page loader

Published: Online Opinion

So it has come to this. At a time when the energy and intellect of our elected representatives should be grappling with climate change, the management of water, the implementation of infrastructure and the details of defence expenditure and policy, they are instead embroiled in the politics of local government; councillors doing favours for the local used car leader.

The spectacle of Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull shouting at each other and using the media to try and defend their egos has been pathetic. There will be no winners out of this ill-advised battle.

But the contrived little stoush and the confected defence have given a glance into some darker aspects of government. The AFP has been called in to referee; this is dangerous, it is not the role of a police force. Do Australians want disputes within a democracy decided by the police?

This is the same unreformed AFP which shopped the Bali Nine, gave us the Haneef affair, which for attempted political advantage was sustained with contrived evidence; and it recently failed in the primary task of airport security.

The AFP has form. It was politicised by the previous Coalition government and is now poised to bite the hand of its creator. How ironic. There should be a lesson in that for Rudd. But he has demonstrated a disinclination for reform since taking office. He slipped into the Howard uniform as if it had been tailor made.

The ABC reports that the AFP has been investigating leaks and other issues within and from Treasury for some time, including an exchange of emails between the Treasurer, Ken Henry, and the head of the Reserve Bank, Glenn Stevens, over the issue of the Banking Guarantee. What levels of confidentiality and security pertain to this exchange when the two organisations are meant to be independent of one another? Or is it rather a matter of political and public service sensitivity; and if so why then would the AFP be involved?

In the grubby used car affair, an email is said to have been created, for reasons as yet unexplained, but implied by those who allegedly do not know, for political purposes; apparently to finger the Prime Minister. Maybe or maybe it was a sting. How could we be sure with the secrecy with which the AFP is operates? We are asked to accept their activities on trust which is an increasingly big ask.

This sordid and boring little affair tells us much about the nature of the Federal Government and the media. For the latter politics is an entertaining blood sport which needs encouragement to try and hang onto retreating advertisers. Gone is the focus on national issues including the role of the AFP.
The Federal Government is paralysed in the face of significant challenges and the need to govern and make decisions; it is populist, gutless and narcissistic.

It has maintained the previous governments discredited refugee policy.

The badly written Defence White Paper, was more of a Christmas wish list than a realistic appraisal of Australian Defence needs and capabilities. It has been hard to take seriously and this has been reinforced by the limited reaction and debate that followed its release; most serious analysts expect it to sink without a trace, which is a combination of poor policy and an inability to take into account the effect on Defence expenditure of the global recession/depression.

Rudd was poorly advised to throw money at voters in an attempt to ameliorate negative reaction to the recession. The economic down turn has a long way to run yet. It is the result of significant structural weakness in the global economy. The cause of which has not been addressed. The full impact has yet to register on Australia. Rudd’s measures amount to short term gain for long term pain. Neither he nor his advisers have a clue as to what awaits down the track, yet they have committed all our reserves and significant borrowings.

This policy is fear and populist driven. Paradoxically it is high risk. Yet it has been entered into lightly and for political reasons. It will come to haunt him. His nervous response has ensured that the future stakes for Australia are high.

The ideological battle within Treasury over Rudd’s populist approach to the economy has unexpectedly blown out with Treasury official Godwin Grech at the centre of a political storm caused by an attempt to nail the Treasurer, Wayne Swan and damage the re-election prospects of Kevin Rudd.

Rudd has been running the country like a poorly run embassy. Endless requests for briefings, an over flowing in-tray and decisions delayed.

The post Fitzgibbon reshuffle forced Rudd to promote strong characters who have the capacity to overshadow him. Rudd is tarnished by the nonsense of the past weeks and will be diminished by the proximity of Ministers who are less petty and self absorbed, and it should be said, more capable and courageous.

Turnbull on the other hand, if he is to have a chance at the next election, must rid himself of his troglodyte right. He must take his party to the centre, where he will perform at his best.

Published: Online Opinion

Recent attacks on Indian students have thrust the issue of racism in Australia into the mainstream news bulletins. The Indian Government has protested, the Indian media has expressed concern and Kevin Rudd has made one of his grave and concerned statements.

The Australian media toyed with the notion that perhaps there are elements of racism in this country.

Of course Australia is racist. It is still viewed by mainstream Australia as wrong, so it is practised with some guilt and in polite company circumspection. Quiet soundings at social gatherings of what appear to be like- minded people, eventually leading to, once credentials seem to have been established, “I have nothing against them but …”

Polite and sometimes not-so-polite racism is the underbelly of conservative politics and conservative attitudes. Racism weaves its way through Australian sport with varying degrees of official tolerance, but in some codes it has equal billing with misogyny. It was there for all to see with the crude sledging engaged in during the last Australian cricket tour of India.

In not-so-polite society racism is blatant. Have you seen the ugly text messages relating to Aboriginals, Muslims, Jews, Indians and refugees?

Australians from the dominant Anglo-Celtic culture expect new Australians from other cultural backgrounds to show some respect, perhaps even a small cringe and obsequiousness, forelock tugging, until such time as they know the ropes, cut their cultural ties and enter the main stream.

Temporary settlers and long term visitors are expected to absorb main stream culture more quickly and to show a suitable degree of deference. Some individuals and national groups are better at this than others. Maybe Indians have a problem with deference.

Of course racism is a fact of life in Australia. The treatment of Aborigines is the most glaring example and is there for the world to see. Aborigines are not equal before the law in Australia; they die in the back of prison vans. White fellahs speak, plan and make decisions on their behalf. Rehabilitation programs in prison are minimal and many prison guards display racial prejudice including toward visiting relatives. White decision makers are currently in the process of denying outstations to aboriginals.

Since the time of white settlement racism has been part of the weft and weave of this country.
The first identified threat by white settlers was from thieving, dispossessed, Aborigines, who were placed in the same category as Australian fauna, and then Asians, who apparently constituted a threat to the wage structure and racial purity. The Union Movement and The Bulletin magazine urged maintenance of a White Australia policy and it was not difficult to bring the squatters and members of the professional middle class along with them. Keeping Australia free for the white man was one of the catch cries for recruitment to the First AIF (Australian Imperial Force).

The White Australia policy “officially” died with the election of the Labor Whitlam government in 1972; but in reality it didn’t. Attitudes in the white macho middle class didn’t change. It was a badge of honour among the emotionally and intellectually beleaguered (and challenged) conservatives in the middle class to oppose anything the Whitlam government instituted.

Expecting big things from Malcolm Fraser when he was elected Prime Minister in 1976, they were disappointed, if not shocked with his attitude and policies toward Aborigines, refugees arriving by boat and by his opposition to apartheid. He was a class and party traitor.

Hawke and Keating maintained, and in some areas increased, policies of public decency toward Aborigines, minority groups and refugees. Under them both there was even a week-long celebration of the worth and value of refugees known as Refugee Week. It died under Howard.

John Howard brought his class and race warfare to government. He was a champion of the marginalised white middle class. His anger at the direction of policy over the preceding 24 years seethed and festered. WorkChoices and the detention and vilification of refugees were the resulting policies.

Howard’s treatment of refugees arriving by boat was state sponsored and sanctioned racism. It sent a powerful message, not to desperate refugees but to other Australians, some of whom saw it as encouragement to develop and express their own racism. Haneef was a victim. The unwillingness of the Australian Federal Police to admit mistakes or apologise also sent a powerful message both overseas and to those within this country who put the AFP on a higher pedestal than they do tolerance and human rights.

The Rudd Government has kept in place the fundamentals of the Howard government’s intolerant policies toward Aborigines and refugees. As an example to others it leaves much to be desired, as does Rudd’s recent intemperate attack on people smugglers. Does Rudd believe that government policies reinforcing and backing racist actions and attitudes would not have a negative impact at street level?

The Rudd Government has been gutless in reversing and attempting to heal the damage done by Howard. His government needs to implement a schools and university program promoting human rights and combating racism.

Published: Online Opinion:

Recent international criticism and local political shenanigans demonstrate that Australians need – and need now – constitutionally enshrined human rights, covering economic, social and cultural rights. And if the Rudd Government won’t give us protection at that level – and undoubtedly it won’t – it should at least begin taking human rights seriously.

The National Human Rights Consultation is being conducted now, during the first half of 2009, so every Australian should wake from their human rights slumber, take heed of the concluding observations raised by the United Nations’ Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in its May 22, 2009 report and provide input to the independent committee.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has already pointed out that:

Many people believe that the Australian Constitution contains human rights protections, such as the right to free speech. This is not true. The Australian Constitution offers very limited protections for human rights.

The Constitution includes the right to vote, the right to trial by jury for certain offences, some protection of freedom of religion, an implied right to freedom of political communication, and the right to be paid a fair price if the government compulsorily acquires your property.

However, the Australian Constitution does not guarantee rights and freedoms such as the right to be represented by a lawyer at trial, the right to free speech (generally, as opposed to merely on political issues), the right to equality before the law, or the right of peaceful assembly.

As well as criticising the Rudd Government’s half-hearted terms of reference for the National Human Rights Consultation, the UN report contains a scathing assessment of Australia’s treatment of Indigenous Australians, asylum seekers, migrants, people with disabilities, women, the mentally ill, the disenfranchised and the marginalised.

On May 7, 2009 the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Stephen Smith, issued a press release which stated: “The Australian Government welcomes the opportunity to engage in discussion of Australia’s human rights performance. The Government looks forward to receiving the Committee’s concluding observations at the end of the Committee’s session on 22 May …”

Well, the report’s been published so it will be interesting to see the government’s response.

Did the government anticipate that it would come under fire? Was it just coincidence or was it a pre-emptive strike before the committee’s recommendations became more well known, that the federal Attorney-General announced on May 22, 2009, that Australia has signed the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment?

The irony is that even as Australia signed the Optional Protocol it was breaking it. The continued excision of northern Australian Islands from the migration zone and incarceration on Christmas Island without access to legal advice are measures designed to make it harder for asylum seekers to gain refugee status. Besides being petty, fearful and mean, these measures are cruel and deny asylum seekers the human rights they are entitled to under the UN Refugee Convention.

Australia has put the management of part of its refugee responsibilities in the hands of the Indonesian Police and Army. Australia has outsourced, for a fee, the apprehension and detention of asylum seekers, destined for Australia, to instruments under the control of the Indonesian government. The Indonesian government is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees. However as agents of the Australian government presumably these Indonesian instrumentalities are covered by Australian accession to the Convention. In which case Australia is in breach of the Convention and the Optional Protocol just signed.

Indonesia claims to have apprehended 887 asylum seekers bound for Australia since September last year. Who verifies or monitors these claims? Is a bounty paid by the Australian government to the Indonesian authorities on each person detained and incarcerated? Who inspects the conditions under which asylum seekers live after being detained? Are they representatives of the Australian government or other organisations acting as agents of the Australian government? Most asylum seekers who have arrived by boat have been found to be refugees. What responsibility does Australia have under the Optional Protocol for seeking to thwart and obstruct genuine refugees from resettlement in a safe environment?

Tuesday was the commemoration of National Sorry Day and still the Rudd Government – like its predecessors – continues to ignore international law. This time it’s a housing solution on Alice Springs town camps. Doesn’t this fly in the face of the UN Committee’s observations that:

The Committee remains concerned that some of the Northern Territory Intervention measures adopted by the State party in response to the 2007 report, are inconsistent with the Covenant rights, in particular with the principle of non-discrimination, and have a negative impact on the realisation of the rights of indigenous peoples. The Committee notes with regret that the Northern Territory Intervention measures were adopted without sufficient and adequate consultation with the indigenous peoples concerned. (art.2.2)

The Committee recommends that the State party: a) address the human rights violations identified in the 2007 Little Children are sacred report bearing in mind the recommendations of the 2008 report of the Northern Territory Intervention Response Review board in this regard; b) conduct formal consultations with the indigenous peoples concerned regarding the operation and impact of the Northern Territory Intervention; c) establish a national indigenous representative body with adequate resources; and d) ratify ILO Convention No. 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries (1989).

The UN Committee also expressed concern about “the negative impact of climate change on the right to an adequate standard of living, including on the right to food and the right to water, affecting in particular indigenous peoples, in spite of the State Party’s recognition of the challenges imposed by climate change”. If Australia really is a good international citizen is the Rudd Government going to step in to prevent State Governments from further privatising the country’s water supplies in order to protect such rights?

Until Kevin and Penny Wong grasp that access to an adequate potable water supply is a basic human right they will not be able to bring about policy which addresses the needs of Australia. Within the framework of addressing the supply of potable water, there falls the requirements of industry and agriculture. Private enterprise will not distribute water equitably. It needs to be recognised that, sooner or later, federal government will need to (or will be forced to) take on the role of conservator and distributor of water without fear or favour. Corrupt and parochial state and local governments can have no part in such undertakings and neither can cashed up private companies which have shown an inclination to feed government corruption for their own ends.

And while the Rudd Government is busy praising the arrest of people for alleged people smuggling, and making sure it gets plenty of coverage, is it also busy reflecting on the UN Committee’s recommendations to it that “… it implement without delay its new ‘seven values’ in policy, and carry out the Australian Human Rights Commission’s recommendations adopted in its 2008 Immigration Detention Report, including the repeal of the mandatory immigration detention system and the closure of the Christmas Island detention Centre …”

If the Rudd Government is really serious about its citizens and about “building on” its human rights record then at the very least it should first, immediately respond to and implement all recommendations clearly laid out by the Committee and second, reconsider its narrow terms of reference for the National Human Rights Consultation.