Monday, November 18, 2013
Political conservatism is such a wonderful thing. The status quo is worth maintaining because it obviously works. If it didn't, people wouldn't allow it to remain the status quo. But if you find the status quo doesn't work, change it gradually. It recognises that the populace are human beings not accustomed to radical change. Evolution always makes more sense than revolution, unless your preference is the rule of guillotines.
Since 1975, the Commonwealth has had in place the Racial Vilification Act, which seeks to implement our international legal obligations including the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Twenty years later, the act was amended to introduce provisions on racial hatred.
Friday, November 08, 2013
Federal Attorney-General George Brandis SC wants to amend section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act to make it harder for people to make a legal complaint about race hate speech. The provision was introduced in 1996 during the last days of Paul Keating and with the full support of then-opposition leader John Howard.
When in opposition and during a speech to the Sydney Institute on May 7, Brandis proclaimed: “Who defends freedom of speech in Australia today? Is it really to be left to a few conservative commentators like Andrew Bolt and Janet Albrechtsen; a couple of think tanks like the Sydney Institute and the Institute of Public Affairs; and the Liberal Party?”
But at an IQ2 debate in Sydney last night, St James Ethics Centre executive director Simon Longstaff reminded us of another area of free speech that needs protection: insulting and lampooning religion and religious figures is still a criminal offence in most Australian states and territories. Laws allowing prosecution for blasphemy still exist in 21st century Australia, though under the common law such laws only protect the sentiments of Christians.
True, like the laws used to prosecute Andrew Bolt, blasphemy laws are hardly ever used. You’d think that the mere possibility of blasphemy laws being enforceable would be something for Brandis to immediately address. But then that would take away the chance for Tony Abbott’s favourite priest to seek injunctions against art galleries.
Longstaff chaired a debate entitled “God and his prophets (or his prophets for the less devout) should be protected from insult”. Malaysian Opposition Leader and former deputy PM Anwar Ibrahim was supposed to speak in favour of the motion, but he had to pull out at the last minute after prosecutors decided to appeal the quashing of his conviction under Malaysia’s medieval sodomy laws.
Julian Burnside QC was a last-minute replacement for Anwar. Joining him on the affirmative team was Uthman Badar, a PhD student in economics from the University of Western Sydney and a man whose freedom of speech our erstwhile government wants to take away by banning Hizb ut-Tahrir (“the Party of Liberation”), the organisation Badar represents in Australia. On the negative side was engineer Yasmin Abdel Magied and the awesome Thomas Keneally.
Believe it or not, the affirmative were not arguing that blasphemy should be an offence. They weren’t interested in using the law. Their focus was on what should be socially acceptable. Badar argued the starting point of any discussion on this topic should not be free speech — which he claimed was not a universal value but rather an ideological fetish often used by Western pseudo-liberals to brandish those regarded as inferior. Instead, the starting point should be civility. Unless you are rude and depraved, you don’t go out of your way to insult others. All too often freedom of speech is not about freedom of expression but rather the freedom of the powerful to offend others and incite discord.
Badar argued that, in Australia, Jesus is fair game but not the Anzacs. When you insult someone by attacking things they hold dear, you aren’t just screwing social cohesion; you’re also making a fool of yourself by projecting your own insecurities. Rupert Murdoch must be paying Bolt top dollar to go through all that.
Badar’s argument appeared sound enough, but it missed the point. The topic was about protecting G/god and H/his P/prophets. Yasmin Abdel Maguid pounced on this weakness by asking how pathetic creatures like us could protect so mighty and perfect a creator. And she argued that how you respond to an insult is really up to you. Free speech and religion must never be seen as mutually exclusive. None of the prophets (including Muhammad) insisted on protection from insult.
Burnside cited one of his law lecturers: “Your freedom to swing your fist stops at my nose.” My humble criminal law lecturer at Macquarie Law School would have argued that punching someone in the nose was not just a matter of offence. Burnside also spoke about anonymous letters he received which offended him, even though they were directed at Muslims. The same letter writer would claim Muslim extremists supported the ALP.
In response, Keneally argued that one man’s criticism is another man’s insult. OK, I admit there was more to the arguments of both Burnside and Keneally than that. They both argued that Muslims and other minorities needed protection from collective insults. But I wondered whether they were both underestimating the ability of minorities to form alliances and take the fight to the bigots. Or maybe I’m being too optimistic.
Plus I have to wonder what is more offensive — a 12-minute amateurish YouTube clip, or Murdoch claiming Muslims have lower intelligence because they marry their cousins? And should I be offended? Or should I just laugh it off as the idiocy of one businessman and not reflective of the editorial line of his powerful newspapers?
Around 80% of the audience supported the negative argument. I’m not sure how God voted, but then I couldn’t see Him anywhere amongst the crowd.
Monday, October 21, 2013
Claims among dubious Pakistanis that Malala Yusufzai is now Western puppet ignore her ongoing heroism.
Malala Yusufzai hails from the Swat Valley, a region known as the Switzerland of Pakistan and once a popular destination for middle class Pakistani holiday makers and international tourists. Swat is home to ethnically Pushtun people known for their conservative cultural and religious mores but also for their hospitality. Washington Post correspondent Pamela Constable notes in her book Playing With Fire: Pakistan at War with Itself that ambitious Swati Pushtuns "fled to construction jobs in the Middle East; those who stayed behind were described as dreamy and tolerant".
Malala (also pronounced Malalai) is a common name for girls in these parts. It was the name of a famous heroine who spent her wedding day on the battlefield tending to the wounded men of her tribe who fought the British forces at the Battle of Maiwind in July 1880. With no one left to raise the flag, she grabbed it and sang a few couplets of freedom before being struck down by British troops. Spurred on by her bravery, the men made a final assault and defeated the British foe.
That heroic Malala rated no mention in British war chronicles, but she became a heroine for her people.
Now things have gone into reverse. Hardly a year has passed since a modern Malala was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman who boarded her school bus. Far from being silent about her, the British press can't seem to get enough of Malala. She now lives in the relative safety of Birmingham where she attends an exclusive school and has even been invited for tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace.
Back home, there has also been a fair amount of adulation, though mixed with strong feelings of resentment toward her Western admirers if not ambivalence toward Malala. Some Pakistanis claim the awards and accolades she has received represent a betrayal of innocent people killed by American drone attacks which have claimed the lives of more than 1000 Pakistani civilians. The West chooses to ignore (and hence implicitly applaud) these deaths as part of the so-called war on terror. Pakistanis read Western newspapers and websites, and can see Malala giving Western rightwing cultural warriors and leftwing do-gooders a new symbol with which to belittle Pakistan.
Prominent Western voices have in years past used a similar fetish to "rescue" non-white Muslim women. In her 2005 scholarly essay The war on terror and the "rescue" of Muslim women, Melbourne academic Dr Shakira Hussein mentions how in the lead-up to the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Laura Bush and Cherie Blair (the respective wives of then US President and the British Prime Minister) both used the suffering of Afghan women to justify war. The United States and its allies initially removed the Taliban from power but at the same time allowed its own tribal Northern Alliance allies in Afghanistan to carry out similar, if not identical, forms of gendered oppression. To avenge the deaths of 9/11 victims, a greater number of Afghan victims (including women) were killed.
Given Western ambivalence toward the plight of many Afghans and Pakistanis at the hands of formerly Western backed terrorists and dictators, it's natural they might be a little suspicious of a situation where a young Pakistani girl is plucked out of obscurity by the West. In their eyes, she isn't the first Pakistani to be shot in the head by terrorists, and no matter how much one hates to say this, she probably won't be the last. But now she and her family live in relative safety. Hundreds of other Taliban victims and their families aren't so lucky. Their poverty-stricken voices aren't heard by the over-nourished West, nor are they nominated for international awards. God knows how they'd be treated if in desperation they boarded a rickety boat and headed for Australia.
But one can't help detect a certain conspiratorial tone from some Pakistani cynics. As if a 16-year-old is part of a Western plot to somehow destabilise Pakistan and ruin its image. It takes some guts for a girl who has survived being shot in the head to then visit the White House and tell the world's most powerful man to stop bombing her country. Yet this is what Malala Yusufzai intends to do. It is a task even Pakistan's leaders have failed to take up. Indeed for every finger pointed at Malala, surely three must point right back at Pakistan. Middle class Pakistani critics who emulate Western culture but resent a poor Pushtun girl being congratulated for her bravery should remember that.
As always, such conspiracies are egged on by Pakistan's neighbours. Pakistan's Dawn newspaper recently published a column by Nadeem Paracha which claimed Malala's real name was Jane, that she was the daughter of Hungarian Christian missionaries and that she was left with a Pakistani couple as a gift after they secretly converted to Christianity. The article was picked up as serious news by the allegedly serious Iranian Press TV news agency. It seems some in Iran's official media circles don't recognise Pakistani satire when they see it.
So what is the meaning of Malala? She is a symbol of Pakistani girls just seeking their God-given right to an education. The Prophet Muhammad insisted women and men seek knowledge, but God only knows which prophet the Taliban are following. How ironic that by almost snatching away her life, the Taliban have given her life genuine purpose and her nation's women greater stature. No amount of Pakistani or Western hypocrisy will take that away.
Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer. First published in the New Zealand Herald on Wednesday 16 October 2013.
Thursday, September 26, 2013
A cynic might suggest Western media regard the shedding of the blood of brown-skinned Catholics by the Tehrik-i-Taleban Pakistan ("Student Movement of Pakistan" or the Pakistani Taleban) as less newsworthy than the murders of Westerners by the Somali Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen ("Movement of Striving Youth" or al-Shabaab). But that is a discussion for another time.
What matters now is that we have two sets of victims struck by effectively the same perpetrator inspired by the same demented ideology. Whether the Pakistani Taleban or al-Shabaab, what we have is a global ideology seeking to impose its own demented political theology by force.
Like its al-Qaeda colleagues, the Pakistani Taleban rarely discriminates on the basis of religion. Though calling itself an Islamic group, it will happily spill Muslim blood. Shia mosques and neighbourhoods have been subjected to suicide bombings.
Sunni security personnel, soldiers and innocent civilians have been blown to bits by suicide bombers.
But its most recent attack on the All Saints Church at Kohati Gate in Peshawar deliberately targeted one of Pakistan's most disadvantaged faith communities. The service had just ended and the 400 worshippers were leaving the building when two suicide bombers detonated their devices.
Eyewitnesses reported around 100 parishioners lay in pools of blood. At least 80 were dead, more then half of them women and children.
It was the worst attack on Christians in Pakistan's history.
The church was built in 1882 on the design of a mosque, with a dome and minarets. It is one of a handful of churches that service some 60,000 Christians in Peshawar.
So why did this happen? Kamal Siddiqui, editor of the Express-Tribune, writes:
Pakistanis are dying in large numbers, mostly at the hands of religious militants who insist that their war is with America and not with us. One does not understand the logic of this. But it is an ideology that finds favour with many.
Pakistan is a country where there is too much tolerance for intolerance. On the same day as the church bombing, a mob in the Punjabi city of Sialkot threatened to remove the minarets of an Ahmadi house of worship. The Ahmadis are a small sect regarded by law as non-Muslims. Their houses of worship cannot be called mosques.
When the mob threatened to attack the Ahmadi building, police themselves tore down the minarets.
And so a church in Peshawar can have minarets but not a Ahmadi house of worship.
Pakistan is a country in which all kinds of excuses can be found for division. The Taleban need not try very hard to sow chaos. The chaos is already there. So often Pakistanis complain about American drone attacks. And rightly so. But more Pakistanis are murdered in sectarian violence than by drone missiles.
The Taleban temporarily ruled parts of Pakistan before being driven out by the army. In this respect, they have something in common with al-Shabaab in Somalia.
According to a 2011 report by Ron Wise of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, the militia started its life aligned to a moderate (or rather, somewhat less extreme) Somali Muslim party called the Islamic Courts Union (ICU).
Before that Somalia was a basket case where competing warlords committed all kinds of atrocities against civilians.
Religious leaders in the Somali diaspora are almost unanimous in their condemnation of al-Shabaab. In Minnesota, home to the largest Somali community in the US, local imam Abdul Hashi told journalists, "This type of activity, the killing of innocents, has no basis in, or relationship to Islam," and cited the Koran: "Whoever kills one soul, kills all of humankind, and whoever saves one soul, saves all of humankind."
Which makes the actions of al-Shabaab and the Pakistani Taleban pure evil.
Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer. First published in the NZ Herald on 26 September 2013.
Friday, September 13, 2013
The Education Of A Young Liberal
John Hyde Page
Melbourne University Press, 2006.
If a day is a long time in politics, how long would one describe a decade? This was roughly the period of John Howard’s prime ministership, which ended in such a spectacular fashion last November after a bunch of Liberal Party apparatchiks were caught out spreading a bogus pamphlet containing the kinds of messages John Howard’s favourite columnists and shock jocks were famous for.
A decade is also the period spent by both John Hyde Page and yours truly in the NSW Young Liberals. In my case, “double dipping” rules meant one could still be an adult member of the Young Libs (the cut-off age was 30) and the “senior” party simultaneously. It was also a time when Young Libs gatherings were dominated by all kinds of adult activities, including the sort of activities one might see in an adult movie. Not that I’ll admit to watching any such activities (even in the movies).
Young Libs (especially the self-styled moderates) have often seen themselves as the conscience of the Liberal Party, criticising conservative excesses in both the “senior” party and Liberal Parliamentarians. It was a Young Liberal who tipped off ALP campaigners in Lindsay about the “Ala Akba” pamphlet, triggering off a sting operation that led to the prosecution of senior Liberals including a member of the NSW State Executive.
John Hyde Page spent much of his sojourn in the NSW Young Libs fighting my old political allies. Many of the events he describes early on in his The Education Of A Young Liberal are ones I participated in toward the end of my active membership. At the time, we thought we were making Australian political history. Reading Hyde Page’s book confirmed in my mind just how silly we were to entertain such political fantasies.
For a man of his age, Hyde Page has produced a surprisingly mature account of the operation of political structures within the Liberal Party. Certainly any young moderate who saw (and still sees) the stranglehold of the religious right in the NSW Young Libs will succumb to premature ageing.
Yet Hyde Page’s work is not a serious or pompous tome. Indeed, even a former conservative warhorse like myself found many occasions to laugh at factional stoushes which at the time were the source of political bipolar disorder – the elation of a successful branch stack followed by the depression of finding out the Annual General Meeting of the stacked branch had been knocked out for technical reasons.
The book was the subject of at least one defamation action brought by conservative party members. The offending chapter, provocatively entitled “Meeting With Nazis”, didn’t exactly provide glowing references to some of my old factional allies. Hyde Page describes some rightwing cadres he met as “spruiking enthusiastically like a used-car salesman”. He writes of the Machiavellian-ness of one conservative hack in these terms: “I got the impression that you never found out what [he] was really thinking, no matter how much time you spent with him”.
To his credit, Hyde Page doesn’t reserve his often devastating wit on his former opponents. In this respect, his work describes not just inter-factional warfare but also intra-factional intrigue. Much of this was played out in the context of two highly contested preselections in the blue ribbon eastern suburbs seat of Wentworth, now held by Liberal Party leadership aspirant Malcolm Turnbull.
Wentworth changed hands twice during Howard’s term in office. It was first held by former Tourism Minister Andrew Thomson, a member of the conservative wing. Thomson was the subject of a preselection challenge from former Young Liberal President Jason Falinski, a moderate. Hyde Page actively assisted in branch development (read stacked branches) in the Wentworth electorate against Falinski and in favour of another moderate, former Liberal Party President and barrister Peter King.
Hyde Page and his allies’ brazen tactics included holding a barbecue at the University of New South Wales during which free beer and sausages (financed from a factional slush fund) were handed out to students who agreed to fill out membership forms. He was rewarded for his efforts by Peter King MP in the form of employment in King’s electorate office. To say that Hyde Page’s anti-Falinski role made him persona non grata with many in his own faction would be an understatement. His status was only made worse with many of Hyde Page’s new moderate opponents supporting Malcolm Turnbull’s tilt for the seat.
You don’t need to be an expert on factional politics or the operation of political parties to enjoy this work. Hyde Page colourfully describes such dark political arts as branch-stacking, ballot-rorting and constitutional hair-splitting. Hyde Page’s flippant, humorous and highly engaging writing style would have to make him the closest thing to a more conservative Mungo MacCallum, or perhaps even a less conservative PJ O’Rourke. Not a bad plug from a former factional opponent!
This review was first penned in 2008. It is finally seeing the light of day after accidentally located on an external hard drive at the bottom of a pile of papers in the author's exceptionally messy study.
Thursday, September 12, 2013
Tony Abbott has been handed a resounding victory but he is likely to inherit major problems in the Senate.
Back in the 1980s, when I was an innocent Sydney teenager, politics was so much simpler and hence so much more boring. We had Labor and we had the Liberal/National Coalition. Labor behaved as Labor should, while the Coalition were as conservative as expected. There was also a third force, called the Australian Democrats, who were boring as all buggery and whose sole responsibility was to "keep the bastards honest" in the Senate. Exactly how this was done went right over my young head.
These days, Labor is behaving like the Coalition while the Coalition's rhetoric sometimes makes me wonder whether they are channelling Genghis Khan. Instead of the Democrats, we have the Greens and a host of independents who often hold the balance of power in the Senate and can make governing almost impossible.
The last six years has seen Australia's Labor Government at war with itself. In 2010, Australians went to the polls, facing an ostensible choice of Labor's Julia Gillard and the Coalition's Tony Abbott. They got a hung Parliament. A handful of independents went with Julia Gillard to form a weak Government.
But over the weekend, the nation decided they wanted a break from unstable government hamstrung by fringe interests spoiling the law-making process. Tony Abbott was handed a decisive victory. Kevin Rudd, who stabbed Julia Gillard in the back after she stabbed him in the back, just managed to hold his seat.
Abbott ran a disciplined campaign with few gaffes. Actually, that isn't quite true. There were some absolute doozies from the Abbott camp. On one occasion he praised Western Sydney candidate Fiona Scott for her sex appeal. Scott went on to tell the ABCTV current affairs show Four Corners:
[Asylum seekers are] a hot topic here because our traffic is overcrowded." When asked to clarify, she replied: "Go sit on the M4 [freeway], people see 50,000 people come in by boat - that's more than twice the population of [western Sydney suburb] Glenmore Park.
And I thought all the traffic at Bondi beach was the terrible Kiwi drivers.
Scott comfortably won her seat. Tony Abbott has a huge majority in the House of Representatives. He can easily form a government but he has no control over the Senate. Few governments ever have had a Senate majority, but at least they've known who they must negotiate with. But this time around, the Senate looks likely to have an undisciplined unrepresentative selection of minor and single-interest parties holding the balance of power.
In NSW, a mega-libertarian bunch calling themselves the Liberal Democrats confused a swag of Liberal voters. Voters had to complete a Senate ballot paper big enough to wrap around like a sari. The Liberal Democrats were fortunate enough to be placed first on the ballot paper. Their incoming Senator David Leyonhjelm, a former veterinarian, told Fairfax Media, "Looks like I'm going to be the senator for the donkeys".
Leyonhjelm supports a virtual flat income tax, freedom to carry concealed weapons, an end to bicycle helmets and rolling back the "nanny state".
The madness doesn't end there. In May 2012, billionaire mining magnate Clive Palmer approached the Coalition to run as a candidate in the seat of then ALP Treasurer Wayne Swan. Mr Swan's response was: "The Liberal Party, particularly in my home state, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Mr Palmer". Palmer was a major donor to the Coalition.
When he fell out with the Coalition and formed the Palmer United Party (PUP), the eccentricities only multiplied. In China Palmer is building a massive ship, the Titanic II, which will retrace the ill-fated voyage of its predecessor. He is also developing his own Jurassic Park on the Sunshine Coast which will contain 160 giant dinosaurs, each of which can move and make some loud noise.
After the election, Palmer and his party will make some serious noise in Canberra. His private jet, painted with PUP colours, has made some noise in the sky. He is still in with a chance to win his Queensland Lower House seat, and there will be at least two PUP senators as well. One of them is rugby league legend Glenn Lazarus, nicknamed "The Brick With Eyes". Sounds like a formidable senate negotiator.
My favourite? The Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party (AMEP) in Victoria who look set to pick up a Senate spot after achieving a whopping 0.52 per cent of the primary vote. Candidate Ricky Muir is just your ordinary Aussie bloke who doesn't mind uploading videos on YouTube of him throwing kangaroo poo at his brother. Muir, who has had a long stint in politics with his 3-month AMEP membership, told ABC: "If you haven't spent much time in the bush, you go out there and you'll discover that there is poo everywhere."
I guess they don't call Canberra the bush capital for nothing.
Tony Abbott is going to have a hell of a time negotiating with the motley crew likely to inhabit the Senate.
Irfan Yusuf was a Liberal candidate in the 2001 elections. Politically he prefers to be left right out.