Saturday, August 08, 2015

POLITICS: Peter Andren we need you more than ever to keep our MPs honest

It's often said that the major problem with our Parliaments is they are inundated with lawyers. As a lawyer myself, I admit that we are excellent at splitting hairs. Our plain English skills also leave a lot to be desired. Little wonder one of our most complex pieces of legislation – the Social Security Act – is barely understood by most lawyers let alone Centrelink clients. Yet anyone falling foul of Centrelink rules, even accidentally, can expect all the resources of the Department of Human Services to come down on them hard.
One advantage of having so many lawyers in Parliament is that they all understand financial trust. They are trained in how to honestly handle other people's money through trust accounts. Law graduates can only become lawyers if they pass an exam on trust accounting. Once they start practising on their own account, solicitors can expect regular visits from the trust account inspector.

Which explains why our MPs are so scrupulously honest about their parliamentary entitlements. They know they are handling money provided on trust by taxpayers. They know that if they do the wrong thing, all hell could break loose.

In theory, at least. Once out of law practice, our ex-lawyer law-makers have gained a reputation for ignoring, bending, stretching if not flouting the rules regarding spending other people's money.

The few MPs who speak out against the rorts tend to be those elected as independents, as opposed to career party hacks. One of these, a former Federal Member for Calare in central NSW, is sadly no longer with us. But we do have Peter Andren's 2003 memoir, The Andren Report: an independent way in Australian politics.

After being elected to Parliament in 1996, Mr Andren increased his majority in 1998. Despite attacking the government's position on asylum seekers, he won again in 2001 with a primary vote of over 50 per cent and a two-candidate-preferred vote of 75 per cent. Many in his electorate would have despised some of his political positions, but they appreciated his honesty and preferred not being represented by a party hack. Maybe it helped that Mr Andren was not a lawyer but rather a local and prominent broadcast journalist.

One of Mr Andren's chapters is titled "Lurks, Perks, and Rorts". As a new MP, he was shocked by 

... just how deep the publicly funded well from which members of Parliament drank. I was immediately shocked at the generosity and virtual accountability of the members of Parliament's travel allowance scheme … MPs had for many years used travel allowances to pay off mortgages for property in Canberra.

Mr Andren was for some time at the centre of the 1997 scandal surrounding former ALP Senator and deputy president of the Senate Mal Colston. When Mr Colston wasn't supported for the plum job by the ALP, he resigned and sat on the cross benches before the incoming Howard government offered him the job with its $16,000-plus pay rise. Eventually Mr Howard had to refer 

... a series of allegations involving misuse of entitlements, Commonwealth cars and postal and travel allowances … to the Commonwealth police.
At the time, Mr Andren was visiting a young offenders' prison farm in his electorate. One inmate asked him a rather logical question: 

How come that bloke Colston can't be charged, when I'm in here for 16  months for stealing a car and possessin' dope? 

Eventually charged, Mr Coston's charges were later dropped.

Following questions from Mr Andren, a number of Coalition MPs and Ministers were forced to amend their records. One minister was forced to pay back $8740 to the Department of Administrative Services. One senior cabinet minister, a minister and an MP who admitted to repaying false travel claims of around $9000 resigned or were sacked. Two of Mr Howard's staffers were also made to resign for covering up the secret repayments.
In September 1997, Mr Andren questioned Mr Howard about 

... members given the opportunity to correct and amend their signed-off travel claims prior to enforced scrutiny … and before their tabling and publication in this house. 

He also asked when MPs would acknowledge that 

... the TA [travel allowance) and overseas travel system had been systematically abused and rorted over many years. 

Mr Howard's response was to accuse Mr Andren of making 

... a cheap shot 

and engaging in 

... generalised smears. 

Mr Andren was then ejected out of the House and into the arms of an adoring media and public.

Mr Andren found neither side wanted to engage in reform, but were happy to accuse each other of rorts. After a vicious attack from Peter Costello, a Labor Senator from Tasmania was found in his Canberra flat with slashed wrists. But Mr Andren knew the system was rotten and pursued the matter.
I realised I was not the flavour of the month among government and Labor members of the house … who had been part of a system that regarded the lurks and perks of office as something of a right than a privilege.
Peter Andren died in 2007, his quest to end the rorts unsuccessful. Since then, Australians have had to put up with the Peter Slipper affair, Choppergate and numerous other examples of MPs taking advantage of a rotten system. Meanwhile, we are constantly being lectured about the end of the age of entitlement. Essential services such as legal aid are slashed.

Voters deserve better than this cartel of rorts. If only we had more Peter Andrens to clean up the mess.
Irfan Yusuf is a PhD candidate at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University. First published in the Canberra Times on 6 August 2015.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

POLITICS: Team Amer ... woops ... Australia

Staya - f*ck yeah!

According to the erudite Bernard Keane, writing in Crikey on 23 June 2015, the phrase "Team Australia" used by Prime Minister Tony Abbott so frequently that it virtually became his trademark, is now virtually dead.

This rhetorical child was killed off after only a year. Born during a Prime Ministerial Address to the Boao Forum for Asia in April last year, the term was used to describe a large delegation visiting China.

On this trip to China, I am accompanied by the foreign minister, the trade minister, five state premiers, one chief minister, and 30 of my country’s most senior chairmen and CEOs. 
It’s one of the most important delegations ever to leave Australia. 
What better way could there be to demonstrate that Australia is open for business: than to visit all three of our largest export partners on the one trip, culminating with the biggest one? ... 
Australia’s preference is always to look forwards rather than backwards; to win friends rather than to find fault; to be helpful, not difficult. Team Australia is here in China to help build the Asian Century.

Gosh. What a positive message. We are here. We have political and business leaders here. We wish to make friends. We value our relationship with you. We are not here to judge or find fault or condescend. We are forward-looking people. We don't wish to be difficult. We are here to help.

So let's compare this positive message to Asian leaders to the message Mr Abbott had for Australian citizens concerned about the security of their country. During a joint press conference with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Attorney General Senator George Brandis on 5 August 2004, hardly four months after the China address, Abbott's tone has completely changed.

Remember, this time he is not talking to foreign leaders. He is talking to his own citizens.

We need new legislation to make it easier to identify, to charge and to prosecute people who have been engaged in terrorist activities overseas such as, for instance, by making it an offence to travel to a designated area without a valid reason. We also need legislation which I have commissioned the Attorney to prepare, which the National Security Committee of the Cabinet has commissioned the Attorney to prepare to ensure that we are best able to monitor potential terrorist activity in this country. Obviously with the usual range of safeguards and warrants but that will include discussions with the telecommunications providers about the retention of metadata. We are also determined to engage in ever closer consultation with communities including the Australian Muslim community. 
When it comes to counter-terrorism everyone needs to be part of ‘Team Australia’ and I have to say that the Government’s proposals to change 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act have become a complication in that respect. I don’t want to do anything that puts our national unity at risk at this time and so those proposals are now off the table. This is a call that I have made. It is, if you like, a leadership call that I have made after discussion with the Cabinet today. In the end leadership is about preserving national unity on the essentials and that is why I have taken this decision.
There is a sense that the government wishes to consult, to protect, to even compromise so as to maintain solidarity within the team. Though I'm not sure what abandoning changes to the RDA had to do with the solidarity sought.

The term was catching on. At the Sir John Downer Oration on 21 August 2015, Abbott mentioned a Muslim leader using the term.

Multiculturalism has turned out to mean people becoming Australian – joining our team if you like – in their own way and at their own pace. 
One of the participants in my Muslim leaders’ round tables this week rather exuberantly declared: “we are all part of Team Australia team and you are our captain” – suggesting that he had yet to assimilate Australians’ habitual scepticism towards politicians! 
In our own way, Australia has long sought to showcase this easy-going approach to cultural and religious differences.
Abbott did not show the same scepticism toward multiculturalism as John Howard. Team Australia was still inclusive, even if only at a leader-to-leader level. Abbott's appreciation for this was expressed during a speech to the South Australian Liberal Party on 23 August 2015:

As many of you would know, I’ve spent much of the last week talking to the leaders of the Muslim community here in Australia. They are decent people, they are proud of our country and like every one of their fellow Australians, they are appalled at the things now being done in different parts of the world in the name of religion. One of them said to me on Tuesday in Melbourne, in a booming voice, full of exuberance, he said, “You know, we are all part of Team Australia”, and he looked at me and he smiled, “And you are our captain”. I have never been more proud and I have never been more exhilarated than to hear that statement.

Again, the discussons are with "the leaders of the Muslim community here in Australia". The leaders seem to be part of Team Australia, at least to the extent that they recognise Abbott as the captain.

The Opposition, of course, weren't part of Team Australia, at least to the extent that they did not like his approach to tax and superannuation matters. The overuse of the term turned it into a farce. As Bernard Keane notes:

After a remarkable debut month in August when the term was mentioned over 8000 times across the media, over 3000 times in September, nearly 4000 times in October and 2-3000 each in the last two months of 2014, media mentions fell away — first below 1000 in January, to just over 300 in March, and just 136 in April. Abbott’s off-hand mention in May garnered 765 mentions.

The luvvy-duvvy talk came to an end when Abbott turned on the same foot soldiers when announcing changes to citizenship laws that would revoke or suspend citizenship of those involved in terrorism or terror-related acts. The Guardian Australia reported it as follows:

In a national security speech on Monday, the prime minister also called on Muslim leaders to proclaim Islam as a religion of peace “more often, and mean it”.

Since then, Team Australia appears to have been dumped. The last word belongs to Keane:
Farewell, Team Australia — may you enjoy your rest in whatever paradise abandoned focus-group phrases go to.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

CRIKEY: News Corp encouraged Zaky Mallah’s extremism: judge

News Corp is in no place to take the moral high ground on giving Zaky Mallah a media platform, write lawyer and author Irfan Yusuf and senior lecturer at UNSW Helen Pringle. 

Yesterday’s Daily Telegraph front page screamed: “TERROR VISION”. The question was posed:
How dare the taxpayer funded ABC allow this man to spout his bile on national TV?.
A picture showed a smiling Zaky Mallah holding a gun.

On page 4, under the infantile headline “SYRIAL AGITATOR”, a heavily edited chronology of Mallah’s life is provided: employment history, overseas trips and alleged involvement with Syrian resistance groups fighting both Assad and Daesh (otherwise known as Islamic State or ISIS). There’s a brief mention of the New South Wales Supreme Court acquitting Mallah “of terrorism-related charges”. Not much more on that topic. We wondered why.

We went back to the April 21, 2005, judgment of Justice James Wood. We now know why News Corp and some other Australian media outlets would not be keen on publicising its contents.

In 2002, Mallah’s passport application had been refused. He appeared on A Current Affair as well as on Alan Jones’ radio program. Paragraph 13 of the 2005 judgment speaks of Mallah as
... beginning to enjoy, if not to crave, the media attention, which was providing him with an interest or cause in an otherwise unfulfilling or empty life.
Media outlets happily entertained his craving,
... particularly with The Australian, and The Daily Telegraph but also with several television stations.
Paragraph 14 describes how in late 2003 Mallah
... showed, or sold, to the journalists copies of some of the documents which police had earlier seized, as well as some photographs of himself in dramatic poses, holding a knife, and wearing the kind of garb that, it seems, he considered appropriate for a would-be terrorist or suicide bomber.
Gosh. News Corp and commercial TV journos appear to have bought photos of Mallah in dangerous poses. Perhaps looking like a suicide bomber. Or like a younger Man Monis. Surely responsible scribes wouldn’t just sit on this. Surely they’d think going to the cops might be an idea. Let’s wait and see. Wood says in paragraph 15:
In the weekend edition of The Australian of November 22-23 [2003], he featured in an article on the front page entitled ‘Tortured World of an Angry Young Man’. It contained some of the photographs that he had supplied, and extracted portions of his manifesto or final message. Reference was made to his grievances and prior arrest [on firearms charges], and the article concluded with some observations as to his potential dangerousness and vulnerability to manipulation, noting that ‘without urgent help, Zak Mallah, Islam and his problems make a deadly cocktail’ ...
The transactions then went further. Paragraph 20:
At the same time as these discussions [with an anti-terror command agent posing as a journalist, between 28 October and November 3, 2003] were taking place, the Prisoner was also in contact with journalists from The Australian, and The Daily Telegraph and possibly also Channel 9, with a view to obtaining further coverage and the sale of photographs or the video.

Did News Corp and/or Channel Nine pay Mallah any money? Mallah certainly needed it. Paragraph 25:
[T]he Prisoner was in straightened financial circumstances, and living in a Housing Commission flat, without any substantial means of income.
Mallah, in fact, claimed that he had discussions with the government agent in order to be paid a sum of money. Wood was scathing about the behaviour of journalists and editors in contact with Mallah at this time. Paragraph 34:
Had real fears been entertained as to his potential dangerousness, then the preferable course surely would have been to pass any relevant information concerning him, to the appropriate policing and security agencies. Had he been dismissed as an attention seeker, of no moment, then there surely would have been no occasion to give him the extensive public exposure which he obviously enjoyed and indeed craved.
Dob him in as a dangerous threat or ignore him as an attention-seeker. Unless you just wanted to manufacture false hysteria about terrorism and minorities. Paragraph 37:
[P]lacing a person such as the Prisoner into the public spotlight is not only likely to encourage him to embark on even more outrageous and extravagant behaviour but, perhaps more importantly, it risks unnecessarily heightening the existing public concerns about terrorist activity as well as encouraging or fanning divisive and discriminatory views among some members of the community.
There’s more to this than simply irresponsible journalism. Our security could have been at stake. And breaches of the law might have taken place. Paragraph 35:
[H]ad the Prisoner’s plan in this case been genuine, the journalists dealing with him, and indeed any police officer doing so without a controlled operations certificate, risked committing offences themselves, under the widely crafted terrorism laws, for example, under s 101.4 or 101.5 of the Criminal Code if they obtained possession of, or collected, documents connected with the preparation for a terrorist act by him; or under s 103.1 if they paid monies to him and were reckless as to whether they might be used by him to facilitate or engage in such an act.
Had Mallah actually committed a real attack with real people dying, then The Australian, the tabloids, Channel Nine and other media outlets might have found themselves on trial for terrorism offences for their actions in facilitating such an attack. No amount of hysterical front-page headlines would save the scribes from the anger of readers and advertisers.

When you point the finger at your competitors, chances are three fingers will be pointing straight back at you. The actions of News Corp in 2002 and 2003 not only gave Zaky Mallah a media platform but perhaps also payments worth more than a ride on a shuttle bus. After Mallah was sentenced in 2005, Vanda Carson in The Australian of April 22, 2005, drew attention to Wood’s warnings on media involvement and coverage of Mallah’s actions. She inaccurately, if ingeniously, wrote:
A senior judge has admitted intelligence agencies would never have picked up Sydney terror suspect Zaky Mallah without the interest of the media.
Wood’s implication, however, was that without the media’s actions, Mallah might have been committed for nuisance at most. Not for terror — for which he was, at any rate, acquitted — and not on a “technicality”, but because, Wood noted, “the Crown failed” to make its case.

One need not agree with everything Wood has to say. But for some media outlets to suggest the ABC was helping out Islamic State by giving an Australian citizen (for now, at least) a voice is downright hypocrisy.

First published in Crikey on 25 June 2015.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

OPINION: An uncomfortable intersection of political interests

On Sunday, thousands of fair dinkum real Aussies will gather at rallies across Australia, raising the Australian flag and shouting slogans. Among the places they'll gather is the central Queensland coastal town of Mackay. Coalition federal MP George Christensen will be speaking. On behalf of Prime Minister Tony Abbott? Reading a message from the PM? Who knows.

A previous Reclaim Australia Rally in Melbourne some months back was characterised by the presence of some, er, interesting people engaging in interesting conduct. A fair few neo-Nazis sporting visible swastika tattoos on shaved heads and/or wearing swastika T-shirts and carrying Aussie flags joined the parade. They were jostling and shouting slogans and carrying placards saying "Abbott! No halal certification" and "No Shariah law!" I doubt even Zaky Mallah would do that sort of thing in an ABC studio.
Christensen certainly has more testicular fortitude than Abbott's frontbenchers who have been ordered not to appear on a certain ABC show whose ratings have gone through the roof. Brisbane's Courier Mail reports Christensen declaring he will defy even the PM's orders and attend the rally.

Reading through the 24 pillars of the Reclaim Australia manifesto, I couldn't help but wonder why Abbott would object. There is a call for ...
... [t]he right to exile or deport traitors ...
... which I guess is akin to Abbott's original call for people engaging in terror-like activities to be stripped of their Australian citizenship even if it was their only one.

Where will Indigenous Australians fit in an Australia reclaimed by the far-right white reclaimers? "Equality at Law", screams pillar No. 3, "No more 'cultural considerations'". That should make Andrew Bolt very happy.

The ideology of Reclaim has a distinctly supremacist feel to it. But in case you thought it was fringe, the reclaimers are singing from virtually the same rhetorical and policy songbook as the federal Coalition on cultural and security matters. Despite trumpeting separation of religion and state, Reclaim's manifesto mentions Christian values and rights numerous more times. How often have we heard Abbott and his ministers lecture us on how Australia has a Christian heritage?

It's true that Coalition MPs tend not to jostle and shout slogans and sport swastika tattoos. But as a former federal Liberal candidate, it pains me to say that in so many ways the more contentious political beliefs on issues like culture and citizenship promoted by the Coalition are effectively the same as those of the far right.

It's hard to say who is influencing who. Certainly the Coalition strategy in the 2001 Tampa election was to destroy Pauline Hanson by mimicking her rhetoric on asylum-seekers. Howard would frequently speak of integration and wasn't too fond of multiculturalism.

Ironically, Tony Abbott held the opposite view. He regarded multiculturalism as a fundamentally sound and inherently conservative social policy. Abbott was one of the few frontbenchers who refused to join the chorus of Muslim-phobic and migrant-phobic hysteria around issues of citizenship and national security. In addresses to various audiences, Abbott recalled what it was like for him and fellow Catholics during previous decades when Catholics were demonised.

Abbott is a victim of the far-right. A former staffer of his walked out to join Pauline Hanson. Abbott and his allies worked hard to ensure One Nation was made accountable for financial irregularities. There was little indication in Abbott's quite brilliant manifesto Battlelines that he would go in an extreme direction. True, he did see Australia as within a broader Anglosphere of nations. But his policy platform did not include stripping people of citizenship for spraying graffiti on public buildings.

If Abbott does give the order to the federal member for Dawson not to attend this rally, it will sound almost hypocritical. I have never seen Tony Jones and the Q&A panel and audience wear swastika T-shirts. There has been no jostling or arrests made, nor are racist slogans tolerated. If Abbott doesn't stop Christensen from attending the Mackay rally, it will show he regards far-right white supremacist extremism as being less troublesome than some kid sporting a marijuana cap and suggesting a minister's rhetoric is pushing Muslim kids to join Islamic State.

It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that events overseas appear to have radicalised the conservative side of politics in Australia than they have local Muslims. Today we see far-right lunatics and their Coalition friends using IS as an excuse to beat their chests. Sikh temples are being attacked as the chest-beaters are happy to attack anything or anyone they deem Muslim. Only God knows what Asian Australians will experience should China decide do more than build islands in the South China Sea.

This all shows that discussions (or lack thereof) on national security in Australia are rarely conducted in a sensible manner. Phillip Adams recently wrote in the Weekend Australian:
The current liturgy chanted in unison by ministers prime and junior in the Gregorian manner, including Stop the Boats and Death Cult. They are not designed to encourage discussion but to end it. To drown out doubt, debate, calibration, nuance and context.
The results of repetitious paranoid Coalition rhetoric, channelled through ridiculously rabid columnists and shock jocks, will be seen this Sunday. Hopefully it won't be too ugly.

Irfan Yusuf is PhD candidate at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University. First published in the Canberra Times on 17 July 2015.

OPINION: Belligerent and unhelpful: that's our Prime Minister Tony Abbott

Soon a huge chunk of the Australian population will be eligible to be stripped of their citizenship. Tony Abbott announced
[t]he government will strip Australian citizenship from dual nationals who engage in terrorism.
If you're a dual national convicted of ...
... certain specified terrorism-related offences ...
... you automatically lose your Australian citizenship. Feel safer?

The proposals have been debated for some time now. The electorate has been primed about the dangers of terrorism on an almost daily basis by the Prime Minister, by blaring headlines and screeching columns of tabloid columnists and shock jocks. The other day an angry kid named Zaky Mallah appeared on an ABC TV talk show and declared the government's policies were pushing Muslims to join Islamic State. Abbott doubtless couldn't believe his luck.

Some weeks back, Abbott hosted a Regional Countering Violent Extremism summit. Delegates included government ministers from countries other than Indonesia, civil society actors, CVE "practitioners" and academics. One British-based practitioner I spoke to described Mr Abbott's language as
... belligerent and unhelpful.
Abbott made out that IS was coming to get us all. Yet delegates were often busy discussing how to deal with far-right extremism of the kind that frequently attacks Muslims and other minorities in places like Germany, Greece and Britain. Australia also has a problem with far-right extremism which has included numerous violent rallies by groups such as "Reclaim Australia". Abbott's silence about this violent extremism is almost deafening.

Far-right extremists have repeatedly damaged mosques and Sikh temples. They have physically assaulted and spat on women wearing scarves, stalked and videoed them and uploaded video of them on to social media. Women suffer disproportionately from this kind of not-so-domestic violence as they do violence in the home.

Perhaps this is what Canberra Muslim community broadcaster Diana Abdel-Rahman meant when she told The Australian
Let me tell you the level of racism, it is absolutely horrific … This is not the Australia that I know and I grew up in.
Diana is not your typical victim of racism. Were it not for her hijab, she could pass for any fair-skinned Anglo-Australian public servant. Her radio station, whose volunteers once included yours truly, insists on only playing English-language programs featuring North American, Australian and British accents.

So when this Brisbane-born Aussie mum hears a London-born PM telling her to join Team Australia, to "get with the program" and condemn IS terrorism "more often and mean it", you can imagine her frustration. Diana's relatives in Lebanon have more to lose from IS. Numerous friends have told me stories of young Lebanese Sunni and Alawi girls in places like Tripoli being kidnapped by IS thugs. Yet still Lebanon opens its doors to Syrian refugees, as does Turkey and Jordan. UNHCR estimates Lebanon houses around 1.3 million Syrian refugees. You won't hear Lebanon's PM saying "nope nope nope".

Still, does this rhetoric from the PM and his ministry really reek of racism? The rightward shift of Australian society has created a strong resentment toward allegations of racism, which tend to be thrown in the "political correctness" bin. At best, we prefer to fight prejudice with token or symbolic measures.

Kevin Rudd has said sorry, so the continuing injustice of the NT Intervention which is exempt from the Racial Discrimination Act rarely makes news. Rosie Batty can be awarded Australian of the Year but her calls to treat domestic violence as "domestic terrorism" fell on deaf ears in Parliament. In this environment, crying racism may not be the best strategy. Maybe remind people of civil liberties, of democracy and Australian values, the stuff that affects everyone. As John Howard often said:
The things that unite us are more important than those which divide us.
Which is all very good for Mr Howard to say. He's a bloke. He doesn't wear a headscarf as a religious obligation. If he converted to Islam (or Judaism or Sikhism for that matter), the only difference he'd have to the average non-hipster would be facial hair.

He doesn't know what it's like to be assaulted, spat at, to have a scarf ripped off his head or have far-right goons stalking him. And notwithstanding Howard's age, he'd probably have much less of a problem getting a legal job than a woman in a hijab with a superior CV to his.

Terrorism rhetoric hits many Muslim women harder because it's mixed with calls for banning burqas which many Australians cannot differentiate from a simple scarf. Considering the often unreported violent experiences of women, there is a definite stench of anti-female and anti-Muslim bigotry which religious spokespersons and politicians often forget.

Abbott may get his desired terror laws. He may look tough on terror and win an election. But if his Team Australia is built on lack of social cohesion and his rhetoric triggers a violent far-right responses, the security he delivers will soon become a mirage.

Irfan Yusuf is a PhD Candidate at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University. First published in the Canberra Times on 24 June 2015.

Monday, July 20, 2015

CRIKEY: What really went on at Brandis’ terror talkfest

The bluster of stuffy ministers was all the cameras showed. What you may have missed was the diligent, entrepreneurial work of savvy hackers. 

Nestled in a quiet corner of Walsh Bay in the shadow of the Sydney Harbour Bridge is a row of old grey-brown buildings that look like something out of the Great Depression. One of these has two doors that occasionally open to allow well-dressed persons to enter or leave. Once the doors shut, the building is camouflaged among its neighbours. This is the Pier One Hotel. You could drive past it a few hundred times and hardly notice it was there.

But if you approached it during the second half of last week, you’d find the place overrun with people in NSW and Federal Police uniforms and those scary 007-style earpiece thingies. Take a walk inside (if you could get past the strict security), and you’d find plenty of blokes (and the odd female) in serious suits gathered for an important symposium.

And indeed they were. For this was Australia’s Regional Summit to Counter Violent Extremism. Or CVE, as it’s now referred to. Not quite an acronym, but less confusing than ISIS or ISIL or IS or Daesh.

Also present were lots of camera crews, journalists, backbenchers, a few ministers and the Prime Minister. And zero Indonesian politicians. If you stood outside and relied on the daily papers, you’d think the entire summit was about building massive walls around civilisation to keep the IS hordes out.. But if you managed to attend any of the workshops or spoke to the delegates or were even just a fly on the wall, the message would have been a bit garbled.

The real point of the conference was diverting vulnerable young people from IS. As we all know, millions of Australian Muslim kiddies are slipping out of their Lakemba homes to join Caliph Ibrahim without first seeking written permission from the Attorney-General.

Young people are very vulnerable, especially on social media. IS uses Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media to attract young people to its message. These young people might then head off to Iraq or Syria to join the caliphate. Or these young people might do something nasty back home.

In case you hadn’t noticed, it was all about young people. People of the same age bracket as, say, my nephews or Tony Abbott’s daughters. Young people who didn’t address any workshops or seminars, whose opinions weren’t sought on why they might be tempted to join “the Death Cult” (and no, I’m not talking about the heavy metal band from Zurich). Young people who were almost completely absent from the conference. Almost.

Huddled in a quiet room was a small group engaged in the HackAbout project. Yes, it was partnered with the Attorney-General’s Department and the US State Department. Yes, two of the organisers were former US State Department staffers. But this wasn’t about governments. Rather it was about young people harnessing their energy, expertise and passion to find innovative ways to counter the narratives of violent extremists. All violent extremists.

(Among the older participants was a former white supremacist who was, in fact, part of the winning team. Another of them was yours truly, who has had some experience with what some may call “Islamofascism”).

The theory behind the “hackathon” was to create a product that would combat violent extremism and bigotry. Why both? Because they are, effectively, two sides of the same coin. Because they feed off each other.

The participant hackers (or hacks, if you like) included uni students with gaming, graphic design and IT experience. The elder statesmen and stateswomen included Anne Aly of Curtin University and two entrepreneurial types from the US, one of whom founded the world’s largest online directory of halal restaurants. Eat your heart out, Cory Bernardi.

The result of three days of effort was four products, including an app and a game. At this stage, two products will be incubated for further development.

The four groups made a business case for their product to summit delegates. The presentations were also streamed to a global audience who also voted for the winning product. My group’s idea came third, and I take full responsibility for none of it. The winning group, led by Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who works as a FIFO mechanical engineer on oil rigs, came up with a product called Pentor. You might think it’s a new anti-depressant, but actually it’s an app that operates like Tinder, except you’re searching for a mentor and not someone to engage in horizontal folk dancing.

And what did I learn from my HackAbout experience? Well for starters, never engage in such activity when on your second round of antibiotics. But more importantly, I am an old man getting older. I have a lot to learn from those younger than I, and so do out politicians. Because while the delegates were giving speeches, the young folk were developing strategies and products that were tailored for young people to help them shape their lives, without reaching out to violent extremists. No homes were raided. No passports cancelled. No control orders were necessary.

First published in Crikey on 16 June 2015.

OPINION: Why is Bronwyn Bishop meddling in matters that don't concern her?

In case you hadn't noticed, Canberra is not the capital of Britain . We do speak something resembling English, and our beloved Prime Minister was born in London. Australia shares many similarities with Mother England in our major institutions – the common law, a parliamentary democracy and a strong commitment to winning the Ashes.

Our lower house of Parliament is called the House of Representatives. The idea of referring to average Aussies as "Commons" isn't something the drafters of our constitution were too fond of. We also don't have Lords in our country, nor are Senators seen as Lords. And please, nobody mention Knights and Dames.

Our House of Representatives has a Speaker who presides over all meetings of the House. Unlike in the British House of Commons, our Speaker isn't so independent that she has to leave her political party and still needs to contest elections. Bronwyn Bishop remains the Member for Mackellar on Sydney's Northern Beaches, her seat next door to that of Tony Abbott's seat of Warringah. In his preselection speech, Abbott famously asked delegates to
... place an Abbott next to a Bishop.
The Speaker can also attend party meetings. But that's about it. The Speaker is supposed to be impartial, to speak for the House and the whole House. And the House is the place where the executive, the ministers of the Crown, are to be made accountable. That can happen during Question Time but it can also happen in committees.

The Commonwealth produced a colourful booklet entitled The Speaker of the House of Representatives 2nd Edition in 2008. You can find on page 5 of that booklet the following statement:
... the Speaker is the servant of the House and not of the Crown/executive.
If the executive is making decisions or attempting to implement policies which are the subject of heated debate, it is not the Speaker's role to act as a spokesman for the executive or to defend the proposed decision or policy.

The Abbott government doesn't need Bronwyn Bishop to defend its policies on national television, whether on Q&A or elsewhere. It is not Bronwyn Bishop's role to tell us how wonderful the executive are in developing aged care or national security policies. Currently this role is one the ALP and the Greens are fulfilling quite nicely, thank you very much.

So why did Bronwyn so quickly jump in to defend the contentious policies of the executive in the face of criticism from the government's handpicked former National Security Monitor and the Human Rights Commissioner? Why meddle in matters that didn't concern her?

Ian Hancock's 2007 book The Liberals: The NSW Division 1945-2000 mentions Bishop's period as state president of the NSW Liberals In 1985, succeeding John Valder.
Like Valder, Bronwyn Bishop was an interventionist state president; unlike him, she imposed no limits on her interventionism. No president had ever before occupied an office in the secretariat, and not one of her predecessors had treated the job as full time … Bishop was both a chairman of the board and a managing director. Virtually no matter was too trivial to escape her attention.
Bishop appointed Graeme Starr as state director. Starr's assessment of Bishop?
The distinguishing feature of her presidency was the endemic factionalism which brought the party to its lowest point in history.
Division and unnecessary intervention are not exactly the features one would expect from a Speaker of the House. Nor would one expect the Speaker to lecture a statutory officer to resign and run for office. If this is the quality of our elected representatives, our Human Rights Commissioner should remain where she is.

Gillian Triggs isn't the only person to be subjected to ridiculous attacks. Even someone as insignificant as yours truly was described by Bishop in September 2005 under parliamentary privilege as a
... Muslim activist known for his offensive behaviour to women.
She continued:
... I totally refute his statements but, as he has not resorted to bomb throwing, I guess we can handle his accusation.
A few days later, word of my behaviour to women spread far and wide and I was invited to become a White Ribbon Day Ambassador campaigning to eliminate violence against women. ASIO hasn't yet contacted me about throwing bombs. 

And speaking of women, a month earlier Bronwyn Bishop had this to say on the National Interest program on Radio National: 

Now this morning on a debate with a Muslim lady, she said she felt free being a Muslim, and I would simply say that in Nazi Germany, Nazis felt free and comfortable. That is not the sort of definition of freedom that I want for my country. 

Ms Bishop was, on that occasion, defending her great contribution to national security – calling for the banning of girls wearing headscarves in state schools. Despite periods in both Houses of Parliament, Ms Bishop's parliamentary career has been anything but stellar. She has never held a cabinet position. At best, she was a junior minister in the Howard government for the first two terms before being dropped. 

And now Ms Bishop may have the honour of being remembered as the House of Representatives' most partisan and partial Speaker. 

Irfan Yusuf is PhD candidate at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University. First published in the Canberra Times on 19 June 2015.