unionised workers could support their families with some spending money on the side. After capitalism’s collapse in the Great Depression and the nightmare of two World Wars, the bargain seemed worthy.

In the wake of the Cold War, neoliberal ideologues and extremists won the battle for understanding how the economy should operate. Milton Friedman’s diktat that the shareholder was the corporation’s only responsibility became the operating principle. Maggie Thatcher killed “society.” The workers were to be recognised as inanimate parts of the machine. The threat of starvation would keep them obediently clocking in, clocking out, clocking in.

Meanwhile, the Cold War reticence about ostentatiously displaying wealth with the prospect of revolution to chill the peacock urge, was replaced by reality TV where everyone could see just how stupid and venal the wealthy actually can be.

In America, the social contract is broken. The poorest workers slog between several jobs, often on poorly maintained public transport, without healthcare. Teachers drive Uber after hours to pay the rent. In the UK, private school alumni threw the country’s well-being off the Cliffs of Dover in pursuit of defunct imperial grandeur. Both countries’ discontent was channelled against people with a different skin colour, seeking safety. The “revolution” to date has taken the form of electing populist-nativist clowns who made all their problems worse.

Liz Truss was the final straw in this revelation of the cold calculations underlying neoliberalism. There would be unaffordable tax cuts for the rich and further austerity for the rest.

In Australia, the crisis of worker investment is different. Rising prices creating rising profits eat into the wages of those previously getting by. The Reserve Bank is driving up interest rates, again eating into survival funds, instead of begging profiteers to cap their greed. Policy promoting property as an investment rather than a necessity is robbing the next generation of the chance to join in that mode of securing their future. Landlords increase rent because that is “the market,” and renters become desperate.

Australia’s workers are, on the whole, better paid than our American parallels but the same pressures that the neoliberal ideologues have imposed on that nation are grinding away at the readiness of workers to give over most of their working hours to employers.

Signs of poverty are becoming more overt in Australia. The recent story about a mother wanting to keep a pot of yoghurt as a Christmas treat went viral, shocking to a complacent population.

Victorian Premier Dan Andrews has taken some steps in his election promises to address the implications of these factors. One that drew howls of outrage from the Murdoch Dog Line was the promise to make menstrual products available in places where people might not be able to afford them. To any person willing to take a moment, it is clear that being forced to choose between food and sanitary products is a crippling decision.

To the Murdoch commentators, Andrews’ decision was an outrage. Regular Murdoch columnist Gemma Tognini fulminated that the promise was, bizarrely, “sexist” as well as “shallow, populist, cosmetic and desperate.” Then again, she is the columnist that equated accepting Dan Andrews to Chamberlain “attempting to appease a monster.”

In the worldview of the News Corp columnist, and their ultra-free market ideology, anyone not working hard enough is choosing to be unable to afford menstrual products. Pandering to this laziness encourages the slacker life.

Andy Kessler argued that what workers get from the ever-more poisonous bargain is “human capital” which he decodes “as what workers learn on the job is theirs to keep.” But too many jobs now, like the grinding immiseration of Amazon warehouse workers, grant little in the way of skills or satisfaction.

He demanded the American government “please stop paying people not to work.” At a moment in employment history where too many people are working in jobs that barely pay survival salaries because human labour remains cheaper or more precise than automation, the only way to get people to work at all is to starve them thoroughly rather than slowly.

A better option might be to abandon ultra-free market ideology as the destroyer of systems it has proven to be. Clearly, workers need to be and feel valued to sign over their lives to the awful jobs we need done. America’s extremes illustrate the utter failure of their neoliberal religion.

Removing obscene profits for executives and shareholders as the driving force of corporations would be a start. A fairer division of the spoils is necessary to keep society functioning. This might need to be achieved by higher taxes on the top tier, since they don’t seem to understand the crisis their never-sated greed has created.

This was originally published at Pearls and Irritations as Greed and a spoiled society: workers are not the problem

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Our media is failing us

Our media is failing us. At a moment when one side of politics has abandoned the bases of democracy as an impediment to their grasp on power, we need journalists holding them to account rather than gaslighting the public, normalising the rot.

In the lead-up to the US midterms, national security expert Juliette Kayyem tweeted about the dangers of bad reporting, concluding, “It is 2022. Get it right. Or a new job.”

Kayyem contrasted evasive reporting about “voter fraud” claims with the kind that justly illustrates that such accusations are bogus while reporting that the claim has been made.

We face different political problems in Australia, although the media crises overlap. We too have “savvy style” reporters in the press gallery who share politicians’ cynicism. We too have access journalism (or friendship) that causes a journalist to hesitate to “burn” a source or pal. We have horserace coverage that doesn’t focus on the overview, at a moment when that couldn’t be more important. We have refuge-seeking journalism, particularly at the ABC, that cringes from examining the sordid quality of some political behaviour over the last decade. We have normalcy bias journalism that can’t step back far enough to see how radicalised one side of politics is becoming, still covering “both sides” as though both sides had equal merit. There are many reasons for this crisis, but they remain a cause for self-evaluation by self-respecting journalists.

The particular crisis for Australia lies in the fact that our two primary print media organisations – affiliated with television or radio platforms – are owned by corporate interests headed by figures who clearly see their corporations as political tools. Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch barely need detailing on this front. Peter Costello’s NineFax has been more discreet in its political deployment, and it retains some journalists who continue to practice their craft with integrity.

Print media, while an embattled format, is crucial. It is where most of the investigations and in-depth reporting continue to be carried out, providing the meat upon which the electronic media feeds.

The cooperation of Rupert Murdoch’s Herald Sun and Peter Costello’s The Age with a floundering Victoria Liberal Party in the final weeks before the state election has been a truly shocking display of the state of Australian “conservative” politics and its allied media.

The Age has deployed the leak of IBAC documents to hint at wrongdoings by the government. It is the Australian right in Victoria and federally that has fought so hard to protect the reputation of politicians, but when a strong enemy can be inconvenienced, reputational harm is suddenly desirable. IBAC reports at this stage are still being finalised: those individuals facing adverse findings are being given the chance to challenge aspects, and the findings can still be altered as a result. The purpose of this secrecy is to ensure that reputational harm does not take place until the fairest outcome is achieved. The way to achieve greater transparency is to remove the crippling limitation on public hearings only taking place in “exceptional circumstances.” You can be sure that Liberal Victoria would be crying foul if the positions were reversed.

This was exacerbated by the suspension of The Age‘s ban on “political actor” op/eds for the election period to allow a column condemning the Andrews government’s integrity by Roshena Campbell. She is a Liberal-member councillor, and wife of Murdoch mouthpiece, James.

In the Herald Sun, two appalling gambits have been played. Frontpage “scandals” have been mocked up about the car accident that was settled over a decade ago involving the Andrews family, and about Premier Dan Andrews’s fall in 2021. The latter is particularly loathsome: making hay out of the Premier’s injuries is not newsworthy. This story functions only to allude to the conspiracies that abounded at the time. The constant emphasis on the small size of the steps is intended to provoke a renewed flurry of gossip around the conspiracy that stated the injury was not a fall but the result of sensational fantasies of lurid violence.

The fact that, as Media Watch recounted, the broader media opted to chase these Murdoch non-stories relentlessly is an appalling breach of integrity and professional standards. All 17 questions at the press conference that followed were about the resolved bike event, and the evening news framed the coverage as the Premier’s refusal to answer questions, despite the fact he had given endless dutiful answers about the story at the time.

The Murdoch propaganda battalion has clearly decided that selling Matthew Guy’s opposition is beyond them; the only way to gain traction for a messy Liberal Party is to aim to destroy Dan Andrew’s continuing popularity in the state. Peta Credlin’s tawdry “documentary” about Dan Andrews will have compounded the demonising for the few who watch Sky.

At the same time as the Murdoch media chose those gambits, the Victorian Liberal Party released an advertisement directed to those conspiracy spheres that had spilled violence onto Melbourne’s streets, amongst whom the lubricious gossip had flourished. The party here allied itself overtly with that violence and suspicion of vaccines.

Throughout the worst of the pre-vaccine pandemic, the Murdoch media aimed to make our Victorian lives hellish by compounding the misery. Victoria was constantly under attack, while similar experiences in NSW garnered praise. The difference? The colour of the government. They followed this by insulting Victorians for our continued majority satisfaction with Dan Andrews and what he had worked to achieve with our cooperation. Credlin’s documentary and 17th November column in The Australian described the support as a “cult.”

The same voter-smacking agenda is underway in the American right-wing media in the wake of the midterms where the women who poured out to vote against the stripping of their reproductive autonomy are chastised for being too stupid to vote for the right in their own alleged interests. (This reflects the US’s dominant media consensus that reproductive justice would not be a midterm issue; apparently, women don’t set the news agenda.) This talking point was echoed in a pathetically trollish column for The Australian by the Menzies Research Centre’s Nick Cater. His tantrum might help drive more centre-right voters to Teal candidates.

At a moment when the east coast of Australia is once again covered in water, our neighbour Fiji is asking for the money to move dozens of its villages to safety and COP27 is taking place in Egypt, our media fails us with context-free reporting. Corporate media is barely covering the appalling revelations of the Robodebt Royal Commission. And that corporate media is working hard to grant a shambolic Liberal opposition government in Victoria, no doubt intending to capitalise on their baron’s goals in the aftermath.

We desperately need the Murdoch Royal Commission. We desperately need news media laws that balance the range of news available to Australians. Above all, we desperately need the journalists who work in these organisations to look to themselves, as Juliette Kayyem demanded. If they’ve lost the will to remain public watchdogs, they need to find themselves a new job.

This was first published at Pearls and Irritations

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Covid Hindsight: Victoria acted on nightmare potential for system collapse

The press has been spattered in recent weeks with hindsight wisdom about Australia’s – and particularly Victoria’s – handling of the pre-vaccine pandemic. The relatively easy time we are having with COVID now and the low numbers of people being hospitalised with COVID are being used to argue that earlier restrictions were unnecessary but it is crucial to remember what the world looked like when those decisions were made.

Epidemics and pandemics are as much a matter of response and luck as nature. In an era of constant air travel, diseases can seed around the world long before they have been identified around their source. The original SARS incipient pandemic was stopped in its tracks because it was less easily spread, and manifested symptoms at the same time as becoming contagious. This allowed hotspots around the world to be scotched before they could explode. Ebola, while having a 50% mortality rate, faces similar constraints on its spread. Swine flu was similarly contagious to early variants of COVID-19, but turned out to be much milder.

Specialists knew that another global pandemic was due for some time. Each year or so in the decade/s leading up to 2020, another contender would emerge, only to avoid the characteristics that would drive the world to a halt.

COVID-19 provided a number of challenges. One is that it spread invisibly before cases were detected, contagious people often remaining asymptomatic or apparently suffering a mere cold. Initially the transmission mechanism was not clear. Could it be spread by fomites on surfaces or through the air? The science ultimately established that the former had little impact and the latter is key but knowledge about the coronavirus that caused SARS in 2002 – 2004 meant initial focus on fomites as the likely means of spread of the new coronavirus in 2020.

In the ocean of ignorance that surrounds a virus new – or novel – to human populations, it takes time to work out the strategies to limiting spread, preventing contraction, and treating.

The great fortune for limiting the duration of the worst impact of this pandemic was that vaccine science had some technologies ready to deploy. Coronaviruses are a common candidate for possible pandemics, so traditional technology could relatively easily transition from one strain to this new kind. The newest technology – MRNA – functions like a gin distillery. The standard “white spirit” of the base is infused with the “botanicals” of the particular virus as required. Worldwide scientific and bureaucratic convergence allowed honing, testing and production to take a fraction of the time without the usual lags produced by insufficient funds, competitive secrecy and official inertia. Without this readiness and removal of unnecessary roadblocks, the pandemic would have crippled us years longer.

 

Gravediggers open new graves as the number of dead rose after the COVID-19 outbreak in Brazil, 2020. REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

As COVID emerged around the world, Australians came to see what it could do. The initial jetsetter cases were replaced by stories about people living in close confinement and often with the health issues deriving from poverty and living within a racist system.

Photos of refrigerated trucks on the streets of New York to take the overflow of corpses were matched with recordings of a city ringing with the doppler clash of competing sirens. Other photographs showed mass graves being dug in parkland to take the piling bodies that morgues couldn’t sustain. In Italy, churches filled with coffins and obituary notices took up multiple pages in newspapers in the country’s northeast.

And over all those images, we saw desperate medical workers exhausted and shattered by unending shifts of misery watching people destroyed by a virus that could be terrible; one that is exacerbated by the body’s own flailing immune system in a cytokine storm, attacking every organ including the skin.

India showed us most brutally what could happen if COVID was allowed to run without check. We read chilling stories of even the wealthy and powerful tweeting in search of oxygen supplies that had become impossible to find. Others that recounted the people driving from hospital to hospital as the mother of their small children suffocated in her own lungs, ultimately dying in a hospital carpark because every hospital was swamped. The sky was thick with the smoke of mass burnings. People became desperate within their homes, unable to work or afford food and medicine, as the brutal crackdown that followed the collapse of the system harshly worked to limit the duration of the nightmare.

 

Multiple funeral pyres of those who died of COVID-19 burn at a ground that has been converted into a crematorium for the mass cremation of coronavirus victims, in New Delhi, India, 2021 Credit: AP Photo/Altaf Qadri

The crisis of COVID was rarely the individual case. This is what made it so hard to convey to the inattentive the need for strong action. The crisis of COVID rests in percentages. For every 1,000 additional cases the greater the number who would need ambulances, hospitals and long-term intensive care.

Leading into the pandemic, Sydney had retained a stronger public health framework and emergency bed number compared to Victoria. Victoria’s had been savaged during the Kennett years and never been rebuilt, starting the pandemic with fewer than 20% of NSW’s public health officers. All the other states had even less capacity to cope. This fact allowed NSW more latitude in dealing with the pandemic than the other states.

Leading COVID specialists and epidemiologists have also speculated about the climate factors that allowed potential outbreaks in NSW to peter out. The temperature in NSW, for instance, allows many more months of open-door trading, ventilating businesses, in a way that is impossible in the cold of Melbourne and the extreme heat of the north of the country. When the much more contagious omicron strains emerged, NSW’s luck died too along with many citizens.

The Andrews’ government in Victoria was given a weekend to pick up most of the nation’s quarantine after the federal government threw NSW into turmoil over the Ruby Princess and abandoned its own responsibility to manage quarantine (seeing it as an unpopular aspect of pandemic management). Many aspects of the system did not function as well as we would hope and the acquisition of knowledge about what dangers lay in various systems, such as hotel quarantine, was painful.

Nurses are walking away from their jobs unable to cope due to gruelling work conditions. (Getty)

Premier Daniel Andrews saw the reports coming from the federal government’s chaotic private aged “care” system. There is no doubt he heard the accounts that emerged from first responders who have PTSD from the literal nightmare scenes they saw in some of those homes.

Lockdowns come in two forms, pre-emptive and reactive. Pre-emptive ones can come to seem pointless because they prevent the catastrophes that might have occurred. Reactive ones are of limited use, desperately trying to protect the overwhelmed systems crashing around them. In Britain, buses had to be converted into 4-case ambulances. People died who would not have in less chaotic times, and not just of COVID. Around the world, an estimated 10 million children have lost a parent or caregiver. Millions more are being ground down by long COVID symptoms.

In the vaccine era, we see a reduction in the risk of dying by about 90%. For the young and healthy, that means there will be very few deaths. But for those older and sicker people whose baseline risk was high, we continue to see high numbers of deaths with the current unchecked spread of COVID. These deaths are tragic, and the nation’s failure to continue easy steps such as masking in public may well prove to herald many more deaths. Variants continue to emerge, and we do not know what the next will bring.

As things stand, we may well face a desperate shortage of hospital beds as a result of staff shortages in years to come. We have proven ourselves demanding and ungrateful to the people who have battled to save our relatives in miserable work conditions.

In the meantime, it would be justice to remember all this and acknowledge that Victoria, and all the non-NSW states, made decisions based on the nightmare potential for system collapse and miserable death tolls before the vaccine era.

This was first published in Pearls and Irritations

This piece was written in cooperation with a leading Victorian Infectious Diseases specialist who continues to work with COVID.

 

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Conspiracy: the disease that threatens our survival

Sometimes it takes a war correspondent to cast light on what is happening at home. The New Yorker’s Luke Mogelson has just published The Storm is Here relating the inside story of the pandemic-era upsurge of violence on the right in the US. He compares the nightmares faced by the people he covered in wars “fueled by injury” in Afghanistan and Syria with the wars fuelled by “delusion” at home: “In the US by contrast, almost everybody I met that said they were willing to fight and die for their cause were mainly animated by a fear of total phantoms and fabricated antagonists.”

The same forces are in play in Australia: desperate people, stoked with existential dread at the crimes of the Elites, exacerbate each other’s sense of victimhood. They falsely claim the pandemic was manmade, and vaccines intended to control them or kill them slowly. They celebrate their pure blood and sperm. They wondered if they felt sick after gathering unvaccinated because the government had sprayed them with toxins. (Because conspiracies are unfalsifiable, every consequence of stupidity becomes fodder for paranoia.)

As in America, grifters of the political, media and influencer spheres manipulate their fear and confusion. United Australia and One Nations politicians repeat the American talking points, even supported by some Coalition politicians. Aspiring political parties on that “freedom” spectrum spruik the conspiracies full-throatedly. News Corp talking heads utter the polite versions, while The Spectator’s radicalising Australian wrap ties the conspiracies to the Orbanist culture wars. Ramshackle “news” outlets on YouTube promote the community’s wildest fantasies as fact.

The Herald Sun recently recounted [paywalled] in apparent shock that the Neo Nazi movement is growing in Victoria. It blamed the rise on the pandemic rather than its own support for hysterical responses to local and world events. The masthead omitted having granted credit to the movement by platforming its figureheads and fostering its bigotry.

The global nation of ethnonationalists is borderless. Disinformation and extremism are pervasive on the various platforms of the internet. People who’ve been radicalising the susceptible on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Reddit over the pandemic era send their new followers over to the Telegram encrypted app to continue the radicalisation untrammelled.

Overt National Socialists spread QAnon messaging on Twitter that the Elites are murdering children in basements, probably because Elites is code for Jewish people. On Facebook, antivaxx conspiracy theorists are blaming Victorian Premier Dan Andrews for weather engineering the floods to boost his election chances. Apparently the Elites are clearing Australia’s east coast for the construction of dystopian Smart Cities that will cram humanity into close confinement to enforce low energy consumption, and where we will eat insect protein.

As America showed us on January 6 2020, it is difficult to assess the reach and intensity of this conspiracy thinking until those inculcated turn up on the doorstep of democracy, armed for insurrection. Certainly some of the material is part of a game (which is how the QAnon idea of a deep state leaker began). The fact that the radicalised walk the line between believing outrageous ideas and tempting the normies to swallow that they believe nonsense makes it difficult to disentangle. Those studying Trump’s election lies, for example, find it hard to determine what percentage of the 64% of Republicans who believe that Biden stole the election are genuinely in the camp and how many “believe” it as a tribal marker. The set known as “trolls” make life miserable online, spreading outrageous bigotry and abuse, with laughter at the earnest as their prime goal. Trump has been known as the king of the trolls.

The internet has provided solace for the isolated for many years now, bringing together people who might despair that they are alone in the world. It has promoted information and insight into problems that the dominant media ignore or fail to tackle. It is also, however, a tool for the dangerous. Far more effective than dropping flyers behind the Iron Curtain or conversations at one’s religious centre, social media fosters political interference and radicalisation.

This builds on the human predisposition to find easy answers, straightforward villains and familiar narratives in the overwhelming complexity of the world’s trials. A population trained to pursue constant thrills and excitement needs more dramatic answers than the mundane inertia of people failing to make the right decisions. Too many of us long for adrenaline and have no idea of the misery of living in “interesting times.” The conspiracy theory narratives allow groups to depict themselves as the victims of a new Holocaust. Always they are the victims, disguising their selfishness and bigotry with a stolen gravitas and dignity.

The issues driving the panics are protean rather than ideologically defined. Mogelson recounted being at anti-lockdown rallies in Michigan with “Patriot” protesters pouring scorn on the “jackbooted Nazis,” police and state troopers taking people’s freedom. He returned to the same protests run by the same people after three weeks’ absence covering the death of George Floyd to find them ardently in support of “the Blue” against Black Lives Matter. The sense of persecution is the point, rather than the enemy selected to destroy.

Some of them, in Australia as well as the US, are “accelerationists.” Far right extremists who believe the system is rotten, and it is only by accelerating its destruction that a better (ethno) state can be rebuilt. They are reckless about which trouble they support, as long as it will speed the destruction of society as it stands.

The chaos at work is captured in one of Trump’s generals, Michael Flynn. He is now the headliner on the ReAwaken America touring show where he promotes an evangelical battle of good versus evil, QAnon, Trump’s election victory, and hints at violent revolution. The point is that his friends cannot determine whether he is grifting to pay his fees, disgruntled at his failures in government, damaged by his war experience, mentally unwell or a true believer. The impact of his rhetoric is toxic, regardless of his motivation.

The fear and rage of the movements are dangerous. The author of a recent study on violent extremists and the threat to US infrastructure pointed out that the wannabe terrorists were mostly “knuckleheads,” but that they only have to get lucky occasionally to be a serious problem. The same threat is growing here. The wild movie plot conspiracies should not be ignored because they are ludicrous.

Eric Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts showed that, in Berlin in 1933, a mere weeks-long absence on a business trip was enough to return to see one’s circle radicalised into Nazism. It only takes a figure like Trump, who understood so astutely which grievances to activate, to turn a society in trouble into one on the brink.

Australia has a Labor government trying to shore up our protections. It will take more, however, than establishing government accountability to protect us. The climate emergency’s disasters will provoke further fear and anger, and we must guard ourselves from the wrong figure metastasising our fledgling conspiracy sphere into a fatal disease.

 

This was first published in Pearls and Irritations as The Storm is Here: can Australia prevent the conspiracy sphere metastasising into fatal disease?

 

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The IPA’s war on schools

The IPA is no longer even performing the masquerade of being a thinktank. It is rather a culture war factory for the right; its American-invented campaign on schools risks pushing even more people out of teaching.

Michael Pascoe’s excellent column savaging the IPA illustrates its commitment to greed at the expense of everything. At a moment when Australia is beginning to reckon with which low-lying (and forested) communities will soon become uninsurable in the face of the climate emergency, the IPA is still pushing false doubt about the science.

It seems shortsighted to fight tooth and nail for one’s own children to live in a world much harder and more expensive than the one the combatant was raised in. It seems confused, if not hypocritical, to demonise just policy for asylum seekers at the same time as hounding politicians to shape policy that will displace millions in the next few decades.

Their campaigns, however, are much more myopic than even these contradictions suggest. Teachers learnt with glaring clarity over the worst of the pandemic (so far) that their allocated role in society, stripped of romantic imaginings, was childminding. Teachers are intended to keep youth off the street until they too grow old enough to join their parents in wave slavery and debt peonage.

And yet the IPA, shorn of actual research, has filched from American playbooks the savaging of teachers and schools as the culture war that will keep it relevant and bring its chaotic political arm back to power.

Teachers battle a grinding job that makes holidays a necessity to avoid harming hyperactive masses of children and recalcitrant teens. Constant pressure of arbitrary benchmarks and counterproductive testing makes teaching too often a matter of training children to surmount pointless hurdles rather than to relish all that is around us to be learnt. Battalions of demanding parents treat teachers as servants or miscreants, while administrative demands bow shoulders under an unbearable load. At night, while friends gather to socialise, teachers contemplate the preparation and marking that must be done. Metrics, data entry and reporting are constant nagging requirements.

Most young people would rather be playing or socialising, as any parent who tries to marshal unwilling offspring will tell you. Trying to galvanise the PlayStation, TikTok and Netflix generation to engage with lessons they resent is a constant demand on energy that leaves the teacher exhausted at the end of the day. The computer in the classroom (laptop, iPad or phone) will offer instant excitement compared to mastering the use of apostrophes.

Too many teachers are older, and could not have safely taught in the classroom during the pre-vaccine pandemic, with threats to their own health or those in their care at home. Nonetheless, the distance education option of the lockdown era was extraordinarily difficult and has brought back a generation of children of vastly different accomplishment. Some cannot sit still for a class’s duration while others were nurtured and extended by parents who had the time and capacity to do so.

Looking out for the mental wellbeing of students, while trying to meet impossible standards is a constant struggle. There are so many conflicting roles demanded of a teacher that day to day, they are worn away to bare bones.

There are few experiences as exhilarating as igniting the magic of excitement in young people about a new idea or a challenge mastered, but buried in the erosive rest, it is not enough to keep many teachers in the profession.

We are facing a teacher shortage at the moment, as a result of all these drains, with many deciding that there are much easier ways to pay the bills that don’t leave one a sickened wreck at the beginning of every holiday (before reengaging with the preparation for the following term).

So for the IPA to choose this moment to declare war on teachers is to shoot itself in the face. Who is going to provide childcare so that all the wage slaves can keep churning out the profits for its residual funders?

Bella D’Abrera is the voice of the IPA’s campaign on schools, Class Action, named in a threateningly legalistic fashion. In July, the IPA promoted an advertisement for the campaign on Facebook aiming to arouse average Aussie parents to work to control what is taught to their children. The linked video is labelled with a “Warning” with an accompanying warning logo, followed by “insane racial ideology at Aust schools.” The post claims that “Critical Race Theory”(CRT) is being taught at Australian schools. This is arrant nonsense. CRT is a university level discourse in some American law schools that aims to see where old racism is encoded in longstanding systems. This fabricated culture war battle over schooling was invented by Republican activist Christopher Rufo, who believed it offered a frightening sounding name that would galvanise ignorant Red-state parents.

The label is applied to any attempt to convey history in any but the most bowdlerised fashion to suit white bigots who will not hear any of the pain of the settler colonial experience. (In Britain the label is used to criticise any but the most celebratory account of the British Empire.) It is not about teaching guilt, as the IPA and radical right activists chant, but about teaching a more balanced view of history than most adults are aware existed. Our historical understanding is so partial because the history taught has been so sanitised.

D’Abrera also harps on about the “identity politics” taught in schools, and apparently fostered in universities, omitting the fact that there is one and only one identity they do want taught. Any allowance for diversity in schools is made the subject of hysterical scandal.

As Noel Turnbull pointed out here, schools are exciting and busy places, because of the hard work of teachers, with no sign of the perversion and shame that the IPA’s American gambit would have us believe.

D’Abrera is the director of the Foundations of Western Civilisation Program at the IPA. This program’s focus is an Orbanist dogwhistle, a polite version of the Great Replacement conspiracy that says Elites (Jewish people for the hardcore devotees) are consciously destroying western civilisation by importing people of colour and inculcating shame about the only truly worthwhile civilisation to have existed. Orban’s utter loathing of diversity – cultural and personal – is clearly visible throughout the IPA’s work.

The IPA has become a culture war factory with barely any research to justify the label “thinktank” and the tax perks it claims. Borrowing this particular culture war, however, is utterly self-defeating. The radical Republicans wish to destroy public education; their campaign to harass teachers and drive them out of the profession is productive in that light.

For more pragmatic Australians, as we saw in the worst of the pandemic, without teachers, work becomes extremely difficult.

This shortsightedness is a bizarre own goal looming for the IPA.

 

This was first posted on Pearls and Irritations as The IPA launches campaign to harass teachers. Why?

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“Family values” and fascist-leaning politics

The radical right, and in particular, Murdoch’s News Corp, are laundering the dirty ideas of the people deploying fascistic politics to make them seem normal “conservative” thought.

News Corp’s James Morrow recently said the quiet part out loud. In his News Corp column Fascist label for Italys PM misses the message” [paywalled] on the 28th September, he advised that “successful politicians on the right” around the world can offer Coalition politicians a game-plan for how to “cut through.” This would be less concerning if the politicians he used as models were not Italy’s Giorgia Meloni and Florida’s Ron De Santis.

Morrow disdained the label “fascist” for Meloni. He asserted that using it in her case is “to strip the word of any meaning and turns it into an epithet for anything more conservative than the most bland centre-right politics.” Whether the label itself fits her ideology, Morrow continues the radical right’s tendency to normalise the extremity of their position as merely right of centre. In this way most formerly centre-right Australians (and defeated Liberal politicians) become labelled left. The more progressive citizenry then become “socialists.” Thus is the neutered ABC denoted as activist left by the right. This constant effort to centre the Overton Window over their increasingly radical position aims to naturalise their ideology for the electorate.

Disguising this drift towards authoritarian politics as “normal” rather than a lurch towards fascism should frighten us all. We must resist the lure of that numbing repetition.

Morrow selected a number of positions held by Meloni (and De Santis) to celebrate as goals for Australian politicians. In particular, he selected: family, national identity, religious identity and gender identity.

Meloni and De Santis want national identity to be as close to monotone as possible: patriotic and uncritically supportive of a mythical nation that never existed in the way their nostalgia recreates it. In this lens, religious identity is intricately tied to that mythical national identity. Their nations are white Christian nations, they assert, whatever other versions of history will say. Anyone with a contrary story should remain invisible. There is little ambiguity in the fascist politics evoked by these dogwhistle terms.

Morrow wrote of targeting “high migration.” He is surrounded in Australian “conservative” politics by figures who proudly espouse western chauvinism and spruik elements of the “Great Replacement” conspiracy. More strident voices in this tribe, even on moderated Twitter, are discussing plans such as “when it is time to repatriate people en masse from Europe.”

In attempting to strip the “fascist” label from Meloni, Morrow aims Australian politicians at the European “traditionalists.” This, he believes, is the “bread and butter” politics that can “cut through” for families at home hoping for rescue from their children who need, apparently, to be deprogramed from “activist rot.”

His emphasis on “family” – and gender – is part of the Eastern European “traditionalist” ideology. Putin and Orban, like Meloni, both put defence of the family at the forefront of their missions. That aspect of their politics is at the core of De Santis’s repressive policies. De Santis is recorded as overtly copying these from Orban. The European “traditionalists” have worked with the “family values” religious right movement from America since the 1990s; it is not difficult for De Santis to bring them together.

To fight for “the family” sounds anodyne but is freighted with threat for many.

“Family values” for Meloni and De Santis, for Putin and Pence, means “traditional” sex roles with no deviation. Men are to be returned to their leadership of the home and the country (for all that the occasional woman manages to share power). Women are intended to abandon the civic space; their presence there is loathed as “feminism.” Abortion (and contraception) is targeted because it is seen as enabling women’s civic and sexual autonomy. It also entails the destruction of European seed for a faction that believes that Western civilisation is doomed and set to be overrun in the “Great Replacement” panic.

The greatest target for all these men, and Meloni, is gender and sexual fluidity. Just as the Third Reich aimed to purify the “sexually aberrant” from the Aryan people, these modern politicians target LGBTQI people more broadly, with the tiny trans community used as a vulnerable wedge to begin the campaign.

Selecting the targeted outsider to unify the mythologised nation is, again, classic fascist politics. While stripping women of reproductive autonomy, and the right to enter the civic space, is a threat to be feared, the implied violence (legal and physical) against the LGBTQI communities is far more concerning in the near-term. Putin uses the language of ridding Ukraine of its perverted western liberalism as part of his justification for war in the same year that American politicians have introduced over 240 hundred bills limiting the LGBTQI community. The Texan Attorney-General has said he would be “comfortable” allowing the Supreme Court to adjudicate his state’s defunct rule making homosexuality illegal. Preachers in America are demanding the right to execute, or have executed, LGBTQI people. There is no coexistence possible.

Morrow is not, to be clear, advocating that “conservative” politicians in Australia become fascist or make erasing LGBTQI Australians part of their platform. What he has said here, however, is that the way for Australian “conservative” politicians to “cut through” is to adopt the strategies deployed by their considerably more extreme international counterparts.

Morrow quoted Meloni bemoaning: why is the family an enemy? Why is the family so frightening?” The family is neither an enemy nor frightening, except in the besieged mindset embraced by the radical right. The deployment of the word “family” to mean that women must cede equality and, more urgently, that LGBTQI people must be erased is indeed frightening.

Losing solid gold Liberal seats to progressive candidates underlines that the Liberal Party has already absorbed far too many talking points, policies and strategies from the increasingly radical and religious international right. It is to be hoped that taking Morrow’s advice would continue this political decline.

This was first published in Pearls and Irritations as News Corp is normalising fascistic politics

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Accusations in a mirror: US warnings for Australian civil discourse

Extremist rhetoric from the ever-more radical right makes it impossible for their followers to see the facts about the centrist governments in America (and Australia). It prepares the ground for violence.

The New York Times has just released a study into the language used by a group of Republicans it labels “the objectors.” This is the radical posse that most stridently fights the fact that Biden won the election. Together with partisan media, this group of congressmen and women have done incalculable damage to the civic space in America, and may have broken it altogether. We have the same forces at work in Australia, battling to destroy our own democracy. The movement here is nascent, but so was the American version once.

The NYT report maintains a “both sides” faux “balance” throughout the article which makes it ludicrous reading to anyone paying attention. One side continues to play the political game as it evolved, despite decades of Republican efforts to destroy the Democrats’ ability to win at state and federal level. The other side is post-liberalism and post-democracy in its strategies and goals. Democrats who speak of Republican threats to democracy are describing the facts. For the article to leave that distinction to be inferred is cowardly or absurd.

Republicans who speak in extremist terms are, by contrast, deploying the genocidal authoritarian’s rhetorical ploy of “accusations in a mirror.” This term was coined in Rwanda, to describe the way a malign group gains popular support by deceiving its potential followers. The genocidal leader-in-making accuses the target group of planning the atrocities that the mass murderer actually intends to carry out. The target group is planning to massacre our villages, he says. In fact, he is arousing the frightened and enraged people to massacre the target group’s villages.

Republicans have long been riding the tiger of this extremist fringe. They have harnessed its fury and fear, but managed until recent years to keep it out of power. The enraged have now taken over the party, with traditional Republicans driven out of the vocation by constant death-threats if not shame.

The Democrats have been a centre-right political party by Australian standards and are only recently able to be described as centrist. It has a few outliers that are described as radical left for asking for the kinds of lifestyle that Australians have taken for granted. Supporting universal healthcare is hardly an extremist position; it is not that long ago that Australians enjoyed free tertiary education. Until recently, the Democrats have barely protested the decades of “ratfucking” the state Republicans have connived at, and the packing of the crucial Supreme Court (and the rest of the judiciary) that has been taking place. The Democrats have had the majority of the popular vote for the 7 out of the 8 most recent federal elections without the resultant gains. This is because of distortions such as needing to be 11 points ahead in the vote to win control of the House in 2018 for example, because of gerrymandering.

So to have the objectors describe the Democrats as radical is clearly inapt. It is in fact the same kind of gaslighting as Lachlan Murdoch seems to practise when he describes Fox News as “centre right.” (Although it may be that Murdoch genuinely is inculcated enough into the ideology of the radical right as to believe his description.) Murdoch’s assessment is belied by the fact the NYT study states that the objectors link to Fox News items at twice the rate of more traditional Republicans.

Elise Stefanik is the congresswoman who replaced Liz Cheney as the chair of the House Republican Conference, after switching from being a centrist Republican to a Trumpist. Stefanik described the Democrats in a tweet as making “their most aggressive move yet” which she calls a “PERMANENT ELECTION INSURRECTION.” She describes them as “America’s Last Marxists” who are “radically and systematically DESTROYING our country.” These terms and sentiments are echoed endlessly by her contingent and the media outlets that work alongside.

The “permanent election insurrection” evoked is the subject of the Great Replacement conspiracy. In this narrative, the Elites (code for Jewish people, although that is sometimes overt and sometimes elided) are bringing in hordes of non-white and non-Christian immigrants to replace the “native” population, meaning white Christians rather than First Nations of course.

This is rhetoric amplified regularly by Tucker Carlson with the Murdochs apparently acquiescent according to another NYT study. On the Murdoch’s television station, the Jewish element is omitted, but it is clear that the white nationalists and Neo Nazis who celebrate Carlson’s work know the code. This same rhetoric is far more overt on the less “mainstream” Right media outlets. (One, Newsmax, recently found its limit when former CBS journalist Lara Logan described the Replacement as “Satan’s way of taking control of the world” and also asserted that the Elites orchestrating this “dine on the blood of children.”) The constant messaging has created an America where roughly 7 in 10 Republicans believe demographic change is being intentionally orchestrated for political gains.

With the preference of the majority of US voters for live and let live social policies, the Democrats’ resultant support for libertarian social positions has given the radical right the main rhetorical weapon with which to thrash them. Republican politicians and their fellow-travelling media are depicting groups that are not “traditional” as a threat to Americans’ way of life. Not only are the non-white and non-Christian immigrants a danger, but the fact that they, feminists and LGBTQI people have demanded equality is apparently an existential crisis.

The rise of the overlapping Christian Nationalist (and/or Christian Fascist) movement has shaped the dialogue of the movement. They use literal “devil terms” to demonise the centre and left. The fight is presented as a metaphysical battle between good and evil and there can be no compromise.

Stochastic terrorism inspired by this terror-messaging has killed too many at synagogues, mosques, black churches and in minority neighbourhoods. Women have also been targeted by so-called incel terrorist attacks. The decades of work by the religious right to take over the Republican Party has come to fruition in the shutting down of access to abortion in great swathes of the nation (driven in part by the Great Replacement-provoked efforts to lift the homegrown birthrate). The same Great Replacement fears about fertility are part of the attacks on LGBTQI people that currently issue from the tweets, sermons, laws and violence of the right.

The fact that America has long birthed an armed militia movement on the Right makes it far more dangerous. The many armed veterans of the military and law enforcement arguably pose greater risk than the armed LARPers that expand their threat. The number of far right and activist veterans in Australia remains small but concerning.

The same rhetoric that prevails about Biden’s government is applied to the Albanese government here. Political and media figures lead the “devil terms” and they are echoed around social media. The government is “socialist” or even “communist” and “destroying our way of life.” The centre is described as rabid “left” and the left is depicted as an existential danger to “traditional” Australia. This ludicrous depiction of the centre by Coalition figures, by News Corp, by One Nation and the UAP, radically distorts their base’s thinking.

The same vulnerable groups targeted in the US are targeted here. A Queer event in a Melbourne park was recently intimidated by Neo Nazis as they regularly do in the US. While our radical right is, at this point, less of a threat to life, it is deeply inspired by the rhetoric and strategies of the American version. We must be alert to the future risks.

Australia lacks any substantial contrary media voice to counter the messaging from our largely right-leaning media. America is large enough to sustain a more varied voice to challenge this dystopian consensus.

For that reason, it is particularly dangerous to see the NYT aid the radical right by gaslighting readers, describing “both sides” as using extremist language. One side is actually describing the Republican’s extremism, whereas the other side is deploying the most dangerous of rhetorical tools. People have begun to die in what might come to be defined as the opening salvos of a new, messier civil war.

 

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That white man’s dystopia

When one belongs to the dominant group, it is very easy to define other people’s wellbeing as trivial. The ultimate identity politics in the west – that of the white Christian man – becomes invisible because it is “normal.” Other people have accents; we don’t. Other people have cultures; we just live our daily lives. Our needs are the only needs. It takes an effort to see beyond these inner certainties, and some strongly resent being asked to do so.

When a white Christian man experiences a career setback, some portray it as “dystopia.”

Andrew Thorburn abdicated from a leadership role at Essendon Football Club when asked to choose between it and another job. His decision to remain leading a church business has created an outpouring of fear and anger in the conservative punditry, and the social media commentariat.

Over and again disingenuous columnists in News Corp pages asserted that Thorburn was sacked for his “faith” or his membership of the church. Neither is true. Thorburn was offered the choice of which business he wanted to lead, as the two institutions, Essendon now felt, were incompatible.

Chris Kenny took the matter further raging that it is only Christians that are “fair game.” He asserts no conservative Muslim or Hindu would be treated in this way. The honest amongst us know that no conservative (or even liberal) Muslim or Hindu will be offered the position anytime soon. We also know that such a candidate with a leadership position at a conservative religious body would not be contemplated for an instant. The reason Essendon did not consider Thorburn’s other job an impediment is precisely because Christianity is dominant and taken for granted here.

Thorburn mourned that “my personal Christian faith is not tolerated or permitted in the public square.” This is incorrect. As he repeatedly pointed out, he manages to keep the less tolerant beliefs that his faith might dictate utterly private if he holds those views at all. It was the leadership role at a crusading church that provoked the temporary uproar and the choice he was given. Barney Zwartz inadvertently underscored this point. By asking why Dan Andrews can continue to lead Victoria as a Catholic if Thorburn could not lead Essendon, he illustrates what is clear to the rational: it is not the faith but the role that was in conflict.

The News Corp Dog Line howled over and over about how the hypocritical “priests of tolerance” were driving us into an almost Stalinist dystopia. Janet Albrechtson ludicrously thundered they would demand a “clean sweep of practising Catholics” from every institution. Kevin Donnelly sited the authoritarian left’s viciousness in their descent from the French Revolutionary Reign of Terror. Andrew Bolt declaimed that the “‘tolerance’ gestapo” and “‘diversity’ thugs” were damning Christians to Hell. Shannon Deery’s column repeats Victorian Opposition Leader, Matthew Guy, querying whether everyone would be banned from attending the services of their chosen faith. Operatic registers of imagined victimhood spilled over thousands of lines of print.

The ABC’s Ita Buttrose bemoaned that what had been a private matter – one’s faith – was now inescapably public. This is not, in general, the case. Leaders in Australian politics, business and social institutions are still mostly men, still mostly white, still mostly culturally Christian. Nobody comments on their church attendance or mere celebration of Christian festivals. The discussion about their faith arises when they are closely associated with a religious institution that would actively impinge on secular society and the rights of others.

Geraldine Doogue hosted a debate on the topic between the IPA Senior Fellow John Roskam and Dr Leslie Cannold. Roskam repeatedly dwelt on his frustration at liberals forcing social institutions and corporations to deal with politics.

The example that provoked one of these outbursts was telling. Doogue gave an example of some big American corporations choosing to pay for employees to travel to have an abortion because their resident state had banned the procedure. This offer might reflect that it is better economic sense for corporations to help employees end unwanted pregnancies, but it also underlines the crisis that Roskam reduces to “politics.”

Abortion is a life-or-death healthcare matter for those with the capacity to become pregnant. Around 800 people die each day from complications in pregnancy and childbirth, with 20 times as many seriously harmed. Some Republican-dominated American states have maternal mortality rates equivalent to the least safe nations. Doctors in Republican states are being recorded refusing to treat a failing pregnancy for fear of being arrested. Women in America have been monitored for menstrual cycles by “conservative” state officials to catch them pursuing a criminalised abortion. Pregnancy can also cripple an individual’s financial situation.

Access to abortion is not politics; bodily autonomy is at the core of our sense of self and wellbeing. The fact that a safe healthcare procedure has been made into a political weapon by men literally selecting the issue as the galvanising force of their Moral Majority political movement illustrates the manipulation. White supremacists and Men’s Rights activists both attend anti-abortion rallies because they know how effectively removing women’s bodily autonomy restricts women’s freedom and opportunities. It is not surprising that the same states banning abortion in America are beginning to talk about banning contraception. Without control of our reproductive functions, women and AFAB cannot be equal.

Anthony Segaert at Fairfax wrote of his pain at the Thorburn debacle. He knew he sounded foolish when he wrote he fears “could I be next?” He is indeed foolish. If an employee insists on expressing views in their workplace that make colleagues feel unsafe such as “Homosexuals are going to Hell,” they might indeed be censured, whatever their motivation. If they keep such beliefs to appropriate settings, nobody gives a damn.

For LGBTQI people, however, the fears are real. Neo Nazis conducted a protest with Nazi salutes at a park in Moonee Ponds in Melbourne recently. They were intimidating a youth Queer event, signalling their intent to bring the Christian Fascist terror from America to Australia, to drive LGBTQI people back into the closet (at least worst). The American politicians that share their beliefs are trying not only to reverse marriage equality but make homosexuality illegal. For LGBTQI Americans, the question is genuinely becoming “could I be next?”

After the marriage equality vote success, LGBTQI Australians spoke of the simple pleasure of being able to hold their partner’s hand in the street without feeling unwelcome or endangered.

Such trivial everyday actions are taken for granted by men such as Roskam. Other people’s life and death issues are just “identity politics” for them. The gains of the civil rights era and beyond impinge on their right to dictate hegemonic truths and that feels like an assault. Other people asking them to respect different lived experience is an imposition and threat.

A private faith can be succour and guidance, and a blessing. That kind of faith is not a matter for public discussion. It is a disingenuous tool of the culture war practitioners to cry foul, disguising a new more theocratic ideology as that “private faith.”

By preventing discussion of the religious and post-liberal right’s oppressive aims, they intend to muddy debate and allow the creeping threat to grow into the nightmarish situation so many Americans are facing.

We “others” exist, and we demand that our life and death struggles be considered without the usual suspects exploding into outraged expostulation that they are being forced to live in a diversity dystopia.

 

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Voting Liberal is neither liberal nor conservative

The parties of the right in Australia are changing faster than their voters might recognise. It is increasingly the case that a vote for the “conservatives” is a vote for the radical or religious right.

No doubt the leaders of the Liberal Party of Victoria are disturbed by the fact that Moira Deeming, their candidate for the Western Metropolitan Region seat is closely connected to an anti-choice rally set for this weekend, six weeks before the state goes to the polls.

The party has indicated that it wants to “pursue progressive social and environmental policies.” For a state that, as they acknowledge, would require a “genuine, modern alternative” government, this is likely to be imperative.

The Victorian Liberals expelled Bernie Finn, Deeming’s predecessor and mentor, to signal that they would not stand for the radical right populism he aims to foment, in particular anti-abortion comments. Awkwardly for them, the branch selected Deeming, noted for her anti-abortion and TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism, more accurately depicted as Feminism-Appropriating Radical Transphobe or FART) statements.

Finn and Deeming are intimately connected with the organisation. He founded it five years after abortion was decriminalised in Victoria, aiming to recriminalise it, with his organisation at the forefront of the battle. Deeming stepped down as secretary last year, but was previously prominent, and continues her activism post-preselection. Amongst the key statements on the march’s Facebook page are claims that it is “never ok to slaughter a child” and “Let’s make Victoria like Arizona” after that US state made the medical procedure illegal. The implication can only be that this group aims ultimately to plant the most extreme Christian Nationalist abortion bans from American states in Australia’s civil soil.

Not only is “March for the Babies” intending to strip women of our bodily autonomy, but it is also closely connected to far-right and white supremacist activists. They are on film attending the marches, but in 2018 Finn even hired these notorious figures as his bodyguards* for the event. Deeming’s connection to the extreme anti-abortion movement, as well as her activism against Safe Schools and writing in support of Conversion Therapy, reinforces that her transphobic activism is based in extremist Christianity, not feminism. This movement aims to erase LGBTQI people from the public space. The coordination of oppressive Christianity with its western chauvinist cultural deployment is a common pairing in the international religious right.

Denominational branch-stacking is an old tradition in Australia, but as the religious right problem around the world becomes more extreme, the attack on “conservative” branches here grows more concerted. Nondenominational Christian lobby groups such as the Australian Christian Lobby illustrate how radical the positions are becoming. International experience shows that these forces are content to work with cultural conservatives such as transphobes in order to broaden their appeal.

Becoming a target for motivated religious groups, pushing preselection of less moderate candidates is only half the problem for the Victorian party in making sure that it can be a genuine “modern” option.

The other is that the radical right nature of the Liberal Party – and its National Party colleagues – around the nation is functioning as an employment ad to people driven by immoderate goals.

Brian Klaas has spent years interviewing and researching the personality type of people who misuse power from the petty tyrant in the office to nations’ authoritarian leaders. His book Corruptible is well worth reading for an insight into the proposition that the LNP, the Republicans and the Tories have declined beyond redemption.

One powerful example that Klaas uses to illustrate the impact of a literal professional advertisement is the police force. Naturally, this job wrongly done can be much bloodier than a politician’s, so the similarities are not equivalent.

Klaas contrasts two extreme examples of police career advertising to make his point. On one hand, New Zealand aimed to address the problem of the wrong people choosing a police career by creating a campaign that featured humour, a diverse array of backgrounds and a focus on a job as a support to the community. The campaign was a huge success, attracting women, Maori and people from other non-white groups to join in substantial numbers. Now the police are much more likely to look like the people they are policing, and the outcomes are similarly better.

The most extreme American ad came from Georgia. A small town website posted a recruitment video that began with the Punisher logo (a violent vigilante figure beloved on the extreme right) and continued with military vehicles, smoke grenades and firing with military-style weapons to the soundtrack of “Die MF die.”

The people who self-select for this police force are not the same people who select for the NZ version where people who return dogs to grateful owners or help hungry street kids are the personalities celebrated.

This is clearly a much more extreme career path than politics. The people harmed by politicians are usually separated by many layers of public service and are much harder to link causally to parliamentary and administrative decisions.

But the echo of the lesson remains: when a coalition of parties advertises itself as the home of self-interest and the celebration of prejudice and cruelty, who is likely to self-select? Klaas’s study suggests it is more likely to be people belonging to the “dark triad personality” type, already drawn to power.

The dark triad personality illustrates elements of the overlapping narcissistic, Machiavellian and sociopathic personalities. The impact is described thus: “People with these traits tend to be callous and manipulative, willing to do or say practically anything to get their way. They have an inflated view of themselves and are often shameless about self-promotion. These individuals are likely to be impulsive and may engage in dangerous behaviour—in some cases, even committing crimes—without any regard for how their actions affect others.”

The treatment of Australians in scandals such as the Robodebt trial; our First Nations people in general; and the extremity of cruelty meted out to asylum-seeking refugees over the last decade all illustrate decisions that might have been made by people acting out of these personality traits. The fact that the scarifying treatment of refugees was the point, and that rotten publicity was welcomed for its deterrent effect, underlines the distorted thinking at work. We were intended to be – and be famous for being – worse than the Taliban, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the genocidal Burmese and Sri Lankan armies.

It is hard to imagine wholesome people wanting to ally themselves with this brand. It is also hard to imagine them wanting to immerse themselves in a workplace filled with people happy to harm others.

This is not to argue that any other party is free of these characters, but all the rational parties do not market themselves as the party of cruelty, greed and memelord trolling of the vulnerable.

Most of the decent Liberals have left after failing to prevent the descent into radicalism. Indeed, their federal vice-president celebrated their departure as a cleansing of so-called “lefties” within the party at CPAC Australia recently. Their coalition partners have not shown such caution, maybe hoping that they can rescue their party from the trolls yet.

It is hard to know how Australia’s “conservative” parties can rescue themselves from this spiral of awfulness. In the meantime, their voters must know what is at stake.

*One of those “bodyguards” is alleged to have been amongst the group of Neo Nazis throwing the Hitler salute while protesting a youth LGBTQI gathering in a Moonee Ponds, Melbourne park. This is an echo of the Christian Fascist/Nationalist intimidation of many LGBTQI events around America in Pride Month 2022.

This was first published on Pearls and Irritations as Liberal candidate supports US-style abortion ban ahead of state poll

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Why we must not tolerate intolerance

Explain to your conservative friends that we are very accepting of their religion as long as it doesn’t impose its rules on the rest of us. Fostering religious intolerance is untenable in a secular society; America shows us the harms.

The Essendon Football Club chaotic appointment of a new CEO has stimulated a tantrum over martyrdom on the Right. As the Australian Financial Review’s Joe Aston pointed out, President Dave Barham’s attempt at due diligence over Andrew Thorburn’s appointment was appalling. Not only is Thorburn a “disgraced former ASX 10 company CEO” (his italics), but a man who appears to have used his management of the club CEO selection process to advantage his own candidacy.

The “rotten culture” that “flowed from the top” at the NAB is surely not the culture that Essendon wishes to import after its own scandals. Barham is, perhaps, the man who more urgently needs to leave the club.

As for Thorburn’s “fire and brimstone side hustle,” it is a matter of great frustration. The “conservative” punditry do not need any excuse to work themselves into a frothing frenzy. Given Essendon’s mission statement about its own inclusive nature as an organisation, it is surprising that the club would contemplate appointing anyone reflecting a conservative religious outlook to the position. The fact that they were willing to continue the contract with Thorburn as a member of the controversial church, just not as its chairman, suggests a greater openness to faith commitments than the enflamed commentators would like to admit.

Accepting Pentecostal figures (even ones under the umbrella of the Anglican Church) in leadership positions in our nation is something we need to understand. These tend not to be regular churchgoers who practise a private faith. Pentecostal churches have a mission not compatible with secular society, and their agenda is the control (and purification) of all branches (or mountains) of the secular world.

Pentecostal churches have mostly embraced the Millennial ideology. This belief states that Christ is due to return to rule for a millennium’s rule. The only obstruction is the sinfulness of the world. Every choice nonbelievers make must be constrained to suit their stringent interpretation of Christian morals. Every climate catastrophe is merely proof that End Times are here and they need to impose their morality upon us even more urgently.

According to Pentecostal beliefs women ought to be in the home, breeding. Control of our own bodies or failure to be submissive to men, is abhorrent. There is no scope for LGBTQI people in this world. Any action or speech in support of equal existence for Queer people is sinful, even demonic.

In America, more politicians (or aspirants) are seeking to impose total bans on abortion, and even on contraception. More preachers are expressing the idea that LGBTQI people should not just be erased from public life but killed. The Supreme Court is working to assist these worldviews, and Republican politicians campaign on them.

If we are describing Thorburn’s decision to step down as being “cancelled,” it is much less obnoxious than the cancelling of women’s and LGBTQI equality. Furthermore, Pentecostalism is totally intolerant of the validity of other faiths. Only their own (often unhinged) beliefs are valid and moral. It is also, in its Western versions, entwined with White Supremacy. There is no tolerance in Pentecostal teachings for other cultures, with First Nations’ cultures taught to be demonic.

This is not to say that Andrew Thorburn himself holds to any of these views. Anglican Pentecostalism may be somewhat more moderate. The point stands, however, that Pentecostal leaders in the civic space are a new phenomenon in Australia and we need to understand what we take on when we accept their cry that we may not be “intolerant” of their beliefs.

We need to read Australian journalist Elle Hardy’s investigation into the Pentecostal movement, Beyond Belief. She illustrates the scope of the international threat posed by the fashion: not only are 25 to 30% of Christians around the world now Pentecostal, but it is growing fast. They are businesses – or grifts – as much as religious movements, promoting oppressive social beliefs and allied with many of the authoritarian regimes ascendant.

Pentecostalism is metastasising, and as with Thorburn’s church, is invading the traditional churches. Rural Catholics are being brought to Hillsong’s covert Alpha groups by their parish priest. In Nigeria, even some Mosques are adopting Pentecostal strategies. This lively, energetic form of worship is far more attractive than the pew-snoozing religion with which many Australians were raised.

The speed of the Pentecostal movement’s growth means we need to be informed. Scott Morrison’s intrusions of religion into parliament have raised the discussion, despite traditional journalists lagging behind the urgent need. We can no longer say that “a man’s faith is his own business” when that faith demands the imposition of intolerant rules on the secular majority.

While the Right bemoans that the majority is cancelling their Christianity, we must counter that argument. It is not a faith that gives you spiritual comfort and guidance that the majority questions. It is a faith that denies the rest of us our well-being that we cannot accept.

America is showing us that a liberal democracy can move quickly towards becoming an authoritarian theocracy when outlier ideas come to dominate “conservative” politics. The USA has granted Australia the time to see what the movement does to civil society, and to decide whether irritating the Right by being “intolerant” of intolerance is necessary.

 

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Australia might be saving our democracy. Can the UK and US?

Almost precisely a year ago, John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations published an essay by this author entitled, “Think tanks have put British democracy at risk.” It was part of a trio of essays that explored the concept of “competitive authoritarianism” in Australia, the UK and the US.

Competitive authoritarianism is a most useful term to help understand how nations that consider themselves democratically governed can become illiberal or even authoritarian in nature. It was devised by two academics, Levitsky and Way in 2002. They described nations where the competitive process in elections still takes place. There is still the prospect of the incumbent losing. The scales, however, become by fits and starts almost insuperably weighted in the incumbent’s favour.

The academics use the analogy of a sporting field firmly tilted towards one side’s goal, with the referees working for the empowered team. The misuse of government money and partisan appointments are compounded by disinformation with a partisan media amplifying the government’s propaganda.

Lies, rorts and partisan appointments overwhelming statutory bodies are all familiar to Australians. The May election marked us as lucky. In part, our electorate is becoming increasingly jaded about the pro-government messaging of corporate media (and the battered national broadcaster). More protective still, however, is the strong system that operates our democracy. Ranked choice voting, compulsory preferential voting and an independent electoral commission are all factors that helped us pause the democratic decay, allowing us time to re-evaluate.

This week, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus introduced his integrity body, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC). While the model has one substantial flaw, it is incomparably better than the previous government’s bogus version. More importantly, the AG’s office plans this body to be part of an integrity framework that addresses a number of the issues that put our democracy in such danger of decaying towards illiberalism. There are many forces that make this project difficult, not least pressures such as the one that had the limitation of “exceptional circumstances” crippling the ability to stage public hearings inserted into the NACC at the last minute.

As Australians saw in the AAT, cynical governments have the capacity to pervert bodies intended to act in a disinterested fashion. This fate could beset the NACC in future governments not committed to the democratic contest. The current design allows the government to appoint the NACC’s commissioner as well as to control the balance of power in the parliamentary committee that supervises it. While the post-democracy party is in opposition, that is a useful protection. When the post-democracy party takes office, it becomes risky. The government committee controls the body’s budget too, and in this way can limit the function of the commission, just as they tried to cripple the Auditor-General.

Both our powerful friends in the anglosphere are in considerably more urgent danger. Joe Biden’s Democrats face a crucial midterm election in a few weeks that might, if all the dice roll in their favour, enable them to take the steps to protect the USA from becoming a Christian Nationalist illiberal nation. Authoritarianism looms.

The first two years of Biden’s term have been crippled by only nominally holding the balance of power in the Senate. Technically Kamala Harris’s vote should break ties in the Democrat’s favour. Functionally two senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, have been playing for the Republican team, scuppering attempts to reform and protect their flawed democracy, hanging on by threads.

The hope is that Republican overreach in overturning Roe v Wade in the Supreme Court, with more threats of reactionary social oppression to come, might stimulate enough voter interest to overwhelm all the structural disadvantages faced by the Democrats. The results will be watched with bated breath.

Disastrous plunges in the British pound this week have signalled the crash and burn intent of dedicated ultra-free market Prime Minister Liz Truss and her academic economist Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng. The 2021 essay’s list of competitive authoritarian features in the UK government has become more extensive since then. Now, ultra libertarian ideologues have gone further than even their thinktank provocateurs observe is wise.

The crashing of the economy is not an accident. It is intentional and part of the extended plan should the government survive long enough to implement it. Cutting tax for the rich and robbing the government of the money it needs to function is part of killing statism. If there is no money to spend, the government must be shaved back to bloodied bones.

Brexit was born of the misery and anger forged from austerity measures that followed the 2008 global crash. Brexit has, in turn, compounded the economic misery of the British, augmented by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the pandemic. The idea that the Conservative government should crash the economy to restructure it based on more austerity appears foolhardy.

The whispered corollary for many ultra-free market spruikers is that the masses must suffer. The supply side or trickle-down economics being practiced by Truss and Kwarteng has long been established to be a farce based on faulty – or motivated – reasoning. It is clear that the more free market policies implemented, the more the UK, US and Australia have seen inequality mount with the rich and the masses divided by a chasm of social immobility.

This British experiment will show whether ultra free market ideology looks closer to fascism in practice. Surveillance and suppression of the suffering masses, as government cuts services, looks likely to be the result. Priti Patel’s time in the Home Office crushing the right to protest will become invaluable.

Truss is, as the 2021 essay forecast, entirely immersed in the world and personnel of the billionaires’ ultra free market lobby groups masquerading as thinktanks. Her Chancellor is an ideologue and true believer in the message. The “thinktanks” face the moment of testing: who was the liberty for that they championed? Only the Ultra High Net Worth class and their High Net Worth enablers?

Both the UK and the US stand on the brink of something unthinkable a decade ago. Australians must fight to ensure that our radicalised right (and the “thinktanks” that foster the internationally-networked radicalisation) don’t take us back down that path. We have a chance to rebalance the playing field. Will our right resume playing the game as a contest, or continue to try to trash the field?

 

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In celebration of integrity advocates and (mostly) the NACC

For many leaders of the legal profession and the federal integrity advocacy groups, the last two days have been a whirlwind of activity in Parliament House in Canberra.

It was in a triumphant moment, although it didn’t always feel like it. To sit together in the public gallery and see a man of integrity, Attorney General Mark Dreyfus, introduce his legislation to the House was a moment that crowned years of dedication by a number of individuals and bodies. It felt like an oddly matter-of-fact event to crown so much hard work. It was also a signal that the battle for the best model continues.

Dreyfus has introduced a potent model. It is an actual, strong anti-corruption commission. Unlike the previous government’s CIC, it can begin to challenge practices that have wasted billions of dollars the nation demands are spent for the general good, not political advantage. The cynical abuse of government norms has also damaged democracy. Dreyfus and his Attorney General’s department have designed the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) to be part of a framework of instruments that will prevent corruption as well as detect and address it when it occurs.

When The Australia Institute (TAI) first instituted the Judges Committee in 2017 (now the National Integrity Committee), they organised interviews with the ABC. Reporter Matt Peacock asked them what they were pursuing. When the response was a federal anti-corruption body, he burst out with “Buckleys!” Peacock appeared astounded that the judges were able to start listing matters that needed investigation. Even so recently, it was possible to imagine that Australia had no real corruption problem, that it was an issue for less honourable nations.

Integrity advocates take their first look at the NACC. Author’s photograph

The Accountability Round Table (ART), founded in 2012, brought together leading former judges, academics, former public servants and politicians as well as senior practicing lawyers to provide a think tank for the problems and solutions. Its roster is full of the stars of the field. Transparency International’s Australian branch, and professors, integrity commissioners and more around the nation have campaigned to establish that this fight for integrity and accountability is crucial.

The TAI’s dynamo, Han Aulby, went on to found the Centre for Public Integrity (CPI) in 2019 which has proved amongst the strongest forces placing integrity on the electorate’s list of key concerns. Han’s constant work to make sure the most expert people explained to the media and the public the utter centrality of government integrity has been both crucial and inspirational. Anthony Whealy KC is the chair of its board of directors and one of its most prominent voices.

Representatives of the groups also met with Simon Holmes a Court, convincing him to add integrity to the concern for climate and women’s representation in politics forming the tripartite platform that underpinned the Climate 200 mission. Representatives went on to make themselves available to educate the new independent candidates on the nature of the integrity problem and the best solutions.

In March this year, Stephen Charles AO KC (ART, CPI, TAI Judges Committee) and Catherine Williams (CPI researcher) published Keeping them Honest. This book set out the case for a federal anti-corruption commission. In his forward, a lion of the Australian legal profession Sir Gerard Brennan AC, KBE, former justice of the High Court, explained why men and women of a profession trained towards reticence were speaking up with such vigour, in the face of the professional character, not to mention sneers by members of their profession, politicians and the “conservative” media.

Brennan observed, “Judges and former judges do not usually enter the public political arena. The judiciary does not have a political agenda. Its function is to resolve disputed facts and to apply the law to the facts as found, unaffected by political influence. Lest intervention on political issues might seem inconsistent with political independence, even former judges usually abstain from political comment. But corruption that erodes honest administration and the disregard for the rule of law in the pursuit of political power are not issues about which former judges must or should be silent. They are issues that affect the social health of the community.”

Stephen Charles with Geoffrey Watson speaking at a press conference on the NACC introduction to parliament. The author’s own photograph

I assisted Stephen Charles, my father, in the writing of his section of the book. I have watched him tirelessly push the issue for over a decade in his retirement. The disappointment in seeing his researched and deliberate recommendations for Victoria’s IBAC become a neutered version in Ted Baillieu’s model. The relief at seeing Dan Andrews’ government strengthen it. The further disappointment that the Andrews amendments included the words that public hearings must only take place in “exceptional circumstances” which continues to cripple it, and which the Commissioner is fighting hard to have parliament remove. Endless interviews and op-eds and panels and lobbying. Educating post-graduate legal students on the matter in university courses. For those of us around him, this moment is an unspeakable relief. He is not an attention-seeker, whatever his peers – and the News Corp journalists in their ad hominem attacks – have said. He is a man who cares deeply that Australia does not allow our government to dissolve into the corruption and chaos that were beginning to overwhelm the norms and practices and regulations instituted to prevent them.

As soon as the integrity advocates emerged from the Chamber yesterday, they were handed the legislation and explanatory memorandum. In that moment, and then in a (generous) MP’s office, they began poring over the fine print of the legislation, looking for the successes but more importantly, the flaws, big or small, that need fixing before the body’s design becomes law.

Integrity advocates see the NACC legislation for the first time immediately after the legislation was introduced. Author’s own photograph

They are mostly impressed by Dreyfus’s achievement. This is a good day in Australia’s history. There are flaws present, and it is strongly hoped that there is scope to make improvements, but this is a good bill. Mark Dreyfus has earned his role through merit, and this achievement, despite doubts in his own caucus as well as resounding opposition from the Opposition until recently, must be noted.

The body will need a third more in its budget than has been allocated to do the job properly. (The previous government tried to cripple the Auditor-General’s office by starving it of funds, but this did not stop it from exposing the historic scope of the rorts that helped bring the Morrison government down.) There is some concern that the attempt to prevent the body from being overwhelmed with work by excluding outside forces working to corrupt the system will be problematic in the years to come. (The AFP has not proved itself able to cover the gap there.) Legal privilege has too much protection, taking a hearing into private territory, which is not the preferred practice in this kind of body. Whether the media is properly protected must be determined. The ability to search parliamentary offices without a warrant is uncertain (with potentially less power than the Auditor-General possesses.)

These are relatively minor quibbles. The main flaw was clearly added at the last moment since, as the drafting of legislation goes, this is a clumsy fit.

That public hearings should take place only in “exceptional circumstances” was described by a regular counsel-assisting in ICAC proceedings CPI director as an intentional “brake” on public hearings rather than a protection. It is a term that is as imprecise, Geoffrey Watson SC continued, as the length of a piece of string. It will grant well-resourced targets the immediate tactic of taking their investigation to court to argue that the matter is not “exceptional.” The definition will fall to the whims of judges at first instance or on appeal. The delay might last two years as it travels through the levels to the High Court. In the process of proving that the investigation is of an “exceptional” character, the investigators will have to reveal their case and evidence, giving the target a substantial advantage and perhaps the ability to scupper the investigation.

Public hearings are crucial to anti-corruption bodies. They prove to the public that corruption is not acceptable and is being addressed. They bring out new witnesses that did not know the matter was being investigated. They educate public servants and politicians – as well as the people who would do business with them – where the limits lie.

The preferred test for a public hearing is whether it is in the public interest. This provision allows the commissioners to determine whether there is too much danger – to reputation or health – to instigate a hearing in public. This test, with its listed caveats, is very properly in the legislation, in conflict with the “exceptional circumstances” clause. The problem could be solved by merely striking out that awkward and problematic clause.

The Opposition is arguing strongly (with some honourable support in other parts of parliament) that suicide is the risk. While there have been tragic cases of this nightmarish outcome in corruption investigations, they are few. One of the noted cases took place when the hearing was to be private. Another would likely have faced police investigation and possible charges if an anti-corruption body did not exist to investigate the circumstances.

We do not grant accused criminals the right to private trial in the criminal courts, and it seems odd to the experts that the matter of corruption should be treated otherwise.

The government and media friends have argued that pork-barrelling is business as usual in politics. This is cynicism of the highest order. There are bodies, structures and systems in place to assess applications for public money. When a government overrides all these to the detriment of the best and most needy applicants primarily for political benefit, this is corruption. It is an utterly different matter from taking care of one’s electorate for the public good and with properly spent public money. To argue otherwise is both disingenuous and disgraceful. The fact that it is argued by the very forces that proclaim themselves the best guardians of taxpayers’ money is one of the most outrageous aspects of their argument. They wasted tens of billions of dollars over the last two elections with slush funds of public money for the purpose. The electorate established that this is as unacceptable to us as it is to the integrity advocates.

Stephen Charles is interviewed live by Virginia Trioli on ABC 774 as the advocates prepare to enter the public gallery to see the NACC legislation being introduced. The author’s own photograph

The explanatory memorandum to the NACC defines an “accountable authority” as matching the one given in the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act (2013) where the definition of the proper use of public resources is defined. According to the act, proper use is “efficient, effective, economical and ethical.” The emphasis on “ethical” should be heartening to the electorate.*

As the legal wonks and their shepherd, Han Aulby, raced from media interviews to being briefed by the AG’s department or briefing the cross-bench and Shadow Attorney-General, the pace took on the feel of a television episode of some thriller where nobody has time to breathe. They hope that the cross-bench, and public sentiment, informed by honourable journalists like David Crowe and Laura Tingle, will make it uncomfortable for the people who forced Dreyfus to include the unwieldy provision.

Whether or not this change is made, Mark Dreyfus’s department, with its plans for an integrated integrity framework, has begun a profoundly important movement to revive good governance in Australia. We owe Dreyfus the time to acknowledge the scope of that mission.

*It was Howard Whitton of the ART and a public sector ethics specialist that noticed this key detail. http://classic.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/cth/num_act/pgpaaa2013432/s8.html#public_resources

 

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The Right Wing disinfosphere and the King

There is set to be some anxiety in monarchist groups in the community as they reconcile the ascent of King Charles III to the throne with their fear. Even in educated hard right circles like The Spectator Australia’s readership, conspiracy theories about him are evident.

In the “Flat White” online part of The Spectator Australia in July, an anonymous column was posted about “Prince Charles’ ‘Great Reset.’”

The Great Reset is conspiracy theory that argues that the World Economic Forum Davos set are billionaires planning a Green totalitarian takeover. The name is derived from a WEF plan (repackaging the standard Davos message) released in June 2020 promoting sustainable development in the economic reset provoked by the pandemic. It encouraged “green growth, smarter growth and fairer growth.” The then Prince Charles was used as the face of it in the promotional video at its launch.

The Spectator column argues that the Climate Emergency is an “excuse” created “as a non-negotiable reason to dismantle the free market and democratic governance.” The author posits that governments are using Net Zero to destroy the agricultural sector and rip wealth from the middle and working classes who will then be forced to depend on handouts.

The core of the author’s vitriol is saved for “stakeholder capitalism,” a concept that is a key to the Great Reset and sustainable economics. It is the (flawed) model where businesses are pressured towards cleaner practice by ESG scores. Environmental, Social and Governance metrics are intended to balance Milton Friedman’s impact on shareholder capitalism that dictates profit is the only responsibility. These ideas are, according to the column, socialism.

The new King was, by this account, not just enacting a “betrayal of the ordinary citizen,” but of the system and his role: “to protect the constitutional monarchy from rising climate fascism and globalism (also known as international socialism).”

The author believes capitalists and entrepreneurs can solve any problems without government “climate cult” interference. The widespread failure to help Australian regions beset by bushfires and floods over the pandemic moment has been superseded by the image of 1/3 of Pakistan under water and over 30 million people homeless and without food. America’s West Coast is in dire water peril with cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix existentially threatened. The facts would seem to contradict the author’s contention. No plucky entrepreneur is likely to fix this.

The comments beneath the column are filled with more overt conspiracy theory rhetoric of this kind: “the mainstream media is owned and controlled by these same WEF loving globalists” and the “takeover agenda” of the WEF. According to these posts, the Number of the Beast was apparent in Great Reset materials. There are many reasons to disdain the self-satisfied posturing of the WEF set, but the label “fascist totalitarians” is a stretch, and the belief that they are satanic is ludicrous.

The adjective “globalist” signifies part of the association of the Great Reset conspiracy. As with so much of the “conspiracy smoothie” that has suppurated out from QAnon over the pandemic era, this term denotes the antisemitism at work. Globalists and lizard people terminology (also in play about the Royal Family) are coded antisemitism. Toxic ideas about “elites” (more antisemitism) creating a pandemic and using mandates and vaccines to destroy society in a number of different ways are at the heart of the narrative. Elite-controlled paedophilia, the QAnon central panic, is also implicit in some versions of the conspiracy.

On the swamps of social media, the “elites” are weather-engineering the floods on Australia’s east coast to displace the residents and build “smart cities” as part of the WEF “high-tech dictatorship.” A number of ugly responses to the Queen’s demise in these spaces illustrate that they placed her in the evil “elite” category.

The Great Reset conspiracy, depicting climate action as socialism linked to the WEF, emerged from the Heartland Institute. This “thinktank” at the core of the climate denial industry is a feeder of ideas into the right wing disinfosphere. Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News has been a major amplifier of the fear mongering about the Great Reset and its looming socialism to be imposed by Green “elites.”

Naturally what Fox mainstreams, so too does Sky News Australia. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue has used Great Reset conspiracy theories as a case study on disinformation in 2022 Australian politics. They highlight the absurd rhetoric on Sky, where billionaires are Marxists aiming to destroy capitalism. Sky After Dark echoed Tucker Carlson and other Fox talking heads in aiming to foment hysteria about this threat to freedom. Rowan Dean described the WEF as “a hardcore leftist eco-horror show replete with quasi fascism” and the Great Reset as an end to democratic rights with a society ruled by the elite.

Pauline Hanson then introduced the Great Reset to Parliament. Ralph Babet, Clive Palmer’s $100 million dollar senator, touted reading Glenn Beck’s 2022 book The Great Reset on Facebook on the 3rd of September. (Beck apologised in 2014 for ‘helping tear the country apart” in his time fearmongering on Fox News and talkback radio. In 2021, he retracted the apology on Fox, returning to the grift.)

So social media spreads pictures of King Charles being poked in the chest by a Rothschild to convey a more blatantly anti-Semitic form of this conspiracy being promoted by Sky. The Spectator Australia funnels it into the educated right they are radicalising. All seem happy to portray the Davos billionaires, who are prinking up their free market capitalism with decorative furbelows of social justice posturing, as agents of capitalism-destroying totalitarianism.

Any attempt to create climate action that might mitigate the horrors of the worst version of the climate crisis is thus immediately discredited as a form of Great Reset oppression. Right wing Americans are taught to fear the Green New Deal as a communist threat that would rob them of all their rights. Disasters in Australia that could provoke the public to pressure for action are remodelled as the work of the elites or pretexts for totalitarianism.

This battle between the billionaires who want no action taken and the billionaires who would like to appear to be doing something without doing anything is thus transformed into an existential struggle between freedom-loving battlers and a totalitarian progressive elite.

And so King Charles’s history of support for environmental projects and sustainable development has drawn the many conspiracies about his family into the Great Reset horror. The very people most keen to display their respect for the crown are torn by their climate denial loathing of anyone promoting policy to address the crisis. It will be interesting to see how they reconcile their ambivalence.

This was originally published at Pearls and Irritations as Murdoch, the Prince/King and conspiracy theories

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