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Published in The Drum 30 January, On Line Opinion 1 February and The Canberra Times 3 February 2012

The man who would be Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, demands attention; he single-mindedly pursues the media; he is relentless and irrepressible in projecting a profile. He is in our faces. As such he is worthy of close scrutiny, particularly as mistakes have been made in the past in choosing Prime Ministers.

What does Abbott have going for him? Energy, he exudes energy, vigour and enthusiasm, which cut across and dampen his often negative message. His bounce is at odds with his conservatism. He is an enthusiast, a give it a go, blokey boyish sort of bloke. He appears egalitarian, from factory worker, farm hand, fisherman to finance director, he can shake a hand, share a joke, grin from ear to ear and appear to be on the wave length of whoever it is he has homed in on.

He can weld, drive a bulldozer, don a surgical gown and generally give it a go. Amongst other things he is the Walter Mitty of Australian politics. It would be hard to imagine Jo Hockey in Speedos or training a sheep dog but our aspirant Prime Minister is comfortable in any situation in a variety of clothes.

He has the marvellous political attribute of a thick skin. No arrow, spear or silver bullet can bring him down. He is impervious to criticism; he listens to no-one and learns nothing. A successful student boxer, he remains quick on his feet, his reflexes are good and he is ever watchful for the delivery of the king hit.

Surprisingly, for a former Rhodes Scholar, his analysis is weak and as an avowed Roman Catholic Christian, who once tried his hand at orders, his compassion for the downtrodden and needy is wafer thin. However if resilience were the sole criteria for gaining Prime Ministerial office he would be a shoe in.

But it is not. Marketing a coherent policy is, and yet there has been nothing put into the public domain that voters can examine and mull over. This is distinct negative, when there is so much waiting to be done. His mainly lazy parliamentary colleagues are prepared to let Tony take the running in a forthcoming electoral contest they see Julia Gillard handing to them.

They were not aghast when Abbott announced that his new refugee policy was to turn the boats around, even after the Navy pointed out that it was against International and domestic law, would put refugees and sailors at risk of physical harm, perhaps death and would undermine the morale of the Navy who have a duty to rescue those in peril on the sea.

One of the requirements of a Prime Minister is to at least maintain a dialogue if not good relations with near neighbours. Now, even before holding office, Abbott has offended the Indonesians for no good reason other than domestic politics. He says on being elected Prime Minister he will go to Indonesia and tell them what his turn the boats around policy is all about and no doubt he will tell them what they should do on our behalf. The Indonesians are rightly angry, he should go now and explain himself. Do we really want a foot in mouth Prime Minister?

However it is his performance at The Lobby/Tent Embassy incident that marks the man for what he is. Putting to one side Julia Gillard’s lack of leadership and poor show of character, Abbott, who touts his macho he man qualities, squibbed it. Here was an opportunity to demonstrate leadership. It would not have required a surfeit of courage walk outside, confront the shouting and yes, angry demonstrators, and get them to express their grievances more calmly. I have done as much myself.

To have both leaders in one spot in a situation when one or both might have demonstrated what they are made of and to have both duck for cover is a testament to the lack of leadership infecting both major parties at the moment. But for the aspirant Prime Minister it was an opportunity lost, compounded by his calls for the AFP to investigate possible breeches of security. He is attempting to misuse the AFP, to once again politicise them. What Abbott is faced with is a political problem and he should handle it as such. He looks weak attempting to hide behind the men in blue.

In my mind, as Prime Minister, Abbott, would be a liability for Australia on the international stage. His talk first think later style of discourse will do harm rather than good. But bad enough as that may be it is his relationship with the bedecked, bejewelled and compassionless Cardinal George Pell, which should be of concern to anyone who believes Australia should remain a secular democracy.

Abbott showed his form as a Minister in the Howard government. As Prime Minister he can be expected to wind- back on socially progressive issues.

Abbott is not the man for Prime Minister, he is not the man to lead this great country.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator.

Published in CRIKEY 20 January 2012

An Open Letter to the Attorney General, the Hon Nicola Roxon

The Hon Nicola Roxon MP
Attorney General

Dear Minister

There are currently over 50 people in immigration detention in Australia who have been found to be refugees but have received adverse security assessments from the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). These are people who the Minister for Immigration accepts are entitled to our protection, but they face the prospect of remaining in detention for life because of the ASIO assessments. The number of people who have received adverse ASIO assessments has increased dramatically in recent years.

Refugees who are adversely assessed by ASIO are not allowed to know the evidence or the reasoning which underpin the assessment. They have no right to know of or respond to any evidence or allegations taken into account against them. They have no practical way of getting an administrative review of these decisions, and judicial review of the decision is practically unavailable as courts will not order production of any material upon which the decisions are based.

A person issued with an adverse security assessment by ASIO will be refused a visa and therefore face being detained indefinitely in immigration detention in Australia. Many people issued with adverse security assessments have been detained for a number of years in Australian detention facilities and are suffering acute mental health problems. Recently, lawyers for a 17 year old child issued court proceedings to have him removed from detention because his mental condition had deteriorated so far that he had made repeated suicide attempts. On the same day, ASIO assessed the child as a security risk. He remains in detention.

The considerations which guide the process of adversely assessing a person are not found in the ASIO Act: they are found in regulations made under section 37, but those regulations are not publicly available. They are not found in the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Regulations 1980. ASIO regards them as secret. Accordingly, adverse assessments are made by reference to secret criteria applied to secret evidence and by this means a person’s life and mental health can be destroyed.

In evidence given to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Immigration Detention on 22 November 2011 Mr David Irvine, Director General of ASIO, gave evidence that indicated he was strongly opposed to allowing people affected by an adverse assessment a right of review. This evidence raises serious questions about Mr Irvine’s suitability as head of our national security agency given that he appears to hold opinions which are not consistent with those of a pluralist democracy. In evidence given to the committee, Mr Irvine raised abstract security concerns should people given an adverse assessment be entitled to a review of the assessment. We believe that independent and rigorous review of the actions of administrators is not a threat to a democracy as he seems to believe – it makes it stronger.

We note that in A v Secretary of State the House of Lords struck down a law which provided for indefinite detention of refugees who were suspected of being terrorists and said “The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these.” A person can be adversely assessed if ASIO thinks such an assessment is ‘consistent with the requirements of security’. ‘Security’ is very broadly defined in the ASIO Act and is concerned not only with Australia’s security but also that of other countries. It is worth noting that a person may be adversely assessed by ASIO on grounds far less serious than being a suspected terrorist. We are aware of one case where a person who had been held on Nauru for five years was adversely assessed and was denied a visa; he then had a mental breakdown and was later favourably assessed and given a visa. Clearly he could not have been suspected of anything serious or he would not have been reassessed. Presumably, if he had not had a mental breakdown, he may have suffered a fate which the House of Lords thought unacceptable even for suspected terrorists.

It is fundamental to our democratic system that a person should not face indefinite detention without being allowed to know why, and without the ability to challenge the factual basis and discretionary considerations which are said to support it. We accept that the requirements of security will sometimes make it impossible to tell the affected person the details which result in an adverse assessment. It is difficult to see why that person’s lawyers should also be denied access to the material which is said to support such drastic powers. It is alarming that Mr Irvine appears to see this as a problem.

We urge you to:
? Implement legislative change to ensue adverse ASIO security assessments can be meaningfully challenged.
? Implement a review of the grounds upon which ASIO are issuing people with adverse security assessments.
? Review the criteria for adverse assessments and ensure that those criteria are publicly available.

This letter was prepared with the assistance of Bruce Haig and Julian Burnside AO QC.

Yours sincerely
for
Stephen Blanks
Secretary
NSW Council for Civil Liberties
for
Professor Spencer Zifcak
President Liberty Victoria

18th January 2012

—– Original Message —–
From: bruce haigh
To: Sophie Black
Sent: Thursday, January 19, 2012 11:27 AM
Subject: Fw: NSW and Victoria CCL: open Letter to the Attorney General on ASIO Assessments of Refugees

Hi Sophie

For your information and publication if appropriate.

All the best

Bruce Haigh

—– Original Message —–
From: Lesley Lynch
To: bruce.haigh@bluemaxx.com.au ; Julian Burnside
Cc: NSW CCL
Sent: Thursday, January 19, 2012 10:34 AM
Subject: FW: NSW and Victoria CCL: open Letter to the Attorney General on ASIO Assessments of Refugees

Dear Bruce and Julian

FYI . Thanks

Lesley

From: Lesley Lynch [mailto:llynch@bigpond.net.au]
Sent: Thursday, 19 January 2012 10:16 AM
To: ‘attorney@ag.gov.au’
Cc: NSW CCL
Subject: NSW and Victoria CCL: open Letter to the Attorney General on ASIO Assessments of Refugees

Dear Minister,

I attach an email copy of an open letter to you as Attorney General signed jointly by the NSW Council for Civil Liberties and Liberty Victoria. This letter was written in consultation with Julian Burnside OA QC and Bruce Haigh who share strong concerns on this matter.

We would welcome an opportunity to discuss this matter with you. Obviously this is an issue we will continue to pursue publicly until the Government introduces less offensive processes.

Yours sincerely

Lesley Lynch

Assistant Secretary

NSW Council for Civil Liberties

Published in The Cabberra Times and in On Line Opinion 16 January, 2012

Is there Merit in a Republic?
or
The man who slew the Republic.

What has John Howard in common with, Joseph Lister, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Edward Elgar, John Galsworthy, John Masefield, Dwight Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, Bertrand Russell, Albert Schweitzer, Henry Moore, Isaiah Berlin, Kenneth Clark, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Leonard Cheshire, Sydney Nolan, Graham Greene, Mother Teresa, Tom Stoppard, David Attenborough, David Hockney and Nelson Mandela?

Nothing at all, except that they are all recipients of that very quaint British royal insignia, The Order of Merit. John Howard was invested on 1 January 2012.

According to former British diplomat, Stanley Martin, who has written an exhaustive and rather pompous history of the award, “The Order of Merit”, it was instituted by the dissolute, Edward VII on 26 June 1902. It was to have been the date of his coronation but instead he suffered acute appendicitis and his crowning, by necessity, was delayed.

Even Stanley Martin thinks Bertie an unlikely founder of the award, which sensibly he never awarded to himself – merit not being one of his strong points.

Bertie’s father said of him, ‘his intellect is of no more use than a pistol packed in the bottom of a trunk if one were attacked in the robber-infested Apennines’.

Bertie received inspiration for his award from his German relatives. In 1740 King Frederick II of Prussia instituted an award known as the Pour le Merite. It was an Order into which military officers and civilians could be admitted. In a portent of things to come, King Frederick William III, in 1810, decreed that the award should only be given to military officers. The award had a French name because in common with the Russian royal family, the language of the Prussian court was French.

The award was commonly known as the Blue Max, and was handed out to German pilots in WWI who shot down their British and allied counterparts. In any event, when Bertie’s brother-in-law, King Frederick III (father of Kaiser Bill) died in 1888, after a considerate 99 day reign, Bertie was a bit cut up and at the compulsory funeral, in conversation with his sister, decided to implement an equivalent British award. His mother, in common with other well known monarchs, was not as accommodating. Bertie , had to wait until 1902 and by that stage things were becoming a little competitive with nephew Bill, who was starting to strut his stuff.

The Statutes of the Order of Merit were promulgated on 23 June 1902. Stanley Martin says, “The Preamble, with all its royal flourishes, recites the authority of the Letters Patent passed under the Statutes…The Order of Merit is to have a Sovereign and one class of Members. That class is to consist of Ordinary and Honorary Members. The Ordinary Members are to be subjects of the Crown who:

may have rendered exceptionally meritorious service in Our Navy and our Army, or who may have rendered exceptionally meritorious service towards the advancement of Art, Literature and Science.”

There can only be 24 Members at any one time. Prince Philip and Prince Charles are both members; Philip because he is the royal consort and Charles because he is the heir to the throne and a conservationist, so already we see the merit thing being stretched a bit.

There is no doubt that many of the recipients are people of exceptional merit. However, one looks to see where John Howard might have achieved exceptional merit. So why was he recognised in this way by a foreigner, who also happens to be our head of state?

John Howard has not excelled in the Arts, Literature or Science, so a reason for his investiture must be sought elsewhere. Several Commonwealth Prime Ministers have received the Order of Merit, they are, Jan Christian Smuts of South Africa, William Mackenzie King, Lester Pearson and Jean Chretien of Canada. Reasons for giving the award are not provided but all of the above rendered a service by maintaining the influence of the crown. On this basis it would seem that John Howard’s claim to the award was his wrecking of the Republican Movement in Australia and saving the country for the Queen. Both in this and in accepting the award Howard has shown himself to have interests other than the Nation at heart.

Despite claims in the Australian media, former Prime Minister, supporter of the monarchy and admirer of the Queen, Robert Menzies, did not receive the OM. He did not increase or in any way save the influence of the crown. For his fawning and loyalty to the crown he received a Companion of Honour, was invested as a Knight of the Thistle and made Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, I kid you not.

I was of the school that the Queen was a harmless and dear old thing. She was a part of my life. As a child I waved flags as her car went past during royal visits. I thought she should be allowed to serve out her term before we once again looked at the question of the republic. Not anymore. She has shown that she is concerned above all else with preserving her influence and in this Howard connived with her.

Shackled as we are to a mouldering monarchy, burdened with past scandals and a feeble heir, Australia has little to be proud of. Lacking self-confidence we have been prepared to allow the United States to dictate our foreign and defence policies. We have a reduced vision of the future and our place in the world simply because we refuse to take responsibility for ourselves.

As a matter of course the Queen notifies the Prime Minister of the award of OM to a citizen. Although the award is the gift of the Monarch, as we have seen others can come into play. Stanley Martin says, “In the highly unlikely event of an ‘outrageous’ appointment, especially if it had political overtones, the Prime Minister could not realistically absolve himself from all involvement.”
Lloyd George successfully opposed the nomination of Gilbert Murray. Stanley Martin says, “Nevertheless, he was daring the King to over-rule his advice – and have it known that he had done so. No monarch could afford to do that, then or now.
A careful – and apparently successful – balance has therefore been struck between the Sovereign’s special rights in relation to the Order and the Prime Minister’s ultimate constitutional responsibility.”

It can safely be assumed that Julia Gillard was informed by the Palace of the intention to bestow the OM on John Howard and it can equally be assumed that she concurred in what I believe to be an outrageous appointment. Having acted with such blatant self interest Howard has, in my view, substantially pushed the envelope toward an Australian Republic.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator, retired diplomat and supports a republic.