Thursday, February 27, 2014

"Hi Pot, this is Kettle" - Miranda Devine screams hypocrisy on behalf of the right

This is the original Devine piece in question, from The Daily Telegraph...

And this is my response...

The temptation with anything written by Miranda Devine is to immediately dismiss it as shrill and unreasoned, based on a long and established history of writing shrill, hysterical op-ed pieces for Fairfax, and now Murdoch. In any other forum she would be labeled a troll, and the best evidence of this is in the dreadful tone of the majority those commenting on her blog. Perhaps they are trolls themselves, but the tone is so uniformly dreadful that one has to assume these people actually think this way.

But, despite this temptation to dismiss Devine’s latest blog post, I will attempt to address a couple of the points she makes.

 First, I find that the use of the word hypocrite is fraught, not least of all because it tends to attract a “tit for tat” series of accusations. “That was only one time, but it wasn’t as bad as when someone else did some other much worse thing.” “Yeah, but what about when this guy said that thing about that other guy?” ”Sure, but remember when you called me this after I said that?”And so on, ad nauseum. Achieving nothing.

But, that said, let’s do some of that anyway, ergo… Devine railing against the Abbott effigy-decapitators and the Abbott-haters on Facebook. Any reasonable person will argue that that kind of extreme protest is unhelpful at best, utterly destructive at worst. As Australians, I would hope we’re collectively better than that. And someone needs to explain this to Andrew Bolt, for instance, or to Larry Pickering, who is adored by a small fringe on the right, but otherwise ignored and dismissed as the rabid loon that he is by pretty much every reasonable Australian. See what I mean? Both sides of the debate can play the indignation game, which leads the concept of hypocrisy into an Inception-esque meta spiral of dreams within dreams, hypocrisies within hypocrisies. So it’s a potentially endless exercise in accusation and counter-accusation.

What is equally pointless as an exercise, be it academic or practical, is to waste time pointing fingers at the previous government and accusing them of causing this mess. The culpability of Labor/Greens in contributing to the failure of Howard’s border policies is undeniable. Lives were lost. Many lives. Contrary to what many on the Right would have us believe, no one was happy about this. No one was crying “crocodile tears”- to suggest such a thing is despicable (if not surprising) on Devine’s part. So yes, under Howard the boats had stopped. The camps were largely empty. However, what this admission doesn’t address is the methods the Howard government employed to develop, enforce and maintain those policies, aided in part by Peter Reith’s proven and willful omission of truth around the children overboard affair (for instance) and the rising tone of public outrage which followed (and ultimately ensured an unlikely election win). But even Howard and Reith in their worst moments were nothing compared with Abbott and Morrison, for reasons I’ll attempt to explore momentarily.

The reason this endless blame game is so pointless is because it doesn’t fix the problem we are faced with now. Right now. Not just locally, but internationally. Not just in terms of actual, skin-and-bone and mental human suffering, but in terms of our international reputation (as if that matters one bit when compared with real personal suffering.) Naval vessels wandering into Indonesian waters up to six times in a month, turning boats around against the wishes of our peaceful neighbours, and a growing feeling overseas that Australians are, well, hypocrites (to quote a teacher here in Hong Kong this very week, who marvelled at our ostensibly anti-immigration stance considering we are, if nothing else, a nation of immigrants.)

Again, none of this is fixed by tossing around accusations of hypocrisy. And none of this is fixed by trying to deny that with the possible exception of the impossibly idealistic Greens, leading into the last two elections both sides of our political scene were entirely willing to exploit a growing xenophobia by endlessly chanting the “stop the boats” mantra.

And certainly none of this is being fixed by Scott Morrison, who is, in my view, approximately 180 degrees from the “competent, methodical” operator that Devine would have us believe he is. Rather, I see him as completely out of his depth. None of it is being fixed by using sneering, snarky descriptors like “crocodile tears” when the concern being shown by the “hypocritical” left. And in addition to not being fixed, it is being exacerbated by Morrison’s steely refusal to tell us anything. When he does tell us something, it turns out to be half-cocked, or just plain wrong, even a barefaced lie. The man who died last week was not outside the compound (and therefore outside of his department’s care) as Morrison plainly told us, but very much inside. And whilst he was not murdered by Morrison (an admittedly inflammatory and mischievous turn of phrase by Milne) he was almost certainly murdered. He did have his head crushed, possibly his throat cut. It’s hard, even impossible to know specifics, since more than a week  later, an autopsy has not yet been performed on the body which is being guarded by the very people suspected of causing his death. And as we know from history, when there is an information vacuum, suspicion and conjecture emerge to fill it. If there’s nothing to hide, perform the autopsy and tell us what happened. Unlike almost everything else to do with this situation, this bit is actually quite simple. Unless there’s something to hide.

On that point, Devine waxes outraged about Angus Campbell being asked if there is a political cover-up. “How dare he,” she shrieks. Well, personally I think it’s a fair question. We’re not at war, and yet we’re apparently on a war footing, at least where information is concerned. A military commander is overseeing a clearly tense situation, but is gagged by his minister, citing “operational matters”. The situation is not allowed to be covered by the press. Parliamentary questions are restricted to Dorothy Dixers without supplementary follow-ups. Cameras and SD cards are confiscated and wiped at the behest of a private security company, apparently acting on orders from the minister. Translators lose their jobs for simply saying what they saw, ministers storm out of press conferences after ducking and weaving… again, if it’s NOT a political cover-up, tell us what we need and deserve to know, so we can understand the real situation. And don’t tell us that the silence is to keep the people smugglers in the dark – the LNP wouldn’t shut up about boat arrivals pre-September 2013, but now any discussion of the situation amounts to “shipping news”.

Part of the remit of the minister is to take ultimate responsibility for what occurs within his portfolio. But Morrison shows no sign of this. In fact, he only seems interested in blaming the last government for this mess, rather than doing anything about it. We get it – the last government’s policies were costly. Terribly and tragically costly. We get it – Morrison didn’t personally murder anyone, just as Rudd, Gillard and Bob Brown didn’t drown anyone. We get it – it’s a complex situation. But while ever it remains shrouded in this kind of secrecy and we accept it, we end up with the odd bloodstain on our own hands.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Who do we really want to be?

Earlier today I promised a rant, and now I'm almost ready to write it. 

But where to begin? With Tony Abbott insisting the a national public broadcaster has a certain unwritten obligation to cut the government some slack, and giving the navy the benefit of the doubt? With the Defence Minister seeing no need to look into significant allegations against military personnel, preferring instead to assert without investigation that there is no case to answer, and that anyway, the ABC is being treacherous, borderline treasonous? With 22 perfectly reasonable questions to Messrs Abbott and Morrison being met with the same ubiquitous catch-all: "In line with the policy of not discussing what happens at sea, the Government has no response on the issues raised"? Or perhaps we could go international with our outrage, and question the political implications of this government treating our sovereign neighbours with the same contempt they show the Australian people who put them in power. Perhaps the apparent ineptitude of naval crews to read a GPS and chart well enough keep their vessels out of Indonesian waters. Or maybe the boast that no asylum seeker boats have reached Australia for x number of weeks, mainly due to them being intercepted by armed patrol boats and turned around.

No, I'm going to keep it simple, and talk about this picture, published by the Guardian a couple of days ago. And rather than a rant, it's going to be more of an appeal to common decency and human empathy. You know, all bleeding heart "small-L" liberal. The kind of thing that gets Sarah Hanson-Young labelled as "evil" by some on the right.

So, to the details as we understand them. 34 people, including children as young as 18 months, were ordered into a purpose-bought orange lifeboat, turned around, and sent back. Not even taken to an Indonesian port, but simply turned around and told, "You have enough fuel to reach Java", after which they had little choice but to do just that.

Now imagine the scene, 48 hours since they've eaten, running ashore on an uninhabited coastline, opening the door and disembarking. What happens then? Where does one go? 34 people standing on a beach in the dark, hungry and lost.

Of course the response from some will be that these people should have thought of that before they paid people smugglers to ferry them to Christmas Island. I imagine that's what the government is hoping - that prospective asylum seekers will think twice. What little information the government has given us would suggest that this is exactly what is already happening. So job done, I guess.

Under the circumstances I think that Marty Natalegawa is being remarkably restrained when he describes the tow-back/turn-back policy as "not really helpful". I would suggest that a better way to describe such unilateral decisions around sovereign boundaries might be "potentially damaging". This has the real potential to cause diplomatic headaches that will make the temporary ban on live cattle exports to Indonesia shrink into utter insignificance. As the Guardian says, "Indonesia's navy held a meeting this week to discuss the boat turn-backs and has decided to boost personnel numbers on Java's southern coast." Does this mean more staff with boat-hooks and fenders to stop the lifeboats from landing? Does it mean having Indonesian navy vessels on patrol and ready to repel Australian ships that "accidentally" wander into their waters? A standoff on the high seas while an orange lifeboat bobs innocuously between them? All real possibilities.

So what is to be done? I don't think anyone considers it an easy problem to solve. (Well, except for those who argue that we should just shell the boats out of the water, but those kinds of nut-bars don't get a say.) For some time now both sides of politics have been culpable in demonising the desperate. I guess it's about playing for the middle ground, but that doesn't make any of the slated policies satisfactory. And it certainly doesn't excuse this bullying approach from the current government, not just towards the asylum seekers, but towards Indonesia, and towards the free press and Australian electorate who quite rightly expect better responses than "no comment". 

I think it's time to ask this question, and to answer it honestly: how do we want to the seen by the rest of the world? What kind of people do we want to be? Who have we become collectively, and are we actually happy with that? Modern Australia is a multicultural country made up predominantly of boat-people, a nation which has always prided itself on how highly it values mateship and a fair go for all. It's kind of hard to make that claim at the moment, wouldn't you say? The way things are going, we're going to have our work cut out to represent ourselves overseas as anything more than a bunch of privileged, whining xenophobes who don't give a shit about how hard things are for anyone else. 

But perhaps worse than that, we'll be seen as a democratic nation that is happy to vote in a government based pretty much entirely on who they aren't, before settling for letting them do whatever they please without expecting any kind of accountability. Are we really that country? God, I hope not.