Category Archives: Malcolm Turnbull

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.

Getting Julian Assange

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Julian Assange has been vindicated because the Swedish case against him was corrupt. The prosecutor, Marianne Ny, obstructed justice and should be prosecuted. Her obsession with Assange not only embarrassed her colleagues and the judiciary but exposed the Swedish state’s collusion with the United States in its crimes of war and “rendition”.

Had Assange not sought refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, he would have been on his way to the kind of American torture pit Chelsea Manning had to endure.

This prospect was obscured by the grim farce played out in Sweden. “It’s a laughing stock,” said James Catlin, one of Assange’s Australian lawyers. “It is as if they make it up as they go along”.

It may have seemed that way, but there was always serious purpose. In 2008, a secret Pentagon document prepared by the “Cyber Counterintelligence Assessments Branch” foretold a detailed plan to discredit WikiLeaks and smear Assange personally.

The “mission” was to destroy the “trust” that was WikiLeaks‘ “centre of gravity”. This would be achieved with threats of “exposure [and] criminal prosecution”. Silencing and criminalising such an unpredictable source of truth-telling was the aim.

Perhaps this was understandable. WikiLeaks has exposed the way America dominates much of human affairs, including its epic crimes, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq: the wholesale, often homicidal killing of civilians and the contempt for sovereignty and international law.

These disclosures are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. As a presidential candidate in 2008, Barack Obama, a professor of constitutional law, lauded whistle blowers as “part of a healthy democracy [and they] must be protected from reprisal”.

In 2012, the Obama campaign boasted on its website that Obama had prosecuted more whistleblowers in his first term than all other US presidents combined. Before Chelsea Manning had even received a trial, Obama had publicly pronounced her guilty.

Few serious observers doubt that should the US get their hands on Assange, a similar fate awaits him. According to documents released by Edward Snowden, he is on a “Manhunt target list”. Threats of his kidnapping and assassination became almost political and media currency in the US following then Vice-President Joe Biden’s preposterous slur that the WikiLeaks founder was a “cyber-terrorist”.

Hillary Clinton, the destroyer of Libya and, as WikiLeaks revealed last year, the secret supporter and personal beneficiary of forces underwriting ISIS, proposed her own expedient solution: “Can’t we just drone this guy.”

According to Australian diplomatic cables, Washington’s bid to get Assange is “unprecedented in scale and nature”. In Alexandria, Virginia, a secret grand jury has sought for almost seven years to contrive a crime for which Assange can be prosecuted. This is not easy.

The First Amendment protects publishers, journalists and whistleblowers, whether it is the editor of the New York Times or the editor of WikiLeaks. The very notion of free speech is described as America’s ” founding virtue” or, as Thomas Jefferson called it, “our currency”.

Faced with this hurdle, the US Justice Department has contrived charges of “espionage”, “conspiracy to commit espionage”, “conversion” (theft of government property), “computer fraud and abuse” (computer hacking) and general “conspiracy”. The favoured Espionage Act, which was meant to deter pacifists and conscientious objectors during World War One, has provisions for life imprisonment and the death penalty.

Assange’s ability to defend himself in such a Kafkaesque world has been severely limited by the US declaring his case a state secret. In 2015, a federal court in Washington blocked the release of all information about the “national security” investigation against WikiLeaks, because it was “active and ongoing” and would harm the “pending prosecution” of Assange. The judge, Barbara J. Rothstein, said it was necessary to show “appropriate deference to the executive in matters of national security”. This is a kangaroo court.

For Assange, his trial has been trial by media. On August 20, 2010, when the Swedish police opened a “rape investigation”, they coordinated it, unlawfully, with the Stockholm tabloids. The front pages said Assange had been accused of the “rape of two women”. The word “rape” can have a very different legal meaning in Sweden than in Britain; a pernicious false reality became the news that went round the world.

Less than 24 hours later, the Stockholm Chief Prosecutor, Eva Finne, took over the investigation. She wasted no time in cancelling the arrest warrant, saying, “I don’t believe there is any reason to suspect that he has committed rape.” Four days later, she dismissed the rape investigation altogether, saying, “There is no suspicion of any crime whatsoever.”

Enter Claes Borgstrom, a highly contentious figure in the Social Democratic Party then standing as a candidate in Sweden’s imminent general election. Within days of the chief prosecutor’s dismissal of the case, Borgstrom, a lawyer, announced to the media that he was representing the two women and had sought a different prosecutor in Gothenberg. This was Marianne Ny, whom Borgstrom knew well, personally and politically.

On 30 August, Assange attended a police station in Stockholm voluntarily and answered the questions put to him. He understood that was the end of the matter. Two days later, Ny announced she was re-opening the case.

At a press conference, Borgstrom was asked by a Swedish reporter why the case was proceeding when it had already been dismissed. The reporter cited one of the women as saying she had not been raped. He replied, “Ah, but she is not a lawyer.”

On the day that Marianne Ny reactivated the case, the head of Sweden’s military intelligence service — which has the acronym MUST — publicly denounced WikiLeaks in an article entitled “WikiLeaks [is] a threat to our soldiers [under US command in Afghanistan]”.

Both the Swedish prime minister and foreign minister attacked Assange, who had been charged with no crime. Assange was warned that the Swedish intelligence service, SAPO, had been told by its US counterparts that US-Sweden intelligence-sharing arrangements would be “cut off” if Sweden sheltered him.

For five weeks, Assange waited in Sweden for the renewed “rape investigation” to take its course. The Guardian was then on the brink of publishing the Iraq “War Logs”, based on WikiLeaks‘ disclosures, which Assange was to oversee in London.

Finally, he was allowed him to leave. As soon as he had left, Marianne Ny issued a European Arrest Warrant and an Interpol “red alert” normally used for terrorists and dangerous criminals.

Assange attended a police station in London, was duly arrested and spent ten days in Wandsworth Prison, in solitary confinement. Released on £340,000 bail, he was electronically tagged, required to report to police daily and placed under virtual house arrest while his case began its long journey to the Supreme Court.

He still had not been charged with any offence. His lawyers repeated his offer to be questioned in London, by video or personally, pointing out that Marianne Ny had given him permission to leave Sweden. They suggested a special facility at Scotland Yard commonly used by the Swedish and other European authorities for that purpose. She refused.

For almost seven years, while Sweden has questioned forty-four people in the UK in connection with police investigations, Ny refused to question Assange and so advance her case.

Writing in the Swedish press, a former Swedish prosecutor, Rolf Hillegren, accused Ny of losing all impartiality. He described her personal investment in the case as “abnormal” and demanded she be replaced.

Assange asked the Swedish authorities for a guarantee that he would not be “rendered” to the US if he was extradited to Sweden. This was refused. In December 2010, The Independent revealed that the two governments had discussed his onward extradition to the US.

Contrary to its reputation as a bastion of liberal enlightenment, Sweden has drawn so close to Washington that it has allowed secret CIA “renditions” — including the illegal deportation of refugees. The rendition and subsequent torture of two Egyptian political refugees in 2001 was condemned by the UN Committee against Torture, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch; the complicity and duplicity of the Swedish state are documented in successful civil litigation and in WikiLeaks cables.

“Documents released by WikiLeaks since Assange moved to England,” wrote Al Burke, editor of the online Nordic News Network, an authority on the multiple twists and dangers that faced Assange, “clearly indicate that Sweden has consistently submitted to pressure from the United States in matters relating to civil rights. There is every reason for concern that if Assange were to be taken into custody by Swedish authorities, he could be turned over to the United States without due consideration of his legal rights.”

The war on Assange now intensified. Marianne Ny refused to allow his Swedish lawyers, and the Swedish courts, access to hundreds of SMS messages that the police had extracted from the phone of one of the two women involved in the “rape” allegations.

Ny said she was not legally required to reveal this critical evidence until a formal charge was laid and she had questioned him. Then, why wouldn’t she question him? Catch-22.

When she announced last week that she was dropping the Assange case, she made no mention of the evidence that would  destroy it. One of the SMS messages makes clear that one of the women did not want any charges brought against Assange, “but the police were keen on getting a hold on him”. She was “shocked” when they arrested him because she only “wanted him to take [an HIV] test”. She “did not want to accuse JA of anything” and “it was the police who made up the charges”. In a witness statement, she is quoted as saying that she had been “railroaded by police and others around her”.

Neither woman claimed she had been raped. Indeed, both denied they were raped and one of them has since tweeted, “I have not been raped.” The women were manipulated by police — whatever their lawyers might say now. Certainly, they, too, are the victims of this sinister saga.

Katrin Axelsson and Lisa Longstaff of Women Against Rape wrote: “The allegations against [Assange] are a smokescreen behind which a number of governments are trying to clamp down on WikiLeaks for having audaciously revealed to the public their secret planning of wars and occupations with their attendant rape, murder and destruction… The authorities care so little about violence against women that they manipulate rape allegations at will. [Assange] has made it clear he is available for questioning by the Swedish authorities, in Britain or via Skype. Why are they refusing this essential step in their investigation? What are they afraid of?”

Assange’s choice was stark: extradition to a country that had refused to say whether or not it would send him on to the US, or to seek what seemed his last opportunity for refuge and safety.

Supported by most of Latin America, the government of tiny Ecuador granted him refugee status on the basis of documented evidence that he faced the prospect of cruel and unusual punishment in the US; that this threat violated his basic human rights; and that his own government in Australia had abandoned him and colluded with Washington.

The Labor government of the then prime minister, Julia Gillard, had even threatened to take away his Australian passport — until it was pointed out to her that this would be unlawful.

The renowned human rights lawyer, Gareth Peirce, who represents Assange in London, wrote to the then Australian foreign minister, Kevin Rudd: “Given the extent of the public discussion, frequently on the basis of entirely false assumptions… it is very hard to attempt to preserve for him any presumption of innocence. Mr. Assange has now hanging over him not one but two Damocles swords, of potential extradition to two different jurisdictions in turn for two different alleged crimes, neither of which are crimes in his own country, and that his personal safety has become at risk in circumstances that are highly politically charged.”

It was not until she contacted the Australian High Commission in London that Peirce received a response, which answered none of the pressing points she raised. In a meeting I attended with her, the Australian Consul-General, Ken Pascoe, made the astonishing claim that he knew “only what I read in the newspapers” about the details of the case.

In 2011, in Sydney, I spent several hours with a conservative Member of Australia’s Federal Parliament, Malcolm Turnbull. We discussed the threats to Assange and their wider implications for freedom of speech and justice, and why Australia was obliged to stand by him. Turnbull then had a reputation as a free speech advocate. He is now the Prime Minister of Australia.

I gave him Gareth Peirce’s letter about the threat to Assange’s rights and life. He said the situation was clearly appalling and promised to take it up with the Gillard government. Only his silence followed.

For almost seven years, this epic miscarriage of justice has been drowned in a vituperative campaign against the WikiLeaks founder. There are few precedents. Deeply personal, petty, vicious and inhuman attacks have been aimed at a man not charged with any crime yet subjected to treatment not even meted out to a defendant facing extradition on a charge of murdering his wife. That the US threat to Assange was a threat to all journalists, and to the principle of free speech, was lost in the sordid and the ambitious. I would call it anti-journalism.

Books were published, movie deals struck and media careers launched or kick-started on the back of WikiLeaks and an assumption that attacking Assange was fair game and he was too poor to sue. People have made money, often big money, while WikiLeaks has struggled to survive.

The previous editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, called the WikiLeaks disclosures, which his newspaper published, “one of the greatest journalistic scoops of the last 30 years”. Yet no attempt was made to protect the Guardian‘s provider and source. Instead, the “scoop” became part of a marketing plan to raise the newspaper’s cover price.

With not a penny going to Assange or to WikiLeaks, a hyped Guardian book led to a lucrative Hollywood movie. The book’s authors, Luke Harding and David Leigh, gratuitously described Assange as a “damaged personality” and “callous”. They also revealed the secret password he had given the paper in confidence, which was designed to protect a digital file containing the US embassy cables. With Assange now trapped in the Ecuadorean embassy, Harding, standing among the police outside, gloated on his blog that “Scotland Yard may get the last laugh”.

Journalism students might well study this period to understand that the most ubiquitous source of “fake news” is from within a media self-ordained with a false respectability and an extension of the authority and power it claims to challenge but courts and protects.

The presumption of innocence was not a consideration in Kirsty Wark’s memorable BBC live-on-air interrogation in 2010. “Why don’t you just apologise to the women?” she demanded of Assange, followed by: “Do we have your word of honour that you won’t abscond?”

On the BBC’s Today programme, John Humphrys bellowed: “Are you a sexual predator?” Assange replied that the suggestion was ridiculous, to which Humphrys demanded to know how many women he had slept with.

“Would even Fox News have descended to that level?” wondered the American historian William Blum. “I wish Assange had been raised in the streets of Brooklyn, as I was. He then would have known precisely how to reply to such a question: ‘You mean including your mother?'”

Last week, on BBC World News, on the day Sweden announced it was dropping the case, I was interviewed by Geeta Guru-Murthy, who seemed to have little knowledge of the Assange case. She persisted in referring to the “charges” against him. She accused him of putting Trump in the White House; and she drew my attention to the “fact” that “leaders around the world” had condemned him. Among these “leaders” she included Trump’s CIA director. I asked her, “Are you a journalist?”.

The injustice meted out to Assange is one of the reasons Parliament reformed the Extradition Act in 2014. “His case has been won lock, stock and barrel,” Gareth Peirce told me, “these changes in the law mean that the UK now recognises as correct everything that was argued in his case. Yet he does not benefit.” In other words, he would have won his case in the British courts and would not have been forced to take refuge.

Ecuador’s decision to protect Assange in 2012 was immensely brave. Even though the granting of asylum is a humanitarian act, and the power to do so is enjoyed by all states under international law, both Sweden and the United Kingdom refused to recognise the legitimacy of Ecuador’s decision.

Ecuador’s embassy in London was placed under police siege and its government abused. When William Hague’s Foreign Office threatened to violate the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, warning that it would remove the diplomatic inviolability of the embassy and send the police in to get Assange, outrage across the world forced the government to back down.

During one night, police appeared at the windows of the embassy in an obvious attempt to intimidate Assange and his protectors.

Since then, Assange has been confined to a small room without sunlight. He has been ill from time to time and refused safe passage to the diagnostic facilities of hospital. Yet, his resilience and dark humour remain quite remarkable in the circumstances. When asked how he put up with the confinement, he replied, “Sure beats a supermax.”

It is not over, but it is unravelling. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention — the tribunal that adjudicates and decides whether governments comply with their human rights obligations — last year ruled that Assange had been detained unlawfully by Britain and Sweden. This is international law at its apex.

Both Britain and Sweden participated in the 16-month long UN investigation and submitted evidence and defended their position before the tribunal. In previous cases ruled upon by the Working Group — Aung Sang Suu Kyi in Burma, imprisoned opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia, detained Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian in Iran — both Britain and Sweden gave full support to the tribunal. The difference now is that Assange’s persecution endures in the heart of London.

The Metropolitan Police say they still intend to arrest Assange for bail infringement should he leave the embassy. What then? A few months in prison while the US delivers its extradition request to the British courts?

If the British Government allows this to happen it will, in the eyes of the world, be shamed comprehensively and historically as an accessory to the crime of a war waged by rampant power against justice and freedom, and all of us.

Mike Pence in Oz

Vassal visiting time, and the next slot in the US imperium tourism schedule was one of America’s more cosy allies, Australia. The US Vice President Mike Pence popped in to keep an eye on matters just to make sure that all was in order.

There had been that issue of the notable phone call, when Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had been verbally slapped by The Donald over the “dumb” refugee resettlement deal made with the previous Obama administration.

Not to fear.  Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop came across as caddies willing to do their best for Pence (a US vice president deserves two such officials for this sort of visit).  Chuckling, everything seemed to be going accordingly.

That said, Pence did not hide his irritation at a few matters on the meeting agenda, including the refugee agreement made by the Obama administration with Turnbull. “President Trump has made it clear that we’ll honour the agreement, but it doesn’t mean we admire the agreement.”  As watchers of the refugee news items know, Australia responds to asylum seekers and refugees like an insecure spouse feeling that his assets might be pinched.

The result is usually a practiced irrationalism, in this instance involving the transfer of up to 1,250 refugees in offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island to the United States, in exchange for refugees from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Pence did, however, promise Australia a range of treats, one of them being direct benefits arising from President Trump’s new tax plan.  In true Trump fashion, Pence met with various corporate groups, Westfield, Macquarie Group, Lendlease, and Austral, to promise pie-in-the-sky benefits amounting to $1.5 trillion. (Another figure, another speculation.)

The shower of meaningless rhetoric was heavy.  “The truth is that a stronger American economy also means a stronger economy for all our trading partners, including Australia.”  The tax reform on the table “will make the strongest economy in the world stronger still, and it will benefit the American people, American workers, and it will benefit the economy of Australia.”

Such words ring hollow given that the Australian-US Free Trade Agreement has done much to benefit US economic interests disproportionately to Australia’s.  Despite projections of an economic nirvana by policy wonks in Canberra, the deal has actually deprived and distorted Australian gains.

The economic promises were merely one feature of the utopian cake being dished up by Pence.

Australia remains a convenient base to watch over matters in the Pacific, be it through military or intelligence operations.  That very fact makes Australia both accessory and target in any future conflict in the region.

Never deemed a military occupation, let alone having the vestiges of a military base, Australian officials have opened their doors to the Lean Green Killing Machine on a rotational basis, a policy that began in 2011. Whether this is part of Obama’s pivot, or Trump’s strategic grope, it all amounts to the same thing: this continental military operation is open for business.

Pence’s visit coincides with another rotational round for the US marines in Darwin, located in the tropical north of the continent.  The group, comprising 1,250 personnel, have been particularly busy on the public relations blower.

The soldiers have been instructed to make small talk with the local press, and fraternising is to be encouraged – within limits.  Like anthropologists, they are to observe the local population and note their “customs,” though experience tells us that these observations tend to go destructively awry.

Even Facebook hosts a Marine Rotational Force Darwin page to provide decent filtered comments about the US role in shielding Australia from foreign wickedness.  Residents await the arrival of the heroes; weather, boring, tedious, endlessly warm weather, is noted.  Welcome to the Australian autumn!

What, then, of the wickedness these Green Mighty Men are defending Australia against?  It might take the form of Kim Jong-un’s vain boast of long range weapons, which goes to show that projecting fear is far better than knowing facts.

Such pop fantasies of nuclear cataclysm doesn’t deter the Lowy Institute’s director of International Security, Euan Graham, from suggesting that North Korea would probably be able to construct a ballistic missile that would be able to reach the Australian mainland “within the life of the Trump administration.”

Even a threat at shooting blanks by the man child in a boiler suit concerns the Australian ministries in Canberra.  As long as they come from “rogues”, that is all that matters.  Even more stinging was the North Korean leader’s rather accurate statement that Australia had been “blindly and zealously toeing the US line”.

The Marines in Darwin have been duly briefed, and the officers are insisting that they are ready should Pyongyang misbehave.  “Any time a Marine force is forward deployed, we’re always on standby for anything.  We stand ready to fight and win the night, always,” claimed Lt. Col. Brian Middleton, commanding officer of the 3rd Battalion of the 4th Marines.  How utterly reassuring that must be.

Lap Dog Politicians Fail Australia Yet Again

One of the more profoundly depressing consequences of the aftermath of the American missile attack on the al Shayrat Syrian air base is having to acknowledge how terminally stupid our politicians are.  Either that, or they are so captivated by the dictates of United States foreign policy that they follow blindly in its wake, which is a different kind of stupidity.

Only the independent MP Andrew Wilkie (12 April 2017) and Green spokesperson Scott Ludlum (media release 7 April 2017) have publicly questioned the dominant media narrative.

There are at least four alternative narratives available to explain what happened in what is alleged to be a chemical weapons attack on the Syrian village of Khan Sheikhoun.

  • the Syrian government dropped illegal chemical weapons on civilians. This is the meme repeated ad nauseum by our politicians and the media.  This barrage of propaganda has been maintained despite the compete absence of any compelling evidence.
  • That it was an accidental discharge following an air strike on terrorist positions by the Syrian Air Force. This was the initial Russian reaction, but it also lacks supporting evidence.  The Russians did, however, call for an independent investigation, which has been ignored by the western media and western politicians.  They didn’t need evidence as they already “knew” that Syria was guilty.
  • The whole thing was a staged event using civilians kidnapped some time earlier from Khattab. This really has different components, as it is possible to be a staged, or false flag event, without the use of previous kidnap victims.  Either way, again there is a lack of real evidence.
  • That outside forces (the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia?) supplied the terrorists for the purpose of creating a situation that would lend itself to American intervention of the type we have witnessed. There is at least a track record of such practices (A. Larsen Analysis of Evidence Contradicts Allegations on Syrian Gas Attacks. The Indicter Magazine (5 April 2017).  This has prima facie more plausibility than the other theories, but again the evidence is lacking.

The strengths and weaknesses of the respective theories are usefully discussed by Rick Sterling1.  The central point, however, is that whatever theory emerges as the most plausible explanation, it will only do so after a proper independent investigation.  Judging from their public utterances thus far, an independent investigation is the furthest thing from the minds of our politicians.

Even without such an investigation, there are ample grounds for questioning the official narrative.  A far from exhaustive list would include such factors as the following:

  • the near impossibility that it was Sarin gas that was used. This is especially evident in the lack of typical symptoms in the victims that follow a Sarin attack.
  • The UN report of 23 June 2014 declared that Syria had been disarmed of its chemical weapons. There is no evidence of any resumption of manufacture or storage.
  • Given the short shelf life of Sarin, it would have to have been manufactured recently, and there is zero evidence of such manufacture.
  • In any criminal investigation, one of the first questions asked by investigators is: cui bono?, that is, who benefits.
  • As Assad is, since the intervention of the Russians in September 2014 (and the help of Iran and Hezbollah) winning the war against the terrorists in their multiple guises, there is no convincing reason why he would risk international opprobrium for so little military benefit.
  • Conversely, the US response gives umpteen reasons for the terrorists to repeat the exercise (which they have done several times before) knowing that the American response against Assad will be to their military advantage.

There are many other factors militating against it being a Syrian government attack, but the above points are sufficient to confirm that the rush to judgment is neither appropriate nor likely to lead to a proper understanding of the forces at work.

It hardly needs to be stated that the American attack was contrary to international law, and possibly US domestic law as well.2  That is a factor that barely, if at all, exercises the minds of either the politicians or the media that breathlessly repeat their inanities and provide equally inane ‘analysis’ of what is happening in Syria and its repercussions.

It is not, of course, the first time that the United States has flaunted international law, perceiving itself as exempt from the constraints that dictate, or should dictate, the exercise of brute power in pursuit of geopolitical objectives.

What is of additional concern, however, is that the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Labor leader Bill Shorten fell over themselves in their eagerness to approve such a flagrant violation of international legal norms.  Turnbull, as a former lawyer, in particular, should have known better than to publicly ally himself and Australia with what is manifestly a war crime.3

One wonders exactly what international outrage has to be perpetrated by the Americans before the Australian government (and Opposition) takes a principled stand.

Some important consequences flow from the American folly.  One of the first things that Russia did was to cancel the Memorandum of Understanding with the US and its “coalition:” allies governing the military use of Syrian air space.  The Belgium government, for example, immediately withdrew its contribution to the air war.

Henceforth, coalition planes flying in Syrian air space will be vulnerable to being shot down by Syrian missiles, the upgrading of which Russia has already begun.  Although you will not find any discussion of this in the Australian mainstream media, this also puts Australian planes at risk.

Since September 2015 Australian fighters, reconnaissance planes and mid-air refueling tankers have been operating in Syrian air space.  This is, itself, in violation of international law although the Australian government claims otherwise. They have refused to release the legal advice upon which this idiosyncratic view is based.

In January 2017, the last month for which figures are available, E7A reconnaissance planes and K30A tankers violated Syrian air space 11 and 5 occasions respectively.

What will be the Australian response if and when one or more of these planes are shot down? It is clearly not a matter our politicians are willing or able to discuss, any more than they allow debate on the broader issues of principle and practice involved.

Another consequence is the absurd flip-flopping of US Secretary of State Tillerson and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, contradicting not only each other but also themselves in the space of only a few days.  It speaks volumes about the power struggle going on in Washington between the various factions vying for dominance.  On present indications it appears that Trump’s vague pre-election statements about a more constructive relationship with Russia have been overridden by the more powerful neocon and Deep State factions that control the US.

The factional infighting, foreign policy inconsistencies and completely irrational conduct by the US administration led one of the more astute observers to invoke the Russia  concept of “not agreement capable”.4

Given the erratic and arguably insane direction of US foreign policy Australia has every right to be concerned.  The U aircraft carrier the USS Carl Vinson cancelled a planned Australia visit and diverted to Korean waters where a singularly dangerous situation is escalating.  Further unilateral and unlawful conduct cannot be ruled out.  The consequences of an American attack on North Korea are potentially horrendous.  If the Australian government is concerned, as it should be, there has been no such sign.

At a time when the international geopolitical scene calls for calm heads and rational analysis, it is all the more concerning that the best our politicians can muster is inflammatory rhetoric, in an evidence and fact free environment.  The result is likely to be a great deal more harm than good.

  1. How Media Bias Fuels Syrian Escalation, 10 April 2017
  2. Marjorie Cohn, Trump’s Syria attack Trampled Many Laws,11 April 2017.
  3. M. Milanovic, The Clearly Illegal US Missile Strike in Syria, European Journal of International Law, 7 April 2017.
  4. The Saker, A Multi-Level Analysis of the US Cruise Missile attack and its Consequences