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.