Category Archives: Australia

Convenient Demonologies: Stopping Migrant Caravans

President Donald J. Trump has been engaged with berating human caravans, a spectacle that might have been odd in another era.  At first instance, it all seems fundamentally anachronistic, a sort of history in reverse.  It was, after all, the caravan packed with invasive pioneers that gave the United States its distinct frontier identity, moving with relentless, exterminating purpose in ultimately closing it.

On October 19, some 7,000 Central American migrants, mostly from Honduras and Guatemala, made an attempt to cross the bridge between Guatemala and Mexico. “Una necesidad nos obliga,” came the justification of a 20-year old man to the Washington Post.  The ultimate destination for most: the United States.

Such a necessity does not merely apply to states in social and political decay.  Honduras has historically been an eviscerated client state, its politics those of a marionette of Washington’s interests.  In similar fashion, Guatemala continues to bleed before the preying involvement of Washington in its history.  The US-owned United Fruit Company craved gangsters for capitalism, and the Central Intelligence Agency obliged in protecting its assets, assisting the overthrow of the Arbenz administration in 1954.

The Mexican authorities made various attempts to repel the human stream with violent though modest success.  With the November mid-term elections looming, this small group became electoral dynamite for Trump.  It gave him a chance to militarise matters, announcing the deployment of 5,200 troops to the US-Mexico border.  (Some 5,600 have currently taken their positions.)

The language of General Terrence John O’Shaughnessy, in describing the proposed plan, resembled a description of an armed operation against an elevated enemy. “Our concept of operations is to flow in our military assets with a priority to build up southern Texas, and then Arizona, and then California.”

In the words of the previous US president, Barack Obama, “They’re telling us the single most grave threat to America is a bunch of poor, impoverished, broke, hungry refugees a thousand miles away.”  Film director Spike Lee, presenting his latest effort, BlacKkKlansman, at the Los Cabos International Film Festival in Mexico, was even more unvarnished.  “Agent Orange was on the campaign trail for his fellow gangsters and stirring his base by saying the migrant caravan was his invasion.”

If there is something that tickles and engages the populist sentiment, Trump is up for it.  His “base”, as it were, is up for rocking, chilling and entertaining.  Obama might accuse Trump of being a fan of the “political stunt”, but that is the essence of this administration, a sequence of aggravated rehearsals that have distracted when needed and enraged when required.

Some of these ploys have gone beyond the category of temporary fancy.  Senior policy advisor Stephen Miller had demonstrated that policies of indignation can have purchase at chance moments.  While Trump is always bound to claim copyright over such ideas, it was Miller who proved influential in sketching the selective Muslim ban and the head-scratching policy of separating children from parents at the border.  Immigration is being larded with further, stifling regulations with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirming that a mere 30,000 refugees for resettlement will be accepted by the US in 2019.

Such cruel exercises are the stuff of modern reactionary politics, notably from governments wishing to remove the clammy hand of international law upon them.  Refugees, the outsiders, the marginalised, are ideal fodder to mince and grind.  It is the language of Australian Prime Minister John Howard who, in the federal elections of 2001, insisted that the island continent would become an impregnable fortress against the undesirables coming by sea.  He illustrated this fact by deploying, much in the Trump manner, soldiers against refugees stranded at sea in August 2001.  “We simply cannot allow a situation to develop where Australia is seen around the world as a country of easy destination.”  Given Australia’s lethal natural barriers, the remarks were as incongruous as they were fictional.

It was a policy twinned with the feather brained notion, ruthlessly exploited, that terrorist operatives might sneak their way to Australia on leaky vessels, avoiding more salubrious options.  As Australia’s defence minister Peter Reith brazenly asserted at that time, such boat arrivals “can be a pipeline for terrorists to come in and use your country as a staging post for terrorist activities”.  Howard himself added taste to the fear: “you don’t know whether they have terrorist links or not,” he suggested rather casually to Brisbane’s Courier Mail.

Trump would have approved of such laxity, having himself claimed, with an approach immune to evidence, that there might well be “unknown Middle Easterners” heading to the US in these migrant caravans.  When probed on the matter by CNN’s now bedevilled Jim Acosta, Trump twisted slightly. “There’s no proof of anything but they could very well be.”

Trump’s language of the demonised caravan is also the language of a host of European leaders who have decided to dust off chauvinistic sentiments long held in the archive and ignore any central, humanitarian approach to refugees.  At work here is a species of depraved transatlantic consensus on cruelty propelled by strongman bullying.  Hungary’s Viktor Orbán fantasises about Muslim hordes in an Ottoman invasion redux, a positioning that elevates himself as defender of the West against Islam and the dark forces of the barbaric East. “We don’t see these people as Muslim refugees,” he snorted in an interview with Bild in January this year.  “We see them as Muslim invaders.”

Other states contemplate a further entrenched, barbed wire approach, finding much value in shirking or adjusting the refugee resettlement quota.  Poland can add itself to Hungary in that regard, with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki stating his position plainly to Radio Poland in January that “we will not be allowing migrants from the Middle East and North Africa to enter Poland.”  Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are not far behind.

Like his Australian and several European counterparts, Trump has deployed the instruments of violence and demonization against refugees with a degree of commitment and, it must not be forgotten, success.  It also supplies a fitful reminder how criticising him for doing so remains a more difficult exercise, given the number of states which have gotten a cold regarding refugees.  A certain villainy against humanity has taken hold.

Masquerading Reforms: The Tricks of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

The surgical dismembering of Jamal Khashoggi has sent the military establishments of several countries into a tizz.   Arms manufacturers are wondering whether this is an inconvenient blip, a ruffling moral reminder about what they are dealing with.  Autocratic regimes indifferent to the lives of journalists are wondering whether the fuss taken about all this is merely the fuss endured, till the next bloody suppression.  But importantly, those states notionally constituting the West may have to reconsider the duping strategy that the House of Saud has executed with the deft efficiency of the dedicated axeman.

The ranks are closing in around the Saudi royals, notably the purportedly suspicious son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose status has been given an undue measure of inflation from various powers happy to see reform in the air. The measures taken by MBS have been modest and hardly worth a sigh: the cutting of subsidies, permitting women to drive, and restructuring the economy.  But like a fake article of purchase at an inordinately expensive auction, the prince’s counterfeit credentials are starting to peer through the canvas.

The Crown Prince has been happy to provide a train of examples to suggest to his Western audience that the roots of a liberal Saudi Arabian past are very much in evidence.  To Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, the beguiling royal explained that, “Before 1979 there were societal guardianship customs, but no guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia.”

The tactic is clear: speak of a yesteryear that was jolly and a touch tender, and promise that a current era seemingly harder can emulate it.  Goldberg was good enough to make the observation that the Crown Prince had gotten one thing right from the perspective of his sponsors in Europe, the Middle East and the United States: “He has made all the right enemies.”

In the aftermath of Khashoggi’s disappearance, Mohammed was keen to get a word in to the Trump administration before any firm conclusions could be drawn.  His first port of call was President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and national security adviser John Bolton.  According to The Washington Post, the call featured one theme of justification: Khashoggi was a dangerous, destabilising Islamist, and any tears shed would be premature.

Publically, the Crown Prince played along with the conceit that the death of Khashoggi had been “very painful for all Saudis”, being unjustifiable. Khalid bin Salman, Riyadh’s ambassador in Washington, insisted that the slain journalist had been a friend of the Kingdom, “dedicating a great portion of his life to serve his country.”

The powers, regional and beyond, have taken to douching the image of the Crown Prince, hoping to minimise prospects for any rash action.  Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu might well concede that was happened in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last month “was horrendous and should be duly dealt with”, but the broader strategic interests topped anything connected with a mere journalist’s life.  When a figure corrupted by power reasons with violently inflicted death, he is bound to embrace that word that forgives and justifies all: stability.  “At the same time, it is very important for the stability of the world, for the region and for the world, that Saudi Arabia remain stable.”

Minor appendages of US power such as Australia also find themselves in a tangle about how best to approach the revelations and claimed royal involvement.  Shrouded in history, the officials of distant Canberra also remain gulled, confused, and happy to be led.  The Australian defence sector has been placed in the dim light of deals with the Kingdom.  As legal advocate Kellie Tanter notes, documents obtained via Freedom of Information laws confirm that, between January 1 2016 to December 31, 2017, sixteen military licenses were procured for export of military equipment from Australia to Saudi Arabia.  As is traditional with such freedom of information laws, permit holders, permit numbers and approved goods, consignees, end-users and approved destinations were redacted.

Under questioning from Labour Senator Alex Gallacher last month in a Senate estimates hearing, the Australian Department of Defence was not forthcoming about the nature of the exports to Riyadh.  Official Tom Hamilton refused to disclose their value, citing weak “commercial-in-confidence” reasons.

The pickle Australian policy makers find themselves in lies in the obligations of the Arms Trade Treaty, which insists on a ban on exports of weapons to countries where evidence can be shown of use against civilians.  The Saudi-led campaign in Yemen against the Houthis, featuring a true orgy of civilian-targeted destruction, qualifies.  But Yemen hardly qualifies as a humanitarian disaster in Australian political discourse (distant places have a certain ethical irrelevance to the plodders in Canberra).  To make sure her bases are covered, Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne, in reference not to the war in Yemen but the killing of Khashoggi, suggested that, “All options are on the table”.  It is already clear what option Canberra prefers: ignore the complicity of the House of Saud, and keep the procession of defence contracts going.

Khashoggi himself was clear enough about the nature of the Crown Prince: the royal was entirely self-centred, and any reform would take place in a contrived way.  Concepts of reform within the Saudi royal court can, at best, only be a limited affair, and have nothing to do with deeper social considerations.  Saudi intellectuals, activists and journalists languished in prison even as MBS was being praised for his openness; such projects as the futuristic city of Neom were doomed examples of extravagance rather than forward thinking.

“He has no interest in political reform,” comes Khashoggi, a voice from the grave.  “He thinks he can do it alone, and he doesn’t want really any counter opinion or anyone to share those changes in Saudi Arabia with him.”  Hardly revelatory, and something bound to do little to turn the ladies and men of the security establishments of the West.

The “Economy” of Espionage: Witness K, East Timor and Reframing Whistleblowers

Intelligence and the law ought to work together. Often they do synchronise. Sometimes they clash.   Indeed, it was with some levity that Justice Mason commented on this vexed relationship when ruling on the Australian Secret Intelligence Service’s (ASIS) botched training session at the Sheraton Hotel, Melbourne, in November 1983.

Here’s Mason J: “There is an air of unreality about this stated case. It has the appearance of a Law School moot based on an episode taken from the adventures of Maxwell Smart”. In that case, the High Court decided the identities of the ASIS operatives could be disclosed to the police, but, perhaps, ought not be. While their identities remained concealed, their antics were revealed: thus Mason’s comments.

It’s now three decades later. ASIS operatives are again in the public spotlight and before the courts. Although this time the hijinks has been revealed by one of their own. Moreover, the consequences of this case are more solemn than the Sheraton incident. It is a story about blowing-the-whistle on the entanglement of intelligence, politics and commercial interests. It is also a story about exposing where all three unite, and what happens when they do.

To set the scene some context is in order. It’s 2004. The government of John Howard authorises ASIS to clandestinely bug the offices of the East Timorese Prime Minister and his cabinet in Dili. By doing so Australian officials are able to covertly record internal discussions revealing the East Timorese negotiating position and strategy over the maritime boundaries of an oil and gas treaty known as ‘Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea’ (CMATS). Over its lifetime, that treaty is estimated to have a multi-billion-dollar value, and it was a much-needed source of revenue to the East Timorese government and people.

At this point, keep in mind East Timor is not a hostile country toward Australia. It’s more ally than adversary. Also keep in mind that the Timor bugging operation occurred not too long after the Bali terrorist bombings in Indonesia had killed over 200 people. It also occurred shortly after the bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, by the terrorist group, Jemaah Islamiyah. Terrorism in the region was thus imposed on the minds and screens of the public and security agencies alike. One might, then, ask legitimate questions about where Australia’s intelligence priorities lay and how intelligence resources were allocated.

Key point (1): Private economic priorities tend to prevail. It would appear that ever-malleable concept, national security, became a metonym for private commercial gain. The covertly obtained information clearly gave the Australian government an advantage over the East Timorese, in the negations. Indeed, the direction and authorisation to conduct the Timorese bugging operation was rationalised under the justification that it was in the interests of Australia’s ‘economic well-being’ (could one even say: advantage?). But this is highly contentious. Specifically because the principal beneficiary of the treaty, to which Australia obtained an undue (possibly illegal) advantage through the intelligence gleaned from the negotiations, would have gone to a private consortium led by Woodside Petroleum. But more on this shortly.

First, a deeper question needs addressing: how is covertly bugging the East Timorese government in the interests of Australia’s economic well-being when the pecuniary benefits of the treaty would have gone to a private consortium? Answers, indeed, became rather vague.

When quizzed on this very issue, the former Inspector General of Intelligence and Security (that supposed impartial body responsible for oversight of the intelligence community), Dr Vivian Thom, had trouble explaining the difference between spying for national security and spying for private commercial gain. ‘National economic well-being’, Thom averred, ‘is a broad umbrella’ and the differentiation is not always clear. ‘Australia’s national security, foreign relations or national economic wellbeing are overlapping categories. You cannot always clearly differentiate between the three’, she said.

Matters of setting intelligence priorities are just as nebulous. As Dr Thom stated, it is up to the Executive or National Security Committee of cabinet (NSC) to decide what is an appropriate intelligence requirement. ‘Let us first remember’, Dr Thom reminds us, ‘that it has to reach the threshold of being in accordance with the government’s requirements. The government’s requirements for intelligence are set by the National Security Committee of cabinet’.

Key point (2): It might not surprise, then, that the NSC is hardly what could be called ‘bi-partisan’ in constitution. Consider the implications of the ‘quotation marks’. It’s comprised entirely of members of the incumbent government. It’s chaired by the PM. And, it sits within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.  The leader of the Opposition can be asked to sit in on major decisions, but such courtesies do not extend to any Independents or Greens. Likewise, its decisions do not require the endorsement of the full cabinet. The government’s assurances that an intelligence agency has been directed to act in the national interest must be taken a face value — a fool’s gold standard of accountability and transparency. Just as Dr Thom explained. In her view, ASIS collected intelligence in line with requirements set by the government. In short, ASIS did what the government asks it to do. Nothing to see here. Next question, please.

Little wonder, then, that after becoming aware of the bugging the East Timorese government protested. It declared Australia’s conduct had rendered the treaty invalid under international law because the negotiations had not been undertaken in good faith. When it comes to the economics of espionage, Uberrima Fides, (the notion of acting in the utmost good faith) appears as flexible as national security.

Using parliamentary privilege, Andrew Wilkie made his feelings about the matter quite clear. The result, as he aptly put it, was ‘one of the richest countries in the world forced East Timor, the poorest country in Asia, to sign a treaty which stopped them obtaining their fair share of oil and gas revenue’. East Timor’s Prime Minister, Rui Maria Araujo, concurred, calling such actions a ‘moral crime’, while former President, Xanana Gusmao, referred to the matter as a ‘criminal act’.

Some intelligence personnel held similar qualms about the operation.  But, just pause for a moment to remember what happens to intelligence personnel that take a stand, or blow that shrieking tin-whistle on the alleged improper use of intelligence.

Still memorable is the resignation of former ONA officer, Andrew Wilkie, due to Australia’s use (or ‘alleged’ misuse) of intelligence to justify the case for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. History tells us what happened here. Does Mr Bolt ring any bells? But that inquiry only took twelve years to become public, and then there was nothing to see there either.

One might also consider the cases of Lance Collins and Martin Toohey or even the most despicable circumstances that led to the death of Mervin Jenkins. And these are just cases that are known to the public.

Now consider the case of Witness K. You might have some clairvoyance of where this is going? K is a former distinguished and decorated ASIS Officer that was directly involved in the Timor bugging operation. K initially sought advice from the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) after being ‘constructively dismissed’ from ASIS in 2008. Again, read between the quotation marks.

But K suspected that his dismissal was more in relation to concerns he raised about the East Timor bugging operation. The IGIS advised K that he could seek private counsel regarding a means of redress. (The IGIS denies having ever received K’s complaint.)

K thereafter sought the advice of distinguished lawyer, Bernard Collaery. After investigating K’s claims, Collaery, determined that the Timor operation likely fell outside ASIS’s remit under the Intelligence Services Act 2001, and likely breached section 334 of the Criminal Code of the Australian Capital Territory 2002. (Alleged reason: the instructions to bug the Timorese buildings were given in Canberra). Collaery and K then sought to have the matter brought before the International Court of Justice, at the Hague.

But the mousetrap slapped. On 3 December 2013, under warrant issued by the Attorney General, ASIO raided Witness K’s home and confiscated his passport, while also raiding the offices of Mr Collaery seizing documents and electronic data relevant to the case. K was thus stymied from leaving the country and providing any testimony.

Key point (3): As Senator Rex Patrick, rightly argues, ‘the government is trying to prosecute people for revealing its crimes’. This is fairly clear: The Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions subsequently filed criminal charges against Witness K and Bernard Collaery, for breaching section 11.5 of the Criminal Code and section 39 of the Intelligence Services Act. While the Attorney General theoretically has the power to stop these legal proceedings under the Judiciary Act 1903, he did the opposite.

But, not only did the Attorney General, Christian Porter, consent to the prosecution, the prosecution is now seeking to have the judicial proceeding conducted without commentary, under the provisions of the National Security Information Act 2004. If this occurs, details of the proceeding will remain concealed. The actions of the government may never be heard in an open court. As K might just find out, the law can beat you with its own gavel.

Disturbing point: here is what makes this case so much more distasteful. Aside from the unscrupulous nature of the bugging operation and the persecution of whistleblowers and their legal representatives, there is a glaring impression of government impropriety.

As it turns out, the minister with statutory responsibility for authorising the ASIS bugging operation, former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, went on to consult for Woodside Petroleum after he left parliament in 2008. Note that he took a retainer, too. Several other political links can be established. Again, perceptions are important.  Former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Ashton Calvert later obtained a position on its Board of Directors. Other DFAT officers at the time of the Timor operation, including Brendan Augustin and John Prowse, are alleged to have latter worked for Woodside at the managerial level.1 Likewise, the Howard government’s Minister for Resources and Energy, during the Timor operation, Ian MacFarlane, now sits on the Board of Directors. After resigning from his position as National Secretary of the Australian Labor Party, Gary Grey went on to be Woodside’s principal strategic advisor and later joined the Executive Board.2

It is on this point that the proximity between intelligence, policy, and commercial interests seem to have blurred (dissolved?) considerably. By 2007, Grey was holding the Federal position of Minister for Natural Resources Energy and Tourism in the Gillard government. The inequity is clear. Those that speak out are exiled and punished; others appear to act with impunity.

There are significant implications to be realised here. First, there is a conspicuous absence of options available to intelligence personnel that decide to speak out about any impropriety. Whistleblower protections are somewhat muted.

Some protections do fall under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 (PID). But consider what legal scholars, Keiran Hardy and George Williams, have to say about that:

Requirements under the PID will be particularly difficult to satisfy where the information being disclosed relates to the conduct of intelligence agencies. This is because special restrictions on information connected with intelligence agencies due to the greater risk involved to national security.

Essentially what this means: the Australian intelligence community is excluded from any whistleblower protections.

Likewise, limited protections can be found in section 79 of the Crimes Act that provide for disclosures made in the interests of the Commonwealth. But, disclosures about one friendly nation spying upon another are unlikely to be revealed in the Commonwealth’s interest. Overall there are fairly minimal (at best) protections for whistleblowers that disclose security information because of the special status given to intelligence information, and that broad umbrella—‘national security’.

But the Timor case gives rise to other significant issues One is the possibility of an Australian intelligence agency being abused not just for political ends, but also for private commercial gain. One more is the perception that ASIS activities seem to have been aligned with the commercial interests of a private company. Ultimately, the perceived impartiality of ASIS could be diminished.

My key point: the act of whistleblowing is always framed as one of political rebellion, rather than political reform.

Indeed, perceptions of impropriety become evident by posing the simple question: did this ASIS intelligence operation serve the Australian public interest, those of a minister, or a private company? What becomes apparent is that national security is working as a metonym for commercial economic advantage.

There are significant moral and legal questions that need addressing. Witness K and Bernard Collaery are accused of conspiring to reveal secret information. Yet, there in no evidence available that Australia’s national security has ever been compromised by the incident. Nonetheless, proceedings for the case began in the ACT Magistrates Court on 12 September. It lasted 15 minutes before the directives were adjourned. The Attorney General wants that case to be conducted behind closed doors. The defence wants only that which is essential to the preservation of K’s anonymity and national security heard in confidence.

What is remarkable is that three decades ago, Justice Mason, when ruling on the ASIS—Sheraton incident, may have unwittingly summoned a prophecy. ‘For the future,’ he said, ‘the point needs to be made loudly and clearly, that if counter-espionage activities involve breaches of the law they are liable to attract the consequences that ordinarily flow from breaches of the law.’  Whether his prophecy comes true remains to be seen. The case was due to resume on 29 October 2018, but it has been ‘delayed’ until November 1.

  1. See, Fernandes, C., Island Off the Coast of Asia, Instruments of Statecraft in Australian Foreign Policy, (Monash University Publishing: Victoria, 2018): 125-126.
  2. See Cleary, P. Shakedown, Australia’s Grab for Timor Oil, (Allen & Unwin, NSW, Australia, 2007), pp. 93-94.

The Arms Behind the Invictus Games

The origins of the Invictus Games (“For our Wounded Warriors,” goes the slogan) lies in war.  Wars that crippled and caused depression and despair. The games became a project of grand distraction and worth, a form of emotional bread for servicemen and women.  Do not let wounds, mental or physical, deter you.  Move to the spirit of William Ernest Henley, an amputee who, during convalescence, penned those lines which speak to a Victorian stubbornness before adversity: “I am the master of my fate;/I am the captain of my soul.”

Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, was supposedly inspired by a trip to the United States in 2013 by how, as the Invictus Games Foundation explains, “sport can help physically, psychologically and socially those suffering from injuries and illness.”  The games came into being the next year, embodying “the fighting spirit of wounded, injured and sick Service personnel and personifies what these tenacious men and women and achieve post injury.”

As they opened in Sydney, something rather troubling lurked in the undergrowth of those keen to promote the games.  This was an occasion for the sponsors to hop on in numbers, to insist on that piffle called values.  “We are excited,” goes the organisers’ statement, “to be on the journey to our Games with the fantastic support of our family of Invictus Games partners.  Their support not only helps us deliver a great Games, but also builds initiatives that inspire connected, healthy and active lifestyles for those facing mental health and physical challenges.”

Names like Saab, Leidos, Boeing and Lockheed Martin are prominent corporate entities that stud the show, a sort of murderous family of patrons.  (You were victims of our products; we are thinking of you.)

Company statements attempt to link the Invictus show to the myth of company values and mutual benefit, a point bound to leave those aware of any nexus between arms production and casualty celebration queasy: the company produces the murderous hardware – war is business and stock value after all – but it also brings back the injured into the fold.

Jaguar Land Rover, for instance, notes “a commitment to furthering their legacy of support to the armed forces by helping former military personnel transition into civilian careers through job opportunities.”  The company was proud in recruiting “over 700 ex-service men and women since 2013, creating opportunities to employees globally seeking bright futures in the automotive industry.”

Boeing, for its part, cheers “these warrior-competitors, honour their families, and help educate Australians about the contributions and sacrifices of military personnel here in Australia and around the world.”  As it backs the Invictus Games, the company’s own website smoothly advertises its role in serving “the US Air Force, US Navy, the Marines and many US allies by producing and integrating precise, long-range and focused munitions.”

There are always various moments the promoters could look to in terms of how these warrior competitors perform. What mattered was turning up, and providing a good show of heart string pulling and tear jerking reaction.

During the Sydney Invictus games, several opportunities presented themselves.  There was the wheelchair tennis player Paul Guest, whose PTSD was triggered by the whirring of an overheard helicopter.  Dutch veteran Edwin Vermetten, a fellow competitor, was on hand to comfort him as paralysis took over, offering support by singing Let it Go from the movie Frozen.  “We saw what mateship really looks like,” reflected the Duke of Sussex at his closing speech.

Prior to its opening, Nick Deane, writing in New Matilda, was troubled by the games’ throbbing sub-text, its colosseum air and undertone of manipulation.  “There is a whiff of triumphalism in this (it is in the name of the games).  Their spirit may be unconquered but they have, without exception, been severely beaten.  Giving them a special name does not alter that.”

Servicemen and women for Australia, in particular, were being celebrated, but had suffered in wars that lacked the backbone of necessity, lending a heavily tragic air to the proceedings.  “In an objective assessment of them,” Deane notes, “no service personnel [participating] can legitimately claim to have been wounded in the defence of Australia.”

That entire spirit goes to those who promote the games: the very companies who prove indispensable to the military industrial complex that creates its global casualties.  It is they who are also unconquerable, forever leaving behind the broken in their wake, they who place those in, to remember the words of William Ernest Henley, “a place of wrath and tears” where “the Horror of the shade” looms.

Denials Down Under: Climate Change and Health

Richard Horton’s note in an October 2015 issue of The Lancet was cautiously optimistic.  It described the launch of Doctors for Climate Change Action, led by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) in the lead-up to the UN Climate Change Conference COP21.  The initiative had arisen from a statement endorsed by a range of medical and international health organisations (some 69 in all), specifically emphasising that ancient obligation for a doctor to protect the health of patients and their communities.  But, as if to add a more cautionary tale of improvement, the 2015 Lancet Commission also concluded that the response to climate change would, in all likelihood, be “the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century”.

A more sombre note tends to prevail in such assessments.  The RACP has itself made the observation that:

Unchecked, climate change threatens to worsen food and water shortages, change the risk of climate-sensitive diseases, and increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.  This is likely to have serious consequences for public health and wellbeing.

In recent years, the link to a rise in temperatures has been associated with specific medical events, such as the transmission of infectious diseases.  The Lancet notes one example specific to mosquitoes and their increasingly energised role:

Vectorial capacity of Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus has increased since 1990, with tangible effects – notably the doubling of cases of dengue fever every decade since 1990.

Mona Sarfarty, director of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, could only be gloomy at this month’s International Panel on Climate Change report, releasing a statement rich with claims.

As a physician, I know that climate change is already harming the health of Americans.  Doctors and medical professionals see it daily in our offices, including the effects of extreme weather events like Hurricane Florence to droughts, smoke from large wildfires, spreading Lyme disease, and worsened asthma.

What, then, to be done?  The RACP’s November 2016 position statement outlines a set of canonical objectives still deemed profane by climate change sceptics, notably those coal deep: a decrease in fossil fuel combustion in the generating of energy and transport; a reduction of fossil fuel extraction; decreasing emissions from food production and agriculture; and the improvement of emergency efficiency in homes and buildings.  Not exactly scurrilous stuff, but highly offensive to fossil fuel fiends.

The Morrison Government, hived off from such concerns, is more focused on immediate, existential goals.  Its own electoral survival, shakily built on the reduction of energy costs to pacify a disgruntled electorate, has featured a degree of bullying on the part of the prime minister towards energy companies.  Energy retailers, Morrison warns, must drastically reduce prices from January 1 or face the intrusive burdens of regulation.  The considerations of the planet, and the health of its inhabitants, have been put aside, a point made clear in the Australian government’s response to the IPCC findings.

The note of the report is one of manageable mitigation, shot through with a measured fatalism: “Limiting global warming to 1.5ºC would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”. While admitting that, “Some impacts may be long-lasting and irreversible, such as the loss of some ecosystems (high confidence)” stabilising temperatures at 1.5ºC would at least draw a ring around the catastrophe.  “The avoided climate change impacts on sustainable development, eradication of poverty and reducing inequalities would be greater if global warming were limited to 1.5ºC rather than 2ºC, if mitigation and adaptation synergies were maximised while trade-offs are minimised (high confidence).”

For the Morrison government, these words, admittedly technical and dry, are the stuff of another galaxy, pressed to the outer reaches of the cosmos.  The IPCC report did not, according to the prime minister, “provide recommendations to Australia”, leaving his government to pursue policies to “ensure electricity prices are lower”.

Fossil fuel lobbyists and advocates were comforted by this retreat from environmental reality.  “There is a role,” insisted former Coalition energy minister and Queensland Resources Council chief Ian Macfarlane, “for high-quality Australian coal and it’s compatible with meeting Paris emissions reduction targets.”  An interesting omission on emissions here is that the richer the quality of coal, the more concentrated the carbon.  Poorer quality brown coal, curiously enough, is less of a culprit.  But Macfarlane wants it both ways, if not all ways.  “Our economy depends on the coal industry, and we can have both a strong coal industry and reduce carbon emissions.”

Such dismissive, a deluding behaviour, has been seen to be nothing short of “contemptuous” by a group of Australian health experts, whose Thursday letter in The Lancet suggests a disregard for “any duty of care regarding the future wellbeing of Australians and our immediate neighbours”.

The signatories, including Nobel Laureates Peter Doherty and Tilman Ruff, suggested that, like “other established historical harms to human health [such as tobacco], narrow vested interests must be countered to bring about fundamental change in the consumption of coal and other fossil fuels.”  They urge the adoption of a “call to action”, including the phasing out of existing coal-fired power stations, a “commitment to no new or expanded coal mines and no new coal-fired power stations” and the removal of “all subsidies to fossil fuel industries”.

A damp lettuce response came from the near invisible federal environment minister, Melissa Price, who insists that the Morrison government remains aware of the IPCC findings.  This same minister, when asked about what she is doing in her portfolio, persists in praising the blessings of the good divinity that is coal, a spectacle as curious as a wolf at a sheep convention.  “We have consistently stated that the IPCC is a trusted source of scientific advice that we will continue to take into account on climate policy.”  To account, it would seem, is to ignore; to acknowledge is to dismiss.

Wentworth Blues: Another Nail in the Scomo Coffin

A sign of desperation before the firing squad is jitteriness and the desperate sense that history needs revision.  You were not the one responsible for the debacles and the cockups; everybody and everything else was.  You knew who was guilty, and needed to tell everybody about it.  You bluster, you boast and you stumble; you look more buffoon than statesman; more clown than king.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, along with his deputy Josh Frydenberg, had just witnessed an event without modern parallel in Australian politics: a by-election swing against the sitting government without peer, the unlosable seat that slipped through the fingers of the conservative establishment.  More to the point, a seat in Sydney with a conservative pedigree stretching over a century, had fallen to an independent, the former Australian Medical Association President Kerryn Phelps who managed to tick the necessary boxes of a social progressivism alloyed to the centre (think climate change, an appropriately adapted energy policy, lukewarm humanitarianism).

Morrison’s nerves were less those of Leonidas’ three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae facing the Persian forces than a cavalry charge before modernised panzer divisions.  Beside him was the Liberal’s candidate, Dave Sharma, who seemed to become a puppet at points, drawn to the prime minister, then held tightly to avoid escape.  “Today,” he explained, “is a tough day.”  The prime minister droned, he explicated and he, tediously, hoped that his troops would be regenerated by a tonic of Liberal values.

It did not take him long to move into a manic exposition about the greatest threat of all: the Labor Party’s Bill Shorten.  Ignore, suggested Morrison, the bloodletting in his own party, or that the previous prime minister had held the seat of Wentworth and was currently gloating in New York with a Cheshire Cat’s grin.  Ignore the near fastidious bankruptcy of his government on matters environmental, on the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding on Nauru, on the dangers of fiddling with embassies, notably when involving the Israel-Palestine issue.

Then, just before dashing for the exit, he suggested that those values held by his own party were those shared with the war ravaged participants of the Invictus Games.  “Tonight I had the great privilege of joining those, and I don’t want to make a political point of this, at the Invictus Games but Invictus is all about the indomitable spirit. But you know we’ve got an indomitable spirit in this party.”

For all Morrison’s tawdry and pedestrian efforts, he claims to be rather good on the marketing side of things, better briefed on the more instinctive side of the voters.  He was part of a tourism campaign that produced the vulgar tits-and-bum “So where the bloody hell are you?” campaign.  He mined prejudice as Immigration Minister, becoming the standard bearer for the “Stop the Boats” policy of the Abbott government.  (Refugees in detention centres in perpetuity good; refugees finding their way to Australia risking drowning, bad.)

In a vain effort to seduce the Australian voter, he has attempted to make analogies that would be far better kept at a gathering of withered, porridge-fed minds.  Forrest Gump was recruited.  “With independents,” Morrison condescendingly lectured those on the Wentworth electoral roll, “you certainly don’t know what you are ever going to get.”  It all had to with that “good old box of chocolates – you never know what you are going to get when it comes to voting independent.”

Another contemptible effort on the prime minister’s part to mollify estranged Australian voters came through Twitter, featuring a video where he discusses the “Canberra bubble” and its hermetic repellence.  “The Canberra bubble is what happens down here when people get caught up with all sorts of gossip and rubbish and that’s probably why most of you switch off any time you hear a politician talk.”  With jaw dropping incredulity, he proceeds to explain that, “What’s important is that we have to stay focused on the stuff that really matters and is real.”

In discussing that reality, Morrison puts one foot up as he leans against his desk, ever workmanlike, and throws candied optimism at his pretend audience.  The job figures have been excellent; and the legislation reducing the company tax rate for small and medium businesses to 25 percent has been passed.  “We’re just gettin’ on with it.”  Except in areas where he is not, a point that Phelps hammered home during her campaign.

The Canberra bubble is vogue for politicians watching the rapid demise of their job prospects.  “Outside the Canberra bubble,” tweeted Nationals MP Darren Chester back in August, “there’s 25 million Australians dealing with real issues today.  I’m appalled and bitterly disappointed with the events in Parliament House today.”  Chester could not wait to return to Gippsland “and spend time with some normal people.”  Notably, his own party is considering going the way of the Liberals in what will feature the beheading of yet another leader in federal politics, this time the cadaverous pale-sheeted Michael McCormack.  His own reality – survival before the bull of Barnaby Joyce’s next charge – is to increase his credentials by bribing the electorate: some 16 projects funded by the $272 million regional growth fund.

The gruesome reality for “Scomo” is that Shorten need merely hibernate till the next federal election, a bear waiting nature’s call to awake and feed.  Forget dull, data heavy policy announcements, the yawn promoting press conferences, the debates that induce both soporific tendencies and amnesia. Forget the sloganeering from ALP President Wayne Swan, who boasts that the current cohort has the most comprehensive suite of policies any opposition has ever had.  Perhaps, and here the Labor Party have form, the suicidal impulse that seems to manifest a few weeks prior to an election, can be averted.  This is a government that has been generous to a fault in gifting the opposition the next electoral victory.

Truth be told, Sharma was composed and chivalrous, even if he did feel, subsequently, that the former member of Wentworth might have done better. (A Turnbull letter of endorsement? A smile of approval?)  Qualities of graciousness and sporting acknowledgment are alien in the modern Australian political scene, and it is perhaps appropriate that he was rehearsing for his repeat performance come 2019, when the Morrison government risks being buried without honours or much fanfare.

No one needs to be romantic or even hopeful that this result will shatter the withering seal that is Canberra.  Phelps is sincere enough to wish for a change in Australian politics, though it is clear that such desires can be misplaced. Canberra draws in fecund idealists and leaves them barren.  It chews them, masticates over them, and spits out the undesirables.  It also encourages the massacre of leaders in deranged orgies of bloodletting, witnessed by media spectators with ringside seats.

The current state of politics is corroded beyond recognition, picked bare by the party apparatchiks, focus group philosophy and a staleness that has turned many voters into the mould of apathy and disgust.  Should the new member of Wentworth be firm, resolutely irritating for the voters of her seat, she would have at least taken that first step to make Parliament do something it has long ceased to do: be representative.

Vanquishing the Republic: Harry and Meghan in Australia

The establishment of a republic… means insurrectionary war, it means the desolation of a thousand households.  When the question shall arise, it will be determined… by balls from cannon and from musket, by grape and shrapnel, by bayonet and by the sword.

— Sir Alfred Stephen, NSW Legislative Council, June 16, 1887

The republic has tended to be a dormant idea in Australian politics for decades.  The People’s Advocate, a Sydney-based publication, was unduly optimistic in its June 17, 1854 note which spoke of, “The independence of the Australian colonies” being more than an “abstract idea.  It is certainly approaching as it is the dawn of tomorrow’s sun.”  Occasional flashes of republican sentiment can be found in the historical record, but these have been, in the main, suppressed in favour of a monarchy housed in residences ten thousand miles away.

In 1999, the Republic idea was essentially buried by vote, a feat not without some genius on the part of the then Prime Minister, John Howard. Sensing that more than a few Australians were keen to detach the British dominion from its monarchical moorings, Howard first initiated a “people’s convention” which, he sensed, would botch up any prospect of advancing a decent model to vote upon.  The Republican grouping, distant and smug, was (and here, history is instructive) led by the now deposed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Pro-monarchist groups such as Australians for Constitutional Monarchy pursue a line not merely paradoxical but absurd.  The British Crown is raised to the level of sacrosanct mother, protector, and unifier. How this squares with sovereignty is a baffling exercise of self-delusion, but one happily embraced by such individuals as Gregory R. Copley, President of the International Strategic Studies Association based in Washington, D.C.

As the globe is fractured by bursts of populist dissatisfaction, suggested Copley at the Annual Conference of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy held at the New South Wales Parliament earlier this month, monarchy was indispensable. “It is an appropriate time, then to ask where Australia would be today, without the enduring presence of the Crown – our most visible icon of sovereignty and unity — in Australian life.”  In a paean to monarchical systems of government, Copley goes dew-eyed at the fate of monarchies in the 20th century, whose collapse “was the precursor of today’s global framework.” This unfortunate turn of events left “a global strategic framework which was inherently fragile.”

The visit by Prince Harry and his new wife, Hollywood second (third?) tier actress Meghan Markle, Duke and Duchess of Sussex, has turned the Australian public — or a good part of it at least — to a grotesque, gibbering sight. This is not sovereignty extolled but emotional slavery demonstrated, the psyche imprisoned in a historical, hereditary system of government. There have been scenes of imbecilic insensibility as the couple do the rounds. Young mothers, with their barely sentient offspring, have been waiting at strategic points for the young couple as they arrive at various venues. Bad weather has proven no deterrent.

People of all age groups have gathered, phones at the ready, to take those snaps that will be shared with the enthusiastic dissemination of a nymphomaniac with venereal disease.  Hours have been expended in the hope to gain a fleeting glance of the royal candy. Even more unforgivably, nominally respectable journalists have taken to holding flags in anticipation, becoming the very spectacle they are covering.

The words of the Dubbo speech by Prince Harry have been poured over with a reverence befitting subjects rather than citizens, an immaturity that does much to dispel notions of a firm egalitarian sensibility.  The prince was, after all, speaking to “the salt of the earth”, the “backbone of this country.”  Harry had turned shrink — or at least a patient healed by one. The rural occupants of Australia’s farming communities, earth’s salt and national backbone, duly listened. “We know that suicide rates in rural and remote areas are greater than in urban populations and this may be especially true among young men in remote regions.” He spoke of “one huge community and with that comes an unparalleled internal support and understanding.”

The Duke and Duchess were being portrayed as the accessible royal couple, and those who dare venture into the outback. “The best part about visiting country Australia,” claimed the prince, “is the people.”  Well and good, but Harry was merely following a scheduled pattern stretching back to 1954 when his grandmother made Dubbo a stopping point to visit her subjects, all part of visiting “her people”.

Former residents made their return just to see another royal visit. The Dubbo-born sisters Elizabeth Atkin and Sharon Askew (nee Hind) expressed their gushing desire to revisit some family folklore, given that their grandmother had been asked to prepare a posy of flowers for Queen Elizabeth on that Dubbo tour. “It’s because of this history and it is important to us,” explained Atkin, “it has become your family folk-law.” The Daily Liberal, one of the papers covering the events in Dubbo enticed readers to search through any pictures that might have been snapped of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex during their “Picnic in the Park.” “See if… you’re in our pictures.”

Some local must always be selected for the occasion, the point where the royal meets subject, and that subject, it so happens, was Luke Vincent of Buninyong Primary School. Of immediate interest to the child was the Prince’s beard — the royal facial hair within hand’s reach. Principal Anne van Dartell was beside herself in ecstatic observation; Luke’s mother, Danielle Sparrow, “just started crying and shaking” being “happy because that’s just Luke and the love he shows.” The lachrymose campaign had taken hold. “That’s our Lukey, the Lukey-love-effect, he’s just full of lots of love.”

The visit had brought out the obsessives, the surveillance vultures keen to capture every single moment of the tour.  An Instagram fan page dedicated to the couple notes with somewhat creepy insistence each “special moment”, a “pretty much minute by minute” account on “cute” scenes. The vanquishing of any Australian republic, without bayonet, cannon or musket, has been assured, not merely because of a continued desire to see monarchy as the tit of reassurance, but its youth as modern celebrities of a social media world which has sacralised them as creatures to be revered rather than mocked.

  • Related: “Canada’s Head-of-State.”
  • Evacuating Nauru: Médecins Sans Frontières and Australia’s Refugee Dilemma

    It is an organisation not without its problems. Conceived in the heat of idealism, and promoted as the vanguard of medical rescue and human rights advocacy, Médecins Sans Frontières has had its faults.  Its co-founder Bernard Kouchner went a bit awry when he turned such advocacy into full blown interventionism.  As Nicolas Sarkozy’s foreign minister, his conversion to politicised interventionism in places of crisis went full circle.  He notably split from MSF to create Doctors of the World, where he felt imbued by the spirit of droit d’ingerence, subsequently given the gloss of “humanitarian intervention”. With its mischief making properties, such interventions have manifested, usually in the guise of wealthy Western states, from the Balkans to Africa.

    MSF, at least in its operating protocols, is meant to be solidly neutral and diligently impartial.  But neutrality tends to be compromised before the spectacle of suffering.  Bearing witness disturbs the mood and narrows objective distance.  On June 17, 2016, by way of example, the organisation stated that it could not “accept funding from the EU or the Member States while at the same time treating the victims of their policies! It’s that simple.”  Central to this, as Katharine Weatherhead explained in an analysis of the organisation’s stance, is the “ethic of refusal” and témoignage, “the idea of being a witness to suffering.”

    Australia’s gulag mimicry – a prison first, justice second mentality that governs boat arrivals – has done wonders to challenge any stance of distance humanitarian organisations might purport to have.  To see the suffering such policies cause is to make converts of the stony hearted.  What matters in this instance – the MSF condemnation of Australia’s innately brutal anti-refugee policy on Nauru – is its certitude.

    The Australian government has taken the high, icy road and left the UN Refugee Convention in shambolic ruin; it insists, repeatedly, that refugees are to be discriminated against on the basis of how they arrive to the country; it also suggests, with a hypnotically disabling insistence that keeping people in open air prisons indefinitely is far better than letting them drown.  (We, the message goes, stopped the boats and saved lives!)

    MSF, which had been working on the island since November 2017 primarily providing free psychological and psychiatric services, was given its marching orders by Nauru’s authorities last week.  Visas for the organisation’s workers were cancelled “to make it clear there was no intention of inviting us back,” explained MSF Australia director Paul McPhun.

    A disagreement about what MSF was charged with doing developed.  The original memorandum of understanding with the Nauru government tends to put cold water on the suggestion by Australia’s Home Affairs Minister that MSF had not been involved in supplying medical services to the detainees on the island.  In dull wording, the agreement stated who the intended recipients of the project would be: “People suffering from various mental health issues, from moderate to severe, members of the various communities living in the Republic of Nauru, including Nauruan residents, expatriates, asylum seekers and refugees with no discrimination.”

    It was obvious that the revelations would eventually become too much for either the authorities of Australia or Nauru to tolerate.  Having been entrusted with the task of healing the wounds of the mind, MSF’s brief was withdrawn after the organisation’s findings on the state of mental health of those in detention. “Five years of indefinite limbo has led to a radical deterioration of their medical health and wellbeing,” claimed McPhun in stark fashion to reporters in Sydney on Thursday.  “Separating families, holding men, women and children on a remote island indefinitely with no hope of protection except in the case of a medical emergency, is cruel and inhumane.”

    Undertaking a journey from war torn environs and famine stricken lands might well inflict its own elements of emotional distortion and disturbance, but Australia’s policy of keeping people isolated, distant and grounded took it further.  It was penal vindictiveness, a form of needless brutal application.

    In McPhun’s sharp assessment, “While many asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru experienced trauma in their countries of origin or during their journey, it is the Australian government’s policy of indefinite offshore detention that has destroyed their resilience, shattered all hope, and ultimately impacted their mental health.”

    The organisation has made it clear that Canberra’s insistence that “offshore detention” remains somehow humanitarian is barely credible, there being “nothing humanitarian saving people from the sea only to leave them in an open air prison on Nauru.”

    Such a cruel joke has turned the members of MSF into a decidedly militant outfit.  “Over the past 11 months on Nauru,” states psychiatrist Beth O’Connor, “I have seen an alarming number of suicide attempts and incidents of self-harm among the refugee and asylum seeker men, women and children we treat.”  Particularly shocking were the number of children enduring the effects of traumatic withdrawal syndrome “where their status deteriorated to the extent they were unable to eat, drink, or even to walk to the toilet.”

    With such observations, there is little surprise that Nauru’s government, which was evidently seeking to find an ally and an alibi, felt slighted.  The doctors had to go.  “Although MSF claimed to be a partner to Nauru and the Nauruan people instead of working with us,” came the government justification, “they conspired against us.”  The government was no longer inclined “to accept the concocted lies told about us purely to advance political agendas.”

    What the government statement also insisted upon was the comparative advantage the hosted refugees and asylum seekers had.  They had their own tissue of mendacity to proffer.  “The facilities, care, welfare and homely environment offered to refugees and asylum seekers are comparable or better than what other refugees and asylum seekers across the globe receive.”  For that to make any sense, a comparative study on suicides, psychological corrosion and trauma would have to be done across the world’s refugee camps.  In those terms, Nauru’s performance, aided and abetted by their Australian sponsors, has been ghoulishly stellar.

    Australian Complicity: Nauru and Silencing Journalism

    Journalism is getting something of a battering in Australia.  At the parliamentary level, laws have passed that would be inimical to any tradition versed in the bill of rights.  (Australia, not having such a restraining instrument on political zeal, can only rely on the bumbling wisdom of its representatives.) At the executive level, deals have been brokered between Canberra and various regional states to ensure minimum coverage over the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.  Secrecy is all fashion.

    Adding to this is the triumph of a certain breed of lazy, compliant journalist.  The image of the ragtag journo long lost in the speculative tripe of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop has been replaced by a tedious, technocratic lout who should, time permitting, be put out to a distant pasture.  We are now dealing with compromised dispatches, press releases that yoke the reasoning and analysis that would barely pass muster in the lower grades of a half credible primary. The investigative journalist has, for the most part, disappeared, leaving a few brave scribblers to toil in the wilderness.

    The corporate angle on this is fairly unremitting: wedged between the Murdoch behemoth (populist, ragged Herald Sun, or the screaming ideological The Australian) and the Fairfax machine (given a progressive tag), the options for the enterprising press writers are narrow.  From the perspective of covering the brutal refugee policy Australia insists on pursuing, the Murdoch press tend to earn the medals of the island authorities in Manus and Nauru.  Fairfax shuffles along in the background with the occasional note of condemnation.

    The restrictions placed on covering the policy of the Australian government, and those paid subsidiaries on Nauru and Manus remain on par with the secrecy protocols of the Cold War.  Since its inception, the Australian policy towards boat arrivals ultimately sent to those isolated island reaches has smacked of colonial patronage, with the regulations to boot.

    Elevated to the levels of high secrecy under the term Operation Sovereign Borders, “operational details” in dealing with boat arrivals, as they are termed, have been a matter of clandestine value. The degrees of control have also extended to covering camp conditions, a matter policed by brutish little laws such as the Australian Border Force Act 2015 (Cth).  Under that bit of legislative nastiness, those who obtain “protected information” in the course of their employment in the border force apparatus can be punished for two years for disclosing such information except to authorised personnel.

    Prior to the passage of the ABFA, the Australian government made it its business to hound a number of Save the Children employees working in the Nauru Regional Processing centre. Their sin had been to disclose information on the lamentable conditions in the centre.

    The levels of media management regarding reporting on the conditions in Nauru has been extreme.  Amnesty International has called this a veritable “wall of secrecy”, designed to conceal “a system of deliberate abuse”.  The Nauru government has periodically limited access by journalists to the island, a process made craftier by the hefty visa application fee.  In 2014, the non-refundable fee of $200 jumped to $8000.

    Over the last few years, the small island state has insisted on controlling the journalistic pool.  A conspicuous target here has been the ABC itself, which was banned from entering the country to cover the Pacific Islands Forum in September.  In a government statement posted in July, “It should be noted that no representative from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation will be granted a visa to enter Nauru under any circumstances.”

    This decision had been occasioned by “this organisation’s blatant interference in Nauru’s domestic politics prior to the 2016 election, harassment of and lack of respect towards our President in Australia, false and defamatory allegations against members of our government, and continued biased and false reporting about our country.” Other outlets, such as the more palatable A Current Affair, The Australian and Sky News, have received no such accusations.

    Sky News journalist Laura Jayes even had the high visa application fee waived by the Nauru government when seeking entry in 2016.  She also revealed who the main targets of such a ruinously costly regime were: “Nauru officials would openly admit the fee was to deter the ABC and Guardian.”

    The thin-skinned disposition of those authorities was not condemned by the then Turnbull government, a point unsurprising given the close media management being conducted between Australia and Nauru. What has since transpired is that suggestions by officials in Canberra that Australia’s role in the affair is minimal must be taken with a pinch of coarse salt.

    A document tendered to federal court as part of a Nauruan medical transfer case is enlightening. “The governments of Australia and Nauru,” it goes, “will agree to media and visitor access policy and conditions of entry, taking into consideration the requirements of section 13 of the Asylum Seekers (Regional Processing Centre) Act 2012.”  Those “seeking access to a Centre will be required to obtain permission from the Secretary of Justice and to sign a media access agreement.” Nothing, it seems, must be left to chance in letting Australians know what is taking place in those outposts of torment and misery.

    Parasitic and Irrelevant: The University Vice Chancellor

    They are some of the most remunerated officials of one of Australia’s most importantly lucrative sectors, drawing huge “packages”, as they are termed, for little more than ribbon cutting, attending meetings and overseeing policies that, if implemented, will have to be reversed at some point.

    The modern university is neither corporation nor government agency. But it has the worst elements of both, endorsing the rapacity of the former without its benefits, and the bureaucracy of the latter without its purpose.  In it, a hybrid has developed, one that has, in turn, brought forth further creations of horror: the pro-vice chancellor and the deputies, a praetorian guard of management heavies with pygmy visions and armies of support staff who have not set foot in a library in years.

    Their entire existence – this draining cabal that hoards and feeds – is premised on the irrelevant and the intangible: a visit to a counterpart university in a country they can barely name, signing a memorandum of understanding they will never read again, overseeing policies they neither understand nor care to.  That’s the “vision thing”, the bollocks of strategy that has seen Australia’s 38 public university vice-chancellors paid an average of $890,000 in 2016, with 12 earning more than $1 million.

    The University of Melbourne’s Glyn Davis, whose vice-chancellorship is coming to an end next month, has proven reflective on that point.  In an August issue of the Australian Financial Review, he was willing to certain observations “in the certain knowledge they will be of no use whatsoever.”  (Uselessness is always a good start, and shows the immediate hurt expressed by those who think themselves useful.)

    One such kernel was the sense of not being needed, an obvious point the vice-chancellors have been attempting to overcome since they became recipients of university largesse.  Sensibly, the professorial class at the university fought off a professional full-time vice-chancellor role “for nearly 80 years”.  Australia’s famous military commander and part-time chancellor of University of Melbourne Sir John Monash “quit in frustration, famously declaring that he found it easier to organise an army on the Western Front than to run a university.”

    That essence of not needing the appointment immediately distorts and corrupts.  “So to endure, the vice-chancellor must show she brings some benefit to justify the inconvenience.”  This is where Davis hits his stride. The vice-chancellor must always claim relevance, importance, and need, even if there is little to show for it. He claims that “much vice-chancellorial work is external and therefore largely invisible to the professors – representing the university to government and business, enthusing the alumni, touching donors for money.”

    Davis, in other words, is suggesting that the modern vice-chancellor is pimp, wooer and crawler, an individual who is not necessarily an academic superstar who will lead the academe but a promoter who will seek to advance the emptiness of a world view jotted down by business planners.

    Central to that promotion is something that no vice-chancellor can ever resist babbling about: strategy.  “Guiding the priorities that mean we do some things but not others, that we ensure the university articulates, and lives by, its aspirations.”  Strategy is where the fare is earned, the supper sung for, as it “requires a full armoury of skills – values, vision, clarity, communication, an implementation plan, evaluation, reporting back.”  Is this a university Davis is writing about, or some emaciated version of IBM or Microsoft?

    When things go wrong, the university politburo digs in, retaining the most god-awful flunkeys to construct meaningless ripostes to what was, to begin with, meaningless.  The VC, PVCs and Deputy PVCs are all, essentially, running an institution into the ground, but want reassurance in doing so that they have the backing of people who are, in all likelihood, going to be their victims.

    They seek complicity, encouragement and backing.  Staff surveys are sought by vice-chancellors on the almost meaningless suggestions that they care what university workers actually think.  (They don’t, and never will.  Estranged, they operate in the celestial dimension of self-serving mantras and false gains.)

    One such recently conducted survey at RMIT, which was encouraged by senior managers with a fretful insistence typical of a suicidal creature who knows he will succeed, merely served to demonstrate that university managers (turncoat or failed academics, for the most part) are disliked, are deemed to be lacking a vision, and really ought to be done away with.  The response from the vice-chancellor in question to such failings?  Keep up the good work, staff! You know you are liked.  Many a bucket to expectorate into was procured at that endorsement.

    Davis’ replacement is Professor Duncan Maskell, senior pro-vice chancellor (planning and resources) at the University of Cambridge.  It is significant to note why Maskell is taking up the reins.  Introduced as an academic expert in bacterial infections of livestock and people, it is clear why he enchanted the selection panel.  “He was,” noted the Australian Financial Review, “co-founder of Arrow Therapeutics, which was sold to AstraZeneca in 2007, a sale reportedly worth $150 million.”

    University of Melbourne Chancellor Allan Myers supplied the standard form for such appointment: Maskell was “outstanding” as an academic, but what mattered were the numbers, the turnovers, the promotions, the management.  “He has responsibility for a turnover of approximately £2 billion per annum and is also responsible for Cambridge’s major building program”.

    It is exactly such sentiments that treat the vice-chancellor, not as an intellectual leader but as an overpaid pseudo-corporate official.  We are told repeatedly that education is a matter best left to the CEOs and the administrators, not the teachers and scribblers. It further explains why universities – take RMIT as an example – prefer an individual who lacks any higher degrees but who supposedly boasts the pedigree of a former Microsoft employee.  Such a being knows “how to help the university decide what our fees should be, how to market us more effectively – where to play and how to win.”  Never mind that job losses, higher fees, and cut-backs are the result, or that students get poorer returns.

    The upshot here is that the university vice-chancellor is not only meaningless at best, but parasitic and even destructive at worst.  Drawing life from the institution he or she purportedly protects but is, in truth, mauling, such a creature is best done away with.  Removing this gargoyle of encumbrance would also enable those who actually do the work – the research and teaching – to finally shave off an entire layering of dead wood that lies heavy upon the spirit of learning.  Vision, indeed.