Sunday, June 26, 2005

Double Standards, Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia

After hearing weeks of evidence from the Islamic Council of Victoria, Catch the Fire Ministries pastors and numerous theological experts, the Victorian Civil & Administrative Tribunal had found that the Ministry, Pastors Daniel Nalliah and Daniel Scot had breached Section 8 of the Victorian Racial & Religious Tolerance Act 2001.

The merits of the decision and the Act itself have been well-argued elsewhere. What seems to have gone unnoticed is the gross double standards of some supporters of the three Respondents in that decision.

The 2 pastors were found to have made comments about Islam and Australian Muslims which were found to contravene the Act. Are they the first to make such remarks?

In September 1988, in a speech to some 250 Muslim students at Sydney University, Sheik Hilali accused Jewish people of trying "to control the world through sex, then sexual perversion, then the promotion of espionage, treason and economic hoarding".

As a result of those comments, leaders across political and religious spectrums rightly criticised the Sheik. His immigration status was re-visited, and he faced deportation.

Even when the Sheik joined Team Australia efforts to free Douglas Wood, tabloid columnists kept bringing up his 1988 comments. In his Herald Sun column on 11 May 2005, Bolt mentions the Sheik as calling “Jews "the underlying cause of all wars", using "sex and abominable acts of buggery, espionage, treason and economic hoarding to control the world".

Had the Sheik made the same comments today, he may well have faced the same proceedings not to mention being the targets of criticism from various circles.

The VCAT finding were summarised on pp 134-135 of the Reasons for Decision. The unlucky list of 13 offending statements included comments that: Muslims are demons, the Quran promotes looting and killing, Muslims use money and business connections to carry out their threats, Muslims plan to overrun Liberal Democracy with violence and terror, Muslims conspire to take over Australia, and Muslims have lots of babies and also dominate the DIMIA to manipulate migration rates in their favour.

Having read both the transcripts of Sheik Hilaly’s speech and the VCAT decision, it appears that the views expressed by the pastors about Muslims are even more offensive than the views expressed by Sheik Hilali about Jews. Yet whilst Sheik Hilaly was rightly condemned by leaders across all political and other spectra, the respondents in the VCAT litigation are being defended in the name of free speech.

Prominent Australian political leaders such as Peter Costello have defended the two pastors and criticised the Victorian legislation. Tabloid columnists such as Piers Akerman and Andrew Bolt have defended the pastors, alleging their sole crime was (in Bolt’s words) “criticising the Koran”.

Akerman sees no problem with the comments made by the pastors. His innocent portrayal of Pastor Daniel Scot had him merely quoting “from the Koran to illustrate the points he was making about Islamic teaching on a number of matters including jihad and women's role in the faith.”

The depths of Akerman’s own understanding of Islamic beliefs was amply illustrated in these comments from his column on June 19 2005:

“Australian hostage Doug Wood bellowed "God bless America" when he was released from captivity in Baghdad after 47 days spent bound and handcuffed. He did not cry "Alu Akbar" as some in the Australian media may have expected given their feting of the Lakemba-based mufti, Sheik Taj Eldene Alhilaly.”

The correct wording of the devotional phrase is “Allahu Akbar”, meaning “God is always greater”. Mr Akerman’s version of this common devotional phrase has used “alu” which is Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and other Indian dialects for “potato”. Not even a C-grade Bollywood movie would ascribe such beliefs to Muslims.

Sadly, the double standards and ignorance of this tabloid tag-team suggest the existence of a deeper malice which exists even at the highest levels. The grossly offensive nature of Sheik Hilali’s 1988 remarks was obvious. Yet it seems that when even more grossly offensive remarks are made about Muslim Australians, they are viewed as the exercise of free speech. It seems that the 11th Commandment of Political Correctness in some circles is: “Thou shalt not offend any faith-community, but thou shalt definitely be allowed to offend Muslims”.

It seems rather strange that the critics of Sheik Hilali are silent on the comments of Pastors Scot and Nalliah. Why must anti-Semitism be unacceptable but Islamophobia defensible? And would current attacks on the Victorian legislation have been made if NSW had identical legislation in 1988 which was used to prosecute Sheik Hilali?

Sheik Hilali made his remarks when holding the position of imam (resident scholar) at 1 of over 40 Sydney mosques. He went on to be controversially appointed as Australia's first Mufti. He is still criticised by many even in his own community.

Daniel Nalliah very nearly became a Victorian Senator. The Prime Minister personally negotiated a preference deal with Mr Nalliah’s party which would have helped Mr Nalliah over the line. The same Mr Howard called for Sheik Hilali’s deportation after his 1988 remarks.

(The author is a Sydney lawyer and was endorsed Liberal candidate for the seat of Reid in the 2001 federal election.)

Friday, June 24, 2005

Sophie's Chalice?

Some members of parliament say what needs to be said. They speak their mind and follow their conscience regardless of party affiliation. They say what is right even if it means compromising their political career in the short term. That is their choice.

Other members are more concerned with factional loyalties and personal ambitions. They speak against their conscience and say what they know is wrong, hoping the consequence will be an early ministerial guernsey.

After reading the AAP report on 15 July 2005, I can only presume Victorian Liberal MP, Sophie Panopoulos fits into the latter category.

I first met Ms Panopoulos in 1993 when I had some involvement in the Australian Liberal Students Federation (ALSF). In those days, the NSW Young Liberals were ruled by an allegedly moderate “Group” of people. Their socially conservative opponents tended to congregate around university Liberal clubs and ALSF.

In those days, being socially conservative was no excuse to throw away one’s conscience. Most conservatives supported multiculturalism and a generous refugee program. They spoke with pride about a conservative government’s role in allowing hundreds of thousands of European refugees during the 1940’s and 50’s, many without proper paperwork or passports.

They were proud that the Fraser government allowed tens of thousands of Indo-Chinese refugees to enter Australia during the 1970’s.

But 3 years ago, there was a change in the guard. The conservative faction of the Young Liberals was hijacked by a minority of inexperienced branch-stackers prepared even to adopt religious intolerance and racism if it meant create new branches and staying in power.

For these stackers, mandatory detention is an excuse to recruit members from the remnants of One Nation and from religious groups fearful an invasion by “Muslim hordes”. Ideology means little to these young neo-Cons. Numbers are all that matter.

Indeed, I would suggest that if I could guarantee the creation of 20 new branches across Western Sydney from local Hindu, Sikh and Muslim youth groups, members of the NSW Young Liberal Executive would happily don turbans and mantoos to make it happen.

I would like to think that Ms Panopoulos is not associated with that bunch. I would also like to think that she is aware of the issues. I would like to think that she has visited detention centres and spoken to staff and inmates. I trust she has read the various reports on staff morale and on the occupational health and safety hazards at the centres. In short, I trust she has read the materials which her colleagues in Victoria and NSW have read.

Her background is, I understand, Greek. Thousands of Greek Cypriots were forced to flee their homeland as a result of the Turkish intervention in 1974. Many went to Greece. Some came to Australia. The government did what was right and allowed these people to stay. They were not locked up in detention centres in the middle of the desert.

Sophie does have a point. She is quoted as saying: "If you spit the dummy because the vast majority of the people in your party won't agree with you and you in effect behave as a political terrorist, well I think you actually lose credibility, I don't think it's a bad sign for the party at all."

I agree. But an even worse sign is if people feel they can no longer follow their conscience without sacrificing their political ambitions. It bodes ill for a Party established on the ideological foundations of individual liberty to be forcing MP’s to vote like nameless sycophantic members of a Politburo.

Millions of Liberals applaud what the Howard government did to stop the boats. It had to be done. But the boats are now stopped. The dangers of Taliban terrorism and Baathist Iraqi rule are behind us. The policy reasons taken to the 2001 election are no longer relevant. Pauline Hanson is too busy strutting her stuff on stage, and we no longer have to look like her in order to attract her voters.

The Liberal MP’s behind the private members bill are not political terrorists. They are not the ones exporting brown-skinned citizens to Filipino nunneries. They are not insisting children be locked up, or that Kashmiri Christians only be released to receive psychiatric treatment.

As for credibility, this is a long term political investment. A day is a long time in politics. Mr Howard surely must know this. He probably still regrets the comments he made in 1988 about Asian immigration. He gained instant celebrity status, but his long term credibility was compromised.

It seems Mr Howard has not learnt his lesson. It also seems his younger colleagues like Ms Panopoulos wish to repeat his mistakes. In the longer term, wiser heads will prevail. Mr Howard will not be PM forever. The moderates and sensible conservatives in the Liberal Party will not go away.

Sophie Panopoulos may choose to attack the minority in the party room now. In the long term, she may regret her choice. Sophie’c choice may become Sophie’s chalice.

(Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney-based industrial lawyer. He was a member of the NSW Liberal Party State Council from 1995 to 2001. He chaired the Council’s Law & Justice and Multicultural Affairs Policy Committees. He also was Liberal Candidate for the seat of Reid in the Federal election in 2001, achieving a swing of over 5% on a 2-party preferred basis.)

© Irfan Yusuf 2005

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

VSU Won't Kill Unions, But Futile Campaigns Will

The debate on asylum seekers and VSU shows something many Australians never expected. Despite the absence of significant opposition, a range of opinions is being expressed in the Coalition partyroom.

Laurie Ferguson’s lame-duck responses on asylum seekers have effectively made Petro Georgiou the Shadow Minister for Immigration. And with revelations that Barnaby Jones and Fiona Nash will oppose the VSU bill in its present form, yet another backbench revolt seems likely.

Conservative e-mail lists (including “ozlibs” which the writer moderates) were running hot over the debate on asylum seekers. Many grassroots Liberals, it seemed, agreed with the position of Georgiou and Baird. But when it comes to VSU, there is little debate within conservative circles or even in the NSW Liberal left faction known as “the Group”.

In the Year 2000, I left the NSW Young Liberals. Was it disgust at their policies? No. I had turned 30 and had to leave in accordance with Party rules. The Group were still in charge. They had some reservations about VSU, while their critics in the more conservative Australian Liberal Students Federation (ALSF) were strongly supportive of the push. As were senior Coalition MP’s such as the PM, Messrs Abbott and Costello and Bronwyn Bishop.

VSU opponents in those days included South Australian "wet" Senators Amanda Vanstone and Robert Hill. Yet even the Group position involved support for a watered down version called “Voluntary Student Representation” or VSR. This enabled the service roles of student unions to remain compulsorily funded by students as a condition of enrolment, whilst ensuring the political and representative wings of student unionism (including the notoriously futile SRC’s) were subject to voluntary membership.

In principle, it seems hard to understand what all the fuss on VSU is about. Perhaps a comparison with another crucial element of tertiary studies – textbooks – would be warranted.

Say my lecturer strongly recommends I buy a textbook for my course. Chances are, the textbook has been written by the lecturer. Must I buy the book brand new? I may well decide to. But there are options.

I could borrow or share the textbook with someone. I could buy a second hand copy or an older edition. I could borrow the textbook from another university or local library. I could take a risk and go without that textbook by relying on recorded lecture notes and/or another textbook.

Of course, most students will end up buying the new edition from the lecturer. Why? Because they need the textbook. Because they regard the benefit of purchasing the textbook as self-evident.

If the benefits of student union membership were similarly self-evident, students would flock to join. If student unions and their funded SRC’s could convince students of the essential nature of their services, only a minority of students would give up the opportunity.

A kind of voluntary union membership exists in a number of professions. In NSW, it is no longer compulsory for lawyers to be members of the Law Society of NSW. But few lawyers would miss out on the added benefits that Law Society membership brings. And the Society has the advantage of having spent the previous decade selling itself to what were then its compulsory members.

The Society took advantage of its incumbency and convinced lawyers that they should join even when membership is not compulsory. Today, over 90% of solicitors in NSW are members of the Law Society.

Student unions share a similar incumbency. Yet instead of taking advantage of this incumbency, student unions and the National Union of Students are engaging in self-serving campaigns aimed at the votes of younger students.

The cost of a university education is increasing. Many undergraduate students are being forced to work in casual or even full-time jobs to pay their way through university. Every dollar counts. Students are price conscious.

One of my young relatives recently started university. He told me of attending a lecture where the lecturer spent 10 minutes espousing the evils of VSU and telling them excitedly that Aussie rocker Peter Garrett would be addressing an anti-VSU rally. My relative’s response sums up the attitude of many students:

“Peter who? Peter Costello?”

Compulsory student unionism, like the former Midnight Oil lead singer, is fast becoming an ideological dinosaur. Many tertiary students are wondering what all the fuss is about. Many are cynical and see the anti-VSU campaign as an attempt by the fat-cat bourgeoisie of the campus Left to protect their livelihoods and traditional breeding grounds.

And many students grew up in an era of conservative political supremacy. They see union membership in the workforce declining. They grew up watching and listening to conservative politicians and commentators in the media. Student unions have an uphill battle if they wish to change the minds of this new generation.

Student union officials should perhaps concentrate their efforts less on campaigning against VSU and more on preparing students for the inevitable VSU era. How? By doing what professional bodies like the Law Society of NSW did. By selling their services to students and convincing them that they should voluntarily join.

VSU won’t kill unions. Futile campaigns will.

(The author is a Sydney employment and industrial relations lawyer. He was a councillor on the Macquarie University Student Council in 1993, and served as legal adviser and then as electoral arbiter to the Council. He was a delegate to the NSW Liberal Party state council during 1995-2000 and stood as endorsed Liberal candidate for the seat of Reid in the 2001 Federal election.)

Sunday, June 19, 2005

HUMOUR/MEDIA: Akerman's Potato Theology

Conservative politics is about gradual change. It is about evolution, about recognising that human beings are not revolutionary animals or computer hardware that absorb ideology in the manner software is downloaded.

Conservative thinking has tended to involve intellectual rigour, the sort of rigour that classical and modern Islamic lawyers (and a least one irrelevant Canadian lesbian activist) have referred to as ‘ijtehad’.

But in the Australian tabloid press, it seems that intellectual rigour has been replaced with sycophantic slogans and ruthless hate-filled ranting.

The most recent column of Piers Akerman is a classic example of this. This sadly infantile editorial is an embarrassment to conservatives everywhere and is an embodiment of the old saying “dumb friends do more damage than enemies”.

One of the great metaphors of modern Australian politics involves urinating. We are told that you’d rather have someone inside the tent pissing out instead of outside the tent pissing in. But what if you have at least 1 person inside your tent who cannot control their direction?

The rescue of Douglas Wood has been an awesome achievement. How did it happen? What were the exact details? Who was really involved and when? Who knows. And who cares.

Certainly, on the night the PM announced Mr Wood’s release, the government was all smiles. Australia’s most successful conservative Prime Minister was happy to give credit where credit was due. He told the Parliament that Muslim Australians deserve to be recognised. “I also place on record my appreciation for the efforts of the Australian Islamic community and of Sheik Al Hilaly.”

Mr Howard is not the world’s biggest fan of Sheik Hilaly. Certainly he has expressed his misgivings to me when I have raised the matter with him in 1995 over a dinner at an Italian restaurant in Gladesville. I was a young struggling solicitor back then, as was my good mate who was joining us for dinner. Mr Howard was Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations back then, and he wanted to revive the old "Boronia Park" branch and fill it with young (preferably non-white) faces.

Mr Howard was not a huge fan of the Sheik thatnight. But in his speech to the Parliament coinciding with the release of Mr Wood, the PM showed the good sense that one would expect from a conservative.

The Foreign Minister was more forthright in his words. Alexander Downer is not what I would call a small “l” liberal. Indeed, his frequent attacks on “lefties” make him resemble PJ O’Rourke without the four letter words.
But the following exchange between Kerry O’Brien and Mr Downer speaks volumes:

Kerry O'Brien: Do you have any sense of how helpful the Mufti Sheikh al-Hilali from Australia has been in the process?

Alexander Downer: Well look he's made an enormous effort, the Mufti, and I think you know real credit should be given to him for the effort that he made and the risks that he took, including to his own security in assisting the team's efforts to try to get Douglas Wood released. And the Australian Islamic community more generally, you know, that's one of the assets we have as a multi-cultural country that people all came together as Team Australia and they brought their different strengths so we appreciated very much the contribution that Sheikh Hilali and more generally the Australian Islamic community made.
This is what conservative leaders in Australia are saying. Compare that to the ranting and carping performance by columnists of an Australian newspaper.

In the Sunday Telegraph, resident columnist Piers Akerman pointed out that Douglas Wood was not asking for potatoes when he was released. Nor did he attribute his release to the greatness of potatoes.

I am not sure if Mr Wood’s ancestry is Irish. I have an Aussie Russian friend who once ran as endorsed Liberal candidate against Paul Keating in the seat of Blaxland and is married to an Irish doctor. They were married in an Orthodox Church in Ireland. While there, he was treated to a feast of different kinds of potatoes. He often teases his wife by referring to the Irish fetish for potatoes, even if it means having potatoes with corn flakes for breakfast.

But according to Piers Akerman, it is a good thing that Mr Wood exclaimed “God bless America” as opposed to speaking of the greatness of potatoes.

Huh? What am I talking about? Hey, I know what I am talking about, but clearly Piers does not.

Australian hostage Doug Wood bellowed "God bless America" when he was released from captivity in Baghdad after 47 days spent bound and handcuffed.

He did not cry "Alu Akbar" as some in the Australian media may have expected given their feting of the Lakemba-based mufti, Sheik Taj Eldene Alhilaly.
For some reason, Piers believes that Muslims worship potatoes. He has ascribed to Muslims an extraordinary claim, and has accused one quarter of the world’s population of regarding potatoes (or “alu”, as they are called in Urdu) of being greatest (or “akbar”).

I am no Islamic scholar. But I reckon I know enough about Islam to realise that Muslims do not worship potatoes or indeed any other vegetables. Indeed, I am at a loss to find any mainstream faith that ascribes divine powers to so humble an ingredient.

I am also not an expert on intelligence matters or about the operational details of Iraqi rescue missions. Piers, however, is an expert. And in his expert opinion, the Americans and the Iraqis did it all. The sheik did bugger-all.

I am not sure how old Piers is or what his health situation is like. But I wonder whether Piers would have dropped everything and flown to Iraq had the Wood family approached him. And I wonder whether Piers would have been so successful in delivering much-needed medication to Mr Wood.

What concerns me also is the fact that Piers’ undermining of Sheik Hilaly actually creates problems for Australia. What happens if another Australian is kidnapped? What happens if the Sheik’s services are needed again?

Imagine if an insurgent were to negotiate with the Sheik after reading a major conservative Australian columnist allegedly close to the government questioning the Sheik’s credibility. Imagine how more difficult the Sheik’s task would be then.

Which explains why Mr Akerman was gagged so soon after he published his first pseudo-conservative rant after it was revealed the Sheik was leaving for Iraq. Akerman’s antics were proving a national security risk. Yes, indeed stupid friends are more dangerous than enemies.

Finally, Akerman praises the Wood brothers for their “impeccable manners and appearance”. As if to suggest that everyone else involved had awful manners and even worse appearance. Funny that. Because I always thought Mr Howard had impeccable dress sense.

I guess Akerman was more having a jab at Sheik Hilaly for looking so woggy. I mean, reeeeeally, as one Liberal MLC likes to say. These bloody Egyptians who come here and dress like something out of a Mel Gibson movie. Who does he think he is to look and dress like Jesus Christ?

So there you have it. Muslims worship mashed potatoes. The Mufti dresses as if its mufti day. John Howard has bad manners. And God bless America.

Another Sunday, another column from a man whose acumen may have been pierced by a potato cutter. But as the jingle says: "Sunday, just isn't Sunday without the Sunday Telegraph". And on Sunday 19 June 2005, whilst they continue taking bows and receiving bouquets from ordinary Australians, Aussie Mossies can throw a few eggs (or should that be potatoes?) in Piers' direction.

I would have liked to write a little about Andrew Bolt's contribution to the ongoing debate on potato theology. But the words of my colleague Stephen Hopper still ring in my ears. In an entertaining interview on the ABC Insiders program, Mr Hopper made these responses to Bolt:

ANDREW BOLT: So he's gone to a war zone in Afghanistan to seal a deal to do with cleaning. Do you really think that's remotely credible?

STEPHEN HOPPER: No, no, nice try. We haven't said where Mr Habib was from the time he left Sydney until he was detained. Just because an interviewer makes an assertion of him being in a certain place and he doesn't answer that question. There is actually a number of questions about his locations at various times that he didn't answer but they just played one but because a journalist makes an assertion doesn’t mean it’s true.

ANDREW BOLT: Even if it is northern Pakistan is he really doing a cleaning deal in northern Pakistan, is that what you're asserting?

STEPHEN HOPPER: Oh well, I mean some people say that you masquerade as a journalist.
Oh, and in case Piers is reading this. Mate, the last time you defamed me in one of your columns, you failed to spell my name correctly. Should you wish to defame me again, make sure you spell the damned name right! Or better still, just call me God (or should that be Alu?).

Words © 2005 Irfan Yusuf

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Saturday, June 18, 2005

Iraq - Time To Milk The COW

Japan and Iraq have little in common culturally or geographically. But it is hard to resist the temptation of finding commonalities between the experiences of these 2 nations.

In the early part of the 20th century, Japan soundly defeated Russia in battle. It was a huge blow for Russian military pride and a boon for emerging Asian nationalist movements.

But this boon soon turned to disaster as Japanese military might was unleashed against its neighbours. Following Pearl Harbour, the United States took on the Japanese military machine. After a set of military setbacks (in which ANZAC’s played a major role), the US finally dropped 2 massive atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tokyo and other Japanese cities were carpet-bombed in similar style to raids on German cities.

Japan was occupied by American troops who showed much the same disdain that US troops do today in Iraq. One can only guess how many Abu Ghraib prisons existed across Japan after the end of the Second World War.

Japanese Americans were also mistreated and were unjustly detained in much the same way as American Muslims are being detained in the name of fighting terror.

The United States was forced to spend billions of dollars on maintaining order and rebuilding Japan. The Japanese people, notwithstanding their understandable resentment toward the American troops, speared to take the American occupation as an opportunity to improve their own situation.

Within 30 years, Japan was again posing a threat to the United States and its western allies. But this was the benign threat of Japanese economic power. Japanese motor vehicle manufacturers were threatening American companies such as Ford and Chrysler. Japanese electronics and white goods were taking over American markets. Fearsome names like Hirohito were replaced with benign labels such as Toyota and Mitsubishi.

Iraqis today are facing the same situation that the Japanese people faced some 60 years ago. Iraq was a major military power, armed by its western allies. Iraq’s role in direct military conflict with Iran and Kuwait (and its indirect dabbling in Lebanon) led to its military defeat in 1990 and the imposition of crippling economic sanctions. Iraq was bombed into the Stone Age by President Bush Snr, and is now being rebuilt after a second wave of destruction by President Bush Jnr.

Like many Australians, I opposed the decision to go to war. I found Saddam Hussein extremely distasteful, but I believed the war was unnecessary. However, the war has happened and Saddam Hussein is in Iraqi custody awaiting trial. Iraqis have elected a government which is not exactly to the liking of the United States and its Coalition Of the Willing (COW).

Yet now the Iraqis have an excellent chance to milk the COW for all it is worth. American tax payers are pouring in billions of dollars into Iraq’s reconstruction. True, the private business interests of neo-Conservative politicians and apparatchiks will be direct beneficiaries. But that was the case in Japan also. And Japanese companies ended up buying out these American business interests, in many cases for a song.

Australia and other COW members now have obligations under international law to rebuild and restore order to Iraq. What COW tooketh away, it must now giveth back. And this is a golden opportunity for Iraq.

The Iraqi government know this. As do ordinary Iraqis, many of whom suffered at the hands of the brutal Ba’athist regime. Iraqis resent the continued occupation, but also see enormous potential to develop their economy. For this reason, it is not surprising to learn that the only people Iraqis hate more than the COW forces are the insurgents and criminals responsible for the killing of Margaret Hassan and the kidnapping of Douglas Wood.

Islamophobic hate mongers are attempting to create links between Iraqi Islam and the small band of (largely foreign) extremists responsible for suicide bombings that have killed more Iraqis than COW troops. Yet the new Islamist Iraqi government has been at the forefront of fighting the dissidents.

Contrary to popular opinion, Islamists are not content with blowing themselves up to reach 72 fictitious heavenly damsels. Islamist governments are more worried about making hard cash and building strong economies.

It is not only in the interests of the COW that Iraq re-build itself and become an economic and cultural powerhouse it once was. It is also in the interest of Iraqis themselves. Critics of the Iraq war and its occupation should stop carping at the sidelines and encourage Iraqis to milk this COW for all it’s worth.

(The author is a Sydney lawyer who is completing his Masters of Laws in public international law at the Australian National University.)

© Irfan Yusuf, 2005

Friday, June 17, 2005

Keysar Trad - The Islamic Alex Hawke?

I am an Australian. I am a lawyer. But some lawyers really embarrass me.

They talk nonsense about legalising torture and I get upset.

I am also a Liberal. One day I will renew my membership. In 2001, I ran as aLiberal candidate in the seat of Reid. Western suburbs Aussies delivered me a swing of 5.1% on a 2-party preferred basis. But when Young Liberal President Alex Hawke opens his mouth, I cringe.

I also come from a Muslim background. My parents are from Delhi in India. I have lived in John Howard's electorate for as long as I can remember. I also spent time living in the electorates of Paul Keating and Laurie Ferguson which are regarded as Aussie Muslim heartlands.

Yet everytime something happens concerning Muslims, I see a scruffy-looking fellow on TV saying things that I find embarrassing. Am I talking about the man they call "Mufti"? No.

In his efforts to free Douglas Wood, Sheik Hilali has earned the respect of mainstream Australia. And of his many Muslim critics. Including myself.

What worries me, however, is his alleged spokesman and adviser. I have been involved in Muslim community affairs since 1985. I got involvedin an umbrella Muslim youth body and was its secretary and then president. I got involved in my university Muslim students society (as well as the Liberal Club and the Business Students Association). Yet the first time I heard of Keysar Trad was in a magazine called Nida'ul Islam. In those days, we all thought the magazine was a benign rag, as effective as the Green Left Weekly.

Keysar used to translate speeches andinterviews from Arabic to English. I am not sure about his Arabic skills, but his English was atrocious.

Keysar then translated two books for a local and respected Egyptian scholar, Dr Ibrahim Abu-Mohammad. Again, atrocious English.

So who is Keysar? Who appointed him as spokesman? And why does he continueto say silly things in the media?

We are told that Keysar is the Shaykh's interpreter. But does Keysar have interpreting and translating qualifications and accreditation? It seems not.

What experience does Keysar have in advising peak religious figures (apartfrom Hilaly)? None.

Archbishops Pell and Jensen have a secretariat, assistants, researchers and a full staff. The Mufti of Australia gets an unpaid unaccredited translator. Is it any wonder Shaykh Hilaly gets such bad press?

I was baffled when Mr Trad made defamatory remarks about Stephen Hopper, former lawyer for Mamdouh Habib. Trad took credit for setting Habib up with his good mate Adam Houda, claiming Habib would now receive "proper legal representation". Trad has no legal training and is not in a position toquestion the credentials of either Hopper or Houda. Now neither Hopper nor Houda act for Habib.

I was equally baffled when Mr Trad once described the role of Mufti as akin to "arch-bishop" and "Governor-General" of Muslims. Sorry, Keysar. I like Shaykh Taj. But my Governor-General is Michael Jeffries. And we don't have a priesthood in Islam.

So why do the media keep going to Mr Trad? Simple. No one else is prepared or has the time to speak. Muslims are too busy being mainstream Australians.

They are too busy running medical and legal practices, lecturing atuniversities, managing Australia's largest financial institutions and telecommunications companies or studying at TAFE and university. That leaves plenty of time for redundant public servants with plenty of time on their hands to speak on behalf of one of the most educated and upwardly-mobile faith communities in the country.

So what is the solution? Simple. Australian Muslims (or Aussie Mossies as they often call themselves) have to speak out. If we don't have the time, we have to make it.

Just as I have today. And now I have to get back to myclients.

(The author is a Sydney industrial relations lawyer who has advised numerous Muslim employer and community bodies. A heavily edited version of this article appeared in the Daily Telegraph on Thursday 30 June 2005.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

OPINION: Questions For Pervaiz Chacha

In some parts of Pakistan, it is customary to refer to all men of one’s father’s age as Chacha or Chachaji (literally meaning “my dad’s brother” in Urdu). In all parts of Pakistan, one must also show utmost respect to elders.

Now that President Musharraf of Pakistan is visiting Australia, I would like to ask some respectful questions to Pervaiz Chacha. I will try to be as respectful as possible.

Chacha Pervaiz, you will be aware of the negative press that Pakistan has received as a result of its implementation of a criminal code partially extracted from the ‘hudood’ laws of Islamic Sharia.

Under the code, female victims of rape are often faced with a death sentence, while male perpetrators are free to plunder the honour of more victims.

Also, under the code, religious minorities are persecuted and accused of blasphemy. Christian Pakistanis, some as young as 11, are placed on trial and face the death penalty for breaches of anti-blasphemy laws.

Over 50 years ago, the founder of Pakistan, “Qaid-i-Azam” (translated as “the Great Leader”) Muhammad Ali Jinnah, declared that all citizens of Pakistan were to be treated equally regardless of faith. Christian Pakistanis have made enormous contributions to the Pakistani nation, including in its second religion (cricket). I have lost count of how many times Yusuf Youhana has bailed out Pakistani teams from certain defeat.

You will be aware, Chacha Ji, that recently a prominent Swiss Islamic scholar by the name of Professor Tariq Ramadan has called upon all Islamic nations to implement a moratorium on all hudood-based criminal punishments. Professor Ramadan believes that God’s law is fast becoming the devil’s handiwork and an instrument for oppression. His call has been supported by Islamic scholars around the world including Australia and Pakistan.

When will your government implement the views of Professor Ramadan? When will you stop God’s law from being used as an instrument for the oppression of women, Christian minorities and other downtrodden Pakistanis?

Chachaji, Muslims across the Islamic world are crying out for liberty and democracy enjoyed by their relatives living in Western countries. When will you return Pakistan to full-fledged democracy?

Chachaji, I was born in Karachi. I arrived in Australia when I was hardly 6 months old. I have only ever held an Australian passport. I therefore am concerned with how Australians are treated overseas.

Pervaiz Chacha, when will your government come clean on why it detained and tortured an Australian citizen? Why did your government pass this Australian citizen onto American officials who then flew him to Egypt for more torture? How could you allow an Australian to be subjected to torture within your jurisdiction?

Chacha Ji, the Prophet Muhammad did not allow prisoners of war to even have their teeth pulled out. I am concerned that in this “war against terror”, prisoners from various parts of the world are being taken to countries such as Egypt, Syria and your own. They are tortured on behalf of the US government as part of a contracting-out arrangement known as “rendition”.

Tell me, Chacha, to what extent does Pakistan participate in rendition? Are there any further Australian citizens being made subject to this policy?

Apart from the torture of terror suspects, we see at village level innocent Muslim women subjected to the violence of honour killings. Women merely suspected of talking to a male stranger or committing some other cultural crime are tried by an all-male village council of elders and sentenced to death or to be gang-raped.

Numerous cases of these abuses have been documented. Custom-based violence was apparently stamped out from Muslim societies by the Prophet Muhammad 14 centuries ago. Why has it returned to Pakistan? And what steps will your government take to ensure it is eliminated completely?

Chacha Ji, I was taught that Islam guarantees human rights and the dignity of the individual in much the same way as liberal democracy. I understand that you are here on an official state visit on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Yet the abuses of human rights and individual dignity (of which a sample have been cited above) continue to be perpetrated by police, security apparatchiks and government officials of a nation founded as an Islamic republic, a nation carved out for Islamic values. How can such a nation allow such crimes to be committed in its borders, against its own people and against people of my country Australia?

Uncle Pervaiz, my government also has its share of excesses. My government only selectively advocated for Australians caught up in trouble overseas. My government throws foreigners into prison camps in the middle of the desert. My government commits numerous crimes in the name of fighting terror.

My final question is to both Perzaiz Chacha and Uncle John Winston. Terror is an enemy of liberty, freedom and dignity. How can the pair of you possibly be claiming to be fighting terror when you are helping the cause of terrorists by compromising individual liberties and abusing human rights?

An edited version of this article was published in the Australian Financial Review as an Op-Ed piece on 16 June 2005. The author is a Sydney employment and industrial lawyer whose ancestors were from Daryaganj district in Delhi where President Musharraf was born.

Words © 2005 Irfan Yusuf

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Monday, June 13, 2005

The NSW ALP Right and the Workers

It was 9:30pm. We were walking out of the bear pit, the NSW Lower House. We had just completed a Mock Parliament, with Young Labor and Young Libs fighting it out on everything and nothing to do with young people.

I was on the Young Libs’ side. In those days, the allegedly moderate “Group” faction ruled the Young Liberal roost. Unlike today, the conservative opponents of the Group were more sensible. They tended to support tolerance, multiculturalism and free enterprise. They were not interested in turning the Liberals into a sheltered workshop for ex-One Nation types.

Young Joseph approached me. He was my height, though a little less chubby than me. He was from the Western Suburbs. I had seen him before at various polling booths. He recognised me.

“Mate, what is an articulate wog like you doing in the Liberal Party? Come and join us.”

“But Joe, I am socially conservative. And I am not extremely fond of unions”, I replied.

“Mate, in the ALP Right, we f#ck the unions! They are our biggest enemy. I heard what you said back in there. I reckon I am more right wing than you. If I ever get into Parliament, I’ll make sure unions get trodden on.”

I did not see Joseph much after that. At least, not in person. He went on to do bigger and better things. But Joseph’s message made sense.

The biggest single enemy of NSW workers has been the ‘Centre-Unity’ faction of the NSW Branch of the Australian Labor Party. The ‘Terrigal’ sub-faction in particular has shown a disdain to workers that would make any employer organisation jealous.

The NSW ALP government led by Bob Carr has pulled off legislative and policy stunts for employers and big insurers that few Liberal premiers ever had the guts to do. This piece will focus one of these stunts – the mutilation of injured workers’ rights.

The Workers Compensation Act 1987 forms the legislative bedrock of the system compensating most workers for work-related injuries in New South Wales. The WCA sought to replace a previous Act dating back to 1926. The 1987 Act sought to regulate the amounts of compensation workers could receive without having to prove negligence or some other breach by their employer.

The 1987 Act re-established a table of maims. Section 66 of the Act provided a formula for calculating the maximum and percentage injuries a worker could receive for injuries to various parts of the body. If the worker’s injuries reached a certain threshold, Section 67 provided that the worker could claim an additional lump sum for “pain and suffering”.

The reward for workers using this system was that their award was not contingent upon their proving anyone was or wasn’t at fault (usually including themselves). Further, workers did not have to pay their legal fees. Indeed, it was forbidden for lawyers to remove any amount from the worker’s award to pay for fees. In return for sacrificing a lower amount, workers could have a solicitor and barrister represent them. The system ensured a level playing field.

Allegedly, the system also ensured that employers were facing massive workers compensation premiums. Insurers were also having to pay 2 sets of legal fees. The fact that insurers were making monster profits tended to be ignored. Instead, insurers went on a massive lobbying campaign with the “big end of town”. Their campaign converged on the Sussex Street headquarters of the ALP.

Bob Carr was expecting them. He lent them his ears without having to cop an earful. Together, the Carr government and the insurers invented the spin. The mantra was simple – blame the lawyers!

It is said that lawyers will be the first against the wall when the revolution comes. And when Bob Carr’s NSW Right revolution moved from Sussex Street (and a Terrigal holiday house) to Macquarie Street, both workers and lawyers were thrown against the wall. Workers were provided with some protection via bullet-proof clothing. Lawyers were not.

And what was the bullet-proof clothing for workers? A new system of compensation that has seen lump sum awards for workers slashed by over 20%. The table of maims has been replaced by an unusual animal known as “Whole Person Impairment”. The Court has been replaced by the Workers Compensation Commission. Differing medical assessments on the extent of a workers’ injuries and disabilities are no longer determined by a judge but by a medico-legal specialist drawn out of a panel. Once that specialist makes an assessment, there are few grounds for appeal.

Lawyers still get their fees paid, but at a reduced rate. Barristers are rarely involved in the process, except perhaps as arbitrators contracted by the Commission.

The result? Workers with serious injuries receive awards at least 20% lower than what they used to get. They do not have the benefit of the kind of representation they had under the old system.

Meanwhile, workers compensation premiums are largely unchanged. Employers are still complaining. But the insurers are smiling and counting their extra cash.

And what were the unions doing when these changes were announced? Were they campaigning and threatening strike action and making loud noises? Of course they were. But all to no avail.

Joseph was write all along. The unions and the workers were well and truly f#cked.

(The author is a Sydney lawyer who could see the writing on the wall and jumped out of the workers compensation jurisdiction. He now runs a practice focussing on employment and industrial law.)

© Irfan Yusuf, 2005

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Lawyers will turn Howard's industrial nirvana into employer hell

ON LINE opinion - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate
By Irfan Yusuf
Posted Thursday, June 02, 2005

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 up to 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 as a research scientist for a decade before being shafted by her laboratory management, would I first look at unfair dismissal? I might consider it as one option. But unfair dismissal has enormous disadvantages.

Jasmine could only get up to 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 up to $10,000. Her compensation might be three months wages. If she earns $800 per week, she will get $9,600 compensation. And this is before tax is deducted.

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

And all these factors have to be considered and an application lodged within 21 days of 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. Similar provisions also exist in Queensland and other States and Territories as well as at Commonwealth level.

Jasmine could apply for a host of things. Her claim would not be limited to six 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. If unfair dismissal is made unavailable, more litigants will use alternate legal avenues which will prove even more expensive for employers.

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 Occupational Health and Safety, anti-discrimination and other matters? And who will adjudicate in the case of disputes?

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

And without considering the dollar-and-cent decisions, the reforms will make little sense in the long run.

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer.