All posts by Binoy Kampmark

Condescension and Climate Change: Australia and the Failure of the Pacific Islands Forum

It was predictably ugly: in tone, in regret, and, in some ways, disgust.  Australia emerged from the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting isolated, the true spoiler of the party which saw 17 states facing the obstinacy of one.  It had taken place on Tuvalu, some two hours flight north of Fiji.  The capital Funafuti is located on vanishing land; the island state is facing coastal erosion, the pressing issue of salinity, the very crisis of its existence.

Pacific Island leaders were already wise to the accounting cosmetics of Canberra’s accountants prior to the Forum.  It reeked, for instance, of a gesture for permissive pollution to the tune of $500 million: we give you money to boost “resilience” and sandbag your countries against rising water levels; we will keep polluting and emitting with expanded fossil fuel projects because that is what we are good at.

Alex Hawke, Australia’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific, called the cash promise the “most amount of money Australia has ever spent on climate in the Pacific”.  As Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga explained, “No matter how much money you put on the table, it doesn’t give you the excuse not to do the right thing.”  That right thing was a reduction in emissions, “including not opening your coal mines”.

The PIF leaders were also aware about what disruptive role Australia was going to play.  Australian politicians of the past and present have done little to endear themselves to a forum they have only recently felt more interest in because of China’s increasingly conspicuous presence.  In 2015, when Tony Abbott held the reins of power, his culturally challenged immigration minister Peter Dutton, in conversation with the prime minister, quipped rather darkly that “time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping at your door.”  The remark was a response to a meeting on Syrian refugees which had been running late, or on “Cape York time”, as he put it.

Ahead of the leaders’ forum, an annotated draft of the Pacific Islands Forum declaration revealed a sprinkling of qualifications, repudiations and rejections on the part of the Australian delegation.  The comments from August 7 sought to restrict any total decarbonisation, bans on the future use of coal power plants, opt out clauses for the 1.5C limit in temperature rise, phasing out fossil fuel subsidies and the very mention of the term climate change.

When it came to proceedings, Prime Minister Scott Morrison showed his true garish colours: Australia was a small contributor to emissions; it was a global problem, and so others had to do more.  In short, the weak excuse of any emission producing state.  Besides, he kept trumpeting, Australia was a leading investor in the sector of renewables.

Back in Australia, the Australian broadcaster and regular vulgarian Alan Jones was busy attacking the leaders of the gathering, most notably New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who had suggested that Australia “had to answer the Pacific” on the climate change issue.  A sock, he suggested, should have been strategically placed down her throat.  He subsequently suggested that this was a “wilful misrepresentation of what I said obviously distract from the point that she was wrong about climate change and wrong about Australia’s contribution to carbon dioxide levels.”

Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama was sickeningly unimpressed, having expressed open admiration for New Zealand’s efforts to combat climate change.  “Easy to tell someone to shove a sock down a throat when you’re sitting in the comfort of a studio.  The people of the Pacific, forced to abandon their homes due to climate change, don’t have that luxury.  Try saying it to a Tuvaluan child pleading for help.”

Michael McCormack, Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister, added the most revealing touch on Australia’s position at the PIF during a revealing business function in the rural town of Wagga Wagga on Friday.  (McCormack, it should be noted, is on record as disputing evidence of an increase in global temperatures.)  With an address heavy with bruising paternalism, he thought the PIF leaders were bellyaching, needlessly lamenting their fate.  He admitted “getting a bit annoyed when we have people in those sorts of countries pointing the finger at Australia and saying we should be shutting down all our resources sector so that, you know, they will continue to survive.”  He had little doubt they would continue to do so, due to the “large aid assistance from Australia” and “because their workers come here and pick our fruit, pick our fruit grown with hard Australian enterprise and endeavour and we welcome them and we always will.”  The only thing lacking in the statement was a Boris Johnson-styled garnish: a reference to cannibalism, or the toothy water melon smiles.

A neat summary of the entire encounter between the Pacific Island leaders and Australia was provided by Tuvalu’s Sopoaga.  “You [Scott Morrison] are concerned about saving your economy in Australia… I am concerned about saving my people in Tuvalu.”

The final communique proved lukewarm and non-committal, a feeble reiteration of existing understandings that climate change was a serious matter.  Bainimarama supplied an acid opinion on the final text.  “We came together in a nation that risks disappearing to the seas, but unfortunately, we settled for the status quo of our communique.  Watered-down climate language has real consequences – like water-logged homes, schools, communities, and ancestral burial grounds.”  Sopoaga was even more dramatic in assessing the response to the weakened language of the communique.  “There were serious arguments and even shouting, crying, leaders were shedding tears.”

Sadly, the main Australian opposition party would not have done much better.  Efforts on the part of Senator Penny Wong to claim a drastically different Labor approach must be put to rest. This is a party torn on the subject of King Coal, energy costs and renewables.

The hysterical aspect to PIF is that Australia’s denuding contribution will only serve to damage its own interests.  In the short-term, Chinese diplomats will be delighted by the self-sabotaging efforts of the Morrison government.  Beijing’s Special Envoy to the Pacific, Ambassador Wang Xuefeng, was on hand to tell the forum that “no matter how the international situation evolves, China will always be a good friend, partner and brother of Pacific Island Countries.” Expect a surge of interest towards the PRC in the forthcoming months.

A longer term consequence is also impossible to ignore.  Fine to joke about having refugee islanders pick the fruit of your country, but to do so requires places to grow fruit.  Rising sea levels may will cause the dreaded vanishing of the island states, but it will also submerge a good deal of Australia’s precariously placed coastal cities.  What a bitter, if not deserved, outcome that would be.

God, Guns and Video Games

The din struck by videos of the gaming variety; its forced causal link (always alleged, never proved) to altering conduct, continues its relentless march across the discussion forums in the United States and beyond.  The almost casual butcheries – actual, not as opposed to digital – have gone on unabated, the next extremist taking a murderous shot at his role in history – and everybody else.  Now it is the white supremacists who are sharing top billing with previous jihadi enthusiasts, a concession on the part of law enforcement authorities that there might be something to say about using the word “terrorist” in an ecumenical sense.

The August 3 shootings at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, left over 30 dead and 53 injured.  The profiles of the shooters were subjected to a less than thorough dissection.  A twenty-one-year old Patrick Crusius had allegedly driven from Dallas-Fort Worth to El Paso in the hope of targeting Mexican immigrants.  For Connor Betts, motives seemed sketchy, though he was noted for having a Twitter account showing much support for Antifa and an interest in “exploring violent ideologies”.  Much is being made of his drug addled state at the time of the shootings.

The taking of sides over the whole calculus of violence took place in a matter of hours.  For those insisting on gun control, lax rules enabling the easy acquisition of weapons of mass lethality were fundamental, with Texas taking the lead.  Racism and xenophobia were also blamed.

For gun worshippers, the culprits were violent celluloid, naughty video games, hideous media.  Even as the casualty lists were being compiled, Fox News host Jon Scott  suggested that the El Paso shooter was merely another youth raised on a diet of violent video games that might propel him to take to guns.

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick speculated that the killings were the bloody realisations of a video game, a desire on the part of the shooter to “be a super soldier, for his Call of Duty game.”  But there was a bit more to that: God’s banishment from society, the one and only deity being cast out for most of the week, unable to exert His moral authority.  “As long as we continue to only praise God and look at God on a Sunday morning and kick him out of the town square in our schools the other six days of the week, what do we expect?”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy claimed on Fox News’ Sunday Morning Futures that video games dehumanized participants, turning them into insentient zombies.  “We’ve watched studies show what it does to individuals, and you look at these photos and how it took place, you can see the actions within video games and others.”

President Donald Trump, as he did in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school shooting in Parklands, Florida, lamented the “glorification of violence in our society”, which included “the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace.  It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence. We must stop or substantially reduce this, and it has to begin immediately.”

The president also had room for that old straw man Fake News which “has contributed greatly to the anger and rage that has built up over many years.  News coverage has got to start being fair, balanced and unbiased, or these terrible problems will only get worse!”

Some common ground is found in commentary suggesting that Gamergate holds the toxic key – at least when it comes to understanding white nationalist trigger happy types. Founded in a campaign of coordinated harassment in 2014 against female video game designers and gaming critics, the Gamergaters migrated from the 4chan image-based website to 8chan.  (4chan had tired of the harassing troupe.)  Evan Urquhart duly stretches the bow in his Slate contribution.  “This subculture of Gamergaters, who erroneously believe themselves to be the only true gamers in the world in a world of phonies, is what made the culture of 8chan what it is.  It was violent then, it it’s more violent now.”

If only it were that simple: the moving image would be banned; the provocative print would be stored away in inaccessible troves; online forums would be banished.  But as tens of millions of humans happily engage with such matter without incident on a daily basis, the prosecution is left floundering on this point.

In the 1950s, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham pushily decided that comic books were needlessly imperilling readers (perhaps viewers is more appropriate?).  His methodologically unsound Seduction of the Innocent remains a suitable bit of canonical drivel, stirring the agitated, not least of all his claim that the gay subtext of the Batman stories was harmful to youths.  It led to a panic that saw the creation of the Comics Code Authority and the eventual demise of EC Comics.

Since then, there has been a smattering of work on the gaming-violence causation business.  The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology ran a study in 2013 featuring participants engaged in playing violent or non-violent video games over 20 minutes per day over 3 days.  “As expected, aggressive behaviour and hostile expectations increased over days for violent game players, but not for nonviolent video game players, and the increase in aggressive behaviour was partially due to hostile expectations.”  That same year, another study published in Aggressive Behaviour found an exception: participants surveyed sowed that violence with a “prosocial motive (i.e. protecting a friend and furthering his nonviolent goals) were found to show lower short-term aggression”.

Research published this year by Andrew K. Przybylski of Oxford University and Netta Weinstein of Cardiff University, arguably gives us one of the most thorough bodies of work to date.  It surveyed 1,004 British 14-15-year-olds on gaming habits and behaviour, along with an equal number of carers.  “There was no evidence for a critical tipping point relating violent game engagement to aggressive behaviour.”  According to co-author Weinstein, “Our finding suggest that researcher biases might have influenced previous studies on this topic, and have distorted our understanding of the effects of video games.”

Even judges have opined from upon high on the issue, with the late Antonin Scalia observing in the 2011 case of Brown v Entertainment Merchant Association that psychological research studies, at least those being relied upon in that case, “do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively (which would at least be a beginning).”  The studies only showed “at best some correlation between exposure to violent entertainment and miniscule real-world effects”.

This does not prevent the prosecution from having a good stab at the futile.  Dozens of countries have access to violent games and do not see gamers running amok massacring all and sundry.  The issue is deeper, and the deeper part is what is problematic.  In this, progressives and conservatives find testy, shallow consensus, if in slightly different ways.  The video gamers are being accused of producing a star fashioned in ghoulish, murderous reality.

Justin Trudeau and the Ethics of Interference

Ethics can be a slippery matter and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has taken, rather decidedly, the option of adding more grease.  His understanding over the ethics, for instance, of interfering in the decision-making process involving an Attorney-General has led to a little bit of history: Trudeau finds himself the first Canadian prime minister to be in breach of federal ethics rules.

In recent months, Trudeau’s crown has lost much of its lustre.  The SNC-Lavalin affair has been a primary contributor, a millstone gathering weight around his now very bruised neck.  The company had found itself in a spot of deep bother over bribing Libyan officials, a point it claimed in February 2015 was the result of “alleged reprehensible deeds by former employees who left the company a long time ago.”  Then came a 2018 law offering mild relief: the prospect of a fine rather than a conviction.  Business could go on as usual.

The question on the lips of the political fraternity was to what extent Trudeau’s office, and he personally, attempted to pressure the ex-Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould that taking SNC-Lavalin to trial would be costly in terms of jobs and votes in Quebec.  A bribery and fraud conviction against the company would have barred it from bidding on federal contracts for 10 years, with current contracts cancelled by the federal authorities.

In early February 2016, it became clear that the company was putting the word out to Trudeau and various government bodies that a remediation agreement was desirable.  The prime minister seemed convinced the company was keen to reform, a point used to avert the disruptive prospect of having cancellations of contracts covering, amongst others, the Gordie Howe International Bridge project and Montreal’s light rail project.

Wilson-Raybould found herself cornered and badgered, taking issue with Trudeau’s evident bias towards SNC-Lavalin.  Her refusal to overrule the decision of the prosecutors to refuse pursuing the remediation option led to her demotion in January’s cabinet reshuffle.  This, in turn, precipitated a lusty round of bloodletting: the removal of Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott of the Treasury Board from the Liberal caucus, the resignation of Trudeau’s top personal aide Gerry Butts, and the early retirement of the head of the federal bureaucracy, Michael Wernick.

The entire affair also prompted an examination request to the Ethics Commissioner by Charlie Angus, MP for Timmins-James Bay, and Nathan Cullen, MP for Skeena-Bulkley Valley.  Their concern: that the Prime Minister and his office had pressured Wilson-Raybould to instruct the Public Prosecution Service of Canada to seek a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin.  This suggested, argued Angus and Cullen, preferential treatment by an office holder towards a particular person or entity, something prohibited by section 7 of the Conflict of Interest Act.

While Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion was not convinced that section 7 held the necessary water, section 9 prohibiting a public officer holder from using their position to seek to influence a decision of another person to further their own private interests or those of a relative or friend, or to improperly further another person’s private interests, was quite a different matter.

Dion showed little sympathy for the Trudeau line of interference.  “The Prime Minister, directly and through his senior officials, used various means to exert influence over Ms Wilson-Raybould.”  SNC-Lavalin “overwhelmingly stood to benefit from Ms Wilson-Raybould’s intervention”.  The prime minister’s actions were therefore “improper since the actions were contrary to the constitutional principles of prosecutorial independence and the rule of law”.

The findings by Dion also serve a historical diet on the independence – aspirational or otherwise – of certain office holders, with the Attorney General being a singular creature in the scheme of government.  Such an office holder had a “unique perspective” in being a Cabinet member but also one who had to be “independent of Cabinet when exercising their prosecutorial discretion.”  It was a role, and a distinction inherent in it, that had clearly been “misunderstood” by Trudeau.

Dion was also wise enough to make a salient reference to Lord Hartley Shawcross’ views on the matter.  As Attorney General of England and Wales, Lord Shawcross explained to the UK House of Commons in 1951 that the Attorney General was “not obliged to, consult with any of his colleagues in the government” in making decisions pertinent to a prosecution.  The AG might well be informed and assisted by colleagues on matters assisting in reaching a decision, but never “in telling him what that decision ought to be.”

Trudeau’s statement of response is the mildest of efforts at contrition (“I can’t apologise for standing up for Canadian jobs”), a backhanded thank you to the Ethics Commissioner, a grudging acceptance that Parliamentary officers be independent, and an ultimate sense that his conduct had been, in the final analysis, proper in most respects, even if he did “take full responsibility”.  “The Commissioner took the strong view that all contact with the Attorney General on this issue was improper. I disagree with that conclusion, especially when so many peoples’ jobs were at stake.”

Such apologetics are padded by a good dose of self-congratulation.  “Our government has made tremendous progress over the last few years, for seniors, students, workers, families, and newcomers.”  The issue of jobs is the re-iterated barb.  “We have always fought to create and protect jobs, to invest in Canadians, and to strengthen the middle class at the heart of our country’s success.”

The consequences for such findings for Trudeau might prove the telling blow come the October elections.  Conservative leader Andrew Scheer smells blood and is demanding a police investigation.  The Royal Canadian Mounted Police has expressed interest.  Other commentators will simply remember that Trudeau has form on this.  In December 2017, he was found in breach of conflict of interest rules in accepting a vacation to be on the Aga Khan’s private island.  At least then, he thought apologising a wise move.  Trudeau the cynic has been outed.

CPAC Down Under

It was a time for Australian conservatives to be boring, and bore each other.  CPAC, otherwise known as the Conservative Political Action Conference, had arrived in Sydney.  The real entertainment bill was to be supplied by such figures as Brexiter supremo Nigel Farage and former editor-in-chief of Breitbart News London, Raheem Kassam.  The rest was poor filling, the tired, cranky Fox and Sky News set.

CPAC 2019 was described in the usual, fun filled way on the organisation’s website.  “The American Conservative Union and LibertyWorks are proud to bring CPAC to Australia for the first time!” Participate, went the message; the “shy voters” might have kept the Australian Labor Party out of office, but, and here Ronald Reagan was quoted with gusto, “The future doesn’t belong to the light-hearted.  It belongs to the brave.”

For only the second time since coming into existence in 1974 with 400 registrants, CPAC was holding a gathering outside the United States.  Its existence owed much to the initial explorations of the conservative magazine Human Events, and the creation of the American Conservative Union. The ACU was itself a gathering spurred on by the defeat of Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964.  As Human Events described it, “The CPAC Conference was seen as a way of rebuilding the morale of conservatives and of refocusing the energies of the movement for future battles.”

Farage did not disappoint, filling the forum with the invective that keeps him afloat.  He, for instance, had little time for those he termed “fake” conservatives, the foremost of them being former Australian Prime Minister, the very much knifed Malcolm Turnbull.  He also demonstrated certain non-too conservative credentials of his own, aiming a few salvos at members of the Royal Family back home in conversation on a Sky News panel, and during a speech at a gala dinner on Saturday.

While describing the Queen as “an amazing, awe-inspiring woman”, her misguided, degenerate offspring and their issue were quite a different matter. “When it comes to her son, when it comes to Charlie Boy and climate change, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.”  The Duke of Sussex, Prince Harry, had lost the plot in desiring a modest brood of two children, being worried about climate change.

Where had that old Harry gone, “this young, brave, boisterous, all male, getting into trouble, turning up at stag parties inappropriately dressed, drinking too much and causing all sorts of mayhem”?  Instead of putting this down to age and, unusually for some royals, the maturing process, Farage had the answer: Meghan Markle.  Once they met, his credibility fell off a cliff, ignoring, for instance “the real problem the Earth faces, and that is the fact the population of the globe is exploding but no one dares talk about it.”

This was a chance for Australian conservatives to feel loved and thought relevant by their Anglo-American cousins.  Noses were powdered, outfits tailored.  US-UK contingent could hardly have been that impressed. Senator Amanda Stoker’s speech on industrial relations was soporific; polemical scribe Janet Albrechtsen struck an odd note of insecurity by deeming contempt cold. “When someone treats another person with contempt, they’re putting that other person down and making themselves feel superior.” (Albrechtsen, take note.)

To the Anglo-American set went the guns, the demagogues, the reactionary ballast.  On the subject of guns, Kassam was happy to offer his own theory about the murderous bounty reaped by such devices in the United States: “the establishment media and the left”; and the pharmaceutical industry.  The children of America were being pumped “with these medications […] and these lies.  The want them to have a little anger, but not too much.”  Mental instability, anger, and the gun toting solution: all reasonable progressions in Kassam’s reckoning.

Otherwise, the current Human Events global editor-in-chief proved conventional, lobbing grenades at Islam, recalling his role in establishing an anti-radicalisation group seeking to prevent people “throwing homosexuals off buildings, FGM (female genital mutilation) and lightly beating your wife” and mocking gender politics.

The Australians, as they often do at events where Britannia and Uncle Sam hold hands, were eclipsed.  Former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson lamented “empathy culture” and the left’s abuse of “people who dare to disagree with you”.  Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who has had his mild spell of demagoguery in Australian politics, took issue with Victoria’s assisted dying laws (“morally shocking”, no less), identity politics, and the loss of faith. “This is why it is so easy for people to put forward fundamentally inhuman ideas and have them taken much more seriously than they should be.”

The CPAC Conference tends to function like a reassuring echo chamber rather than an arena for debate.  Added publicity is only generated by those who fear its reach.  One such unwitting promoter of the event was Labor’s spokesperson for Home Affairs, Senator Kristina Keneally.  Having made it her personal, and failing mission, to prevent certain attendees from coming into the country, she was bound to make a mention at CPAC 2019. She did so by winning the CPAC Freedom Award, one earned for promoting the conference.

This is something she did repeatedly, suggesting that Kassam be banned for his “extensive history of vilifying people”.  Kassam, for his part, suggested that the senator, that model of Catholicism, had made him feel unsafe on the streets of Sydney.  “She should be ashamed of herself…  There is nothing Christian about silencing your opposition.”

What Keneally ended up doing was demonstrating, yet again, how free speech in Australia functions as a mutable construction, easily forgotten in the face of insult and the hold exerted by an odious opinion.  Just let them babble and fume.

CPAC Down Under

It was a time for Australian conservatives to be boring, and bore each other.  CPAC, otherwise known as the Conservative Political Action Conference, had arrived in Sydney.  The real entertainment bill was to be supplied by such figures as Brexiter supremo Nigel Farage and former editor-in-chief of Breitbart News London, Raheem Kassam.  The rest was poor filling, the tired, cranky Fox and Sky News set.

CPAC 2019 was described in the usual, fun filled way on the organisation’s website.  “The American Conservative Union and LibertyWorks are proud to bring CPAC to Australia for the first time!” Participate, went the message; the “shy voters” might have kept the Australian Labor Party out of office, but, and here Ronald Reagan was quoted with gusto, “The future doesn’t belong to the light-hearted.  It belongs to the brave.”

For only the second time since coming into existence in 1974 with 400 registrants, CPAC was holding a gathering outside the United States.  Its existence owed much to the initial explorations of the conservative magazine Human Events, and the creation of the American Conservative Union. The ACU was itself a gathering spurred on by the defeat of Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964.  As Human Events described it, “The CPAC Conference was seen as a way of rebuilding the morale of conservatives and of refocusing the energies of the movement for future battles.”

Farage did not disappoint, filling the forum with the invective that keeps him afloat.  He, for instance, had little time for those he termed “fake” conservatives, the foremost of them being former Australian Prime Minister, the very much knifed Malcolm Turnbull.  He also demonstrated certain non-too conservative credentials of his own, aiming a few salvos at members of the Royal Family back home in conversation on a Sky News panel, and during a speech at a gala dinner on Saturday.

While describing the Queen as “an amazing, awe-inspiring woman”, her misguided, degenerate offspring and their issue were quite a different matter. “When it comes to her son, when it comes to Charlie Boy and climate change, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.”  The Duke of Sussex, Prince Harry, had lost the plot in desiring a modest brood of two children, being worried about climate change.

Where had that old Harry gone, “this young, brave, boisterous, all male, getting into trouble, turning up at stag parties inappropriately dressed, drinking too much and causing all sorts of mayhem”?  Instead of putting this down to age and, unusually for some royals, the maturing process, Farage had the answer: Meghan Markle.  Once they met, his credibility fell off a cliff, ignoring, for instance “the real problem the Earth faces, and that is the fact the population of the globe is exploding but no one dares talk about it.”

This was a chance for Australian conservatives to feel loved and thought relevant by their Anglo-American cousins.  Noses were powdered, outfits tailored.  US-UK contingent could hardly have been that impressed. Senator Amanda Stoker’s speech on industrial relations was soporific; polemical scribe Janet Albrechtsen struck an odd note of insecurity by deeming contempt cold. “When someone treats another person with contempt, they’re putting that other person down and making themselves feel superior.” (Albrechtsen, take note.)

To the Anglo-American set went the guns, the demagogues, the reactionary ballast.  On the subject of guns, Kassam was happy to offer his own theory about the murderous bounty reaped by such devices in the United States: “the establishment media and the left”; and the pharmaceutical industry.  The children of America were being pumped “with these medications […] and these lies.  The want them to have a little anger, but not too much.”  Mental instability, anger, and the gun toting solution: all reasonable progressions in Kassam’s reckoning.

Otherwise, the current Human Events global editor-in-chief proved conventional, lobbing grenades at Islam, recalling his role in establishing an anti-radicalisation group seeking to prevent people “throwing homosexuals off buildings, FGM (female genital mutilation) and lightly beating your wife” and mocking gender politics.

The Australians, as they often do at events where Britannia and Uncle Sam hold hands, were eclipsed.  Former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson lamented “empathy culture” and the left’s abuse of “people who dare to disagree with you”.  Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who has had his mild spell of demagoguery in Australian politics, took issue with Victoria’s assisted dying laws (“morally shocking”, no less), identity politics, and the loss of faith. “This is why it is so easy for people to put forward fundamentally inhuman ideas and have them taken much more seriously than they should be.”

The CPAC Conference tends to function like a reassuring echo chamber rather than an arena for debate.  Added publicity is only generated by those who fear its reach.  One such unwitting promoter of the event was Labor’s spokesperson for Home Affairs, Senator Kristina Keneally.  Having made it her personal, and failing mission, to prevent certain attendees from coming into the country, she was bound to make a mention at CPAC 2019. She did so by winning the CPAC Freedom Award, one earned for promoting the conference.

This is something she did repeatedly, suggesting that Kassam be banned for his “extensive history of vilifying people”.  Kassam, for his part, suggested that the senator, that model of Catholicism, had made him feel unsafe on the streets of Sydney.  “She should be ashamed of herself…  There is nothing Christian about silencing your opposition.”

What Keneally ended up doing was demonstrating, yet again, how free speech in Australia functions as a mutable construction, easily forgotten in the face of insult and the hold exerted by an odious opinion.  Just let them babble and fume.

Conspiracy, Death and Jeffrey Epstein

Within minutes of news about his death in a Manhattan jail cell Saturday morning, theories spread with pestilential vigour.  Was Jeffrey Epstein murdered?  Accepting the premise without qualification, the next question followed: Who did it?  MSNBC host Joe Scarborough was not giving anyone time to wonder.  “A guy who had information that would have destroyed rich and powerful men’s lives end up dead in his jail cell.  How predictably…Russian.”

There had been a potential trigger: the unsealing of documents by a Federal court from a lawsuit by one of Epstein’s accusers directed against socialite Ghislaine Maxwell, the woman behind the man behind the women. In 2017, Virginia Giuffre, who had accused Maxwell of procuring young girls for sexual abuse by Epstein, settled. The depositions were duly salacious, linking the procurement to the Epstein circle, which, by all accounts, was rather large.  Specific to Giuffre were claims that Maxwell had issued her instructions “to serve“, amongst others, Britain’s Prince Andrew, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, and scientist Marvin Minsky.

Epstein was the insider mogul, a deeply connected, even embedded figure holding the confidences of the rich and powerful even as he pampered them. Having become a sordid archive of sorts, to have him accused of trafficking in underage sex was a powerful incentive for the narrative of silence to charge forth on an unruly stead.  To have the Epstein largesse was to have its taint.  And in Donald Trump’s USA, the conspiracy machine furnishes the means of settling scores and scuttling accounts; never mind the facts, those silly little things that tend to be bound up in order to die in isolation.

Anyone involved with Epstein in any intimate way could hardly have denied that sinister gothic element to his life, itself sketchy about details as college dropout, high school teacher in Manhattan and money manager. What proved striking was a pseudo-intellectual leaning in his circle: the need for a permanently horny financier to be with the bright in order to arrive at some justification for, as Andrew O’Hagan observed, “personally impregnating countless women”.

His home on East 71st Street in New York sported a stone satyr over a fifteen-foot front door leading to a home with décor “of the Gothic Quagmire school”. When he sparked interest in the authorities – of the unhealthy type – he tended to wriggle out of it, using heavy artillery lawyers to do his bidding.  Operation Leap Year, conducted by the FBI over a period of 14 months some twelve years ago, found evidence that 34 underage girls had been solicited by Epstein.  Not so, claimed the Alan Dershowitz-led team: the girls were not underage. A “non-prosecution” agreement was struck, allowing Epstein to escape incarceration.

The details, since released, show that Dershowitz convinced Miami prosecutors that Epstein could avoid federal charges provided he owned up to two counts of soliciting, one of them being with a minor.  Immunity would also be provided for “any potential co-conspirators”.  Epstein’s accusers were not to be informed of this nasty jigging of the legal system, a point in clear violation of the Crime Victims’ Rights Act.  (The legal eagle soaring over the proceedings, it should also be said, had been accused by Giuffre of being one of the Epstein inner circle she was to sexually service.)

Such a resume has commanded much suspicion in terms of timing and result.  New York mayor Bill de Blasio deemed it “way too convenient”. To reporters, he asked what Epstein could possibly have known.  “How many other millionaires and billionaires were part of the illegal activities that he was engaged in?” In the social media scape, facts were already being killed off as rapidly as they were conceived.

President Donald Trump relished a chance to muck in, retweeting a post by comedian and commentator Terrence K. Williams sceptical about the “24/7 suicide watch”.  Here was a chance to aim a few blows at his old sparring partners, the Clintons.  The rancid smell of dough and sex from the fictional paedophile rings associated with “Pizzagate” in 2016 had reappeared.  “#JeffreyEpstein had information on Bill Clinton & now he’s dead.”

That whole matter was preceded by a retweet of a post by BNL News: “BREAKING: Documents were unsealed yesterday revealing that top Democrats, including Bill Clinton, took private trips to Jeffrey Epstein’s ‘pedophilia land’.”  The president felt in the pink of things, launching thick salvos against the media he regarded as “lamestream”.  “Think how wonderful it is to be able to fight back and show, to so many, how totally dishonest the Fake News Media really is.  It may be the most corrupt disgusting business (almost) there is!”

Clinton spokesman and press secretary Angel Ureña added to the news cycle with a statement that, “President Clinton knows nothing about the terrible crimes Jeffrey Epstein pleaded guilty to in Florida some years ago, or those with which he has been recently charged in New York.”

The Daily Beast indulged a scenario in mocking fashion.  Perhaps that other part of the Clinton duo, Hillary, “performed a flawless HALO parachute jump onto the roof of the Manhattan Correctional Center, rappelled down the elevator shaft”, in the process infiltrating cell, killing Epstein and making off “with her blonde hair perfectly in place and not a single stain on her tactical pantsuit”.

Not wishing to be outdone, anti-Trump tweets have aggressively followed in the wake of claims that the Clintons were intent on silencing Epstein, leaving, along the way, a good number of corpses.  The hashtag #TrumpBodyCount was a response as measured as that of #ClintonBodyCount.

Epstein’s death is being covered, interpreted and heaved over in a scattergun environment resistant to news.  Any news account must, by its Trump-inflected nature, be a set-up, a contrivance, a concoction of power.  “He reportedly tried to kill himself two weeks ago,” snorts Scarborough. “And is allowed to finish the job now?  Bullshit.”

This leaves such questions as those posed by O’Hagan in the London Review of Books lukewarm in their intensity, however sensible they might seem.  “When guilty men kill themselves, are they acknowledging their guilt, or is it more like an act of self-pity?”  Epstein’s suicide terminated “a judicial process that he spent millions to disdain”; it also negated a life in prison he sought to avert.  Any answers found by the Metropolitan Correctional Center (New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wants “lots of them”) are bound to fall short in the current milieu of celebrated pandemonium.

The Retainer Solution: The European Union, Libya and Irregular Migration

There is a venom in international refugee policy that refuses to go away: officials charged with their tasks, passing on their labours to those who might see the UN Refugee Convention as empty wording, rather than strict injunction carved upon stone.  They have all become manifest in the policy of deferral: humanitarian problems are for others to solve.  We will simply supply monetary assistance, the machinery, the means; the recipients, like time honoured servants, will do the rest.

The European Union, and some of its members, have their own idea of a glorified servant minding their business in North Africa.  The EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa is the pot of gold; the recipient is Libya, an important “transit country for migrants heading to Europe.”  Such a status makes Libya the main point of outsourced obligations associated with human traffic.  Using Libya supposedly achieves the objectives of the Joint Communication ‘Managing flows, saving lives’ (never pass up the chance to use weasel words) and the Malta Declaration.

In responding to the regional refugee crisis, the EU mires itself in the wording of bureaucracy, machine language meant to be inoffensive.  The first phase of the “Support to Integrated border and migration management in Libya” sounds like an allocation of mild tasks, a simple case of proper filing.  In summary, it “aims to strengthen the capacity of relevant Libyan authorities in the areas of border and migration management, including border control and surveillance, addressing smuggling and trafficking of human beings, search and rescue at sea and in the desert.”  A casual takeaway from this is that the EU is not merely being responsible but caring, assisting a country to, in turn assist migrants and refugees from making rash decisions, saving them when needed, and protecting them when required.

According to its unconvincing brief, “the EUTF for Africa pays particular attention to protection and assistance to migrants and their host communities in the country in order to increase their resilience.”  In arid language, there is lip-service paid to “support a migrant management and asylum in Libya that is consistent with the main international standards and human rights.”

Such documents conceal the appallingly dire situation of Libya as the sponsored defender of Europe against irregular arrivals.  Money sent is not necessarily money well spent.  Detention centres have become concentrations of corrupted desperation, its residents exploited, tormented and kidnapped.

Accounts of torture in such camps have made their way to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.  In July 2018, Human Rights Watch paid a visit to four detention centres in Tripoli, Misrata and Zuwara.  The organisation found “inhumane conditions that included severe overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, poor quality food and water that has led to malnutrition, lack of adequate healthcare, and disturbing accounts of violence by guards, including beatings, whippings, and the use of electric shocks.”

The EUTF for Africa lacks human context; dull, bloodless policy accounts make little mention of cutthroat militias jousting for authority and the absence of coherent, stable governance.  In May, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees spokesperson Charlie Yaxley claimed that the UNHCR was “in a race against time to urgently move refugees and migrants out of detention centres to safety, and we urge the international community to come forward with offers of evacuation.”

Such races have tended to be lost, and rather badly at that.  The militias are on the move, and one war lord eager to make an impression is Khalifa Haftar.  On July 3, some fifty people perished in an airstrike when two missiles hit a detention centre in Tripoli hosting 610 individuals.  The finger pointing, even as the centre continued to burn, was quick, with blame duly allocated: Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini, and Libya’s UN-recognised and misnamed Government of National Accord (GNA) saw the hand of Haftar’s Libyan National Army.  The intended target, according to LNP general Khaled el-Mahjoub, had been the militia camp located in the Tajoura neighbourhood.

Salvini, for good measure, also saw another culprit in the undergrowth of responsibility. While the rest of the EU could not shy away from this “criminal attack”, France would prove an exception, given their “economic and commercial reasons” for supporting “an attack on civilian targets.”  Salvini is right, up to a point: France has an interest in supporting Haftar, given its interest in the eastern Libyan oilfields which he controls.  The EU continues to speak in harshly different voices, none of them particularly humanitarian.

The UN special envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salamé suggested that the strike “clearly could constitute a war crime” having killed people “whose dire conditions forced them to be in that shelter.”  The envoy’s formulation was striking: it was not the fault of GNA authorities who had detained migrants near a military depot; nor did the EU harbour any responsibility for having ensured the conditions of “managed” traffic flow that had led to the creation of detention centres.

The debate that followed was all a matter of logistical semantics; the camps proved to be, yet again, areas of mortal danger and hardly up to the modest standards of the EU’s refugee policy. To add to the prospects of future butchery, 95 more people have been added to the Tajoura centre.  The cruel business has resumed.

Militarising Australia: Talisman Sabre and the US Military Build Up  

Deemed the Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations strategy, the military method is a US Marine special, still spanking new, featuring “the amphibious landing of troops on islands for seizure and capture as part of a forward projection of sea and airpower aimed at the mainland.”

That particular description comes from Bevan Ramsden, an active member of the coordinating committee of IPAN, the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network.  IPAN has been decidedly concerned about what it sees, rightly, as an enthusiastic, boisterous build-up of US military forces primarily in the Northern Territory and ambling across the continent and along the shorelines.

The Australian Defence Department adds to Ramsden’s overview in a discussion of Talisman Sabre, a joint US-Australian military exercise conducted since 2007.  “TS19 will be the eighth iteration of the exercise and consists of a Field Training Exercise incorporating force preparation (logistic) activities, amphibious landings, land force manoeuvre, urban operations, air operations, maritime operations and Special Forces activities.”

On this occasion, Talisman Sabre had a new addition: Japan’s 1st Amphibious Rapid Deployment Regiment, which joined in beach landings alongside Australian, US and British forces on July 16.  Australian commander Major General Justin “Jake” Ellwood was notably impressed by the showing.  And a sight it proved to be: some 34,000 troops, 200 planes and 60 naval vessels.

What the Australian Defence Force cannot shy away from is that it remains, ultimately, an annex of the US military machine.  In a report from the Headquarters, Joint Operations Command (HQJOC) from April, an acknowledgement is made that TS19, “is focused on enhancing the readiness and interoperability of ADF Defence elements and exposing participants to a wide spectrum of military capabilities and training experiences.”  It is presumed, and never challenged, that such exercises are “in support of Australia’s national interests” begging the question whether a state should ever be so utterly interoperable with foreign military forces.

The US imperium was keen, using Australian facilities, to test the EABO in scenarios which envisage a concept of island seizure and, in the words of the official website of the US Marines, “distribute lethality by providing land-based options for increasing the number of sensors and shooters beyond the upper limit imposed by the quantity of seagoing platforms available.”  The integration of the Marines into the broader operations of the US Navy is an essential feature of this move.  This would, in turn, deny access to enemy vessels and aircraft, making the target of this clear: any power keen to challenge US power in the Pacific.  As James Lacey, who teaches at the Marine Corps War College suggests, “the Marines will help ensure that the US Navy retains its freedom of manoeuvre throughout the Pacific, while curtailing China’s ability to get much beyond its littorals.”  What a lovely future confrontation this promises to be.

The TS19 show was also a display of military plumage and provocation. US Marine Colonel Matthew Sieber made the aim of it clear: “to walk away having strengthened that relationship [between participants] and to demonstrate to our would-be partners or adversaries the strength of that alliance.”

The scale of TS19 has proven hefty, comprising whole swathes of the country.  An important feature of this is not to frighten the locals, who might be put off by the sheer scale of it all.  Do not, for instance, give the impression they are living under the cloud of occupation.  “Welcome,” comes the jolly opening to the Australian Defence Department’s information site, where “you will learn about TS19, the importance of the exercise to preparing our military, how we involve the community and protect the environment.”

The Defence Department leaves us this impression of movement and deployment across the country, and even then, struggles to make the monster innocuous: “Large convoys will be on the roads from June to August 2019 and includes Australian, US and New Zealand military vehicles travelling from across Australia and converging at Rockhampton and Shoalwater Bay Area.”

To reassure environmental activists and residents, TS19 emphasises a lack of “live fire activities”, something seen as a marked improvement.  In other words, no underwater detonations or demolitions, naval gunnery and aerial bombardment; in place of that, dummy ammunition would be used, with added pyrotechnics to give effect.  But as Friends of the Earth Australia noted in May, this would not be the case at Shoalwater Bay, nor various lead-up or follow on activities.  These “are not assessed as part of Talisman Sabre because they fall outside of the official exercise dates.”  Hair splitting operatives will eventually get to you.

Even since Talisman Sabre became a regular feature of joint Australian-US operations, a nervousness among activist circles has grown.  What, for instance, are the neighbours to think about such displays of force?  The Chinese People’s Liberation Army, for instance, was very keen to monitor TS19 activities with a general intelligence vessel, known as the Type 815.  This was a repeat performance from 2017, when a Type 815 AGI also kept an eye on the Talisman Sabre exercises.

More broadly speaking, protests against the US military juggernaut Down Under remain skimpy, with efforts of resistance confined to conferences intended to raise awareness.  The latest word from Washington is a promise to build more than a quarter of a billion dollars-worth of naval facilities in Darwin and its environs, a move that delights more than alarms.  In 2015, for instance, a solitary stand was made by Justin Tutty off Lee Point, Darwin, a modest effort that led to his arrest.  Two other protestors made their way to the Shoalwater Bay live-firing range in a disruptive effort.  This year, IPAN intends holding a national public conference in Darwin from August 2 to 4 with the theme “Australia at the Crossroads: Time for an independent foreign policy.”  It promises few converts, given the continuing presence of the faithful at such gatherings.

More common, and creepily voyeuristic, is the spectator element of such exercises, the weak-at-the-knee individuals aroused by displays of power.  Ready your deckchairs and chilled chardonnay and observe the proceedings unfold.  That, at least, is how the owners of beach land at Stanage Bay, Ivonne and Fred Burns, saw it.  In the words of Ivonne Burns, “It’s incredible just to watch it all… to see it all happening before your eyes, in your own backyard.” Or not, if Washington’s adventurism gets out of hand, leaving Australia with more than just a bloody nose.

Permissible Deviance: Facebook’s FTC Fine

It was something of a shrug moment.  One of the world’s largest digital platforms had been fined $5 billion for privacy violations by the Federal Trade Commission, claiming it had violated its 2012 order.  The FTC order also requires the company “to restructure its approach to privacy from the corporate board-level down, establishing strong new mechanisms to ensure that Facebook executives are accountable for the decisions they make about privacy, and that those decisions are subject to meaningful oversight.”

On a certain level, being fined $5 billion seems astonishing.  It is two hundred times more than next ranked fine ever imposed on a technology company.  In many an instance, it could sink a company.  Not Facebook, an entity that raked in just under $56 billion last year in profits. Call it an economy of permitted wrong doing, a regime of tolerable violation.  As the sociologist Émile Durkheim posited, the phenomenon of deviance is far from pathological and aberrant: it is, rather “an integral part of all healthy societies”.

Leaving the matter of health to one side, the continuing casualty in this entire affair remains privacy, ignored, abused and held in a kind of formalised contempt.  As The Washington Post editorialised, “The problem is that the nation lacks a strong privacy law, and Congress is sitting on its hands.”

With each wave or cycle of criticism, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in his ineffably asocial manner, promises his own variation of a grand strategic pivot to that rather withered concept of privacy.   In March, he wrote about his “privacy-focused vision for social networking”.  Various anodyne observations make the meat of the announcement. “Privacy gives people the freedom to be themselves and connect more naturally, which is why we build social networks.”  He also noted the caution people had shown towards having a permanent record of online engagement.  “Many people prefer the intimacy of communicating one-on-one or with just a few friends.”

Significant to Zuckerberg’s message is that everything can become a commodity for regulation, because business makes it so. It’s not that he himself cares much for privacy; he knows, however, that people and institutions do, which means he can deliver a service, treating it as part of the marketable armoury of the enterprise.  He acknowledged “that many people don’t think Facebook can or would even want to build this kind of privacy-focused platform – because frankly we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services, and we’ve historically focused on tools for more open sharing.”  Never fear: “we’ve shown that we can evolve to build the services that people really want, including in private messaging and stories.”

Digital pundits attempting to understand Facebook’s marketing strategy are generally of one mind on this: the market incentive gallops through first; principles limp on later.  Bhaskar Chakravorti of the Fletcher School at Tufts University finds little to commend the Facebook packaging in all of this, a vain attempt to deem the change as a “revolutionary solution to his company’s widespread problems with privacy, facilitating fake news and understand deals to share user data.”  Furthermore, changes promise to be slow.

The company’s optimism for change did not sway the FTC, unconvinced by the lack of tempo in the Zuckerberg reform agenda.  The Commission insists that it is bringing in a structural dimension to the changes, an externally mandated one that propels necessary reform.  “Unprecedented new restrictions” are being imposed on Facebook’s business operations.  The entity must create “an independent privacy committee within the company’s board of directors”.

The perennially slippery Zuckerberg is supposedly brought within the chain of accountability.  “He must certify Facebook’s compliance with [the] FTC order – exposing him, personally, to civil and criminal penalties.”  Each quarter would see him “review material privacy risks”.  Nor can he dabble with the membership of the independent privacy committee or assessor.

The confident language of the FTC order belies an assortment of problems that marred their effort to right Facebook’s data breaches.  Even the FTC itself was, to some extent, tainted, given that the investigation was assisted by Chris Hughes, himself a former dorm mate of Zuckberberg from Harvard days and Facebook worthy.  Hughes has his own suggestion for government regulators which have their own compromising flavour of market-before-principle: break up the company, reverse the acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram and any future acquisitions. “Mark Zuckerberg cannot fix Facebook but our government can.”  The sense that Hughes is sporting his own agenda is hard to suppress.

The devil lurking in the omitted detail here is that of any stinging enforcement: lawyers representing Facebook had threatened the FTC that it would “cease settlement talks and send the matter to court”, something the Commission has little appetite for.  Yet another jot for Durkheim’s theory of permissible deviance.

The lawmakers have done little to suggest that changes on the statute books are coming any time soon, leaving states such as California to take the lead in an untidy field.  “We’ve been talking for what, two years about a privacy bill?” put Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, earlier this month.  “Haven’t seen one, don’t know if we’ll ever see one.”

Most prefer indignation as a substitute.  Massachusetts Democratic Senator Edward Markey, for one, was not impressed by the FTC formula.  “The settlement is also notably deficient in its lack of new safeguards that would effectively prohibit similar privacy violations in the future.”

Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley was of similar mind.  “This settlement,” he lamented, “does nothing to change Facebook’s creepy surveillance and its own users & the misuse of user data.”  Even more critically, the issue of accountability was not put forcefully enough.  “It utterly fails to penalize Facebook in any effective way.”  Business as usual, and just to make the point, Zuckerberg made money on the day news of the fine broke.  Privacy breaches do pay.

Top End Travels: The Tiwi Islands, the Catholic Church and King Joe of Melville Island

Lush mangroves, the spray of emerald water from the Timor Sea, the sense of the untainted: the journey to the Tiwi Islands, some 80 kilometres north of Darwin, was crudely advertised as one of the Things to Do in the Northern Territory. “Take the opportunity to have a truly fantastic day out.  Visit Bathurst Island for this special day and a chance to view and buy Tiwi Island artwork and watch the grand footy final.”

The ferry service seemed a sloppy operation. Locals heading back to the Tiwi Islands knew something visitors did not: do not bother pre-purchasing tickets.  Do them on the day itself, and avoid the queue.  On getting to Bathurst Island, the elegant wooden structure that is St. Therese’s Church is swarming with worshippers and guests: a wedding is about to take place.

Background reading on the Tiwi Islands lends one to squirming discomfort.  They are glossily advertised as singular in their indigenous quality.  But this count soon unravels.  The populace on both islands, Bathurst and Melville, became witness to both the Catholic Church and the obtrusive efforts of roughing pioneers of the British Empire.

One such figure was Robert Joel Cooper, a figure who looks like a man who killed everything he came across.  Anybody termed a pioneer in this particularly harsh environment would have to have a certain acquisitive tendency.  What was seen, witnessed and met had to be possessed.  His grave stone in Darwin’s ill-kept Gardens Cemetery suggests the flavour, reminding us of his known title of “King Joe of Melville Island”, “a man of courage and love for everyone”.

He had all the attributes of the ruthless frontiersman: patriarchy, a tendency to sow his not-so-royal oats, a capacity for a certain work regimen, a firm disciplinarian.  He established the buffalo industry on Melville Island, extracting some thousand hides a year.  He took an Aboriginal wife, Alice, in what seemed like a primordial gesture.  One of his brood, Rueben, became a figure of sporting repute, adept and talented across a range of codes and ultimately minting history as a formidable player of Australian Rules Football, known colloquially in these parts as “footy”.

Cooper’s resume reads like that of any figure of conquest deemed important after the fact.  His entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography shows suitable wildness, with hints of admiration from the authors.  Along with his brother George Henry (Harry) Cooper and pastoral lessee E. O. Robinson, he ventured to Melville Island “despite hostile Aborigines”.  He did not seem discouraged in being speared in the shoulder; if anything, it emboldened him to “to abduct four Tiwi Aboriginals”.  While such acts might well have been seen as those of a traditional looter of specimens and possessions, the authors of the entry condescend to suggest that he “treated his captives kindly and learned their language.”  (The rough pioneer as accomplished linguist?  Go figure.)  In 1905, Cooper became the first “settler” since Fort Dundas was abandoned in 1828, using twenty Port Essington Aborigines to allay the fears of any locals as to what his intentions might have been. The ruse worked; he established his name.

Cooper’s profile matched like attitudes adopted to the indigenous populace more broadly speaking.  They were there to be used, abused and infantilised, their autonomy relegated to the level of trinket exotica.  Indigenous parenting was effectively disregarded: the Chief Protector in the Northern Territory, by virtue of the Northern Territory Aboriginals Act 1910, became the “legal guardian of every Aboriginal and every half-caste child up to the age of 18 years” irrespective of whether the child had parents or other relatives.  This came with the power to confine “any Aboriginal or half-caste” to a reserve or Aboriginal institution.  In the Aboriginal Ordinance of 1918, the clutches of the Chief Protector were extended to Aboriginal females from birth to death unless married and living with a husband “who is substantially of European origin”.

Cooper, the hunter, was also Cooper the connected figure.  The Catholic Church, through the figure of Father Francis Xavier Gsell, was convinced by him to focus on neighbouring Bathurst Island to set up a Catholic mission.  The good Father got to work, landing on Bathurst Island in 1911 and buying rights to marry Tiwi girls.  Fiancées and fathers were won over (again, the message of seduction and appropriation are never far) with cloth, flour and tobacco.  With due boastful extravagance, Gsell would recall his time on the island in his memoir, Bishop With 150 Wives.

The influence of Gsell and the church has become part of a formidable public relations exercise executed by the Vatican, masking the effects of what came to be known as inculturation.  Publications of praise such as Australia: The Vatican Museums Indigenous Collection, conveys the impression of church guardianship and preservation of Tiwi tradition.  No tincture of irony is present in the work.  The collection itself boasts an early set of Pukamani poles (tutini) from the islands, grave posts that had made their way into church possession.

Anthropologists were not be left out of the stealing game, and German anthropologist Hermann Klaatsch, the first anthropologist to successfully make his way to Melville Island on September 20, 1906, recounted several feats of theft of Pukamani poles, lamenting that, “due to the smallness of my boat I could not transport more examples.”  The penny, he was relieved, never dropped. “Luckily, we remained unnoticed by the blacks in our grave violating enterprise.”

The account might have been somewhat different.  A certain Harry Cooper, no less the brother of Joe, may well have distracted the islanders by firing shots over their heads while Klaatsch did his deed.  “There, that sounds more like it,” wrote Marie Munkara acidly.

The lingering Catholic presence, through immersion with Tiwi custom as both position and adjustment, has left its own traumas.  The missionaries used “psychological warfare”, insists Munkara, a process which “corroded our ancient beliefs.”  And much more besides.

Having assumed the role of converters and educators, the Church mission on Bathurst Island would eventually be shown in its ghastly manifestations.  Protectors, whether religious or secular, became ready abusers.  In 1993, claims that some 40 children who had been to St. Xavier’s Boys’ School on Bathurst Island had been sexually abused by Brother John Hallett were reported.  Two years later, he received a five year jail sentence, one quashed five months later by the Northern Territory Court of Criminal Appeal.

Cooper’s circle of intimates supplies a direct line to the spoliation of the Tiwi Islands, but more broadly, the indigenous population in the Northern Territory.  Professor W. Baldwin Spencer, the anthropologist who became Chief Protector in 1912, stayed with the King of Melville Island at stages in 1911 and 1912 as he was conducting his own investigations.  There was a meeting of minds: one appropriator to another.

Spencer’s 1912 report furnished the natives with a terrifying vision, executed with brazen cruelty towards children who had, by law, been executively entrusted into his care.  “No half-caste children should be allowed to remain in any native camp, but they should all be withdrawn and placed on stations.”  The mother should, as a matter of necessity, accompany the child “but in other cases, even though it may seem cruel to separate the mother and child, it is better to do so, when the mother is living, as is usually the case, in a native camp”.  Unsurprisingly, Cooper, having obtained the confidence of Spencer, would himself be deputised in this less than protective role.

Visiting the Tiwi Islands has the discomforting effect of moving around in a historical zoo.  The islands are haunted by Church, the Coopers, and civilizational predations.  While the idea of the reserve is now regarded as a vestige of administrative barbarity, the Tiwi message and advertisement is one of false purity and the deceptively unspoilt.  This has the effect of a museum feel with damaged artifacts.  The wondering tourists with heavy wallets, backpacks, hats and sunscreen resemble the plundering pioneers of old.  This time, instead of abducting native residents and doing a spot of grave robbing, they prefer to purchase the art.

Idealisation becomes hard to ignore; the spectator and viewer effectively participate in an exercise of unwarranted elevation and the words of Klaatsch in his Ergebnisse meiner australischen Reise (1907) come to mind.  “When you see the black man walking by, with his erect posture, his head decorated with feathers, with the spear in his right hand, then who cannot help form the impression that you have a ‘savage gentleman’ in front of your eyes, a king in the realm of the surrounding nature, to which he is so well adapted.”

The brochure language does little by way of improvement on Klaatsch’s observation.  In fact, it replicates it as a timeless fib, a gallery caption.  Instead of the “Island of Smiles”, you are greeted by dazed wanderers of the walking wounded playing out a distorted cultural play.  In 1999, attention was brought to the fact that the Tiwi Islands was facing a suicide epidemic.  The then resident medical practitioner, Chris Harrison, noted a number of instance: 100 attempts, meaning that 1 in 16 or 1 in 20 on the islands had attempted some form of suicide.  Nothing to smile at, let alone induce cheer.

When suggestions were made that such rates might be attributed to the influences, amongst other things, of the Church and its predatory practices, officialdom fumed.  As then Bishop Ted Collins explained with irritation, “I think they’re trying to put the blame somewhere outside the people rather than acknowledge that it’s happening within the people.”  How ungenerous of them to think otherwise.

Beside the Bathurst Island cemetery are two men, seemingly hypnotised, finding shelter under a lonely eucalypt.  They gaze aimlessly at a billy boiling over a roughly made fire.  There are no fragrant smells of cuisine, no sense of culinary wonder.  Instead, there is a distinct sound of eggs clanking against the rim, no doubt hard boiled to oblivion.  On the island, there are no food markets or stalls of fresh produce.  Food items, canned and frozen, are imported.  It is the afternoon, and the islanders migrate from their homes to the various shady spots under suitable vegetation.  Lit fires across the island send their bluish plumes towards the sea.  The church, in its wooden majesty, is quiet but for the whirring fans.  The guests have left, the singing done.  We leave Bathurst Island with a sense of loss, and not a smile in sight.