After last week’s siege in central Sydney, Al Jazeera’s The Listening Post analysed the media coverage and found it severely lacking. I was asked to add a comment (starting at 9:25):
My weekly Guardian column:
The details shocked. Shackled prisoners were treated like cattle, watched by their CIA interrogators. Testimony from one observer stated that men blindfolded and tied “were made to run down a steep hill, at the bottom of which were three throws of concertina barbed wire. The first row would hit them across the knees and they would plunge head first into the second and third rows of wire”.
This wasn’t CIA torture after the September 11 attacks, exposed in detail in a recent Senate report, but the Phoenix programme, instituted by the CIA and US, Australian and South Vietnamese militaries in Vietnam between 1965 and 1972 to “neutralise” the Vietcong. The result was more than 60,000 people tortured and killed. No senior politicians, generals or decision-makers were prosecuted for these crimes. A culture of immunity, despite occasional media and public outrage, thrived across the US.
Questioned before a US House operations subcommittee in the late 1960s to investigate widespread Phoenix-inspired torture, future CIA head William Colby used language that sounds familiar today. It’s just the official enemy that has changed. The “collateral damage” was justified, he said. Phoenix was “an essential part of the war effort … designed to protect the Vietnamese people from terrorism.”
In 2007, decades after its cessation, the CIA was still worried that the public felt Phoenix was an “unlawful and immoral assassination programme targeting civilians.” Instead, they claimed, it was “pacification and rural security programmes”.
Compare this to today’s CIA head, John Brennan, who defends his agency’s behaviour in the “war on terror” as doing a “lot of things right.” This arrogance only exists in an environment that doesn’t punish those who sanction abuses at the highest level and a mainstream media that gives equal time to torturers while virtually ignoring the victims. American torture’s grim legacy in Afghanistan is one of the least reported aspects of the last decade.
While it was the French who first introduced electrical torture to Vietnam, it was the Americans, writes journalist Mike Otterman in his book American Torture, who advised the Vietnamese “how to make the torture more painful and effective. Under American supervision, Vietnamese interrogators often combined electrical torture with sexual abuse”.
Otterman reminds us that US torture wasn’t an invention after the terror attacks of 2001 but part of a continuum of unaccountable US cruelty from Latin America to Asia, the Middle East and beyond. It’s revealing that this pedigree is so rarely explained or investigated in the rush to condemn (or praise, depending on your worldview) Washington-directed brutality under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
This history is relevant during the current debate over post September 11 torture. The Senate report is an important contribution to the public record but the lack of any prosecution, censure or official condemnation goes to the heart of modern political culture. Obama has acquiesced in this position. The effect, writes journalist Andrew Sullivan, is that America has ensured that these crimes will occur again: “That will be part of his legacy: the sounds of a torture victim crying in the dark, and knowing that America is fine with it.”
A culture that celebrates television shows such as 24, Homeland and Spooks, where torture is central to capturing the bad guys and glamorises its use, makes real-life torment easier to justify or ignore. An Amnesty poll this year found 29% of Britons, higher than in Russia, Brazil and Argentina, believed torture could be justified to protect the public.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken after the release of the Senate torture report found that 59% of Americans felt that the CIA’s treatment of suspected terrorists was justified. This is in spite of the fact that one of the key findings in the US Senate report was that CIA torture was ineffective in hunting down extremists. Evidence from a US Senate armed services committee report into torture in 2009 found that such abuses were only guaranteed in bringing false confessions.
The Senate torture report has brought a handful of politicians demanding full transparency of their government’s role since 2001. The head of Britain’s Commons intelligence and security committee, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, wants Washington to release all documents showing London’s role in the CIA’s rendition programme though it’s sad he acknowledges London’s relative weakness when “requesting” the USA to hand over the details.
The silence has been deafening in Australia with no major politicians demanding openness from Canberra on its role under former prime minister John Howard in sanctioning the illegal incarceration of David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib. Independent MP Andrew Wilkie is one of the few modern politicians with a history of questioning the pernicious role of group-think in government. In 2004, he published a searing book, Axis of Deceit, on Australia’s real reason for overthrowing Saddam Hussein, and it wasn’t weapons of mass destruction. Thus far Wilkie has not commented on the CIA report, although he has accused the Abbott government of crimes against humanity for its treatment of asylum seekers.
The failure to punish torturers in the US fits neatly into a wider social malaise. The powerful don’t go to jail; it’s the weak that suffer for their foibles. The lack of any substantial prosecutions for Wall Street illegality is symptomatic of the rot inside the political class. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi’s shows in his book The Divide how this occurs. “Obsessed with success and wealth and despising failure and poverty”, he argues, “our society is systematically dividing the population into winners and losers, using institutions like the courts to speed the process.”
When “we” break the law, it’s with benign intent and good intentions (an editorial in the Australian makes this spurious case). But when “they” do it, they’re criminals who should be punished. Elites protect elites. Where was the outcry when the CIA hired private mercenary company Blackwater after 9/11 to assassinate “enemies” in Afghanistan?
Instead of trials for those accused of endorsing torture, we’re left with articles, essays and works like The Trial of Donald Rumsfeld, “a prosecution by book”, written by the Centre for Constitutional Rights’ Michael Ratner. It’s a solid tome but desperately short of what’s required in a healthy democracy for individuals at the highest levels of government who order harsh crimes.
The ability of the state to retroactively justify illegal behavior when caught is a feature of every nation on earth, not just the US. But demanding other countries abide by international law, when western nations so blatantly ignore it, is the height of hypocrisy. The shocking details in the US Senate report demand accountability but there’s little public appetite for it.
Retired Navy JAG John Hutson warned in 2008 against trials for post 9/11 crimes because “people would lawyer up”, a tacit admission that the legal system is gamed by the wealthy and powerful to escape justice. There’s hardly a more illustrative example of the modern state’s failure.
It’s been a crazy year filled with ISIS, war, Tony Abbott, terrorism and much in between. I was interviewed by Triple R’s Spoke about it all:
This week’s horrific terrorist attack in Sydney, a crazed self-styled cleric held people hostage in the Lindt cafe in central Sydney killing three people including the gunman, has shocked the country and generated global headlines. Too much of the media coverage was exploitative and sensational, framing the event as led or even inspired by ISIS. Rupert Murdoch’s outlets were particularly egregious.
I was asked to comment about the wider political issues for Al Jazeera America. I wasn’t an eyewitness to the siege so offered some context for such events in Australia and globally:
My weekly Guardian column:
The legislation on asylum seekers that immigration minister Scott Morrison pushed through the Senate last week, granting him even wider powers, is not the only area in which he is seeking to extend and concentrate his influence over the lives of vulnerable people.
The Australian Citizenship and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2014 is yet another attempt by Morrison to give himself and his department massive, largely unchecked power to control individuals’ futures. Most of the affected aren’t asylum seekers but may include citizens undergoing drug rehabilitation or suffering from a mental illness. They face being potentially blocked or losing Australian citizenship. The bill outlines the various ways in which the minister can deny, block or rescind citizenship for any individual, former asylum seeker or not, who he believes obtained this privilege dishonestly.
The bill aims to change the definition of Australian citizenship. The minister already has the power to sever visas but this goes further to potentially affect thousands of Australian citizens who are living productive lives today. Morrison’s moves against asylum seekers aim to drop the established norms of natural justice. The citizenship bill continues this appalling trend where the minister and his department are deemed more knowledgable than independent oversight. It’s a change that must be rejected though the public response has so far been almost non-existent.
The bill aims to grant the minister powers to determine an individual’s “good character”. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection explains in its submission to a Senate committee why the government believes the law should change: “As an elected member of parliament and minister of the Crown, the minister has the privilege of representing the Australian community and has gained a particular insight into the community standards and values.”
These “values” may be news to the thousands of asylum seekers languishing in horrific conditions on Nauru and Manus Island, forced to suffer months and years of detention for the “crime” of legally arriving by boat.
Another section of the submission demands “setting aside” decisions of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) “concerning character and identity if it would be in the public interest to do so.” The idea that a minister, Morrison or somebody else from any political party, is better placed to decide on character is an absurd proposition that denies recent history of a mostly successful process. The AAT isn’t a perfect body, but for the immigration department to state that its position is null and void shows contempt for any independent review. This obsession with centralising power guarantees secrecy and grave errors.
Despite the government claiming that it would only ignore the AAT in cases where decisions fall outside community expectations and standards, the Law Council of Australia opposes the proposal, saying it “undermines the independent review process which is provided by the AAT.”
The Law Council’s submission is concise and powerful. It praises the AAT as “generally designed to promote good decision-making and provide individuals affected by adverse decisions with a relatively straight-forward, inexpensive mechanism by which to seek review.” This echoes Morrison’s aim to restrict the ability of individuals to challenge rejection by his department.
The Law Council also condemns the proposal that the department could make decisions on citizenship “in the public interest.” It argues that such a term “should be defined and limited to decisions affecting the Australian economy, affecting Australia’s relations with other countries, concerning national security or concerning major political controversies.”
Another disturbing section of the bill revolves around granting the minister the right to determine “fraud” or “misrepresentation” of an Australian citizen, including children, and then potentially revoking that person’s papers. Crucially, as the Law Council details, “this is regardless of whether the person was convicted of an offence in relation to the fraud or misrepresentation.” Australia would be a country where a minister determines guilt “outside of any criminal proceedings.” The presumption of innocence is trashed in this bill.
Melbourne-based Carina Ford, an accredited immigration law specialist who works in this area, says that the bill revolves around a belief that, “the executive thinks that they’re in a better position to make decisions than tribunals.”
“I have concerns with a minister having the power to overrule AAT tribunal decisions. Australia has a system of separation of powers and it’s problematic when a minister can overrule it. This government has been doing that in terms of citizenship and character. We should have faith in our tribunals, they are able to make the right decisions.”
Ford argues that the Abbott government’s platform of securing Australia’s borders partly explain this bill. She worries that unjust decisions are assured. These are “draconian powers if somebody has provided a fraudulent document. It will be very difficult to get citizenship, even if it may have been 10-15 years ago for a person who has been paying tax and living safely here. A decision made when you’re 18 may come and bite you when you’re 28.”
Morrison’s thirst for power follows a global trend. In Britain the current issues of immigration and citizenship are inexorably tied to the rise of Ukip and prime minister David Cameron’s quest to toughen his country’s stance against European citizens. Across Europe the rhetoric against immigrants is growing, fuelling public insecurity about jobs and the economy. The Cameron government has made obtaining citizenship much harder.
In America, the power of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement is staggering, affecting the options of millions of current and future citizens. Scapegoating for simply being immigrants is routine and lacks any serious accountability mechanism.
Morrison’s push to grant himself even larger influence should be resisted for the simple reason that his department proudly avoids scrutiny. The Abbott government, so fond of excluding critics in its Team Australia campaign, should not be trusted to decide the “good character” of vulnerable citizens.
My weekly Guardian column:
The terms of the current battle in Australia over the ABC, its budget and place in public life have been set by its most vociferous critics, mostly in the Murdoch press. If only the lines weren’t so predictable. Their campaign fits neatly into a global trend: to reduce the public’s faith in public broadcasting, and to prepare for its selloff to corporate competitors.
Neutering the BBC and ABC, and the US public broadcasters NPR and PBS, is part of the Murdoch empire’s core business. As many of its papers continue to lose money every day, it’s no surprise that their fixation on halting so-called digital “mission creep” is a worldwide obsession.
In 2013, Rupert Murdoch tweeted about his favourite enemy, the BBC: “huge lack of balance in UK media with 8,000 BBC left wing journalists far outnumbering all national print journalists.” He added that the BBC was a “massive taxpayer-funded mouthpiece for tiny circulation leftist Guardian”.
And in 2006, James MacManus, executive director of News International, said it was “outrageous” that the BBC was able to run on public money because the broadcaster had “blatantly commercial ambitions” and was trying to “create a digital empire”.
The same criticisms were made of ABC managing director Mark Scott in the papers last week: that he is creating a “superfluous digital empire” that impinges on the commercial realities of privately-owned media.
The message from Murdoch and other commercial enterprises is that their investment in journalism and innovation keeps a vibrant press alive – and that any limit to their commercial operations is an intrusion on free speech.
What that means in practice is quite different. To the Murdoch empire, a “free” press means the right to, for instance, sponsor the tricks of prominent British Murdoch reporter Mazher Mahmood – the “fake sheikh”.
For a well-resourced and independent BBC, the Guardian’s Peter Preston argued in his commentary on the BBC’s Mahmood expose, freedom is the “in-house means to dig, expose, take risks, and clear its decks for action” – vital journalistic functions that serve democracy.
Although many in the UK still like and admire the BBC, the institution has fallen greatly in the last ten years. Scandals, mismanagement and the perception that the broadcaster remains too close to the political establishment have harmed the BBC’s reputation. The cover-up of the crimes of serial paedophile Jimmy Savile was a watershed moment for the BBC – nearly half the British public lost trust in the Beeb after the scandal broke.
The difference is, every scandal at the public broadcaster is ammunition for the critics and privatisers. As British journalist Charlotte Higgins wrote earlier this year in the wake of ongoing crises in the BBC:
“It is in the nature of BBC rows to escalate quickly to question the very basis on which it is run. Some of the corporation’s enemies clearly hold the view that if one undermines the foundations, the edifice might be more swiftly destroyed: like digging a mine in a medieval siege.”
Murdoch would be pleased to recently read that the foundations are indeed getting shaky: BBC management is considering placing leading current affairs shows into a commercial subsidiary, yet another arm of the organisation that could suffer hits to their credibility were it exposed to commercial realities. David Cameron’s government has always been amenable to Murdoch’s grander ambitions – in opposition he argued the BBC “was squeezing and crushing … commercial competition” in Murdoch’s Sun newspaper. Labour leader Ed Miliband has also had a cosy relationship with the media mogul, despite a recent critical turn.
PBS and NPR
The American public are fighting an even more important battle. A mere six corporations control 90% of the press, and consumer confidence in the media is at an all-time low. Publicly funded outlets PBS and NPR have been marginalised and starved of funds for so long that they now sometimes take corporate largesse, diluting their integrity.
Republican critics of US public broadcasting argue that the high salaries of top management, and the success of its childrens’ programmes like Sesame Street, are arguments for cutting it loose from taxpayer funding. Again, parallels can be drawn with the Australian example: just look at the intense interest in Quentin Dempster’s salary and the children’s show, Peppa Pig.
Were PBS or NPR to be diminished, a handful of multinational media outlets would completely dominate the US media market. Murdoch’s burning desire to still consume Time Warner would guarantee an even larger voice for the multinational.
During the 2012 US presidential election, Republican candidate Mitt Romney said Washington should “stop the subsidy” to PBS, due to his ideological set against state funding for media. In reality, like with the ABC and BBC, government support is tiny and decreasing. NPR and PBS received $445m from 2012 to 2014, .012 percent of the federal budget.
Stations in rural areas are closing and shrinking and public radio states are decreasing, leaving only corporate alternatives. A 2012 poll found 55% of voters opposed cuts in public television spending. Murdoch, through Fox News, New York Post and Wall Street Journal, tirelessly campaigns and backs candidates who argue that the digital revolution makes public media obsolete.
We hear exactly the same rhetoric in Australia. The Lewis review urged the ABC to dump digital radio and charge for online content, opening the way for Murdoch to capitalise on a reduced ABC footprint.
The aim isn’t to kill public broadcasting outright but to force a long war of attrition that slowly chips away at public’s respect and broadcasters’ desire to fight. It’s a messy strategy, but it’s working: trust in state-owned media like the ABC is in slow decline, even though it still leaves its critics for dead.
It’s a sign of how far this debate has skewed that the vast majority of heated conversations on public broadcasting are framed in purely economic terms. Can we afford it? Should we pay for it? How much does it cost? Can we sell off divisions?
We’re never discussing that terms of the debate disallow or discourage dissenting points of view. It’s far easier to obsess over the dry economics of an industry that doesn’t make anything tangible, like manufacturing or agriculture. The ABC is forced to explain its relevance in the face of ongoing attacks, when its charter prioritises the very things its commercial critics would see diminished: multiculturalism, education, diversity – and independence.
My weekly Guardian column:
It’s a good time to be in the weapons business. Three of the leading US defence contractors, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, are all making unprecedented profits.
In December, Northrop will host an event at the Australian War Memorial to mark the company’s expansion into the Asia-Pacific region. It will be launched by Federal defence minister David Johnson. It’s a curious location because, as Crikey’s tipster drily noted, “without the endeavours of arms companies stretching back centuries, there’d be significantly fewer Australians for the War Memorial to commemorate”.
Northrop’s US-based corporate HQ decided in the last 18 months to open a major office in Australia. In March the company purchased Qantas Defence Services, a firm that provides engine and aircraft maintenance to the Australian Defence Force and global militaries. It was an $80m deal. In September 2013, Northrop bought M5 Network Security, a Canberra-based cyber-security outfit.
Northrop appointed Ian Irving as CEO of the Australian outfit in June, as part of a plan to capitalise on the “strategically important market” of the Asia Pacific. The centrepiece of that plan is to give smaller enterprises in the defence space access to Northrop’s global supply chain. That’s nothing to be sneezed at: they’re a vital defence contractor for the US military and the company’s weapons have been used in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond.
Irving explained to Australian Defence Business Review in July that he was pleased to sell the Australian government the firm’s MQ-4C Triton surveillance drones. The machines will be used to monitor the nation’s borders and protect “energy resources” off northern Australia. Northrop Grumman Australia is set to make up to $3bn from selling the drones. Countless European nations are equally desperate to use drones to beat back asylum seekers.
Despite all this, a Northrop spokesman assured me that the company’s growing presence in Australia has no connection to the Abbott government’s increase in defence spending.
As Northrop’s Australian expansion makes clear, arms manufacturing thrives in an integrated global defence space. Australia is an important market for that other military powerhouse, Israel. In 2010 leading Israeli arms company Elbit Systems sold a $300m command control system to the Australian military. In August 2013 Elbit announced the $5.5m sale of “an investigation system” to the Australian federal police that was tested in the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza.
That’s a trend that has become commonplace since the 9/11 attacks. As the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported in August, “[Weapons companies] need to sell in the large international defence markets – where the products are scrutinized partly on the uses the IDF makes of them on the battlefield.”
In August pro-Palestinian activists climbed on the roof of Elbit’s Melbourne offices to protest its involvement in the recent Israeli military incursions in Gaza, after which the company’s share price soared. Amnesty International recently accused Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes during the war.
Defence contractors rarely stop with the profits from war and colonisation. In Britain, Lockheed Martin is now reportedly bidding for a massive National Health Service contract worth $2bn. In the US, Northrop was a presenting sponsor at a recent Washington DC event for honouring war veterans.
It’s rare to read about arms trading in the Australian press; even the country’s largest privately owned small arms supplier, Nioa, rarely registers beyond the business pages. Our politicians are also loathe to speak out, and are happy to have factories and bases in their electorates, and donations for their parties.
The Greens do oppose military trading with Israel. Leader Christine Milne tells me that, “given the continuing disregard by Israel of international calls to halt settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian territories and the disproportionate response used against the people of Gaza, the Australian Greens have repeatedly called on the Australian government to halt all military cooperation and military trade with Israel”.
Greens senator Lee Rhiannon spoke in parliament last year, saying “if any of the military equipment that Australia has sold to Israel has been used in Israel’s deplorable wars in the Gaza strip which has killed thousands of civilians, the Australian government should be held accountable for this”.
Australia, the 13th largest spender on arms globally, has a choice. We can keep embracing these merchants of death, and the botched deals and waste that they bring. Or we can reject the the rise of Northrop and its associates, and refuse to participate in an investment culture that continues a cycle of violence both at home and abroad.
My weekly Guardian column:
The horror of ebola in West Africa has taken thousands of lives and spread fear around the world. This fact, coupled with ignorance and misinformation, has created the perfect storm. The risk is real, but you wouldn’t know the full picture from watching last weekend’s American 60 Minutes. Lara Logan’s report took her to Liberia, but it did not include any black African voices. It was as if colonialism never died, and the life-saving Americans were the only barrier between calm and chaos.
Meanwhile in Australia, last week’s news that private company Aspen Medical was awarded a $20m contract to run an ebola response in Sierra Leone was given surprisingly little scrutiny. Federal health minister Peter Dutton praised the company’s record and claimed that the firm was chosen because “they’ve got the capacity and the logistical capacity to deliver very quickly what governments want on the ground.” He played the patriotism card –“Aspen is an Australian company” – and said that Aspen “will have this up and running efficiently, effectively, saving lives.”
Non-government organisations with months of front line exposure in battling ebola were shunned for a corporation that won’t face any freedom of information requests because it’s a private entity. We have to take it on trust that taxpayer dollars will be spent appropriately. With former senior politicians and civil servants on Aspen’s board (a typical feature of companies that succeed in winning government contracts globally) financial benefits and political knowledge for the company are assured.
The company, established in 2003, has a history assisting Australian defence in the Solomon Islands, policing in East Timor and a range of other activities in the customs, health and fossil fuel arenas. Since 2007, the department of defence has awarded Aspen contracts worth more than $200m.
But deeper questions are being ignored in the rush to do something – anything – about Ebola. While it’s incredibly brave and noble for Australian nurses and doctors to volunteer with Aspen to establish a 100-bed treatment unit, most media coverage framed the discussion over awarding Aspen the contract as a partisan battle between the Abbott government and Labor opposition.
Victorian Greens senator and public health expert Richard Di Natale has been one of the sole voices questioning Aspen’s qualifications. He tells me that the contract “has a real stink about it. I’m at a loss. The only plausible explanation is that a government is so ideologically committed to advancing private interests, even when it’s counter-productive. ”
Di Natale says that Aspen’s win without a tender process bastardises democracy. “If it went to tender, a range of NGOs would have been able to get personnel in the field much more cheaply”, he argues. He worries that “mission creep” could happen, and that Aspen will require more funds to complete further work. The Greens MP is planning a trip to West Africa to examine the reality on the ground and hopes to receive help from Canberra in facilitating his visit.
He’s blunt on the reasons the Abbott government took so long to respond: “There aren’t any votes in black Africans dying. We’ve led the world in developing a vaccine for the Hendra virus which affects race horses, and yet when it comes to something like Ebola both in Australia and in the US we haven’t given it appropriate concern.”
One of the leaders in fighting Ebola remains Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). Its Geneva headquarters tells me that they have concerns with the for-profit model that’s creeping into disaster relief. “Our concern is an uncoordinated approach overall that is inflexible and aid-money rather need-driven. It should not be about what governments want but what is needed to respond effectively to the needs on the ground.”
The scale of MSF’s commitments and the money it is spending places Aspen’s meager program in perspective. This year, the NGO has sent more than 700 international staff to the region, and admitted more than 5,600 patients in four West African states while providing roughly 600 isolation beds and two transit centres. This year, this has cost around $74m. As a rich Western nation, Australia’s contribution is stingy.
This era of unaccountable neo-liberalism has brought moves to privatise disaster management across the world. Recall former US Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney suggesting in 2012 that federal emergency assistance should be outsourced? Hurricane Sandy brought out the usual suspects of rent-seekers and disaster capitalists looking to make money from misery.
This ideology must be fought when fighting wars, disease or natural catastrophes at home or abroad.
My article appears today in The Guardian:
British multinational Serco is in trouble. After years as the favoured outsourcer for public services in Britain and countless countries around the world, the latest figures show a financial crash of unprecedented proportions. The firm announced it is writing down its business value by nearly AU $3bn with no dividend for shareholders and a plea for an injection of a billion more dollars. This is a “bitter pill”, according to its chief executive Rupert Soames.
Revealingly, the corporation admitted that without its Australian detention network, its profit would have been even worse. In other words, imprisoning asylum seekers in poor conditions for extended periods of time in remote locations is good for business. Serco won the contract to manage all of Australia’s mainland facilities and Christmas Island in 2009 – I was part of a team that first published the contract between Serco and Canberra in 2011 – and the profits have soared ever since.
From a $370m contract in 2009 to well over $1bn today, surging refugee boats have been invaluable to Serco’s bottom line. Serco has benefitted from an opaque reporting process and desperate federal politicians and bureaucrats who needed corporate help with an immigration system that ran out of control when asylum seekers started arriving in large numbers from Sri Lanka, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond. Neither the government nor Serco could handle the influx, and both detainees and guards suffered.
During the writing of my book Profits of Doom, I spoke to a senior Serco manager who told me how his superiors gamed the system to increase income. Staff are reduced to “keep profits high” and managers are routinely moved from the most difficult centres such as Darwin and Christmas Island because they’re told that “if they get abatements [fines from Canberra], they’ll be fired’’.
Another senior Serco source recently told me that his company had planned to turn the Australian centres into less prison-like environments. A spike in boats ruined that dream, he lamented.
It’s a sign of the times that a company like Serco, with murky financial statements masking its true economic shape, is continually rewarded for failure with new and larger contracts. Just this week, the Australian government announced a “cop on the beat” system within the immigration department to strengthen oversight. This is little more than window dressing after years of Serco and government obfuscation over assessing self-harm inside detention, profit margins, guard misbehaviour and a culture of secrecy that pervades everything the firm does in Australia and Britain (I recently witnessed this when visiting the notorious Yarl’s Wood facility in England).
Vulture capitalism has become the ideology of our age, with Serco just a symptom of wider economic failure. Outsourcing remains hugely appealing, with Mitie now becoming the UK Home Office’s largest provider of immigration detention. A clean-skin, without the troubles of G4S and Serco, proves that it’ll take more than a Serco collapse to arrest three decades of privatised failure.
Privatisation doesn’t deliver better and cheaper services for our society, or even shareholder democracy. The public knows it. It’s time to empower individuals who want to wrest power from the corporations and return it to the people.
My following book review appears in the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age:
THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING: Capitalism vs the Climate
by NAOMI KLEIN
ALLEN LANE, $29.99
“If the news that in the past 40 years the world has lost over 50 per cent of its vertebrate wildlife fails to tell us there is something wrong with the way we live,” British journalist George Monbiot wrote recently, “it’s hard to imagine what could.”
The culture of uncontrolled production is the mantra of our age. “We care ever less for the possessions we buy, and dispose of them ever more quickly,” he argued.
It’s a key point throughout Naomi Klein’s new book, already a bestseller in America. Following her era-defining works, No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, Klein examines in exhaustive detail the politics, ethics and realities around climate change. She shows how the Western power elites remain in denial about the extent of the problem because it suits their economic interests to do so.
“Finding new ways to privatise the commons and profit from disaster is what our current system is built to do,” she writes. “Left to its own devices, it is capable of nothing else.”
But this is not simply an apocalyptic road-trip through an environmental movement that has often struggled to attract convincing political support (though the nearly 400,000 people who marched through New York streets recently and demanded action on climate change rightly said that their voices must be heard).
Instead, Klein tackles big business, oil and gas, the green movement, corrupt trade options – she takes aim at deals such as the one being negotiated with Australia, The Trans-Pacific Partnership, that would allow multinationals the power to sue Australia for loss of income, lessening our sovereignty – and a mainstream media that largely follows the narrative set by its paymasters and advertisers.
A Washington Post column in September was symptomatic of the problem. Robert Samuelson stated that the US should celebrate his country’s “oil boom” and export more of it to the world. Unsaid, despite the paper’s publicly articulated position that climate change is real and must be tackled, was the scientifically proven fact that controlling steadily increasing temperatures globally requires leaving those fossil fuels in the ground while funding renewable energy sources.
Klein has not written just another book about a burning planet. Her prognosis may seem radical – capitalism is the problem because of its voracious appetite for consumption and alternatives must be found to save us from an uninhabitable earth – but it’s only because the terms of current debate are so staid. “We need an ideological battle,” she told The Guardian. “It is still considered politically unthinkable just to introduce straight-up, polluter-pays punitive measures – particularly in the US.”
In her book, Klein demolishes the arguments put by climate-change deniers that even if the world is warming, a detail often not accepted by older and white conservative males such as leading US Republicans, it doesn’t matter because it “isn’t something wealthy people in industrialised countries have to worry about it”. The market will solve it, or perhaps technology, or maybe science or potentially faith. Who cares about the millions of Africans starving on parched land, conditions worsened by Western economic policies?
“In the wealthier nations,” Klein writes, “we will protect our major cities with costly seawalls and storm barriers while leaving vast areas of coastline that are inhabited by poor and indigenous people to the ravages of storms and rising seas.” This is a disaster guaranteed to bring a surging refugee population and conflict.
Klein isn’t just examining the fallacies of the deniers but also deep failings of the environmental movement. She’s scathing of collusion between The Nature Conservancy and BP America, Chevron and Shell and other major green groups that falsely believed gradual movement on reducing carbon was preferable to frightening the horses and attacking the very corporations that are principally responsible for a warming world. “Market-based solutions” have been a catastrophic failure, Klein shows, and “provided an invaluable service to the fossil fuel sector.”
The world’s largest conservation group, WWF International, is the subject of a new German book, Pandaleaks, damning “green-washing” with Monsanto, Coca-Cola and HSBC and accusing the group of “supplying industry with a green, progressive image”.
Klein’s solutions to the climate crisis are ambitious and already criticised by some as ignoring the Earth’s natural cycles; in this logic, trying to alter the climate is futile. She advocates a combination of building a mass movement for change, finding inspiration in local campaigns that challenge the status-quo, divestment against fossil fuels and huge resistance. Success is far from guaranteed.
She writes with verve, passion, facts and accessible insight, allowing her message to reach a mass audience. “What if part of the reason so many of us have failed to act,” she concludes, “is not because we are too selfish … but because we are utterly overwhelmed by how much we do care?”
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author of Profits of Doom (MUP)