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Published in The Drum 22 september 2011

The name of the game in Australian politics is power, getting it and hanging on to it for the fun of exercising it and playing with it. It is student politics writ large. The spoils of office are an end in themselves.

The notion of exercising power for the creation of public policy is past. It is passé, a past participle of a long dead language which once was centred on service and servicing the basic and reasonable needs of people.

The political game being played is based on selfishness. It grew out of selfishness, nationalism and class and relies on selfishness and notions of exclusiveness in order to survive. The outsider needing or seeking our help, whether that be a homeless person, Aboriginal or asylum seeker arriving by boat are marginalised as being beyond the collective class and their demonization seen as necessary to reinforce our shaky but desired collectivism.

Howard’s crafted policy of fear, designed to drive us into the laager, succeeded. To the rest of the world we are now the frightened whites, plus honorary whites in the form of processed and birth-rite Asians, cowering at the foot of the world.

For most white South Africans in Apartheid South Africa, the rest of the world was wrong; in their fear and abject selfishness they knew what was right and how to hold onto power. In the process they trashed adherence to just about every UN Convention they had signed in the pre-Apartheid years after WWII; a war which they fought ,with considerable sacrifice, in order to uphold universal values and rights.

Australian Immigration and Refugee policy is about control, “We shall decide who comes here and when.” This was a line fed to Howard by the Department of Immigration, re-enforced the other day by the head of that department, Andrew Metcalf, in an unfortunate but all too truthful statement to the media that the Australian government and no one else controls and sets the terms of who is allowed to come to Australia under humanitarian visas. The statement completely overlooked the terms of the UN Refugee Convention; a Convention which is incorporated into Australian law.

This line with respect to refugees, sits at odds with the professed need for immigration to increase in order to meet the needs of a burgeoning economy. At a time when Apartheid South Africa had black labour begging for a job it was recruiting white immigrants from Europe, so it is with Australia; it has been recruiting 180,000 people a year to meet economic needs whilst at the same time thwarting and delaying the claims of boat refugees to enter our community.

It can harass, delay, bully and incarcerate refugees seeking protection in this country but it cannot erase or extinguish with such tactics the legitimate needs of people seeking our protection.

Australia cannot banish refugees and their needs and it cannot banish those refugees who wish to come to this country to have their needs met and the possibilities of their personalities and capabilities met. White South Africa tried and failed for good reason, how long will white Australia continue into the cul-de-sac. It is a policy which is inherently racist and denies humanity. The longer the current policy is in place the more violent and bloody the inevitable change will be.

By seeking to walk away from the Refugee Convention, the Australian Government sends a strong message, one which it has not been afraid to signal in the past; however this time around, in order to achieve a purely domestic political electoral outcome, it has demonstrated that ditching the Convention is more important in achieving this aim than its international reputation and obligations.
A dangerous development in ‘whatever it takes’; what other Conventions might Australia ditch in order to maintain a narrow and ideologically based social and political agenda.

A preparedness to break and ditch Conventions that have been acceded to sends a strong message to the international community. It puts us in league with Israel, a country by the way, which Australia supports, with its racially defined laws and policies directed at the Palestinians. It puts us in league with a host of countries we have condemned in the past, including Greece under the Colonels, Argentina under the Generals, modern day China, Sri Lanka, Syria and Indonesia.

Trashing the Convention on Refugees discards a hard fought and maintained record on human rights and refugees by many good Australians. It undermines our collective moral fibre; when we trash one Convention it will be so much easier to trash another. It is a slippery slide of momentary convenience, a slope descended that will be much harder to climb back up than it was to shoot down.

Australia is seeking a non permanent position on the UN Security Council. The world must be looking askance. Certainly there are countries with a worse record but there are none with the rhetoric Australia brings to forums on human rights who are actively seeking to dismantle long established protections. The impression is of a state going backwards, not from economic causes or war but from fear, lack of courage and the maintenance of a narrow and bigoted agenda.

The daily machinations of Australian politics following on from the High Court decision are farcical and not passing without notice by Canberra based diplomats and foreign correspondents. Twenty years ago it would have been the subject matter for an Australian TV comedy. Just how low have we sunk?

Bruce Haigh is political commentator and retired diplomat.

Published in The Drum 15 September 2011

In Australia there is a truth vacuum around the war in Afghanistan. The “information” our Government regularly excretes at press conferences describes events and circumstances in Orwellian language so devoid of meaning and precision that its only purpose can be to give the Government the maximum amount of wriggle room.

Helicopters drop out of the sky, killing young Australians, and we have to wait, and wait, and we are still waiting, to be told whether it was due to pilot error or some technical malfunction or whether it was (ssshhhh….!) shot down.

Prisoners are being tortured in Afghan jails, not for information but for money and sex. The out of control Afghan police are running hundreds of prisons beyond the scrutiny of the ‘state’ and concerned instrumentalities, such as the Red Cross, Red Crescent and local and overseas human rights organisations.

Young boys have been detained by the low life police for sex and people kidnapped and detained for ransom money.

Australian and US troops are engaged in missions to kill Taliban leaders, never mind about the niceties of the Geneva Convention, they have taken out the wrong people on the basis of incorrect information deliberately given to them by rival war lords, businessmen and others from within the many competing groups for money, influence and power within the complex that is the social and political structure of Afghanistan, a structure that appears way beyond the comprehension and analytical abilities of Australian agencies, DFAT and Defence.

Last night we learnt that the Taliban mounted a series of attacks inside Kabul, detonating explosive devices near the US Embassy and NATO Headquarters. Fighting continued for at least twelve hours after the initial attacks. This followed an earlier attack this month on the British Council building in Kabul. These attacks appeared designed to show that Kabul was vulnerable, and it is.

Attackers in the most recent incident positioned themselves inside a multi-story building under construction next to the US Embassy, a building with an over-view of the Embassy complex. Here they enjoyed commanding fields of fire and they used this advantage to devastating effect. Why wasn’t this building under the security of US forces? This basic oversight is illustrative of the incompetence of the US command structure, a point illustrated by Sebastian Junger in his book ‘War’.

The war in Afghanistan is a mess, militarily, politically and morally, and getting messier.

In 2009 Daniel Clune reported to Hillary Clinton from the US Embassy in Canberra that:
“..Most important to Rudd…was the domestic political context; he needed to demonstrate to the Australian people, a majority of whom now opposed military involvement in Afghanistan, the importance of maintaining their commitment, which meant leader-level engagement…” (WikiLeaks cable 09CANBERRA156)

This is another example of one power elite working compliantly to assist another, pulling out a star attraction to engender popular support against a majority view, and probably with equally little concern for our real national security interests? It is an example of “the Canberra malaise”, a virulent disease of disinformation and constructed denial afflicting Australian governance.

Press conferences are constructed to further reduce the opportunity for already lazy and compliant journalists to ask elected representatives important questions; for example, whether Afghanistan is still of importance to Al Qaeda?

In the 9/11 anniversary week, there are plenty of questions that need answers. What capability does Al Qaeda – which analysis now reveals to be fractured – have to inflict harm? Where is the evidence to substantiate the alleged ongoing relationship between the post-September 11 Taliban and post-September 11 Al Qaeda? Is there any evidence that if the Taliban returns to power Al Qaeda will be able to reconstitute its training camps in Afghanistan? What is our Government’s official position about our foremost ally condoning torture? What is our Government’s knowledge of the extent to which depleted uranium weapons and white phosphorous are used by ISAF forces, as the US did in the Iraq war, with concomitant loss of life and birth defects? If the United Nations Security Council mandate was initially limited to providing security in and around Kabul (UNSC resolution 1386 of December 2001) why were farm villages being bombed 15 miles outside of Kandahar and elsewhere in 2001?

The Government and Opposition are unable to articulate reasons for our continued presence in Afghanistan. If, as ‘The Australian’ implies, it is to shore up our alliance with the US, what guarantees are there that a weakened, war weary and financially strapped America would and could come to our assistance if required? Important political issues are never ventilated; equally important moral and ethical questions, unasked, remain unanswered.

This week Human Rights Watch released its report documenting serious abuses, such as killings, rape, arbitrary detention, abductions, forcible land grabs, and illegal raids by irregular armed groups in northern Kunduz province and by the Afghan Local Police (ALP) force in Baghlan, Herat, and Uruzgan provinces. It’s not the first time the ALP program has been described as a major threat to civilians and stability.

A UN report, as yet unpublished but scheduled for release this month, alleges widespread torture of prisoners in Afghanistan and already has resulted in NATO deciding to suspend transferring detainees to Afghan forces. The suspension involves facilities including police-run prisons in Kunduz and Tarin Kowt, as well as prisons in Herat, Khost, Lagman, Kapisa and Takhar run by the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) and a counter-terrorism facility known as Department 124.

Others have pointed out that you can’t have transition without ensuring that the security forces you leave behind are properly vetted and trained and know they will be held accountable for abuses.

So where does this leave us? And perhaps more importantly, what does our government know and when did it find out?

Most people don’t need reminding that there is an absolute legal prohibition on torture, so it’s hard to see how the notion of acting in self-defence or in our national interests can possibly extend to any complicity in establishing facilities that will be used for torturing people. Similarly, it’s common knowledge that the Afghans whom the invading powers – including us – embraced and helped to gain power after September 11 are the very people who committed atrocities against minorities and against women before the rise of the Taliban, and who were allied to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. We have helped to arm and train and vest power in the wrong people in Afghanistan, and the Afghan people will pay the price for that when we withdraw, even more than they do today.

Allegations of torture in Afghanistan prisons should not have come as a surprise. They were part and parcel of Afghan operating procedures under the Russian occupation.

In November 2007 Amnesty International released a report ‘Afghanistan Detainees transferred to torture: ISAF complicity?’. Three years later The Nation released its explosive report on ‘America’s Secret Afghan Prisons’.

The 2010 Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission report confirmed that:
….Torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment are common in the majority of law enforcement institutions and at least 98.5% of interviewed victims have been tortured. Institutions where torture has occurred include police (security, justice, traffic), prosecution office, national security, detention centres, custody, prison and national army…

Late last year Amnesty International warned our government that its newly announced policy of transferring prisoners detained in Afghanistan to Afghan and United States forces could violate international law.

Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, said the new arrangement was for low level or low risk detainees to be handed over to Afghan authorities and for high risk or high level detainees to be handed over to the United States for detention in the Parwan facility.

Earlier this year, responding to a question put to him by Jim Middleton about his confidence that detainees handed over by Australian forces wouldn’t be subjected to torture, Stephen Smith said:
…What I am confident of is that in terms of the processes that we have put in place, in the terms of the arrangements that we have made for people within our care and responsibility we have taken every reasonable sensible and necessary step that we can to do our best to ensure that people are treated in a humane civilised and dignified manner if they are detained by Australian forces. We are very vigilant about that…

It has been reported that the Parwan Detention Facility at the US airbase at Bagram has a suspect area which is distinct from its main prison.

Minister Smith provided an update on detainee management in July this year. He confirmed that detainees apprehended by the ADF are transferred either to Afghan custody in Tarin Kot, or to US custody at the Detention Facility in Parwan, or released if there is insufficient evidence to seek their prosecution through the Afghan judicial system. He said arrangements in place with both the Afghan and US Governments include assurances on the humane treatment of detainees and access to those detainees by Australian officials and humanitarian organisations to monitor their ongoing welfare.

Yet the ADF response to questions about the coming UN report was to say that no Afghans detained by Australian troops have been handed over to the police run prison in Tarin Kot in the past two years. Is this inconsistent with Minister Smith’s update on detainee management? How many facilities, run by whom, exist in Tarin Kot?

The often misleading and selective spin of information relating to the war in Afghanistan, highlights the Government’s weakening position in terms of our being there. The forthcoming visit of President Obama will change nothing on the ground in Afghanistan, although he might ask us to stay long enough to turn the lights out, and it will change nothing on the floor of the ASX.

Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and activist, Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat.

Published The Drum Opinion
5 September 2011

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard just belted home the last nail into her coffin with her ill-considered criticism of the High Court and Chief Justice Robert French.

She claimed the judgement was inconsistent with an earlier ruling by the Chief Justice when serving on another court. Gillard was very unwise to refer to inconsistencies when one of the main criticisms directed against her is the inconsistency of her position on a carbon tax: a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Gillard’s outburst provided insight into her character. She appears weak, on the basis of her attack, not so bright and with respect to asylum seekers, a bully. Not qualities we want to see in a leader.

At the moment the Labor Party is on a hiding to nowhere under her leadership at the next election. The party has absolutely nothing to lose by dumping her and if they choose wisely (for once) they might just give the Coalition a run for their money.

Australian politics, indeed Australian discourse, lurched to the Right under John Howard. There was an expectation that under Rudd the country might move back to the Centre. It didn’t happen and under Gillard the nation has been moved resolutely back to the past. She is firmly of the Right and not for turning.

There is no Left in Australian politics or discourse at the moment. There is just the Centre, now seen as the Left by the Radical Right, as The Right stretches away to glorious infinity – a Nirvana of free markets, the centrality of self, supported by uncontrolled vitriol and uncurbed aggression.

Within the terms of the current political discourse, dominated by the intolerant and bullying Right and the lilly-livered Centre, the term Left, Left Wing or of-the-Left are pejorative terms. Anything to do with the Left is, in the current climate, dangerous and un-Australian.

And yet it is to the Left we, as a nation, must move if some of the pressing environmental, social and political issues are to be addressed. The imagination, creative drive, courage and egalitarian agenda of the Left has been sadly lacking from the national narrative for the last 20 years; “whatever it takes” elbowed it to one side in the push for self at the expense of service and civility.

The dominance of the Right in Australian politics is stifling initiative and leadership. We live in a managed environment, from the untruthfulness of media spin, to the short-term managed outcomes of ministers. Politicians have become public servants, helping to blur the distinction between their respective roles under the Westminster system of government.

The demise of the Left, like that of religion, can be laid at the feet of a long growth in prosperity, where the thrift and frugality of the ’50s has given way to multi-disposable micro moments of food and facts.

The desire of the Right to freeze Australia in some non-existent idyllic moment in the past has the nation marking time, afraid to embrace and plan for inevitable change and to develop a vision for the future.

Both major political parties occupy the same side of the fence; actually it’s a feed lot, heads in the trough of the public purse, they fatten up on personal agendas of power and influence with their feet in manure of their own making; for the moment at least Australian politics stinks.

Gerard Henderson refers to left-wing publications and commentators; I can’t find them, although many in the reading public in Western Australia refer to The Australian as left wing. I guess it’s a matter of personal perspective and definition.

My notion of a Left agenda would include the state providing a framework to deliver the greatest good to the greatest number of people, including the empowerment of Aborigines and asylum seekers. It would embrace the abolition of water licences and state ownership of water for the benefit of all Australians. It would encompass a greatly increased state contribution to public schools and concomitant decrease in funding to private schools. It would see state regulation of banks as a better tool for managing the economy than the crude instrument of having the Reserve Bank control interest rates.

It would see support for innovation, research and local manufacturing and a return to apprenticeships across a range of skills, increased state support for higher education and the CSIRO and the bonding of medical students for service in rural and regional Australia. It would also see a greatly enhanced program of public infrastructure, financed if necessary by borrowings against future productivity gains.

My Left Wing agenda would also see a withdrawal from Afghanistan and a parliamentary inquiry into why and how Australia was taken to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On the basis of the above The Greens can hardly be called Left, leftish perhaps in a bourgeois sort of way, but on key issues within their platform, such as management of water and land-use they have squibbed it.

The so-called Left of the Labor Party has allowed the Right to call the shots. The fact that a Labor Party has a Right which dominates the party agenda is a significant statement in terms the current political environment.

In a recent interview on ABC TV, former prime minister John Howard described his politics as conservative, but there was nothing conservative about taking Australia to war and nothing conservative in the systematic abuse of asylum seekers and the election ploy of abusing Aborigines through the cruel ploy of a military backed ‘intervention’. I would call these measures radical.

I have had enough of the radical Right, of the abusive Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard, who suck up to our big and powerful friends and kick down the most vulnerable and those most in need. They are weak and they are bullies and we don’t need them.

I for one want to get out of the feed lot and into some greener pastures.

Bruce Haigh is a former diplomat and political commentator.