Category Archives: Australia

Corporate Gangster: Adani’s Pursuit of Scientists

The Adani conglomerate should be best described as a bloated gangster, promising the earth even as it mines it.  Like other corporate thugs of such disposition, it will do things within, and if necessary outside, the regulatory framework it encounters.  Where necessary, it will libel detractors and bribe critics, speak of a fictional number of as yet non-existent jobs, and claim that it is green in its coaling practices. It will also hire legal firms claiming to be trained attack dogs and hector the national broadcaster to pull unflattering stories from publication and discussion.

As a marauder of the environment, the Indian mining giant has left little to chance.  It has politicians friendly to its cause in Australia at both the state and federal level, but it faces an environmental movement that refuses to dissipate.  It also has a problem with environmental science, particularly in the area of water management.  Conditional approvals have been secured, albeit hurried in the aftermath of May’s federal election, and even here, further testing will have to be done.

Given the inconveniences posed by scientists wedded to methodology and technique, the company did not surprise in freedom of information findings by the environmental group Lock the Gate that it had asked the federal environment department for “a list of each person from CSIRO and Geoscience Australia involved in the review” of the Groundwater Dependent Ecosystem Management Plan (GDEMP) and Groundwater Monitoring and Management Plan (GMMP).

In a bullying note to the Department of Environment and Energy (DOEE) in January 25 this year, Hamish Manzi, head of the company’s environment and sustainability branch officiously gave a five day limit to the request, claiming that it “simply wants to know who is involved in the review to provide it with peace of mind that it is being treated fairly and that the review will not be hijacked by activists with a political, as opposed to scientific, agenda.”  Manzi had noted “recent press coverage regarding an anti-coal and/or anti-Adani bias potentially held by experts reviewing other Adani approvals.” For Manzi, the only expert worthy of that name would have to be sympathetic to the mining cause.

The corporate instinct is rarely on all fours with that of the scientific one.  The former seeks the accumulation of assets, profits and dividends; the latter tests hypotheses using a falsification system, a process that can only ever have fidelity to itself.  The corporate instinct is happy to forget troubling scientific outcomes, and, where necessary, corrupt it for its ends.  Where the science does not match, it is obviously the work of ill-motivated activists or those inconvenienced by conscience.

The Union of Concerned Scientists in February 2012, through its Scientific Integrity Program, supplied readers with a list of fields where science, and scientists, have been attacked or compromised.  More importantly, it notes how governments become the subject of influence, their decisions ever vulnerable to wobbling.  “Corporations attempt to exert influence at every step of the scientific and policy-making processes, often to shape decisions in their favour or avoid regulation and monitoring of their products and by-products at the public’s expense.  In so doing, they often attempt to fundamentally alter the decision-making process.”

The methods of corrupting science are not exhaustive, but the UCS report suggests a view tried ones.  Research, for instance, is either held up by the company in question or terminated.  Scientists are intimidated or coerced through threats to job security, defunding and litigation.  Defective methodologies in testing and research are embraced.  Scientific articles are ghost written, with corporate sponsorship blurred.  Negative results are slyly under-reported; positive results are glowingly celebrated. And never forget good old fashioned vilification.

The FOI documents regarding Adani’s conduct show the company as a witch doctor wooing the federal government into timed releases of information and an obsession with preventing a broader public discussion of findings.  A January 9 email from Adani to DOEE demanded that CSIRO/GA reports not be circulated to third parties or the public.  The next day, the department obligingly informed the company that it would only share advice with Queensland’s Department of Environment and Science.

The uncovered documents also show a certain degree of cyber stalking at play.  On January 15, a staff member of Geoscience Australia wrote to DOEE expressing concern that the company had viewed LinkedIn profiles of employees.  Such concerns did little to ruffle the growing accord between the department and the company.

The abdication of government to the corporate sector is one of the more troubling features of this tawdry chapter in Australian non-governance.  Corporate giants know they must enlist the support of representatives who they can trust to be of sound mind.  History is replete with successful lobbying efforts in the name of corrupted science.

In 2007, ReGen Biologics, a New Jersey company, faced a sceptical Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concerned with Menaflex, a device intended to replace knee cartilage.  With the FDA’s rejection came a mobilisation effort.  Politicians were sought and cultivated.  In December that year, Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, and Rep. Steve Rothman all wrote to FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach.  The Commissioner’s ear had been bended sufficiently to lead to a new review headed by Dr Daniel Schultz, head of the FDA’s medical devices division.  Scepticism vanished; the product was approved.  In 2010, a shamefaced FDA had to concede that it had erred and duly revoked approval.

Instead of defending practices of departments and professionals engaged in the task of assessing the merits of such ventures, individuals such as the Australian deputy prime minister suggest that Adani might have a point in its heavy-handed enthusiasm to root out contrarians.  In Michael McCormack’s view, Adani “were made to jump through more environmental hoops than perhaps any previous project in the nation.”  They merely “wanted to determine… that those arguing against their proposals were not just some quasi anti-development groups or individuals.”  The thug’s narrative has found a home in the hearts of the anti-scientific representatives that currently rule the Canberra roost. Scientists have been warned.

Out of Kilter: National Security and Press Freedoms in Australia

Australian society relishes secrecy and surveillance.  Forget the laid-back, relaxed demeanour that remains the great fiction of a confected identity; like all such creations, the trace should not be mistaken as the tendency.  The political culture of Australia remains shaped by penal paranoia and an indifference to transparency.  The citizen is not to be trusted; rather, the subject is to be policed and regulated into apathetic submission.

The statute books of the federal parliament are larded with provisions of secrecy that make doing credible journalism in the country nigh impossible.  Journalists are left to their own devices, inventive as these might be, assisted by the odd prized leak.

The Australian Federal Police raids executed last month on the home of a News Corp journalist and the Sydney headquarters of the ABC had, for the clandestine community operating in the capitals of Australia, a surprise.  A usually divided fraternity came together in one voice, attempting to challenge the warrants and seek reform on matters related to press freedoms.

Media organisations would like to see parliament perform its functions, namely in the field of passing legislation that would enhance Freedom of Information provisions, arm press outlets with the means to contest warrants aimed at journalists, furnish whistleblowers with credible protections, and tilt the balance away from the national security grand inquisitor that seems to prevail in Canberra.

Understanding Canberra and the public service, however, is to understand a form of studied stasis, an effort to stymie change.  Ideas tend to go there to find cold storage if not expire altogether. The way to keep them in cold storage and throw away the key is to set up an inquiry, with all the baubles and tinsels of cheap accountability.

This is the preferred approach of the Morrison government, knowing that such an inquiry will be guaranteed to kill off any reform drive.  (Four months should do it: the inquiry is due to report on October 17.)  In his letter to the opposition leader Anthony Albanese, Prime Minister Scott Morrison informed his counterpart that, “The Government is committed to ensuring our democracy strikes the right balance between a free press and keeping Australians safe – two fundamental tenets of our democracy.”

Knowing the hostility this government, and its predecessors, have had to the only press freedom that matters – exposing abuses of state and corporate power – the limitations have already been inked.

One way of ensuring a smidgen of reform, if at all, is to use the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS), a body of approved politicians who can be trusted to do the right thing by secrecy and security.  Independents are excluded; contrarians are barred. Morrison claims the PJCIS is “well placed to conduct this inquiry given its responsibility for, and experience in, handling issues concerning national security information and legislation”.  Whatever qualifications the sitting members will have, their most valued pre-requisite is the capacity for premature adjudication of the problem, adjusted to satisfy the security apologists.

Andrew Wilkie, the independent MP more qualified than most to sit on the committee, makes the point starkly.  “The Labor and Liberal-dominated PJCIS is part of the problem because it’s signed off on every unnecessary security reform in recent history.”

To permit the committee the means and latitude to decide that balance on press freedom and security would be the equivalent of granting full powers of determination to a taxidermist over your favourite pet.  Denis Muller sees this as foxes guarding henhouses or poachers overseeing game-keeping.

The PJCIS has been one of the most important entities behind approving the shabby Australian national security state, a clumsy creation that does nothing to improve security let alone preserve freedoms.  Its members are terrified by technology and the Internet, and see any effort to restrain their reach as necessary to protect Australians.

Wilkie reminds us of the dubious resume of the PJCIS. “Who could forget the controversial data retention bill of 2015 and just last year the encryption bill?  In both cases the PJCIS recommended some tweaks around the edges, but… recommended the bills be passed, despite the serious concerns about both.”  While the European Union makes strides against such inefficient and dangerous policies as data retention, Australian governments embrace them with a relish for anachronism.

The inquiry hopes to assess, in part, “Whether and in what circumstances there could be contested hearings in relation to warrants authorising investigative action in relation to journalists and media organisations; (and) the appropriateness of thresholds of law enforcement for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access electronic data on devices used by … media organisations.”  A full agenda for reform is guaranteed to be avoided.

Labor, in turn, is trying to shore up its poor parliamentary performance of late in attempting to set up a second, separate inquiry free of the clutches of the PJCIS.  That inquiry makes explicit reference to the “public’s right to know and press freedom”. Senator Kristina Keneally, shadow minister for home affairs, notes a prevailing “culture of secrecy and perverting the public’s right to know that has been making its way through this government for too long.”  In unwittingly casting such stones in the glass house, she ignores the record of previous Labor governments with similar leanings towards the national security state.

The parliamentary committee has its defenders in the Canberra set, relieved that the matter will be contained.  Jacinta Carroll, as director of national security policy at the National Security College at ANU, can be relied upon to sing the appropriate, pro-secrecy tune.  “The PJCIS is the appropriate body to undertake this review, as it’s made up of elected representatives of the people in Australia, and it’s also an established and expert body in the matter at hand.” Any praise for such committees should be met with scepticism, and her willingness to accept the supposedly useful function it performs suggests capitulation rather than engagement.

Carroll’s they-know-best tone is schoolmarmish and characterises the befuddlement of the security hacks.  She accepts, in tokenistic fashion, that, “A functioning and vibrant democracy is characterised by engaged civil society and informed debate.”  As Australian democracy is not vibrant, and lacks oxygen for a civil society struggling to fend off the regulators and spooks, her observation has little bearing on reality.

Given all that, she still insists, as the inquiry takes place, that all “maintain the focus on being informed about the complexities, nuances and competing interests at play, and not be lured into an oversimplified debate.”  Read: let bought parliamentarians seduced by national security briefs and their promoters dictate the balance.  The parents know best.

Matters of Water: Dubious Approvals and the Adani Carmichael Mine

When a company wields such power that it can cause a Minister to rush an approval process, cut corners and make significant errors, it is cause for serious concern.

— Kelly O’Shanassy, Australian Conservation Foundation, June 12, 2019

While the proposal is of a diminished monster, the travails over Adani’s efforts to open up the Galilee Basin in Queensland to mining have yielded fruit. Brute corporate strength, and the customary cowering of politicians, has seen an Indian mining giant gain approval for the construction of the Carmichael mine.  Many a stick and carrot were procured in the endeavour, and the outcome of the ballot box in May, returning a pro-coal Coalition government, was always going to have some propulsion.

The environmental aspects of the case have been gradually sidelined and placed in storage.  Prior to the federal election, Queensland’s Labor government was expressing reservations, suggesting stonewalling and vacillation.  A divide between the metropolitan centre and the rural areas was being teased at the federal level: areas where a mining development might create jobs was touted as a drawcard; the metropolitan centre was deemed indulgently green, coffee-sipping and distant.

The drawcard aspect was trumpeted by the Queensland Resources Council: “The Adani Carmichael mine is one of six in the Galilee Basin that could create tens of thousands of jobs in construction and operation and deliver billions of dollars in royalties over their working lifespan.”  At the same time, there were concerns about irreversible environmental damage, the sort that could only be dealt with by means of management plans.  The versions, and delays, proliferated.

This left the state Palaszczuk government, despite a fear of wobbling, still keen to let the Queensland environmental regulator decide, a vain attempt to keep politics out of the equation.  The season was not a good one for the thorough minded. The federal government had essentially muzzled the then Environment Minister Melissa Price prior to the election, weighing upon her to approve aspects of the project.  It was then left to the state government to consider the water management plans.

All sense of permitting the regulator to engage in its quest unmolested were banished by Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.  The electoral outcome at the federal level had unhinged her.  She was “fed up” at delays at both federal and state level. The Environment Department was given the due hurry up.  Last Thursday, the approval for Adani came through.  Queensland Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch, rather unconvincingly, suggested that the process had been robust and cognisant of “some of the most rigorous environmental protections in the country”.  Former general manager for water allocation and planning in the Queensland government Tom Crothers saw it differently.  “Science has been thrown in the bin for political expediency.”

Federal Resources Minister Matt Canavan, who remains cocooned by environmental denial and coal rich nirvana, was visibly delighted at this next stage in the Adani saga.  “It has been more than 50 years since a new coal basin has opened in Queensland, so this development is of huge importance to the economic future of Queensland.”

Adani Australia’s chief executive Lucas Dow expressed his “excitement” as well he might but seems to have put the cart well ahead of the horse in terms of the number of jobs promised.  A number he previously subscribed to was 1,500 direct jobs, to be made in north and central Queensland.  Another 6,750 indirect jobs would spring forth during “the ramp-up and construction phase”. But numbers, as they can in any induced fantasy, vary.

Deputy Nationals leader Bridget McKenzie has claimed that a hundred ongoing jobs could be assured while Federal Nationals MP Michelle Landry, despite championing the mine as a creator of votes in her seat of Capricornia, professes to having no idea about numbers.

Not all pro-coal voices have warmed to the decision.  Alan Jones, who rules the Sydney airwaves from the 2GB radio station made the obvious point that the Queensland Environment Department “would have been under massive political pressure to approve Adani’s groundwater management plan.”

There are, however, several knotting twists.  No actual digging of coal will take place till pipeline and railway matters are sorted out, though box cut mining may take place at the site itself.  Then comes the understanding that the mining company will do further work over the next two years to identify alternative sources of that most precious of resources: water.  Giving Adani approval to mine may be tantamount to sentencing the Permian aquifers (Colinlea) to extinction, a point that featured in the Queensland Environment Department’s order that the mining company install a new bore.  Further approvals will be needed regarding the impact on the Doongbulla Springs.

As Jones points out, “hydrogeochemical analysis of groundwater from different springs” will be undertaken, suggesting that approval, while it has been granted, has been done in circumstances of considerable ignorance: “no one seems to know what will happen to [the] groundwater.”  The new bores will also be subjected to isotopic analysis and air sampling.

The contingent nature of any such analysis has coloured the overall assessments, further suggesting the dangers in any continuation of the project. When the Queensland Environment Department consulted the scientific bodies of CSIRO and Geoscience Australia, it received little in the way of certitude.  Both “confirmed that some level of uncertainly in geological and groundwater conceptual models always exists.”

Another twist is a legal one. When Price had the federal portfolio, she decided, all too conveniently, to ignore the “water trigger” feature to the pipeline element of Adani’s proposal, one that would require 12.5 billion litres of water a year.  Deemed an essential feature in assessing the impacts of large coal and coal seam gas projects on water, Price avoided it altogether. This led to a challenge from the Australian Conservation Foundation in December 2018.

The case duly expanded to incorporate an additional dimension.  Wading through public submissions, especially in the order of 2,200, takes time, and expedient politics, by its nature, resists care and consideration.  One tends to rule out the other.

In an underreported feature of the approvals, last week’s legal victory of the ACF in the Federal Court against the assessment of Adani’s North Galilee Water Scheme shifted focus back to the federal government.  As ACF’s Chief Executive Kelly O’Shanassy put it, “The government conceded it did not properly consider more than 2,000 public submissions from Australians with concerns about the mine and the water scheme.”  Submissions had also gone missing. The environmental laws had been applied with carefree shoddiness.  The result is that the proposal will return for consideration by the new Environment Minister, Sussan Ley.

The road is a potted one, but the opening of the Galilee Basin will be, not merely an environmental crime but one inflicted with irresponsible futility.  Sensing that point, the banks and insurers have already ruled themselves out in funding the venture.  Indian demand for coal will diminish, however much it is being heralded now as a moral entitlement to development, and the white, albeit dirty elephant that is Adani’s mining project will remain a travesty of optimistic human barbarism.

Abuses Show Assange Case was Never About Law

It is astonishing how often one still hears well-informed, otherwise reasonable people say about Julian Assange: “But he ran away from Swedish rape charges by hiding in Ecuador’s embassy in London.”

That short sentence includes at least three factual errors. In fact, to repeat it, as so many people do, you would need to have been hiding under a rock for the past decade – or, amounting to much the same thing, been relying on the corporate media for your information about Assange, including from supposedly liberal outlets such as the Guardian and the BBC.

At the weekend, a Guardian editorial – the paper’s official voice and probably the segment most scrutinised by senior staff – made just such a false claim:

Then there is the rape charge that Mr Assange faced in Sweden and which led him to seek refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in the first place.

The fact that the Guardian, supposedly the British media’s chief defender of liberal values, can make this error-strewn statement after nearly a decade of Assange-related coverage is simply astounding. And that it can make such a statement days after the US finally admitted that it wants to lock up Assange for 175 years on bogus “espionage” charges – a hand anyone who wasn’t being wilfully blind always knew the US was preparing to play – is still more shocking.

Assange faces no charges in Sweden yet, let alone “rape charges”. As former UK ambassador Craig Murray recently explained, the Guardian has been misleading readers by falsely claiming that an attempt by a Swedish prosecutor to extradite Assange – even though the move has not received the Swedish judiciary’s approval – is the same as his arrest on rape charges. It isn’t.

Also, Assange did not seek sanctuary in the embassay to evade the Swedish investigation. No state in the world gives a non-citizen political asylum to avoid a rape trial. The asylum was granted on political grounds. Ecuador rightly accepted Assange’s concerns that the US would seek his extradition and lock him out of sight for the rest of his life.

Assange, of course, has been proven – yet again – decisively right by recent developments.

Trapped in herd-think

The fact that so many ordinary people keep making these basic errors has a very obvious explanation. It is because the corporate media keep making these errors.

These are is not the kind of mistakes that can be explained away as an example of what one journalist has termed the problem of “churnalism”: the fact that journalists, chasing breaking news in offices depleted of staff by budget cuts, are too overworked to cover stories properly.

British journalists have had many years to get the facts straight. In an era of social media, journalists at the Guardian and the BBC have been bombarded by readers and activists with messages telling them how they are getting basic facts wrong in the Assange case. But the journalists keep doing it anyway. They are trapped in a herd-think entirely divorced from reality.

Rather than listen to experts, or common sense, these “journalists” keep regurgitating the talking points of the British security state, which are as good as identical to the talking points of the US security state.

What is so striking in the Assange coverage is the sheer number of legal anomalies in his case – and these have been accumulating relentlessly from the very start. Almost nothing in his case has gone according to the normal rules of legal procedure. And yet that very revealing fact is never noticed or commented on by the corporate media. You need to have a blind spot the size of Langley, Virginia, not to notice it.

If Assange wasn’t the head of Wikileaks, if he hadn’t embarrassed the most important western states and their leaders by divulging their secrets and crimes, if he hadn’t created a platform that allows whistleblowers to reveal the outrages committed by the western power establishment, if he hadn’t undermined that establishment’s control over information dissemination, none of the last 10 years would have followed the course it did.

If Assange had not provided us with an information revolution that undermines the narrative matrix created to serve the US security state, two Swedish women – unhappy with Assange’s sexual etiquette – would have gotten exactly what they said in their witness statements they wanted: pressure from the Swedish authorities to make him take an HIV test to give them peace of mind.

He would have been allowed back to the UK (as he, in fact, was allowed to do by the Swedish prosecutor) and would have gotten on with developing and refining the Wikileaks project. That would have helped all of us to become more critically aware of how we are being manipulated – not only by our security services but also by the corporate media that so often act as their mouthpiece.

Which is precisely why that did not happen and why Assange has been under some form of detention since 2010. Since then, his ability to perform his role as exposer of serial high-level state crimes has been ever more impeded – to the point now that he may never be able to oversee and direct Wikileaks ever again.

His current situation – locked up in Belmarsh high-security prison, in solitary confinement and deprived of access to a computer and all meaningful contact with the outside world – is so far based solely on the fact that he committed a minor infraction, breaching his police bail. Such a violation, committed by anyone else, almost never incurs prosecution, let alone a lengthy jail sentence.

So here is a far from complete list – aided by the research of John Pilger, Craig Murray and Caitlin Johnstone, and the original investigative work of Italian journalist Stefania Maurizi – of some of the most glaring anomalies in Assange’s legal troubles. There are 17 of them below. Each might conceivably have been possible in isolation. But taken together they are overwhelming evidence that this was never about enforcing the law. From the start, Assange faced political persecution.

No judicial authority

* In late summer 2010, neither of the two Swedish women alleged Assange had raped them when they made police statements. They went together to the police station after finding out that Assange had slept with them both only a matter of days apart and wanted him to be forced to take an HIV test. One of the women, SW, refused to sign the police statement when she understood the police were seeking an indictment for rape. The investigation relating to the second woman, AA, was for a sexual assault specific to Sweden. A condom produced by AA that she says Assange tore during sex was found to have neither her nor Assange’s DNA on it, undermining her credibility.

* Sweden’s strict laws protecting suspects during preliminary investigations were violated by the Swedish media to smear Assange as a rapist. In response, the Stockholm chief prosecutor, Eva Finne, took charge and quickly cancelled the investigation: “I don’t believe there is any reason to suspect that he has committed rape.” She later concluded: “There is no suspicion of any crime whatsoever.”

* The case was revived by another prosecutor, Marianne Ny, although she never questioned Assange. He spent more than a month in Sweden waiting for developments in the case, but was then told by prosecutors he was free to leave for the UK, suggesting that suspicions against him were not considered serious enough to detain him in Sweden. Nonetheless, shortly afterwards, Interpol issued a Red Notice for Assange, usually reserved for terrorists and dangerous criminals.

* The UK supreme court approved an extradition to Sweden based on a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) in 2010, despite the fact that it was not signed by a “judicial authority”, only by the Swedish prosecutor. The terms of the EAW agreement were amended by the UK government shortly after the Assange ruling to make sure such an abuse of legal procedure never occurred again.

* The UK supreme court also approved Assange’s extradition even though Swedish authorities refused to offer an assurance that he would not be extradited onwards to the US, where a grand jury was already formulating draconian charges in secret against him under the Espionage Act. The US similarly refused to give an assurance they would not seek his extradition.

* In these circumstances, Assange fled to Ecuador’s embassy in London in summer 2012, seeking political asylum. That was after the Swedish prosecutor, Marianne Ny, blocked Assange’s chance to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

* Australia not only refused Assange, a citizen, any help during his long ordeal, but prime minister Julia Gillard even threatened to strip Assange of his citizenship, until it was pointed out that it would be illegal for Australia to do so.

* Britain, meanwhile, not only surrounded the embassy with a large police force at great public expense, but William Hague, the foreign secretary, threatened to tear up the Vienna Convention, violating Ecuador’s diplomatic territory by sending UK police into the embassy to arrest Assange.

Six years of heel-dragging

* Although Assange was still formally under investigation, Ny refused to come to London to interview him, despite similar interviews having been conducted by Swedish prosecutors 44 times in the UK in the period Assange was denied that right.

* In 2016, international legal experts in the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which adjudicates on whether governments have complied with human rights obligations, ruled that Assange was being detained unlawfully by Britain and Sweden. Although both countries participated in the UN investigation, and had given the tribunal vocal support when other countries were found guilty of human rights violations, they steadfastly ignored its ruling in favour of Assange. UK Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond flat-out lied in claiming the UN panel was “made up of lay people and not lawyers”. The tribunal comprises leading experts in international law, as is clear from their CVs. Nonetheless, the lie became Britain’s official response to the UN ruling. The British media performed no better. A Guardian editorial dismissed the verdict as nothing more than a “publicity stunt”.

* Ny finally relented on Assange being interviewed in November 2016, with a Swedish prosecutor sent to London after six years of heel-dragging. However, Assange’s Swedish lawyer was barred from being present. Ny was due to be questioned about the interview by a Stockholm judge in May 2017 but closed the investigation against Assange the very same day.

* In fact, correspondence that was later revealed under a Freedom of Information request – pursued by Italian investigative journalist Stefania Maurizi – shows that the British prosecution service, the CPS, pressured the Swedish prosecutor not to come to the London to interview Assange through 2010 and 2011, thereby creating the embassy standoff.

* Also, the CPS destroyed most of the incriminating correspondence to circumvent the FoI requests. The emails that surfaced did so only because some copies were accidentally overlooked in the destruction spree. Those emails were bad enough. They show that in 2013 Sweden had wanted to drop the case against Assange but had come under strong British pressure to continue the pretence of seeking his extradition. There are emails from the CPS stating, “Don’t you dare” drop the case, and most revealing of all: “Please do not think this case is being dealt with as just another extradition.”

* It also emerged that Marianne Ny had deleted an email she received from the FBI.

* Despite his interview with a Swedish prosecutor taking place in late 2016, Assange was not subseqently charged in absentia – an option Sweden could have pursued if it had thought the evidence was strong enough.

* After Sweden dropped the investigation against Assange, his lawyers sought last year to get the British arrest warrant for his bail breach dropped. They had good grounds, both because the allegations over which he’d been bailed had been dropped by Sweden and because he had justifiable cause to seek asylum given the apparent US interest in extraditing him and locking him up for life for political crimes. His lawyers could also argue convincingly that the time he had spent in confinement, first under house arrest and then in the embassy, was more than equivalent to time, if any, that needed to be served for the bail infringement. However, the judge, Emma Arbuthnot, rejected the Assange team’s strong legal arguments. She was hardly a dispassionate observer. In fact, in a properly ordered world she should have recused herself, given that she is the wife of a government whip, who was also a business partner of a former head of MI6, Britain’s version of the CIA.

* Assange’s legal rights were again flagrantly violated last week, with the collusion of Ecuador and the UK, when US prosecutors were allowed to seize Assange’s personal items from the embassy while his lawyers and UN officials were denied the right to be present.

Information dark ages

Even now, as the US prepares its case to lock Assange away for the rest of his life, most are still refusing to join the dots. Chelsea Manning has been repeatedly jailed, and is now facing ruinous fines for every day she refuses to testify against Assange as the US desperately seeks to prop up its bogus espionage claims. In Medieval times, the authorities were more honest: they simply put people on the rack.

Back in 2017, when the rest of the media were still pretending this was all about Assange fleeing Swedish “justice”, John Pilger noted:

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.” …

According to Australian diplomatic cables, Washington’s bid to get Assange is “unprecedented in scale and nature”. …

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. …

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.

All of this information was available to any journalist or newspaper  that cared to search it out and wished to publicise it. And yet not one corporate media outlet – apart from Stefania Maurizi – has done so over the past nine years. Instead they have shored up a series of preposterous US and UK state narratives designed to keep Assange behind bars and propel the rest of us back into the information dark ages.

Warring Against Sources: The Australian National Security State, Journalism and the Public Interest

What’s gone on this morning sends clear and dangerous signals to journalists and newsrooms across Australia.  This will chill public interest reporting.

— News Corp Australia spokesperson, The West Australian, June 4, 2019

These are dark times for journalists and publishers.  It did not seem coincidental that Annika Smethurst, a News Corp journalist and political affairs editor, would be a target of an Australian Federal Police warrant.  Chelsea Manning, courtesy of a ruling by Judge Anthony Trenga, remains in federal custody in the United States.  Julian Assange is facing decline in the maximum security abode that is Belmarsh prison in the United Kingdom.

The story supposedly linked to the AFP warrant had been published by Smethurst on April 29, 2018. More than a year had elapsed, with little in the way of public murmurings.  Australians have, for the most part, fallen under the anaesthetist’s spell regarding intrusive, unnecessary and dangerous national security laws.  Another set of them would hardly matter.

But since the story, titled “Let Us Spy on Aussies” broke last year, the security wallahs have been attempting to root out the source, mobilising the AFP in the process.  The account detailed information on discussions between the Home Affairs and Defence departments on the possibility of granting the Australian Signals Directorate powers to monitor the emails, bank records and text messages of Australian citizens.  Letters between Secretary of Home Affairs Mike Pezzullo and Defence Secretary Greg Moriarty featured.

When the archaic official secrets provisions of the Crimes Act 1914 (Cth) were repealed in June 29 2018, leaving way for new regulations dealing with national security information, those dealing with publishing such material felt slight relief.  A public interest defence, lodged in the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign) Interference Act 2018, had been introduced, protecting those “engaged in the business of reporting news, presenting current affairs or expressing editorial or other content in news media”.

The content in question might cover what the Act designates to be “inherently harmful information”: security classified information; information obtained by, or made by or on behalf of, a domestic intelligence agency or a foreign intelligence agency in connection with the agency’s functions; or information on “the operations, capabilities or technologies of, or methods or sources used by, a domestic or foreign law enforcement agency.”

It always pays, when reading such sections, to consider the exceptions.  Conduct deemed a contravention of provisions regarding intelligence sources (the publication of names or identity of staff, for instance), does not satisfy the test, nor conduct deemed to assist, directly or indirectly, “a foreign intelligence agency or a foreign military organisation.”  Logical, you might say.

The ineffectual nature of those provisions is borne out by how narrow the protection is. The Law Council’s efforts to convince the federal government to extend the public interest defence to suppliers of the information was rejected, leaving the way open for such cases as Smethurst’s: spare the journalist but attack the source.  According to Law Council president Arthur Moses, the protection is shabby, a mere “mirage because it does not cover a journalist’s source.”

The other unspoken and unscripted assumption is how anaemic public interest defences work in Australian law.  Its operation starts from a reverse premise from US analogues, privileging the necessity of ignorance against the dangers of revelation.  The government keeps you ignorant for your own good; material published might be inimical to the public interest, but that “interest” is always that of the state, not the general citizenry.

So we come to the morning of June 4, with Smethurst readying to leave for work, only to witness Australian Federal Police bearing down heavily with a warrant.  A statement from the AFP subsequently confirmed that it had “executed a search warrant at a residence in the ACT suburb of Kingston today (4 June 2019)” on a matter relating “to an investigation into the alleged unauthorised disclosure of national security information that was referred to the AFP.”  The AFP “will allege the unauthorised disclosure of these specific documents undermines Australia’s security.”

The gravity of the allegations was affirmed in an update: “This warrant relates to the alleged publishing of information classified as an official secret, which is an extremely serious matter with the potential to undermine Australia’s national security.”

The incident in Canberra proved catching.  Hours after the AFP’s move on Smethurst, radio 2GB Drive presenter and Sky News contributor Ben Fordham revealed that he had also been the subject of an investigation after discussing the attempt of six asylum seeker boats to reach Australia.  The story piqued the interest of a Department of Home Affairs official, who proceeded to scold Fordham’s producer for discussing “highly confidential” material.  “In other words,” explained the broadcaster bluntly, “we weren’t supposed to know about it.”

In the course of Wednesday morning, with no settling of dust in order, a second raid by the AFP was executed against the Sydney offices of the national broadcaster, the ABC. Those named in the warrant – investigative journalists Dan Oakes and Sam Clark, along with ABC director of news Gaven Morris – were linked to The Afghan Files, a set of ghoulish stories in 2017 revealing allegations of unlawful killings by Australian special forces in Afghanistan.  Australia’s national security state has gotten very busy indeed.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, when pressed about Smethurst’s case, was untroubled.  Having played the role of fatherly minder of the Australian nation, he was not going to let any alleged breach of security go by.  Currently on a visit to the United Kingdom, he expressed little concern about the morning raid on a journalist’s home: “it never troubles me that our laws are being upheld.”

While News Corp has its demonic familiars (Rupert Murdoch’s influence hangs heavily), it was hard to disagree with the premise advanced by a spokesperson.  “This raid demonstrates a dangerous act of intimidation towards those committed to telling uncomfortable truths.  The raid was outrageous and heavy handed.”

The Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery, voicing agreement, considered the police raid “an outrageous move that should concern all Australians who value their freedom in an open society.”  With confidence, the statement asserted that it was “in the public interest for us to know of any plan for greater powers to monitor our messages.”

Chris Merritt, legal affairs editor of The Australian, saw the raid as an ominous signal to all investigative scribblers.  “Welcome to modern Australia – a nation where police raid journalists in order to track down and punish the exposure of leaks inside the federal government”.  But such an Australia was also chugging along merrily before the raid on Smethurst’s home.  (Like the unsuspecting priest living in a dystopian surveillance state, the police finally came for them.)

Should Assange ever make a return to the country of his birth, he is unlikely to find peace in this US satellite state, with its flimsy public disclosure and whistleblowing laws, its mirage-like protections.  Hunting publishers, journalists and their sources is de rigueur down under.

A Great Flushing Out: Social Media Footprints and Electioneering in Australia

It has been an uninspiring election, punctuated by occasional moments of madness on the part of various candidates.  Their sin was to be incautious in their previous use of social media, a form of communication that reveals everything and nothing about a person.  In a political sense, the erring tweet and the injudicious remark on an online forum have laid waste to incipient political careers and ambitions.

This is a far cry from the supposedly mighty role the use of social media was meant to have in participatory politics.  Now, the chickens have come home to roost in various unexpected ways.  Social media outlets are condemned for being platforms for misinformation and manipulation (the horror!) and tech giants are given daily tongue lashings by politicians and representatives for not being online Bobbies.

Paradoxically, these are the same critics who have been more than happy to embrace such media to access voters at virtually no cost.  As President Donald J. Trump once explained on his use of Twitter, “I like it because I can get my point of view out there, and my point of view is very important to a lot of people that are looking at me.”  Various surges in the polls by presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders in 2016 were occasioned by a conspicuous and aggressive presence on social media relative to his rival, Hillary Clinton.  In Britain, the rise of Jeremy Corbyn to the position of Labour leader was very much boosted by a dedicated social media following.

Social media in this Australian federal election has done quite the opposite: rather than advancing profiles and improving visibility for the candidate, mistakes have been noted, and previous misbehaviour drawn out as grave errors of judgment.  Bad speech has been picked up and prosecuted by the machine men and women of various parties.  Resignations have been encouraged, and, in some cases, forced.

These instances have provided marvellous distractions from policy, fitting for those who do not have any.  “The offensive remarks,” noted The New York Times, “have forced at least six candidates for Parliament to quit, while many more linger like zombies – most of them from the conservative governing coalition and other parties on the right.”

The range of comments, for all the unsavoury nature, would not have seemed out of place in previous elections.  Susan Harris-Rimmer, a law academic at Griffith University, expressed amazement “that these people are being asked to resign, because a lot of this stuff would have been seen as normal a few years ago.”  It was “a bit of a sign of success that they’re being forced to leave.”  Harris-Rimmer ignores that obvious point that such individuals do not leave so much as retreat to the party undergrowth.

Has Australian politics suddenly become righteous?  A sense of proportion is in order, and social media is precisely the medium that distorts it.  Rage is magnified, as are errors.  Idiotic behaviour, probably mandatory for a teenager, is rendered immutable if it touches on rape humour or sexual observation.  Luke Creasey, an urchin-looking Labor candidate running in Melbourne, expressed contrition at doing so but ultimately fell on his sword.  He acknowledged making “those awful comments many years ago and they in no way reflect the views I hold today,” claimed Creasey in a statement.  He understood “especially as a member of the LGBTIQ community, that we need to be careful about what we share or like on social media.”

Others have been somewhat fresher in their sins.  Jessica Whelan, formerly a Liberal candidate running in the seat of Lyons, came undone with the airing of various social media posts in the Tasmanian parliament.  In 2017, Whelan’s response to a woman regarding public housing waiting lists was piquant: “Given that your profile states that you went to college at ‘never lose hope in Allah’… I hope you’re not bloody on our housing waiting list.”  Another, addressed to a Facebook video purportedly showing American Muslim and non-Muslim women praying together, was similarly direct.  “Round them up Donald, cut their clitorises off and sell them to Muslims in Muslim countries and cancel their passports.  You’ll make a mint.”

Jeremy Hearn, also of the Liberal Party, was binned for anti-Muslim remarks made in 2018.  Those sinister warriors of Allah (“people of bad character”), he said pointedly, had been insinuating themselves into the landscape, concealing their true intentions in wishing to overthrow the Australian government.

Not to be outdone, Peter Killin, another Liberal candidate, resigned after attacking his own colleague and member for Goldstein, Tim Wilson, in a comments thread of a blog post by Christian conservative blogger Bill Muehlenberg.  While contesting the seat of Wills in Melbourne’s inner-north, Killin made no secret of the fact that he was against the pre-selection of Wilson for Goldstein, who had won by “one lousy vote” in 2016.  “Many of us will recall [Wilson] was the openly homosexual who proposed to his boyfriend in parliment [sic].”

One of the last holdouts – and there are no doubt a few more lurking – was Gurpal Singh, Liberal candidate for Scullin.  What eventually pushed him?  Not remarks made in 2017 equating same-sex marriage with paedophilic tendencies.  It took Facebook comments to an SBS article written in 2018 expressing disagreement with an allegation of rape made by a Punjabi woman against her husband.  “Based on new information that has come to light,” explained a Liberal party spokesman, “Mr Gurpal Singh has been asked to resign as candidate for Scullin.”  Singh called it “shameful that a married woman suffering family violence can go to such extent” having “skimmed her lover, husband and father of her two children for all these years.”

Perversely, in an era characterised by episodic Twitter deluges by a US President, many bruising and scornful of political correctness, Australian politics shows a far more regulated concern for the red mist of online commentary.  The social media scrubbers within the parties have gotten busy.  Tweet and be damned; share, and face the consequences.  In Creasey’s own warning, “this is a really important lesson for young people that your social media footprint will follow you.”

A Great Flushing Out: Social Media Footprints and Electioneering in Australia

It has been an uninspiring election, punctuated by occasional moments of madness on the part of various candidates.  Their sin was to be incautious in their previous use of social media, a form of communication that reveals everything and nothing about a person.  In a political sense, the erring tweet and the injudicious remark on an online forum have laid waste to incipient political careers and ambitions.

This is a far cry from the supposedly mighty role the use of social media was meant to have in participatory politics.  Now, the chickens have come home to roost in various unexpected ways.  Social media outlets are condemned for being platforms for misinformation and manipulation (the horror!) and tech giants are given daily tongue lashings by politicians and representatives for not being online Bobbies.

Paradoxically, these are the same critics who have been more than happy to embrace such media to access voters at virtually no cost.  As President Donald J. Trump once explained on his use of Twitter, “I like it because I can get my point of view out there, and my point of view is very important to a lot of people that are looking at me.”  Various surges in the polls by presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders in 2016 were occasioned by a conspicuous and aggressive presence on social media relative to his rival, Hillary Clinton.  In Britain, the rise of Jeremy Corbyn to the position of Labour leader was very much boosted by a dedicated social media following.

Social media in this Australian federal election has done quite the opposite: rather than advancing profiles and improving visibility for the candidate, mistakes have been noted, and previous misbehaviour drawn out as grave errors of judgment.  Bad speech has been picked up and prosecuted by the machine men and women of various parties.  Resignations have been encouraged, and, in some cases, forced.

These instances have provided marvellous distractions from policy, fitting for those who do not have any.  “The offensive remarks,” noted The New York Times, “have forced at least six candidates for Parliament to quit, while many more linger like zombies – most of them from the conservative governing coalition and other parties on the right.”

The range of comments, for all the unsavoury nature, would not have seemed out of place in previous elections.  Susan Harris-Rimmer, a law academic at Griffith University, expressed amazement “that these people are being asked to resign, because a lot of this stuff would have been seen as normal a few years ago.”  It was “a bit of a sign of success that they’re being forced to leave.”  Harris-Rimmer ignores that obvious point that such individuals do not leave so much as retreat to the party undergrowth.

Has Australian politics suddenly become righteous?  A sense of proportion is in order, and social media is precisely the medium that distorts it.  Rage is magnified, as are errors.  Idiotic behaviour, probably mandatory for a teenager, is rendered immutable if it touches on rape humour or sexual observation.  Luke Creasey, an urchin-looking Labor candidate running in Melbourne, expressed contrition at doing so but ultimately fell on his sword.  He acknowledged making “those awful comments many years ago and they in no way reflect the views I hold today,” claimed Creasey in a statement.  He understood “especially as a member of the LGBTIQ community, that we need to be careful about what we share or like on social media.”

Others have been somewhat fresher in their sins.  Jessica Whelan, formerly a Liberal candidate running in the seat of Lyons, came undone with the airing of various social media posts in the Tasmanian parliament.  In 2017, Whelan’s response to a woman regarding public housing waiting lists was piquant: “Given that your profile states that you went to college at ‘never lose hope in Allah’… I hope you’re not bloody on our housing waiting list.”  Another, addressed to a Facebook video purportedly showing American Muslim and non-Muslim women praying together, was similarly direct.  “Round them up Donald, cut their clitorises off and sell them to Muslims in Muslim countries and cancel their passports.  You’ll make a mint.”

Jeremy Hearn, also of the Liberal Party, was binned for anti-Muslim remarks made in 2018.  Those sinister warriors of Allah (“people of bad character”), he said pointedly, had been insinuating themselves into the landscape, concealing their true intentions in wishing to overthrow the Australian government.

Not to be outdone, Peter Killin, another Liberal candidate, resigned after attacking his own colleague and member for Goldstein, Tim Wilson, in a comments thread of a blog post by Christian conservative blogger Bill Muehlenberg.  While contesting the seat of Wills in Melbourne’s inner-north, Killin made no secret of the fact that he was against the pre-selection of Wilson for Goldstein, who had won by “one lousy vote” in 2016.  “Many of us will recall [Wilson] was the openly homosexual who proposed to his boyfriend in parliment [sic].”

One of the last holdouts – and there are no doubt a few more lurking – was Gurpal Singh, Liberal candidate for Scullin.  What eventually pushed him?  Not remarks made in 2017 equating same-sex marriage with paedophilic tendencies.  It took Facebook comments to an SBS article written in 2018 expressing disagreement with an allegation of rape made by a Punjabi woman against her husband.  “Based on new information that has come to light,” explained a Liberal party spokesman, “Mr Gurpal Singh has been asked to resign as candidate for Scullin.”  Singh called it “shameful that a married woman suffering family violence can go to such extent” having “skimmed her lover, husband and father of her two children for all these years.”

Perversely, in an era characterised by episodic Twitter deluges by a US President, many bruising and scornful of political correctness, Australian politics shows a far more regulated concern for the red mist of online commentary.  The social media scrubbers within the parties have gotten busy.  Tweet and be damned; share, and face the consequences.  In Creasey’s own warning, “this is a really important lesson for young people that your social media footprint will follow you.”

Lowering Standards: Australian Universities, English Requirements and Student Cash Cows

There are no protests on the streets and no effigies of university officials being burned by protesting students today.  There are no protests outside the offices of the over-remunerated Vice Chancellors and their various hench persons.  It is business and malpractice as usual after revelations by Australia’s national broadcaster that Australian universities have been adjusting admission requirements to boost student numbers.  Standards have been cooked, if not waived altogether, on the issue of English proficiency.  Student bodies are the university equivalent of lebensraum: the expansive steppes of the Asian student market, to be exploited and leeched.

Since Australian universities first started entering the foreign market of education in 1986, a dependency on international students has taken a clenching, and corrupting hold.  Such students mean one thing: revenue.  Between 1988 and 2014, the number of international students at Australian universities climbed 13-fold.

Issues such as fudging results on language proficiency, false documents and online sites plump with ready-made material for submission, have proliferated.  But these instances enabled universities to play dumb: they were the ones facing unscrupulous students desperate to get an Australian minted education.  Universities could still claim that they, somehow or rather, were maintaining appropriate standards of admission, whatever those sly applicants might be up to.  A few might get through, but they would be found out and weeded into oblivion.

This façade has been comprehensively holed in recent years, and the brackish water is making its way through the system.  Universities, hungry and operating like famine stricken urchins, have been seeking more students than ever.  In 2015, the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) raked through the university system in that state, finding what it modestly called “corruption risks”.  To “intertwine compliance and profit rather than separating them, and to reward profit over compliance, can be conducive to questionable and corrupt behaviour.”  ICAC is almost sympathetic to the insidious behaviour of university apparatchiks: “Students may be struggling to pass, but universities cannot afford to fail them.” Wither standards!

The recommendations by ICAC were hardly upending in nature, going to, amongst other things, limiting the number of overseas agents with which universities are engaged; divorcing the issue of compliance from the issue of development “where feasible, which may include moving the admission functions out of international student offices that are responsible for marketing and recruitment”; and “considering the full costs associated with international students of different capabilities when making marketing decisions”.

As with other overgrown and self-serving bureaucracies, the modern university resists with a fanatic’s zeal, always happy to doff the cap to such suggestions while happy to expand, and in some cases refine, the abuse.  Which brings us to the Four Corner’s Report.

The picture painted is bleak for those believing in academic standards.  Since 2016, the Federal Government made a cardinal error: granting universities greater scope in determining the credibility of applications from students from certain countries, notably in such areas as English proficiency.  This was the equivalent of giving a bellicose military full scope and decision in making war, removing any civilian controls.

Education departments were cut out of the picture; universities were granted full dispensation to waive standards deemed unnecessary or onerous for the applicant.  Given the value of the education industry – $34 billion per annum – and a reduction in federal funding – this was a license to manipulate and omit.  Approvals from universities, submitted in visa applications, have ensured a smooth, and rapid approval process.  Andrew Durston, former employee of the Immigration Department, was adamant that the practice was yielding unsatisfactory, and spoiled fruit.  “I think there’s evidence to show that there are students who are being granted visas who haven’t actually undertaken an English language test.”

The practice of accepting “medium of instruction” (MOI) letters for postgraduate students from India and Nepal, for instance, stating that students have previously studied in English, has also caught the eye of the Home Affairs Department.  Such a letter would “not meet the legislative requirements” as evidence for a visa application.

This is an act of mutual harm. It denies the student a worthy assessment while also prostituting the application and any requisite standards of offered courses.  What matters is the issue of cash funnelled into corporations that, for the most part, have ceased achieving their public purpose.  They have become ungainly, mismanaged amalgams run by individuals who refrain from performing those dirty tasks of researching and teaching, preferring the cocktail circuit, spreadsheets and boardrooms.

University commissars have come out to deny the existence of any problem.  The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency sees “little evidence to suggest there is a systemic failure regarding compliance with English language requirements.”  Professor Margaret Gardner, Chair of Universities Australia, has access to “overall statistics” revealing that, “international students… pass successfully at about the same rate as domestic students.”  It has been years since the good professor taught a class let alone graded a paper; ignorance is such merry bliss.

There was one exception, if only a minor one.  The University of Tasmania was sufficiently alarmed by Monday’s program to consider a review, despite its Vice Chancellor Rufus Black suggesting how much the institution “intrinsically” cared about “international students”.  (Abusers always feign a degree of necessary caring.)  UTAS had featured in the investigation in a rather damning fashion: a staff member had sent an email outlining the money lust of a recruitment drive.  “As a part of our last-mile efforts to encourage acceptances for July 2018, the university will be waiving the English condition in order to assist the students who have yet to meet their English conditions.”  The true spirit of a standard-free recruitment drive.

When universities speak of an independent external review, both words tend to be suspect.  Pick your investigator, pick your result.  Importantly, pick a person of like mind and background to eliminate room for error and space for disruption.  In this case, the individual selected by the task of examining admission practices in UTAS is Hilary Winchester, director and principal of a company bearing her name, an expert, we are told in “higher education quality assurance”.

Combing through the exploits of Winchester reveals a pedigree that is bound to resist revolt and revolution; brooms and mops will be kept at home.  She is, after all, one of them, greasing the ranks and attaining the appropriate position in the managerial strata of higher education: formerly Pro-Vice Chancellor (Academic) at Flinders University and Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic and Research) at Central Queensland University.  As universities have been seized by such very types, Vice Chancellor Black and his PVC guards should have little to concern themselves about.  Assurances, if lacking in quality, are guaranteed.

Passing the Parcel: The European Union and Refugees in the Mediterranean

The modern UN Refugee Convention is now so flea-bitten it’s been put out to the garbage tip of history.  At least the enthusiastic fleas think so, given their conduct as political representatives across a range of parliaments keen on barbed wired borders and impenetrable defences.  Across Europe, the issue of refugees arriving by sea – in this case, the Mediterranean – has become a matter of games and deflection. Lacking any coherence whatsoever, the approach to certain, designated arrivals is to push them on to the next port in fits of cruel deflection, hoping that the next recipient will give in.  Such conduct demonstrates how states have adopted notions of penalisation and discrimination against the arrival who seeks sanctuary, positions severely in breach of international humanitarian law.

Australia remains the undisputed pioneer in this, at least in the last two decades.  Incapable of establishing a decent environmental policy, hostage to the gunpoint of the mining lobby, and suspicious of enshrined rights, its backwater parliamentarians have been dazzling with other efforts: finding a suitably bestial policy to repel maritime arrivals, for instance.  Boats have been towed back to Indonesia, a country which many of its representatives grudgingly do business with.  People smugglers, the very same ones demonised as “scum” by Australian politicians, have been paid when and where necessary.  A veil of secrecy has been cast with suffocating effect across the operations of the Royal Australian Navy, and criminal provisions have been passed punishing any whistle-blower who dares disclose the nature of operations in the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island.

Countries hugging the Mediterranean are also attempting to make a dash up the premier league of refugee cruelty.  In January, Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini bellowed in disdain that rescue ships heading to Italy were provocations. “No one will disembark in Italy.”  This has been accentuated by a change in funding policy.  The European Union has distanced itself from the anti-smuggling Operation Sophia, which ran for four years and involved the rescue of thousands of refugees with the use of EU vessels.  Any united front on the part of EU states has effectively collapsed.

Vessels are now being refused docking rights as a matter of course.  Sixty-two migrants on the German rescue ship Alan Kurdi found themselves being refused and moved on.  Having been rescued on April 3 near Libya, the vessel owned by the German non-governmental organisation Sea-Eye faced a rhetoric, and approach, long favoured in the isolated Australian capital of Canberra.  Those attempting to enter the ports of Malta and Italy were initially refused.  To permit them entry would be tantamount to encouraging human trafficking.

It took 10 days of torment before an agreement was struck: the individuals in question would be allowed to reach Valetta in Malta.  As with everything else, political representatives saw a chance to make hay.  Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat claimed a victory in ending the stand-off, scolding conservatives who believed in abortion.  “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.  We are speaking about the same human life, and I can no longer take the hypocrisy in people who have these double standards.”

There was a twist, suggesting that the government could still be selective.  The crew of the Alan Kurdi were refused entry, thereby revealing that Malta was happy to spare the refugee but punish the rescuer.  “We condemn,” a dissatisfied Sea-Eye chairman Gorden Isler claimed, “the abuse of state power and the illegal restriction of our crew members’ freedom, who risked their own health to save lives.”  Captain Werner Czerwinski has proceeded to head to Spain with the express purpose of finding a harbour.  The impediments on its movement have been costly, meaning that it will be unable to embark on its next mission to the central part of the Mediterranean.

A statement from the Maltese government revealed the parcelling scheme: four countries would be involved, divvying out the human misery.  “Through the coordination of the European Commission, with the cooperation of Malta, the migrants on board the NGO vessel Alan Kurdi will be redistributed among four EU states: Germany, France, Portugal and Luxembourg.”  Hardly a stellar outcome, and certainly an ad hoc outcome that bodes ill for any consistency.

“These negotiations,” went a joint statement from Sea-Eye with a host of other rescue organisations, “are illegitimate and unsustainable practices that violate international law, fundamental principles of human rights and disregard the dignity of the rescued.”  The law of the sea, international law more generally speaking, and human rights law, had been flouted in not permitting an immediate disembarkation “at the nearest place of safety.”

The entire system of responding to refugees has become a toxic spread.  Organisations dedicated to the venture of saving potential victims of drowning have been designated a problem as grave as the people they assist.  Those wishing to help are imperilled by the very process of assistance which should be protected by the right to asylum.  There are bureaucratic issues on which waters the refugees might be found in.  Drownings have been inevitable, showing that red tape can be a lethal affair.

In various perverse instances, the rescuers can themselves find themselves facing investigations for actually providing needed assistance.  Miguel Rodan, a Spanish firefighter who found himself helping distressed refugees in June 2017, was duly informed that he, along with his fellow rescuers, were being investigated by officials of the Italian government that they might have been responsible for “facilitating illegal immigration”.

The looming tragedy here is that more numbers are bound to find their way into the waters of the Mediterranean, given the rapid escalation of hostilities in a crippled Libya.  Assessments vary depending on which panicked account is consulted, but a figure of 800,000 migrants has been floated.  The assault on Tripoli by Khalifa Hafter has the potential, according to Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj of the UN-recognised government, to become a “new Syria”, a “war of aggression that will spread its cancer through the Mediterranean, Italy and Europe.”  The language is crudely apt: refugees as a cancerous spread; Europe’s response, a chemotherapeutic, if inconsistent harsh counter.

Death in New Zealand: The Christchurch Shootings

Five weapons were said to have been used, all inscribed with symbols, numbers and insignia.  The individual charged with the shootings at two Christchurch mosques that left 49 dead was an Australian with, it is alleged, a simple purpose: inflict death, and on specific communities in worship.  Even as the carnage became clear, Christchurch was already the epicentre of twenty-four hour news television, supplying a ghoulish spectacle.  Saturation coverage followed, and continues to do so, a point that will warm the attacker’s blood (his entire effort was streamed on live video on Facebook).

The alleged perpetrator, one Brenton Harrison Tarrant, left an unstirring piece – to call it a manifesto would be far-fetched – for those interested before the attack. It is a document of banality and off target assumptions. “Who are you?” he asks himself, suggesting an inner voice in need of reassurance and clarity.  “Just an ordinary White man, 28 years old.  Born in Australia to a working class, low income family.”  Stock: “Scottish, Irish and English”; a “regular childhood without any great issues”.

He did not like education, “barely achieving a passing grade.”  Universities did not offer anything of interest.  He invested money in Bitconnect, then travelled.  A sense of cognitive dissonance follows; Tarrant had recently worked part time “as a kebab removalist”.

No criminal record, no watch list, no registry.  Nothing to suggest a tendency towards mass murder, disrespect or mania.  What Tarrant did have was a desire to avenge individuals he felt a kinship for, suggesting that the dull witted are just as capable of killing as the charismatically ideological.  The “radical”, rooted nature of violence lies dormant in many; all that is required is a match.

The simple language of the note resembled that of various European populist platforms, albeit trimmed of deep historical flourishes: fear the Islamic invader; take to the barricades to repel the forces of Allah.  Interestingly enough, Tarrant leaves the detail of the invaders unclear, given that European lands have received all manner of invasions over its existence, of which the Ottoman and Islamic is but one stream.  The broad statement strikes a note of nonsense: “To take revenge on the invaders for the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by foreign invaders in European lands throughout history.”

Other statements of motivation follow: the “enslavement of millions of Europeans from their lands by the Islamic slavers”; “the thousands of European lives lost to terror attacks throughout European lands”.  Rather conveniently, and in manipulative fashion, the spirit of young Ebba Åkerlund, who died in 2017 in a terror attack in Sweden, is also channelled.  It was not sufficient to merely mention her; the eleven-year old inspired the shooter to name rifles after her.  “How the hell,” expressed stunned father Stefan Åkerlund, “can we ever get to mourn in peace?”

The problem with any such event is the risk of immoderate response.  Sensible comments have been noted: the risks posed by non-Islamic terrorists have tended to be neglected in budgets and rhetoric, though US President Donald Trump is, unsurprisingly, insisting that militant white nationalism is fringe worthy rather than common. Under the John Key government, the overwhelming focus of funding intelligence and security efforts was directed at the phantom menace of Islam, burrowing deep into the suburbs.  Watch lists of suspects were constantly noted; the fear of returned “radicalised” fighters was constantly iterated.  To add a greater sense of purpose to the mission, New Zealand troops were deployed to Iraq to fight the troops of Islamic State.  “Get some guts!” exclaimed Key to his opposition counterpart, Andrew Little, who seemed somewhat half-hearted in committing to the effort.

Other policy recommendations, still embryonic and possibly never to fly, are making their errands.  There are suggestions of deploying around the clock security personnel to mosques in various countries, something that risks militarising places of worship.

Vengeful rebuke can also find room in legislative and executive action.  In New Zealand, reforms to gun laws are being promised.  (These are already strict, and it is by no means clear if safety would be improved by such changes.)  In Australia, Tony Burke of the Labor Party suggests punishing hate speech and denying visas to certain right wing advocates of the white supremacist persuasion.  Australia’s immigration system is sufficiently intolerant and erratic enough to deny visas to those who might interfere with the false tranquillity of its society but a suspicious paternalism remains the enemy of free speech. Debate, in short, cannot be trusted.

The move to further push tech companies to reign in violent content will also receive a mighty boost.  The response from such companies as Facebook thus far is one of optimism: last year, some 99 percent of content linked with terrorism content promoted by Islamic State and al-Qaeda was successfully purged by artificial intelligence. Calls to do the same for other sources of inspiration are bound to follow.

There is also a stark, uncomfortable reality: no one is safe.  The entire field of terrorist and anti-terrorist studies is replete with charlatan impulses and the promise of placebo styled security.  There are fictional projections and assessments about whether an attack is “imminent” or “probable”.  There are calls to be vigilant and report the suspicious.  Political leaders give firm reassurances that all will be safe, a point that, quite frankly, can never be guaranteed.

The actions of Friday demonstrate the ease with which an act of mass killing can take place, the damage than can arise from attacking freely open spaces where people commune.  Extremism is said to lack a face or an ideology, but on Friday, it manifested in an all too human form.