Monday, May 30, 2005

Impressions on Mr Howard's Industrial Nirvana

LAWYER: Doctor, what is your impression of the accused?

PSYCHIATRIST: I’m sorry, sir, I don’t do impressions. My training is in psychiatry!

(from the slapstick comedy Flying High)

John Howard has been a favourite target of impressionists from Max Gillies to the crew on the Mike Carlton Breakfast Show. But in industrial relations law and policy, few have made such a big impression as our good PM.

And now after years of crusading for change, it seems that the PM will finally have his chance to implement industrial nirvana. But will it be as heavenly as Mr Howard and his supporters from employer organisations imagine?

Mr Howard’s policy looks absolutely superb on paper. It will be easier to sack workers, especially for smaller businesses with upto 100 employees. Unions will have less power as enterprise bargaining is phased out more quickly and individual and workplace contracts become the norm.

Labor premiers, of course, are up in arms. Premier Bob Carr, the man who slashed injured workers’ entitlements for the sake of appeasing insurers, has seen the light and will fight the Howard reforms. He will be joined by his colleagues from other states in what promises to be a legal showdown in the High Court.

Who will win? Will Mr Howard have his day of glory? Will unions and workers be saved? Who knows? Who cares? One thing is for certain – whoever wins, the lawyers always win.

And not just lawyers acting for either side of the High Court challenge. Howard’s reforms will simply not work because they, like everything else created in policy nirvana, do not take into account how industrial law works on the ground. Mr Howard has failed to take account of how litigants and their advisers will be looking at the system, and how judges and commissioners will be administering the system.

One would expect that having one of Australia’s premier industrial counsel as one’s deputy would have given Mr Howard some idea of which way his reform winds should be blowing. Then again, one would also expect Mr Howard to advocate on behalf of all Australian citizens caught up in a spot of legal bother overseas. Yeah, right.

Mr Howard’s reforms simply won’t work. Let’s look at unfair dismissal. Say my fictitious client Jasmine approached me and said she had been working somewhere for a decade before being shafted, would I first look at unfair dismissal? I might consider it as one option. But unfair dismissal has its disadvantages.

Jasmine could only get upto 6 months wages as compensation for unfair dismissal. She has to pay my fees out of that amount. If I take her matter to hearing, the fees might add upto $10,000. Her compensation might be 3 months wages. If she earns $800 per week, she will get $9,600 compensation. Tax would also have to be taken out.

If Jasmine loses the case and is found to have made a frivolous or vexatious application, she might have to pay the legal fees of her employer.

And all these factors have to be considered and an application lodged within 21 days of dismissal. Further, there must be a dismissal. Rarely will a resignation under pressure be regarded as a dismissal.

On the other hand, Jasmine may have resigned or been offered a redundancy package. She may even have been dismissed. She may well have a more lucrative option of an application under s106 of the NSW Industrial Relations Act for unfair contract. A similar provision also exists under Queensland law.

Jasmine could apply for a host of things. Her claim would not be limited to 6 months wages. Further, we could ask the Commission to make orders that her employer pay all or part of her legal fees. And we could couple it all with a claim for unpaid entitlements.

If employers realised how expensive a claim for unfair contract is (as opposed to an unfair dismissal claim), they would not be cheering Mr Howard on in his crusade against state unfair dismissal laws.

Next, let’s look at the focus on individual and workplace agreements. Who is going to advise on these agreements? Who will draft them? Will there be one standard agreement? Or will we see different agreements for different level staff? How will all this tie in with OH&S, anti-discrimination and other factors? And who will adjudicate in case of disputes?

If Mr Howard thinks employment law is just about agreement making and breaking, he clearly has not understood the ins and outs of employment law. Perhaps he could visit the websites of some of Australia’s most expensive lawyers and download some of their employment law client alerts. Perhaps next time he is in Sydney, he can walk a few doors down from his office and sit in on some matters in the NSW Industrial Relations Commission. Then he can jump in a cab and head down to what many IR lawyers affectionately call “the Fight Centre” (the IRC located in the Flight Centre Building) and see how litigants make their decisions.

I admire Mr Howard for trying to free up the industrial marketplace. It is badly in need of a shake-up. For too long, workers and employers have been hampered in their dealings by too much regulation and red tape. But me thinks the Howard reforms will achieve little for either side. Mr Howard has failed to consider litigation dollars and cents.

I am sure my colleagues will agree with me in saying that without considering litigation dollars and cents, the reforms will make little sense in the long run.

(The author is a Sydney lawyer practising in employment and industrial law. He can be contacted on

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Some Thoughts On Mandatory Detention

The November 2001 federal election was a watershed for the Liberal Party in many ways. Liberals had to face new political and security realities arising from September 11. Australia was about to join its allies in a direct assault on al-Qaida in Afghanistan. There was a genuine fear of Taliban and al-Qaida cells slipping into Australia via people-smugglers. Border protection and security became top priorities.

The Liberals had to be tough on these issues. They could not afford to take the ‘flip-flop’ attitude of the Beazley camp. At the same time, they could not allow these issues to become a war cry for supporters of Pauline Hanson.

The strategy was clear. The Liberals had to adopt policies that protected Australian interests. A tough border protection policy coupled with mandatory detention would achieve these goals, whilst stripping Pauline Hanson of her support base. The best way to destroy Hanson was to somehow look like her.

Candidates in that election (including the writer) were briefed on this and understood the message clearly. Even in hard-luck seats like Reid (which takes in Auburn, Granville and other suburbs in the geographical heart of Sydney), a seat with substantial populations of current and former Afghan refugees, there was strong support for the policy.

Indeed, many voters were surprised to find Afghan Australians volunteering to hand out ‘how-to-votes’ for the Liberal Party on the day. One of these volunteers said to the writer: “We don’t like seeing our people behind bars, but it is better than keeping the Taliban who murder us in power”.

Mandatory detention was a policy right for the time. But that time has now passed. Pauline Hanson is busy with a career outside of politics. Her most trusted advisers are now her worst enemies. As a political force, she is gone.

The Taliban have been overthrown. Our biggest concern with the current Afghan government is their lax approach to narcotics. As for al-Qaida, though they are still dangerous, it will be any day before bin Ladin joins his comrades in a Pakistani prison or American custody.

The political and security reasons behind sacrificing liberty and human rights concerns in favour of strict mandatory detention are no longer present. At least 3 Liberal MP’s know this. And anyone who has visited a detention centre will admit that keeping women and children behind barbed wire creates more problems than it solves.

Mandatory detention as practised in Australia is not just bad for the detainees. It can have disastrous consequences for staff. Numerous guards have suffered serious physical and psychological injuries resulting from facilities being understaffed thanks to government contractors more concerned with the bottom line than occupational health and safety concerns. Paramedical staff have also been pressured to stay silent on what they know are severe conditions which make Silverwater Gaol seem like a picnic.

Staff morale is low even in metropolitan facilities in Sydney and Melbourne. The writer has acted for a number of staff in relation to occupational health and workplace injury issues, and has seen evidence that could only lead one to conclude that detention centre staff responsible for implementing the policy are finding it unpalatable.

And on a political level, it baffles many Liberal Party members that a party with a proud tradition of multiculturalism and humanitarian action could continue with such a policy. Liberal governments welcomed Vietnamese and other Indo-Chinese refugees with open arms during the 1970’s. The Howard government gave temporary sanctuary to Kosovar Albanian refugees, and over $1 billion has been pledged to assist Indonesia in its reconstruction efforts following the tsunami.

That such a government could claim political support for such an inhumane policy speaks volumes for its changing support base. It perhaps explains why the National Young Liberal President has been actively seeking to enlist support of the Religious Right and One Nation.

Ironically, the only hope for supporters of mandatory detention is the same ‘flip-flopping’ of Mr Beazley. At the time of writing, Mr Beazley said he would not allow a conscience vote on any Private Members Bill on the issue. Perhaps by the time of publication, the Labor leader may have flipped his flop. A day is a long time in politics.

(The writer is a Sydney lawyer. He was Liberal candidate for the seat of Reid during the 2001 federal election, achieving a swing of over 5% on a 2-party preferred basis. He was a delegate to the Liberal Party State Council from 1995-2000, and chaired its Multicultural Affairs and Law & Justice Committees. He also edited 2 conservative publications and hosts a conservative e-mail discussion forum and a blog

© Irfan Yusuf, 2005

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Show Us Your Conscience

According to major Australian newspapers (including at least one national broadsheet owned by an American), the PM John Howard is furious that some MP’s wish to bring up the issue of mandatory detention.

Bruce Baird, Petro Georgiou and colleagues have even suggested a Private Members Bill which can be put to MP’s on both sides of the House as a conscience vote.

These MP’s have actually taken the step of visiting the detention centres. They have seen with their own eyes the poor morale of detention centre staff and the extreme conditions endured by the detainees. They have spoken to psychologists, nurses and psychiatrists employed by and associated with the detention centres.

I think that, if it is true that the PM is opposed to a conscience vote, perhaps he should consider visiting the detention centres himself. And while he is at it, he should take along some of his media favourites like Dr Janet Albrechtsen, Miranda Devine and Alan Jones.

Perhaps he might also take with him some survivors of the Nazi holocaust and ask them if anything they are seeing looks familiar.

Let the PM see with his own eyes the experiences of those living and working behind the barbed wire. Words are cheap. Seeing is believing.

I have visited Villawood Detention Centre only once in 2003. This is supposed to be a 5-star facility compared to Baxter and other facilities. It was a cross between a zoo and a prison. The prison animals were caged in barbed wire, and visitors had to stand in a long queue just to see these creatures.

It baffles me that a conservative government could treat human beings like this. Whatever happened to our beliefs in the essential dignity and value of the individual? I can understand that we needed this policy in the aftermath of September 11 when there was a fear of Iraqi Ba’athists and Afghan Taliban fighters trying to escape. I can understand that we needed to stem the flow of people smugglers.

But those days are over. The boats of people smugglers are slowly but surely returning to their traditional pursuit of fishing. The Ba’athists and Taliban are on the run or at Guantanamo. The policy is fast becoming as redundant as it is inhumane.

But I think reporters like Louise Dodson from the Sydney Morning Herald have misunderstood the PM. John Howard has been my local member for as long as I can remember. I remember working with Mr Howard when he was the Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations. In 1995, he wanted to start a branch in his State Electorate Conference that had a more multi-ethnic flavour. Sadly, due to the intransigence of some people in the conference, the branch was twice defeated in the SEC.

Mr Howard then attended a dinner in January 1996 on the eve of his becoming Opposition Leader. The dinner was hosted by Liberal branches in Bankstown, and was attended by a huge contingent of Australians from all backgrounds. The cameras showed Mr Howard shaking hands with Australians of Thai, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Palestinian and other backgrounds.

The future PM followed the dinner with a stroll through the Bankstown Sports Club, the heart of Paul Keating territory. And when the members gave him a standing ovation, he must have seen hope in their eyes. And they saw in him a champion for the Aussie battlers, not mere rhetoric for the true believers.

The John Howard we knew is not someone who enjoys placing people behind bars for offences like escaping genocide and avoiding repression. The John Howard we worked with was a man who recognised that the Liberal Party is a broad church.

The Liberal Party is a party of conservatives and liberals. Liberals vote with their conscience. And it would surprise me greatly if John Howard did not allow a conscience vote on the issue of mandatory detention.

© Irfan Yusuf, 2005

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Prayers For A Shaykh And A Hostage

Douglas Wood is an Australian engineer working for an American company in Iraq. He has been kidnapped by a group claiming to be acting in the interests of the Iraqi people and their independence.

I wish I knew how kidnapping an Australian serves the interests of Iraqi people. Yes, I know our government has sent troops to Iraq. In doing so, it has ignored the wishes of millions of Australians who oppose the war.

Australians of all races and religions and political persuasions oppose the war and the occupation. Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus. And Muslims like me. Leftists, Labor voters and Liberals (small and big “L”). And Conservatives like me.

But the troops are there now. Saddam is in custody. Iraqis have the chance to re-build their country. Independence is their right. But how will it be achieved by kidnapping an Australian engineer?

Kidnappings and harming civilian workers will do little to help us convince our countrymen to oppose continuing occupation.

Kidnappers who claim to be acting for Islam should be asked to show one verse from the Qur’an (the Muslim scripture) or one hadith (reported saying of the Prophet) which supports their actions.

The Qur’an never taught Muslims to hate others. It never taught us to attack those who are trying to help re-build shattered lives.

The Qur’an taught Muslims to pray for others and for peace. Islam is an Arabic word that literally means peace. Yet I don’t see much peace being evidenced in the actions of the kidnappers.

I do, however, find peace of mind knowing that Australian Muslims are doing something for a fellow Australian. The Imam of a major Sydney Mosque, Shaykh Tajeddine el-Hilaly, is leading a team of negotiators seeking to secure the release of Douglas Wood.

Sh Hilaly is an elderly man with severe health complications. His home life is not the best. His mosque committee (known by the name of the “Lebanese Moslems Association”) are always embroiled in disputation. He himself cannot solve things within the association as his Egyptian background makes him ineligible to join (the organisation refuses membership to persons unable to secure a Lebanese passport).

Sh Hilaly has been criticised in the past (especially by Muslims) for not being able to communicate fluently in English and for making irresponsible remarks. Some 16 years ago, he was reported as saying that Jewish people use sex, pornography and other social ills to control the world. He was threatened with deportation, and it was only when a special position (the Office of Mufti of Australia) was created for him that the government of the day spared him from deportation.

Yet now the hopes of millions of Australians are in the hands of this controversial imam. The family of Douglas Wood have asked him to seek their brother’s release. They have even offered to make a substantial donation to an Iraqi charity (see the family website:

Perhaps the views of most Australians are expressed by a letter to the editor published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 20 May 2005. Richard Manning wrote to the paper the following words:

Whatever the outcome of his endeavours on behalf of Douglas Wood, Sheik Taj el-Din al Hilaly has shown himself to be a man of faith, hope and charity. There will be detractors standing on the safe ground of their alternative views of the world. However, the sheik has seen an opportunity to be of service to an endangered Australian, his own community and Australia at large.

The shaykh is an elderly man with a heart condition who has dropped all his domestic and community duties to travel into a war zone and attempt to seek the freedom of an Australian non-Muslim civilian hostage. He is risking his life. Yet some neo-Conservative commentators keep harping on about comments he made 16 years ago, and accusing him of being an extremist (whatever that word means).

But now is no time for polemics. Now is a time for contemplation and prayer. None of us would want our family member to be caught up in a war zone, either as a hostage or negotiator.

So I guess it is time for me to pray for Douglas, my Presbhyterian Christian brother and a fellow Australian. At the same time, I pray for another fellow Australian, Shaykh Tajeddine el-Hilaly.

God, you created men and women in a state of freedom from impurities. Grant your noble servant, Douglas Wood, freedom from all impurities of heart and mind. Grant the prayers of his family and friends who pray for his liberty.

God, you control the hearts of all men and women. Change the hearts of those keeping Douglas in captivity. Guide them to understand that kidnapping innocent civilians achieves nothing for the cause of Iraqi freedom.

God, make fluent the speech of your noble servant Tajeddine. Enable him to complete his mission successfully. Grant him good health and a long life. Enable him to do a deed which will silence his critics and increase him and them in wisdom.

God, enable the efforts to free Douglas Wood to be a cause for all Australians, regardless of denomination, to come closer together and to reach an even greater understanding than what they presently have. Enable this experience to bring this nation closer together, to make it an example for the world.

Lord, hear our prayer for the sake of Your Beloved Messiah Isa bin Maryam (Jesus the Son of Mary) alayhis salam (upon whom be peace) and for the sake of your Chosen One (Mustafa), Muhammad (peace & blessings of God be upon him) and their noble Ahl (households). Amen! Amin!

© Irfan Yusuf 2005

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Discrimination is not consensus

A Year 11 female student at a state school is punished with a detention for refusing to wear the school uniform. Fair enough.

A Year 11 female student of Shiite Muslim background attending a state high school in the western Sydney suburb of Auburn is placed on detention for wearing an overcoat. Fair enough?

Yes, according to shock jocks and tabloid columnists. No, according to Premier Carr. And no, it seems, according to NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977.

The case of Yasmin Alttahir has raised some important questions and has again led to calls for a review of anti-discrimination laws.

It seems clear that the school authorities did engage in unlawful discrimination under the provisions of the NSW Act. They clearly treated someone less favourably for wearing a symbol of her “descent, … ethno-religious or national origin” (to quote the words of Section 4 of the Act).

Cultural Context

If this incident had occurred during the early 1970’s, it may have been acceptable. But almost 3 decades have elapsed since the Act was passed. And it is a poor reflection on the Department that it cannot properly train and supervise its staff to ensure that such blunders are not made and the Government is not exposed to legal liability.

It is not unusual to see women in Auburn of various racial and faith backgrounds covering their hair and wearing loose-fitting clothes. Indian women, whether Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or other denomination tend to wear loose-fitting ‘shalwar kameez’. Catholic and Muslim women cover their hair. I have even seen the State MP for Auburn, Barbara Perry wear a head scarf when visiting the Gallipoli Mosque or the Turkish Welfare Centre.

Women who choose to dress in a certain way should not be subject to harassment, discrimination or inferior treatment. Australians of all denominations were offended when a young sheik from Liverpool made his remarks some weeks back. Regardless of what faith you choose to follow, the common denomination of all sensible people is that a woman can dress howsoever she wishes.

The Law is the Law

Section 17 of the Anti-Discrimination Act clearly applies rules prohibiting racial discrimination (including on the basis of ‘ethno-religious origin’) to educational institutions. Its provisions include a prohibition on “subjecting the student to any … detriment”. One would think that punishing a student with a detention may constitute a detriment. Where the detention arose from her dress, and where this dress is regarded as part of her ethno-religious origin, the school would be breaching the Act.

Similar provisions apply at Commonwealth level. The case law is clear. Yasmin’s case is not one of indirect discrimination where there might be some exemption or excuse. She has been placed on detention precisely because she is wearing a garment. That garment is not uniform. But ...

The departmental policy says that uniform is mandatory. But departmental policies developed by unelected bureaucrats cannot, under our legal system, be allowed to override the will of Parliament, the will of all New South Welshmen as expressed by their elected representatives.

Imagine if …

Muslim women in Auburn run accounting practices, work as solicitors, manage shops and arrange home loans. Two Muslim women can be elected to Auburn Council without their religion being made an issue. The covering page of the Council’s own website shows a photo of Muslim school children in the library (including girls wearing headscarves). And yet a Muslim student cannot wear a jacket over her uniform.

Imagine if the same scene were repeated in the Eastern Suburbs. Imagine if a Jewish boy were stopped from wearing a traditional cap. There would be community outrage. And rightly so.

Imagine if Sikh diggers were again refused permission to enter an RSL club without taking off their turbans. Imagine if their children were forbidden permission to attend state schools without removing their turbans. There would be an outcry. And rightly so.

And here’s one for a certain shock jock. Imagine if a young boy attending a high school in Paddington was refused permission to wear pink shorts to school on the Friday before the Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras? Imagine if he complained, and if the media took up his case? Would the shock jock in question complain about minorities refusing to confirm?

If you don’t like it …

Some will argue that, as a matter of policy, state schools should insist on strict adherence to school uniform and should not make allowances for religion. Yet overriding any policy must be the will of Parliament. And policies developed by unelected bureaucrats cannot be allowed to override Acts of Parliament passed by elected legislators.

If some provisions of the Anti-Discrimination Act are wrong, people can lobby their MP’s to revoke them. Good luck if this happens. The NSW Act represents almost 30 years of Parliamentary consensus. Neville Wran introduced it. Nick Greiner and John Fahey passed on the baton, albeit with strengthened provisions. Bob Carr now carries it. And there is no finishing line in sight.

Of course, there is always Fred Nile MLC, Aussie Christianity’s answer to Feiz Mohamad. Like Feiz, Fred has been quoted as saying that judgments can be cast on women because of how they dress. Fred says that women who wear head scarves and long loose overcoats should be banned from doing so in case they are hiding bombs and weapons.

I really hope Fred’s views do not represent a growing consensus. But in case they do, Fred and his team will have to come up with a proper regime of lawful discrimination with more exceptions than rules.

That can be Fred’s challenge. But whilst in place, the Act must be followed. The law is the law. And Yasmin’s choice is clearly the will of the Parliament.

© Irfan Yusuf, 2005

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Now Is Not The Time

Imagine it was your brother or son working as an engineer in Iraq and kidnapped by insurgents. Imagine if you were the one told by your elected officials that they will not negotiate with his captors.

Then imagine if you know that an Australian Muslim leader may be able to help. What will you do? Will you refuse to take a chance because of anti-Semitic remarks he made over a decade ago? Will you not approach him because of recent remarks he made in Lebanon during some Friday sermons?

Of course not. You would do anything to save your loved one.

The Howard government sent thousands of young Australian servicemen and women to Iraq. Many of these young Australians are still there, risking their lives to keep (or rather, create) the peace. Yet the Howard government has said that it will not negotiate with those holding an Australian citizen captive.

I am sure Ministers are wishing there was some way they could save Mr Wood without giving terrorists the legitimacy that they don't deserve. And revelations in the Sun-Herald on May 15 of a gentleman’s agreement between Mr Ruddock, Keysar Trad and Imam Hilaly are proof that the Government is doing what it can.

Yet two issues arising from this whole affair are of particular concern.

Firstly, the attitude of neo-Conservative pro-Government commentators is cause for concern. At least 3 major columnists have made vicious attacks on Imam Hilaly, raising decade-old allegations of anti-Semitic remarks. These commentators express their distaste with Imam Hilaly being used as a go-between and a negotiator. Some have virtually accused him of using the Wood family’s grief to gain publicity for himself.

I am not the world’s biggest fan of Imam Hilaly. I have criticised him publicly in various Muslim and wider community forums (online and otherwise). But on this occasion, I simply cannot find fault with what he is doing.

Hilaly is an old man with a serious heart condition. His personal life is not the best, and his office is in turmoil after his translator and adviser of many years was removed. Hilaly is caught in the cross-fire of 3 feuding Islamic councils vying for hegemony over the affairs of the Muslims of NSW.

Yet at the drop of a turban, the Imam has rushed to a war-zone, risking his life to save the life of a fellow-Australian. Whatever Hilaly may have said about Jews over 16 years ago, I am sure Australians of Jewish faith (and indeed of all other faiths and no faith) will be hoping and wishing that Imam Hilaly’s mission is successful.

Now is not the time for allegedly conservative columnists to attack the Shaykh. Let him do his job. Iraqis (including the terrorists) will not take the Shaykh’s mission seriously if they go to the web and read respected columnists in major Australian media outlets attacking the Shaykh. Criticising the Shaykh at this time, apart from causing enormous distress to the Wood family, may effectively undermine efforts to free Douglas Wood.

But apart from the irresponsible comments made by commentators (tabloid and otherwise), there is a matter of greater concern. It seems that our foreign affairs apparatchiks in Canberra may not have the extensive knowledge and contacts in the Arab world needed to deal with such situation should it arise in the future.

That a country with such a large, diverse and educated Arabic-speaking community does not have more such people in our intelligence and foreign affairs agencies is cause for concern. How can we fight ‘Islamist terror’ when we do not have the people who can speak the language and understand the culture of many terrorist groups?

One important lesson our government can learn is that it cannot afford to ignore the potential for Arab and Muslim Australians to contribute to our national security and our diplomatic efforts. Muslims are not just good for securing IOC delegates’ votes for the 2000 Sydney Games, or for opening up export markets in halal meat.

If major Australian financial institutions, telecommunications companies and large commercial law firms are happy to involve persons of Arab and/or Muslim backgrounds in sensitive leadership roles, why can’t our government, intelligence and diplomatic agencies?

I am not suggesting that our government agencies activeky discourage the involvement of persons of a particular background. Nor do they discriminate. And nor am i suggesting that private sector personalities positively discriminate. And I certainly am not suggesting that positive discrimination on the basis of ethnicity or religion is the solution.

What I am saying is that, in the current environment, even the most Aussie of Mossies are not exactly the social flavour of the month. Years of bad press, especially since September 11, are taking their toll. And as the Wood saga shows, it is not just Aussie Mossies who are suffering as a result.

But it works both ways. Muslim Australians need to come out of the closet. They cannot allow the Islamophobic tendencies of ignorant shock jocks and infantile columnists to dictate the extent of their contribution to this wonderful country we all call our home. It is their duty to God that they show their service to Australia with greater gusto.

Australians need and deserve to be reassured. Aussie Muslims need to find voices that communicate in a language all Australians can understand and appreciate. Even if some claiming greater loyalty to Australia oppose us.

© Irfan Yusuf, 2005

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

REFLECTION: Pilgrimage to the Holy Grail

Most Sydney-siders regard Canberra as a rather boring place. Well, that is their problem. Normally a Sydney-sider myself, I quite like Canberra. In fact, I liked it so much that when I decided to pursue post-graduate studies, I chose ANU above metropolitan Sydney options.

That was 2003, when I enjoyed the over-chlorinated Belconnen pool, the wonderful coffees at Bardellis (which I understand no longer exists in its original spot), the smell of beer at King O’Malleys and the midnight strolls around Lake Ginninderra with my equally-nutty cousin.

Since then, work commitments have kept me in Sydney. But every year, I join my flatmate (a member of the NSW Young Liberals) and a small contingent of political kiddies for the annual pilgrimage to Canberra.

Pilgrimage? Where to? The Florey Hindu Temple? The Canberra Islamic Centre? That pretty Anglican Church in Barton?

No. Ours is a more secular, money-minded pilgrimage. And this morning, I am still recovering from the late hours of networking, politicking and partying that constitute budget night.

I left my humble Sydney abode and arrived in the Parliament House car park at 6:30pm. I had never seen so many luxury cars parked in bus zones in my life. I was too lazy to walk up the stairs, and after exiting the lift I entered a world of hi-tech security.

Firstly, I was required to throw my mobile phone, my wallet and the change received from the McDonalds employee into a plastic box. I then walked through some kind of scanning device. I was directly behind a rather attractive lady. Luckily for the male guard holding the scanner, the lady was wearing more metallic jewellery than my good self.

I then had to get through security at the glass foyer. My flatmate came and collected me after my name mysteriously disappeared from one of the 20-odd lists of MP’s guests. After a few minutes negotiations, I was allowed into the corridors of power.

And yes, I could feel the power flowing through my intestines as I finished my tofu noodles at the cafeteria. Even more power was felt when I walked into Joe Hockey’s party and recognised a whole bunch of other Sydney slickers. Like me, these were former centre-right NSW Young Libs who were forced out after a takeover by the Taliban.

Amongst my Sydney friends was a chap who ran a rather unorthodox campaign as endorsed Liberal candidate in a safe ALP seat during the 1996 federal election. Paul Keating went to that election for the last time as PM, and his "banana republic" words came to haunt him. My mate scored a whopping 9% swing in his favour. All this on a budget of $3,000. His campaign consisted of handing out bananas polling booths, offering voters a choice between a Liberal ‘how-to-vote’ and an ALP banana republic.

Other hard-luck candidates were also there, enjoying the alcoholic largesse of Akh Yusuf (Arabic for “Brother Joseph”, though in English he was known as Joe Hockey) and his staff. Although I am a devout teetotaller, I am certainly no teetotalitarian. I therefore sipped on my water after offering someone else the beer offered to me by a lovely lass from Melbourne University Liberal Club. My refusal of her beer bottle did not stop us from discussing life and other contingencies.

After enjoying the company of numerous political animals of the female persuasion, we returned our Hockey sticks and enjoyed the hospitality of John Fahey, a man I generally associate with jumping at least a metre in the air on national TV after some Spanish dude made an announcement about Sydney a few years back. Tonight Bruce Baird was toasting the budget, not the Olympics. He was soon joined by the man of the hour, Mr Dollar Sweets himself, Peter Costello.

I like Peter. I will like him even more after July this year. So will my bank manager. And I and my bank manager were not the only people lining up to have our photo taken with Mr Costello.

By this time, it was almost 11pm. The time had come to adjourn to the final shrine of our pilgrimage, the infamous haunt for many a post-budget delegation. My friends and I were driving around Kingston trying to find this place. All we could see were dark silent streets full of townhouses and units, a sight to bring a smile to the face of Bob Carr’s Planning Minister.

Finally, after 20 minutes of fruitless searching, we went to the petrol station across the road from a posh school (my friends were too drunk to tell whether it was St Edmunds or Radford College). We were told to go to the shops. But ever shop seemed closed. Eventually we heard a faint echo of laughter and bad music. And after 3 seconds, it was like a Christmas tree had suddenly been lit up after the fuse was replaced.

We had finally discovered the Holy Grail. I recall wishing I had my ‘Best of Hunters & Collectors’ CD and a giant sound system with me as I approached. I would have modified the lyrics a bit though ...

Woke up this morning,
from the strangest dream
I was in the biggest pissup taxpayers had ever seen.
We were slouching as one,
On the road to the Holy Grail

It was just one huge loud hobnob. It took us 10 minutes to walk from the outer fringes of the drunken crown to the front door, by which time I was already intoxicated on the fumes.

Upon my entry, I was approached by a young chappy from the Daily Telegraph who was clearly inebriated. “Hey, aren’t you the guy who used to be a Democrat Senator? What the f#ck are you doing here? Didn’t I see you here last year as well?”, he asked with speech suitably slurred.

I guess Aboriginals and persons born to Indian parents can look somewhat similar. Funny thing is, in his mugshot for the paper he often looks like a Bollywood star!

It was here, in this trendy Canberra nightclub, that our pilgrimage reached its highest stage of spiritual unfulfilment. I continued chatting to the pretty lass from Melbourne Uni. My flatmate was planning branch stacks with his branch members. And my car froze to death in the carpark, almost necessitating another phone call to NRMA Roadside Assistance.

I would like to apologise to all Canberrans for our unruly behaviour. But don’t worry – we’ll all be back next year to cheer Peter (or whoever the Treasurer will be) onto further tax cuts and more free piss!

(Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer, practising in workplace relations law. He regrets not having been practising 15 years earlier, as this may have enabled him to brief prominent industrial counsel Peter Costello. Irfan was the endorsed Liberal Candidate for the federal seat of Reid in the 2001 election, achieving a two-party preferred swing of over 5% against the sitting ALP Member, Laurie Ferguson.)

Monday, May 09, 2005

VSU - Why Student Unions Have Nothing To Fear

I started university in 1988. The Hawke Government had just introduced a tuition fee of $200-odd. I remember lining up for course enrolments and being bombarded with leaflets about free education rallies being organised by seemingly apolitical groups such as “SAFE” (“Student Action for a Free Education”).

I saw a few of the rallies, and was impressed by the turn-out. SAFE appeared to represent a broad cross-section of students. But it was only when a few friends conned me into being part of a joke ticket that I realised who SAFE really represented.

My friends ran a ticket called “SAFER” (which stood for “Students Against Free Education Rallies”). Clearly whoever thought of the name had watched too many Monty Python movies. Most people realised we were a joke ticket. Most, it seemed, except the SAFE people.

What started out as an infantile 1st year undergraduate joke suddenly turned into an ideologically unSAFE exercise. We were branded fascist, one of our female candidates was accused of sexual assault (for the misogynistic act of embracing her boyfriend at the polling booth), and we were kicked out of the election by the Returning Officer.

That was my first brush with student ideologues. It was also my first exposure to the realities of compulsory student representation, an essential element of the movement for compulsory student unionism.

Many students starting university this year might be tempted to think the anti-VSU campaign is just about maintaining student services. Just as I thought SAFE was all about saving students money. But a small proportion of these students will become active in student politics (even if only by accident like myself) and will discover the shallowness of many claims from the anti-VSU faction.

So what exactly do students gain from their membership? I asked my nephew this question. He has just started first year, and has witnessed an active VSU campaign. My nephew had this to say about the Union: “I only joined because it was compulsory and because you get discounts of 10-15% on items from Union stores”.

My nephew is hardly a representative sample of typical undergraduate sentiment. But his comments do make an important point. If student unions provide useful services and benefits to students, few will avoid membership.

Students buy textbooks for their courses. Often, the student is required to buy a textbook (more often than not authored by the lecturer). But is it compulsory to buy the textbook brand new? There are other options. The student might borrow the textbook from the library. S/he might buy a second hand copy. Or perhaps borrow a copy (even if a previous edition) from a friend.

Yet the reality is that, despite this range of choices, most students end up buying a new copy. They can see the tangible benefit of doing so. The lecturer has sold them the idea. The other options often involve too much inconvenience.

Student unions can also sell the convenience and utility of their services to students. They need not hide behind the anti-competitive shield of compulsory membership to boost their numbers. Unions should be able to sell their services and benefits so well that students will regard the need for union membership to be self-evident.

As my nephew enjoys his 15% discounts at university, his uncle is getting ready for the annual renewal of the practising certificate and indemnity insurance. Thankfully, Law Society Membership is not compulsory in NSW. But I know few solicitors who could survive without the benefits of membership. As such, over 90% of solicitors are voluntary members of the Society. Membership is relevant because the benefits are self-evident.

On a final note, it seems supporters of compulsory student unionism are becoming out-of-touch with their prospective members. My nephew attended a lecture where the lecturer encouraged students to attend an anti-VSU rally. And the special attraction? Peter Garrett was addressing the crowd.

To my nephew, commencing his undergraduate studies in 2005, hearing Peter Garrett would probably be as interesting as my hearing Elvis Presley talk about free education in 1988.

(Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and retired student politician who has advised student representative councils in industrial and electoral matters. He has also acted as electoral arbiter in a student election. This article is adapted from an article published in 1994 in the Macquarie University Liberal Club’s official publication “L.U.S.T.” or Liberal University Students’ Tabloid)

© Irfan Yusuf 2005

Sunday, May 08, 2005

IRAQ/COMMENT: Terror and Vaseline

Recently, neo-conservative columnist Janet Albrechtsen wrote an article for The Australian on Iraq. Her article reflected the standard neo-conservative view and was a continuation of a series of desperate and futile justification of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Dr Albrechtsen is supposed to be an expert on the topic. She must be. She holds a doctorate in law. She is a columnist for a major broadsheet. She must know. Or so we are led to believe.

The reality is that Dr Albrechtsen is just one cog in the great neo-Con con that is the new foreign affairs establishment. And like most players in this establishment, her credentials are not exactly worth writing home about.

Dr Albrechtsen has previously written simplistic articles attempting to prove the legality of the Iraq war by analysis of the wording of UN Security Council Resolutions. But her analysis can be easily swept aside when one considers her qualifications or lack thereof.

Dr Albrechtsen holds a PhD in law. True. But what kind of law? We know she began her journalistic life writing freelance columns for the Australian Financial Review. Was she writing on international law? Or was she writing on corporate responsibility?

Believe it or not, there is a difference. The principles used to read and understand the Trade Practices Act (a common subject for commercial law researchers) are much different to those used to understand an international treaty. Anyone who has completed even a basic course in elementary international law will be able to tell you that applying common law principles to international law is like applying Vaseline to bread in order to make a peanut butter sandwich. Vaseline may spread like butter and may even look like butter but certainly doesn’t taste like butter.

Yet in this neo-Con propaganda war, knowledge of international law and foreign relations is not a prerequisite for expertise. Prior to the most recent invasion, the Australian published an open letter supporting the legality of the war and allegedly signed by a host of ‘international law experts’. This was in response to a similar letter written by international law professors across Australia opposing the legality of the war and published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The letter published in the Australian contained an impressive list of names. Amongst them was Mark Leibler, partner of a major commercial law firm based in Melbourne. Mr Leibler’s expertise in law cannot be denied. But in what kind of law?

You don’t go to a psychiatrist for treatment of skin infections. And you don’t go to a dermatologist for depression. Yet the Australian went to a tax expert on a question of public international law. And in case anyone rushes for a defamation textbook, I am not suggesting that Mr Leibler allowed himself to be promoted in this way. I am sure that someone of his calibre would not have willingly allowed himself to be presented as an expert in an area that he may have limited knowledge in. The fault probably lies not with Mr Leibler but rather with those who arranged the open letter.

When pro-war propaganda machines like News Limited use experts in other fields to comment on areas beyond their expertise, they effectively undermine the entire pro-war Coalition. The use of non-experts to justify killing people merely confirms the extent of the dishonesty and ignorance used to justify the entire campaign. Politicians lied by talking about weapons of mass destruction. And newspapers and their columnists showed what could at best be described as intellectual dishonesty by writing and quoting beyond their expertise.

And we are told that this war was an essential part of the war on terror and other adjectives. You cannot expect to win a war against mindless violence with articulate yet mindless ignorance. And you cannot expect to win hearts and minds by telling lies and covering them up with more lies. Just ask Tony Blair.

Words © 2005 Irfan Yusuf