THE CABIN ANTHRAX, MURPHY, N.C. (CT&P) – A statement released this morning from the Criminally Negligent Parents Association announced that the annual Anti-Vaccination Convention and Voodoo Science Expo will be moved to Petersburg, Kentucky this year. The group was forced to find a new site for the event when it became apparent that the original choice, Disneyland, had become too dangerous to visit.
The anti-vaxxers will join the Dumb Ass Conspiracy Theorist’s League, the Climate Change Denier’s Guild, and the Open Carry Accidental Gunshot Wound Alliance at the Creation Museum in mid September in one big celebration of ignorance. The American Family Association has also changed the dates of its annual “Jesus Hates Fags” Homosexual Hatefest and Chili Cookoff to coincide with the event.
“We thought that combining our convention with those of like-minded organizations just made economic sense, and as far as we have been able to determine, the measles outbreak currently ravaging the west coast has not yet spread to the backwoods of Kentucky, so it should be safe,” said Jenny McCarthy, spokesperson for the organization of twits.
“The Creation Museum was the perfect choice,” said Glenn Beck, keynote speaker for the event. “Ken Ham has built a veritable altar to ignorance there in Petersburg. He, like me, has managed to build a profitable career on the utter ignorance of the American public.”
Turd McPherson, president of the Climate Change Denier’s Club, agreed. “Ken has done a great job building a child-friendly environment that erases 300 years of scientific progress. He’s gone to great lengths to replace it with superstitious nonsense out of a book written before we knew our ass from a hole in the ground.”
“We all know that the Bible says we can’t change the climate, just like we all know that Noah put giant dinosaurs on a lifeboat along with every other species of animal on the planet. It’s just common sense. Science is the real enemy in the modern world, and we have to fight it tooth and nail,” said McPherson.
The convention, which was originally scheduled for June, had to be delayed because federal authorities insisted on the erection of a giant electric fence encircling the museum and the entire city of Petersburg.
“We can’t take the risk that any pathogens might escape,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, Director of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. “We’re coordinating with Homeland Security and FEMA in order to reduce the chance that we might have some sort of plague outbreak that could harm the citizens of our country who actually have functioning forebrains.”
“This combined convention will be the largest concentration of dolts, cretins, morons, and dunderheads in one location that the nation has seen since the 2010 National Tea Party Convention in Dimbulb, Texas,” said FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate. “We have to be prepared for the worst.”
AUSTRALIA has been named and shamed on a list of the world’s worst human rights offenders — but it’s not just our treatment of indigenous people and asylum seekers that has landed us there.
Sharing the dubious honours with the likes of Syria, Nigeria and Egypt, we have made the cut for reasons you might not expect.
According to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2015, our counterterrorism laws — hastily introduced by the Abbott government last year — have been slammed as “vague” and “over-broad” in the damning report, infringing on the basic rights of all Australians.
In response to the threat of home-grown terrorism, new laws extend to the use of control orders and preventive detention and also make it a criminal offence to travel to “declared areas’’ abroad, which overly restricts people’s freedom of movement, the report states.
The controversial proposal that would force telecommunications companies to retain metadata for use by intelligence organisations has also been slammed.
“Draconian counterterrorism laws undermining free speech are causing incalculable damage to Australia’s international standing as a rights-respecting country,” warns Australian director of HRW Elaine Pearson.
“The government rammed these measures through parliament despite their having lasting consequences on Australians’ civil liberties.”
“These are excessive restrictions on freedom of speech, so a whole range of peaceful conduct can be prosecuted under these laws — something that affects the civil liberties of all Australians.”
The 656-page report, its 25th edition, reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries ranging from so-called democratic nations such as the United States, France and Australia to trouble spots including Iraq and Syria.
Last year, the Abbott government rushed through several new counterterrorism offences imposing criminal penalties for “advocating terrorism” and travelling to “declared areas” abroad, as well as making unauthorised disclosures of information related to “special intelligence operations.”
The reforms also contained tough penalties for journalists and whistleblowers, who could be jailed for up to 10 years for “recklessly” disclosing information related to a “special intelligence operation”.
“Australia’s new counterterrorism laws mean journalists, whistleblowers, and activists will risk prison for certain disclosures — even if it’s in the public interest,” Ms Pearson said.
But our counterterrorism laws aren’t the only thing to have landed us on the shame list.
FOREIGN POLICY HYPOCRISY:
According to HRW, Australia used its United Nations Security Council seat to promote human rights in Syria, North Korea, Central African Republic, and elsewhere, but failed to speak out and act on abuses taking place there.
It also accuses the Abbott government of muting its criticism of authoritarian governments in Sri Lanka and Cambodia “apparently in hopes of winning support of these governments for its refugee policy.”
Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers was also criticised in the Human Rights Watch report.Source: AAP
‘DISASTROUS OBSESSION WITH STOPPING THE BOATS’:
Australia’s foreign policy has focused on deterring asylum seekers from coming here at the exclusion of other issues, the report claims.
“Australia’s aspirations for a more powerful role in world affairs will get nowhere until it acts on human rights concerns both at home and abroad.”
The Abbott government was also heavily criticised over it’s policy of transferring all asylum seekers who arrive by boat to Nauru and Papua New Guinea despite concerns about prolonged refugee status violence and poor conditions in detention.
“On foreign policy, Australia used its seat on the UN Security Council very effectively to raise issues like human rights in North Korea and humanitarian access in Syria. However in the Asia-Pacific region, the obsession with “stopping the boats” is a main driver of foreign policy with disastrous consequences,” Ms Pearson said.
HWR also noted that as of October last year, more than 2000 men, women and children were held in detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island, yet only 271 had been determined to be refugees.
Australia’s offshore detention policy was also criticised by the United Nations Refugee Agency, which noted the detention centres were overcrowded and claims were not processed in a fair, transparent or fast manner, the report noted.
The government’s response to same sex marriage was also criticised despite some states and territories moving to recognise it.
“Despite increasing public support for same-sex marriage in Australia, marriage remains restricted to heterosexual relationships in accordance with the federal Marriage Act,” the report states.
According to HRW, all these issues undermine Australia’s ability to call for stronger human rights protections overseas.
Australia’s treatment of our indigenous people was also under the spotlight.Source: News Corp Australia
‘THEY CONTINUE TO DIE AT ALARMINGLY HIGH RATES’:
The government’s decision to establish an indigenous advisory council while defending the Congress of Australia’s First Peoples was also criticised as was the high numbers of indigenous people in jail.
“While some health and socio-economic indicators are improving for indigenous Australians, they still on average live 10-12 years less than non-indigenous Australians,” the report warns.
Aboriginals also “have an infant mortality rate almost two times higher, and continue to die at alarmingly high rates from treatable and preventable conditions such as diabetes and respiratory diseases”.
THE DANGERS OF BEING DISABLED:
The report notes the Australian Human Rights Commission found last April that Australians with disabilities have inadequate safeguards and poor access to services.
Forty-five per cent also live below the poverty line and are at an increased risk or violence or prison.
Australians with a disability are at a greater risk than other Australians, the report warns.Source: Supplied
HOW THE WORLD COMPARES:
In the global report, HRW also highlighted growing problems in Iraq whose government “carries out carry out killing and cleansing of Sunni civilians with impunity.”
It also heavily criticised Syria for heinous human rights abuses, including President Bashar al-Assad’s decision to “attack civilians in opposition-held areas” and their use of “indiscriminate weapons — most notoriously, barrel bombs — [which] has made life almost intolerable for civilians.”
The report mentions the growing rise of extremist groups such as the Islamic State and how governments, including the United States and France, are using this to further “subordinate human rights” including free speech.
The growing rise of IS has been noted and is being blamed for several reasons.Source: Supplied
It also blames both a lack of policy in neighbouring countries as well as a power vacuum left by the US, for contributing to the rise of the militant group.
“ISIS did not emerge out of nowhere,” HRW warn.
“In addition to the security vacuum left by the US invasion of Iraq, the sectarian and abusive policies of the Iraqi and Syrian governments, and international indifference to them, have been important factors in fuelling ISIS.”
It also accused the United Nations Security Council of standing by because Russia and China use their veto power to stop unified efforts to end the carnage.
“The United States and its allies have allowed their military action against ISIS to overshadow efforts to push Damascus to end its abuse,” the report said.
“This selective concern allows ISIS recruiters to portray themselves to potential supporters as the only force willing to stand up to Assad’s atrocities.”
Nigeria was also heavily criticised in the report over its brutal rounding up of civilians accused of having ties to terror group Boko Haram, while the US was slammed over ongoing concerns of torture and its response to the CIA torture report.
Kenya, Egypt, and China, governments all came under fire after its security forces have responded to real or perceived terrorism threats with abusive policies that ultimately fuel crises.
Western women who join Islamic State militants are driven by the same ideological passion as many male recruits and should be seen as potentially dangerous cheerleaders, not victims, experts said.
Western women who join Islamic State militants are driven by the same ideological passion as many male recruits and should be seen as potentially dangerous cheerleaders, not victims, experts said Wednesday.
A new study from the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) said the estimated 550 women who have travelled to Iraq and Syria are expected to marry, keep house and bear children.
But despite being banned from fighting, many are active propagandists for the cause on social media, celebrating the brutal violence of IS militants, acting as recruiting sergeants and even encouraging attacks abroad.
“The violent language and dedication to the cause is as strong as we find in some of the men,” said co-author Ross Frenett, an extremism expert.
“The worry is that as ISIS (the IS group) loses ground, as everyone hopes it does, that more and more of these women will transfer from the domestic world they’re in now to a more violent one,” he told AFP.
Much has been written about young women going to become “jihadist brides”, but the prevailing narrative of wide-eyed recruits drawn by a sense of excitement belies the importance of their own faith and passions.
The ISD researchers have been monitoring hundreds of women on social media, but focused for the study on 12 women from Austria, Britain, Canada, France and the Netherlands who are living with the IS group in Iraq and Syria.
Some of the women endorsed the bloody beheadings carried out by the militants — “I wish I did” it, one said after US journalist Steven Sotloff was killed — as well as railing against Western governments and the suffering of Muslims.
“My best friend is my grenade… It’s an American one too. May Allah allow me to kill their Kanzeer (pig) soldiers with their own weapons,” one said.
Crucially, the women also provide advice and encouragement to other women thinking of joining.
“They’re actively recruiting women and providing them with assistance advice and referrals to go to ISIS-held territory,” said Frenett.
“And they are acting as cheerleaders for terrorist attacks back home.”
– Social media ‘rebranding’ –
“There has been this gender blind spot where we see women as victims rather than as potential terrorists,” said Jayne Huckerby, associate professor at Duke University School of Law who specialises in women and counter-extremism.
“Policy makers have overlooked and underrated female terrorism both in terms of motivations for going and the roles that are played there.”
She said many women were driven to leave Western countries because of alienation and restrictions on their freedom to practice their faith, and drawn to the IS group by a sense of adventure and enthusiasm for a new Islamic utopia.
Their key role, aside from being wives and mothers, is to paint a picture to the outside world of daily life under the militants, through postings on social media that intersperse violent videos with photos of their cooking.
“They’re very important in terms of re-branding ISIS as less of a terror group and more of a state building exercise,” Huckerby told AFP.
She noted that many were also willing to fight, a point also made by Melanie Smith, of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London.
Smith, who maintains a database of about 70 female IS members, said British women are inciting attacks by suggesting them to people who could not travel to Iraq and Syria.
“You can see women online being frustrated about the fact they can’t fight and they suggest to each other that they could do something else,” she told The Observer newspaper.
Despite their passion, many of the women appear to find it difficult to leave their families behind, a factor which could be key to keeping them at home.
Frenett said the authorities should better support relatives, and also provide a way out for the women if they become disillusioned.
“There needs to be a path available to them when they come home,” he said.
When one of Iraq’s Shia militia commanders this week declared the province of Diyala “liberated”, few people familiar with the province believed it would be a lasting victory.
In a country with a largely Shia south, Kurdish north and Sunni west, Diyala stands as a microcosm of Iraq – a mixed population of Sunnis, Shias, Kurds and Turkmen. The apparent massacre of dozens of unarmed villagers by Shia militias is a reminder of the war within a war potentially more dangerous to Iraq than the fight against ISIL.
The accounts from survivors of the massacre in Barwana are horrifying. But particularly chilling was an account from one of the survivors, a university student, that the gunmen knew their victims.
“I realised there are two types of militias,” he said. Shia militia members from the south of Iraq, he said, were there to fight ISIL. The more lethal ones were local. Empowered by their role in the Iraqi fight against ISIL, members of the Diyala militia units on Monday used it as a way to settle scores and imprint their vision of what the province should look like.
I covered Iraq’s first elections after the 2003 war from Diyala’s provincial capital Baquba and saw Sunnis, Shias and everyone else come together as Iraqi citizens to cast their votes. From an army base in Muqdadiya, near Barwana, I reported on American and Iraqi soldiers working together to rebuild the country in that brief window when it seemed possible. And I covered Diyala when al-Qaeda in Iraq moved in and declared Baquba their capital.
Those were terrible days – bodies in the streets, unbelievable levels of violence and the question of how the country could ever put itself back together again. Iraqis are an amazingly resilient people but from the north of Iraq where Yazidis are exacting revenge on the terrible things done to them to sectarian killings this week in Diyala province, the very idea of Iraq seems to be fraying.
Even the terrible effect of bombs and mortars are easier for a community to recover from than the targeted hatred of armed men who once were your neighbours.
Early in the war, when al-Qaeda first started killing Iraqi security forces, I went along with American and Iraqi soldiers as they arrested suspects at a farmhouse. At least we consider them suspects – Iraqi security forces tend not to need a trial to consider them guilty.
An Iraqi commander watched them being tied up and said “these are the ones that are blowing us up”. “Blowing us up”, he repeated, whacking a club against his hand. There was little doubt what would happen to the suspects.
Baquba and Barwana are less than a two-hour drive from Baghdad. But for years, it’s been considered risky to drive there. Even local journalists have trouble getting around. The Iraqi Human Rights Ministry says it’s too risky for it to even try to get to Barwana.
With what appears to be a massacre in driving distance, we’re left reporting the way we did at the height of Iraq’s civil war – largely by phone. Trying to piece together what happened in a corner of Iraq that seems in danger of disintegrating even with ISIL gone.
Six hundred Palestinian children were brought before Israeli military judges in 2014 alone, says rights group.
Ramallah, West Bank – Ali al-Khatib and his wife, Khawla, waited outside Ofer military prison on the outskirts of Ramallah for hours before they were allowed to attend a final court hearing for their 14-year-old daughter, Malak, who has been incarcerated since December 31, 2014.
In the course of at least three other hearings they heard the Israeli prosecutor make allegations about the 8th grader from Beitin, near Ramallah, that they did not believe to be true. Malak’s charge sheet included stone-throwing and possession of a weapon (a knife).
The Khatibs said they were shocked when the judge sentenced Malak to two months in prison, including time served, and a 6,000 shekel ($1,500) fine, making her the youngest Palestinian female held by Israel.
During the hearings, the Khatibs were not allowed to speak to Malak, who was brought into the courtroom handcuffed, her ankles shackled together.
“Malak was out near a bypass road when the army detained her,” Ali said. “They said she was throwing stones there. She was so scared, she confessed to whatever charges they brought before her.”
The young teen spent almost three weeks in detention pending sentencing. At the time of arrest, she was handcuffed and blindfolded before she was taken in for interrogation, where she was questioned without the presence of her family, the Khatibs said.
“She is a child,” said Malak’s mother, Khawla. “She should be in school, with her friends. She was framed. She did not throw stones, nor did she carry a knife.”
The Palestine chapter of Defence for Children International said 600 children were brought before military judges in 2014 – the average number of minors held in Israeli military detention stood at 197 per month.
By October, there were 18 imprisoned minors between the ages of 14-15, according to DCI’s most recent figures.
“The Israeli authorities’ policy of child detention contravenes with all international conventions on the rights of minors,” said the Palestinian Prisoners Society’s Jawad Bulous, who represented Malak.
Israeli authorities said they have made significant changes in practices related to child detention, which include requiring police officers to conduct interrogations using the minor’s own language.
Audio or video recordings of these sessions must be made if the interrogation is documented in Hebrew, and if the offences carry a sentence of more than 10 years.
“Military Order 1745 is the latest attempt by Israeli authorities to provide cosmetic legal improvements that in the end have zero practical impact,” said Ayed Abu Eqtaish, accountability programme director at DCI-Palestine.
The majority of Palestinian children arrested, detained or prosecuted through the Israeli court system are arrested for throwing stones, and so would not be protected by the new law.
The Israeli military says that stone-throwing can endanger lives, irrespective of the age of the assailant.
In November, Israel’s cabinet approved an amendment to the country’s criminal law which would have significantly raised the penalty for Palestinians convicted of throwing stones – up to 20 years.
The draft law, however, did not go through the necessary three Knesset votes.
The cabinet’s decision to back the draft law came during the height of tensions in Jerusalem, when a 16-year-old Palestinian boy was burned alive in apparent revenge for the killing of three Israeli teens in the West Bank.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the legislation was meant to help restore security and calm to the Holy City.
And while the bill would have only applied to Israeli citizens or residents, including East Jerusalemites, some observers argued – at the time – that its message was clear; any “Palestinian caught throwing a stone will go away for a long, long time.”
Michael Knights is the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He specialises in the politics and security of Iraq. He has worked in every Iraqi province and most of the country’s hundred districts, including periods embedded with Iraq’s security forces.
In the past week, the Peshmerga armed forces of Iraqi Kurdistan put a major dent in the northern defences of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and capital of the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The Peshmerga launched a powerful offensive on both sides of the Tigris River to the north of Mosul, extending the area of Kurdish control around ISIL strongholds like Kisik (the former base of the 3rd Iraqi Army division), Wana and Badush.
The Kurds are now 32km northwest of Mosul city to the north and are much closer, often just 8 to 16km, from the eastern areas of Mosul city. Along the Syria-Iraq border the Kurds are gradually extending their control around Sinjar and restricting ISIL use of the border areas closest to Mosul.
In the past week, the Peshmerga armed forces of Iraqi Kurdistan put a major dent in the northern defences of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and capital of the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The Peshmerga launched a powerful offensive on both sides of the Tigris River to the north of Mosul, extending the area of Kurdish control around ISIL strongholds like Kisik (the former base of the 3rd Iraqi Army division), Wana and Badush.
The Kurds are now 32km northwest of Mosul city to the north and are much closer, often just 8 to 16km, from the eastern areas of Mosul city. Along the Syria-Iraq border the Kurds are gradually extending their control around Sinjar and restricting ISIL use of the border areas closest to Mosul.
The federal government’s main forces are just over 160km to the south, firming up their control of Beiji, site of Iraq’s largest refinery and a vital crossroads that links ISIL areas of strength in Anbar, Kirkuk, Tikrit, and Mosul.
With international air support and intelligence, the federal government’s special forces are periodically probing the desert areas west of Mosul with a view to choking off the ISIL line of supply to Syria.
Battle for Mosul in 2015?
A new nine-brigade Iraqi army force is being slowly assembled by Iraq’s Ministry of Defence with US backing, intended to train and equip 45,000 troops specifically for the task of urban assault in the face of heavy street-by-street resistance.
At the same time another war is being fought largely unseen – the war of the coalition’s spies and sensors versus ISIL’s sentinels keeping a close eye on the citizens of Mosul.
The US and other international allies can map every structure and track every signal emanating from Mosul.
Local informants talking to the Kurds, Iraqis and Americans are helping to build a picture of life inside Mosul and the location and habits of ISIL in the city.
All these preparations are being made in advance of the main event; a storming of Mosul city during 2015. But when will this attack take place and how long will the battle for Mosul last?
For the federal government in Iraq, time is of the essence.
Baghdad’s leaders want to deliver tangible victories against ISIL in 2015, and that means liberating ISIL-held cities. Iraqi leaders may be tempted to view Mosul as the “head of the snake”, the ISIL capital within Iraq and a far more significant and populous city than ISIL’s first capital in Raqqa, Syria.
ISIL would not disappear with Mosul’s recapture, but a powerful blow would be struck against its prestige and recruitment potential. ISIL can probably muster well under 10,000 militants in a city of nearly one million residents, meaning that the balance could turn against them rapidly if the populace feels that liberation is close at hand.
Call for an early probe
These factors have led some Iraqi government planners to call for an early probe of the Mosul defences, to test whether ISIL really can control the city in the face of an imminent government offensive.
An alternative, slower approach to the liberation of Mosul is based on a different appreciation of the situation on the ground in the city.
ISIL and its predecessors have proven effective at urban defence, in the past during the 2004 battles of Fallujah and more recently in Syria at Aleppo and in Iraq at Tikrit. ISIL is actively forcing the population to stay inside Mosul, complicating the risk of civilian casualties in any hasty attack on the city.
ISIL and its predecessors have proven effective at urban defence, in the past during the 2004 battles of Fallujah and more recently in Syria at Aleppo and in Iraq at Tikrit.
ISIL is actively forcing the population to stay inside Mosul, complicating the risk of civilian casualties in any hasty attack on the city.
Widespread use of crude homemade landmines gives ISIL the ability to slow down the attackers as they laboriously clear mined areas.
Mosul is a large city, 26sq km, not substantially smaller than Baghdad in terms of its surface area. This means Mosul is unlikely to be secured by the limited federal forces available today.
ISIL seems to have maintained effective control over the local population in Mosul until now, though that may change when government forces draw closer.
Finally, it will be tough to isolate Mosul from Syria entirely because desert areas to the west – Ain al-Jahsh, Tall Abta, Tall Afar, Baaj – remain under ISIL control and will require both ground forces and airpower to interdict.
The Kurds have held the closest positions to Mosul city ever since ISIL overran Mosul in June 2014. In fact, to the northeast of Mosul, Kurdish forces have never been more than 13km from the centre of the city throughout the past seven months.
Now Kurdish forces make up the jaws closing on Mosul from the north and the south, but these jaws are perhaps unlikely to close entirely. The Kurds are keeping ISIL under pressure and limiting their ability to reinforce Mosul but that does not mean the Kurds are willing to suffer heavy casualties in street-to-street fighting to retake the predominately Arab areas of Mosul city, which account for almost all of western Mosul and significant neighbourhoods east of the Tigris.
Who will ‘liberate’ Mosul?
The federal government probably has to be the primary force-provider for the attack on ISIL in Mosul. If Baghdad is willing to wait until the middle of the year, or even beyond, the US will probably help to develop more powerful assault forces needed to evict ISIL, and the new police forces to reestablish control in the city.
If Baghdad wants to move sooner than the late summer there are only two options; first, a daring but extremely risky “thunder run” into the city whereby small special forces and tank units try to spark an uprising against ISIL.
The only other near-term alternative is reliance on predominately Shia Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) units.
But these forces are arguably too small and too distracted to take on the Mosul operation as that they are fighting across a dozen battlefields right now, mainly in Shia-dominated parts of Iraq.
Nor would the Popular Mobilisation units necessarily be welcomed in Mosul city, even by anti-ISIL militants.
Though Popular Mobilisation units have supported Sunni tribes in Ramadi, Dhuluiya and Heet, the situation in Mosul may be different. ISIL succeeded in seizing Mosul partly because of local resentment against the Shia-led security forces.
Moslawis are likely to react negatively to dominance by any major outside security force, whether Shia militias, Peshmerga or even federal army forces. In 2003 when the Saddam forces collapsed, Mosul immediately became a free-for-all where pop-up militant groups vied for dominance.
In all likelihood the full commencement of the battle of Mosul will need to wait until the summer of 2015 at the earliest.
Two risks will drive decision-makers in Baghdad, Washington and Erbil to hold back from assaulting the city.
The first is the risk of catastrophic failure; the bloody repulse of a hasty attack on the city, which could negatively affect Iraqi security force morale elsewhere and transfer the initiative back to ISIL.
But a second, equally serious risk is that of catastrophic success; that ISIL control could “pop” surprisingly quickly, creating a chaotic scramble for power in Iraq’s second city between the Iraqi government, the Kurds, local Sunni militias and ISIL diehards.
If such an outcome can be avoided through the patient creation of a “day after” plan agreed upon by all the attacking forces, then the eviction of ISIL from Mosul might qualify as a “liberation” instead of just the commencement of a new chapter of fighting in that embattled city.
Michael Knights is the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He specialises in the politics and security of Iraq. He has worked in every Iraqi province and most of the country’s hundred districts, including periods embedded with Iraq’s security forces.
Republicans who now run Congress say they want to cooperate with President Obama, and point to the administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, as the model. The only problem is the TPP would be a disaster.
If you haven’t heard much about the TPP, that’s part of the problem right there. It would be the largest trade deal in history — involving countries stretching from Chile to Japan, representing 792 million people and accounting for 40 percent of the world economy – yet it’s been devised in secret.
Lobbyists from America’s biggest corporations and Wall Street’s biggest banks have been involved but not the American public. That’s a recipe for fatter profits and bigger paychecks at the top, but not a good deal for most of us, or even for most of the rest of the world.
First some background. We used to think about trade policy as a choice between “free trade” and “protectionism.” Free trade meant opening our borders to products made elsewhere. Protectionism meant putting up tariffs and quotas to keep them out.
In the decades after World War II, America chose free trade. The idea was that each country would specialize in goods it produced best and at least cost. That way, living standards would rise here and abroad. New jobs would be created to take the place of jobs that were lost. And communism would be contained.
For three decades, free trade worked. It was a win-win-win.
But in more recent decades the choice has become far more complicated and the payoff from trade agreements more skewed to those at the top.
Tariffs are already low. Negotiations now involve such things as intellectual property, financial regulations, labor laws, and rules for health, safety, and the environment.
It’s no longer free trade versus protectionism. Big corporations and Wall Street want some of both.
They want more international protection when it comes to their intellectual property and other assets. So they’ve been seeking trade rules that secure and extend their patents, trademarks, and copyrights abroad, and protect their global franchise agreements, securities, and loans.
But they want less protection of consumers, workers, small investors, and the environment, because these interfere with their profits. So they’ve been seeking trade rules that allow them to override these protections.
Not surprisingly for a deal that’s been drafted mostly by corporate and Wall Street lobbyists, the TPP provides exactly this mix.
What’s been leaked about it so far reveals, for example, that the pharmaceutical industry gets stronger patent protections, delaying cheaper generic versions of drugs. That will be a good deal for Big Pharma but not necessarily for the inhabitants of developing nations who won’t get certain life-saving drugs at a cost they can afford.
The TPP also gives global corporations an international tribunal of private attorneys, outside any nation’s legal system, who can order compensation for any “unjust expropriation” of foreign assets.
Even better for global companies, the tribunal can order compensation for any lost profits found to result from a nation’s regulations. Philip Morris is using a similar provision against Uruguay (the provision appears in a bilateral trade treaty between Uruguay and Switzerland), claiming that Uruguay’s strong anti-smoking regulations unfairly diminish the company’s profits.
Anyone believing the TPP is good for Americans take note: The foreign subsidiaries of U.S.-based corporations could just as easily challenge any U.S. government regulation they claim unfairly diminishes their profits – say, a regulation protecting American consumers from unsafe products or unhealthy foods, investors from fraudulent securities or predatory lending, workers from unsafe working conditions, taxpayers from another bailout of Wall Street, or the environment from toxic emissions.
The administration says the trade deal will boost U.S. exports in the fast-growing Pacific basin where the United States faces growing economic competition from China. The TPP is part of Obama’s strategy to contain China’s economic and strategic prowess.
Fine. But the deal will also allow American corporations to outsource even more jobs abroad.
In other words, the TPP is a Trojan horse in a global race to the bottom, giving big corporations and Wall Street banks a way to eliminate any and all laws and regulations that get in the way of their profits.
At a time when corporate profits are at record highs and the real median wage is lower than it’s been in four decades, most Americans need protection – not from international trade but from the political power of large corporations and Wall Street.
The Trans Pacific Partnership is the wrong remedy to the wrong problem. Any way you look at it, it’s just plain wrong.
A NSW coroner examines how hostages Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson and gunman Man Haron Monis died in the final, chaotic minutes of December’s siege of the Lindt cafe in Martin Place
Some of what we’ve learned today
Man Haron Monis entered the Lindt Cafe at 8:33am on Monday 15 December. He was wearing camouflage pants, a large backpack, and hiding a sawn-off pump-action shotgun.
He asked to speak with Tori Johnson, the manager of the cafe. Johnson appeared to become stressed as the two spoke. The doors were locked and Monis stood up to announce: “This is an attack. I have a bomb.”
Monis told Johnson to called triple-0 and tell the operator, “This is an attack on Australia by Islamic State.”
Monis claimed he was carrying a bomb and had several radio-controlled bombs in place at Martin Place and Circular Quay. No bombs were ever found.
Monis had no contact with Islamic State prior to the attacks.
He repeatedly threatened to shoot hostages throughout the 16-hour standoff.
At 2:14am, “without warning”, Johnson was told to kneel and then shot by Man Haron Monis at close range.
His death was “called in” by a police sniper, which triggered a raid on the cafe.
Monis fired two shots from his sawn-off shotgun as police entered the building. He was hit at least 13 times in the face and body and died “instantly” while trying to reload his gun.
Katrina Dawson was hit by six fragments of police bullets that ricocheted off the walls. One hit a major artery. She died shortly after.
Police fired a total of 22 rounds as they stormed the building. Ricochets hit another officer and three hostages, all of who survived.
For years, there’s been talk of creating a new free trade deal that would span countries bordering the Asia-Pacific, including the US, Canada, New Zealand, as well as several countries in Latin America and Asia. The deal is called the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement – or “TPP” for short.The TPP agenda is being driven by big business, big pharmaceuticals and big tobacco – but the impacts will affect all Australians.Between foreign corporations suing our governments over public health measures and environmental protection laws, higher pharmaceutical prices, and surveillance of Australians’ internet usage, there’s a lot for citizens to be concerned about – which is why Prime Minister Abbott and Trade Minister Robb are keeping it quiet.
What we do know from leaked parts of the agreement is terrifying. But most Australians haven’t even heard about the TPP. That’s why we need to sound the alarm now, and sound it loudly.
Can you sign the petition calling on our politicians not to sign our rights away and share the video with everyone you know?
If the trade agreement includes Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions, it could mean that foreign-owned companies will have the power to sue the Australian Government for decisions that adversely impact on their investments in Australia. Worst of all, these cases would be played out in secret international courts which only corporations have access to.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is currently undergoing negotiations between 12 countries: Australia, Brunei, Chile, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.
This is already being seen in the case of tobacco giant Phillip Morris, which is using an ISDS provision in the Australian-Hong Kong treaty to sue the Australian Government over its plain-packaging laws. When Quebec placed a ban on dangerous fracking processes in a local river, a trade agreement similar to the TPP made it possible for a foreign-owned energy company to file a $250 million lawsuit against the Canadian government.It’s already happening in El Salvador, where a Canadian company is suing the government for $315 million in “loss of future profits” because local citizens won a hard-fought campaign against a gold mine that threatened to contaminate their water supplies.It’s happening in Argentina, where the government imposed a freeze on water and energy bills during the GFC and was sued by an international utilities company.
It’s even happening in Canada, where American pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly is demanding $500 million in compensation — as well as changes to Canadian patent laws — because courts revoked two of its patents for lack of evidence around the drugs’ supposed benefits.
For more on the potential dangers of ISDS provisions, see ABC Radio National’s story here.
The treaty gives global pharmaceutical companies far-reaching power to extend their patents in order to prevent or delay the manufacture of cheaper generic medicines and curb subsidy programs that keep drugs more affordable in Australia and elsewhere. Imagine having to pay $50-$100 – or more – for a simple asthma inhaler. That’s the average cost in the US, when they currently sell for less than $10 here.
…and dob you in for possible copyright infringement. We all know piracy is illegal, but this treaty gives US companies the power to pull strings that could make heavy-handed spying, fines, internet service disconnection and even criminal charges the norm for even the most minor and potentially unintentional infringements. And what about privacy?
When Quebec placed a ban on dangerous fracking processes in a local river, a trade agreement similar to the TPP made it possible for a foreign-owned energy company to file a $250 million lawsuit against the Canadian government. We really don’t need foreign-owned mining companies bullying our government or preventing us from protecting our land.
After a string of ghoulishly inappropriate tweets it seems the irrepressible Rupert it is at it again. With very own his media empire poised and ready to dedicate swathes of precious air time to his every hashtag, it’s no surprise that the man cant keep his hands off his twitter account.
But given his latest round of tweets one has to wonder what on earth is Murdoch up to?
First he blasts Abbott for knighting that shining beacon of misogyny and casual racism that is Prince Phillip, and now he is saying Abbott needs to sack Peta Credlin?
I’m no great fan of Peta Credlin but blaming her for Abbott’s woes is like blaming a creme cake for Boko Haram. Admittedly she could have kept him on a tighter leash, but the reality is that Abbott is her boss, not the other way around, and if he is determined to go off like a loose cannon there isn’t really a lot Ms. Credlin can do about it.
While Murdoch’s call for Credlin’s scalp is understandable on one level, after all there is a well set precedent in Australian politics that powerful women are expected to clean up the messes made by the boys, and then thrown under a bus for their efforts, (Just think Joan Kirner, Julia Gillard, and more recently Sussan Ley, who – after Dutton’s abject failure- has been handed the delightful task of destroying Medicare… I guarantee you, give it 18 months and Ms Ley will be road kill), it is still a somewhat curiousmanoeuvre.
We all know that Abbott is Murdoch’s boy, bought and paid for, and no one would be surprised if Murdoch was suffering a touch of buyer’s remorse where Abbott is concerned. I for one would not be shocked if Murdoch, much like anyone else that buys a lemon, is desperately searching for an exit strategy that won’t leave too much egg on his face. But why would he slap Abbott down one day, and blame Credlin the next? Are we simply witnessing the random #’s of man who is getting on a bit and losing the plot, or does Murdoch have some kind of cunning plan?
Riding on the back of his media empire Murdoch currently enjoys great sway with the Australian voting public, but even he knows that in this social media age you can not take anything for granted. With the disgrace that was the phone hacking scandal in the UK, and the utter derision with which most of the USA views fox news (when Fox news can’t even raise enough votes in a racially polarised America to keep Obama out of office, you have know it’s a spent force), Australia is possibly the last place on earth where Rupert wields the kind of political influence he so clearly craves, and he certainly doesn’t want to blow it.
Murdoch has now quite rightly assessed the public sentiment, and realised that sticking up for his man Tony is only going to erode his social and political capital. So what to do? Abbott is now so toxic, standing by him is clearly not an option, but who can Rupert turn to to be his new man in Canberra?
Trouble is, in setting a such a hideous policy agenda Abbott has managed to turn each and every portfolio into a poison chalice that is guaranteed to cruel the chances of any potential successor.
It is unlikely Scott Morrison will ever recover from his stint in immigration, George Brandis has been eternally lumbered with the racist tag (courtesy of the ill advised attempt at 18c amendments), Joe Hockey is forever blighted with his budget opus, Julie Bishop is a woman so forget that, and let’s face it Christopher Pyne was never going to be a saleable option.
What about Andrew Robb or Peter Dutton? Really? I don’t think so! And then of course there is the ever popular Malcom Turnbull, the only one who could probably save them, but Turnbull is way too much of centrist for Murdoch’s purposes, and he isn’t supported in the party room anyway.
So what is poor Rupert to do about toxic Tony, he can’t side with him, and he can’t find a suitable successor?
This is where the attack on Credlin starts to make sense. From Rupert’s point of view, (as the undisputed emperor of his very own personal 24 hour news cycle), it’s not hard to see how Credlin could make a credible scape goat for all Abbott’s stuff ups. She is powerful, she is a woman, she is unelected (which means no messy bi-election swings to have to explain away), and as she is largely attributed with Abbott’s successes surely it wouldn’t be too hard to spin her into the cause of his failures as well.
Will Murdoch be able to successfully to transfer Abbott’s stench onto Credlin, (because if his tabloids are anything to go by, he is certainly having a red hot go at it)?
To me it looks like Murdoch is throwing Credlin to the wolves in one desperate last ditch attempt remediate Abbott’s image. The question is will the electorate buy it?
NORMALLY, opposition parties are forced to cope with life in the wilderness. Not now. Today, and for almost 18 months, we have endured, enjoyed or been bewildered by government in the wilderness.
More disturbingly, the man in charge, so brilliant as opposition leader, so flawed as Prime Minister, shows few signs he is capable of leading his government out of it, and every sign the job is beyond him: that he is not up to it and might never be up to it.
The situation is that dire. Not because of a hostile media, a restless backbench or an effective opposition leader brimming with conviction or ideas, but because of the Prime Minister’s own actions.
Frontbenchers as well as backbenchers are realising it’s time to stop criticising staff and start directing the blame for the government’s predicament where it really belongs. With him. They now accept they have to convince him to change and if they can’t they will be forced to consider changing him. If their survival depends on his elimination, eliminate him they will. Count on it.
That is because ultimately Tony Abbott is responsible for all of it. He decides what is done, as well as who does it, he signs off on it or cedes the authority which allows it to happen, or simply turns a blind eye to it.
There is no guarantee the Prime Minister will perform better if he is forced to sack his chief of staff, Peta Credlin. Government insiders fear he has become psychologically dependent on her, a view supported by the private comments of friends who worry he would feel bereft without her.
Publicly his colleagues grappled with formulations to distance themselves from him after his decision to award a knighthood to Prince Philip without stabbing him in the front. Privately there was sorrow, anger, humiliation and as one said “utter utter disbelief” that he could do this to himself and to them. It will never be forgotten nor readily forgiven. Some were already doing numbers, apparently intending to impress upon him how much trouble he was in. After Monday, it acquired a deeper, more urgent focus.
According to one Liberal MP, the most obscure backbencher game enough or riled enough to put their hand up today would get 15 to 20 votes. Imagine what Julie Bishop could do if she wanted to.
Despite Kevin Andrews saying it has cost nothing, it could ultimately be the costliest decision Abbott has ever made because it encapsulated for sensible Liberals, including the monarchists, everything which is wrong with Abbott’s conduct as Prime Minister: his failure to consult; his failure to gauge the mood of the electorate; his failure to concentrate on issues mainstream Australians deem paramount; his failure to live up to repeated promises to do better.
Yesterday, his preparedness to accept responsibility, cop it on the chin and again undertake to consult more fell on increasingly deaf and hostile ears. They have heard it all before. Often.
If it was an isolated incident, he might have got away with it. If everything else was going swimmingly he might have got away with it. But it is not. Far from it. Unfortunately it is only the most recent of a very, very long line of blunders and miscalculations which have undermined his authority and diminished his capacity to prosecute the government’s case for tax reform, workplace changes or budget repair.
Take the Medicare rebate debacle. Abbott announced it after parliament rose, without backbench consultation, against the advice of Treasurer Joe Hockey and then health minister Peter Dutton. Days later as Christmas approached, he unveiled a ministerial reshuffle, including a new Health Minister, Sussan Ley.
Everyone went on holidays assuming it would automatically proceed as they had announced just because they had announced it.
Not bloody likely. Complicated, contentious policies have to be properly sold and explained before, during and after announcement.
Back in their electorates, MPs were confronted by irate GPs.
Queensland backbencher Mal Brough, flexing his muscles, was unhappy with the policy, as well as its plopping into the middle of the state election campaign, and orchestrated the campaign against it. Finally Ms Ley was called off the Titanic (or whatever cruise ship she was on), to declare the government would not proceed with the changes.
Unfortunately her cabinet colleague Bruce Billson was still strapped into his deck chair declaring, despite the icebergs, that it was full steam ahead. Another triumph for the internal communications of the government.
Abbott won the leadership five years ago as a result of a policy contest. If he falls as prime minister, policies will be a contributory factor, but it will be mainly because of the now fully exposed personality or character flaws.
The question is what next. The gloom will deepen and the resolve to act intensify if Queensland goes worse than expected, especially if Campbell Newman loses his seat. Abbott’s warnings to remember the consequences of the Rudd- Gillard battles and to consider that Ted Baillieu’s removal did not help in Victoria hold little sway. His faults are more pronounced and better known to voters than were Rudd’s, while the problem with Baillieu was not that he was removed, but that he was left there too long.
Liberals are evaluating the qualities of potential replacements, mainly Bishop and Malcolm Turnbull, with Scott Morrison on the periphery.
As Foreign Minister Bishop has performed very well, however, while she remains quarantined from them, she is also untested on domestic issues.
Turnbull is hated inside the party as much as he is admired outside it. His prospects would improve if he undertook not to push for an Emissions Trading Scheme until the rest of the world moved.
As one senior member of the government put it, choosing a leader is not so much about deciding who is the best candidate, but who is the least worst.
That is how Abbott got there and if he doesn’t improve, he will go out the same way.
In late July, Robert Thomson, the suave chief executive of News Corp – the recently separated and financially challenged publishing branch of the Murdoch media empire – announced that Col Allan, the editor-in-chief of Rupert Murdoch’s favourite tabloid, the New York Post, was coming home to Australia on a two- to three-month assignment. Unless Allan’s visit had some political purpose, the return of the native was difficult to explain. Under his editorship, the New York Post has reportedly lost several hundred million dollars since 2001. In the letter to Australian colleagues, Thomson defined the mission, with studied vagueness, as “providing extra editorial leadership for our papers”. “It will be invaluable for our papers in Australia,” he continued, “to have the benefit of his insight, expertise and talent.” Col Allan’s most famous insight is the fear that an editor might instil in his underlings by conspicuous acts of apparent derangement, like pissing in the office sink. His most famous expertise is bare-knuckled political combat and character assassination. His most famous talent is for the brazen front-page banner headline.
Allan arrived in Australia on 29 July, a week before the announcement of the date of the 2013 federal election. Almost instantly, News Corp’s three most influential Australian tabloids – the Sydney Daily Telegraph, the Melbourne Herald Sun and the Brisbane Courier-Mail – began what looked to the outsider like a front-page headline competition for Allan’s approval in what was by now News Corp’s main game – to get Kevin Rudd.
On 2 August, the Courier-Mail put in an early bid: “KEV’S $733m BANK HEIST”. The reference was to new taxes on beer, cigarettes and “your savings”, with Rudd pictured in a beanie and a mask grasping a sack of money. The next day the Herald Sun responded with “IT’S A RUDDY MESS”. As the paper explained, “Debt soars, unemployment to hit 11-year high, revenue crashes and boats bill blows out”. Two days later, when the election was announced, the Daily Telegraph upped the ante with its instantly notorious “Finally, you now have the chance to … KICK THIS MOB OUT”. It was on a roll. The next day, it followed with a Hogan’s Heroes catchphrase, “I KNOW NUTHINK!”, and caricatures of Kevin Rudd and Anthony Albanese as Nazis. The Courier-Mail was not to be outdone. After the prime minister announced the candidacy of former Queensland premier Peter Beattie, it answered the Tele with “SEND IN THE CLOWN”. And so it went. “DEAD KEV BOUNCE” (Courier-Mail, 10 August). “RUDD’S BULLY BOY” (Herald Sun, 10 August). “KEVIN DEADLY SINS” (Sunday Mail, 11 August). “DOES THIS GUY EVER SHUT UP?” (Courier-Mail, 22 August). By the final week of the campaign, it was clear that Tony Abbott would win the election handsomely. The headlines followed. “THE LONG GOODBYE” (Courier-Mail, 2 September). “RUDD FREE ZONE” (Courier-Mail, 5 September). “TONY’S TIME” (Herald Sun, 6 September). “THE CIRCUS IS OVER” (Courier-Mail, 6 September). Throughout the campaign there were scores of anti-Labor front-page items in the three critical Murdoch tabloids and not one that could be considered pro-Labor.
The most influential of the News Corp columnists – Piers Akerman, Andrew Bolt, Janet Albrechtsen and Miranda Devine – if anything outdid in venom their headline-composing colleagues, no doubt under Col Allan’s approving gaze. According to their collective portrait of the prime minister, Rudd’s government was “chaotic” and “dysfunctional”. He had left the nation with a “Budget shambles” and had “squandered billions”. He now had “no policies to talk of” except “back-of-the-beer-coaster nonsense” and was, as a result, conducting “the dirtiest, the lowest campaign ever run by a major political party”. Rudd’s rhetoric was “pompous” and “verbose”. He tried to win arguments by “bullying not persuasion”. Under him Labor had been “flushed away in a sewer of hate” with his “blatant appeal to … class warfare”. Rudd’s (partly apocryphal) personal history was supposedly all too revealing. He “had been kicked out of a New York ‘gentleman’s club’ for behaving weirdly with topless dancers”. He was the man “whose abuse had made an RAAF stewardess cry”. He had even pulled “a hissy fit in Afghanistan over a missing hairdryer”. He was nothing more than “a foul-mouthed backstabber”.
The News Corp columnists explained Rudd’s character like this. He was “venomous”, “a volatile, nasty man”, “a selfie-addicted, twittering Facebook junkie”, who thought that “rules are for other people”. Not only during the campaign had he “trashed the Bible” and “slimed his faith” but also “trampled on the lowly”. As a typical “class clown”, “the more Rudd tries to be like us, the less he is”, and “the more you know him, the more you detest him”. He was a “fake”, “a narcissist”, “hubris on steroids”, “callous and manipulative” with no capacity for “empathy” and most accurately to be understood as a thoroughgoing “psychopath”. Even his physical demeanour, we learnt, was rather disgusting. He “smirks”. He “pouts”. He “wants to stamp his little feet”. He “flicks” his hair repeatedly. Not only is he “afflicted by a repetitive, involuntary twitch of his lower lip”, but “his rotating hand movements have to be seen to be believed”.
In this collective portrait of Kevin Rudd, the News Corp columnists did not find him to have even one positive human quality.
Rudd was returned as Labor leader because of his apparent popularity with the Australian people. With him therefore the News Corp attack dogs went in for character assassination. With Tony Abbott, by contrast – “the Oxonian Rhodes scholar”, “the volunteer fire-fighter and surf club member”, “the hugely intelligent, hugely decent, down-to-earth bloke”, equally at home downing “beers” and “writing books about political philosophy” – the same journalists practised character beatification.
Australian journalists once did not write like this. How had Australian journalism come to this? Although the explanation is complex, the foundations were laid down a quarter-century ago.
In 1979 Rupert Murdoch made his first takeover bid for the largest newspaper company in Australia, the Herald and Weekly Times, which he believed had mistreated one of its key architects, his father. The bid was resisted. Murdoch had a well-deserved reputation as a manipulator of the political process. He was known to have used his existing papers ruthlessly in 1972 to undermine the Liberal prime minister, Billy McMahon, and then in 1975 to help destroy Gough Whitlam, the Labor prime minister he had once enthusiastically supported. In fighting against the bid, the Melbourne Herald expressed the general understanding: “Mr Murdoch’s newspapers always respond in unison – as though to some divine wind – as they pursue their relentless campaigns in favour of current Murdoch objectives – particularly his political ones. Every journalist in Australia knows that.”
In 1986 Murdoch announced a second Herald and Weekly Times takeover bid. By this time the case for resistance was far stronger than in 1979. In order to pursue his television ambitions, Murdoch had become a citizen of the United States. The rules of the Foreign Investment Review Board made it clear that “foreign investment in mass circulation newspapers is restricted”. In 1981, Murdoch had taken control of the London Times and Sunday Times, we know now with the collusion of the UK prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. His bid had been spared reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission on the condition that he respected the newspapers’ editorial independence. Almost immediately, the condition was flagrantly breached and Murdoch threatened with a term in prison. Even more importantly, by this time it was clear that Murdoch was using his papers as standard-bearers for the Thatcher–Reagan radical-conservative revolutions that were undermining social democratic parties and progressive politics throughout the English-speaking world. The Hawke government’s opposition to the News Corp takeover bid for the Herald and Weekly Times ought to have been certain.
Bob Hawke, who had once advised Whitlam that he would rue the day he got into bed with Murdoch, was in fact a strong supporter. Hawke blamed the conservatives who ran the Herald and Weekly Times for keeping Labor out of power in Victoria between 1955 and 1982. Even more, he resented the light that Murdoch’s rival newspapers at Fairfax – both the Sydney Morning Herald and the National Times – had shone on real or supposed corruption in the NSW branch of the ALP. Hawke hoped to seize the opportunity occasioned by the Murdoch takeover bid to kill or weaken two of Labor’s media enemies. He also believed that he could use his best mate, Sir Peter Abeles, a News Corp business partner in Ansett Airlines, as a political bridge to Murdoch. In his Media Mates, Paul Chadwick records a telling exchange between the prime minister and Senator John Button. Button inquired: “Why don’t you tell us precisely how you want to help your mates?” Hawke replied: “Remember they’re the only mates we’ve got.”
As Colleen Ryan has documented recently in her Fairfax: The rise and fall, Hawke’s treasurer, Paul Keating, was even more enthusiastic about the takeover, in part for the same reasons as Hawke; in part because Fairfax had raised awkward questions about Keating’s relations with the property developer Warren Anderson; and in part because, as a radical reformer, Keating wanted to inject into the economy the energy of “new money” represented by Murdoch (and Kerry Packer) and to destroy moribund “old money” interests, represented for him by both the hated Fairfax enemy and the moribund Melbourne gentleman’s club he thought was running the Herald and Weekly Times. Keating was not merely a passive supporter of the Murdoch takeover. By secretly providing Murdoch with inside information about the government’s proposed new media laws – where the ownership of television and newspapers was to be separated – Keating actively sought to bury the Herald and Weekly Times, to thwart Fairfax’s ambitions and to facilitate News Corp’s domination of the Australian press.
There were several people who understood what the Murdoch takeover meant. Within the senior ranks of Labor, opposition came from Bill Hayden, the foreign minister. He was reduced to silence. Inside the Opposition, Ian Macphee advocated resistance. He was removed from John Howard’s shadow cabinet. A citizens’ group formed whose members included Malcolm Fraser, Patrick White, Hal Wootten, David Williamson, Veronica Brady, Dick Smith and David Penman. Their protest actions had no hope. The takeover was supported by both the Labor and the Liberal parties, and was opposed by none of the relevant gatekeepers – the Press Council, the Trade Practices Commission and the Foreign Investment Review Board. “Effective control of the media is the first step on the road to controlling the values and the future direction of our society,” the Age warned on 17 January 1987. “It is the saddest reflection imaginable on this society that virtually no one in public life – a former Prime Minister (Malcolm Fraser); a promptly disciplined Foreign Minister (Hayden) and a gagged Opposition spokesman (Macphee) excepted – has dared to speak out against the growing concentration of ownership of the Australian press.”When the dust settled on the takeover, Rupert Murdoch controlled the sole metropolitan tabloid newspaper in every Australian state except Western Australia and the only general national broadsheet, the Australian. His company controlled approximately two thirds of the circulation of state-wide Australian newspapers. Murdoch’s only press rival, Fairfax, controlled about a quarter. As a consequence of the takeover, Australia now had a concentration of newspaper ownership unknown anywhere in the developed world beyond the party-controlled papers of the communist bloc. In the short term, Labor was rewarded with the support of the three most popular Australian newspapers, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and Melbourne’s Herald and Sun, in the 1987 election. In the long term it had been midwife at the birth of what was potentially the most anti-democratic force in national life and also the most powerful future enemy of Labor.
All of Rupert Murdoch’s biographers agree that, outside of family, his life is dominated by only two real interests – business and politics. Over the past 40 years he has built two remarkable parallel empires, one expanding his media interests, the other advancing his quest for political power. These empires are closely interconnected. Parts of his media empire are used to strengthen his political influence. On occasions his political influence is used to expand his media business. Murdoch’s media empire now spans the globe, but his shadow political empire hardly extends beyond the United Kingdom, the US and Australia. In each of these, the political empire has grown gradually by trial and error and necessarily assumed a different shape. While Murdoch’s media empire has been analysed and chronicled many times, his political empire, outlined extensively only in David McKnight’s Rupert Murdoch, is less well understood.
Although in the UK Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox (until recently part of News Corporation) has a 39.1% stake in BSkyB, the hugely profitable entertainment satellite television business does not exercise any great political influence. Almost exclusively Murdoch’s influence comes through his ownership of newspapers – the quality broadsheets, the Times and Sunday Times, and his London tabloid, the Sun. Although his broadsheets consistently supported the Thatcher government, and although in turn Thatcher supported Murdoch during his epic Wapping battle with the Fleet Street print unions, there is no reason to believe that the Times and Sunday Times have wielded greater political influence than the other London quality papers. Rather, Murdoch’s political influence in the UK has for more than 30 years been chiefly exercised through the Sun.
During Thatcher’s years as prime minister, she described the support the Sun had given her government as “marvellous”. More crucially, in 1992 the Sun helped destroy Neil Kinnock’s Labour Opposition, which once had a commanding lead in the polls. Two of its headlines – before the election, “Will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights”; after the election, “It’s the Sun Wot Won It” – are justly famous. As several witnesses before the Leveson inquiry made clear, Labour now feared Murdoch. To Kinnock’s disgust, the party’s new leader, Tony Blair, conducted a long flirtation with Murdoch, symbolised by Blair’s round-the-world journey to meet Murdoch and his News Corp staff on Hayman Island, and confirmed by his promise to weaken Britain’s cross-media ownership laws. The reward for Labour was the vicious campaign the Sun waged in 1997 against the Conservative prime minister, John Major, who had held Murdoch at arms’ length and sought to restrict his movement into terrestrial television. Major’s defeat was celebrated with the headline: “It’s the Sun Wot Swung It”. What followed were 12 years of solid Sun and News Corp support for New Labour, the highlight of which was the intimate telephone collaboration between Blair and Murdoch in the month leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In 2009, News Corp decided to switch to David Cameron and the Conservatives. Cameron had already paid homage on Murdoch’s yacht moored by the Greek island Santorini. News proclaimed its turn against Labour on the day Gordon Brown addressed his party conference. In this case the influence of the Sun was used nakedly to advance News Corp’s commercial interests – their controversial proposed $12 billion bid for total control of BSkyB, whose announcement was delayed until the Conservative-led government was elected. In the following months, News Corp’s lobbyist and the responsible minister or his adviser exchanged hundreds of phone calls, emails and text messages, several in the tone of conspirators in a common cause. Only the public revulsion following reports that Murdoch’s Sunday tabloid, News of the World, had hacked into the voicemail of a murdered teenager scuttled the BSkyB bid at the eleventh hour. Temporarily, at least, Murdoch’s vast political power was paralysed.
There is no way that Murdoch could aspire to wield through the newspapers in the US the direct kind of power he had been able to exercise through the Sun in the UK, neither through his beloved New York Post nor the recently acquired Wall Street Journal. In the US – where the top four proprietors control only one fifth of newspaper circulation – press ownership is simply far too dispersed. If he was to achieve real political influence in America he had to find some other way. It is a testament to Murdoch’s ingenuity that he did.
After a failed attempt to purchase CNN, Murdoch turned his mind to creating a cable news channel of his own, which would compete with CNN and counter its supposed “left-wing bias”. The man he chose in 1995 to run the station, Fox News, was Roger Ailes, a brilliant former media adviser to Richard Nixon, a seasoned television executive and, like Murdoch, a rabid right-wing ideologue. Until Ailes, Murdoch had dominated and sometimes terrorised all the editors who worked for him, not only tabloid journeymen like Kelvin MacKenzie of the Sun, the recipient of frequent humiliating “bollockings”, but also highly intelligent and accomplished ones like Harold Evans of the Times. In Ailes, to whom for the first time in his life he is reported to have given full editorial independence and whom he is reputed to have eventually come to fear, Rupert Murdoch had finally met his equal.
The partnership between Murdoch and Ailes has been one of the most consequential in the history of American politics. It was grounded in a common political vision – the superiority of American values of free enterprise and the untrammelled free market, and the dangers to these values represented by the treasonous left-liberal, politically correct elites. It relied on Murdoch’s genius for business. In order to establish a subscriber base, for example, Murdoch inverted the established industry patterns by paying cable companies $500 million for access to their subscribers. But it relied as greatly on Ailes’ feel for television and capacity for political invention.
Fox News was genuinely original – a 24-hour conservative-populist propaganda channel, where right-wing opinion and slanted news, described in Orwellian fashion as “fair and balanced”, were delivered in a highly entertaining fashion. On Fox News, the anxiety of its white and ageing audience at the collapse of the values and prejudices they had grown up with, and their hatred for the supposed condescension of the liberal elites, were inflamed on a daily basis. Gradually, Fox News became the most popular American cable news channel. In turn, it became critical to the fortunes of the Republican Party. Fox News was a vital supporter of George W Bush’s presidency and the most important cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq. It was the arbiter of the fate of the Republican contenders for the presidential nomination in both 2008 and 2012. And it was in attendance at the birth of the Tea Party movement which, in its insane permanent war against the presidency of Barack Obama, is currently tearing Congress and American society apart. David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, best captured the political influence Fox News has come to wield on the right of American politics: “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us. Now we’re discovering that we work for Fox.”
Fox News has been as politically significant in the US as the Sun has been in the UK, with one important difference. As a branch of Murdoch’s shadow political empire, the Sun has, in part at least, served the interests of his business empire. Fox News did not need to serve other Murdoch commercial interests. With a handsome annual profit, it is in its own right one of the empire’s most lucrative businesses. With Fox News, Murdoch’s two great passions – media and right-wing politics – have come together in perfect harmony.
Despite the influence he has gained in London and Washington, Murdoch has never abandoned his early ambition of shaping the political values of the country of his birth. Here the task was quite different from what had been done in the UK or the US. Because Australia is a federation, no single tabloid could possibly play the same role as the London Sun. And because Australia is a country of modest population, even if differences in national temperament could be overcome, economies of scale determine that there could never be a commercially successful cable or satellite channel of a Fox News type, whose daily audience of a million and a half in a US population of more than 300 million is enough to turn an annual profit of more than one billion dollars. If Murdoch’s direct political influence was ever to become as significant in Australia as it was in the UK and the US, a model different from the Sun or Fox News was needed.
By about 2010 the model had emerged. It consisted of separate halves. One was Murdoch’s flagship, the Australian, a curious hybrid newspaper that combines some characteristics of Murdoch’s quality broadsheets, the Times and the Wall Street Journal – detailed political and business coverage, extensive daily analysis, excellent arts pages – and other characteristics of Murdoch’s tabloids, the New York Post and the Sun – ideological simplicity, a pugnacious campaigning style, intimidation and character assassination of political opponents and critics. The readership of the Australian is modest, but it is the only general national daily, with by far the most extensive coverage and analysis of national affairs. Since 2002, under the editorship of Chris Mitchell, it has become a powerful vehicle for the propagation of the fundamental Murdoch world view – free and unregulated markets, small government, American global leadership, anti–political correctness. Although it has, almost certainly, lost hundreds of millions of dollars – handsomely subsidised until recently by News Corp’s entertainment empire – as a servant of Murdoch’s political ambitions it has been worth every dollar. Because of its ideological clarity and aggression, no one within the Australian political class – politicians, business people, public servants – could afford to ignore it.
Employee of the month. Source: murdochhere.tumblr.com
To exert maximum political influence, however, the Australian was not enough. Very gradually, no doubt instinctively rather than consciously, what News Corp has done in Australia is to turn its five state-based tabloids – the Sydney Daily Telegraph, the Melbourne Herald Sun, the Brisbane Courier-Mail, the Adelaide Advertiser and the Hobart Mercury – into a single political instrument. Of course, if they are to remain relevant these tabloids need to maintain some distinctive aspects. They must report state politics, local government, crime, community news and especially state-based sport. They must also be sensitive to differences in state temperaments – the brashness of Sydney, the frontier rawness of Brisbane, the liberalism of Melbourne, the respectability of Adelaide, the parochialism of Hobart. But, as News Corp has come to realise, in their coverage of national politics and policy and in their propagation of the Murdoch ideological agenda, there is no reason for maintaining very great differences between the News Corp metropolitan tabloids.
In part the political unification of the Murdoch tabloids has been achieved by the creation of a stable of national affairs reporters. In larger part it has been achieved by the spread of some of their most influential opinion columnists or ideology-makers from a particular tabloid to almost the entire stable. Perhaps the first example of this process of across-the-tabloid expansion at work was the neoliberal, climate-change denying Terry McCrann. The most important instance is the right-wing provocateur, Andrew Bolt, whose lengthy twice-weekly columns have spread over the past decade from the Herald Sun to the Brisbane Sunday Mail and Courier-Mail, the Advertiser and the Daily Telegraph. Of course, in the age of steady newspaper decline, a major reason for this partial national unification of the Murdoch tabloids is to cut costs. But the impact is political. What has been created, within ostensibly state-based papers, is a single Australian tabloid political voice. This is another, not sufficiently recognised, original Murdoch achievement. Through the combination of the Australian and the hydra-headed “national” tabloid, Murdoch has fashioned in Australia an instrument at least equal in potential political influence to those he fashioned in the UK and the US.
In 2007, Michael Wolff spent several months in Murdoch’s company. His The Man Who Owns the News is the most perceptive account of Murdoch and his empire. In it he argues that while the compulsory, prevailing myth of News Corp employees is that Murdoch is a hands-off owner, the truth is very different. “To work for him is to do his bidding, to follow his line, to execute his desires, to support his needs, to grind his axe, to act on behalf of his empire, to carry out his policies, to be a citizen of his nation-state with all its demanding nationalism.”
How is this accomplished? Andrew Neil worked for Murdoch for 11 years as editor of the Sunday Times and was in general treated respectfully. In his Full Disclosure he describes his relations with Murdoch like this: “Rupert has an uncanny knack of being there even when he is not. When I did not hear from him and knew his attention was elsewhere, he was still uppermost in my mind.” Many former Murdoch editors tell much the same story. If they wished to survive, they needed to internalise Murdoch’s world view. In their newspapers they always needed to seek to please him. When they woke up in the morning, they wondered what Murdoch would make of some new development. They practised a policy of “anticipatory compliance”. Despite the fact that his editors might not see him for months at a time, he was nevertheless, as one put it, “ubiquitous”, although to paraphrase George Orwell’s aphorism – “all animals are equal but some are more equal than others” – it must be the case that Murdoch has been more ubiquitous in New York or London than in Sydney, and more ubiquitous in Sydney than in Hobart.
Around late 2010, evidence suggests, Rupert Murdoch decided to use his Australian newspapers to destroy the government of Julia Gillard. So far as I am aware, it was the first such decision with regard to federal Australian politics he had taken since 1975. One reason might have been the government’s minority status. Another was the Labor government’s relations with the Greens. During a visit in 2010, he had warned Australians darkly, “Whatever you do, don’t let the bloody Greens mess it up.” In striking a formal agreement with the Greens leader, Bob Brown, Gillard had failed to follow his advice. In late April or early May 2011, Murdoch met with his Australian executives, editors and senior journalists at Carmel in California. In interviews I conducted for the Quarterly Essay ‘Bad News’, Chris Mitchell told me that on the second day of the meeting they had discussed Australian politics, while a Gillard government minister told me that he had been informed by someone who had been at Carmel that there was talk of taking the Gillard government down. In July 2011, John Hartigan, the CEO of Murdoch’s Australian operations, was interviewed on ABC television. Inadvertently, he appears to have let the cat out of the bag. “I think, you know, we’re a company of values, like most companies, and we have very implicit values, we have things that we think as a company and individually as editors that need to be done. One of them is a leadership vacuum by minority government.” Hartigan could hardly have been more explicit: the company’s editors would help undo the minority Gillard government.
It would be tedious and should be unnecessary to detail the remorseless hostility the Murdoch press showed towards the Gillard government. Let one piece of solid research suffice. On 24 February 2011, Gillard announced her government’s intention to legislate for a price on carbon emissions. On 10 July 2011, she announced the details of what was called the “Clean Energy Future” package. A team at the University of Technology, Sydney, led by Wendy Bacon, analysed the climate policy coverage of the major Australian newspapers between these dates. Once neutral articles were eliminated, it turned out that 89% of the articles in the Daily Telegraph, 85% in the Herald Sun, 84% in the Courier-Mail, 83% in the Australian, 69% in the Advertiser and 62% in the Mercury were negative. By comparison, 53% of the stories in the Sydney Morning Herald were negative and 33% in the Age. The hostility of the Murdoch press opinion columnists was even more pronounced. Ninety-six percent of the columns in the Herald Sun were negative, 89% in the Courier-Mail, 85% in both the Australian and Daily Telegraph, 79% in the Advertiser but only 58% in the Mercury. Perhaps this was in part because this was the last Murdoch tabloid that remained Andrew Bolt–free. The Bacon team counted the climate policy words of different journalists and opinion columnists during these months. Bolt contributed an astonishing 33,906, though he was surpassed by Terry McCrann, who contributed 36,887. Even though overall coverage of climate policy in the Australian was several times greater than in any of the tabloids, their most prolific climate policy journalist, Dennis Shanahan, contributed only half as many words as his two across-the-tabloid Murdoch colleagues. Nor was the hostility to the Gillard government climate-change policy of the Murdoch tabloids insignificant. During these months, the question of the carbon price became the central issue in Australian politics. And it was during these months that the popularity of the Gillard government collapsed, with first preferences for the government – for the first time in federal politics since opinion polls were conducted – commonly falling below 30%.
Even though there can be no doubt that the ubiquitous Rupert Murdoch both approved and inspired his Australian newspapers’ climate policy coverage, or that a Murdoch editor who supported the Gillard government or its climate policy would very shortly have been looking for another job, there is no direct evidence about the great man’s thoughts during these months on the carbon price in particular or the Gillard government in general. Fortunately, however, in December 2011, Murdoch – who, before Twitter was invented, conversed with friends and issued directions to subordinates in short, sharp, gruff, tweet-length sentences – became an enthusiastic tweeter. His thinking about Australian politics now instantly became transparent.
This is a little of what he thought. 5 February 2012: “Don’t understand Aussie politics. Can Kevin Rudd really come back and knife Gillard? Weird place mucking up great future.” Followed by: “Gillard once good education minister, now prisoner of minority & Greenies. Rudd still delusional who nobody could work with. Nobody else?” 24 February 2012: “Oz Labor tearing themselves to pieces. Ugly sight. Tony Abbott should just lie low and watch.” 17 May 2013: “Australia itself makes no carbon problem. China does, but what can we do other than meaningless gestures costly to every home?” 26 June 2013: “Australian public now totally disgusted with Labor Party wrecking country with it’s [sic] sordid intrigues.” 19 August 2013: “Conviction politicians hard to find anywhere. Australia’s Tony Abbott a rare exception. Opponent Rudd all over the place convincing nobody.” 7 September 2013: “Aust election public sick of public sector workers and phony welfare scroungers sucking life out of economy.” 19 September 2013: “Great first day by PM Abbott firing top bureaucrats, merging departments and killing carbon tax.”These were not merely the dyspeptic tweets of a remote, right-wing, elderly former Australian. They were the tweets of the man who owned two thirds of the metropolitan Australian press. His Australian editors no longer needed to wake up in the morning and wonder what Murdoch might be thinking. All they had to do was read his tweets. And from the date the election was called, they did not even need this prompt. Col Allan had landed to provide them with the benefit of his “insight, expertise and talent”.
When the history of the Gillard–Rudd governments is written, it will, I believe, record both failures and achievements. They will be criticised for the Rudd-based internal instability, for the faulty redesign of the mining tax, for the failure of their asylum seeker policy, for their mishandling of media reform, and above all for the folly of allowing a price on carbon to be called a carbon tax. But they will be praised for managing the most successful economy in the developed world, laying the foundations for disability insurance welfare reform, and for the introduction, albeit far too timidly, of a policy for dealing with climate change.
I am not arguing that criticism of the Gillard–Rudd governments was illegitimate, although I do believe that nothing but criticism from every News Corp paper on a daily basis over almost two and a half years certainly was. Nor am I arguing that the biased Murdoch press coverage of the 2013 federal election campaign was responsible for the Labor loss. That was inevitable more than two years earlier. What I am arguing is different. It is in principle extraordinarily unhealthy for a single corporation to own two thirds of the metropolitan press. This is the situation in no other Western nation. And it is especially unhealthy when the corporation is owned by an ideologue who has a proven track record of political manipulation and who demands that his newspapers across the globe remain committed to his views, as all 173 did, for example, during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Murdoch’s domination of the metropolitan press has two main consequences for our democracy. First, any government, no matter how worthy or unworthy, is now vulnerable should News Corp decide to target it in the way it targeted the Gillard government more than two years ago. Second, while News Corp retains its present dominance, mainstream debate about certain fundamental ideologically sensitive questions – how to respond adequately to the climate-change crisis; what levels and kinds of taxation are needed to develop the welfare state; the trajectory of foreign policy during the rise of China; Australia’s Middle Eastern policy; and, of course, media reform – is effectively ruled out in advance.
Some will argue that this analysis is too pessimistic because it overstates the importance of newspapers. It is true that newspaper readership has declined rapidly, especially in recent years. It is also true that the majority of citizens now rely more on online media, television news or radio for their news and views than on newspapers. However, the significance of all this is easily exaggerated. The majority of the most popular news websites are owned by newspapers. Most radio stations and television news programs still rely very heavily on newspapers for their daily content and for their interpretative frames. Most of the multitude of alternative blogs and websites are seen by only a tiny fraction of the population. In societies like ours, newspapers are still the most important news agenda-setters.
Others will argue that, even if News Corp’s present domination of the press in Australia is unhealthy, as eventually the newspaper industry will collapse, there is good reason not to be greatly fussed. This seems to me unconvincing. In part this prediction remains uncertain. And in part it calls to mind Maynard Keynes’ famous answer to arguments of this kind: “In the long run we are all dead.” For anyone who cares about this country, even the next ten years matter greatly. Others find consolation elsewhere, pointing to the fact that Rupert Murdoch is already in his 80s. These people need to be reminded that Murdoch’s mother lived to the age of 103.
For many years, those of us who warned of the dangers to our democracy represented by the stranglehold of the Murdoch press were routinely dismissed as conspiracy theorists. In the face of the outrageous behaviour of the Murdoch press during the election campaign, this has begun to change. Although it probably did him harm, Kevin Rudd was the first prime minister in recent history to speak honestly about the bias of the Murdoch press. Yet despite the growing awareness among genuinely liberal-minded citizens about the existence of our “Murdoch problem”, no convincing answer has yet been discovered to the basic political question: what is to be done? In theory, a concerned government could amend the Competition and Consumer Act in a way that required News Corp to sell some of its newspapers. In practice, it is hardly worth thinking about the possibilities and difficulties of framing such legislation. Any government that even considered compulsory divestment would be set upon by the News Corp papers and their powerful conservative supporters with a ferocity that would make the savaging of the Gillard government over its minor Finkelstein-inspired proposals for media reform look mild-mannered and civil. The truth is sad and salutary. News Corp’s domination of the press is a threat to Australia’s democracy. There is now no politically realistic way to overcome this problem.
In August, Bob Hawke claimed that in his long experience of Australian politics he had seen nothing to equal the virulent bias the Murdoch press showed during this year’s election campaign. I wondered whether he recalled the role his government had played in laying the foundation for this state of affairs when it facilitated News Corp’s domination of the Australian press. And I wondered whether he dimly recalled the warnings about Murdoch of the kind that the Age had issued in its January 1987 editorial: “The effective control of the media is the first step on the road to controlling the values and future direction of our society.
Acclaimed author of Sri Lanka’s Secrets Trevor Grant visited refugee camps in India and spoke to residents, including the family of a Tamil asylum-seeker Leo Seemanpillai, who self-immolated in Australia in June last year.
LEO’S FAMILY PLEADS TO SEE THEIR SON’S GRAVE IN AUSTRALIA
Dusk is descending upon the Abdullapuram refugee camp, 120 kilometres outside Chennai, India.
Most of the 1500 Tamil refugees in this open-air prison are already back in their wretched little huts, careful to meet the 6pm curfew and avoid the daily intimidation and harassment of the security police. Dim lights flicker from open windows, revealing wives and mothers preparing meals of rice and watery soup on portable burners in the corner of tiny rooms that serve as kitchen, bedroom and lounge for as many as ten people. There is no such thing as a bathroom, and the only toilet, shared by scores of neighbours, is up to 200 metres away. The joyous laughter of children at play, chasing each other across stinking garbage piles, conceals the heartbreak and misery that resides permanently here, alongside the rats, the disease, the slavery, the murder, the rape and sexual assault and the ever-present Q-branch.
Seemanpillai sits quietly at home, a sparsely-furnished, concrete shoe-box where plastic sheets covering the holes in the corrugated iron roof barely hold the line against the heavy rain which has been pouring most of the day and turning many of the camps into reddish-brown swamps. He eagerly awaits our arrival, his grey moustache twitching nervously and his moist eyes flickering constantly to hold back the tears.
He’s a proud man who prefers not to cry in front of others but he soon gives in to his welling emotion. When I walk through the door and greet him, the dam bursts. He defies custom and hugs me tightly. He whispers in my ear; something in Tamil that I don’t understand. He points to a photograph on the wall of his deceased son, Leo, a refugee who died in Geelong, Australia last June after setting himself alight because he feared being sent back to the torture chambers in Sri Lanka from which he had fled.
What I do understand, instantly, is that Leo’s father and mother, Elizabeth, who joins us later, are people of substance, of immense strength and resilience; people determined not to submit to the tragedies that have visited them and their sons for most of their lives. They want us to know they are eternally grateful to the many people who helped Leo while he was living in Australia, and especially to those advocates who, after his death, let the world know that he was a decent, hard-working young man of faith who wanted nothing more than a chance at life.
They hold no anger towards the former Australian Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison, whose constant public statements that he was determined to send back all Tamil refugees scared Leo so much that friends said it drove him to suicide. They are puzzled, rather than outraged, by Morrison’s actions. Seemanpillai can’t understand why a fellow-Christian would deny grieving parents a visa to come to Australia to bury their son, as Morrison infamously did. He asked me if Morrison knew his son had donated his organs to save the lives of at least four Australians. I felt ashamed to say the Minister probably didn’t know or care.
Seemanpillai and Elizabeth have shed too many tears through their 25 years in this squalid camp in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It all began as the bombs rained down on their Sri Lankan village and this hard-working fisherman was forced to flee the long-running civil war with his wife and four little sons, Alexander, Leo, Ezekeil and Maricilin, leaving behind their home and all their worldly goods. That night, in 1990, he shoe-horned them into a corner of a small speed boat and then lay across them, bullets flying overhead, as the boat was chased by a Sri Lankan naval patrol with orders to kill rather than allow Tamil civilians to seek safety 30 kilometres away in India.
Somehow, they got through the night but, while they had escaped death on this occasion, the daily struggle to survive was about to begin all over again once they were condemned to life as refugees in India. Without the chance of citizenship, of work rights, of access to decent education, of anything beyond a pitiful hand-to-mouth existence in disease-ridden slums, they soon became the living dead. And today, a quarter of a century later, along with an estimated 100,000 Tamils in 120 camps in south India, they remain so, little more than prisoners of the state secreted away under close scrutiny for the term of their natural lives, their only crime being a desire to save their lives and those of their children.
I visited several houses in camps on the outskirts of Chennai and in Vellore. They are all much the same; tiny one-room shacks housing up to 10 people, mostly in appalling conditions. Most of the people I met had either lived in these camps for between 20-25 years or were born there. They receive a pittance from government that just manages to keep starvation at bay. There are no proper medical facilities, and few toilets and bathing facilities. In some camps, people were forced to relieve themselves in bushes. Women, particularly, were targets for passing males when they did this. One 64-year-old explained that she didn’t eat because she didn’t want to go outside to defecate. Access to drinking water is often severely limited. In some camps, men and women had to cycle for several kilometres to fetch water. Many people were without electricity for as long as 16 years, although it is more readily available now.
It’s hard to imagine there could be more oppressive places than these, but residents say the so-called special camps are far worse. These have been used for decades to house anyone suspected of links to the former Tamil Tigers or anyone the intelligence police, known as Q-branch, looks upon negatively. They are secret, dirty, hell-holes where people die regularly, unbeknown to the outside world. “Many of us fear being sent to a special camp. There is often that threat from some police,” one man told me. It’s little wonder special camps have been described as worse than jails by India’s Peoples Union For Civil Liberties.
These are the places that former Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said last year provided perfectly-decent refuge for Tamil asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka, many of whom he said were engaging in “economic migration” by trying to come to Australia.
Last July, as he was unsuccessfully trying to send 157 Sri Lankan Tamils back to India, Morrison went so far as to compare the camps to conditions one might find in New Zealand:
“If we can’t take people back to India what is next? New Zealand? I would be surprised if anyone was seriously suggesting people were persecuted in India by the Indian government.”
While describing any such claim as “absurd and offensive”, Morrison clearly overlooked the legal meaning of persecution as defined under the Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a signatory but India is not.
“Persecution for a [Refugee] Convention reason may take an infinite variety of forms from death or torture to the deprivation of opportunities to compete on equal terms with other members of the relevant society…. It depends on whether (the conduct) discriminates against a person because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a social group.”
Fear of intimidation was palpable among the refugees during my time in the camps. One man ushered me into his hut and closed the door quickly. He explained that there were informers throughout the camp, ready to report people who have unannounced visitors. Two weeks earlier, security police, who work with Q-branch, had interrogated him after a local refugee advocate had been seen visiting him. Refugees told me that a non-government charity that had been supplying women and children with clothing was suddenly banned a few weeks ago. The Government bans NGOs because they tend to expose the truth of these camps to the outside world. One frail, tiny 69-year-old Tamil woman who had missed the curfew by 30 minutes waved a clenched fist as she uttered an expletive or two about the guards who might try to challenge her over being late back. She had been there for 20 years, having fled Sri Lanka after her two sons were killed in the war, and was clearly accustomed to standing her ground.
A 40-year-old woman in another camp said no-one was allowed out of the camp after 8pm:
“Nobody can come from outside to see us unless they get permission from the authorities. If anybody comes we get questioned and these officials take away anything these people might have brought us. Because of this fear, we tell relatives and friends not to come at all. We were persecuted in Sri Lanka, now in Tamil Nadu. There is no-one to speak out for us, no-one cares about what’s happening to us. We are trapped and invisible.”
The travesty of life-long incarceration of innocents remains a dirty little secret in India, one which the mainstream media is happy to keep. Many middle-class Indians to whom I spoke knew nothing of the camps. Others accept the Government propaganda that the refugees are being treated well without asking why the same government refuses open access to the camps.
The truth the Indian Government is so keen to hide, with the assistance of a compliant media and complicit foreign governments, such as Australia, includes the most shocking crimes, including rape and sexual assault, committed by security guards and intelligence police, who, aware of the vulnerability of these people, act with total impunity as they roam the camps at will day and night.
Women who feel cultural shame after being raped or sexually assaulted find it difficult to tell of their experiences, so these crimes are rarely reported. However, through their female friends and young Tamil Nadu activists, including a film-maker, Vijay Chakravarthy, the stories have emerged in recent times.
Through an interpreter, I spoke to several people, including activists and the friends of female victims, who revealed the sickening details of these crimes. I learned of a group of six widows and young single women who were forcibly taken from Mandapam camp to Chengalpattu special camp, where they were used as sex slaves by security police for more than six months before being returned.
The victims say it’s been happening for years.
In 2010, a 28-year-old Tamil refugee, Kumar Pathmathevi, from a camp in Karur district died after setting herself ablaze. She made a death-bed statement to a female activist, saying she had been raped by three policemen who were conducting inquiries about her husband. Five years later, Vijay tells me of another case that recently came to light after a naked female refugee was found dead outside the Madurai camp. Police said she had been raped. Tamil news websites reported the contents of a police interview with a local informant.
Vijay told me:
“This guy was a driver for a local mafia gang. He told the police that refugee women were being used as sex slaves all the time.”
A middle-aged widow, whose late husband was a Tamil Tiger fighter, fled Sri Lanka with her three children in 2011. She said sexual violence in the camps was commonplace against young women, and in particular any former Tamil Tiger fighters. She said any Tamil refugee who arrived with any injury to the body was automatically assumed to be a former fighter and taken to the Chengalputtu special camp. She knew of at least three women who were sexually tortured at this camp.
When they came back, she said they showed signs of mental illness:
“Their minds are dead. They don’t even know how to ask for food. Some of us feel sorry for them. We take food to them. We are scared when we do it. If the security guards see us, they say ‘Do you want to sleep with us as well?’ Those men still visit them to satisfy their sexual needs. They hold their hair and hit them. When I look at this I can’t stand it. When our children are out, they come to us and say ‘come and sleep with us or we will claim you’re a Tamil Tiger’ [and get them sent to a special camp]. Even the other Tamil men [refugees] can’t protect us against these people. I don’t know how I’m going to save my own children.”
Vijay said he has attempted to bring these stories to public attention, speaking to well-known Tamil Nadu politicians, such as MDMK party leader Vaiko. However, there is a distinct lack of willingness to bring the issue out into the open.
Vijay told me:
“Vaiko was the only one who wanted to listen and help. Apart from him, no-one was interested. Basically, it’s a taboo topic here. So many politicians and media people say that they don’t want to spoil the image of Tamil Nadu.”
Whether it’s avoiding sexual violence or finding enough to eat and live, the Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka still retain a remarkable capacity for survival. They would not last a few days on the pittance they get from the government so, out of necessity, thousands of them – men, women and children – illegally flood into the local employment market. Often, leaving the camp for work has to be facilitated either by a bribe or stealth. One man told me he had a job as a painter – 12 hours a day six days a week for $50 a month – but he was forced to pay guards at the camp 20 per cent of his wage to be allowed out.
One of the better homes
Most of the refugees I spoke to at the camps were employed as “coolies” on building sites, where they lug 50kg bags of cement on their backs. To earn enough to survive, they must carry 300-400 bags a day, six days a week. This gives them $2-$3 a day. For this, they must face the probability of a damaged spine or lung disease from cement dust. One woman told me her father had died at 45, five years ago, after his lungs gave out. One group said they knew of 20 men who have died in similar circumstances in the past six months. Now some of their widows have replaced them as coolies, so their children can survive.
Then, when the children, many of whom have been born in the camps, reach mid-teens, and have little prospect of going to college, they leave government schooling – if they are lucky enough to go to these basic schools – to become cement coolies. The fact that it’s against the law for refugees to work is conveniently ignored by a government that sees no hypocrisy in Indian corporations using these people as virtual slaves while they are denied the basic rights that go with citizenship.
Once you see these places, it’s easy to understand why the Indian government wants to hide them from the world. And why some women told me they were prepared to risk going back to Sri Lanka, where they know they could be targeted by the military, which continues to occupy the Tamil-dominated regions in the north and the east and carry out many crimes with impunity, including rape and murder.
“We are breathing but we are dead in this life. We may as well die back there,” said one 37-year-old woman who has lived in the camp since she was 12. Yet they are trapped, they say, because they have no capacity to earn the airfare to go home and it’s impossible to return by stealth.
Another widow in her forties reflects the same sentiment:
“Coming here is the biggest mistake of my life. I could have given poison to my children and myself in my homeland. In a way, those people who died during the war are lucky. Those of us who survived are dying every day, many times over.”
Many people among the walking dead who you see everywhere in these camps are so traumatised that they long ago stopped giving voice to their suffering. They sit and stare all day into the distance, meekly awaiting their fate.
Others, such as Seemanpillai and Elizabeth, carry their burden with a stoic resistance. They remain good Catholics but they long ago gave up praying for a better life. These days they ask of God only that one day the Australian government will allow them to visit their son’s grave, along with their three remaining sons. One day, hopefully, we have an Immigration Minister who does not think this is too much to ask.
Trevor Grant talks with local activist, Prabha, in a house in another camp on the outskirts of Chennai
First Dog On The Moon wrote that Tony Abbott was beyond satire. My immediate thought was it’s a bit like masturbation – if you think it’s impossible to do it to him, he’ll probably do it to himself.
This isn’t meant to be a criticism of masturbation, by the way! I’ve always thought of it as a bit like writing poetry. Most people will do it at some point in their life, but doing it in public and expecting people to admire your unique technique and your use of rhythm, requires either extraordinary self-confidence, or a special type of insanity. Or perhaps, in the case of certain public figures, a little of both.
As for Rupert Murdoch’s demand that Abbott sack Credlin, we have a strange diversion. (As an aside, I find it strange that Murdoch said “Leading involves cruel choices”. “Cruel” not strong or difficult. There’s a whole book there for some psychiatrist. As for “Tough to write”, I guess that’s why he become an owner rather than a journalist.)
The conspiracists among us will suggest that this is Murdoch’s way of saving Abbott. Abbott will surely refuse and by standing up to a dictator and supporting his woman (er, only in terms of being his Chief of Staff, we know that he has more than one woman in his marital home, which is what qualifies him as a feminist) Abbott is showing that Rupert isn’t pulling his strings and that he’s his own man, and that this a clever plan that they probably worked out while Abbott was on his way back from Iraq when he stopped off at a destination that none of us know about to meet Rupert, Peta, Wendy, Tony Blair and Elvis for lunch.
The other responses will be more confused. Some will argue that Credlin shouldn’t be sacked on Murdoch’s say-so and argue that Abbott should stand up to Murdoch. Others will argue that this is a distraction, it doesn’t matter what anyone does, we need to complain because Bill Shorten didn’t say anything about this, and Labor should change leaders. Others will say that there’s no basic difference between Liberal and Labor. A small number will say that Murdoch has it right for once. A couple will say that none of this matters and that the world is doomed and renewable energy won’t solve anything. One Abbott supporter will start talking about something even more irrelevant to any of this, like debt or climate change in the hope that he/she attracts all the comments like a chip to a bunch of sea-gulls.
But to me there’s only one clear, intelligent response to all this. That’s right – only one! Certain people (the names Tony, Peta and Rupert may spring to your mind, but if anyone adds Rossleigh, I’ll be very, very annoyed and you’ve blown your chances of a knighthood when I become supreme ruler) are starting to think that their opinion is the only one that counts. And that tends to piss people off, eventually. It’s fine when the opinion is that you deserve something far better than what you’ve got. However, once it morphs into I said you deserve better and you picked me, I’m it, so shut up, people tend to reassess a whole lot of things. I mean, whatever happens in the Queensland election this week, I’d feel pretty safe betting against an increased majority for Campbell Newman.
Whatever your views, I think you should petition Abbott and demand that I get the next knighthood. Tell him that this his best chance of survival. Yep, it’s not likely that he’d do it. It’s almost as unlikely as him surviving the year as PM. But it’d please my mum and she’s even older than Prince Philip. And if we’re talking about unlikely things, I think we could create a fairly long list if we started just three years ago, so anything’s possible.
It’s a lot easier for most of us in America to talk about the excesses of global capitalism when we’re still beneficiaries of the system. For billions of people with less geographic luck, capitalism’s excesses directly translate to necessity’s wants. Arundhati Roy tells some of those stories in her new book is Capitalism: A Ghost Story.
Arundhati talks with Chuck about how democracy went from powerful threat to pointless brand, why India’s fascist Prime Minister victimizes his own citizens yet is applauded by audiences of Western suckers, and the damage American NGOs like the Ford Foundation do to Indian domestic politics.
One of our favorite guests, Mike Marqusee died last week. He appeared on This is Hell! six times, reporting on war protests, arguing with Chuck about Bob Dylan, and explaining his complicated views on Zionism, Judaism and his own religious heritage.
Here is Mike from 2008, talking about his book “If I Am Not for Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew”
John F Kennedy once said:“Voters chose us because they have confidence in our discernment, when we are in a position that allows us to determine what best serves their interests as a part of national interests. This means that we – according to the situation – we have to lead, instruct and correct the opinions of voters and sometimes not even consider them, exercising the discernment we were elected for”.
For me to be comfortable with that, which I would love to be, I would need to have confidence that our elected representatives were people of integrity. I would need to feel that they had sufficient intelligence to grasp the issues, that they would listen to expert opinion, that they were honest when speaking to their constituents, and that they had enough courage to protect us from those who would seek to exploit us.
When a politician is elected they are given temporary custodianship of our common wealth. It is a huge responsibility. They will be making decisions about how best to invest the money we entrust to them and how best to grow the country’s assets and raise living standards for all.
Instead of attracting people of integrity, politics in this country, and many others, has become the haven of career politicians whose goal is to secure a comfortable lifestyle for themselves now and into the future.
We elect people to lead, but many have just become followers. They follow a party line, a lobbyist or an ideology. In so doing they are abrogating their responsibility and failing in the job they were elected to do. Every utterance, every decision, is made with the view to being re-elected. Far from being leaders, our politicians follow polls and focus groups searching for what will make them popular.
What other job can you get with a starting salary package of hundreds of thousands of dollars with no qualifications, no experience, no essential criteria, no application other than saying you are eligible (and you don’t even have to prove that), no interview other than by the media, and no ongoing performance assessment other than an election in three years’ time whose outcome has been decided by Rupert Murdoch?
The required paperwork to apply for welfare, to open a bank account, or to get a driver’s licence is much tougher than to run for Parliament.
It has been said that if you pay peanuts you get monkeys. Our method of paying huge wages and entitlements has attracted gorillas – those who have, from a young age, worked out how to milk the most they can from their mediocrity.
Look at Tim Wilson – appointed by George Brandis after an enjoyable evening spent together at an IPA bash where Tony Abbott lauded Rupert Murdoch as one of the finest Australians in history. Lo and behold, as soon as George gets the power he kicks out our Commissioner for the Disabled and employs Tim at a salary package approaching $400,000 – no application, no interview.
Previously Tim had been for seven years policy director of the Institute of Public Affairs during which time he vociferously called for the abolition of the Human Rights Council.
One can only imagine the phone call.
“The HRC…that hotbed of leftie tree huggers? No way! They should all be sacked to save we taxpayers….huh…what’s that you say? Are you sure you can get me a gig? How much does it pay? Ok…I am sure I can whip them into line. You do your bit by undermining Gillian Triggs in every way you can and I am sure I will be able to take over when you force her to resign. I was a real force in the Young Liberals….I can make this thing work. Ummm…I don’t want to appear pushy but what entitlements do I get and I’ll need school holidays off”.
On appointment to the HRC, Wilson resigned from membership of the Liberal Party. Look, no more conflict of interest … now what are we working on again, George?
He has been arguing for Section 18C of the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act to be revoked, calling the prosecution of broadcaster Andrew Bolt (who, I might add, was the MC for the IPA bash) for vilification of indigenous Australians an infringement on Bolt’s right to freedom of speech. After finding himself with nothing to do after the government responded to the public outcry to dump the changes, Tim briefly resurrected himself after the shootings in Paris. He seems to have faded away again no doubt enjoying his backdated pay rise over the holiday period.
When the Prime Minister sets the example by keeping his colleagues waiting for an hour while he gets his photo taken so he can claim entitlements for attending a private function, and has the gall to admit to it like there is no problem with that, one can see the total disdain he has for propriety and that Tony is very much in it for the money. Let’s face it, his career before entering politics was hardly stellar and it is rather hard to imagine what he could be successful at other than being Howard’s attack dog.
The blatant cronyism, the rewarding of donors, the hiring of climate sceptics to advise about everything, the dogged determination to unwind all reforms introduced by the previous government, the exploiting of entitlements, the silencing of advocacy groups whilst allowing paid access to ministers by lobby groups and rich individuals, the backing away from tax reform measures (FBT on novated leases, taxing super payouts over $100,000pa, tightening corporate tax evasion profit sharing loopholes, mining tax, carbon pricing), selling off our assets, unfettered mining with no regard for the environment – all of these things are proof of how the Abbott government considers our common wealth theirs to do with as they will.
The contempt for journalism has never been greater, both from within and without
Journalists must protect their sources. From whistleblowers revealing great secrets to exposés of everyday corruption and incompetence, few will talk if they fear they will lose their jobs or maybe more than their jobs. The police might arrest and jail them. In extreme cases, dictatorships or terrorists might kill them. Livelihood, liberty, life – all can be endangered when sources speak out.
The powerful sympathise. Lord Justice Leveson, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, David Cameron and the celebrities and media academics of Hacked Off have always said that they just wanted to stamp out abuses of media power, not investigative journalism. Leveson intoned that a free press was a “cornerstone” of our democracy. Politicians declared they wanted to “safeguard and promote good investigative journalism”, as Miliband put it. There was nothing to worry about, nothing at all. Millions of otherwise sensible people believed them.
Let me dispense with euphemism. The attacks on confidential sources and public-interest journalism by the secret police and Crown Prosecution Service are so severe, they prove that the assurances given after the hacking scandal were a pack of lies. The authorities have played on an understandable but disastrous confusion in progressive thinking. The tabloids are scummy and Rupert Murdoch is sinister, it runs.
Who wants to be on the side of vicious men who have wasted what little talent they had stalking celebrities? The only answer to this question is “no decent person”. Ask who wants to be on the same side as Murdoch and you receive the same reply. They were so wrapped up in their righteousness that they did not notice that the state was thanking them for their gullibility and seizing the chance to lock down and shut up.
All of those who thought that by going along with Hugh Grant they were making a stand against the Murdochracy ought to look at how Murdoch and the criminal justice system aren’t enemies but allies.
Murdoch’s great fear was that the hacking scandal would lead to a corporate prosecution of News International. As the journalists who hacked the phone of Milly Dowler and made Sienna Miller’s life a misery worked for News International, and as the executives of News International justified their princely incomes by saying that they were responsible for the organisation, a corporate prosecution was indeed essential. It would show that the Crown Prosecution Service wanted to punish the powerful, not just the hired help.
At the trial of six Sun journalists, which ended last week with the jury acquitting two and failing to reach a verdict on the other four, defence lawyers quoted Gerson Zweifach, News Corp’s general counsel. He feared a corporate prosecution of News International in the UK would destroy its American interests. (The US authorities are a little more willing to punish wrongdoing than the indolent Brits.) He had emergency talks with the Met in 2012. According to Scotland Yard, he told the police: “The downstream effects of a prosecution would be apocalyptic. The US authorities’ reaction would put the whole business at risk.” If you can get past his atrocious jargon – why can’t the managers of communications business communicate? – you will hear the panic in his voice.
He need not have worried. Murdoch cut a deal to save his wizened hide. The police had no more right to go into his offices on a fishing expedition than they have to come into your home. They would have needed a reasonable suspicion and a search warrant. Murdoch spared them the inconvenience. The team behind his clean-up campaign went through company records and threw out journalists and journalist sources to keep the cops happy.
Honourable reporters go to prison to protect their sources. Murdoch and his team sent their sources to prison to protect themselves and have tried to do the same to their journalists. As Nigel Rumfitt, QC for one of the six Sun journalists Murdoch tossed overboard, told Kingston Crown Court, the company had been “engaged in a wholesale cover-up for more senior people at the expense of the more junior”. Nothing that was divulged implicated editors of the Sun, current and past. Instead, he went for dispensable employees, who had made the mistake of putting their trust in him.
News International was like a copper’s nark, Rumfitt continued, but the case of Murdoch stood out because the prosecution allowed the informant to run the investigation. “The police can’t even get access to the documents controlled by News International. This prosecution was controlled and instigated by the prime suspect. It has been taken for a ride by a foreign-owned corporation of enormous power, influence and greed.”
Just so. But the British authorities are more than the dupes of corporate power. They have their own “agendas”, as we say. The Sun journalists were not accused of hacking but of paying public servants for stories, including stories that were clearly in the public interest: the Ministry of Defence giving soldiers in Afghanistan faulty rifles, and the revelation that the officer the police chose to liaise with the families of the schoolgirls Ian Huntley murdered was a consumer of paedophile porn. All for nothing. Despite spending millions more than they would on serious crime, prosecutors have yet to convict a Sun reporter.
The fear I had when I first read Leveson’s ill-thought-out report is now real. The authorities want to stop the public knowing what they ought to have a right to know. And it is not only the police doing it. As my colleague James Ball of the Guardian revealed, GCHQ routinely hacks British and foreign journalists’ emails and regards reporters producing “exposés either for profit or what they deem to be of the public interest” as a threat to the state only just behind terrorists.
Much needs to be done. Those liberals who followed Grant could make a fair start by engaging in overdue self-criticism. You assumed no dangers lay ahead. You must now accept that you were conned.
Here’s how. Imagine you are a potential source. You will have read of Murdoch’s team naming names, of the willingness of the spooks to treat legitimate public inquiry as a crime and perhaps, too, of the police agreeing to try to stand up a desperate defence of that proved liar Chris Huhne by seizing all the confidential phone records of the Mail on Sunday newsdesk. You have digested the reports and understood what they foretell. You are going to stay silent, aren’t you?
LAST Thursday, Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the New York Assembly for the past 20 years, was arrested and charged with mail and wire fraud, extortion and receiving bribes. According to Preet Bharara, the federal prosecutor who brought the charges, the once seemingly untouchable Mr. Silver took millions of dollars for legal work he did not do. In exchange, he used his official power to steer business to a law firm that specialized in getting tax breaks for real estate developers, and he directed state funds to a doctor who referred cases to another law firm that paid Mr. Silver fees.
Albany is reeling, but fighting the kind of corruption that plagues not only New York State but the whole nation isn’t just about getting cuffs on the right guy. As with the recent conviction of the former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell for receiving improper gifts and loans, a fixation on plain graft misses the more pernicious poison that has entered our system.
Corruption exists when institutions and officials charged with serving the public serve their own ends. Under current law, campaign contributions are illegal if there is an explicit quid pro quo, and legal if there isn’t. But legal campaign contributions can be as bad as bribes in creating obligations. The corruption that hides in plain sight is the real threat to our democracy.
Think of campaign contributions as the gateway drug to bribes. In our private financing system, candidates are trained to respond to campaign cash and serve donors’ interests. Politicians are expected to spend half their time talking to funders and to keep them happy. Given this context, it’s not hard to see how a bribery charge can feel like a technical argument instead of a moral one.
The legal shades into the illegal. The real estate developers represented by the law firm that allegedly shuttled payments to Mr. Silver for fake legal services were also major campaign contributors. One developer mentioned in the charges gave more than $10 million to political campaigns in the past decade, including $200,000 to Mr. Silver and his political action committees.
The structure of private campaign finance has essentially pre-corrupted our politicians, so that they can’t even recognize explicit bribery because it feels the same as what they do every day. When you spend a lifetime serving campaign donors, it may seem easy to serve them when they come with an outright bribe, because it doesn’t seem that different.
Mr. Silver retained such tight control over budgets and lawmaking in Albany that his staffers were regarded as more powerful than most elected representatives. As a Democrat who cares about education, I can’t say that I loved seeing Mr. Silver, a great public school advocate, in handcuffs. For others, there’s glee in seeing the perp walk. But one high-profile indictment does not represent the dawn of a new democracy.
Yanis Varoufakis is tipped to become finance minister of what may become Greece’s leading party after legislative elections Sunday. He tells Britain’s Channel 4 what Syriza will do if it takes power.
Channel 4 economics editor Paul Mason asks Varoufakis, who teaches economics at the University of Athens, “what will you do to [Greece’s] oligarchy, concretely?”
Varoufakis responds, “We are going to destroy the basis upon which they have built, for decade after decade, a system, a network that viciously sucks of the energy and economic power from everybody else in society.”
When Mason notes Varoufakis knows what happened the “last time somebody tried to take power from the Greek oligarchy,” Varoufakis replies that “the good fight has to be fought independently of costs.”
Oxfam reports that just 80 people possess the same quantity of wealth as 3.5 billion others. On RT’s Crosstalk, economist Michael Hudson discusses how this happened with Oxfam official Max Lawson and Richard Wellings at London’s Institute for Economic Affairs.
Hudson begins, “According to every economics textbook and all the Nobel prizes for the last 40 years, this can’t be happening. According to the economics textbooks, the wealthy get rich by adding to production. You earn what you make and they’re wealth creators. But in fact what they’re producing isn’t wealth, it’s poverty. And they do this largely because—I think you can think of them as being creditors. They’re creditors to the bottom 99 percent that are debtors and renters. If you look at these wealthiest families, there are a number of common denominators: They didn’t earn their income, and yet economists only look at how people earn their income. President Obama last week said, “Well, if you have the desire to get rich and you work hard, you can do it.” But that’s not how these families got their wealth.”
Lawson adds, “Our figures show that the top group of people—the 80 people now—and of the billionaires… about a third now inherited their wealth. And that figure’s increasing all the time. And this is the point the French economist Piketty made in his famous book last year, that we’re rapidly returning to an era that we thought had been consigned to the history books, an era that we associate with The Great Gatsby or maybe Victorian times in Britain where wealth is inherited and all of the things that come with that. So it’s not just the capture of political power in this generation, it’s about using your money to shore up the future of your children and your children’s prospects. So it really is a kind of ossification of society, if you like, a stratification, which we think is deeply, deeply harmful, because it’s ultimately bad for the economy, it’s bad for meritocracy. And I agree that it’s a problem in the west, it’s a problem in rich countries, but I lived for many years in the developing world and it’s certainly a problem, for example, in South Africa where I lived, a deep, deep problem of inequality there. It’s such an issue that it’s now attacking the success that we’ve seen in the war on poverty in many of these developing countries, is being threatened by inequality there too. So it’s a problem all over the world. It’s not just in the U.K. and the U.S., it’s a problem as much in South Africa an India as it is here in London.”
Two Federal Government frontbenchers have defended Prince Philip’s contribution to Australia, as Prime Minister Tony Abbott faces an internal party backlash over his decision to grant the British royal a knighthood.
Mr Abbott’s move, revealed on Australia Day, has both puzzled and angered many of his colleagues keen for the Government to start the year on the front foot.
But frontbench Senator Michaelia Cash has described Prince Philip as “extremely deserving” in terms of the contribution he has made through schemes like the Duke of Edinburgh’s award.
“The backlash will be the backlash. Some people don’t agree with the decision,” she said.
“I’m all about celebrating. I choose to celebrate achievements. And both Angus Houston [also knighted on Australia Day] and Prince Philip have significant records of community service when it comes to the Commonwealth and Australia.”
She described the controversy over the decision as a “small distraction” from the bigger picture for the Government.
This morning senior minister Mathias Cormann dodged questions about whether the Prime Minister made the appropriate decision.
“I’m not a commentator. That was a decision that was made by the Prime Minister,” he told the AM program.
“Prince Philip has made a significant contribution in Australia. He’s made a significant contribution in particular to the Duke of Edinburgh award, to the lives of hundreds of thousands of young Australians.”
Two Queensland coalition MPs have broken ranks to publicly criticise the move, which other MPs have called “a stupid announcement”, “beyond ridiculous” and “another error of political judgment”.
Coalition MP Ewen Jones said he agreed governors-general could be eligible to be made knights or dames, but not British royals.
“I didn’t believe it,” he said.
“I thought of all the things we could do on Australia Day … Townsville’s citizen of the year was a 50-year volunteer of the Girl Guides. I think there’s a lot more for Australia that she’s done than Prince Philip.”
But Mr Jones does not think the decision reflects on the Prime Minister’s political judgment or on the Government.
“Everyone knows that Tony Abbott holds the monarchy very close to himself,” he said.
“This is a captain’s pick in which he’s made it very clear that this is what he wants to do. This has nothing to do with Government policy; it has nothing to do with process.
“This is something that Tony believes we as a nation need to do. I disagree, but I don’t think this shows that he is disconnected from the Australian people at all.
“Would I have done it? No. But do I object to him doing it? No, I don’t object to him doing it.”
MP says decision adds to ‘downward spiral’
Another MP was more forthright, saying the announcement took the edge off what could have been a good message for Australia Day and showed the Prime Minister’s misunderstanding of where Australia is at.
The MP said it was “a stupid announcement” and “manifestly amazing in the worst possible way”.
He said “it just adds to the downward spiral” because, while MPs are giving their “unswerving support” to Mr Abbott, “he comes up with Prince Philip”.
A second Queensland MP, Warren Entsch, said “for the life of me, I can’t understand why” Mr Abbott decided to honour a British royal.
Another MP said “everyone’s scratching their heads” at “another error of judgment”, adding tongue in cheek that it was appropriate in the centenary of Gallipoli for the Prime Minister to keep blowing the whistle, ordering troops to keep going over the top “only to face certain annihilation”.
“Beyond ridiculous” was yet another Coalition response.
Independent senator Nick Xenophon said Prince Philip already had “every title under the sun”.
“This is a bit like giving Bill Gates an abacus,” he said. “I don’t know what he’s going to do with it.”
Senator Xenophon said he did not see any upside to the Prime Minister’s decision to reinstate Australian knighthoods.
“When the Prime Minister made this announcement about a year ago, I thought it was wackily quaint and anachronistic,” he said.
“But now it’s just become an acute embarrassment, just plainly ridiculous.
“I reckon the Prime Minister is pushing his luck with backbenchers on this one.”
Does condemning the attack on Charlie Hebdo make me less Muslim? No, supporting the freedom of speech of the dead cartoonists, or the Saudi blogger being flogged for “insulting Islam” doesn’t make me a westernized secular who doesn’t care about Islam, my religion or the Prophet Muhammad. Instead it is those so-called Muslims hostile to critical thinking that lack basic understanding of what Islam is all about.
The fact remains that the reason we lack freedom, or any shot at democracy in the Middle East, is because it is so difficult to speak one’s mind, whether it is about religion, politics or social justice.
In Egypt, the satirist Bassem Yousef had his show cancelled following the overthrow of democratically elected Mohamed Morsi. Why? Because Bassem was going to criticize Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s coup. In Turkey, the Justice and Development party, which was initially hailed for deepening democracy, is now destroying that democracy by jailing and arresting journalists and banning social media websites to mask a massive corruption scandal within the government.
SINCE A YOUNG AGE, Muslims and Arabs are told not to question any authority that presides over them. Islam as taught in the schools has many contradictions, which many children try to wrap their heads around. Yet when they ask about contradictions, the answer is always, “Questioning God’s will is forbidden. We have to accept everything God does and says even if we don’t understand why he willed it that way.” As a teenager I wondered why Islam prescribed the death penalty for apostasy, my Islamic Studies teacher responded, “They deserve to die because they rejected Islam after they were lucky enough to be enlightened as Muslims.”
“…it is so difficult to speak one’s mind”
According to the Pew Research Center, in Egypt and Jordan more than 80 percent of questioned Muslims approve of the death penality for leaving Islam. In Palestine and Egypt more than 80 percent favor stoning as a punishment for adultery. These cruel punishments and close-minded religious interpretations are reminiscent of the Islam that ISIS seeks to establish in Syria and Iraq. Yet many Muslims believe that ISIS is a plot by foreign governments, and the very reason these conspiracy theories thrive is because we have given up critical thinking and questioning.
However, Islam rejects that idea. The Quran indicates over and over again that questioning is the very foundation of being a Muslim. Prophets came to revolutionize the societies they lived in. They didn’t accept the atrocities that were taking place and came to fix them, to enlighten and not to keep people in darkness.
Yet too many Muslims have suspended basic critical thinking. Does it make sense to beat your wife? Does it make sense to make your daughters slaves to older men when they are twelve? Does it make sense for a woman to wear a hijab just because she is a woman? Does it make sense to stone women who have been raped? Does it make sense to perform the painful and hideous crime of female genital mutation on girls as young as five? Does it make sense to behead an aid worker who was helping Syrians in times of war? Arabs and Muslims are throwing around all these traditions as “Islamic laws.” But they are not. You simply need access to Google to prove that those traditions are not part of Islam.
BUT TODAY, in many countries, you can’t say that in public without censure or more serious punishment. In Egypt, a student was sentenced to three years in prison for proclaiming that he was an atheist and “insulting Islam.” Yet he was simply declaring his disapproval of killing people who leave Islam or the practice of stoning for adultery. He questioned and ended up in trouble. Imagine how many who secretly believe the same thing but are afraid to speak out. It is this very instinct of wanting to know why, what and how that is being put to death slowly until it no longer exists.
Everyone must be allowed to talk, criticize and think, whether about religion, politics or social traditions. This is something that many in the Middle East gave up on a long time ago, until the glimpse of youthful hope of the Arab Spring, until it was hijacked by the old paternal and controlling elite.
“Yet too many Muslims have suspended basic critical thinking”
It is easy to capitalize on religious sentiment when people feel helpless. Equating political and religious authority is important in consolidating power. They feed into one another. Embracing a more radical or ”brave,” as its champions call it, interpretation of Islam makes the leader look less submissive to “evil western” powers for rejecting their sinful liberty.
Egyptian President Sisi, who many Egyptian seculars supported when he announced his coup, made it clear that Salafi groups and the al-Azhar religious authority was on his side. To the majority of Egyptians who voted for Morsi a year before he affirmed that he was even more Muslim than the Muslim Brotherhood itself.
IN TURKEY, Erdogan won three consecutive elections by adopting a subtle yet effective religious rhetoric to please his grassroots supporters. He no longer talks of secularism, freedom or democracy. Rather he asserts over and over again his religious identity, his wish to make women to be stay-at-home mothers, and act more “moral,” for example not laugh in public as one of his ministers suggested last year. All the while in Turkey journalists are being silenced and protests are being squashed or gunned down.
Ideological extremism exists in every country and every religion, yet the fact that it remains part of the government, whether democratic or not, is the very reason repression remains endemic in the region. At its root is this idea of not being able to think freely. One doesn’t need surveys or statistics to show that where freedom of speech exists and prevails, societies and nations stand a better chance of enhanced lives, a better chance at practicing their beliefs, in other words a real democracy, not a farcical one.
Any views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of Your Middle East.
Tony Abbott “continues to make the most astounding, cringe-worthy gaffes that stretch all credulity” writes Jennifer Wilson.
This, today from a Prime Minister who spends 4.3 million of taxpayer dollars monitoring social media, and employing spin doctors to “offer strategic communications advice” from the information gleaned:
I’ll leave social media to its own devices [said Abbott today]. Social media is kind of like electronic graffiti and I think that in the media, you make a big mistake to pay too much attention to social media,” Mr Abbott said. You wouldn’t report what’s sprayed up on the walls of buildings…
In spite of that 4.3 million taxpayer dollars’ worth of strategic communication advice, in spite of the iron control reportedly exerted over the PM by Chief of Staff Peta Credlin, Abbott continues to make the most astounding, cringe-worthy gaffes that stretch all credulity, and nobody wants him anywhere near them.
So it would seem the spin doctors and Ms Credlin are catastrophically useless at their jobs, because just when you think Abbott can’t get anymore bizarre, he goes and smashes all his previous records of stupid.
If Credlin and the strategic communications advisors were employed by anyone other than the LNP government they’d be sacked. I wonder how any of them will ever find alternative employment, given their unbroken record of spectacular failure with the Prime Minister.
Please do leave social media to its own devices, Mr Abbott, and stop wasting our money on monitoring it to see what it’s saying about you. It’s never anything good, you can be sure of that. How many millions of our dollars do you need to spend to find out what an absolute fool we think you are?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. You can’t make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear. No matter how many dollars and spin doctors you throw at it, you just can’t. A pig’s ear is a pig’s ear and right now, on Australia Day 2015, we have a pig’s ear in charge.
(I suppose I should say sorry to pigs, who are really pretty smart animals.)
(Which Tony Abbott is not. A smart animal, that is.)