Sunday, October 11, 2015

COMMENT: Guns don't kill people. Terrorists do.

Imagine it’s your lunch hour at work. You are standing up finishing your coffee. A man comes out of nowhere and produces a gun. He looks very young and very very angry. He orders everyone to stand still. He then goes up to people one by one and asks them about their religion.

Anyone who says “Christian” is ordered to stand at a nearby wall. Once he has 10 persons, he walks past each one by one and shoots them in the head at close range, screaming something about God. A nearby police officer also on his lunch break shoots the gunman dead.

Not a very nice scenario. I’d hate for anyone to experience such an event. I’d hate such an event to happen (though I am sure my hopes will be dashed somewhere in the world). You would feel absolutely terrified. It would be a terrible experience. The terror of having to witness or experience this.

Police and detectives are immediately on the scene. The gunman is arrested and taken into custody. The bodies would be taken away. You would receive counselling. After seeing so much terror, you’d need it.

The shooting is a major media event, with saturation coverage and politicians and pundits asking questions about who would do such a thing. There are scenes of weeping family members paying tribute to their lost loved ones. It’s just too hard to see.

Some days later, you turn on the news. A police officer you say at the scene is giving a press conference. It appeared the man had been self-radicalised on the internet. Police has strong suspicions the shooting was ideologically motivated. They had followed his Facebook page, his twitter feeds and had also found a hand-written manifesto on his desk at home.

It all makes sense. This was a terrorist attack. You expected this to be the case. You had witnessed the terror, seen the hatred in the man’s eyes.

But he wasn’t found to be a terrorist. He had an ideological motivation. He was a neo-Nazi with extreme far-Right beliefs. He became known as the “lone gunman”, a “violent deranged madman”.

Now let’s change the scenario for a moment. You’re finishing your coffee. The gunman approaches. He shoots and is shot.

He was suspected of being self-radicalised. However, his Facebook and Twitter feeds show nothing. There is no manifesto.

Now answer this question honestly - which one of these two would be more than likely to be considered a terrorist? Which would be charged under normal criminal laws had he survived, and which one under counter-terrorism laws?

It seems extraordinary that two shootings can occur within 24 hours of each other, both involving young deranged and angry men killing innocent people for apparently ideological motivations. The one in which one poor innocent man was killed is deemed a terrorist attack by media, police and politicians. The one in which 10 innocent people were killed isn’t. Are some victims less important than others? Are some murderers more murderous than others?

The Parramatta shooting was a shocking event. The actions of a 15 year old - carrying a gun and shooting a random person - could only be described as radical. But only slightly less shocking was the ignorant speculations made the boy’s clothes. And his invocation. “Allah, Allah”, he was supposed to have shouted. “My God! My God!”

Why did he invoke his creator? I’m not sure. The kid’s dead now, so we can’t ask him. Perhaps he was inspired by some desire to avenge Allah and Allah’s people. Perhaps he was shocked by what he had just done or where he was and realised there was no turning back. No one really knows. What we say is all speculation.

Writing for Fairfax Media, Inga Ting attempts a distinction.

Gun violence has killed 428 times more Americans over the past decade than terrorism. 

And that's using a narrow definition of gun violence, which includes homicides but excludes suicides, accidents and other kinds of gun deaths. It also uses a wide definition of terrorism, including attacks in which doubt exists about a terrorist link and crimes by anti-abortion assailants. 

Even US President Barack Obama is beginning to have doubts about all the media focus on terrorism.

In the wake of the Umpqua Community College massacre on Thursday - the 294th mass shooting in the US in the past 274 days – Barack Obama issued a challenge to news media outlets.
"Have news organisations tally up the number of Americans who have been killed through terrorist attacks in the last decade and the number of Americans who have been killed by gun violence, and post those side-by-side on your news reports."
The following chart says it all.

Perhaps Australians should have the chance to view a similar chart about terrorism deaths and those from domestic violence.

Ting continues:

But even when we expand the dataset to include September 11, 2001, the deadliest terrorist attack in history in which more than 2900 people died, gun homicides account for 50 times more American deaths than terrorism.
Between 2005 and 2014, gun violence (homicides only) killed almost 12,000 Americans a year on average, according to figures from the University of Sydney website and the Gun Violence Archive.
Terrorism killed an average of 28 Americans a year, both on US soil and abroad, according to figures from the University of Maryland's Global Terrorism Database and the US State Department. In all, gun homicides accounted for about 119,000 American deaths.
If we widen the definition of "violence" to include suicides, accidents and other gun deaths, that figure swells to more than 300,000 deaths.
Over the same period, 55 people (including 53 US citizens) were killed in terrorism-related attacks in the US and 225 private US citizens were killed in terrorist-related attacks overseas.

TERRORISM: Balancing security and individual liberty - when radicalisation becomes a threat to government thinking

We were all radicals in one way or another. Some of us become more radical with age. Tony Abbott's views on abortion (at least as expressed in his book Battlelines) were quite radical for a man who once wanted to become a priest. It's unlikely that today's Murdoch tabloid columnists would have shown as little respect for an official war narrative Keith Murdoch.

Radical ideas are needed for individual and social reform. But sometimes radical thinking is seen as a threat to all of us, especially when they turn violent. The consensus these days is that the most dangerous form of radicalism is radical Islam. This consensus has a ring of truth to it, though it is also used by anti-Islam radicals with a distinctly sectarian (and at times violent) agenda.

Notwithstanding the rhetoric of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his media allies, the Commonwealth has tried its best to avoid pointing the finger. Funding for "deradicalisation" projects has been awarded to a range of organisations from the ethno-religious Lebanese Muslim Association to the non-sectarian People Against Violent Extremism (PAVE) to Centacare in Cairns.

Emphasising the non-sectarian nature of counter-"radicalisation" measures can get you into some trouble, as the Turnbull government recently discovered following the release of its Preventing Violent Extremism & Radicalisation In Australia kit which has been sent to school teachers across Australia.

The criticism hasn't just come from the "usual suspects" – civil libertarians, Muslim community advocates and the Greens. Some professional education groups have been critical of the idea that one kit can solve all teachers' problems. Instead, as the Global Learning Centre stated in a recent press release:
Preventing violent extremism and radicalisation in our students is not about targeting individuals. It's about creating a more cohesive and connected community. This is a challenge that involves us all … Australian teachers are more desperate than ever to develop globally-ready classrooms.
Teachers cannot counter a narrow view of the world unless they have a broader and more cosmopolitan view. Kids need to be taught that being good citizens of Australia and of the globe are not mutually exclusive. The "kit" (which, according to one of its main authors Emeritus Professor Gary Bouma of Monash University, was never meant to be used as a kit) has also been ridiculed for the examples it gives of "radicalised" young people "cured" of their radicalism.

The booklet distinguishes between mere "radicalisation" ("[w]hen a person's beliefs move from being relatively conventional to being radical, and they want a drastic change in society" and which isn't necessarily bad) and when "it becomes a concern to everybody, including families, communities and law enforcement, if a person begins to advocate or use violence to achieve a political, religious or ideological goal".

The definition of advocating or using violence has been the butt of many jokes on social media, especially the hashtag #freekaren on Twitter, named in honour of the case study "Karen". Karen's interest in environmental protection led her to attend a forest camp where she and others would "disrupt logging activities by barricading areas that were being logged, spiking trees, and sabotaging machinery". Scuffles broke out between her group and loggers, and she was arrested.

The scenario may sound laughable, but the booklet's authors were obviously trying to show that violent extremism can take many forms and may not harm everyone. Unlike Islamist terrorist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram whose targets of choice are almost exclusively Muslims.

But you wouldn't believe it if you believed everything you read about terrorism fed to a tabloid by the former prime minister's office. Tony Abbott just loved talking about the "death cult" that was coming to get us all. It made his government look tough, even if it was accompanied by ridiculous stunts such as the recent Australian Border Force fiasco in Melbourne. It also gave oxygen to far-Right extremists who were rarely seen as a threat.

The Abbott government's policies might be described as a case of "militant democracy", when democracy compromises itself and its values in order to fight its perceived existential enemies. Abbott told Australians they would need to be prepared to enjoy less freedoms to fight terrorism. He used this reasoning to justify citizen stripping and other laws.

At least in his rhetoric, then Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull expressed discomfort with where all this was going. On July 7, 2015, Turnbull lectured the Sydney Institute on "balancing security and individual liberty".

"It is a balance our Government has, I believe, got right," Turnbull remarked. But the expression was wrong. And those with dissenting views were dismissed.

If, as Prime Minister, Turnbull wishes to sell Mr Abbott's militant democracy to us, he needs to appreciate that counter-terrorism isn't just an issue affecting "vulnerable groups". He also must be prepared to be ridiculed. Australians no longer take their liberties lightly.

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 1 October 2015.

POLITICS: Cory Bernardi gets in touch with his inner conservative

Tony Abbott is gone. Malcolm Turnbull is in power. This apparently means conservatives in the Liberal Party have or soon will be vanquished. The "wet" or small 'l' liberals have won the day.

Little wonder the likes of South Australian Senator Cory Bernardi are making noises of leaving the Liberal Party and forming a new conservative party, perhaps similar to Britain's Conservatives.

But things have never been so cut and dried. The "Right" don't see each other as all being Right, let alone right. The Liberal Party founded by Menzies represented a political compromise, a somewhat uncomfortable marriage of liberals and conservatives.

 But what does it mean to be conservative in Australia anyway? Does it mean you worship God on Sunday and the free market every other day? Does it mean you support traditional values but insist they can only be Judeo-Christian?

In my final years of law school, a friend and I were invited to dinner with John Howard. It was 1993, and Mr Howard was the opposition spokesman on industrial relations. John Hewson had just lost the unlosable election, and had stunned many colleagues by "coming out" as a social progressive. I asked Mr Howard whether he thought the Liberal Party was or should be necessarily more conservative than the ALP. In those days I was thinking with my undergraduate binary political brain, typical of many in the highly factionalised NSW Young Liberal conservative faction.

In those days, the 'Group' (as the small 'l' liberals were known) had a winner-takes-all mentality, refusing to share power with any but a handful of conservatives. My education as a conservative young liberal included recognising dangerous 'wets', among them Marise Payne, John Brogden, Robert Hill, Christopher Pyne and George Brandis. That's right, campus left-wing activists. Christopher Pyne and George Brandis were on the Liberal left. No doubt many current Young Liberal lefties would be wondering what on earth happened!

Back to dinner with Mr Howard. From memory, Mr Howard's reply to my question was that the essence of conservatism is respect for tradition and the status quo. Change needs to be done gradually, not hastily or in a radical manner. Evolution always works better than revolution.

In that respect, Howard said the Liberal Party was a "broad church". He admitted that many policies pursued in his own portfolio in those days could hardly be called conservative. Indeed, the idea of seriously curtailing the dominance of the union movement and the award system in Australia was regarded as revolutionary. For decades, centralised wage fixing through an independent umpire was the norm.

Howard had a much clearer understanding of what the role of conservatives in the Liberal Party was. He realised you had to take the electorate with you, and you had to use big events to your advantage. The rule was respecting things as they are and making minor changes here and there (or at least major changes when no one was watching). Events like the Port Arthur 'massacre' (conventional racialised wisdom won't allow us to label this an act of terrorism) gave Howard the catalyst to introduce gun laws against the wishes of many in the National Party.

But there was one lesson Howard and other self-styled conservatives today have not learned. When conservatives are guided by prejudice instead of reason, they risk giving birth to a political monster that could go out of control and come back to bite all of us.

The free market is built upon people acting in rational self-interest. This means looking out for commercial advantage regardless of linguistic, ethnic, religious and other differences one might have with others. There's no point accusing the ALP of anti-Chinese xenophobia for having reservations about the proposed preferential trade agreement with China when there are people on your own side using the existence of violent Muslim extremists in the Middle East as an excuse to punish cattle farmers and put our export markets at risk.

And if refugee policy is built upon ease of integration, do we really think an Arabic-speaking Christian refugee named Nabil Youssef tortured by Islamic State and/or Assaad will find it easier to integrate than an Arabic-speaking Sunni or Alawite refugee named Nabil Youssef traumatised by IS and/or Assaad?

John Howard would have wished his last press conference as prime minister could be devoted to his long record of achievements. Instead, he had to deal with a fake pamphlet of racial and sectarian content distributed by members of the Liberal Party (including a NSW State Executive member) in a Western Sydney marginal seat. He went on to lose not just the election but his own seat.

Conservatives who dabble in irrational prejudice will never succeed in the long term. If Mr Bernardi and his fellow travellers wish to establish a conservative party on narrow foundations, they might consider doing so in North Korea.

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 20 September 2015.

LAW: Terrorism legislation highlighted as Harun Causevic released on bail

During the pre-dawn of April 18, 2015, police raided a number of homes in south-western Melbourne. To say the raids were a media circus would be an understatement. Charges were laid against five young men pursuant to anti-terror laws. The men were accused of plotting to attack police officers as well as citizens gathering to commemorate ANZAC Day. The plot was allegedly inspired by remarks by leaders of Islamic State for young Western men to randomly kill civilians.

In Britain, charges have been laid against two adolescents who have since pleaded guilty to involvement in the thwarted Melbourne attack.

Local media had a field day circus after being fed by police information and allegations against the arrested men. The nerves of Australians were on edge over attacks on the larger-than-usual turnout to the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign. Pundits, terrorism "experts" and politicians appeared in newspapers and on TV screens confirming the narrative of fear. Some months later, Prime Minister Tony Abbott even declared to delegates at a summit on countering violent extremism that

... as far as the Daesh death cult is concerned, they're coming after us. 

In this environment of hysteria, it would have been a sacrilege to suggest that one of accused, 18-year-old Harun Causevic, perhaps wasn't the best candidate for placement in a maximum security isolation unit. A young man with no criminal record might be spending 23 hours each day in the company of hardened criminals? Still, in tabloid terror terms, the man is already guilty as charged. Human rights aren't an issue.

But now it seems the major terrorism charges against Causevic have been dropped. Causevic wasn't part of Tony Abbott's "death cult" after all. At worst, he was a young man in possession of knives and other weapons. Causevic is now out on bail.

It is easy to blame the police for pursuing these matters. But we must remember police are under enormous pressure to protect us from enemies whom they – and we – barely understand. To think that terrorism experts are still arguing over whether the actions of Man Monis constituted terrorism.

Police are expected to use an arsenal of vague, often poorly drafted and draconian laws repeatedly reinforced over more than a decade and which represent a massive departure from the criminal justice system. And if that isn't enough, the Abbott government is hoping to give them even more powers.

Following Causevic's release on bail, Federal and Victoria Police stated they could legitimately take "overt" action if they had reasonable grounds to suspect someone was planning a terror attack. Defence lawyer Rob Stary sought an apology and an ex gratia payment for his client, claiming there was no real evidence against Causevic. Victorian Police Commissioner Graham Ashton refused to apologise on the basis that

... no one acted in bad faith here … With the nature of terrorism offences it is inevitable you will see these types of cases occur.

So police will frequently prosecute terror cases where the evidence is so minor that charges will have to be withdrawn. Meanwhile a young man with no criminal record will remain in the worst form of custody, arrested and then released following a media circus. There are likely to be more young men in Causevic's situation, men whom the community will find guilty until proven guiltier.

The powers given to police and intelligence agents have been abused. In the 2003 case of Izhar Ul-Haque, a 21-year-old medical student, the trial judge described the conduct of ASIO agents as "grossly improper" and "reminiscent of Kafka". The agents were found to have "committed the criminal offences of false imprisonment and kidnapping at common law". The charges against eventually dropped.

Repeatedly reinforced vague laws exist because we have been convinced that death by terrorism is somehow more evil and nasty than death by murder or dying in a road accident with a drunken or stoned driver. Women dying at the hands of their partners weren't deserving of the same protection before their death as potential victims of death by death cult.

Further, the way we define terrorism says a lot about how we view ourselves as a nation. Harun Causevic is of Bosnian heritage. He is European. He is white. Imagine if he had driven up to police carrying not a black flag with white Arabic writing. Imagine if it was a flag of the Australian Defence League or some other white extremist organisation whose members are known to bring weapons to Reclaim Australia rallies and who carry out violent attacks on women. Would he have subjected to a dawn raid? Would he have spent four months in the company of some of the most dangerous men in Victoria?

Before 9/11, our police and intelligence services already had an arsenal of laws to help them keep us safe. Even if it could be argued that the hyper-legislation against terrorism was necessary, imagine how difficult it must be for agencies to do their job properly when under pressure from incompetent poll-driven governments act on the basest (often sectarian) instincts.

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 2 September 2015.

SPORT/RELIGION: We can slap away Eddie McGuire's 'mussie' comment. The real problem is the use of 'footy'

Australian Muslims have a sense of humour and no problem being likened to insects; what gets me is calling Australian rules "footy". 

What on earth was Collingwood boss Eddie McGuire on about when he described Victorian Sports Minister John Eren as a "Mussie"? Or should that be "Mossie"? Or is this the new slang for "Muslim"?

And why should non-AFL people like myself care?

Because apparently McGuire was being racist. And racism affects us all. Apart from Muslims, of course. Muslims aren't a race but rather some invading alien species from the Planet Gsjhtr%$hj.

Personally I don't see what the big deal is. It isn't the first time I've been named an extremely annoying insect.

At my all-boys Anglican Cathedral school, there were three non-Anglicans who wore our non-believing hearts on our sleeves. Brian was Jewish, Tim was an atheist though his Catholic heritage made him a non-believer among super-low-church Anglicans. I was the Muslim.

We'd give our school chaplain hell, but we also happily threw dirt at each other using unfortunate stereotypes. When the stereotypes no longer stuck, we had to use more novel approaches.

One morning, Tim approached me all excited. "I killed one of your type in the shower yesterday. I slapped him dead just as he was about to bite me and suck my blood." I was confused. Tim clarified with a question.
Aren't you a Mossie?
Brian made sure everyone in our year knew Tim's new terminology. Soon blokes would find a mosquito buzzing around in the playground, point to it and ask my permission.
Do you mind if I flatten one of your cousins
? Another would remark:
How come you never seem to have mosquito bites? Oh yeah, I forgot. They never attack their own.
Some years later at university, I befriended an Anglo-Australian Muslim convert. Dave who had been around the mosque and religious organisation scene for more than a decade. Like many converts during the 1980s, Dave was not made to feel very welcome in a scene dominated by "ethnic" Muslims who treated converts with disdain or distrust.

Convert experiences were very similar to those of young Muslims like myself who resented religious spaces that treated Islam as cultural relics of life "back home".

I mentioned to Dave about how I was referred to as a "Mossie" at school. He had a good chuckle.
Mate, that's nothing. One of the earliest converts in Sydney was a bloke named Yusuf. He was doing a PhD and was organising activities for converts.
Yusuf understood that converts were often subject to pressure from fringe Muslim groups. He knew converts needed educational programs that reflected Australian norms so he produced a newsletter which was sent to more than 500 converts across the country. It was the 1970s and with no email or Facebook back then, it was all cut and paste and licking stamps onto handwritten envelopes. The newsletter was for Australian Muslims, for Muslims who saw Islam as something for Australia and not just a carbon copy of whatever was happening in Ankara or Lahore or Tripoli.

And the name of this publication? The Aussie Mossie.

Apparently the subheading was: "Watch out or we'll bite!"

Yes, Australian Muslims had a sense of humour, an understanding of Australian abbreviation and even an ability to rhyme. Muslims have been happily describing themselves as "Mossies" for more than four decades. So much for not integrating.

Nowadays, the biggest group of Muslims here are those born in Australia. Most of us are Aussie Mossies.

Thanks to events happening overseas, we're getting a rough ride. We're told to say our faith is one of peace like we really mean it. Our ladies are subjected to both domestic violence at home and non-domestic violence on public transport. Across the country, crowds of thugs and neo-Nazis are holding rallies to reclaim the country from us.

There are some real haters out there. But I'm not sure if Collingwood boss Eddie McGuire is one of them.

For starters, spotting the Sports Minister as a Turk isn't something that should come as a surprise to anyone who knows anything about McGuire. Seriously, McGuire grew up in Broadmeadows. He knows a Turk when he sees one.

But there is one thing I'm deeply offended about, not so much as a Muslim and as a decent human being. The story about McGuire's comments was placed on the Fairfax website headed "REAL FOOTY".

Fancy describing a game where huge men wear tiny shorts as footy, let alone real footy. I'm deeply offended and demand an apology.

And if it's true that the minister prefers to play "soccer", well I'm happy he leads by example. Because REAL footy is played throughout the world with feet, not hands.

Irfan Yusuf is a PhD candidate at Deakin University and has no interest in AFL. He is the author of Once Were Radicals: My Years as a Teenage Islamo-Fascist. This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 11 August 2015.

Monday, September 21, 2015

REFLECTION: Are Australians Really Racist?

The late Padraic Pearse (PP) McGuinness was one of Australia’s most eccentric commentators and cultural warriors. At one time a columnist for The Australian - back in the days when its editorial line wasn’t beholden to the SAS (and by that, I mean the Santamaria Appreciation Society) – he went onto take control of what became the rabidly right wing Quadrant.

McGuinness wrote on just about every topic under the sun, whether he knew much about it or not. He seemed determined to be a contrarian, even when his views represented the orthodoxy.

During a spring clean, I found a book of his columns entitled McGuinness Collected Thoughts* and was particularly interested on his views on social issues. Much of the commentary concerned topics of his era which would have interested me back then had I not been chasing other forms of anti-communist activism.

One column, dated June 20 1989 and entitled “THE MYTH OF AUSTRALIAN RACISM” is a reflection on Australian attitudes to East Asians in the days following the Tienanmen Square massacre. McGuinness claims
[t]he events in China, and the Australian response to them, have served to discredit another myth ... the myth that Australians are racist.
McGuiness claims the “myth” has been
... assiduously disseminated by various tendencies in the media … to paint a picture of Australians in general as prone to racist intolerance and hostility to immigration, especially from Asia.
So what does McGuinness see as the real truth?
The truth is that this is not an accurate description of Australian popular opinion, today, and has not been for many years, if it ever was.
McGuinness then moves onto our history of post-Federation immigration. He paints a rosy picture of a nation that has
... treated the immigrants with a tolerance and willingness to live and let live, and to absorb … The Australian experience of immigration and integration is one of which any country in the world could be proud.
Has it all been good? McGuinness acknowledges that
[t]here are difficulties, there are stupidities, there are plenty of cases of bad policy.
But that doesn’t detract from the overall picture that
... of all mixed communities Australia is one of the most tolerant and decent.

McGuinness then moves onto indigenous people. It would be a huge understatement to suggest that his views represent a mere contrarian refusal to accept conventional wisdom.
The accusation against Australians with respect to the treatment of Aboriginal Australians have been wild and damning.
I doubt Tony Abbott would agree with McGuiness’ assessment.

But how many people coming from other countries, whether English-speaking or not, can claim that the history of communal intolerance, of violence of wars, invasions, and conquests, have been better than ours? 

Gee, that should make us all feel so much better.
There is much to be ashamed of in the past for everybody – but to accuse Australians of being any worse than any other country in this respect is simply absurd. Often enough we have been better.
I’m not sure if that means we have anything to be proud of. It just means we are probably at least as bad or perhaps a little better than an awful bunch. Now, try not to fall off your chair at the following:
The mistakes toward Aborigines fifty or eighty years ago may not look so bad in the future … The point is that there is simply no evidence of any general or systematic prejudice against Aboriginals among white Australians.
Shall I continue? Yeah, why not.
Nor is there any general and systematic racial prejudice among Australians toward Asians, or toward other foreigners. There is indeed a certain amount of fear and hostility toward strangers. That is universal. There is a certain amount of red-kneckery” among those wo are not politically sophisticated or well-informed … But it is pure nonsense to say that there is any deep-seated racism and unforgiving intolerance in the Australian community.
McGuinness excuses those he sees as being wrongly accused of being racists. He says their behaviour is often natural given that an influx of people means more competition for limited housing, jobs etc. It isn’t easy for locals

... when established habits of life are disturbed, when new and not easily understood ways of behaviour are encountered. 

Does he have a point here? So by now you would have some idea of where PP McGuinness was coming from. Are his opinions correct today? Where they correct back in 1989? Was he partly right and partly wrong? Are Australians really racist?

*(1990) Schwartz & Wilkinson

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.