Saturday, December 20, 2014

Sydney siege: The danger of the stories behind our national grief

Our national grief over the deadly siege at Sydney's Martin Place is undeniably shared by prime minister Tony Abbott and his wife Margie. Yet our collective sorrow over the deaths of Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson does not depend for its legitimacy or depth of feeling on our acceptance of the prime minister's broader perspective on the tragedy, which as a nation we must reject.

David Marr and Richard Ackland writing in The Guardian have already named the risk of further eroding our freedoms in reaction to the event, and we should indeed challenge any claim that a similar tragedy would be averted by assembling a yet more terrifying machinery of armed force and state security than the one that failed to stop Man Haron Monis before he killed.

Driving such inevitable calls, however, is a deeper current signalled by a Twitter hashtag - #illridewithyou - at once hopeful but foreshadowing that it may not suffice for the grief of Australia's Muslims to be no more than the shared grief of all ordinary, decent Australians.

There is the sense that the grief of Muslims, their condemnation, must be greater for the false and undeserved blame they carry, especially if they originally came to Australia seeking asylum.

That Monis was granted political asylum in 2001 may fuel this blame, but it is there already in the prime minister's story of a pervasive and enshrouding Islamic State 'death cult', of Team Australia, in the mantra of turning back the boats, and in the grudging selection or rejection of those hoping to come aboard the lifeboat of a safe and prosperous nation.

It is there in the offshore torture of those who seek entry outside the cruel sanction of an inhuman immigration system.

Now, in his latest comments, the prime minister has questioned how Monis came to possess a pump-action shotgun. A valid question, but the prime minister has also challenged how Monis was able to enter Australia, and how he managed to access welfare – two questions through which a broader political agenda is now surfacing in the aftermath of this tragedy.

The fearful lifeboat of our nation already bears many passengers attuned to Abbott’s story. There are those who have made no hazardous journey across oceans, but are suffering through disadvantage made worse by Coalition policies.

There are others who, though wealthy and protected - in a place where children will never be slaughtered by the Taliban - fear they may suffer if too many hands reach up from the water, or if we should happen to mistakenly admit a 'madman'.

There is a blindness in this, too, that the horrific events of Cairns, and of so many tragedies of violence - particularly against women and children - arise from the conditions and attitudes within our own society.

Last week, I had a chance conversation in a pub with a person who told me she received the disability support pension following the diagnosis of a chronic illness - a mother of three, one of Joe Hockey's defamed 'leaners' of the Australian economy.

Her hatred of refugees living in a public housing estate was the place where reason vanished and fear began. They were given so much, she said. They committed crimes, the prevalence of which could not be substantiated because so many went unreported. Refugees, for her, had come to wrongly personify the risk and contingency so many of us feel in an increasingly unequal and vulnerable society.

Her story was an echo of the story told by Tony Abbott, a consequence of deeply divisive, unfair and inhuman policies stoking panic on the lifeboat itself - a story that doesn't say 'I'll ride with you', but cries instead, 'You won't ride with us'.

Let's hope the former and more human sentiment survives beyond an ephemeral trend on social media.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Medieval ignorance against climate action seeks a privileged voice we should reject

The federal government's threat of further job and funding cuts to the CSIRO - among Australia's premier scientific truth-finding research organisations - fits neatly with the recently reported comments of Federal Attorney-General George Brandis in claimed defence of freedom of speech for climate change deniers.

As reported by The Guardian, Brandis used an interview in online journal Spiked to describe as "ignorant", "medieval" and "authoritarian" those he says exclude deniers from the debate and fail to engage them with arguments.

Brandis' comments should be seen for what they are - an arrogant exercise in normalising a self-interested and irrational stance through the privilege of a powerful but insufficiently accountable voice.

Climate change deniers are not prevented from voicing their dangerous, anti-scientific falsehoods. And they are routinely engaged with arguments they ignore or fail to convincingly answer, most recently in the compelling form of the latest IPCC climate assessment.

Yet, despite the disproportionate impacts of climate disruption on the disempowered, not only do deniers remain unsilenced, they are championed by the powerful, such as Prime Minister Abbott and Attorney-General Brandis, whose actions amount to effective climate denial.

Brandis' claim of exclusion from the public debate of alternative views on climate change risks leaving a disengaged public with the false impression that there is a body of credible scientific research suggesting the case for climate action is overblown.

If that were the case, the Federal Government has the access, power and resources to ensure such research is presented to the public - something the defunded Climate Commission (now Council) was readily able to do in arguing the case for urgent climate action so repugnant to the Coalition.

Should the Abbott Government now fail to produce any coherent response to the evidence and conclusions produced by the IPCC's latest report - let alone the previous and overwhelming case already presented by the global scientific community - it will only underline its complete abdication on the science.

As for the denialist commentators, a government lacking the ability to rigorously substantiate its case for climate inaction (also known by the policy name of "Direct Action") has a distinct need to protect the space denialist commentators occupy in the media as a meagre substitute for the vacuum of scientific fact underpinning fossil-fuel-driven business-as-usual.
While we may tolerate climate denialist speech, we should not tolerate governments who enact it against all the evidence in the shape of disastrous climate laws and policies.

As the CSIRO cuts play out, I will wait for Brandis to denounce as medieval and ignorant all the medical scientists who rightly dismiss those denying the link between tobacco and cancer.

In the meantime, the climate cancer spreads through voices amplified by power and access to the media - their flawed and disingenuous arguments undermine our environment, our standards of government, and our international reputation as a country of progress and decency.

A letter based on this text was published in today's edition of the Sunday Age.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Death of Melbourne homeless person shows gap between rhetoric and action

Here's the unedited version of my letter in today's Age in response to yesterday's editorial and coverage of the violent death of a Melbourne homeless man last weekend:

The failure to treat with dignity and respect the city crime scene of last weekend’s fatal stabbing of Mr Wayne Perry sounds a profoundly sad note that should also be heard as an urgent call to action to respond to the needs of all homeless people.

It shames and should appal us all that Mr Perry’s fellow homeless people should have their trauma sustained and made worse by the reminders of a senseless and violent act to which they themselves remain especially vulnerable.

That services to prevent homelessness and support homeless people remain under a funding cloud when almost 7000 people are already turned away from existing services shows the startling gap between rhetoric on the issue and any real commitment to solutions.

In addition to the need for increased and secure funding by Federal and State governments, the City of Melbourne should refocus its efforts on helping the homeless, rather than cultivating the city as a venue for boutique tourist experiences.

I also caution against the suggestion in your editorial of the extent to which homelessness is a “choice”. The privations and challenges of homeless people and those at risk of it should cause us to reflect deeply on how free people in such circumstances really are to make and give effect to decisions in their own best interests.

Nor is homelessness something to which the word “deter” should apply - as if the homeless are to be deterred from the commission of a crime. The crime is that society places too many people in such a position of terrible and, in Mr Perry’s case, fatal vulnerability.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Scrutiny needed of Doyle's Queen Vic proposals

Those who read Saturday's coverage in The Age of Lord Mayor Robert Doyle's proposals to revamp Queen Victoria Market might be interested in my response in today's letters in the paper:

We are entitled to scepticism of Lord Mayor Robert Doyle's grand plans to revamp the Queen Vic Market. Coming hot on the heels of Doyle exempting himself from a Council planning decision due to developer support for his re-election campaign, any Queen Vic proposal from the Lord Mayor should be subject to the closest scrutiny.

In what appears to be a top-down process in developing the proposal, we need to ask who stands to gain, and that includes if it's any of the big developers who bankrolled some candidates in the City of Melbourne Council elections.

I agree with Shane Green that any plan for change should seek the engagement of the market stall holders, who you report as refusing to participate in a Council promotional video due to their uncertainty about the detail of the proposal. It would also be a great idea to ask the ordinary people who visit the market, the observers of the worn steps and history of the place of which Green thoughtfully writes.

Doyle has a track-record of objecting to the occupation of public spaces by ordinary people, including the disadvantaged - witness his strident opposition to Occupy Melbourne and his ham-fisted anti-begging proposals. He ought not to arrogantly occupy the debate over this city's history, its future directions, and its identity.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

An open letter to The Age on "financial terrorism"

Dear Mr Holden,

As bushfires rage around Australia, let me suggest an alternative to yesterday's editorial, shriekingly headlined, "Sharemarket damaged by financial terrorism".

You might have instead considered "Climate damaged by carbon terrorism" - it gets you much closer to the truth.

A vastly larger group of "shareholders" is hurt by the exploitation of fossil fuels and routinely deceived by lies and misinformation denying the impacts of the resulting carbon emissions - including more frequent and severe bushfires.

That tragic fraud affects the global population, far beyond those affected by market changes following a media release purporting to announce ANZ's withdrawal of funds from a coal project.

Jonathan Moylan's corrective activism certainly has The Age fired up. More urgently, the reckless pursuit of fossil fuels such as coal is, quite literally, setting the world on fire. Where's your moral outrage at that?


Darren Lewin-Hill

P.S. Your editorial follows recent excellent coverage by Tom Arup of projected increased insurance costs for State assets in Victoria based on climate change and resulting bushfires.

Earlier this week, Peter Hannam reported that money for bushfire research is running out. In his piece today on Meekatharra, he quotes Dr David Jones, head of climate analysis at the Bureau of Meteorology, regarding new record temperatures set for Australia in the present heatwave.

In terms of climate change trends, the rising mean temperatures provide a clearer "finger-print", not to mention the rate and scale of the new records being set, Dr Jones said.

Unfortunately, as "A Nation Burns" - in the words of yesterday's page one headline - your editorial tips the "balance" of your coverage towards a perspective that values the market over damage to the climate, and those who live with the impacts of climate change - or die from them.

Monday, December 17, 2012

When laws silence critics of a system failing children

On Saturday, The Age published a strong piece about a mother with a disability whose child was removed and placed in alternative custody by a court order despite the mother's clear capacity as a good parent.

Laws to prevent people speaking out about individual cases are found in a number of areas relating to children - including (as in this case) in family law, as well as in child protection. However, such laws are too often misused by governments not to protect the best interests of children, but to avoid scrutiny of a system that too often harms them.

Here's the unedited version of my letter published in The Age today responding to Mark Baker's story:

To make worse the removal of a child from a good mother with a disability, and the consequent violation of their human rights, a veil of silence has been cast over "Rebecca" in this sad case of seemingly lawful injustice.

Yet who benefits from this silence? In too many cases it is not children, but the system that is thereby allowed to escape proper scrutiny.

There are often good reasons why the identity of children should be protected, but there is little doubt that laws to achieve this are also misused to veil circumstances where children are harmed by the system itself.

Whether children are taken from good parents with a disability, harmed by a child protection system that fails, or even placed in an adult prison while subject to a child protection order, the law must allow appropriate public scrutiny that can offer a vital path to upholding children's best interests.

Laws that hide the effective abuse of children by the system cannot go unchallenged, and the voices of challenge must not be silenced.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Occupy "funeral" renews protest hope

A hoped-for political "funeral" for Doyle
at Melbourne Town Hall
A modest protest last Sunday marked a year since the forceful eviction of Occupy Melbourne protesters from City Square on 21 October 2011. Robert Doyle, an enthusiast for the eviction who had looked down imperiously on the police horses and more than 100 officers from a balcony of Melbourne Town Hall, will soon learn if he has been successful in his re-election bid for Lord Mayor.

Clouded by allegations he has refused to fully answer about campaign funding, an unrepentant Doyle again seeks the top job with a Federal Court judgment in the offing over whether the City of Melbourne and Victoria Police acted unlawfully and breached the rights of the protesters whose eviction he sought a year ago.

For the anniversary protesters, however, thoughts about Doyle’s continuing bid for power came with more humble reflections about what Occupy continues to represent.

Early on, a mere handful of people gathered near Spring Street on the lowest steps of State Parliament. Just a couple of Protective Services Officers patrolled their upper reaches, but there were no police save for a Critical Incident Response Team van that swung by and continued without apparent interest down Bourke Street.

Was this less the anniversary of a movement than its funeral parade? Would the scene be set for media coverage that would see the numbers as a vote for or against the value of Occupy as a whole?

A year on, with many of the global economic and social justice issues that have concerned the movement only worsening, and with the Sydney coronial inquest into the police tasering of Roberto Laudisio Curti, it would be a mistake to conclude that low numbers could possibly signal irrelevance.

Instead, they would, if anything, signal the challenge of sustaining a disparate movement amid what Noam Chomsky described in July as an “atomised society” where “people are kind of alone, and not by accident”.

Speaking to Gary Younge of The Guardian, Chomsky noted “very large-scale, coordinated, planned efforts to try to restore people to apathy and obedience”. Since Occupy, however, he said that activism had only grown. It was, Chomsky said, a movement of different aspects and strands.

And so it was last Sunday, as the small group at State Parliament was joined by a further group marching up Bourke Street, bearing a black cardboard coffin painted with the words “RIP Doyle” in a hopeful signal of the Lord Mayor’s political demise.

If a sign was sought of the movement’s continuing importance, it was seen in what followed, in the reaction of PSOs to a muted - indeed, funereal - protest on a quiet Sunday afternoon in Melbourne.

The PSOs conferred, radios were spoken into, and police began to gather - two vans at first, and five police officers standing aloof from protesters now lining Parliament’s upper steps with photographs and signs protesting police violence, the coffin at their feet as a funeral dirge floated mournfully in the air.

A PSO confers by radio upon the arrival of Doyle's coffin at
State Parliament
When the protest finally moved off for Melbourne Town Hall, the front and rear of the march were bracketed by police cars, the flanks by officers on foot. This was not so much a safeguard against negligible public risk than it was a will to set the parameters of the march, to mark the limits of its confinement by authority.

In this, the scene brought to mind Chief Commissioner Ken Lay’s comments about such protests distracting police from the prevention of robberies, burglaries and assaults. In what ill-conceived world is constraining peaceful protest a higher priority than such crimes? Was this in any sense meaningful law enforcement?

At the Town Hall the police numbers grew to eight, with five cars ranged along the kerb, across the road and around the corner. The coffin was laid beneath the very balcony where Doyle had witnessed the actions of police last year - the regular and special operations officers, the horses, and all the standard armoury now too often deployed towards compliance with police demands aligned questionably to the actual law.

There was a sadness at this protest, but not over its worth among the protesters. Instead, there was a pervasive sense that in a democracy police should not create confrontation in order to resolve it through the use of disproportionate and unnecessary force. We could have been mourning Roberto Laudisio Curti, or Tyler Cassidy.

The protest at a Flinders Lane police station is well-monitored
by police and CCTV
We ended our protest at the police station off Swanston Street in Flinders Lane. Protesters chalked the road and made their final speeches as police sergeants conferred on the footpath. The filming of protesters with an officer’s smart phone now presumably fell to the CCTV cameras bristling from the station itself.

In the aftermath of the October 2011 eviction, Radio National’s World Today program reported one protester’s words about the state of modern society, if not all who live within it: “We’re trained to see differences between each other; we can’t see what makes us similar anymore”.

Fortunately, one year on from the Occupy Melbourne eviction, and on this day unshaken by police violence, we could be more hopeful. We could still see and share what joins us all.


Listen to Jon Faine speaking with Doyle about Occupy

This post represents my personal views. I did not attend the original Occupy protest evicted from City Square and do not speak for the Occupy movement. I have participated in a number of subsequent protests as an ordinary person supportive of Occupy's aims.