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Category Archives: AIM Extra

The wages of pollution tax

By John Haly

How is it that recent parliamentary bloodletting over tax breaks and electricity pricing continues to detract from steady planetary exsanguination?  Are we now to accept that farm tours, milk levies and infrastructure spends are to be the ready tourniquets for our Australian economy?  The political focus on Tax breaks to increase wage rates while the world’s climate renders economics a mute subject, for a planet less habitable, is a distraction we probably can’t afford long-term.  The political rhetoric around these subjects is diversionary, and there is little truth expressed in the alleged relationships between these subjects.

Wages Stagnate

Wage stagnation has a long historical path dating back decades with the dismantling of industrial relations and neo-liberal politics from both Labor and Liberal governments.  Nowadays, even the ordinarily conservative mainstream media is conceding that wage growth is stagnating in Australia and the cost of living accelerating beyond even the means of the employed.  The costs of living in Australia are not at all aided by the increasing costs inherent in power bills (if we are still able to maintain a home) or food (irrespective of where we sleep at night).

All classes of income suffer near identical CPI cost rises

CPI measures a broader range of costs faced by the public, but the news is grim for every income source.  It is worse although than what is illustrated by CPI measures. In general, the CPI fails to account for substitution and it also fails to factor in the price of housing and the cost of financing. Housing has increased at a disproportionate rate until very recently. The signs of foreign buyers falling in the market were identified back at the end of 2016 when Australia suffered a GDP decline in the 3rd quarter of 2016. Though the fall in housing prices is not expected to stop anytime soon, the cost of housing relative to wages will continue to be unaffordable for increasing numbers of wage earners.

Wage rate changes diminishing

Beyond the broad-ranging statistics many of the embedded linked articles in the paragraph above, there are some interesting reflections by business magnate Dick Smith as his food business faces closure.  Dick Smith blamed Aldi and Amazon for the demise of his business revenue. He suggested these enterprises had “forced him out of business” because they can sell at a meagre cost.  Many in social media lamented this iconic Aussie brand’s impending demise, but few dug deeper to be asking why it was customers could not afford the luxury of supporting Australian products.  In a country where over 3 million live below the poverty line, there is an established class of the working poor, a depletion of income by the abolition of penalty rates, a diminishing middle class; it is no wonder people can not afford the indulgence of supporting iconic Aussie brands. The “demand” may diminish along with the profits, which leads to the Tax debate.

Tax Debate

Instead of raising the minimum wage, reinvigorating penalty rates, or a cessation on undermining the manufacturing industry and public service, only “significant” solution to low wages and the tide of unemployment offered by the coalition is Tax incentives that predominately benefit one class of Australians – the already very wealthy. The presumption that wealth and employment will Trickle down from corporations to the public is an economic theory without any real-world evidence and plenty that it does anything but trickle down.

Productivity and wages unlinked

Providing Tax breaks enables companies to retain more profit for the business, pay dividends, engage in share buybacks (as they have in America following Trump’s tax breaks) and store profits in offshore tax havens such as Luxembourg, Bermuda, the British Caribbean, Panama or our former Prime Minister’s favourite, the Cayman Islands. Companies exist to benefit shareholders or have everyone in the Liberal party forsaken the demand requirements of business economics? Newly minted Prime Minister Morrison’s shift to small and medium businesses for his tax breaks reflects only the inability for him to pass the breaks for larger companies through the Senate. One presumes that smaller businesses, like Dutton’s childcare services, will not just benefit from direct subsidies from the government, but now, generous tax cuts.  Is one to presume that Mr Dutton will begin to pay his workers larger salaries?

No business employs anyone for which there is not a demand created for sales or a regulatory imposition that they do so.  Unless it is a not-for-profit NGO, it’s not a charity. If the existing demand for the company’s goods and/or services doesn’t initiate the need for employment, then no job vacancies are created. Demand is reduced when the public can not afford your products and/or services. A depressed economy where the people have low wages and little resources creates diminished demand which is the reflections of the Australian retail market when business is down.  Fortunately rising population (predominately via migration), and employment (even though at a diminishing rate and increasingly often part-time employment) keeps money flowing in the economy for retail sales to ebb and grow, although lately only at 0.4%. Amazingly, without real-world evidence, trickle-down economics is still “selling” to the public mindset. Unfortunately, “trickling” of any sort is in short supply in drought-ravaged Australia.

Climate Mitigate

The trepidatious concerns of the conservative political pundit are that climate change mitigation risks harming the economy. Despite the apparent value inherent in jobs and demand in the renewable energy industry, government literature attempts to downplay the severity.  The Quarterly update of Australia’s National Greenhouse Gas Inventory, updated for March 2018, says: “Annual emissions for the year to December 2017 are estimated to be 533.7Mt CO2-e. This represents a 1.5% increase in emissions when compared with the previous year.”  But in the preface this government document states; “Emissions per capita, and the emissions intensity of the economy, were at their lowest levels in 28 years in 2017.”

This comment is then followed by charts showing CO2 per dollar of GDP falling. Why would anyone measure the proportion of a chemical compound in the air against an economic measure and have that be the narrative by which we should view pollution? The Coalition of course, although one does admire the ingenuity in finding a way to convert a rise in CO2, into a charitable fall. Not all industry produces pollution, and some industries produce boatloads of it. But is GDP is the measure against which to evaluate how our economy is contributing to greenhouse gas emissions?

GDP is not ever a good measure for some things, as there are far better measures of economic performance. But lets, for now, look at GDP and the assumption that all growth is good growth. It fails to measure significant aspects.

  1. The savings in renewables. For example, reducing spending on subsidies and savings inherent in energy-efficient devices reflects the failure of GDP to differentiate between efficiencies in productive economic activity.  GDP views economic activity as the end not the means to an end. So a coal smelter burning fossil fuel or industry dumping waste that pollutes the rivers and air generates GDP growth is an ”end”. Industry production and product subsidies (such as the $1.8B to Coal) are not added to the GDP calculation and so skews the accounting valuation in relation to the output of CO2. There is neither a relationship between subsidies and emissions for any given industry nor is there a pricing mechanism on pollution emissions for any industry.
  2. Disproportionate subsidies to coal industry versus farming. Farming and Coal may both contribute to GDP but the damage Coal’s greenhouse gas emissions are wreaking on the environment harms farming.  Farming does not reciprocate this harm (although suffering from it) yet received barely more than half the financial aid granted to the Coal industry.
  3. The costs of pollution. Healthcare as a product is added to GDP increasing the value of it, even if the need for it, reflects detrimental factors in a society like suffering from avoidable pollution related conditions. In essence, we fail to price the “cost of pollution” to our economy but add the health expenditure.
  4. Outsourcing pollution.   Abbott and Hockey’s dismantling of manufacturing to the point that we have the lowest share of manufacturing employment of any OECD country has in no way curbed our appetite for cars or manufactured goods.  Manufacturing and Industry were large users of energy in Australia, and by offshoring our manufacturing base to  China, Korea and Japan. We have also offshored our industrial emissions. As we continue to de-industrialise and have more of our goods offshore, we are merely outsourcing the costs of coal pollution, and not accounting for Australia’s remotely attributed carbon emissions.

So measuring CO2 against GDP when GDP fails, on the one hand, to estimate the saving inherent in renewables that don’t pollute, factor in the costs of offshoring pollution from industries and add health costs caused by pollution; is inherently deceptive. While, yes, the report admits on one hand that CO2 has still risen, and then indulges in a gross deception to suggest there is anything positive about this.

The initial capital costs of solar, (including solar towers and molten salt energy storage that can generate power overnight), geothermal, wind turbines, Hydroelectric, Biomass, tidal waves and even the rain; may have been expensive. It is evident the ongoing costs of renewables that will be cheaper than coal for the future of either industry. The economic burden of power costs to lowly-compensated consumers can be mitigated by renewables and shifting from scheduled generation to scheduled load markets, but the government persistently resists these changes for ideological reasons.

Future Economic Fallout

Ignoring anthropogenic climate change and the increasing CO2 emissions not only in Australia but what we have outsourced to other countries, in the face of recurring climate instances such as the recent heat wave in the Northern Hemisphere, will only harm the future of Western economies. Low wages and high living costs hasten reduced demand and spending.  Whether by way of increasing power, housing, health and living costs or the necessary mitigation, insurance or repair of harm caused by a changing climate, we will all eventually, pay the piper.

Investment Funding for Northern Development: Is the LNP Delivering Best Financial Practice?

More Dams for the Northern Food-bowls: Achievable Policies or Pre-Election Hype? 

Preamble to the Discussion of Australia’s Northern Development

The 2013 federal election was another historic highpoint in federal LNP in place in Northern Australia. Northern Australia was almost wall to wall LNP territory between Brisbane and Perth. The exceptions were, of course, Lingiari (Northern Territory) and Bob Katter’s own electorate of Kennedy in North Queensland.

There were similar outcomes from other landslides to the federal LNP in 1975 and 1996. Historically, Northern Australia seems to reinforce the trends in national political landslides during the post-Whitlam period after The Dismissal in 1975.

As the next election approaches, the federal LNP still controls six of the ten federal electorates in Northern Australia. There is an element of volatility since the 2016 elections.  Labor gained the Darwin-based seat of Solomon as well as the Townsville-based seat of Herbert. Future Labor candidates should be quite competitive in Leichhardt, Dawson, Capricornia and Flynn.

In the North Western Electorate of Durack in WA, Labor indigenous candidate Carol Martin achieved a strong swing in 2016 in a remote LNP which is much closer to Jakarta than to Canberra itself.

With such a strong LNP mandate from Northern Australia in 2013, the Abbott Government proceeded with a White Paper on Developing Northern Australia. This was published in June 2015 and is available for perusal online.

The CSIRO has already prepared the North Australia Water Resources Assessment. This was released on 11 August 2018. Northern Australia Water Resource Assessment offers a comprehensive assessment of the potential of water resources in the Mitchell, Darwin and Fitzroy Catchments (https://www.csiro.au/en/Research/Major-initiatives/Northern-Australia/Current-work/NAWRA).

The lack of sustainable investment funding for Northern Development is the major barrier to the broad goals of water conservation, regional development and economic diversification across Northern Australia.

Confronting these investment problems is a bipartisan challenge. Care has been taken to involve indigenous communities in rural and regional development.  This contrasts with the occupation strategies of earlier generations.

Journalist Stan Grant laments the events at Mapoon to justify the expansion of bauxite production near Weipa (Quarterly Essay 64, 2016: The Australian Dream: Blood History and Becoming):

By 1963, the year of my birth, the dispossession was continuing. Police came at gunpoint under cover of darkness to Mapoon, an Aboriginal community in Queensland, and they ordered people from their homes and they burned those homes to the ground and they gave land to a bauxite company. And today those people remember that as the ‘Night of the Burning.’

Decades later, Indigenous Gulf of Carpentaria leader Murrandoo Yanner has steered favourable negotiations with New Century Resources to retrieve zinc from vast tailing sites under a progressive Gulf Communities Agreement. Recovery of zinc is part of a rehabilitation scheme for the now exhausted Century Zinc Mine. This extraordinary rehabilitation is occurring inland from Burketown near the indigenous community of Doomadgee and the Lawn Hill (Boodjamulla) National Park.

At another highpoint in the federal LNP’s electoral influence after the 1958 election, the Menzies Government commenced planning work on the Ord River Scheme in the current federal electorate of Durack. This Northern frontier electorate was part of the vast Kalgoorlie. It was Labor heartland in most elections between 1903 and 1975.

When Lake Argyle was opened in 1972, the financial costs of the scheme were becoming apparent and these burdens did not diminish (Shane Wright, Economics Editor, The West Australian 28 July 2017):

The Ord River irrigation scheme has been a $2 billion waste, with each new job costing almost $6 million to create, a report to be released today reveals.

In research that backs criticisms from WA’s Auditor-General, the Left-leaning Australia Institute found just 61 jobs had been generated by the most recent, $334 million investment in the sprawling irrigation area in the State’s north.

Irrigation, backed by government investment, started in the Ord region in the 1960s. Total spending now exceeds $2 billion.

Even after the latest expansion of the Ord scheme, the Australia Institute found that there were just 260 agricultural jobs in the region of which 60 were not related to irrigation.

Despite the market ideology credentials of successive post-war LNP governments, the Menzies Government looked to the Snowy Mountains Scheme as a government-sponsored water conservation model for application in Northern Australia.

The more modest expenditure of the Queensland Government’s Mareeba-Dimbulah Water Supply Scheme (MDWSS) produced better outcomes in the 1950s. MDWSS was well integrated with other regional development ventures that were quite close to Cairns. The policy mix offered hydro-electricity production, extensions of transport infrastructure as well as the processing and orderly marketing of farm output.  

Tourists now flock to local museums to view the icons from the Develop the North eras of previous generations when state and federal governments of both persuasions took similar initiatives.

Iconic Images: Aussie Towns, Mareeba and Historical Australian Towns

The Annual Reports of the now defunct Tobacco Leaf Marketing Board are archived at the state library but far-right parties in North Queensland are still keen to promote Back to the Future Agendas (North Queensland Register 7 August 2018).   Preferences from this political nostalgia are likely to favour to favour the federal LNP in North Australian regional electorates.  

If the electorate is as hooked on economic issues as the current Ipsos Poll suggests, alternatives are needed to the federal LNP’s aberrant oscillation between the extremes of market ideology and implementation of the mega-projects which have just been listed by the CSIRO’s water assessments for Northern Australia.

Having just ditched billions in long-term taxation concessions, it is time to question the funding options which are available to fund the LNP’s Northern Development agendas after the 2018 budget. Time will tell if Prime Minister Morrison wishes to persist with reduced corporate taxes for medium and large corporations.

Despite all the political energies invested in claims about fiscal responsibility since 2013, the Australian Government’s debt to GDP ratio has deteriorated despite cost-cutting and revenue ditching measures by Former Treasurer, Scott Morrison in the 2018 Budget.

An assessment of the consequences of the 2018 budget from the PolicyMod Unit of the ANU criticizes the irresponsibility of revenue losses from changes to personal income taxes in the 2018 budget (The Conversation 1 June 2018):

Using our model of the Australian tax and welfare system, PolicyMod, we projected the incomes of each person in the 20,000 families in the underlying model survey data (the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Survey of Income and Housing 2015-16).

We did this for each year until 2028-29, using the federal budget’s wage assumptions. We then used this to forecast the outcome of the proposed tax cuts and compared it with the effects of maintaining current tax rates.

Our results are remarkably similar to the forecasts of Treasurer Scott Morrison. He has projected a total tax cut between 2018-19 and 2028-29 of A$143 billion, whereas our model puts this figure at A$140 billion.

In the mean-time, the comparative tax policies of successive governments are available for scrutiny (ABC News 12 July 2016). These graphics need to be updated to consider the effects of the 2018 budget.

Time for Alternative Investment Strategies?

In this recent budgetary context, the capacity of the federal government to deliver grants for major water conservation and associated regional development programmes for Northern Australia is strong on rhetorical appeal but weak on the capacity to deliver.

Just completing the Pinnacles Dam on the Palmer River Catchment would cost $755 million according to the best estimates from the CSIRO. Such projects are beyond the resources of the North Australia Investment Fund (NAIF). However, NAIF can be opened to more private sector investment.

Australia’s over-commitment to the US Global Military Alliance has been a complicating factor in the availability of investment funding for Northern Australia. The Trump Administration has counselled Australia against over-participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiatives (BRIs).  

Mainstream reporting cheers on the recent US-sponsored Trilateral Investment Partnership (TIP) between US, Japan and Australia which was discussed with our defence and foreign ministers at the Indo-Pacific Business Forum of the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington just before the recent leadership spill in Canberra Participants in the Trilateral Investment Partnership decided to make a financial commitment to offer alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiatives (BRIs) (US Chamber of Commerce 30 July 2018):

WASHINGTON – Today at the Indo-Pacific Business Forum, hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, leaders from the U.S.’s Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), and the Australian government announced a trilateral partnership to invest in infrastructure projects in the Indo-Pacific region that build infrastructure, address key development challenges, increase connectivity, and promote economic growth.

OPIC President and CEO Ray W. Washburne, JBIC Governor Tadashi Maeda, and Australian Embassy Chargé d’affaires Katrina Cooper issued the following joint statement on the trilateral partnership:

“The United States, Japan, and Australia have formed a trilateral partnership to mobilise investment in projects that drive economic growth, create opportunities, and foster a free, open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific.  We share the belief that good investments stem from transparency, open competition, sustainability, adhering to robust global standards, employing the local workforce, and avoiding unsustainable debt burdens.”

We will uphold these principles as we mobilise investment in infrastructure, such as energy, transportation, tourism, and technology that will help stabilize economies, enhance connectivity, and provide lasting benefits throughout the region. To deepen this trilateral partnership, we are currently developing a framework for cooperation. OPIC is also placing a representative in the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, Japan.”

“As we look to the future, this partnership represents our commitment to an Indo-Pacific region that is free, open and prosperous. By working together, we can attract more private capital to achieve greater results.”

At the U.S. Chamber event, the three aforementioned participants announced future plans for a formalized trilateral Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and OPIC announced the placement of a staff member in the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to better facilitate cooperation.

Japan has committed to advancing sustainable infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific, and OPIC is coordinating with Japanese partners on co-investment under two bilateral MOUs signed in November 2017 last year. OPIC signed a similar MOU with Australia in February 2018.

Canada’s national broadcaster (CNBC) is highly critical of the tokenism of the Trilateral Investment Fund in the economic diversification of countries across the Indo Pacific Basin (https://www.cnbc.com/2018/07/31/australia-japan-join-us-infrastructure-push-in-asia.html).

While most federal LNP seems to be afraid to offer constructive criticisms of Trump Administration trade and investment controls on the mix of overseas investment into Australia, the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) has been more proactive in defence of Australia’s economic stability (AFR 18 September 2018):   

Australia’s economy is at risk of becoming collateral damage in the escalating US-China trade war, economists warned, after President Donald Trump confirmed China would be punished by tariffs on $US200 billion of US imports.

China is expected to swiftly retaliate against Mr Trump’s 10 per cent tariffs, leaving Australia’s export-dependent economy vulnerable to a slowdown in commerce between its two largest trading partners.

The Reserve Bank of Australia’s monetary policy minutes published on Tuesday, based on its September 4 meeting, said “significant tensions around global trade policy” represented a “material risk” to the global economic outlook.

Shiro Armstrong, an economist specialising in Asia at the Australian National University, said with Mr Trump also threatening to impose tariffs on Japanese cars, Australia’s top three export markets were on the brink of entering a risky international economic clash.

Ironically, Australia has been an active investment partner in the Beijing based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) since the last months of the Abbott Government in 2015. Our total financial subscriptions and voting rights in the AIIB are comparable to those taken up by South Korea, the UK, Germany and France which all have approximately $US 3-5 billion in subscriptions.

The AIIB cuts across global ideological divides with almost seventy subscribers. Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are all participants although these states are sometimes at loggerheads in other forums. There is a similar place for both India and Pakistan in the AIIB. India’s financial involvement in the AIIB is substantially larger than that of Russia.

The University of Sydney with the co-operation of financial consultants KPMG has an ongoing avalanche of documents on this issue of Chinese investment (http://apo.org.au/node/175916). The flat-line in levels of Chinese investment in Australia has a multiplier effect on longer-term economic activity here and in the neighbouring countries of the Indo-Pacific Region.

Global capital flows have tightened since the GFC. However, US$6 trillion is still on the move each year (McKinsey Global Institute 2018). This is still 7.1 per cent of the entire global economy which is available to be tapped pragmatically by Australia for priority investment needs like the transformation of Northern Australia to improve regional global food security and to extend the infrastructure, energy transitions and telecommunications of the future.

Fluctuations in capital investment in Australia are extremely volatile in the wake of the mineral and property booms. Net capital flows into Australia in the July Quarter of 2018 are running at half the level of their peak in the September Quarter of 2015.  

Although Chinese investment is dwarfed by investment from the US and even Britain, asset patterns from the latest DFAT data for 2014-15 show remarkable similarities. The (a) qualifier in the Chinese data is used to note the extent of confidentiality provisions. Australia offers no qualification against tax minimization practices by US multinational companies.

Detailed data is not so readily available on the exact component of these capital flows from China and Hong Kong as a Special Autonomous Region (SAR) of China for the current June Quarter of 2018. Back in 2017, only 5.56 per cent of capital flows to Australia originated in China and Hong Kong combined. The US (27.46 per cent) and Britain (14.74 per cent) topped the sources of capital flows (DFAT 13 June 2018).

There is no reason for Chinese investment to be subjected to special controls which are not justified by accountable security considerations. Given the poor coverage of electronic communication in Northern Australia, lower cost providers like Huawei can assist in overcoming the tyranny of distance through new BRI and other Asian investment initiatives.

Progressive investment options are needed to deliver Australia’s Northern Development agendas is just one test of national economic policy competence. The federal LNP’s rhetoric on Northern Development is appealing. Its delivery strategies are an exercise in Back to the Future Politics which are always cheered on by the far-right parties to deliver those preferences which just might protect key LNP members in North Australian seats.

Denis Bright (pictured) is a registered teacher and a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Denis has recent postgraduate qualifications in journalism, public policy, and international relations. He is interested in promoting discussion to advance pragmatic public policies that are compatible with contemporary globalization.

Needled Strawberries: Food Terrorism Down Under

There is something peculiar doing the rounds in Australian food circles.  The land down under, considered something of a nirvana of fruit and vegetable production despite horrendous droughts and calamitous cyclones, is facing a new challenge: human agency, namely in the form of despoliation of strawberries.

The results have knocked Australia’s highly concentrated supermarket chains, with both Coles and Aldi withdrawing all their fruit with a nervousness that has not been seen in years.  A spate of incidents involving “contamination”, or pins stuck in the fruit, have manifested across a range of outlets. Strawberry brands including Donnybrook Berries, Love Berry, Delightful Strawberries, Oasis brands, Berry Obsession, Berry Licious and Mal’s Black Label have made it onto the list of needled suppliers.  There have been possible copycat initiates doing the rounds. “This,” exclaimed Strawberries Australia Inc. Queensland spokesman Ray Daniels, “is food terrorism that is bringing an industry to its knees.”

The game of food contamination, infection or, as Daniels deems it, food terrorism is the sort of thing that multiplies in fear and emotion.  It targets the industry itself (the strawberry market is already frail before the effects of pest and blight) and ensures maximum publicity for the perpetrator.  Then there is the constant fear of a potential victim, the all stifling terror of legal action that might find a target in the form of a provider. Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has already boosted such feelings, ordering the Food Standards Australia New Zealand to investigate the matter.  “This is a vicious crime, it’s designed to injure, and possibly worse, members of the population at large.”

Out of 800,000 punnets of strawberries, notes Daniels, seven needles were found. “You’ve got more chance of winning lotto than being affected.” Take your chance, and, as with all food production, hope for the best as you would hope for the arrival of a green goddess.

Others such as Anthony Kachenko of Hort Innovation Australia have also moved into a mode of reassurance, a salutary reminder that Australia remains in the stratosphere of food excellence despite such adventurous despoilers.  Sabotage it might be, but it was surely isolated, a nonsense that could be dealt with surgical accuracy. “Australia prides itself on safe, healthy, nutritious produce and we have the utmost confidence in the produce that we grow both for the domestic and the export markets.”

Such attitudes mask the fundamental bet that has characterised human existence since these unfortunate bipeds decided to experiment with the cooked and uncooked.  History shows that wells have been poisoned and fields salted. The divorce from hunter-gatherer to industrialist consumer oblivious to the origins of food made that matter even more poignant, and, in some cases, tragic.  The consumer is at the mercy of the production line, and everything else that finds its way into it.

The food science fraternity are being drawn out to explain the meddling, pitching for greater funding, and another spike in industry funds.  “The things we’re usually concerned about,” suggests Kim Phan-Thien of the University of Sydney, “are the accidental contaminants; spray drift or microbial contamination [which is] a natural risk in the production system.”  What was needed, claimed the good food science pundit, was an examination, not merely of “unintentional adulteration and contaminants but the intentional adulteration for economic gain or a malicious reason for a form of terrorism.”

Take a punt (or in this case, a punnet), and hope that source, process and final destination are somehow safe.  The cautionary note here is to simply cut the suspect fruit to ensure no errant needles or pins have found their way into them.  (This presumes the needle suspect was probably hygienic.)

But the strawberry nightmare highlights the insecurity within the food industry, the permanent vulnerability that afflicts a multi-process set of transactions, recipients and consumers.  Purchasing anything off the stands, and in any aisle of a supermarket is never a guarantee of safety, a leap of faith based upon a coma inflicted by industrial complacence. We are left at the mercy of speculative fancy: the item we take home is what it supposedly is, irrespective of labelling, accurate or otherwise.

The scare, as it is now being termed, has had the sort of impact any fearful threat to health and safety does: an increased focus on security, a boost in food surveillance and the gurus versed in the business of providing machinery.  Strawberry Growers Association of Western Australia President Neil Handasyde revealed that growers were being pressed for increased scanning in the form of metal detectors.  “As an industry, we are sure that [the needles] are not coming from the farm, but we’re about trying to get confidence into customers that when they buy a punnet of strawberries, that there isn’t going to be anything other than strawberries in there and they’re safe to eat.”

Possibly guilty parties have been distancing themselves with feverish necessity.  This, as much as anything else, reeks of the legal advice necessary to avoid paying for any injury that might result.  Mal’s Black Label strawberries, one of the growing number of needle recipients, has taken the line that the farm is above suspicion, with the suspects to be found elsewhere.  Strawberry grower Tony Holl suggested that some figure was floating around, needle and all, intent on fulfilling the wishes of “a real vendetta”.

A reward of $100,000 has been offered by the Queensland government for capturing the villain in question, if, indeed, there is a conscious, all-rounded creature doing the rounds.  He, she, or it, has now assumed various titles from the Queensland authorities. The “strawberry spiker” or “strawberry saboteur” seem less like life-threatening agents than lifestyle names intent on an encyclopaedic entry.  But biosecurity, and matters of food health, are matters that throb and pulsate in Australia. Authorities are promising to find the culprit. The culprit may have other designs.

What do think tanks think?

By Henry Johnston

Auguste Rodin’sThe Thinker is universally regarded as a symbol of science and philosophy. But Rodin originally called it The Poet as a detail of a larger work known as The Gates of Hell to be used as an entrance to a Parisian museum. Neither the museum nor the bronze doors — the Gates of Hell — were built.

Rodin was born in 1840 and died in 1917. In 1848 eight years after his birth, Karl Marx wrote The Manifesto of the Communist Party. In the year of Rodin’s death in 1917, communism swept away the Romanov dynasty and changed the world forever.

For more than a century scientists, philosophers, poets and artists – like The Thinker — pondered these and other events.  But a strange phenomenon which evolved in the 1970s, irrevocably changed the way citizens think.

A coterie of American business people came up with an idea to outsource critical thinking. Though not new, the notion was informed by free-market philosophy. Decades on and think tanks impact our lives almost without our knowledge.

George Lakoff an adviser to the U.S Democrat Party published a book entitled Don’t Think of an Elephant. Lakoff has also penned at least seven other books, but Don’t Think of an Elephant goes to the heart of the conservative think tank movement.

Lakoff traces the history of modern think tank to Nixon-era America. The US was wracked by the obscenity of the Vietnam War, and capitalism in genuine peril. During this seminal time, America’s best and brightest turned away from traditional conservative business pursuits.  

Lewis Powell, a doyen of the conservative movement, wrote to the US Chamber of Commerce encouraging the business community to endow professorships and institutes at major American universities. Powell also called for the establishment of lavishly funded private foundations for hand-picked scholars. These foundations would provide their ‘fellows’ the tools to conduct research for subsequent publication in journals and magazines. Powell argued the US business community should own the means of publication and take control of media and communications. Sound familiar? The model has boomed over the last 50 years.

So how does a think tank work? As a cognitive scientist, Lakoff is an expert in the mechanisms behind the framing of public discourse. Consider a ‘frame’ as a conceptual structure. Lakoff uses the simple notion of a bottle. Look at one and you think liquid. No real effort involved. Next, frame a public discourse, let’s say, ‘we must follow the law,’ or as Malcolm Turnbull said, “and the court shall so hold”. But before the discourse is unleashed, a phalanx of media and communications strategists, book expensive TV and radio airtime and ensure acres of coverage in the slower print media. Behold. The rationale is rolled out to an unsuspecting public. Consider programmes such as Q&A and The Drum on ABC TV, talk shows on 2GB in Sydney and its equivalents around the country, or The Project on the TEN Network, not to mention different radio programmes on ABC Radio National and Sky after Dark.

Nowadays the media is awash with think tankers. Gerard Henderson, Parnell McGuinness, Georgina Downer to name a few from the right. From the left, we have Jenny Hocking, Stephen Fitzgerald, and Margaret Wilson, and in the centre, Ben Oquist of the Australia Institute There is the Sydney Institute, the Whitlam and Chifley institutes and Tom Switzer of the Centre for Independent Studies. But the stellar performer of Australian think tanks is the Institute of Public Affairs led by its Magister Ludi, John Roskam.

The IPA website proclaims it, “accepts no government funding, and is supported by thousands of individual members and donors; your tax-deductible donation to IPA research will ensure the IPA remains a loud voice for freedom in Australia”.

The IPA which, like its American counterparts, recruits the best and brightest, (IPA staff list here https://ipa.org.au/people-ipa ) is in my opinion, a defacto policy arm of the state and liberal governments. Over the years Liberal government sacked independent public servants who routinely applied SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis to policy development.

The IPA is the antithesis of Rodin’s vision of science and philosophy. If you are sceptical about my claim, read Jennifer Marohasy’s critique of the Bureau of Meteorology. This clap-trap is just one missile in the institute’s arsenal of weapons deployed in the on-going war against climate change science.

The nation’s greatest publicly funded think tank the Australian Broadcasting Corporation remains in the crosshairs of the right. And Australian universities are not far behind. Somehow the Australian National University managed to survive a right-wing onslaught led by Tony Abbott on behalf of the Ramsay Centre, to establish a degree course in western civilization.

Expect more of the same.

If think tanks continue to presume to dictate the national philosophical and scientific agenda, it is only fair their financial backers are exposed to public scrutiny.  Thus if the IPA’s Darcy Allen is prepared to argue The Case for Personal Income Tax Cuts (IPA, 5 December 2015) it follows the status of think tank tax-deductibility should be scrutinised by the Australian Tax Office. Consider this gem by Darcy Allen, albeit out of context; Australia would do well to make our income tax system more simple and transparent – clearing out our attic of special interests. Special interests indeed!

The time is at hand for Australians to think for ourselves rather than outsource our cognitive discourses to privately funded institutions, which do the bidding of unnamed and unseen patrons.

Henry Johnston is a Sydney-based author. His latest book, The Last Voyage of Aratus is on sale here https://tasmania-40-south.myshopify.com/products/last-voyage-of-aratus-the-by-henry-johnston-pb

The Woes of Climate Change States

As Australia’s tattered yet new government, led by the increasingly oafish and amateurish Scott Morrison trundled into its post-climate phase, states which see their existence as dependent on the cutting of carbon emissions have been more than a touch concerned. Their reality remains divorced from the paper clip conspiracies of Canberra and the energy cliques obsessed with cutting prices. 

Morrison’s ascension to power was yet another, existentially imposed headache in the aftermath of US President Donald J. Trump’s announcement that the United States would be making a dash from any obligations and aspirations associated with the Paris Climate Agreement. Pacific Island states were starting to write up their wills.

When the decision by Trump was made in the middle of last year, such states as Samoa and Fiji felt a shudder.  “His decision,” came the press release from an assortment of Pacific Island Civil Society Organisations, “is a clear sign of his continued support of the fossil fuel industry which directly threatens the lives of communities living in the Pacific Islands.”

The Australian response, ever mindful of the wishes of its obese cousin and all-powerful defender, has reflected a certain bipolar conditioning on matters ecological and climactic.  Canberra takes the position, when convenient to its neighbours, that climate change is genuine, dangerous and in need of serious consideration. When necessary, amnesia takes hold.

In the aftermath of Morrison’s replacement of sitting Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama sent a salutary reminder to the new Australian leader couched in a disarming note of congratulation.  “I look forward to working with you across a broad front, including the global campaign for action on climate change, the greatest threat facing Australia and all of your neighbours in the Pacific.” 

This, to a man who had coarsely brandished a lump of coal in the Australian parliament in February last year, supplied by the good offices of the Minerals Council of Australia. “This is coal,” he guffawed to his opponents, caressing the inert item in his hand with a fetishist’s resolve. “Don’t be afraid; don’t be scared.”

Morrison ought to be suffering jitters from such figures as Samoa’s Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele, who has made it clear how climate change laggards should be treated.  “We all know the problem, we all know the solutions,” he explained to the Lowy Institute at the end of last month, “and all that is left would be some political courage, some political guts, to tell people of your country there is a certainty of disaster.”

Then came the delicious blow, landed between the gizzards.  “So any leader of any country who believes that there is no climate change, I think he ought to be taken to mental confinement.  He is utterly stupid. And I say the same thing to any leader here.”

Despite such cataclysmic promises, Australia’s politicians remain resilient before the inconveniences of reality and warm to the enticements of stupidity.  The big god coal, and associate demigod fossil fuels, call the tune.

The new Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, made the necessary, paternalistic adjustments for her audience earlier this month ahead of the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru.  This line waxes and wanes along the issue of aid, the condescending drip aid designed to influence more than change. The angle on Australian generosity was pushed (daddy with deep pockets cares), as much to counter the phantom of Chinese influence in the region as anything else. “The largest development assistance in the region is overwhelmingly coming from Australia; in fact, it will hit the largest contribution ever during 2018-19 at $1.3 billion.” 

Payne also busied herself bribing regional neighbours with such reassurances as employment, a tribute to an old legacy of enticing black labour to an economy short of staffing.  Samoa, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, she said with soothing corruption, would be added to Australia’s Pacific Labour Scheme, nothing less than a traditional, extracting incentive for the Australian economy.  As ever, the benefit would be for Australia more than anybody else: citizens from those countries would be able to fill the necessary jobs in rural and regional Australia. (Well and good – they might, in time, have no country to return to.)

Despite the issue of climate change making its inevitable appearance on the agenda, Payne preferred to see it as one of the items for discussion, rather than the main show.  “We really recognise that our Pacific Island neighbours are particularly vulnerable to climate change.” Australia had been purportedly “working hard” towards climate change commitments, though Payne failed to spell out any coherent steps of late.

The internal politics of the governing coalition in Australia remains intimately related to the fossil fuel industries and climate change sceptics.  The schismatic Tony Abbott remains convinced that Australia should go the way of Trump, and more than a sprinkling of his colleagues think the same. Central to this is not environmental degradation so much as cheaper energy prices, which has become the holy of holies, the El Dorado of policymakers.  Such is the thinking that accompanies the short-term aspirations of shopkeeping types even as it dooms island states to watery oblivion.

A Traditional Right: Jimmie Åkesson and the Sweden Democrats

Sweden’s elections are normally dull affairs. The same political arrangements have been in place for decades, featuring mild oscillations around the centre between the green-red bloc (Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left Party) and the conservative Alliance (the Moderates, Christian Democrats and the Centre and Liberal Parties).

The favoured line for political watchers of Sweden is standard.  Few monumental disagreements have registered since Sweden became a model free-education welfare state with impeccable health services funded by high taxes.  But Europe has caught a rash, and it has become something of a contagion. The symptoms are clear enough: consternation at Brussels at the centralising European machinery; concerns about immigration; apoplexy about perceptions of rising crime; and the corrosions posed to the once seemingly impregnable welfare state.

Sweden’s own contribution to such fears comes in the form of Jimmie Åkesson of the Sweden Democrats, a person who reminds the observer of fascist politics that appearances, and the aesthetic of appeal, matter.  Last Sunday’s elections saw the SD do well, garnering 42 of the 342 seats in the Riksdag.

While his party was nursed in the bosom of neo-Nazi politics in the 1980s, Åkesson has spruced matters up, giving the impression that slickness and modern looks are somehow contradictory to reactionary politics.  (Parallels are evident in the cosmetic adjustments made to the Front National in France.)

His party members seem well kitted out, dressed less to offend than to blend.  Decency is all in, and efforts are being made to keep the more savage sentiments in the cupboard.  “Open Swedishness” is being promoted as a platform for integration, and Åkesson has been conscious to carry the necessary political ornamentation that comes with good public relations.  Jonas Chongera, a Congo-born former pastor, has been seen keeping him company as a member of the municipal council of Forshaga in Värmland. Four years ago, the lapsed pastor made it clear that responsibility for refugees was a fundamental goal of the party, proud that the SD was the only one daring to ponder the imponderable issue of immigration. And that was before the arrival of 163,000 asylum seekers in 2015.

As Barbara Wesel of Deutsche Welle observed, “It seems that voters really buy this image of the ‘nice son-in-law’ that Jimmie Åkesson is projecting – you know, sort of every mother’s dream if she wants to marry off her daughter.”  Not that this is an image that needed to be sold in the first place. Traditional voters have been put off by policies seemingly placed on the autopilot of consensus, a stance that made former Prime Minister Frederik Reinfeldt smugly deem Sweden a “humanitarian superpower”. 

Such political tags tend to prove dangerous and unnecessary.  “I feel immigrants have priority now,” came the opinion of former Social Democrat voter Helena Persson, who did her bit push the SD into first place in the village of Håbo-Tibble.  “The Swedish people come second.”

Åkesson was also given a modest pre-election fillip by French President Emmanuel Macron, who felt slighted at remarks made by the SD leader calling him an “EU-federalist” who “travels around Europe to speak ill of the national state, nationalism, all that I stand for.”  Between Russia’s Vladimir Putin and France’s Macron, few differences could be discerned, a view prompting the French leader to suggest to Swedish voters, rather impudently, that Åkesson “is not compliant with your story and your values”.

Åkesson’s views have not been racy or spectacular, having spent time on the boilerplate for some years.  In the summer of 2014, as his party was readying itself for the September general elections, he espoused the sorts of views that would have moved many a supporter of US President Donald Trump.  “Islamism is the Nazism and Communism of our time.” To those few Swedish nationals who had found their way to fight in Iraq and Syria, “You guys can stay there.  Sweden is no longer your home, this country is built on Christian principles.”

If tranquil, unflappable Sweden can be rocked and disrupted, the rest need to worry. But it would also be remiss to consume a version of Sweden as the land of milk-honeyed tolerance somehow free of Nazi sympathy.  A figure such as Åkesson is hardly a bolt out of the blue, and historiography on the subject of Swedish fascism has attempted to correct the misunderstandings about its origins and influence.  Elisabeth Åsbrink has done more than anybody else in recent times to show how certain figures of Swedish fascism were very aware of the need to evolve their creed after the Second World War.  Like Ingvar Kamprad’s modular furniture, fascist ideology has, over time, been re-assembled for modern needs.

One such figure in this reassembling venture was Per Engdahl, described by Åsbrink as “intelligent and modern” who realised in 1945 that he needed a new set of clothes, nay, wardrobe, to sell his politics. “He made contact with Oswald Mosley’s fascists in England, with the French fascists, the Swiss Nazis and Hitler’s loyalists in Germany.”  And that was merely a spare green grocer’s list of right-wing pugilists, not considering his own role in founding a Danish Nazi party and links with the Italian Social Movement.

The SD now finds itself riding a European trend distinctly offended by the sensibilities of “bloc” politics.  The forces of progressivism have been found wanting, and refusing to stake any claim to political relevance will simply provide kindle for Åkesson.  Despite not winning the Swedish elections, he has already staked an irrefutable claim to change his country’s politics.

Doctrines of Impunity: John Bolton and the ICC

The Trump administration’s national security advisor John Bolton has never been a fan of international law, a concept he has found, at best, rubbery.  Any institution supposedly guided by its spirit was bound to draw the ire of both his temper and temperament. Before members of the Federalist Society on Monday, Bolton took to the pulpit with a fury reserved for the unreflective patriot certain that his country, right or wrong, was above such matters.  “The United States will use any means necessary to protect our citizens and those of our allies from unjust prosecution by this illegitimate court.”

The wicked body, in this instance, is the International Criminal Court, established by the Rome Statute to try instances of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, a “court of last resort” backed by 123 nations.

The instigation for such concern on Bolton’s part came from the ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who requested that the court investigate the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan from 2003 by forces including elements of the US military and intelligence services.  In doing so, she was moving the frame of reference beyond a continent that has featured all too readily in the court’s prosecutions: Africa.

Bolton was quick off the mark after the announcement in 2017, with a blistering observation in the Wall Street Journal: “The Trump administration should not respond to Ms. Bensouda in any way that acknowledges the ICC’s legitimacy.  Even merely contesting its jurisdiction risks drawing the US deeper into the quicksand.”

Bolton has been consistent with such tirades.  In 2000, he contemplated the issue of whether there was such a thing as “law” in the matter of international affairs. His sustained attack in Transnational Law and Contemporary Problems remains salient to a parochial understanding of how such rules work.  For Bolton, the central defining issue was one of liberty: how such “law” might “affect individuals in the exercise of their individual freedom”.  Prior to the Second World War, international law was essentially a matter of nation-states rather than individuals and groups.

Bolton wishes it remained there, a courtly, distant matter separate from the populace. But “the logic of today’s international law proponents drives them toward more pervasive international command-and-control structures that will deeply affect the domestic policies and constitutions of all nations.”  Such law lacked notions of “popular sovereignty or public accountability through reasonably democratic popular controls over creation, interpretation, and enforcement of laws”. It lacked clear sources and a mechanism to determine its change.  In short, and here, reflective of the sum of all his grievances against international law, such juridical phenomena were not of the US order of things, specifically the “United States Constitution and its system of government, exemplifying the kind of legal system acceptable to a free person.”

His address to the Federalist Society recapitulates his critique: the “supranational” and “unchecked” conspiracy of the ICC advanced by “‘global governance’ advocates” inimical to the Founders’ vision.  “Any day now, the ICC may announce the start of a formal investigation against these American patriots, who voluntarily signed on to go into harm’s way to protect our nation, our homes, and our families in the wake of the 9/11 attacks…. An unfounded, unjustifiable investigation.”

The efforts of the ICC was to be frustrated at every turn.  No assistance would be provided to its functions and its pursuits. “And, certainly, we will not join the ICC.  We will let the ICC die on its own. After all, for all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us.”

Bolton keeps interesting company in having such views.  The refusal by the US to ratify the ICC’s founding document in 2002 was joined by Israel, Saudi Arabia and China, fearing its “unacceptable consequences for our national sovereignty”.  Bolton subsequently led efforts as Under Secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration to broker some hundred bilateral deals preventing countries from surrendering US nationals to the ICC.  These remain, by his own admission, a proud achievement.

The ICC has had its fair share of bad press.  It groans under a bureaucracy that has led to accusations of justice delayed being justice denied.  It has conspicuously failed to deter the perpetration of atrocities in Syria, Yemen and Myanmar. Its Africa-focus has also caused more than a flutter of dissent from states on that continent.  Early last year, the African Union passed a non-binding resolution for member states to withdraw from the court, or at the very least seek reforming it.  South Africa confirmed its desire to remove itself from the jurisdictional reach of the ICC, a decision that continues to shadow lawmakers.

Bolton’s resentment, in short, has fuel to fire.  President Donald Trump sees any international pact untouched by his influence to be deficient and contrary to the values of the Imperium.  But the ICC still has legs, however plodding, and such efforts to despoil their function will not necessarily cripple, let alone kill it.

In contrast to Bolton’s view is another stream of US legal thought that sees international law and its enforcement as indispensable to peace.  That view is unduly rosy, and held, at times, disingenuously. But for the US Chief Prosecutor Robert H. Jackson, delivering his opening address in November 1945 to the judges of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, such a body, far from being abstract, incoherent and spineless, supplied the animating legitimacy for an international court. 

What fouled international law’s decent nest were those wars of imperialism waged during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, leaving the impression “that all wars are to be regarded as legitimate wars.”  Jackson’s point was that no one, not even the leaders of the United States, could always remain unaccountable, anathema to Bolton’s idea of impunity outside the US constitution.

The Natural Enemy: Serena Williams and the Sporting Umpire

Should it matter this much?  A wealthy, successful individual expressed fury at the most popular object of vitriol in any sport. The umpire or referee is only ever neutral in the eyes of a falsely contrived standard: that someone must be objective, neutral and mindful of enforcing the rules of the game.  In the eyes of the player, the figure who judges and assesses the course of a match can become an enemy, a monster of burden. In the US Open Women’s Tennis Final, that beast was umpire Carlos Ramos.

It all began with coach Patrick Mouratoglou, who seemed to be signalling to Williams during the match, thereby committing a violation in attempting to steer the game. Williams lost one point as a result. Calls of “liar” and “thief” followed, resulting in another violation. Matters escalated, and Williams was held to have committed another code violation in demolishing her racquet.  Her call of fury: “Sexism!”

Williams was truculent, justifiably at first instance for not necessarily noticing her coach and being punished as a result. But a person who has won 23 times at the highest level is bound to feel slighted by certain decisions, notably those that throw her off her stroke. The blood and mind has adjusted to glory.  It did not take time for the machine of social media and commentary to boil down the details and decide that a strict reading of the rules by Ramos entitled him to be pilloried. He was all establishment, all power, and poor discretion.  A woman, accused former world number one Billy Jean King, is deemed hysterical if she disagrees with an umpire’s ruling; a man, she suggested, is considered outspoken and forthright, the bad boy to be celebrated.

King went so far as to see the entire spectacle in terms of archaic laws and an “abuse of power”, a small step towards throwing the entire rule book out, along with its musty ridden representatives. She fantasised about the injustice of the whole thing, and proceeded to strain the scene of every single implication of identity: “The ceiling that women of colour face on their path to leadership never felt more impenetrable than it did on at the women’s US Open final on Saturday.”

Commentators focused on the denial of Williams’ entitlement for a suitable comeback “just one year after having a baby and fighting for her own life after childbirth.” Destiny had been confounded.  Shaded into obscurity was Williams’ victorious Japanese opponent Naomi Osaka, herself of colour and her country’s first Grand Slam title winner, and of a state not exactly renowned for splashing out on hand clapping ceremonies of racial tolerance and cuddly harmoniousness.

As is rarely the case in such suppositions, a closer examination of the Ramos record to men and women would have been instructive, including those superstars who feel they are above reproach from the person in the chair.  Many less robust umpires prefer to let the hotheads be; we live in an age of extreme trigger warning laced sensitivity.

Ramos, for his part as a firm, if pedantic umpire, has stared down players of all sorts, merits and vintages.  The men should know. Novak Djokovic received a fault for time violations during the 2017 French Open; the inevitable loud retort landed him a code violation.  Andy Murray received a rap over the knuckles for uttering “stupid umpiring” during the 2016 Olympics. Ditto the perennially volatile infant-in-a-man’s body Nick Krygios, whose abuse of a towel boy earned him a violation that same year.

The issue of gender never featured during this particular final, bar an anguished cry from Williams suggesting it might have.  For Ramos to have not issued code violations could just as well have led to arguments of sexism in reverse.  Attempts to read it otherwise return to the traditional hostility (archaic or otherwise) shown towards a figure touted as neutral when he is deemed sporting kind’s appointed enemy.  This was a more traditional spat between sports performer and the ruling figure, one imposed upon the players by authority and regulation. Williams bucked it and was duly punished. Her opponent could only watch and feel embarrassed.

Mouratoglou, who has bleached himself of blame, added further grist to that troubled mill in the match’s aftermath, suggesting that all coaches breached the code during matches.  He, however, had not been caught doing it – at least till now. “All coaches are coaching throughout the match. But check the record. I’ve never been called for a coaching violation in my career.” It’s not a violation if you’re not caught.

He also found time to dash off other locker-room opinions, showing an urgent need to sing for his supper: “The star of the show has been once again the chair umpire. Second time in this US Open and the third time for Serena in a US Open Final. Should they be allowed to have an influence on the result of a match?  When do we decide that this should never happen again?” The umpire will always have an influence on the outcome of a match because decisions change the course of proceedings.  Perhaps a ceremonial and deterrent lynching might be in order? (King makes a more modest recommendation: permit coaches latitude to be involved during the match.)

Gender codes and socially stretched theories have a habit of denying the individual free will.  Forget it, banish it; the spectator, commentator and agonisingly opinionated will foist one upon you.  Agency is banished, subordinated to a superstructure. Williams is not treated as a grand slam champion and athletic phenomenon (her track record heavenly screams it), but a creature crushed by the “male” perception that looms large or some other impediment that does wonders to distract from her brattish appeal. (During the 2009 US Open, the brat was in full flight when Williams threatened to deposit a tennis ball down an unfortunate lineswoman’s throat.)

This was a battle of wills, and Williams lost it.  We return to the old story: the umpire did it, and thank the confused deities above he did.  He has always been responsible for the Great Flood, syphilis and famine. He might be cruel to children, perhaps even eat them.  He will always be and coming out in defence of the umpire in any sport is much like siding with Colonel William Bligh against the mutineers.  We all need our anointed alibis to justify defeat and loss.

Tory Kafuffles: Boris Johnson, Brexit and Suicide Vests

The next blow in Boris Johnson’s chapter of political suicide has been made: a piece in the Mail on Sunday which supplied him ample room to take yet another shot at the ghostly British prime minister, Theresa May.  There was nothing new in it; everybody knew what Johnson’s views were, and the position he had taken since hyperventilating over July’s Chequers statement on Brexit was simply reiterated with the usual reckless prose.

May’s Brexit deal, scribbled Johnson with an almost boorish predictability, was tantamount to wrapping “a suicide vest around the British constitution” and handing “the detonator to (EU chief negotiator) Michel Barnier”. (He failed to mention that he has been as indispensable as anybody else in adding to that wrapping.)

While the EU had played the role of the playground bully, the UK had been unacceptably “feeble” in response, a truly pathetic counterpart.  May might have sought a “generous free trade deal” with the EU in the aftermath of the divorce; instead, Britain was effectively saying to those in Brussels, “yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir”.  “We look like a seven-stone weakling being comically bent out of shape by a 500lb gorilla.”

Johnson’s very public falling out with his fellow Tories after resigning as Foreign Secretary continues to play out the ailing nature of the May government in very public fashion.  Cabinet ministers have had to take very public stances to back the prime minister. Current Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt sounded trench bound in waiting for the barrage, calling on colleagues to keep firm behind May “in the face of intense pressure”. 

Former army officer and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee Tom Tugendhat found himself falling for the old trick that such provocation requires stern correction.  “A suicide bomber murdered many in the courtyard of my office in Helmand. The carnage was disgusting, limbs and flesh hanging from trees and bushes.  Brave men who stopped him killing me and others died in horrific pain. Some need to grow up. Comparing the PM to that isn’t funny.”

Brexit, and in a sense, the broader miasmic effect of the Trump presidency on political language, has supplied a release of military metaphors, spells of doom, and imminent calamity.  Decorum has come to be seen as the enemy of honesty; opponents are just stopping short of lynching each other. For Alistair Burt of the Foreign Office, the language used by Johnson was not merely “outrageous, inappropriate and hurtful”.  “If we don’t stop this extraordinary use of language over Brexit, our country might never heal.  Again, I say, enough.”

The issue with Johnson has certain similarities to another Westminster country thousands of miles away, and one still insisting on retaining the same British monarch as head of state.  Australia resumes parliament with a new prime minister after a needless bloodbath initiated by party functionaries hypnotised by pollsters and number crunchers. The plotters there were also claiming that the governing party had gone vanilla and soft on the hard political decisions.  Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had been all too centrist when he could have done with a few lashings of decent, hard-right ideology. The result: Australia’s first Pentecostal leader.

Johnson’s overall popularity in Britain is on par with May, a statement of true depression and deflation.  But where he has traction is in the ideological, stark-raving mad stakes, a point that May’s aides know all too well, given their efforts to compile a 4,000-word “war book” on the man’s sexual proclivities in 2016.  Unlike other European states, sexual prowess, evenly spread inside and out of marriage, is seen as an impediment to high office.

Johnson certainly has his own cheer squad within the Tories.  Tory Brexiteer Andrew Bridgen acclaimed Johnson’s appeal and how he “speaks truth unto power”; Tory MP Nadine Dorries suggested that his detractors were merely “terrified by his popular appeal”.  Were he to become the leader of the Tories, and prime minister, “he’ll deliver a clean and prosperous #Brexit.”

Others are playing the middling game.  Home Secretary Sajid Javid merely called for more “measured language” to be used, because that was evidently “what the public wants to see.”  On the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Javid was making sure about booking a seat in any future cabinet that might have a new prime minister.  “I think there are much better ways to articulate your differences.”

Johnson is a spluttering John Bull, foolhardy and all, and his supporters like that.  Irresponsible, destructive, a true political malefactor and dressed up public schoolboy charlatan, he is genetically programmed to disrupt rather than succeed, to undermine rather than govern.  His world is not that of figures and sober appraisals, the desk job assessment, the compiler of facts. Those are best left to the hard working empirical types of industry and a hard day’s work.

Even his personal life has not been immune from the all-consuming circus that is the Boris show.  His announcement last week that he and his wife of 25 years, Marina Wheeler, would be divorcing, was seen as a political calculation, timed to eliminate any prospect of scandal in the event of a leadership challenge to May. 

His opponents, however, have an eternal hope that he will self-destruct, stumbling into a back-end swamp where he will perish as quietly as possible.  Johnson’s barbed comments, came foreign office minister Alan Duncan, marked “one of the most disgusting moments in modern British politics”.  Making them spelled “the political end of Boris Johnson”. Unlikely; should Johnson conclude his political career anytime soon, he is bound to be as destructive as the vest he claims May has wrapped Britain in.

Trump’s Mission of Distraction: Finding the Anonymous Author

The Trump presidency has proven to be a set of publicity driven punctuations and blows, riddled by distractions contrived and accidental.  Controversy and accusation characterise the next revelation, the next announcement that might throw journalists off the scent, confounded enemies off the trail.  The presidency as spectacle, the White House as an erratic film studio, is the means by which this particular president survives. Assaults and accusations are missiles seeking to find their mark, missing at the last moment, and the publicity vultures do the rest.  Distraction is everything.

The latest of such distractions come in the form of the anonymously authored piece for the New York Times (by a certain “senior White House official”), one outlining the dysfunctions of a “two-track presidency”.  It was banal on one level, stating the obvious, advancing the grounds that were already there: Trump has his opponents within the administration keen to foul the nest.

Striking in the account is its resounding note of subversion, a mutiny within designed to frustrate the designs of the chief executive officer of the United States; valiant agents keen to keep Trump from realising his designs.  “I work for the president but like-minded colleagues and I have vowed to thwart parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.” While not being of the “left” resistance against Trump, the author explained that “many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.”  The governing concern? Amorality – Trump’s distinct absence of “any discernible first principles that guide his decision-making.”

Such antics will be lauded by Trump’s critics, who suggest that he is little more than unhinged, hedonistic orange beast in need of containment.  To frustrate the realisation of his inner child, in other words, is to achieve a high standing of nobility for the republic.

The article from the Times adds to a growing body of work speculating over the mental disposition of that man in the White House.  It all constitutes yet another obstacle to discussions of policy, a point that Trump has encouraged since he became a serious political candidate: discuss the man in totality, flaws and all.  The substance of governance can be left to others. This says as much about the subject as the investigators.

The overall portrait of dysfunction has received heavy daubs from a range of sources of late.  Bob Woodward ventures into familiar territory with his quotidian Fear: Trump in the White House (an account of the “nervous breakdown of Trump’s presidency”). He quotes former chief of staff Reince Priebus on the decision-making process, that takes place in this particular administration: “When you put a snake and a rat and a falcon and a rabbit and a shark and a seal in a zoo without walls, things start getting nasty and bloody.  That’s what happens.”

Mental health experts, not wishing to be left out of this feast of commentary, sought to peer into Trump’s mind with The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, an account amusing for its evident compromise (the authors’ own words) of professional neutrality in favour of a vaunted “civic duty to warn”.

That work is instructive in how Trump has managed to pull the carpet from underneath the very individuals who describe him as hostile to rules and conventions.  To understand this repellent force, one must become a breaker of rules. The Goldwater rule, as it is termed, requires mental health professionals to, as Brandy X. Lee describes it, “refrain from diagnosing without a personal examination and without authorisation.” This was no pressing encumbrance to Lee, who felt it necessary to observe that pressing social “responsibility to protect public health and safety”.

The anonymous article has presented Trump with another opportunity to generate column space and news cycle energy.  This is what an administration of insurrection subsists upon: furious activity signifying nothing. Whatever mental complex professionals of mind and pen might attribute to him, Trump can claim to be under siege and persecuted; he can find enemies because his enemies will be more than willing to take up positions in the gallery.  

On a flight from Billings, Mont. To Fargo, N.D., he outlined the next steps of retaliation against the unnamed White House official.  “We’re going to take a look at what he had, what he gave, and what he’s talking about, also where he is right now.”  A person with such security clearances would not be permitted to attend meetings “concerning China or Russia or North Korea or something.” 

Trump has also urged Attorney-General Jeff Sessions to take up the case as the op-ed, in his view, was egregious enough to be a matter of “national security”.  The Department of Justice has been less than willing to clarify what any prosecution might entail, covering all necessary contingencies: “The department does not confirm, deny or otherwise acknowledge the existence or non-existence of investigations.” 

Other props of speculation are also being placed in full view of the press: an acceleration of the trade war with China, Trump’s claimed possession of a letter from Kim Jong Un that will yield promising gold.  The show must go on, substance or not. The insurrection must continue.

Traditional Fantasies: US designs on Venezuela

The irresistible allure of invasion and interference has never been far from US lawmakers.  The Imperium needs its regular feed and what a feed it has been over the decades, notably within the sphere of influence discomfortingly termed Washington’s backyard.  The current US president has shown himself a keen follower of the idea that the US military, that old, and not yet diminished strongman of capitalism, might come into play to rid Washington of various irritations in Latin America.  Venezuela has featured very highly in that regard.

It was Venezuela’s Chávism that turned so many policymakers off in Washington, spurred on by an attempt to quell what Dan Beeton and Alexander Main described as “Latin America’s resistance to the neoliberal agenda”.  Any policy reeking of poverty alleviation tends to set bad precedents for those in the United States.  The poor must be kept in docile ignorance of their lot as the money is made.

Interest in Venezuela has verged between cognisance and complicity.  In 2002, when dissident military officers and members of the opposition in Venezuela were chewing over the prospects of a potential coup against President Hugo Chávez, the Central Intelligence Agency swooned: this more than mildly disruptive man might be on his way out. And he was if only briefly, returning to power on April 14 emboldened and popular.

The Agency noted then that “disgruntled senior officers and a group of radical junior officers are stepping up efforts to organize a coup against President Chávez, possibly early as this month.”  The level of detail and insight into the mind of the plotters was extensive. Those involved would attempt to “exploit unrest stemming from opposition demonstrations slated for later this month”. The response from the Bush administration was a plea of ignorance: the leader had brought it all upon himself.

The Latin America WikiLeaks files go further, showing the habitual nature of Washington’s interference in the internal affairs of countries in the region.  They show threats and cajoling to left-wing populist government figures, and logistical support for right-wing dissenters wishing to cause mayhem. As one cable noting the words of the US ambassador to Bolivia, David L. Greenlee goes, “When you think of the IDB (International Development Bank), “you should think of the US.”  Not that this was “blackmail”, continues the ambassador. This was “simple reality”. President Evo Morales had been put on notice.

The campaign against Caracas over time has been characterised by variously fashioned weapons, most notably sanctions.  Destroy the economy, and you foment the basis for reaction. These have been weapons of choice for the policy planners in Washington, featuring such blows as those against the state oil company PDVSA in 2011 and the state arms manufacturer CAVIM in 2013.  The following year, specific government officials were also targeted.

In 2017, Trump added his little cameo in entertaining options for overthrowing the Maduro government.  This was yet another example of Trump as the apotheosis, high-water mark of US aggression, outing the nastier habits of the Imperium.  No soft treading required, nor the graceless posture of non-interference, just an open use of force with charging marines.

Statements in August about an outright invasion were coupled with other possibilities.  As he told his staff, “We have many options for Venezuela and by the way, I’m not going to rule out a military option.”  Then secretary of state Rex Tillerson was perplexed; then national security adviser H.R. McMaster recoiled. The next day, Trump elaborated his views at his New Jersey golf course at Bedminster: “We’re all over the world and we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away, Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering and dying.  We have many options for Venezuela including a possible military option if necessary.”

When these suggestions made the light of day, they were treated as acts of dizzy lunacy, the fantasies of an insane steward of empire.  As José Miguel Vivanco, America’s director for Human Rights opined on August 11, “No one had helped Maduro as much as Trump and this nonsense that he said today.”

Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has been the latest voice to join an already heavily laden bandwagon, giddy from the rum of democracy he hopes to export. In an interview with Univision 23 in Miami, he explained how he had for years “wanted the solution in Venezuela to be a non-military and peaceful solution, simply to restore democracy.” While the US armed forces “are only used in the event of a threat to national security”, an argument could be made “at this time that Venezuela and the Maduro regime has become a threat to the region and even to the United States.”

Such fairy floss logic barely withstands scrutiny, taking the issue of desperation within Venezuela as the starting point for regional instability and a threat to US security, an instability, it should be added that has not been helped by the more than occasional fiddle by US authorities.

This fantasy of military-backed intervention comes with a slight twist: the comments from Rubio grudgingly acknowledged the prospects of a multilateral negotiated transition, one that might permit perpetrators to get away in a new Venezuelan order. “We’ll have to bite our lips a little bit and watch a solution that has perhaps some form of forgiveness.”  Ever the sentiment of the imperial brute, appropriating the means of molestation, punishment and ultimate forgiveness.

Fraser Anning and the Smugness of Australian “Values”

Be wary of the self-satisfied and morally soothed.  The complacent have a habit of giving the game away, glorifying themselves in satisfied satiation. Australia’s parliament seemed to be very self-congratulatory in their condemnation of the newly arrived Senator of the Katter Australia Party, Fraser Anning.  Last month, the rough, seemingly untutored Anning became the convenient freak show for his fellow parliamentarians; his more seasoned colleagues, versed in the dark arts of hypocrisy, duly rounded on him. How dare he express what many of them have either felt or ignored?

Anning has volunteered himself as yet another scrounger who played the gargantuan race card, peppering his inaugural address to the Senate with the dross that has been fairly ordinary in Australian politics.  It was meant to have resonances with Pauline Hanson’s vulgarly rich delivery in 1996, and it is worth noting the parallels. In the former, there was an initial gasp, horror and pondering. What Hanson was saying as the new federal member for Oxley was hardly shocking to Prime Minister John Howard. 

Hanson’s views struck home with a domestic, comforting fury; her prejudices stirred the blood: suspicions of racial swamping, the nightmare of Asiatic miscegenation were hardly alien to a prime minister who, as opposition leader in the 1980s, felt that Australia was at risk of yellowing.  Howard’s rat cunning took hold: use Hanson’s indignation at Big Picture politics and elitism, and also, as best as possible, destroy her.

Anning evidently thought he could ride that same wave.  He had been told by KAP advisors that he needed to be controversially relevant.  This was not going to be an easy task; Australian politics has assimilated a good deal of intolerance since the late 1990s, and the new senator needed to do something to stand out.  But rather than being a savvy racist, he came across as a barking enthusiast who had lost the plot. He quoted Sir Henry Parkes, “Father of our Federation” and his reference to knowing “the value” of Australia’s “British origin”.  He believed that there was no “retrograde force” in the world more conspicuous than Muslims. “I believe that the reasons for ending all further Muslim immigration are both compelling and self-evident.”

He wishes for immigration policy to be wrested from government and taken to a plebiscite, the outcome, he hopes, being a return to the White Australia policy. “The final solution to the immigration problem is, of course, a popular vote.”  Had Anning avoided those words of finality, his speech would read as anything Hanson has given in the past. Instead, he gave parliament a red line.

The now deposed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull described Anning’s observations as “appalling”. “We are a nation that does not define its nationality, its identity, by reference to race or religion or cultural background or ethnic background.”  Reference to a “final solution” on immigration was a “shocking insult” to the Jewish people. Opposition leader Bill Shorten considered the Anning performance “repugnant and disgraceful”.  Even Hanson felt that the former One Nation member was “appalling”, claiming that the speech was “straight from the Goebbels handbook for Nazi Germany”.  Politicians hugged; tears were shared in unity.

As Australian politicians immerse themselves in orgiastic satisfaction that their country is the tip of the civilised community, a twelve-year-old refugee child on Nauru is mounting a hunger strike against a distinct interpretation of tolerance shown by Australian authorities.  “This particular child, like many other children,” came the grim summation of Doctors For Refugees president Barri Phatarfod, “has just completely lost hope.”

It was Australian values, shorn of substance but obsessively anti-humanitarian, that created multi-tiered levels of refugees and asylum seekers in sneering defiance of the Refugee Convention.  Hanson’s fear of remorseless Asiatic absorption has shifted: in place of the industrious citizens of Southeast Asia and China have come fears of the theocratic, wailing Mullahs worshiping the Koran and African mobs.

Australia’s parliament, in another more accurate depiction of its values, also did itself proud by passing amendments on asylum legislation to affirm that detaining 1,600 asylum seekers was lawful. (Only three members in the House of Representatives voted against it: Greens MP Adam Bandt, and independents Andrew Wilkie and Cathy McGowan.)

The Migration (Validation of Port Appointment) Bill 2018 was given the easiest of passages to the Senate, legitimising the status of “a proclaimed port in the Territory of Ashmore and Cartier Islands”.  It further seeks to ensure “that things done under the Migration Act 1958 which relied directly or indirectly on the terms of the appointment are valid.”  Both sides of the aisle want to inoculate themselves against any future litigation, and few tears were shed, or hands held, over that consensus.

What Anning did give to other politicians was an opportunity to be nauseatingly smug, cringingly self-satisfied in having condemned the racial genie long out of the bottle and roaming at will.  To that end, he could be condemned as a person who did not share the values of parliament, the, dare one say it, un-Australian representative, who had actually expressed views common to many backbenchers. An odd spectacle, given that the Australian parliament will always be characterised by its first gesture: legislating for a White Australia.

Labor’s Senator Penny Wong herself was also something of a treat in that regard, a fine figure when it comes to shifting values and raising the moral platform.  This is a politician who publicly asserted a stance in her party against same-sex marriage in 2010 (politics is politics), telling the Ten Network that, “On the issue of marriage, I think the reality is there is a cultural, religious and historical view around that which we have to respect.”  This dramatically altered last year, when Wong became ebullient, tear-shedding in the aftermath of amendments to the Marriage Act regarding same-sex marriage.

Now, Wong presented herself again, as a high priestess of moral worth, seeing in Anning a bête noire worthy of her condemnation.  Anning’s speech “was not worthy of this Parliament.” It “did no reflect the heart of this country. We saw a speech that did not reflect the strong, independent, multicultural, tolerant, accepting nation that we are.”

Anning presented a perfect alibi.  Australian politicians could speak about “values” and a contingent tolerance that remains vulnerable to erasure and sparing to asylum seekers and refugees (unless they so happen to be white South African farmers).  They could extol a non-existent exceptionalism, ignoring the obvious fact that this is a country troubled by race and insecurity, wealthy yet spoiled by it. To take the issue of immigration to a plebiscite would be a truly democratic measure, but many Australian politicians fear the outcome.  They might well find that the heart of the country remains soured by a managed paranoia.

Repudiating the Global Commons: Trump’s Militarisation of Space

In international law, a category regarded by certain legal philosophers as non-existent (there being no overarching sovereign to police it), aspirations reign like obstinate fantasies. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty is one such example, decorated by such expressions as outer space being the “province of all mankind” (Art. 1), with the “common interest of all mankind in the progress of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes” being its animating principle.

Mightily presumptuous: the whole realm of the celestial heavens a province for all mankind; that it be explored and be exploited, garnished by such utopian hopes as “peaceful purposes”.  But humankind was still bloodied from the savages of a world conflict that had taken the lives of tens of millions. It was popular, even in the shadow of the mushroom cloud, to dream.

Space was envisaged as a world where humans could play out various imaginaries. Unconquered as such, it supplied cultural, political and social rationales to human existence even as it promised a vicious competition between the United States and the Soviet Union.  “It is believed,” opined the space author Vladimir Kopal in January 1967, “that the Treaty will contribute, at least to a certain degree, to diminishing the danger of a major armed conflict which would be waged in and through outer space.”

It is such fantasies that govern the workings of citizen-astronaut Namira Salim, whose work at United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs is focused on efforts to have the first Peace Summit in outer space by 2030. Delightfully optimistic, the attention seeking Salim anticipates peace before conflict, a pre-emption that might prove premature. Nonetheless, she is all booked up as a future space tourist on Virgin Galactic, Sir Richard Branson’s own contribution to the celestial cause.

Legal documents such as the Outer Space Treaty tend to intrigue far more than they should.  Such a term as “peaceful purposes” should hold no mysteries, but manipulated readings were bound to happen.  Legal eagles soared to find new meanings, with Edward R. Finch, Jr. suggesting that such purposes, while decidedly pointing in the direction of “nonaggressive”, might involve “the use of military personnel for outer space exploration”.

Such deductions were natural, but suggestive of an imminent tendency: that any civilian space program, while chest thumpingly noble, could just as easily creep over into the language of conflict and the military.  Space suggested Ashton B. Carter as associate director of the Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, “should be regarded merely as another medium for national security activities.”

It could hardly have creased any brow to hear of US President Donald Trump’s desire for his country to steal a lead in the space stakes with promises of a space force that would constitute the sixth branch of the US military.  Human exploration is characterised by conquest and rivalries. Notions of space as the “global commons” are sweetly noble, but fall flat before national security obsessives.

The previous year, the intention of US legislators towards outer space was made clear with the introduction of the draft bill entitled the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, an instrument written to regulate the newly emerging space mining industry.  In April, the House approved the bill on a voice vote, with Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee delighted that space exploration had been given a “booster rocket”.

The Act overturns the utopian sentiment of much space law, effectively repudiating the global commons and returning the discussion back to conventional modes of appropriation.  The instrument does nothing to encourage companies to show they are compliant with international law. What matters is an adherence to the treaty obligations of the United States, thereby giving commercial companies, in Loren Grush’s words, “a lot of wiggle room to do what they want in space.”

Abiding by this new zeitgeist of exploitation, Trump expressed his wish on June 18 that a suitable military force, be created to “ensure American dominance in space.”  In August, he supplied a date: such a force would be created by 2020. His re-election campaign duly emailed supporters inviting votes as to which Space Force logo they would prefer.  On planet earth, Trump the businessman senses a promotion, a line of merchandise.

The announcement was greeted with enthusiasm by US Vice-President Mike Pence, who was decidedly bellicose: “The next generation of Americans to confront the emerging threats in the boundless expanse of space will be wearing the uniform of the United States of America.”  Where there are US commercial interests, the military is usually not far behind, the willing insurers of imperial power and US business. The “next great chapter in the history of our armed forces,” claimed Pence, was to be written; the US had to prepare for “the next battlefield”.

The enemies of Freedomland might have been extra-terrestrial, but Pence had his eyes closer to home, focusing on aggressive Russia and inscrutable China, both having used “weapons to jam, blind and disable our navigation and communication satellites via electronic attacks from the ground.”  Such “adversaries have transformed space into a warfighting domain already, and the United States will not shrink from this challenge.”

Trump’s announcement sent shivers through those associated with the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, but the logic was relentless and irresistible to agents of the National Security State: the imperative of state power is finally coming out of the closet in characteristically odious form, and space will not be spared.

Battling Contamination: Erin Brockovich Down Under

The Australian press have been in a state of drooling ecstasy.  Part of it is because Australia can be relevant, however negative it might be, to their monster cousin, defender and protector known as the United States.  This time, it’s cultural – in the legal sense. Erin Brockovich has found herself doing the media rounds on yet another legal project, this time against the Australian Defence forces in Katherine in the Northern Territory.  “Australia’s Defence has left Katherine hanging out there like a sitting duck.” Central to this are the dangers of using per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a long time favourite of the ADF. The nagging question is not new: Do they cause various diseases, including cancer?

Brockovich and her legal outfit Shine Lawyers have smell legal briefs in the offing. Lawsuits have been launched against the Defence Department in Katherine, and Oakey in Queensland. The firm is hungry, searching out potential sites of contamination in Western Australian and Victoria.

For Brockovich, there is a sense of environmental redux in all of this: contamination of local water supplies and the environment, the sort that made her case in Hinkley, California, famous.  (Julia Roberts did the rest in her 2000 portrayal.)  Then it was hexavalent chromium and its illegal dumping by Pacific Gas and Electric Company; now it is PFAS chemicals and Australia’s glorious defenders of the realm who have done everything to terrify and console inhabitants.  “People in Katherine,” notes Brockovich, “are receiving bottled water from their government, they are receiving advisories not to eat fish and some food yet they say it doesn’t harm your health.”

The Department of Defence, for its part, has been less than reassuring, issuing potted missives and disclaimers. It insists that a “national program to review, investigate and implement a comprehensive approach to manage” PFAS substances “on, and in the vicinity of, some of its bases around Australia” is being undertaken.  In the comatose, dulling tones characteristic of that department, it speaks of being “proactive” in this regard, and claims to be entirely “open and transparent in making the verified test results available to the local community”.

The effort on the part of the Australian government has been a muddling one serving to inspire suspicion rather than meek acceptance on the issue of PFAS. The Chair of the PFAS Expert Health Panel, Professor Nick Buckley, was quizzed about his expertise in the area in July, a point that was rebuffed by suggesting that it was good to have someone “without any preconceived views on PFAS itself.”

The letter from Buckley to editors of the Newcastle Herald and Sydney Morning Herald, which was intended to be a corrective to the reports circulating on this discrepancy, was formulaic and sterile.  “The conclusions of the panel on the evidence are in agreement with international agency reports and systematic reviews.  These reviews (and ours) consistently note that there are likely biological effects, and express concerns about possible health effects.” 

But doubt had to be factored in the assessments (this panel is, after all, aligned with the auspices of the Department of Defence, yet another example of independence in action), as “they also all agree that, despite there being many studies, there is no consistent evidence that any human disease definitely increased as a result of exposure.”  The meanness of this is evident in that concerns about “likely” biological effects are registered, but that the evidence does not stack up conclusively.

This is also a point that is reiterated through other government channels.  The New South Wales government’s information sheet from last year documents concerns covering PFAS substances noting, firstly, their pervasive use for decades, meaning that they can be “found widely in the land and water environments around the world” and that food remains “the most important source of exposure”.  But having painted a nightmarish scenario, one of disease and human demise, the tone changes. Don your scientific hats, everybody; there is no “consistent evidence that exposure [to PFASs] causes adverse human health effects.” But evidence gathered from animal studies suggests otherwise, meaning that “potential health effects cannot be excluded.”

It is precisely such grounds of qualification that pique Brockovich’s interest.  And she is welcome in certain circles as a legal marauder, a useful David to have a battle with Goliath.  The standing ovation (or written ovations) she receives when spending time in Australia vary in levels of gush, the legal saint comes to right the wrongs of the large and unscrupulous.   She is seen as edgy and plays up to the image. “I can drive better here than I can in the United States. Cause remember, its backwards for us. That’s how I work.”

Arrestingly cute, and does wonders to boost the ambitious girl across the pond image. The hack for The Sydney Morning Herald was certainly won over by her striking height, “with blonde hair coiffed”.  She strides (good to know), and then repairs to lunch at Otto. Brussels sprouts and risotto follows.  “Because I learned in a certain way, I was perceived different. (American illiteracy can be fashionable.) And then because you’re different, society wants to tell you, you’re inferior.  I had to learn their way or it was the highway.”

Brockovich returns the favour, telling her Australian clients through her Shine Lawyers profile how they are “laid back, [have a] good work ethic and have a wicked/demented sense of humour which I love.”  Environmental stalwarts such as the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree, and koalas (she claims to love them) are also noted.

Such profiles must, however, bear fruit.  As the legal proceedings gain traction, the Australian government has stepped up its activity in terms of “managing” PFAS, another box-ticking venture that hopes to pacify the suspicious and throw off critics.  In August, the first round of recipients for the cash laid aside for the Australian Research Council’s Special Research Initiative PFAS Remediation Research Program was announced. The press release announcing the venture was so loud with praise it can only be questioned: “Some of Australia’s best scientists and researchers will commence ground-breaking work to address PFAS contamination in the environment”.  Time for the lawyers to step in.

The Carnival of Homelessness: How the Filthy Rich React

An aggressive sign of an affluent society can usually be gauged by its invidious misuse of its privilege.  Poverty is deemed necessary, and the rich must try to understand it. To be privileged is to be guilty, a tickling of the conscience as the pennies pile up and the assets grow; and from that premise, efforts must be made to give shape to the forgotten, and, in most cases, the invisible.

To be guilty is a spur for works that supposedly highlight those nagging reasons for feeling guilty.  You might supply donations. You can become a philanthropist. You can join a charity. Obscenely, you can become a creature of mocking persuasion, a person of pantomime: you can assume the position of a poor person, a homeless person, and pretend to be him.  And let it be filmed.

“When I was given the opportunity to spend 10 days experiencing different forms of homelessness for an SBS documentary, I jumped at the chance to understand more about a crisis that now sees more than 116,000 Australians homeless on any given night.” So go the words of veteran thespian Cameron Daddo, a person who never explains how understanding Sydney’s poverty leads to results, other than spending time on the screen and proving rather awkward to boot.

The individuals involved in the tawdry Australian spectacle Filthy Rich & Homeless have various reasons for participating.  They have a chance, not merely to appear before the cameras, but to explore another part of Sydney.  What matters for Skye Leckie is the anger of authenticity. Socialite that she is, she does not believe that her participation in the venture is “poverty porn” despite being the very same creature who benefits from having a good quotient of poor around.  “Those who say it’s stunt TV are being totally ignorant to the homeless situation out there.” This is a delicious way of self-justification, a positioned blow to excuse how her exploitation of a social condition is entirely justified by a mysterious, holy insight.  Her pantomime, in other words, is heralded as genuine.

Benjamin Law, author and very much an identity beacon (those things help these days), played the cool cat.  In such ensembles, it’s always good to have the confidently composed, the person who won’t fall for the pathos of the show.  “I went to Filthy Rich and Homeless being adamant that it was only 10 days, and that I wasn’t going to cry – I felt it’d almost be insulting to people who were actually homeless.”  So goes his justification for actually participating in the project: he would hold firm, stay calm, keep his tear ducts dry.  “But when it’s demonstrated that this could easily be a family member, and someone you love, I couldn’t not be affected.”

The show is sugary fodder for social media masturbation, an ever so prodding tease for those who feel pangs of stirring guilt.  Nonsense about “genuine compassion” and “empathy” whirl through the chattersphere, with a disconcerting gurgle of approval at the program.  The implication is clear: like true porn, it produces a release, an orgiastic sensation. The poor are sociological wank fodder. In the aftermath is the little death, or should be.  Such programs float on the froth of sentiment and last longer than they should.

There are shades of the carnivalesque, as Michael Bakhtin called it, in this exercise.  The tradition of the carnival, he explained, suggested alternate worlds, inverted ones where social orders might, just temporarily, be suspended.  The performer and the audience would become one. Communal dialogue might emerge. But the participants will eventually go home; the nobility will revert to their high standing, and the poor will undress and return to their squalid, putrid existence.

Feudalism and tribalism may have made their official exit in the historical textbooks, but we still find stirrings of old custom in the media industry.  The poor are there to be mocked; the vulnerable are there to be, in some form, exploited. Gone is the exaggerated chivalric code, as meagre as it was (keeping people in place), and the presumption of charity.  In its place is the clawing, scraping urge of the media moguls and networks keen to capitalise upon a condition, a disability, a drawback. Poverty is visual and lucrative for all – except the impoverished.

An obvious flaw in this project – several wealthy members of society burying themselves in the poor underbelly – is contrived anonymity. The monarchs supposedly travel incognito amongst the slums.  The participants supposedly become unknown for a time. The King and Queen scrap around the hovels. But who recognises them? Presumably everybody.  Not having a home, or living in indigence, doesn’t mean not having access to the saturation coverage called the World Wide Web.  The camera crews might be a giveaway, the very reality of which produces distortions in the interviews.

The grotesque scene uncovers itself, and the tears, spilling on cue, supply catharsis.  “Most interesting,” noted the Sydney Morning Herald, “is just how little time on the street it takes for them to be reduced to tears.”  To be fair, they only had ten days, so the performance clock was ticking. The filthy rich feel justified – they acknowledged pain and desperation.  The poor, their role achieved, can simply go on living.

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