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Published: Australian Financial Review

Successive Australian governments having vilified, used and abused refugees for political and electoral gain over the past fourteen years can hardly be surprised at the reaction of the residents of Woodside in South Africa and Northam in Western Australia to the proposal to build detention facilities on the edge of their towns.

The government is getting back in spades what they have fed and nurtured the public with over the past decade and a half. Both sides of politics need to tone down their rhetoric if they wish to implement half reasonable policy toward displaced and traumatised asylum seekers.

I say half reasonable because there is no need to incarcerate asylum seekers beyond a short period to undertake health checks. Security checks are not possible because the power to grant these clearances in most cases rest with the authorities they are fleeing.

Terrorists wishing to come to Australian would come by plane, not by boat. They would walk through the immigration checks along with members of the various east European mafias who organise the banking and property scams. Perhaps some of them are terrorists; money talks. International criminals move around the world with impunity.

Published: Online Opinion

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David Hicks’ book Guantanamo: My Journey was released last week. Unfortunately, in a media fuelled culture obsessed with judgment rather than truth or evidence, important questions are never asked let alone answered.

Whether or not you believe David Hicks’ version of his own story is irrelevant. Since 2001 the low brow focus on whether or not “Hicks had it coming” has successfully diverted attention away from fundamental issues of legal and political importance. It’s been so effective, in fact, that it enabled Howard, Downer and Ruddock to disregard habeas corpus, rules of law and of due process, and four Geneva Conventions.

The end result – an unprecedented abuse of public office to the detriment of an Australian citizen – is unforgivable. Such acts of political bastardry will never be seen as the acts of principled leaders, and certainly not of statesmen.
David Hicks has now told his story of the privations and physical and mental suffering he had to endure as a political pawn. But without detracting from that, is not the real story how Howard and the members of his regime, elected representatives of a supposedly free and democratic society, seem to have gotten away with ignoring or dismissing such fundamental legal principles?

Why this occurred, who was responsible, who needs to be held accountable and how it can be prevented from happening again, are questions that should be occupying the mind of every Australian.

Sir Anthony Mason and Geoffrey Lindell noted in 2007 “…a disturbing modern trend under which governments and the media feel increasingly free to prejudge and generate a climate of adverse publicity about persons accused of committing serious criminal offences. This represents a serious undermining of the presumption of innocence…”.

Why would any reasonable professional journalist or politician with an ounce of integrity do it?

On page 382 of his book Hicks says “…Mori then relayed a message to me that had originated in Australia. John Howard told one of his staffers who told Mori to tell me that under no circumstances would he let me return to Australia without my entering a guilty plea…”.
It seems on investigation that it was conveyed in a more general sense but the general thrust of Hicks’ statement is supported by the fact that:

* his Prime Minister, his foreign minister and his Attorney General, in flagrant disregard for the presumption of innocence, had unashamedly demonised him in the media since 2002;
* he was not charged with any offence until 26 August 2004;
* US and British citizens were excluded from being tried by the Commission. The British Attorney-General (who is not a member of Cabinet), Lord Goldsmith, said the tribunals don’t offer sufficient guarantees of a fair trial according to international standards;
* on 15 September 2004 Australia’s independent legal observer (endorsed by the Law Council of Australia) recommended that the Howard Government request the American Government to either put Hicks on trial before a proper criminal justice system – either civilian or military – or bring him home;
* on 29 January 2006 the US Supreme Court ruled in Hamdan v Rumsfeld that the military commissions under which Hicks was to be tried were illegal under United States law and the Geneva Conventions. Even though Hicks’ 2004 charges were rendered invalid the Howard Government didn’t “accelerate” Hicks’ repatriation. Instead it opted to support a new military commission signed into law on 17 October 2006, with “habeas corpus being abolished as a means of challenging the legality of detention by the executive government and legislation torpedoing of the protection of the Geneva Convention’;
* on 28 November 2006 State attorneys-general signed a letter demanding that Hicks be returned to Australia to face trial;
* on 9 January 2007 (reported on 25 February 2008) Colonel Davis, the chief prosecutor for the Bush administration’s military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, received a call from Pentagon’s general counsel, William Haynes asking him how soon he could charge Hicks
* on 2 March 2007 (some five years after his arrest) he was charged again, this time with an offence of providing material support for terrorism which was retrospective in its application. On 8 March 2007 the Law Council of Australia published a strong condemnation of the retrospective charge;
* on 27 March 2007 Hicks “pleaded guilty” to a charge of material support for terrorism; and
* on 30 April 2008 Colonel Davis admitted that the military commission was politically influenced and that evidence was obtained through prisoner abuse.

But perhaps the best corroboration came out of Howard’s own mouth when this allegation and others were put to him by Tony Jones on Q&A. Howard said he was “not aware of any such exchange”, but he did not deny that such a “directive” may have been or was given (although he said that no such order came from him), and that course of action had vindicated what had been his view all along.

Howard’s view was, and obviously still is, that it was better that an Australian citizen “go before a military commission given the allegations that had been made against them than be brought back to Australia and not be capable of being charged”.

Howard’s denials – based on his past record – are not worth anything. David Hicks faced trumped-up charges and they couldn’t make them stick. They had Hicks over a barrel. He had nowhere to go. The charges against him have never been tested and could never be tested in a court of law. For Howard to raise Hicks’ guilty plea on Q&A is disingenuous at best.

Contrary to Howard’s cheap rhetorical tricks, nobody has ever portrayed Hicks as a hero. The people who stood up for him stood up against the repression. Saying he’s not a hero doesn’t shift the focus from the iniquity of Howard or his government.

Howard exposed the fundamental flaws in the Australian Parliament which led to substantial abuses of the system. The accumulation of power in the Prime Minister’s office still exists today because the flaws have not been addressed. Checks and balances must be restored to Australia’s Parliament. The Prime Minister is appointed by a party not the people. People elect individuals in their electorate whom they expect to have greater power than they do.

Over 11 long years Howard did not seek to preserve democracy, he sought to take away democratic rights. Children in detention, indigenous rights, Haneef, wars without UN Security Council Resolutions authorising the initial use of force, Hicks, the list goes on. The fact that Australia is “a great country that allows this kind of exchange to occur….that would not occur in other countries and in dictatorships…” is no thanks to Howard or his regime.

Published: ABC Drum Unleashed

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Australian troops are in Afghanistan because American troops are there. If Australia was serious about reducing the threat of terrorism it would withdraw.

US, Allied and NATO troops are seen as an army of occupation, a cause of harm and instability; although not without some practical benefit as drug couriers and users. Dutch authorities were concerned at drug use amongst their troops.

With more troops, retired Australian General Jim Molan believes the war winnable.

But with the Taliban supplied, trained and supported by elements of the Pakistani Army and the Inter Services Intelligence organisation, Molan does not spell out how victory might be obtained and secured.

Pakistan, India and Iran are the keys. Any major attack on Pakistan by the US and its allies could invoke an opportunistic reaction from India and a hostile response from Iran. US policy in Afghanistan is checkmated.

All agree that the Taliban is a poor alternative to the corrupt and drug driven Hamid Karzai government, but sadly that is the reality – an expanding reality, which Molan would be wise to factor into his assessment.

Debate or no debate, a supine Australian government is locked into Uruzgan Province until the US withdraws from Afghanistan or until it releases the ADF from its contract. Australia is in Afghanistan to fulfil the terms of what it believes are the terms of its alliance with the US. (Former prime minister Howard invoked the ANZUS Treaty when committing troops to the region).

It remains a fundamental belief amongst politicians and some influential defence planners that Australia needs to curry favour with the US in order to invoke an immediate and knee jerk response from the US should Australia be threatened or attacked. The fact that this is increasingly unlikely by a financially challenged and politically cautious America has yet to be factored into the political, planning and popular perception pertaining to the United States in Australia.

On agreement to anonymity advisers admit the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable but that Australia will stay in order to demonstrate to the US and anyone else who cares about these things that Australia has sticking power and can be relied on to see things through and all of that stiff upper lip nonsense in a situation that sees Australian troops mercenaries and hostages, once again, to political fortune. The Australian troops in Afghanistan are good soldiers, men and women both, they deserve better.

There are good reasons for Australia to carry through an independent policy on Afghanistan and announce our own plans and schedule for early withdrawal. The first should be to prevent further deaths and injuries to Australian service personnel including the damage to mental health.

It would be wise to remove service personnel from a culture and environment where drugs are easily obtained and tolerated and traded by the government they are there to defend.

Withdrawal would save the Australian taxpayers money which might be better spent on assisting to equip a restructured Defence Force. The dollars being spent in Afghanistan at the moment are wasted dollars.

Australian strategic interests are not being served through our involvement in Afghanistan and as noted are likely being harmed.

It would do no harm to show the US Administration that we are quite capable of reaching independent foreign policy decisions. There is never any respect for a patsy, which is what Australia has been for the past 10 years in relation to America’s flawed response to 9/11. For instance no checks have been applied on Israel sufficient to stop policies of genocide toward the Palestinians and to prevent West Bank settlements.

In view of Australia’s Quixotic quest for a seat on the Security Council it would do no harm in Africa, the Middle East, Sub Continent and parts of Asia, including Indonesia, for Australia to present a well argued case and withdraw from Afghanistan at a time of its own choosing after consultation with the parties with which it has been engaged.

Inevitably the Karzai regime will collapse and no doubt Hamid Kazai and members of his family, including his unbelievably corrupt half-brother, Ahmed Wali Kazai, will flee to Switzerland to escape the Taliban and enjoy their ill gotten gains.

The money Australia is spending on training units of the Afghan will wash away after the US withdrawal and the inevitable collapse of the Karzai regime. When the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, the army attached to the puppet regime disintegrated and various bits hived themselves off to various warlords. There is nothing to suggest that such a rearrangement will not occur again, given the real and underlying nature of politics in Afghanistan

Published: ABC Drum Unleashed

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Water is a scarce and much abused resource around the globe.

For instance France is using more water on irrigation than is being replaced. Water is cheap in France and supplied to farms through state and commune managed pipelines.

Water is pumped onto crops through pivots during the heat of the day and often in conditions of high wind further adding to evaporation and unproductive dispersal of an increasingly scarce resource. Wheat, sugar beet and barley are amongst the lower value crops irrigated.

Australian angst over trying to find solutions to water flows and best use of water in the Murray-Darling Basin should not be seen in isolation.

The management of water resources worldwide should become a priority of the United Nations. Just as we have a United Nations High Commission for Refugees, we should have a United Nations High Commission for Water, engaging in studies and dialogue on best practice and use of water and if necessary bringing pressure to bear on states who abuse the use of water and/or impinge on the rights of neighbouring states through misuse and greed.

The management of water should not be left to markets where the pursuit of profit has water abused, devalued and often powerless with respect to sustainability. Water needs a voice and a value beyond the market. At the moment it comes a very poor second in calculations relating to its use; agriculture and industry have the upper hand and water is required to comply.

Putting a higher monetary value on water would help, but the greatest assistance that could be given to water would be a change in attitude. It should be accorded more respect.

When I was young, water in Australia was accorded far more respect than it commands now. Suburban homes in Perth and Adelaide had tanks. Water was protected, the taps on tanks could be padlocked and taps were not left dripping, far less running.

Australia has no more water than it had then and has three times the population, surely a case can be made to be far more frugal and focused in our management of water and our attitude to it. But we have become profligate with respect to this and so many other commodities.

The system of water licensing and through it transferring water from one location to another in the Murray-Darling Basin defies common sense. I have heard it argued that trading in water will enable water to be used more efficiently, it will not. It will be sold to those with the biggest cheque books and they may not be agricultural industries classified as the most efficient and sustainable users of water and nor might they come into the category of producing essential food stuffs.

In terms of the productive use of water in Australia much of it might be likened to child labour. Water is the cheapest input into the production of export items. It does not have a champion, a defender powerful enough to modify the behaviour of the big exporting agro industries. When we export many of our irrigated products we export cheap water, well below its real value and the damage to the environment that a poorly conceived and regulated licensing system does to the environment. The licensing system is one thing, the theft of water is another, which takes place through poor compliance, metering and inspection.

For the National Farmers Federation and the National and Liberal Parties to argue that reforms along the lines of those outlined in the discussion paper will cost jobs, is a bit rich. Country towns have been dying the death of a thousand cuts; from the loss of the capacity to deliver babies in the local hospital to poor funding for rural schools, tertiary and trade skills. Rural communities have suffered poor roads, closure of railways and poor internet access. They pay a high price for air services.

The National and Liberal Parties presided over the slow decline of rural Australia. They had the opportunity to reverse this during almost 12 years of government. They declined to do so and as a result many jobs were lost and economic opportunities that may have come through the provision of better services and infrastructure were not created, they were lost.

This neglect saw the rise of rural independents who now hold the balance of power. That situation would not have arisen if the lack lustre Coalition had seen the bigger picture and put resources into Australia as a whole rather than disproportionate funding into the coastal city states. To argue loss of jobs is too late for very many rural towns including those in the Murray-Darling Basin.

I stood as an independent candidate for the seat of Parkes in the 2007 federal election. Following an interview on the local Dubbo radio in which I canvassed many of the issues above, I received a phone call from a person claiming to be the CEO of an irrigation company based in Narrabri. He told me in no uncertain terms to back off. He said independents should not discuss irrigation issues, he indicated he would be putting money into another independent candidate’s campaign in the electorate who would openly support the irrigation industry.

Control and nurturing is required over the use of water. A centrally planned economy is not the answer, but legislation is, in order to sustain a scarce resource and to enable best use in the national interest, which should include land care and environmental sustainability which is basic to sustainable water flows.