Category Archives: Australia

Sodding the Australian Voter: Accidental Prime Ministers and Political Indulgence

It is a continuation of Malcolm Turnbull by other means.  The new Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison and his freshly appointed Deputy, Josh Frydenberg have ensured that the “insurgents”, as Turnbull deemed them, did not come through. Both were respective architects – failed ones at that – of the company tax plan, voted down in the Senate, and the National Energy Guarantee, torn up by the Liberal Party room.  Both claim that this was a “new generation” of leadership.  These claims were extraordinary in their repudiation of reality.

Turnbull, who has promised a swift exit from federal politics, was never a comfortable fit with the Liberal Party.  He was never counted amongst them.  “It was, and always has been,” observed Annabel Crabb, “the inability of the party to accept collectively that Malcolm Bligh Turnbull is one of them.”  He did not drink from the same watering holes, nor dine at the same venues with hack and operator.  And he had more than flirted with the big power stalwarts of the enemy: the Labor Party.

Turnbull started with a bruising entry into federal politics, overthrowing incumbent MP Peter King in the seat of Wentworth in the 2004 pre-selection process.  He was a beast who terrified the Liberal party apparatchiks.  Through the course of his political stint, he was keen in a field deemed toxic by his colleagues: climate change.  Never the party man, never true blue, and only reluctantly pro-coal.  He called in the consultants, the experts, the various figures who would give him options. But in politics, numerous options can be fatal to the vision; certitude demands distillation.

On the ABC, Crabb seemed to worship Turnbull’s multitasking, merchant banker-barrister brain as it was making its exit from Parliament.  In conversation with fellow journalist Andrew Probyn, both reflected on his achievements as the figure who was a creaky politician but could still doodle on his phone and master the agenda of a meeting while reading an article on Roman architecture.  They admired his doggerel as a student, which sounded awfully like a steal from Rudyard Kipling.  (Lawyers can be such frightful plagiarists.)

None of the individuals who found themselves in the leadership roles had articulated any specific vision of the country prior to entering the party room where the bloodletting process was ceremonially affirmed.  Now, a man ruthless as immigration minister (“Stop the Boats” was Morrison’s crude sloganeering contribution that served to show the Australian voter that he would be remorseless about irregular arrivals), and blustering as treasurer, has become the accidental prime minister.

The media circus has also been high up on the detail, a reminder about how closely tied the scribblers and talking heads are with the political establishment in this country.  Journalists were beamed from the respective electorates of the various candidates armed with straw poll methods, taking snatches of opinion from the café patron, the dog walker, and, in one instance, the bowls club.  Photos of the contenders were shown: few were recognised.  Turnbull was being assassinated by the unknown and the anonymous.

At his outgoing press conference, Turnbull got interesting after the usual platitudes.  These involved references to the very policies he assisted fueling: suspicions about race, big-end of town back-rubbing, reactionary tendencies, and ambivalence to climate change within his own party.  He spoke about the greatness of Australia, and was hardly modest about that.

Then came observations about the coup within his own party, the red mist that had fogged up Parliament for an entire week.  “It was extraordinary. It was described as madness by many. I think it is difficult to describe it any other way.”  It was the madness that involved supporters of challenger Peter Dutton and long term rival Tony Abbott “who chose to deliberately attack the government from within… because they wanted to bring the government down.”  He mentioned the influential outside forces which had also had their disruptive say in the process.

The saboteurs, in falling five votes short for their intended candidate, have gotten their comeuppance – richly deserved spoliation that will, in time, enable the opposition Labor Party to canter to victory.  Turnbull bent over listening to the conservative factions, and capitulated.  On capitulating, he was accused of being weak.  Such village idiot navigation culminated in this week’s vicious machinations, a true variant of what Kingsley Amis described as a “Sod the Public” policy.

It was violence without need, a curious attempt to achieve a false unity that, in any case, has not been achieved.  These Cassius types, without the same tutored way, have been attempting to identify false lines: this was a disagreement between left and right within the party, leaving the centre to come up for air.  A more simple answer is in the offing: it was a matter of personalities with oceanic gulfs between them.  Old scores needed to be settled; revenge was to be exacted from the previous knifing in 2015 inflicted on then prime minister and Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott.

The divisions within the party suggest the split in the right that has proven lethal.  And it was unnecessarily encouraged.  Senator Mathias Cormann’s intervention was vital and undertaken with “great sadness and a heavy heart” (treachery tends to be such) but premised on a capitulation to sentiment.  In shifting loyalties from Turnbull to Dutton, he stood on the grass of Canberra’s parliamentary lawn along with other mind changing loyalists, ministers Mitch Fifield and Michaelia Cash, suggesting that the prime minister had lost the confidence of the party.  This was highly questionable: at that point, a mere 20 signatures had been obtained to force a vote (or a spill, as it’s termed) on his leadership.

The damage done by backing the stalking horse of Dutton yielded a Turnbull-lite solution, when it was intended to yield Dutton, the shock jock’s choice and Murdoch press punt.  Morrison, Australia’s first Pentecostal prime minister, will hope that evolution (or the divine) gifts him eyes in the back of his head.  In the meantime, the Australian voter can sod off.

Hijacked Democracy: Normalised Instability in Australia

You can sense Australian politicians – or at least a good number of them – fuming at being cobbled together with the counterparts of other states deemed less worthy of the tag of “stable”.  Take, for instance, entertaining Italy, tenaciously temporary about its leaders.  “We said,” reflected a rueful Senator Derryn Hinch of the Justice Party, “‘how often they change their governments, how often they changed their leaders, what a stupid country and how irresponsible.”

The Italy of the antipodes (without the colour); a state so obsessed with leadership change that it requires a session of bloodletting every two years or less.  This is a country incapable of keeping stable governments, a state where the party system holds true over democratic instincts.  The pack mentality of committing parricide has come to the fore again, with Malcolm Turnbull facing the last hours of his prime ministership.

Turnbull has fought, setting his own expectations before the coup plotters: show that there is enough support for a new leader.  Forty-three signatures were required, thereby outing the plotters.  (At this writing, the forty-third signature has been obtained.)  For such anti-Turnbull figures as Senator Eric Abetz, this was simply poor form: how dare the Australian prime minister ask who was being disloyal?

The other demand from Turnbull was getting advice from the Solicitor General on the eligibility of his executioner-in-chief Peter Dutton to continue to sit in parliament. The issue there is whether Dutton has benefitted from the commonwealth in a way that is in conflict with his duties as a parliamentarian.  That advice, needless to say, has been unequivocal.  Only the High Court could rule on that with any certainty.

For these political creatures, the party ballot comes before the electoral vote, a situation that has an odd echo of the Holy Roman Empire rather than a modern democracy.  This, in the absence of wars (at least internal ones), disruptions to the local currency, and a collapse of the financial system, suggests a certain suicidal eccentricity on the part of Australian politicians.

It has been a disastrous sequence of events for that unfortunate system known as Australian democracy.  As it lurches to the next faction (the Founding Fathers in the United States had much to say about those, establishing a Republican system that would prevent this nonsense), we face the prospect of the executive being decapitated yet again.  The genius of the US example, at least, was to keep the executive out of Congress’s way, an effort to make sure that checks and balances prevailed in the unruly viper’s nest of politics.

The rhetorical sequences are always the same when it comes to slaughtering an elected leader in the party room, strummed out to the same tedious instrumental fashion.  The person who wins praises the predecessor having even as the wounds are fresh; the defeated party promises no vengeance, and bears no ill-feeling.  Labor’s Kevin Rudd, on failing to beat Julia Gillard, the same individual who lay in the party knives into him: “I bear no malice; I bear no grudges” or words to that effect.  From the ousted Liberal leader Tony Abbott to Malcolm Turnbull: “There will be no sniping, no wrecking, no undermining.”

Now, the round robin word cycle replays itself before the heralded execution of yet another Australian prime minister.  We are told that it has been a good government with sound policy (no mention of defeats in the Senate of key policy positions are mentioned).  There have been good achievements, evidently so profoundly effective as to warrant an assault on the leader.

In the distance are the drum banging shock jocks, populist town criers in the employ of the Murdoch press and associated lobbies ever keen to jockey for positions.  Sky News has become a fox hole of determination against Turnbull.  The Australian has become a front line position of assault.  Peta Credlin, Abbott’s long time iron maiden advisor and bull ram, has been lobbing grenades into the Turnbull camp with a satanic fury.

The party of contenders, bickerers and potential stealers is getting crowded.  Turnbull might take some heart from this: a larger field limits the options and minimises Dutton’s chances.  Treasurer Scott Morrison has nominated; foreign minister Julie Bishop is also considering.  The former Nationals leader and permanent media surfer Barnaby Joyce is giving Turnbull advice to stand in the second ballot as a matter of moral duty.  Turnbull, however, does not intend to contest the ballot, thereby leaving the way open to any of the three.

Outside the Liberal Party, the Labor Party is breathing heavily, aroused by the prospects of snatching power.  “It is now clear that the Liberals cannot provide the leadership that the Australian people deserve,” chortled Senator Penny Wong.  “The only party capable of delivering that government and governing for all Australians is the Australian Labor Party.”  The Greens leader, Senator Richard Di Natale felt sour. “It’s a disgrace. It’s utterly shameful.  We haven’t had a stable government in this country for a decade now. I’ve got a 10-year-old boy, he’s seen a half a dozen different prime ministers.”

It is such faffing indulgence that costs democracies dearly, lending a helping hand to authoritarian tendencies while unmasking the true power dynamic at play in the Westminster system.  It has also crowned the populist barkers and howlers, letting Murdoch know how close he is to the centre of that bubble known as Canberra.  Turnbull would have been best served to take the matter to the Governor-General, declared the situation untenable and called for fresh elections.

Instead, we bear witness to a puerile, party game, short-termed, governed by the crudest of self-interest and a desperate desire to preserve seats.  It has let the desire for vengeance and the streak of cowardice prevail over the functions of presentation. (Exeunt the Australian voter!)  Turnbull has delayed and aggravated his would-be executioners, but the time has arrived.

With each orchestrated fall comes the reckoning about possible change.  Should there be fixed four-year terms of parliament?  One way of saving the system might be to save the executive, and the only way to save the executive from the trivial, poll-driven mutilations of party hacks will be for Australia to become a republic of some sort – or at least one where the executive has a separate political line free from severance.  But that would minimise the all-powerful position political parties have in Australia.

Prime Ministerial Chaos: Turnbull’s Last Days

No one is in charge in Australia.  Monday’s leadership challenge by Home Affairs minister, the potato-headed former police officer Peter Dutton, was cutting enough to leave Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull a wounded animal.  The 48 to 35 margin of victory demonstrated the sheer degree of disaffection for the leadership within party ranks, and risks keeping that unenviable record of no Australian prime minister lasting out a full term of office since John Howard’s 2004 election victory.

Resignations have duly followed (some ten frontbenches outed themselves as Dutton supporters in offering their notices, though many have not been accepted by Turnbull).  Dutton has become a chief plotter on the backbench, from where another challenge is brewing.  The government is imploding and New Zealand’s foreign minister Winston Peters, visiting Canberra, offered a bit of advice: “When you go into a spill, you have to take your abacus.”

In the aftermath of the challenge, Dutton continues to fuel the fire, giving radio station 3AW a generous smattering to threaten Turnbull.  “You don’t go into a ballot believing you’re going to lose and if I believe that a majority of colleagues support me, then I would reconsider my position.” He had been chasing up colleagues, testing the waters, working the phones. “I’m not going to beat around the bush with that.”

Ever blinkered and reactionary, his policy offerings continue to be unimaginative, the stuff of cold porridge.  To cope with housing affordability, immigration needs to looked at.  To deal with infrastructure problems, immigration needs to be looked at.  “I think you need to cut the numbers back.”  This is less the remit of a potential prime minister as a demagogue who remains trapped in the portfolio of home affairs.

In a bid to make a populist steal, Dutton is offering a temporary sweetener to the public.  To Triple M Melbourne, he outlined a proposal that will tickle a few: “I think one of the things that we could do straight away, in this next billing cycle, is take the GST off electricity bills for families. It would be an automatic reduction of 10 percent for electricity bills and people would feel that impact straight away.”

Another peg on offer is one distinctly against the free market ideology of the party.  It’s the season for royal commissions, and Dutton is willing to capitalise.  A royal commission into the electricity and fuel companies, argues the freshly resigned minister, could be established.  “I just think Australian consumers for way too long have been paying way too much fuel and electricity and something just isn’t right with these companies.”

It has been a true spectacle of self-destructive delight: the Liberals immolating themselves in plain sight, while justifying such behaviour on the broader premise of “debate” and calm thinking.  Foreign Minister Julie Bishop claimed on Tuesday morning that there were conservatives, moderates and those somewhere in the middle.  Other front benchers suggested that this was the Liberal method, which was simply another way of concealing a tribalism more commonly associated with the opposition Labor Party.  The broader reality is that centre-right politics in Australia has become cacophonous.

The Turnbull ship, as it heads to a monumental iceberg, was given a further push with the defeat of the company tax cut policy in the Senate.  It had been, since 2016, a vital aspect of the prime minister’s trickle-down economics, another enduring fiction that has ceased to catch the imagination of many in the electorate.

Selling a policy reducing the tax rate from 30 to 25 percent for companies earning over $50 million, thereby shrinking a vital tax base, has not gone well for the former merchant banker, whose connection with the Australian voter continues to look curiously alien.  Little wonder, then, that the tribe is unruly, leaving the extremists to go on the rampage.

Things also look murky for the main challenger.  In what must be yet another example of history’s distinct lack of cunning, the man who was so enthusiastic about keeping refugee children in offshore detention has a family trust operating a childcare company in receipt of Commonwealth funding.  The amount is not negligible: some $5.6 million dispensed to both the Camelia Avenue Childcare Centre and another centre located in Bald Hill.  The significance of this is that section 44 of the Constitution might well render Dutton ineligible to sit in parliament as it rules out those with “any direct or indirect pecuniary interest in any agreement with the Public Service of the Commonwealth”.

Most troubling in the Dutton challenge is its acceptable extremism.  His language is the unreformed, unconstructed argot of law, order and directed hysteria. He is an instinctive authoritarian who is unlikely to govern by consensus.  The method, rather, will be through imposition and dictation.  Australians and those coming to the country can expect an aggressive push in the direction of the police state.  But Turnbull’s ultimate failing has been a pronounced and seemingly growing inability to lead a party keen to lurch with ever greater urgency to the right.

Warring against Encryption: Australian proposals for the Tech Giants

What is it with Australia’s law enforcement authorities?  Their uncontrollable appetite for encrypted data – primarily the data of private users – is so voracious it has become a parody of itself.  There seems to be little that will restrain such politicians as Cybersecurity minister Angus Taylor, who insists that the technology giants cough up data with ease and cooperative generosity.

“We need legislation in place,” claims Taylor in justification, “whereby companies can work with government to ensure that we can get access to the data we need to prosecute and investigate serious crimes.”  And there you have it: the cooperative model between government and technology providers that surrenders individual privacy at a moment’s notice, the civic duty to do what’s good for the country, however unnecessarily intrusive.

The Australian government’s attitudes to the private data of citizens tend to be schizophrenic.  They acknowledge the value of encrypted services, but do not like them.  As the Department of Home Affairs explains, “Encryption and other forms of electronic protection are vital security measures that protect private, commercial and Government data and make communications and devices of all people more secure.”

Then comes the grim qualifier, setting the ground for exceptions. “However, these security measures are also being employed by terrorists, child sex offenders and criminal organisations to mask illegal conduct.”  Encryption becomes the barring and stalling enemy of the state; confidentiality becomes the frustrating measure hindering “lawful access of communications by Australia’s law enforcement and national security agencies.”

The usual straw men arguments are trotted out: as the domestic spy agency has to deal with encrypted communications (stunningly relevant is ASIO) in nine out of ten cases, lives would be made easier if they could simply have access to data in what it terms “priority cases”.  The same reasoning is used by the federal police.  In both instances, proportion would simply vanish; agencies would be effectively discouraged from labouring for plausible reward.

The result of such doomsdaying apologias is the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018, a draft document with such innocuous labelling you would assume its authors were dull but friendly.  It replicates, in form and poor spirit, the United Kingdom’s Investigatory Powers Act, another seedy bit of state overstretch filled with mandatory decrypting obligations.

A spirit of workable solidarity, even collusion, comes through the wording: Australia’s intelligence agencies “may give a technical assistance request to a designated communications provider” in the name of enforcing criminal laws, protecting public revenue and safeguarding national security.  The term “voluntary basis” is used to cover that assistance, but the drafters are clear to ensure that the intelligence community chiefs may require compliance via what is termed a “technicality capability notice”.

The Director-General of Security or the chief officer of the relevant interception agency is also given vast scope to compel the provider to engage in a range of unspecified acts or things.  To have such powers of compulsion would be tantamount to permitting the security services to break down the door in the front, let alone any back door preference.

In an unconvincing move designed to allay suspicions, the Home Affairs department’s explanatory note suggests that either forms of “assistance” sought – the technical assistance notice or technical capability notice – are not meant as directions to telecommunications providers “to implement or build a systemic weakness, or a systematic vulnerability, into a form of electronic protection.”  No “backdoors” to products and services are required.  This point is a moot one, given that technology providers could still be required to reveal a good deal about the technical characteristics of their product, thereby giving agencies a more than helping hand.

The proposed laws are the product of a sneering attitude, and do everything to encourage the actions of the over-zealous in the policing communities.  Police, it is proposed, should receive commanding powers to force a person being searched to unlock a mobile phone with fingerprint or password.  Predictably, “reasonable” suspicions must be held that the phone has details of a crime on it. (The reasonable person is ever the alibi of aggressive law enforcement.)  In what can only be deemed a sledgehammer approach, the person in defiance of such a command might face five years in choky.

This is not to say that the technology giants are to be praised. The cyber-intelligence complex sprawls and burgeons with menace, and the muddied relationship between Silicon Valley and the intelligence community was well exposed by Edward Snowden in 2013. Allied to the fact that Australia’s police forces already have extensive powers to covertly target devices at endpoints where information remains unencrypted, such a bill comes across as smugly disproportionate and verging on the paranoid.  To give governments ease of access in the manner suggested by the Australian example would be to ignore various tenets of liberty: keep government and the state nail bitingly worried; encourage citizens to be contrarian; and make prying authorities work when breaching the liberties of others.

Readying Knives: The Mortality of Australian Prime Ministers

The opinion poll prime ministership is a modern Australian disease.  Not only does it suggest an ailing in the Westminster system, but a profound contempt for the democratic sensibility on the part of party representatives, hacks and the industry that supports them.  Prime Ministers are merely the icing, to be whipped off and replaced on going stale.  Little wonder that the Australian politician can never be permitted to be an authentic representative, ever hostage to sentiment and the astrological deceptions of polling.

This conditioning is so total it has even bewitched the journalistic classes, who have also done their best to feed the complex of the short-term prime minister.  Twenty-four hour news tends to do that.  A veteran ABC journalist let it slip on Monday morning that the elections were about the party strategists, the politicians and the polls. It was easy in such an assessment to avoid the Australian voter, whose relevance has declined as the influence of party brokers has risen.

A canon of politics is that support expressed with fervent enthusiasm in the public domain is bound to reverse behind closed doors.  Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has the firm support of numerous members of his front bench, expressed publicly.  This is exactly why he should be worried. Such enthusiasm could be lethal.

Even potential challenger, the one-dimensional oafish Peter Dutton of the Home Affairs portfolio, has claimed Turnbull has his support, though he has left a tantalising morsel for political observers.  “If my position changes – that is, it gets to a point where I can’t accept what the government is proposing or I don’t agree – then the Westminster system is very clear: you resign your commission, you don’t serve in the cabinet.”

Finance minister Matthias Cormann has attempted to adopt the “nothing to see here approach” while giving the Canberra press gallery every reason to presume that something is afoot.  He claims to have heard no talk about conservatives pressing Dutton to mount a challenge to Turnbull.  This, despite four 5.30 morning walks with Dutton, a fellow hardline conservative with whom he keeps on good terms with.  To Sky News, he claimed that, “We are both very committed to the success of the Turnbull government and to wining the next election.”

Turnbull had done himself no favours.  He remains weak but more to the point, has appeared to be weak.  He took his party to the last federal election and received a thumping which imperiled his majority.  He has been unsuccessful holding the sniping conservatives within his ranks at bay while embarking on an obsessive campaign to wound the opposition leader, Bill Shorten.  The latter aspect of this strategy failed to materialise in the last round of by-elections which saw no Coalition gains, notably in the Queensland seat of Longman.  As Queensland promises to be critical in any future election for the fate of the Coalition government, strategists are getting tetchy, eyeing Dutton as a form of insurance.

Turnbull also failed to hold on to the National Energy Guarantee plans that were hammered out last week, wanting to please worried backbenchers that energy prices would not fall while wedding the government to a carbon emissions reduction target of 26 percent set by legislation.  The version cheered on with premature enthusiasm was the version that was subsequently torn up.  (The term used here is “consultation”, a political version of euthanasia.)

What will take its place remains to be seen, but the environment is bound to find a subordinate position in any such scheme.  Climate sceptics remain irritations with purpose.  The current form of the plan has been watered down: instead of legislation, the target will be set by an executive order of the relevant minister.  The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission would also tailor a report to parliament on the impact on prices as a result of the reduction.

Former prime minister, the deposed Tony Abbott, is excited.  The great disrupter smells blood and revenge, and even though he is unlikely to take Turnbull’s place in the event of any leadership challenge, he is having a vicarious thrill.  After the party meeting on August 14, Abbott landed a right royal blow, suggesting that “most explanations of how the NEG (as it stands without price targets) might theoretically get prices down sound like merchant bankers’ gobbledigook.”  He is seeing the leader of his party being readied for execution.  Fitting – Abbott was himself knifed by Turnbull in 2015 as being of questionable competence, notably on matters economic.

The media vultures have done little to stem the tide, parasites finding value in the speculation fanned by the Coalition dissidents.  Newscorp has willingly supplied the soapbox, effectively arming them with weapons of sabotage.  With each suggestion of a leadership spill come manuals – one supplied by The Sydney Morning Herald – on how to approach a prime ministership that awaits early termination.

As this week goes on, this may have simply been another spat in Turnbull’s unsteady term, wishful thinking on the part of the rabblerousers whose world view is markedly clipped.  But a prime minister without authority can only ever be a prop for other forces who will, eventually, seek his removal.  This state of affairs again shows the decrepitude of Australian politics, marred by a special form of impermanence mired in revenge, provincialism and ill-gotten gains.

Great Barrier Reef Politics

Australia’s environment has been in precarious hands since European settlement found its lengthy and persistent way to the continent.  It has been mined, mauled, drained, farmed, deforested and despoiled at a rate that was only restrained by the size of its small but rapacious populace.  When environmental matters have made an appearance, they have done so with a veil of political opportunism.  Few typify this more than Labor’s environment minister Senator Graham Richardson’s efforts regarding the Tasmanian forests.  To win over the conservation-minded voter in marginal, city-based seats, it was good to go green – at least for a bit.

The Great Barrier Reef has not been exempt from the political tussles of a troubled environmental conscience.  Its monumental size, and its status as an ecological wonder meant little in the late 1960s, when the appetite for development mattered most.  In 1967, it seemed to be facing imminent destruction, another casualty of a predatory mining industry keen for new conquests.  The state of Queensland had elected a National Party government hungry to exploit the environment’s wares.

As local tour operator Alistair Pike explained to the ABC, “We had a fairly full-on development oriented government… and mate, if they couldn’t drill it, mine it, chop it down or whatever, they really didn’t want to know about it.”  It took characters such as that feted “rat bag” of an activist, rogue of action and Mission Beach artist John Büsst to bring angered but focused attention on threats to bulldoze Ellison Reef.  An impeccably connected person, he had the ear of Australian prime minister and fellow diver Harold Holt.  A cast of characters were duly mobilised: the CSIRO forester Len Webb, and president of the Queensland Wildlife Society Judith Wright became enthusiastic and un-phased recruits.

In the Australian environmental conscience, this gorgeously freakish wonder of ecology has been seen in isolation, its problems a local provenance and interest rather than a global phenomenon of ailing.  As the earth continues is warming push, earthbound, and very terrestrially unimaginative politicians have been attempting to treat the Reef’s woes as separately resolvable from the broader challenges of climate change.

Little wonder, then, that a problem viewed in such limited terms could be duly remedied by donations without tender, lump sum payments without review.  Narrowly viewed problems tend to lead to narrowly devised solutions.  Such was the nature of the Turnbull government’s $444 million “rescue package” to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, one conceived and delivered in a haze.

The issue of who takes the reins and ensures study and conservation was never going to be free of a political push.  While common sense suggests that the task be left to government organisations within the scientific community – CSIRO, the Australian Institute for Marine Science and the Marine Park Authority, other contenders have been stalking the scene.

The Great Barrier Reef Foundation was deemed the chosen one, but questions are circulating as to why that outfit got preferment for such largesse.  For one thing, it seemed an oddly hasty move, given that it entailed an expenditure of almost the entire spending allocation for the 2050 Reef Partnership program.

Then came the organisation’s profile.  Its chief executive Anna Marsden is married to Ben Myers, chief of staff to former Queensland premier Campbell Newman. (Newman can be counted, incidentally, as one of those durable environmental sceptics who prefers the bulldozer to reef hugging conservation.)  One of the four founding businessmen behind the venture is the current chairman of the foundation, and former chairman of Esso Australia and the Commonwealth Bank.  Advocates of barrier reef protection, beware.

That particular non-profit group had a revenue stream of less than $8 million in 2017, a humble outfit with six full time employees.  Nothing suggests that those working for it had a clue that this staggering cash supply was coming their way.  “We didn’t have much time before the announcement to be prepared for it,” came the perplexed, albeit thrilled Marsden.  Easy to understand why Marsden considered this winning the lottery.  Overnight, even given a spread of funding over six years, the Foundation has become one of the largest, if not largest NGO in Australia.  By way of grim contrast, government employees connected with the science fraternity are facing skint measures to fund their projects.

The bungling has led to Josh Frydenberg, the environment and energy minister, asking the secretary of his department to urge the National Audit Office to give the funding arrangement serious consideration “as a priority”.

This piqued the interest of Tony Burke, Labor’s opposition spokesman, who claimed that it “was an extraordinary step for the secretary of the department to be sending a letter like that to the Auditor-General at the exact same time that Josh Frydenberg is standing up in Parliament saying there is no problem here”.

The outstanding feature of the funding spill to the foundation is its conspicuous absence of any reference to climate change.  It is a hermetic form of deliverable rescue sans climate science, an approach that politically factors in the climate change sceptics within the Turnbull government.  By all means try to preserve an Australian wonder; but ditch the climate science.  The conclusion of one unnamed scientist to the Fairfax press about the nature of this arrangement was elementary and crude: “Obviously this is political – it’s to head off Labor making a big issue of the Great Barrier Reef at the next election.” Woe to the reef.

Authoritarian Revocations: Australia, Terrorism and Citizenship

Contrary to any popular perceptions of Australia’s legal system, a dislike of rights reigns with pious conviction on both sides of the political aisle.  Rights are the stuff of nonsense and nuisance, revocable for those deemed undesirable. The Australian constitution, a heavily dull document, remains silent on many important liberties; the common law is relied upon to fill in gaps (think of that conjuration known as the implied constitutional right to freedom of communication on political subjects). Parliament, mystically wise, is meant to be the grand guardian.

In terms of citizenship, Australia’s parliament has been rather cavalier on the idea of citizenship, exploiting the absence of any specific reference to the term in the arid document that grants it legislative powers.  In 2015, national security considerations became the basis for legislation stripping individuals of citizenship in certain instances where terrorism was an issue.  While citizenship can be lost in certain instances common to other countries, the arbitrary revocation of citizenship via executive fiat is possible under the Citizenship Act 2007 (Cth).

The relevant minister, goes the wording of s. 35A, “may determine in writing that a person ceases to be an Australian citizen” in various instances involving convictions for certain offences, including terrorism.  But convictions might not be necessary; the minister might deem it against the public interest for the person to remain an Australian citizen. This is all made ever vaguer on the issue of what constitutes recruitment and the status of foreign fighters.  We remain at the mercy of “security” considerations.

Parliament did stop short of rendering citizens stateless, making the provisions apply to dual nationals.  But it yielded two outcomes: that the relevant minister would be effectively governed by the consideration that the Australian citizen might have citizenship of another country, however tenuous that link would be, and that any powers to deprive that person of Australian citizenship could be exercised to limited review.

This curiously venal formulation was always problematic; for one, such laws are not, specifically, “with respect to aliens” or with respect to immigration, terminology that is to be found in the constitution.

Khaled Sharrouf became the debutant to lose his Australian citizenship under the amendments, his reputation marked by a spectacularly gruesome display of images sporting his son holding a severed head.

Five Islamic State supporters can now deem themselves former Australian citizens.  Details are scant.  All it took was a decision by the Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton.  There was no presiding judge, nor scrutinising judicial proceeding to oversee the merits of the decision.  There was no context supplied as to what support was given to Islamic State.  “We have taken a decision that these people have been involved in serious terrorist-related activity.”  No guidelines were disclosed supporting the decision, no taxing criteria by which we could even say that these supporters should be deprived of their bit of paperwork.

Dutton admits that there was something akin to a process, but openly admits conflict zones present different challengers to the investigator.  “Obviously when you are talking about a war zone, it is a very different circumstance than a crime zone in Australia in terms of gathering evidence.”

Not that this evidentiary hurdle troubles him.  Intelligence assessments and briefings do not necessarily stand the test of a withering legal examination, but for Dutton they constitute the legal basis for alleviating individuals of their citizenship.

The issues of belonging and involvement in civic life are troubling propositions. Stripping citizenship is an announcement that the time for belonging is over.  But it is also an assertion that there is no redemption and challenge.  Like the despot’s favour, Dutton can designate individuals terrorists with capricious ease, a situation that does not broker appeal except in exceptional cases.  That very repellent, illiberal fact runs against the concept of holding an overly zealous executive to account.

All that matters for Dutton is the public safety rationale, a concept of such fuzziness it is susceptible to convenient abuse. “The determination of the Government is to try and keep Australia as safe as possible and we do that by keeping these people far from our shores so if we can deal with foreign fighters away from our shores we do that.”

Such occasions should strike fear into the citizenry of any self-respecting state.  Dutton has assumed the position of assessor, deliberator, and executor, his crude paternalism a conspicuous threat to civil liberties.  Policing roles have been fused with the judicial, the very definition of an unchecked tyrant.  Whatever the nature of those who deemed it necessary to join a cause or find solace in the organisational bosom of an officially designated terrorist group (and the options are many) the ease by which they lost their status is more than troubling.  The Magna Carta, it would seem, is a dead letter, a fact that should be a cause for lengthy mourning.

Authoritarian Revocations: Australia, Terrorism and Citizenship

Contrary to any popular perceptions of Australia’s legal system, a dislike of rights reigns with pious conviction on both sides of the political aisle.  Rights are the stuff of nonsense and nuisance, revocable for those deemed undesirable. The Australian constitution, a heavily dull document, remains silent on many important liberties; the common law is relied upon to fill in gaps (think of that conjuration known as the implied constitutional right to freedom of communication on political subjects). Parliament, mystically wise, is meant to be the grand guardian.

In terms of citizenship, Australia’s parliament has been rather cavalier on the idea of citizenship, exploiting the absence of any specific reference to the term in the arid document that grants it legislative powers.  In 2015, national security considerations became the basis for legislation stripping individuals of citizenship in certain instances where terrorism was an issue.  While citizenship can be lost in certain instances common to other countries, the arbitrary revocation of citizenship via executive fiat is possible under the Citizenship Act 2007 (Cth).

The relevant minister, goes the wording of s. 35A, “may determine in writing that a person ceases to be an Australian citizen” in various instances involving convictions for certain offences, including terrorism.  But convictions might not be necessary; the minister might deem it against the public interest for the person to remain an Australian citizen. This is all made ever vaguer on the issue of what constitutes recruitment and the status of foreign fighters.  We remain at the mercy of “security” considerations.

Parliament did stop short of rendering citizens stateless, making the provisions apply to dual nationals.  But it yielded two outcomes: that the relevant minister would be effectively governed by the consideration that the Australian citizen might have citizenship of another country, however tenuous that link would be, and that any powers to deprive that person of Australian citizenship could be exercised to limited review.

This curiously venal formulation was always problematic; for one, such laws are not, specifically, “with respect to aliens” or with respect to immigration, terminology that is to be found in the constitution.

Khaled Sharrouf became the debutant to lose his Australian citizenship under the amendments, his reputation marked by a spectacularly gruesome display of images sporting his son holding a severed head.

Five Islamic State supporters can now deem themselves former Australian citizens.  Details are scant.  All it took was a decision by the Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton.  There was no presiding judge, nor scrutinising judicial proceeding to oversee the merits of the decision.  There was no context supplied as to what support was given to Islamic State.  “We have taken a decision that these people have been involved in serious terrorist-related activity.”  No guidelines were disclosed supporting the decision, no taxing criteria by which we could even say that these supporters should be deprived of their bit of paperwork.

Dutton admits that there was something akin to a process, but openly admits conflict zones present different challengers to the investigator.  “Obviously when you are talking about a war zone, it is a very different circumstance than a crime zone in Australia in terms of gathering evidence.”

Not that this evidentiary hurdle troubles him.  Intelligence assessments and briefings do not necessarily stand the test of a withering legal examination, but for Dutton they constitute the legal basis for alleviating individuals of their citizenship.

The issues of belonging and involvement in civic life are troubling propositions. Stripping citizenship is an announcement that the time for belonging is over.  But it is also an assertion that there is no redemption and challenge.  Like the despot’s favour, Dutton can designate individuals terrorists with capricious ease, a situation that does not broker appeal except in exceptional cases.  That very repellent, illiberal fact runs against the concept of holding an overly zealous executive to account.

All that matters for Dutton is the public safety rationale, a concept of such fuzziness it is susceptible to convenient abuse. “The determination of the Government is to try and keep Australia as safe as possible and we do that by keeping these people far from our shores so if we can deal with foreign fighters away from our shores we do that.”

Such occasions should strike fear into the citizenry of any self-respecting state.  Dutton has assumed the position of assessor, deliberator, and executor, his crude paternalism a conspicuous threat to civil liberties.  Policing roles have been fused with the judicial, the very definition of an unchecked tyrant.  Whatever the nature of those who deemed it necessary to join a cause or find solace in the organisational bosom of an officially designated terrorist group (and the options are many) the ease by which they lost their status is more than troubling.  The Magna Carta, it would seem, is a dead letter, a fact that should be a cause for lengthy mourning.

The Non-University and the Manager

We have been seeing over the last few decades the birth of the non-university, an institution hollowed out of its seminal functions: teaching and scholarship.  Such an institution emphasises the functions of commerce and branding not dissimilar to the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company), dedicated to goods and services and the establishment of trading hubs.  In 2007, the Vice Chancellor of Griffith University would note how 11 Australian universities “including my own have 5 or more campuses.”

Pedagogical instruction has become a matter of popularity contests, fuelled by giddy grade inflations on the part of academics who are, let’s face it, often not doing the actual grading.  That part of the process is reserved for toiling sessional or casual workers who scrape, labour and hope, often in vain, that they will find a spot of middle-class security.  Their life is one of temporary contracts and elusive tenure, a true academic underclass seduced by the elusion of patronage.

The issue of research has also been hijacked by the circuitous nature of research grants.  The non-university specialises in workshops run by robotic consultants and endless sessions peppered by power points, preparing the unwise academic for an uncertain future where time is spent in a ceaseless drive for irrelevance.  When a grant is received, it is specifically tailor made for insipid trendiness, the latest pop sensation that creates pop-up industries and employment for minions.  Universities will, naturally, take a cut.  Importantly, getting one grant will mean getting another.  A family of sort crops up, and you are guaranteed a line of funding that does not necessarily need proof of use or evidence of worth.  Grants, in other words, displace scholarship.

Heading, controlling and asphyxiating the non-university is the layer of not infrequently venal officialdom known as managers.  Their impending influence across society was already given a good reading by James Burnham, whose The Managerial Revolution (1941) remains all too relevant.  Central to his thesis was the claim that capitalist society would ultimately transform into a managerial one, one where the masses would be told in no uncertain terms that the classless society was an illusion, with state institutions essentially becoming the “property” of management.

Central to the incidence of university management is the divorce between owning the means of production and the control of their distribution.  Adolf A. Berle and Gardiner C. Means supplied the relevant observations in The Modern Corporation and Private Property (1932).  With organisations becoming more complex, along with their varied methods of production, a new class of managers hired by capitalist owners came into existence.  Direct control was thereby relinquished.

The modern non-university is the very incarnation of this principle, one that sees the academic class forfeiting control over the means of production: their scholarship and teaching.  Academic labour, with its fruits of learning, is influenced, observed and ultimately controlled by management.  Management, in turn, burgeons with the self-justified rationale that more managers are needed.  Fictional projects drive this growth; more committees are deemed necessary, and, importantly, nothing is ever done.

The university manager is a born and dedicated philistine, and is one of the most important reasons why such institutions are not only failing students but failing staff.  It is managers who, untutored but entirely self-interested, feather their nests while stomping on the innovative and shutting out the novel.  The world of ideas is a world of offense, dangerous and to be avoided.

Within university management are the turncoats known as failed academics. Incapable of writing, researching and teaching, these people, unburdened by their banal resume, move into a dreary world of paper clips, staplers and signatures, knowing that they can be promoted up a ladder filled with endless forms and bundles of paperwork.  One Australian university is even proud of having a Vice Chancellor who is rather light on education, not daring to even have a doctoral thesis to his name.  Such credentials would be an impediment in a non-university.

The fundamental goal of management is not merely to control, monitor and mediate performance on the part of the neutered academic, an insistence that thought is obscene.  (Thought, by its very act, cannot be managed.)  The academic must be restrained before the all-seeing-eyes of the brand label police and authoritarians.

Work-plans – because cerebral activity and inspiration can miraculously become the subject of a spreadsheet or the subject of itemisation – are designed in order to be used against academic staff.  Online Modules, fostered in the true Orwellian spirit, ensure a degree of disgruntled humility.  They are generally of no consequence, seeing as they will be breached by university managers with impunity, but these must be undertaken by staff.  Know the “values” of a university; appreciate “diversity”; know your place and worship the next dogma and, above all, do not criticise “hard working” management.  A module on hypocrisy would also be well worth taking, but irony and humour are the stuff of poison to a university manager.

A return to the university, one thriving with students and engaged scholarship, would be a jolly thing. But the chances of that happening are glacial, remote and unpopular.  The non-university will only be killed off when the students stop coming, or when governments see fit to curb their funding.  The problem in the latter case, as it has been for decades, is that students and unions will protest, thereby inadvertently protecting the managers who influence them.  The fundamental truth is that most of these bodies run on the blood of those who pay them. Drying up the resources will see management cannibalise itself, a mortal competition to the finish. Now wouldn’t that be fun?

The Lasting Condition: Drought in Australia

Humans are a funny species.  They create settlements along fault lines that, on moving, can create catastrophe, killing thousands.  They construct homes facing rivers that will, at some point, break their banks, carrying of their precious property.  Importantly, they return in the aftermath.  Existence continues.

The same follows certain settlements of parts of the planet where hostile, environmental conditions discourage rather than endorse a certain form of living.  Changes in weather have been vicious catalysts for the collapse of civilisations; extreme climactic variations prevent and retard stable and sustainable agriculture.

“The flourishing of human civilisation from about 10,000 years ago, and in particular from 7,000 years ago,” notes earth and paleo-climate scientist Andrew Glikson, “critically depended on stabilisation of climate conditions”.  This had its due results: planting and harvesting of seed; cultivation of crops; the growth of villages and towns.

Australia, the second driest continent on the planet, has never been exempt from such patterns of disruption, and those stubborn, pluckily foolish farmers who persist in the notion that they can make a living in parts of it risk going the same way.

Australia’s agrarian purveyors have certainly been persistent, hopeful as pilgrims in search of holy land.  Disasters have not discouraged.  A sense of a certain attendant fatalism can be found in the scribbles of Nancy Fotheringham Cato’s “Mallee Farmer”:

You cleared the mallee and the sand blew over
Fence and road to the slow green river;
You prayed for rain but the sky breathed dust
Of long dead farmers and soil’s red rust.
You ploughed up the paddocks with a stump jump plough
But the gates were open and the drought walked through.

The Settlement Drought (1790-1793) threatened but did not overwhelm early European settlers. The Goyder Line Drought (1861-5) savaged but did not kill farming in parts of South Australia.  The recent Millennium drought (1997-2009) was spectacularly ruinous, but Australian agriculture moaned and stuttered along.

Farming in Australia remains precarious, an occupation of permanent contingency.  Droughts ravage, kill and annihilate.  Crops and livestock perish with gruesome ease.  But the Australian farmer, rather than being portrayed as a dinosaur awaiting extinction, is seen as resilient, durable and innovative.  Yet each drought brings a certain narrative.

One aspect of that narrative is the sense of singularity.  Droughts are often seen as unprecedented.  This alleviates the need to consider stark realities and inefficiencies that characterise the problem of farming in naturally dry environs with inappropriate crops or livestock, to up stakes, as it were, and finally admit to the brutalities.  Such determination often flies in the face of the work conducted by climate science researchers, who tend to occupy a certain high terrain of gloom.  Recent publications float the suggestion that the droughts this year may be some of the worst in 800 years.

The response from the prime minister has been an urging against the predations of nature: to fortify “resilience” in light of more unpredictable rainfall.  The fear from such figures as former Nationals leader John Anderson is that matters of climate change will be co-opted in an act of politicisation.  This would suggest inevitability, doom and acceptance.

Climate change watchers Andrew King, Anna Ukkola and Ben Henley do not shed much light on these matters, logically pointing out that drought, being a “complex beast” can be “measured in a variety of ways.  Some aspects of drought are linked to climate change; others are not.”  The entire field of drought studies reads like a sophisticated, taxonomical manual of expertise and foreboding, noting variations in their spatial effects, duration, seasonality and intensity.

Such studies are intriguing, and tend to ignore the withering human consequences that invariably follow.  Figures like Edwina Robertson of Trangie, west of Dubbo supply the viewer with a pathos and desperation, her tears the only moisture in an arid setting.  The Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was there to capitalise.  “It’s worse,” he was told, “than anything you are seeing in the media, it’s far worse.”

Drought brings with it a whole platoon of agents and variables.  Cash relief payments are provided through the Farm Household Allowance (additional payments of up to $12,000 have been promised); mental health services are boosted (the Rural Financial Counsellors feature in this scheme).  Australian farmers are being encouraged to come forth with their anxieties and strains.

These are salutary reminders that some parts of Australian farming can only be kept on life support for so long.  As Richard Eckard, director of the Primary Industries Climate Challenges Centre at the University of Melbourne explained in 2015, the limits to adaptation are unavoidable.  The odds for the more fortunate wheat farmer in a hotter, drier climate will be better than those cultivating chickpeas, walnuts and peaches.  No matter, argues Eckard; Australia’s farming adaptation technologies will ensure that the country never has a food security problem.  “We’re heading for quality, rather than quantity.”

Perversely, as the federal government and a host or bodies tend to the drought, and as is in the manner of the Australian environment, northern stretches of the country have been and are being drenched.  More flooding and cyclones are being promised in the future.  Australia, that most untamed environmental miracle of all; but Australia’s agrarian inhabitants, permanently subject to trials they are often poorly prepared for, buttressed by an obstinate faith that sustains them.