Saturday, August 17, 2019

MEDIA: ‘Someone who gets into people’s faces’: Spotlight journalist Walter Robinson speaks in Sydney

On June 4 2018, at an event hosted by the US Studies Centre at Sydney University, Robinson shared his insights on the Spotlight expose of systemic child abuse in the Boston Catholic Church, on media and the law.
In the 2015 Oscar winning film Spotlight he was portrayed by Michael Keaton as the tough reporter heading an investigative team of the Boston Globe. In real life, Walter V Robinson (also known as “Robbie”) came across to me as a tall, physically imposing yet softly spoken and humble man. You wouldn’t assume he was a giant of journalism with a stellar career at one of America’s greatest newspapers, one that has taken him across the US and to over 30 countries; a man who led a massive investigation and exposé of child sexual assault in America’s most Catholic city, one that led to further investigations in religious denominations across the globe. 

At an event hosted by the US Studies Centre at Sydney University, Robinson shared his insights on the Spotlight expose of systemic child abuse in the Boston Catholic Church, on media and the law and on the continued relevance of investigative reporting in keeping a check on power and those who wield it. And all in 30 minutes.
“We do our iconic institutions no favours by giving them a pass. In Boston, for too long, we were deferential to the Church.”
Robinson himself was raised a Catholic, and like many Bostonians he couldn’t imagine this institution being involved in a cover up of ...
"... an international criminal enterprise facilitating the continuing abuse of children by so many priests”.
Robinson told his audience that the story gained so much traction because it was published
"... at the dawn of the internet age”.
Any earlier and the story may not have had such a huge international impact. Once the story was published, the Boston Globe phones were running constantly for weeks; they received emails from as far away as Australia from victims who wanted their story told. Previously, the lack of technology had helped the Church to keep this story under wraps for years.

The Globe had 550 journalists on staff when the story broke. Today, it is 230, still much more than many other papers. With all this people power, how do big investigative stories get missed? Robinson explains that, in the average newsroom, you run 40 stories a day with a backlog of hundreds of people contacting you “by phone, by e-mail and by bicycle courier”. The day goes by so quickly, you inevitably miss stories.

But read the stories in a newspaper and you will find in each the genesis of so many other stories. Investigative journos often find the best stuff in existing stories of 800 words prepared in a room of editors. The cause of investigative reporting isn’t helped by reporters forced to produce twice as many stories, often for clickbait. Too often investigations are limited to going after
"... low hanging fruit — crooked politicians and that sort of thing”.
Now, about that nasty thing called the law, so often the bane of good reporting. Former Crikey editor Sophie Black recently wrote on the impact of defamation laws on #MeToo reporting in Australia. As Robinson explained, the United States has over two centuries of jurisprudence where if prominent persons have been charged with committing a crime:
“We can have substantial unfettered coverage of it and the person can still get a fair trial. I’ve been somewhat surprised to learn here that it’s not true. And it’s a shame because the loser is the public. We forget sometimes that the press really does represent the public. We are the eyes and ears of the public.”
He referred to
".. a certain case that cannot be mentioned ..."
here in Australia, and how he read The Australian referring to the upcoming court proceedings were
".. the trial of the century. How can it be the trial of the century when you can’t even read about it? I can understand the law being plaintiff-friendly but if the public cannot expect the press to report fully and rigorously on matters of immense public importance or move it to the realm of politics then the public is the loser.”
Robinson then turned to investigative journalism and the people who make it. What makes a good Spotlight reporter?
“I’m looking for people who won’t take no for an answer ... When you’re hiring people you want someone who gets into people’s faces. When I’m interviewing someone and by the end of the interview I’m the only one asking the questions, then that person won’t get the job. You want people who are curious and are fascinated by the world around them and who are comfortable — and this takes years to perfect — going up to complete strangers and asking tough questions. Who really like to do research, really like to go through documents, and who, when they leave the office, they still look at the world around them with the curiosity that they do when they’re on the clock. 
“Journalists tend to come from more middle-class affluent families, tend to go to better school. The problem with that is that it cuts us off completely from the world of people who most need the help of journalists. The victimised people of this world who have no voice but for the one we can provide them ... We need journalists who are prepared to go outside of their own world and learn how other people live and, in many cases, barely survive.”
First published in Crikey on 5 June 2018.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

EGYPT: Egypt's re-revolution going viral

Though Mohammed Morsi was a flawed President, he was democratically elected. Photo / AP

Muslims around the globe are joining protests on streets and on social media against military takeover.

Protests have spontaneously erupted in cities across the Muslim world, from Istanbul to Lahore to Jakarta. Apart from some clashes with police, mostly the protests have been peaceful and matched by parallel protests on Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media.

Meanwhile, photos of the dead and the living in Egypt's nascent democracy are going viral. There is a photo of Habiba Ahmed Abdel Aziz, a multimedia volunteer for the Muslim Brotherhood standing in the crowd holding a camera on small stand. Next to this is a photo of her lifeless face in a white shroud. But it isn't just ordinary Egyptians being murdered by a military that each year receives millions in military aid from the US. Soon news spreads across cyberspace that an Egyptian athlete who won bronze at the London Olympics is among the dead. The 17-year-old daughter of a Brotherhood leader is filmed being cut down by a sniper.

Indeed, Egypt's counter-revolution is being televised to those who care to watch. Egyptian protests are making international headlines while their parallel international equivalents are being ignored by our allegedly honest independent Western media outlets. Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation and perhaps Asia's most vibrant democracy, has close spiritual ties to Egypt, home to Al-Azhar University in Cairo, perhaps the most Sunni Muslim seminary in the world. Large numbers of Indonesian religious scholars are Al-Azhar graduates. Egyptian religious culture is regarded as reflective of the epitome of orthodoxy in many parts of the archipelago. Hence Indonesians have hit the streets following the 3 July coup.

The United States prefers not to use nasty terms like "coup" to describe the military removal of a democratically elected government followed by a massacre of its citizens. To do so would threaten its ongoing $1.5 billion military aid package to the Egyptian military which underpins the Camp David Peace Accord with Israel. Protecting the security needs of the only democracy in the Middle East is far more important than supporting nascent democracies in other Middle Eastern nations.

The United States and Israel have a firm ally in the democratic moderate secular nation of Saudi Arabia. The last thing Saudi's absolutist absolute monarchy would want is a host of Arab springs in its own backyard. At first, Saudi Arabia's role in Egypt's democracy was to act as puppet master for the Salafist faction.

Saudi Arabia has now directed its Salafist allies in Egypt to back the Egyptian generals. It is also using its influence in the Arab media to flex its muscle.

In Kuwait, well-known preacher Tareq el-Swaidan has been sacked as director of a Saudi religious channel due to his Brotherhood links. The Saudi prince Al-Waleed bin Talal wrote on Twitter that Mr Swaidan had been dismissed

... for admitting he belongs to the Brotherhood terrorist movement. 

The Saudi dictatorship has pledged $5 billion to the military junta.

The mastermind behind the military takeover and massacre is hardly a staunch secularist. General Abdul Fattah el-Sisi was appointed by former President Morsi in August 2002 to head the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Sisi was trained in Egypt, the UK and the United States. Unlike other SCAF members, Sisi is a deeply devout man. Despite the support it is receiving from the US, Sisi's military rulers are flooding the country with anti-American propaganda, claiming that the US Government and media are supporting the protesters. Successive military regimes have used this kind of paranoia to deflect attention.

Egypt is moving forward headlong into the past when elected presidents won polls with 99 per cent of the vote. The Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi wasn't perfect, but he was Egypt's first elected President. Egyptian media were free to lampoon him without risking imprisonment and torture.

We now have no idea where Morsi is being held. On the other hand, former military strongman Hosni Mubarak, the man overthrown in Egypt's revolution who faces trial, has been released. In the long term, Morsi's opponents have little option but to rally not only around the army but possibly their original nemesis.

Egypt's anti-Brotherhood liberals have proven to be democracy's worst enemy and the army's best ally. As an electoral force, they proved disorganised, unable to agree on a presidential candidate to oppose the Brotherhood. They seem only able to unite against a power, not for a cause. In Egypt, liberals have given up on liberal democracy.

First published in the NZ Herald on 27 August 2013.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

INDIA: Silence Over Suffering Is Deafening

We often read stories of India's economic miracle, its IT revolution and its Bollywood culture. We're keen to do business with India, and Indian migrants are regarded as highly skilled and hard-working. 

Australia is even considering selling uranium to India, presuming its status as the world's biggest democracy makes its nuclear programme less dangerous than that of Iran or Pakistan.

But what about human rights? We so often implement double standards when determining how human rights might affect our international relations.

The experiences of India's religious minorities have generally been ignored by Western Governments and commentators.

India's majority faith is Hinduism, an inherently pacifist and tolerant religion. Notwithstanding the caste system, Hindu societies have traditionally practised liturgical and doctrinal pluralism.

Yet indigenous Indian faiths also include Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. Indian independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi, a deeply religious man, borrowed freely from all Indian religious traditions.

Gandhi's vision was of a truly civilised and democratic India which zealously protected its minorities. He fought not only the British Raj but also communal extremists who incited bloodshed between religious communities. His assassination occurred at the hands of extremists of his own Hindu faith. In recent decades, these forces have re-emerged in mainstream Indian politics.

The spirit of Gandhi's assassins was present in the various social, educational and political organisations linked to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which ruled India federally from 1998 until 2004 and which continues to be the ruling party in various Indian state legislatures. In 2002, BJP activists in Gandhi's home state of Gujrat systematically murdered at least 2000 Muslim (and some Christian) civilians and made 150,000 homeless.

Police stood by and watched these atrocities take place. State Government workers carried lists of Muslim- and Christian-owned businesses and properties which were destroyed. The Gujrat Chief Minister Narendra Modhi praised the attackers, and remains Chief Minister.

Christians in Pakistan are often victims of discrimination, some even prosecuted under Pakistan's selective implementation of religious-based laws. In recent times, there has been much discussion of the precarious position faced by Christians in Muslim-majority states such as Malaysia, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

These are all crucial human rights issues about which people of all faiths, especially Muslim minorities, need to agitate.

Unfortunately, minority rights have become an issue of double standards. We rarely hear local Muslim religious bodies and lobbies talking about the plight of non-Muslim minorities in Muslim-majority states. Few Muslim religious leaders have taken the example of imams like South Africa's Farid Esack, who has agitated against the mistreatment of Pakistan's Christian communities.

Imagine a situation where members of an established indigenous Christian community in Malaysia are wrongly accused of murdering the leader of a Muslim chauvinist group. They are hunted down by Muslim thugs, their homes and villages firebombed.

The situation becomes so tenuous Christian leaders announce they might even form their own militia if the Government refuses to provide effective protection. This situation is happening, though not in Malaysia and not at the hands of Muslims. In India, activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a movement that forms part of the BJP opposition, have terrorised Indian Catholic communities and institutions.

The VHP regards Catholicism as a foreign faith, despite its presence in India for at least a millennium. Catholic welfare groups are accused of pressuring lower-caste Hindus to convert to Christianity. Most Catholics are either former Dalits (untouchables) or from indigenous tribal groups. 

On August 23, a senior VHP leader was murdered in the eastern state of Orissa. Maoist rebels claimed responsibility for the murder, accusing the VHP leader of having Nazi sympathies. But VHP leaders blamed Catholics. More than 40 churches and 11 other Christian institutions (including those linked to the order of the late Mother Teresa) were destroyed by VHP supporters. One female missionary was burned alive and dozens of other Christians murdered.

Yet the silence among otherwise vocal Christian activists about the suffering of India's Christian communities is deafening. Even politicians claiming to champion our Judeo-Christian heritage are silent.

There are 18 million Catholics in India, more than in Canada and England combined. Yet as Father Raymond de Souza lamented in a recent article for Canada's National Post, anti-Christian violence by VHP and BJP extremists cannot be checked if it is not even noticed.

As if to underscore his remarks, The Australian newspaper reported on September 16 that violence has spread to Karnataka, with some 14 churches destroyed.

All believers must all agitate for the rights of all religious minorities, especially those suffering human rights abuses in friendly nations. Selective indignation on human rights abuses compromises not only our faith but our very humanity.

First published in the NZ Herald on 21 September 2008.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

REVIEW: On romping racists and far-left extremists

Just before Christmas a young Afghan, presumably Muslim, drove a vehicle through a group of pedestrians in Flinders Street in Melbourne. Some people were seriously injured. But this wasn't the first such incident in Melbourne. Twelve months earlier another man did the same thing, killing innocent people including a ten-year-old girl from the Jewish community.

The recent incident was different but in many ways the same. The earlier incident didn't involve an Afghan Muslim driver, though it did involve the funeral of a three-month-old victim at a mosque. 

Still, victims and their families don't count when cultural battle lines are drawn. Despite the deaths and greater carnage of the earlier incident, the usual suspects in our allegedly conservative media weren't attacking police and clamouring for the accused to be declared a terrorist. For them, the accused was clearly of the right background and religion.

My South African friends tell me that during the Apartheid era in South Africa, police dogs were trained to attack criminals. How would the dog know who was the criminal? Simple. Look for the black person. So when the dog would see a black person, the dog would instinctively show aggression.

Many in Australian media and politics have become like South African police dogs. In policing our culture to ensure its purity, they show aggression to the usual suspects including Muslims, South Sudanese, Sudanese, Africans (well, the black-skinned ones) and Indigenous people. A dark-skinned person committing violent crime is classed as a Sudanese, and so a South Sudanese and/or an African Anyone who shares his/her appearance or ethnicity is then fair game. Anyone who tries to expose the stupidity of this cultural polemic is accused of 'political correctness' or of belonging to a nebulous group called 'the Left'.

Which brings me to the recent TV drama series incarnation of Romper Stomper. Like its movie-length predecessor, Romper Stomper Mark II also deals with violence and terrorism. But this time the white-skinned side of extremism in Australia isn't limited to a skinhead fringe. The antecedents of Right-White Nationalism have, over almost three decades, entered the mainstream of Australian discourse. Or perhaps they were hiding under the surface waiting for a set of events or perceived threats to grab hold of. Like all extremism, RWN claims the mantle of victimhood, of being the continuation of a righteous struggle.
"When society is caught between two forms of extremism battling each other, ordinary people often feel they must choose sides."
In Romper Stomper, RWN isn't just represented by Blake Farron (Lachy Hulme), the small businessman at the helm of the far-right group Patriot Blue. It is also represented by an opportunistic TV shock jock Jago Zoric (David Wenham) whose rhetoric on race and culture is virtually the same though less blatant than Farron's. One might say Zoric is the equivalent of the shock jocks Peter Dutton speaks to (if not of Dutton himself), with Farron more resembling Pauline Hanson or Milo Yiannopoulos. Zoric and Farron feed off each other.

But Romper Stomper doesn't pretend that political violence is the monopoly of the right. Indeed, the first violent incident on the show is initiated by leftist undergraduate students calling themselves Antifasc and led by a politics academic. Donning face masks and hoods, the exclusively Anglo-Australian Antifasc activists (or terrorists depending on whose side you're on) attack Patriot Blue at a Halal Food festival in St Kilda. It was a classic case of LWI (Left-White Internationalism) attacking RWN, with ordinary Muslims and foodie hipsters caught in the middle.

Except that Patriot Blue had the backing of powerful media elites who labelled Antifasc as violent thugs. Antifasc's broad goals — protecting a minority from violent bigotry — may be noble even if their methods are violent and not always in the interests of those Antifasc seeks to protect. At best, Antifasc punch up and across while Patriot Blue always punch down.

And then there's Laila (Nicole Chamoun), a Muslim undergraduate student. Now if you saw Laila in the street, you wouldn't know what her ethnicity or religion was. She doesn't wear a headscarf and is about as religious as any other Muslim girl who drinks beer at the pub (yes, I've met quite a few of them).

Unlike Patriot Blue, Laila didn't see herself as a victim. Her parents aren't what the RWN and their shock jock buddies would see as typical Muslim parents. They allow their daughter to go to university, and Laila's father encourages her to be an activist but within conventional democratic boundaries — media, lobbying and elections.

Laila follows her father's advice by going on Zoric's show. She is ambushed when Farron appears opposite her out of nowhere. Farron and Zoric turn on her, casting aspersions on a faith she barely follows and a group she feels is being victimised. Laila receives text after text from people she knows saying she has brought shame on herself and 'the community'.

Laila becomes disillusioned and disheartened. The conventional boundaries of lobbying and democracy have failed her. As for elections, I doubt Laila would be able to handle the experiences of Anne Aly and Ed Husic.

When society is caught between two forms of extremism battling each other, ordinary people often feel they must choose sides. Which side does Laila choose? Or does she choose a third side? And which side is involved in the suicide bombing? I guess you'll have to watch it to find out.?

First published in Eureka Street on 25 January 2018.

Friday, March 08, 2019

AUSTRALIAN POLITICS: Tony Abbott isn't going anywhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published in Crikey on 28 August 2018.

Monday, March 04, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published in Crikey on 24 September 2019

Friday, March 01, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published in Crikey on 09 October 2018.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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