Friday, March 08, 2019

CRIKEY: Tony Abbott isn't going anywhere

The former PM is back on the talking points, painting himself and Dutton as "reluctant challengers" and orating about "the betterment of mankind".

Bad news for all those hoping Tony Abbott will leave Parliament soon: on Monday, Abbott told a packed crowd of adoring fans at the uber-conservative Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney that he isn’t going anywhere. Abbott is already negotiating some kind of “Indigenous envoy” role with his new leader Scott Morrison. It’s as if the Liberals don’t have someone like the Member for Hasluck, who may know a thing or two about Indigenous affairs.

Abbott was scheduled to speak on the vexed subject of immigration, after his calls for a national reduction. But given the events of the past seven days, it was only logical for him to provide his side of the #libspill story. As expected, he also was totally unrepentant.
Politics today is better than it has been in the past few days. Peter Dutton was a most reluctant challenger last week, just as I was back in 2009. Peter Dutton was someone who, above all else, wanted to change policy and not change leader.
Abbott almost seemed to be taking credit for the rise of Scott Morrison who, he claimed, had restored the government to
... that sensible centre-right Liberal conservative mainstream ...
of economically liberal and socially conservative.

Abbott was in no mood to compromise on key areas of policy such as energy, social security and immigration either. Listening to the way he spoke, one could almost think he was auditioning for the role of leader again. He insisted that energy policy under the new administration will be designed
... to cut price, not to cut emissions … the important thing is to get price down and let emissions look after themselves.
Abbott declared himself no believer in
... the green religion.
To applause from the well-heeled crowd, Abbott went on to declare that social security must be more
... like a trampoline than a hammock.
The former PM seemed pleased with Alan Tudge’s appointment as Minister for Cities, Urban Infrastructure and Population. However, it seemed he didn’t quite understand Tudge’s portfolio. He repeated his “Team Australia” mantra, saying:
... immigration will go hand in hand with integration and in particular the stress for all primary applicants will be on having a job and joining our team and making a contribution from day one.
In other words: new migrants will again have higher expectations placed upon them than the rest of us.

Abbott said that under Morrison, the policy contest will be much sharper than under Turnbull. He claimed a key weakness of Liberals in recent times has been “seeking a false consensus rather than prosecuting a real contest”. Abbott said such an approach made little sense in a world where political differences are becoming wider, not narrower.

He closed his presentation, astonishingly, with an observation from Ben Chifley:
Our great objective is not to make someone premier or prime minister. It’s not putting sixpence more or less in someone’s pocket. It is working for the betterment of mankind. Not just here but wherever we can lend a helping hand.
The audience didn’t seem to mind. Apart from the journos, the audience was all nods and smiles. Among them was Maurice Newman, who was a member of PM Abbott’s Business Advisory Council and is highly sceptical of the existence of climate change.

Abbott claimed his objective has always been to work to help others achieve their best selves. We didn’t see much evidence of that last week.

First published in Crikey on 28 August 2018.

Monday, March 04, 2019

CRIKEY: A Sunday afternoon trying to make the Liberal Party great again

A new book proposes a plan to fix the Liberal parties leadership woes.

Sunday afternoon at a pub in North Sydney and Sky News presenter Ross Cameron is launching the first book of conservative apparatchik John Ruddick. It’s called Make The Liberal Party Great Again.
I’ve known John since 1994 when I found myself in the conservative faction of the New South Wales Young Liberals known as “The Team”. Ruddick was our officially endorsed presidential candidate at a time when the non-conservative faction (known as “The Group” but also known by other labels such as “The Left” and “The Pink Triangle”) had firm control over the entire NSW Party.

Ruddick is a likeable bloke who sells home loans for a living. He has appeared a fair few times on Sky News’ Outsiders.

The basic message of his book is that the Liberal Party is neither liberal nor democratic enough in relation to its members. Its processes lead to organisational instability and electoral ruin. When the selection of the leader is just left to elected MPs, ego and vested interests alien to the membership get in the way and the door to leadership change revolves ever so quickly.

Ruddick’s solution? Follow trends overseas. Non-Labor parties across the Western world (and in the UK even the Labour Party) have democratised the process of choosing their parliamentary leaders, including grassroots party members. In this way, the parties mimic the democratic process of general elections.

Ruddick argues the Liberal Party should hold a mega-convention every three years (mid-way through the parliamentary term) to choose the leader of the parliamentary party. The convention need not be in one place but can be spread across numerous cities. The media will be welcome to cover the event. The entire nation can thus see how Liberals choose their leaders instead of relying on media “elites” to deliver whispers and leakage.

In theory it sounds fantastic. In practice, Jeremy Corbyn. Imagine trying to keep a party membership united after such a process. And who would get to vote? If attendees at Ruddick’s launch are anything to go by, it would be a bunch of retired and semi-retired wealthy white folk. Even if the Liberal Party adopts Ruddick’s prescription of mass democratisation, the people attending the Liberal mega-convention would still be about as representative of Liberal voters as Mark Latham is of ALP voters. 

I didn’t see any sitting MPs at the launch raising the question of whether anyone who could take this change on is even listening.

The closest was Stephen Mutch, former federal MP for Cook (the seat ScoMo currently holds). And, of course, there was Ross Cameron, a former MP whose Liberal Party membership has been suspended for four and a half years.

If the Liberal Party is to have any future, it should embrace the generation of young people represented by three youngsters present at the pub with their Asian-Aussie mum. In a broad Strayan accent, one of the boys boasted that he spoke fluent Thai and was learning Vietnamese at school.

As long as the Liberal Party is held hostage by a xenophobic far-right, solving for the leadership problem alone won’t work.

First published in Crikey on 24 September 2019

Friday, March 01, 2019

CRIKEY: The new book by an IPA fellow that is head-scratchingly nuanced

Matthew Lesh's heavily researched theory on socio-economic divides would give Andrew Bolt a heart attack.

It’s always a surprise to see brown people at an Institute of Public Affairs event, but there they were. Last Friday night a youngish crowd including several Sri Lankan women and a very anti-Communist Chinese guy gathered at a trendy Melbourne CBD bar to launch the first book of a young IPA-type named Mathew Lesh.

The book, Democracy in a Divided Australia, is highly referenced with plenty of data and quantitative analysis. The notes and bibliography combined make up 73 pages. Though it looks like a PhD thesis, to Lesh’s credit, the 210 pages of text are very accessible read. Quite a change from the poorly referenced negativity one usually gets from our handful of right-of-centre thinktanks.

Despite this, don’t expect to read this paragraph on the opinion pages of The Australian:
Not everyone should be expected to live the same lifestyle; within the confines of the whole, every sub-culture should be able to keep their distinct qualities … We should celebrate, or at least tolerate, political, cultural, social, religious, racial, ethnic, gender and sexual preference differences … Australia can only function as a connected nation. What we share is more than what divides us.
It’s enough anti-assimilation policy to give Andrew Bolt a cardiac arrest.

So exactly what is the problem then? Why the subtitle “the inners-outers ripping us apart”? Who are the “outers” and who are the “inners”? Basically, the inners are inner-city cosmopolitan types, highly educated, able to afford an overseas holiday and eat out often without any fear of African gangs or South African white farmers. Inners can be left or right. Initially the inners were very happy when Malcolm Turnbull knocked off Tony Abbott.

The outers can also be left or right. They grew up in outer suburbs, in regional areas or in the bush. They prefer beer to a chardonnay, occupy blue-collar jobs and read newspapers freely available at McDonalds. Other groups are also included among the inners and outers — the “aspirational”, the “old elite” and “new elite” and the “left behind”. You’ll have to invest around $30 and buy the book to learn how the whole model fits together.

The book was launched by the youngest looking person in the room, one Senator James Paterson, a former IPA apparatchik and no good friend of Malcolm Turnbull. Paterson delivered an amusing speech referring to incidents from the life of the book’s author why the latter was more of an inner than an outer. It sounded more like a speech given by Paterson as best man at Matthew Lesh’s wedding.

There were lots of in-jokes which showed the speaker assumed he was only speaking to an in-crowd. Paterson should get public speaking lessons from Turnbull.

Lesh took to the floor and provided a 10-minute summary of his argument. He insisted I not record his speech, so I can’t provide direct quotes. In question time, I asked him whether he considered “outers” to also be defined by ethnicity, migration status, gender etc. I noted that I couldn’t see too many Somalis or South Sudanese in this elite thinktank audience.

To my surprise, quite a few of the white folk nodded. Lesh said he didn’t collect data on ethnicity and other factors I’d mentioned. Afterwards John Roskam, the IPA’s Executive Director, came up to me and the four Sri Lankan ladies and warmly welcomed us. He also encouraged us to join the IPA and even said we could pay our membership fees later.

Could it be that I have been mischaracterising the IPA all along? Or is the libertarian right in Australia beginning to realise that it’s uber white image is doing it no favours and that the free market of ideas, just like the free market of goods and services, tends to punish racism?

First published in Crikey on 09 October 2018.

CRIKEY: When the river runs dry, we will return to the scene of the crime

Residents at the trashed end of the Darling River are angry, jobless and unable to drink their own town water.


Back in October, I started working as a community lawyer in Broken Hill. This involved frequent outreach visits to Menindee and Wilcannia. On my first trip to Menindee, an Indigenous employment mentor took me aside and handed me a bundle of papers.
You can’t understand the people in this area unless you understand the Darling River and the Menindee Lakes. The cotton farmers up north are taking all our water. This town and other nearby towns are dying.
We know rural and regional towns are losing people. But what does it mean for a town to die?

I soon discovered this issue was being covered in local papers up and down the Darling River, including Broken Hill’s Barrier Daily Truth. Almost everyone I met mentioned the dying river. And they all blamed the National Party (especially Barnaby Joyce) and cotton farmers up north.

Recently a video of two Menindee locals holding up dead fish went viral. One of the men, a grazier named Rob McBride, is someone you’d expect to be a staunch National Party supporter. Graziers have a history of being on the opposite side of local Indigenous communities in a native title claim. But in this town of 500 people and across the far west of NSW, all interests — graziers, farmers, businesses, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people — have joined forces. The mentor told me:
McBride is a real legend. He’s looking after everyone’s interests. Plus, poisoned water is killing his livestock.
Then and now

What does an employment mentor do in Menindee?
Just give courses ... There’s no work left locally. We used to have people coming from outside to work on the farms. Ten years ago, they just couldn’t get enough workers. Our fruit used to get sold at the Sydney markets. We had commercial fishing. I think just last year we lost 1000 jobs. We boast our town being the first town on the Darling River; the way the river is going, we’ll be the first off the river. The lakes are dry. The water is so bad that you can’t grow fruit or keep livestock.
I asked him about climate change.
Mate, it’s man-made. We’ve gone through 10-year droughts, huge droughts. And these lakes got through those droughts without any loss of fish. The only fish that died in the drought were the ones caught at the wrong end of a fishing rod. It’s all greed, government corruption, the government lining the pockets of the wealthy.
He spoke of cotton growers at Cubbie Station in Queensland taking all the water, of foreign ownership. The lack of work has pushed away not only outside workers. Locals have also moved out to Broken Hill and, from there, to bigger cities. For those left, it isn’t just the economy that’s depressed. The Men’s Shed (known as the Men-in-dee Shed) has no shortage of patrons. One counsellor in Broken Hill told me:
It’s an absolute man-made disgrace what they’re doing to the river. It’s affecting young children thanks to the stench in the water, the quality of the water, the blue-green algae is killing wildlife and vegetation. People can’t drink that water. They have to ship bottled water in.
Now in his sixties, the counsellor grew up around the river.
I grew up around Menindee and Wilcannia and those other towns. This river is the lifeblood. I go to Wilcannia on a regular basis. What the poisoned water is doing to that community is devastating. Four years ago, they were having fun jumping off that bridge. The water was flapping over the bridge. It was a happy town. Now it’s full of alcohol and drug use, domestic violence, gambling.
He spends much of his time counselling depressed farmers.
They’re fed up with what they keep getting told by the National Party. Though I don’t see how a change in government is going to change the powers to let water through the river system. The only one who can actually change things is the current prime minister. I doubt he’ll last as long as my car rego.
Taking action

Down at one of the local pubs, some people talk vigilante action.
The best thing we can do is take some dynamite and blow up those dam walls on the big cotton farms up north. Flush out the water and let it run down the river.
At the historic Broken Hill Trades Hall, home to miners’ strikes since before federation, a packed room of farmers, graziers and locals got together to hear NSW opposition leader Michael Daley promise an inquiry into the state of the river.

One stood up and said it was a
... crime against humanity ...
and wanted to
... put Geoffrey Robertson QC on the case.

And what about the drought? Surely that must be a cause of the dire water supply. As the Broken Hill counsellor put it:
Does drought put chemicals in the water? It’s the flow-off from chemicals used in cotton crops that’s killing our fish. And our communities.
First published in Crikey on 21 January 2019.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

CRIKEY: Is small-minded bigotry how we honour the Diggers? Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s tsunami in a teacup

This concocted mass debate, like those before it and those to come, shows that we, as a nation, have no bloody idea about our values.

Late on the night of Anzac Day 2015, Malcolm Turnbull (then communications minister) contacted the head of SBS to complain about five tweets sent by a sports reporter that allegedly showed grave disrespect to those commemorating the sacrifices and memory of the Diggers.

The tweets referred to the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Mention was also made of Diggers engaging in rape, torture, summary killings and theft in such far-flung places as the Middle East and east Asia. No Diggers were consulted when Scott McIntyre, the journalist in question, was sacked the following day. Nor were any academic historians, such as Professor Phillip Dwyer of the University of Newcastle.

McIntyre brought an unfair dismissal claim against SBS, which was eventually settled following a hearing in the Federal Court. McIntyre used his SBS Twitter account to send the allegedly offensive tweets. That isn’t the case with the latest “controversy” surrounding Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

If you were to rely merely on the headlines and the remarks of a Tasmanian Liberal senator related to a Nazi war criminal, you would think Abdel-Magied had issued a series of tweets from an ABC account describing the Diggers as rapists and murderers. Well, not quite. Here are her words:
LEST. WE. FORGET. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine)
The “unfortunate and disrespectful … cheap political point scoring” can be found between the brackets. The words first appeared on Abdel-Magied’s Facebook page and were subsequently removed and an apology issued.

Storm in a teacup? More like a tsunami in a teacup, if you ask me. All the major newspapers and media outlets jumped on the story, including Fairfax and The Australian, whose report began predictably with “Muslim activist …”. The Daily Telegraph described her as someone
... who labels herself ‘first and foremost … Muslim’.
Gosh, what else was Yassmin hiding among those three dots?

According to The Oz, Abdel-Magied issued the apology
... as people began to complain she had hijacked the Anzac memory for political and religious reasons.
Apparently, personal and racist abuse and calling upon someone to leave the country is a form of legitimate complaint. Which makes sense, really, as the 1130-plus moderated comments to The Oz story included this gem of complaint:
If she continues her Islamic ABC style left – wing rubbish then suggest she go back to an Islamic middle East blood bath ! Sharia law has NO place within Australian democratic society !
And this:
It seems to me that this woman doesn’t like the culture that was in Australia when she arrived from another whose culture she also didn’t like, hence, she’s here. Personally, I think she should go back to from whence she came. Maybe her whingeing would be of more effect in her old country.
And this:
For someone who arrived her as a two year old, people have a classic example of Islam at its best. Indoctrination is the order of the day Australians should be afraid, very afraid.
Other comments spoke of Abdel-Magied’s status as a member of a minority
and why her kind should go back to wherever. The pollies will deny it, but we all know they see such sentiments as those of a key demographic.

It would be nice to dwell on the offensive, bracketed words except that there are just too few words to analyse. I will note in passing that Palestine isn’t exactly an Islamic issue. Israel’s nasty wall passes through numerous Christian settlements, among them the birthplace of Jesus. As for Syria, there are Syrian Muslims who support the Assad regime and Syrian Christians who oppose it. And vice versa. 

This concocted mass debate, like those before it and those to come (Newspoll-permitting), shows that we, as a nation, have no bloody idea about our values. Indeed, those who beat their chests the most tend to know the least. The irony of the most nationalistic papers is that they are almost exclusively owned by a man who gave up his Australian citizenship to become an American. Did he, by doing so, increase the average IQ of both our respective nations? Who knows?

I’ve heard stories about Diggers at Gallipoli who refused to shoot at Turkish troops engaged in nemaz (ritual prayer). Perhaps relatives of these Turks are now settled in Australia. Would it be an insult to the memory of our Diggers to suggest we can learn from them something of how to respect other people’s religious cultures? Or must small-mindedness, bigotry and stupidity be the only way to honour our war dead?

First published in Crikey on 26 April 2017

CRIKEY: The real danger at Punchbowl High School is the ideological deradicalisation program

The debate about theoretically unsound and ideologically charged deradicalisation programs, like the one at Punchbowl High School, doesn't help students.

A few days before she was to commence her Australia/New Zealand tour, Ayaan Hirsi Ali called for all Islamic schools to be shut down. Sharri Markson, now at The Daily Telegraph, conducted the “exclusive interview” with Hirsi Ali.

Markson made the startling claim that, at Islamic schools,
... the science curriculum is censored and music and art classes are banned.
The example of only one school, linked to a Saudi financier, was given. Naturally Hirsi Ali’s response was quite tame:
It is child abuse pure and simple. Muslim schools should not be allowed in liberal society.
The story showed two graphics featuring Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) just to provide more balance.
Still, it isn’t just nasty pro-IS, government-funded schools that are a problem. News Corp has been running hot on a story about Punchbowl High School. The school has had an interesting run of principals.

One principal, Jihad Dib, is now the state member for Lakemba. Before entering the Macquarie Street bear pit, Dib was credited with having turned the school around both discipline-wise and also in academic performance. He is now opposition spokesman for education.

The Australian carried a similarly sensational report about the subsequent principal and his deputy who were stood down in early March
... in a move that has led to the airing of allegations around sexism and violence, including claims teachers were assaulted and threatened by Muslim students who professed to be terrorism sympathisers.
Its tabloid siblings have made a huge issue about the said principal, Chris Griffiths, changing his religion from rock ‘n’ roll to the dreaded Islam.

Perhaps the most troubling issue in all this is that the school is apparently one of 19 schools in NSW where “radicalisation” is a problem. One report cites Indonesia expert Greg Barton on the issue, getting his university affiliation totally wrong.

The same report described a deradicalisation program in these terms:
The Schools Working Together Program would include monitoring of religious activities at schools, vetting of any volunteers coming into contact with students and measures to ensure non-religious students weren’t pressured to convert.
If this is what the program is really about, it clearly isn’t targeted at white supremacists or the far right. It is targeted only at Muslim kids.
Griffiths was apparently resisting this program coming into his school. He would not have been the only one. I’ve spoken to a number of (non-Muslim) state high school teachers who see the program as purely aimed at Muslim kids. They tell me the program would be counterproductive and lead to resentment from many of the kids.

Similar and more extensive programs have been implemented in the United Kingdom. The problem with radicalisation is that we still don’t know exactly how the process works. One UK criminologist named Kris Christmann has identified eight models of the radicalisation process and 10 theoretical approaches to radicalisation in scholarly literature. Deradicalisation and counterterrorism strategies typically involve looking out for religious symbols and terminology familiar to and resonating with Muslims. This effectively mimics a deliberate strategy of al-Qaeda and similar groups. By understanding the process and trajectory of “radicalisation” as a process, “experts and officials” believe they more meaningfully understand “what goes on before the bomb goes off”. What a way to see high school kids.

So deradicalisation programs are theoretically unsound and ideologically charged. And now they will be implemented at Punchbowl Boys High School by a new principal whose last job was working at a juvenile detention facility.

First published in Crikey on 04 April 2007.

CRIKEY: Has political correctness failed?

Chris Kenny thinks that political correctness has failed "the mainstream"-- but what on earth does this actually mean?

Last night was cheapskate Tuesday. I could have seen a politically correct Hollywood movie for half-price — particularly one starring some pathetic left-wing, anti-Trump, pro-Muslim heart-throb. Instead, I headed to Sydney Town Hall for a mass debate on the topic of whether political correctness (PC) had failed itself.

The debate was hosted by the Ethics Centre. As is often the case with mass debates, few debaters stuck strictly to the topic — but, Chris Kenny did. Kenny was introduced by the chair as the associate editor of “a conservative newspaper” — a strange description for a paper whose editorial writers and columnists often spout ideas on cultural matters more appropriate to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

As the first speaker in the affirmative, Kenny said PC had failed itself. Other speakers focused on how PC had (or hadn’t) failed their community or interests or whatever. But now I’m starting to sound like a high school debating adjudicator, so I’ll stop with this line of interrogation.

Kenny argued PC had become self-defeating, largely because it was no longer based on facts, and therefore led to actions and conclusions that were all out of proportion. The Oz‘s associate editor said that, during the Martin Place siege, the New South Wales police (thanks to PC considerations) gave more priority to shielding Muslims from discrimination, than attacking Man Monis’ “terrorist attack”. Kenny described Man Monis as a “jihadist cleric”.

As I’ve written before, Man Monis was more of a fake sheik than a real one. And while it is true that one expert (presumably a psychiatrist) gave evidence at the inquest on Man Monis’ mental state, describing him as a terrorist — there was hardly consensus on the issue. Under Australian law, it isn’t enough for someone’s actions to terrorise their victims to designate them “terrorist acts”. There has to be political, ideological or religious motive. Were this not the case, thousands of perpetrators of domestic violence would be prosecuted under counter-terror laws. (Kenny also speaks of PC attitudes toward border protection and mentions the existence of a “queue” for refugees. What queue? There is none).

Kenny’s most potent argument — that PC is an invention of the political class, which has divorced them from the “mainstream” — again makes little sense. As first negative speaker, Mikey Robins, noted, Kenny and so many of those going on and on about PC are themselves part of the political class. Indeed, if PC has failed, why do conservatives feel the need to constantly protect us from it? Kenny noted the irony that PC started out not as a conservative insult of the left, but rather, as a self-mocking phrase between different sections of the left. Kenny and his allies may allege PC to be McCarthyist, but Joe McCarthy wasn’t exactly a card-carrying communist.

Without meaning to sound PC in a sexist sort of way, the ladies were the stand-out debaters of the night — starting with second affirmative Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, the Warlpiri/Celtic Alice Springs councillor, as well as singer and advocate against domestic violence. She resents the fact that PC practitioners keep telling her and her people what they should call themselves. In her neck of the woods, the lack of PC is an indication that people (both black and white) don’t take themselves too seriously. And this is because they have more serious fish to fry.

Price says that PC is like racism — both are based on untruths and stereotypes. PC means that indigenous people, especially women, find it hard to speak about violence from black family members and community folk. In this case, PC can be deadly. As for white racism, Price says she would rather know who the racists are so she can face them head on.

The final speaker was second negative, Tasneem Chopra. (Disclaimer: I’ve known Tasneem since 1985. Also, I’ve always called her Tasneem and that won’t stop here. Of course, that doesn’t mean I agree with Tasneem on everything).

Tasneem says that for many urban women from “ethnic” backgrounds, PC is all they have to protect them from discrimination. PC exposes privilege and bias.
It allows us to call out bigotry, to stand up to dominant voices.
Tasneem called upon Kenny (or Chris, to be fair) to share his experiences of racism.
If you feel the need to be violent or racist, to threaten rape or other assault, your politics is incorrect.
With this youngish and largely female crowd, the negative side were always going to win the debate. OK, that wasn’t very PC.

First published in Crikey on 29 May 2017.

Friday, May 25, 2018

CRIKEY: Sorry, Malcolm, but multicultural Australia is not ‘united, strong, successful’

And guess whose fault that is?

And so, on Harmony Day, our erstwhile PM launched a document entitled Multicultural Australia: United, Strong, Successful. And what a colourful, sexy document it is: full of the smiling faces of people from different backgrounds and of all ages, all sharing their own or ancestral stories of struggle — full of wonderful talk about values, visions and all that jazz.

So is the document’s title correct? Upon reading the title of this 16-page document, I couldn’t help but say to myself: “Yep, minus the bigotry of many News Corp columnists and the strength of One Nation, etc, etc, and the emphasis placed on repealing section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act (a provision that hasn’t stopped the earlier nasty stuff, and whose effect is largely overcome by section 18D) and the paranoia about terrorism that has led to some 65 pieces of legislation since 2005 creating a parallel system of criminal law … minus all that, yes we are a multicultural Australia, which is probably more united, strong and successful than any other Western nation, except perhaps Canada.”

OK, I didn’t literally say all that to myself.

The statement really is a nifty document, short on specifics and high on restating values we already know but rarely see from the Coalition and their friends (at least at election time) in One Nation. The document spoke about the “glue that holds us together is mutual respect — a deep recognition that each of us is entitled to the same respect, the same dignity”. Indeed. And, in the words of our Attorney-General, the same “right to be bigots”.

Under the subheading “Shared vision for the future”, we read about the government continuing to promote “the principle of mutual respect and denouncing racial hatred and discrimination as incompatible with Australian society”. Then on page 19 we read: “… racism and discrimination undermine our society. We condemn people who incite racial hatred.” Unless, of course, if they are supported by the Institute of Public Affairs, the editorial bosses at News Corp, Coalition backbenchers, anti-halal/kosher certification freaks and/or the tiny number of people who read Quadrant. In this case, we will bend over backwards and change the law to suit their need to be as bigoted as they already can be under the law we are hell-bent on changing.

Of course, some of Australia’s neighbours don’t exactly have sterling records in this area. Malaysia’s special treatment for bumiputera (indigenous Malays) over everyone else (including non-Malay Muslims) is appalling. The campaign for the governor of Jakarta has involved overt racial and religious prejudice of a rather un-Islamic kind by influential Muslim preachers targeting a Chinese Christian candidate who is an ally to the current Indonesian President. I doubt it was that bad for Western Sydney Labor MP Ed Husic when anonymous flyers were circulated through the electorate of Greenway in the 2004 election.

Getting back to multiculturalism, I think it’s a bit much to say that it is all about values and vision. Historically, multiculturalism was a policy introduced to help persons with little English to access government services. Interestingly, most of these people were part of the post-War wave of European migration and had lived in Australia for decades, working their elbows to the bone in factories and infrastructure projects and not having the time to learn the local lingo.

Oh, and guess what: multicultural policies in Australia have always been regarded as a means to an end, not as an end in themselves. And what is that end?


In a Commonwealth parliamentary research paper published in 2010, Elsa Koleth notes:
James Jupp points out that Australian multicultural policies have always been premised on the supremacy of existing institutions and values and the primacy of the English language, while placing less emphasis on cultural maintenance beyond the immigrant generation ...
As the report notes on page 7, our population comes from over three hundred ancestries, including indigenous peoples with over two hundred and fifty different language groups. We’ve been multicultural for at least 50,000 years. So why tag all this national identity stuff onto what is essentially Australia’s multicultural reality and status quo? Is it the role of multiculturalism to save us from nasty terrorists and even nastier boat people?

And what’s the point of preaching multiculturalism and anti-racism and all that stuff (while you demonise desperate asylum seekers), when you change the law just to please powerful reactionary pseudo-conservatives, and when you take steps to marginalise and alienate young people you think are prone to “radicalisation”?​

First published in Crikey on 23 March 2017.

Saturday, May 05, 2018

CRIKEY: The Australian declares war on Yassmin Abdel-Magied, misses the point again

For some reason, Caroline Overington, in her attacks on Yassmin Abdel-Magied in The Australian, cannot seem to understand this whole idea of soft diplomacy.


In 2008, I went to an event at Gleebooks, an independent bookshop in Sydney’s inner west. The British Council and High Commission was putting on a do for a visiting author of conservative bent. The book was, in parts, entertaining but also included some rather sexist material. (Toward the end of the book, the author wrote about a female friend of his and made specific mention of the size of her posterior growing larger since the last time he saw her.) Still, that didn’t stop the British taxpayer from forking out some dosh, just as they would do for any author or performer or artist whose work suits their soft diplomacy interests. In the case of the present author, perhaps the book suited some “deradicalisation of young Muslims” purpose.

DFAT and Australian embassies do the same. As with all activities of DFAT, it all comes out of our pocket. Soft diplomacy, soft power, person-to-person contact, whatever you wish to call it. Australian artists and writers visit various places to collaborate with overseas artists via a host of programs run by universities as well as DFAT sections such as the Australia Indonesia Institute. Now I am no sycophant of Indonesia, especially when it comes to the treatment of Christian politicians like Ahok. But I learned a hell of a lot about the religious cultures and civil society organisations of our closest Muslim-majority neighbour when I visited Indonesia on a DFAT-funded junket in January 2006. As did the five other Australians who joined me.

So why am I saying all this? Because, for some reason, Caroline Overington of The Australian cannot seem to understand this whole idea of soft diplomacy. After a robust shouting match on Q&A over sharia between engineer Yassmin Abdel-Magied and independent Senator Jacqui Lambie on Monday evening, Overington decided on Thursday to run a front-page “scoop” headlined “Taxpayers billed for Q&A activist’s grand tour of Islamic regimes“.

A terrific culture-war story for The Australian‘s diminishing readership. It has all the ingredients: the wretched Q&A, the nasty ABC, the satanic Tony Jones and the nasty religion whose adherents make up a frightening 25% of humanity. But seriously, reading the story made me wonder what all the fuss was about. It was hardly a scoop. Overington herself notes that the not-so-grant tour was promoted “last November”. That’s three months ago.

Overington is especially upset about the fact that Abdel-Magied visited these nasty brutal regimes while claiming on Q&A that she saw Islam as “the most feminist religion”. Now, I’m no women’s activist, but I felt a bit perturbed about Abdel-Magied’s claim. True, in an ideal Islamic world, things might work out well for the Muslim ladies. But in reality, most Middle Eastern women aren’t enjoying the freedoms that Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Jacqui Lambie and Caroline Overington do here.

But it was almost as if Overington were arguing that someone with Abdel-Magied’s beliefs should not be sent by DFAT. What kind of woman should they send, then? Kirralie whatserface from the Q Society? Janet Albrechtsen? Andrew Bolt?

Overington discusses at length the awful treatment of women in the countries Abdel-Magied visited. This is all public knowledge, and Overington may ask herself why Abdel-Magied, her family, my mum, my siblings, me, my nephew and my nephew’s dog refuse to live in any of these places.

Still, the fact remains that we have to have relations with these nations. Overington’s employer was once partly owned by a Saudi prince. A fair few Australians do business with these places. Our food exports help shore up food security in the region, despite our insistence on fighting unpopular wars there, and pursuing a foreign policy that is despised across the region.

These nations also need to feel secure that not all Australian kids are ready to join Islamic State. Yes, the entire Middle East despises IS. Does sending a smart young lady in her mid-20s who works as an engineer on an oil rig to talk up Australia’s treatment of its Arabs/Sudanese/Egyptians/Muslims make sense? Clearly DFAT thought so. As DFAT told Overington:
Yassmin Abdel-Magied­ visited a number of countries in the Middle East to promote Australia as an open, innovative, democratic and diverse nation. She met youth representatives, scientists, entrepreneurs, women’s groups and others.
Soft diplomacy is money well spent. Perhaps Overington could learn some herself.

First published in Crikey on 17 February 2017.

CRIKEY: Iranian revolutionary leaves a complicated legacy

The guy was the wiliest of wily politicians who co-authored the constitution that created the revolutionary government.

Former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani casts his ballot for the parliamentary elections in front of a portrait of late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini 

It was 1979. I was in year 4 at Ryde East Primary School. Something terrible happened. It was called a “revolution” and was all over the TV news, which, back in those days, I only watched because I was forced to. It took place in Iran, a country next door to my dad’s country and one whose name I always remembered because it sounded so much like my own.

Before this, Iran had been a really good place where everyone liked America, drank alcohol and dressed all modern and stuff. They had a nice handsome-looking king, but they overthrew him in favour of a bearded man named Ruhollah Khomeini with big nasty beady eyes whose colleagues also sported beards and wore black coats with black turbans. These guys rarely smiled, and their young followers used to scream death to America and death to Israel.

I wouldn’t have known it at the time, but one of the nasty black-cloaked dudes standing with Khomeini and whispering advice into his ear was a pistachio farmer named Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. He died on Sunday, and his legacy will remain for decades o come.

Five years later, as my interest in political Islam grew, there weren’t too many religious books available in English. We didn’t have the internet, and media sources were also limited. Yet whether you watched Eyewitness News on Channel Ten or read the three-in-one rice paper weekly consisting of The Guardian, Le Monde and The Washington Post, the news on Iran was never nice. Our local mosques and imams also didn’t have nice things to say about Iran, despite being all cheery about the Afghan jihadists battling the nasty communists. And the only Iranian voices we ever heard were from those who were fleeing the Shah and the Islamic regime.

But any kid interested in political Islam had to learn about the Iranian Revolution. For these early years, the voice of relative sanity among the Iranian regime was Rafsanjani. Whether American diplomats were being taken hostage by Iranian students or American journalists kidnapped for seven years by pro-Iranian militias in Beirut or the same militias engaging in suicide attacks against Israeli troops, Rafsanjani was always being presented as the good guy. Yet the reality was that such violent excesses were unlikely to have happened without Rafsanjani’s acquiescence or at least knowledge. 

The guy was the wiliest of wily politicians and co-authored the constitution that created the revolutionary government before holding just about every major leadership position. Among the positions he held was commander in chief of the armed forces during the 1980-88 war with Iraq. Perhaps the best (and funniest) account of the effects of the war on Iranians living near the Iraqi border can be found in Good Muslim Boy, the memoir of Iranian-Iraqi-Australian actor and author Osamah Sami.

Rafsanjani wasn’t terribly liked by ethnic and religious minorities, including those of the same faith. He also is believed to have played a role in having Iranian dissidents in Europe assassinated, and also was involved in an attack on a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires. At the same time, while speaker of the Iranian parliament, Rafsanjani oversaw a system in which Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians had seats reserved for them.

After the war, Rafsanjani was elected president. He held that position twice before losing to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s very own version of Donald Trump, in 2005. Hopefully for the world, we won’t be seeing an Iranian Trump win the 2017 Iranian presidential elections.

Rafsanjani went onto hold other influential positions. He also founded a university and wrote a 20-volume commentary of the Koran.

How will he be remembered? Iraqis, including devout Iraqi Shia, will recall him as the man who led a war effort against their country even as they resented Saddam Hussein. Lebanese and Israelis will remember Rafsanjani as the man who gave them Hezbollah. Militias claiming to represent Syria’s Sunni majority will remember Rafsanjani as wavering over Iran’s support for the Syrian regime.

And young Iranians? For them, Rafsanjani was a key leader of Iran’s self-styled Islamic Revolution. This remains at heart an ideological revolution even if most people it rules over have never seen the ideological and political struggles of the revolution’s founders. They have never seen the repression of the Shah, but experience on a daily basis arguably lesser repression of the theocrats. These young people never saw Rafsanjani imprisoned and tortured by Iran’s US-backed Shah and his vicious Israeli-trained SAVAK secret police. They are young people who don’t resent Western culture in the manner of Rafsanjani’s generation. And they are unlikely to share in the millions, which Rafsanjani and his family amassed during his time holding various positions in the revolutionary regime.

First published in Crikey on 12 January 2017.

Friday, May 04, 2018

CRIKEY: Guess who’s coming to $150-a-head anti-Islam dinner?

Who on Earth would turn up to Kirralie Smith's "Defending Freedom of Speech Halal Choices" fundraiser? Spoiler: it's Bernardi. And Christensen. And attention-starved Ross Cameron.

The other day my mate and I went to Nissin World Delicatessen, a popular supermarket for expats in central Tokyo. In the meat section, I saw imported meats from Australia, the United States and New Zealand. The Kiwis do roaring business here in Japan, and the huge, loud halal signs don’t seem to worry anyone. In this majority Buddhist nation, and even among its expatriate community (many of whom would be nominally Christian), the idea of eating the flesh of a cow or lamb slaughtered in the name of Allah isn’t going to lead to a House of Councillors inquiry.

The same is largely true in Australia (apart from the futile Senate inquiry into kosher and halal certification). Indeed, most halal-related litigation Muslims involves halal butchers suing halal certifiers, halal certifiers suing other certifiers and religious bodies seeking to enforce contracts in which certifiers promise to pay some stipend. Halal v Halal.

But now Australia’s fractured far right has joined the halal fray, largely a case of yesterday’s anti-Semites becoming today’s anti-Halalcertifites. As Dr Shakira Hussein notes, kosher certification was once used as a means to attack America’s Jewish minority. Now the same racist themes are being used to attack halal certification and the tiny minority of Australians who identify as Muslim, including ones like me who are happy to eat halal-uncertified McDonald’s in Tokyo.

Kirralie Smith and her colleagues from the Q Society/Halal Choices/Australian Liberty Alliance have found themselves defendants in a defamation claim brought by one of Australia’s major players in the halal meat game. Smith posted a video on Facebook headlined “Mosques promote bigotry. Islam is divisive”. She mispronounces the name of the dreaded faith as “Izlaam”, claiming that it isn’t a religion in the same way as Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism or Christianity. She claims Islam is a “totalitarian ideology” with both political and military aspirations. She also says that we don’t want people who behave violently against those who disagree with them.

But Smith has come across a Muslim businessman who prefers not to get angry but instead to use the non-sharia civil law system via defamation proceedings. She needs every dollar to defend the court case and has organised public events in early February in Sydney and Melbourne to raise funds. For just $150 you get

... a sparkling welcome, a variety of fine finger food and a generous serve of free speech. Article 19 UDHR applies. Drinks at bar prices. 

And where does the money go? The promotional material states:

All proceeds and donations go towards the legal expenses incurred by Q Society of Australia Inc, Kirralie Smith, Debbie Robinson et al. in the defamation action initiated by Mr Mohamed El-Mouehly (Halal Certification Authority Pty Ltd) before the NSW Supreme Court.

It continues:

This is a landmark case with considerable ramifications for freedom of expression in Australia.

How does litigation pursued in accordance with a jurisdiction legislated in Australia since 1847 have considerable ramifications for freedom of speech?

Indeed, how often do you see senators and MPs involved in fundraising for one side or the other in a free speech case? Even in the case of Danny Nalliah’s defence of religious vilification claims brought by the Islamic Council of Victoria, entertainingly covered by Hanifa Deen’s book The Jihad Seminar, Peter Costello delivered an Australia Day message to a meeting organised by Nalliah and had been the recipient of Nalliah’s prayers, but that’s about it.

Peter Costello also won’t be on the podium of the ALA event. Neither will Danny Nalliah or Fred Nile or even Pauline Hanson, who has campaigned heavily on Islam-related stuff (from halal meat certification to sharia law to toilets in the Tax Office building). No one from the United Patriots Front or the Reclaim Australia mob will be present.

Indeed, were it not for the presence of Cory Bernardi and George Christensen, the event would hardly have been worth reporting on. This event is more conspicuous by who will be absent than present. The Islamophobic space in Australia has some powerful media and political backers. But its hardliners are deeply divided, mirroring the divisions in the Australian far right, for which hatred of Muslims has replaced hatred of Asians and Jews and other “Others”.

In the electoral stakes, at 0.66% of NSW Senate votes Kirralie Smith came well behind One Nation (4.1%), Fred Nile (2.7%) but ahead of Danny Nalliah’s Rise Up Australia Party (0.17%). When it comes to the “Islam-critical” sector, as John Howard once never said,

The things that divide us are more important than the things that unite us. 

Instead of other prominent Muslimphobes, Shariaphobes and Halalphobes, the podium will include a crime writer, an ageing hard rocker and some bloke named Ross Cameron. And now a couple of Coalition backbenchers.

First published in Crikey on 10 January 2017.