On racism, how to tackle it and why the state often worsens it

My weekly Guardian column:

As an atheist Jew, I find it distinctly uncomfortable to defend the free speech rights of Holocaust deniers. I utterly oppose the inaccuracy, hatred and intolerance that goes with refuting the reality of Nazi crimes against Jews, gay people, Gypsies and many others.

But a truly free society is one that tolerates and encourages strong exchanges of ideas. This includes the most abominable of them, such as those expressed by German born, Australian-citizen, Holocaust denying Frederick Tobin, a regular bogeyman wheeled out to justify laws against offensive thoughts.

I fundamentally share the view expressed by Noam Chomsky that “acceptable speech” should never be decided by the state, because we “don’t want them to have any right to make any decision about what anybody says.” As a result, “a lot of people are going to say things that you think are rotten, and you’re going to say things that a lot of other people think are rotten.”

Australian academic Clinton Fernandes furthers this argument:

“One of the most important points in any discussion about the right of free speech is this: the defence of a person’s right to express certain views is independent of the views actually expressed. Thus, one might defend Salman Rushdie’s freedom to write The Satanic Verses without agreeing with the content of that book – or even needing to read it.”

These issues have all been thrust back into the public spotlight with the Australian government’s desire to amend the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) to, in their view, expand free and often inflammatory speech. Attorney general George Brandis said last week that, “it is not, in the government’s view, the role of the state to ban conduct merely because it might hurt the feelings of others.”

Tellingly, Brandis has also arguably given the green light for intolerance when he said that people “do have a right to be bigots“. Surely the role of any responsible government is to condemn and fight hatred, rather than encourage it.

The response from the vast bulk of the left to the RDA alterations has been horror and opposition. Minority groups are outraged. The Labor party doesn’t support the changes and leader Bill Shorten has urged the Jewish community to lobby hard against the amendments (a request he would probably not make to other, equally affected communities because of the power of Australian groups backing Israel in influencing both major sides of local politics).

The Zionist establishment, long-time backers of the RDA, have written thousands of words in opposition to the government’s proposed changes, but the irony shouldn’t be lost on us. This is coming from individuals and organisations that routinely petition politicians and media organisations to erect tightly controlled limits on so-called acceptable talk around Israel and Palestine, illegal West Bank colonies and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. They rarely have any complaints when anti-Muslim or anti-Palestinian sentiment is floated in the press.

Unlike those groups, I welcome a robust discussion over the limits, intent and interest of the state in trying to restrict the most offensive speech imaginable – although I do have some misgivings.

I share some of the concerns of learned law experts, such as Andrew Lynch, a director at the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law at the University of NSW, who writes in the Melbourne Age that the government has a wilful blindness to the profound power disparity between those individuals or groups who may be offended or hurt by hate speech and those most likely to be using them (such as media personalities or politicians). It’s a position utterly lost on cocooned editorial writers and also on columnist Andrew Bolt, who this week praised his ability to receive an apology for hurt feelings, forgetting that his requests come with the power of the massive corporation behind him. Bolt is neither a fair arbiter of how the law should work in relation to hateful speech, nor in a position to understand the awful effect that verbal abuse can have on an Aboriginal, refugee, Jew, Muslim, or Greek.

In supporting some changes to the RDA – principally supporting the removal of laws against “offensive” speech – I acknowledge that I’m writing this as a privileged white man who has rarely experienced racial abuse or hatred because of my religion (except my public, journalistic frankness over Israel/Palestine and the “war on terror” has brought constant hate mail and even death threats).

And at this stage, I also have to underline the fact that the vast bulk of commentators pushing for changes to the RDA are also white and male. It’s impossible to ignore the lack of female, Indigenous and non-Anglo perspectives (there are some exceptions, such as Aboriginal advisorWesley Aird and Sue Gordon, who both back the government’s moves).

As a result, much of the discussion about the RDA is expressed by a political and media class that indulges racism on a daily basis, from theNorthern Territory intervention against Indigenous citizens to our treatment of asylum seekers, racial profiling, or our backing of wars in the Middle East. These groups and individuals don’t really care about tackling everyday racism, preferring to distract the public from their own shocking records instead.

None of this means, though, that those of us who have spent years fighting discrimination against minorities can’t feel uncomfortable with current laws that seek to restrict free speech. The RDA has not reduced tangible racism in Australia (if anything we’re becoming less friendly to migrants, according to a new study) and we shouldn’t look to a state that entrenches racism to legislate against it.

After thinking about this issue for many years, and growing up in the Jewish community I was constantly warned about rampant anti-Semitism, I support this comment by the 20th century American journalist H L Mencken:

“The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.”

It may make our hearts sink, but we owe it to our democracy to defend the rights of the most offensive people in our community.

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ABCTV News24′s on racial discrimination, politics and Murdoch empire

I appeared on ABCTV News’s24′s The Drum last Thursday talking about changes in the Murdoch empire, the ethics and politics of changing the racial discrimination laws and why unions are in such dire trouble in Australia:

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Why progressives must fight and win the culture wars

My weekly Guardian column is published today:

Australia’s reactionary culture warriors are amateurs compared to their British and American counterparts. Sack the ABC Chairman Jim Spigelman, screams News Limited columnist Piers Akerman. Privatise the public broadcaster, shouts the Institute of Public Affairs (a think-tank that refuses to disclose its funders, though the ABC still allows its spokespeople to appear). Former Liberal party employee Chris Kenny demands respect for the military and tweets like a man possessed about #theirABC and its supposed leftist agenda.

In Britain and America, where Australia’s brave keyboard warriors find their ammunition and snarky lines, the daily drumbeat towards a deregulated, privatised and militarised society continues apace. The commercial interests in neutering competition to this agenda is ignored – who can forget James Murdoch railing against the BBC’s “chilling” size and commercial ambitions in 2009, just before his company was engulfed in the phone-hacking scandal? Yet, despite their massive megaphone, I have long believed that these attacks are the cries of a frustrated minority.

In America an extreme version of the culture wars has life and death consequences. The battle for gay equality and marriage, while not won, is well on the way to being achieved. This is why American Christian fundamentalists are looking further afield to fight for the right to discriminate according to their twisted reading of the Bible. Witness the horrific recent anti-gay laws in Uganda and the clear involvement of US evangelicals. This is a culture war on a global scale, the logical outcome of a perverse belief that homosexuals should be punished or killed for their actions. Thankfully, Australia’s prominent culture warriors aren’t promoting such outrages.

So listen closely. Don’t confuse a loud voice with strength or an aggressive tone with confidence. Insecurity is the mainstay of ideological culture warriors (see the hilarious lead opinion article in the Australian this week about the evil of tattoos, as if a “civilisation collapsing” is occurring because countless men and women enjoy body art. Seriously).

There is no doubt that globalisation has negatively affected the economic well-being of the lower and middle classes, just one explanation for the success of the Tea Party movement. Now Fox News amplifies these grievances, offering a steady diet of stories that leads to many American whites claiming they’re suffering from racism.

The predictability of the attacks, the co-ordinated nature of countless shock-jocks just happening to all agree every week that the ABC, climate change, indigenous rights, gay marriage, asylum seekers or Islam must be abolished, imprisoned, ignored or silenced should be treated with contempt. Tribalism is the language of the hour, mates stick with mates, though it was little different under the previous Labor regime. Our media class prefers an insider culture that rewards favouritism.

And yet the left can’t ignore it, and must find far better strategies to deal with the onslaught. Far too often progressive voices are on the defensive, arguing on the terms set by the opposition, guaranteeing a loss. The culture war isn’t just about point scoring or winning an argument but how a society is taught, ordered, shared, viewed and expanded. We have the right to want a country and community that believes in truly equality and free speech for all, whether we’re Muslim, black, white, anti-Zionist, conservative, green or radical.

The hypocrisy of the right’s position – beautifully articulated by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show last week when he unsurprisingly found Fox News more concerned with some poor people abusing the welfare system than corporate government subsidies – must be exposed and a new, more enlightened framing introduced. The Australian government and its ideological soulmates across the world like to attack the culture of entitlement of the general population while still happily enriching their mates in business with overly generous tax breaks. It’s good to be rich.

A recent case study shows the effectiveness of lo-fi campaigning to address an injustice. Take the controversy over the Sydney Biennale and the apoplectic, elite response to artists and asylum seeker activists campaigning against the sponsorship of Transfield, a company running offshore detention centres. Most media ran countless articles all in furious agreement with the idea that the boycott was misguided. Attorney General George Brandis joined the party and communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull railed against the boycott (thankfully some in the general public showed more sense and Transfield remains in the sights of ethical campaigners).

This was a classic misfire from the critics and an unqualified success by the boycotters. Culture warriors, of the faux-left and right, damned the campaign for not achieving the abolition of offshore processing. That was never the goal, but rather to highlight the supply chain complicity of companies, such as Transfield (and across the arts by Santos and Crown Resorts Foundation, amongst others) who claim to be good corporate citizens and then bleat when challenged on their role in prolonging refugee (plus gambling or climate change) misery. The boycott is the start of a conversation, not the end of it. Moral practices matter and apparently it takes non-politicians and non-journalists to point this out.

The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel is growing globally for precisely the same reason, despite false accusations of anti-Semitism, because citizens are refusing to accept a brutal and illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine and BDS is a legitimate and non-violent to resist. Likewise the Biennale boycott. Two campaigns that refuse to cave to cultural gatekeepers who prefer to operate within the system rather than acting to challenge the toxic nexus between culture, corporatism and human rights.

The culture wars aren’t solely about intellectual issues, fought between competing elites, but the effect of business and government policy on people’s lives. This is why most culture warriors prefer pontificating from the safety of their embedded, well paid bubbles. People are suffering, in Afghanistan, on Manus Island or under the Northern Territory Intervention, while shock-jocks express outrage over the latest confected scandal.

It’s necessary to include a wide variety of voices in public discussions – the BBC news presenter John Humphrys recently accused his broadcaster of ignoring more skeptical views on the EU and immigration though the BBC’s pro-government stances are clear – and the ABC could undoubtedly have far more challenging perspectives across the political spectrum.

We have to fight the tendency to ignore these battles because they’re too hard or tiresome; a more just and transparent world depends on us engaged in these arguments and gaining support from ordinary people because without them we’re merely arguing with each other.

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On anti-Semitism, BDS, Palestine and justice

My essay in New Matilda is here:

As the BDS campaign starts to gain traction, accusations of anti-semitism should be treated gravely – whether from pro-Palestine advocates or Israel’s defenders, writes Antony Loewenstein

The charges of racism were serious. University orientation weeks, reported Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper, The Australian, in early March, “have been marred by a series of alleged anti-semitic incidents”.

Socialist Alternative stood accused, according to the Australian Union of Jewish Students, of expressing hateful comments towards Jewish students, praising Hamas and calling for “death to the Zionist entity” at the Australian National University and the University of New South Wales.

The reliability of the allegations of anti-semitism has not yet been assessed but, if they are found to be true, those responsible must be opposed. A spokesperson from Socialist Alternative tells me that his organisation categorically denies all of the allegations.

Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne, a man who never misses an opportunity to fight a culture war he can’t win, accused backers of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel of making anti-semitism “a fashionability among highly ignorant sections of the far Left”. He wanted universities to “step in and take a very firm line” against racism on campus. “Free speech does not extend to ugly threats and physical harassment,” he argued.

It’s time to call this co-ordinated campaign of the local Zionist lobby and the Murdoch press for what it is; a cheapening of real anti-semitism and a clear attempt to brand all critics of Israel as Jew haters. It’s a tactic imported from America and Europe, articulated from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu down, that aims to neuter opponents of the Jewish state’s brutal, military occupation as deluded and anti-semitic.

The rhetoric is increasing as BDS scores impressive wins globally — countless European firms are changing their business practices towards Israel in rejecting the occupation — and has entered the mainstream as a legitimate tool to oppose Israeli policies.

Israel supporters have long believed that better PR will solve its problems, as if, for example, there’s any way to positively spin dozens of Israeli teens announcing their refusal to serve in the IDF due to its deleterious effect on Israeli society and Palestinian lives.

It’s a small but deeply courageous step in a society that still idolises a human rights abusing army (Amnesty’s new report details countless examples of the IDF killing Palestinian civilians in cold blood).

None of these profound shifts should escape the debate in Australian, where the Federal Government refuses to condemn illegal Israeli colonies in the West Bank.

The establishment Zionist lobby has tried for decades, with a degree of success, to insulate the Jewish community from the realities of occupying Palestine.

The advent of the internet and social media, along with a more critical young population who won’t be easily bullied into support for Israel because of the Holocaust, are changing the landscape. Hence the need to use old, tired tactics. Parroting Netanyahu’s fear-mongering over Iran and Arabs is increasingly treated worldwide with the contempt it deserves.

The old men who run the Jewish community may catch on one day that it isn’t enough to run an hackneyed style enemies list against opponents; countless journalists and editors will tell you of the bullying calls, letters and emails employed by the Zionist community against critical coverage. It only sometimes now works.

It’s a failing style even called out by The Australian’s Middle East correspondent John Lyons in a recent, robust defence of his stunning ABC TV 4 Corners story on Palestine, accusing distant, self-appointed Zionist leaders of being little more than blind defenders of Israeli government policy. Pundits take note: whenever quoting such people remember to whom they pledge partial allegiance and ask about their funding sources.

Any form of racism must be completely condemned, whether it’s directed at Jews, Muslims, Christians or other minorities. But the way in which a state and community deals with racism is a more pressing the question. After years of falsely accusing critics of Israel of anti-semitism — Sydney University’s Jake Lynch is the latest person to face the predictable and costly wrath of an Israeli-government endorsed legal case against his ethically justified backing of BDS — the organised Zionist establishment lacks credibility in crying about opposing racism, when it so flagrantly encourages demonisation of Israel’s critics along racial lines.

They have a morally compromised voice by being occupation backers themselves. How dare they claim to cry over an alleged rise in real anti-semitism (mostly online) while at the same time shedding crocodile tears against the growing BDS movement? Perhaps they should learn some humility and recognise what their beloved state has become known for globally: repressing Palestinians.

Politically, the Abbott government has pledged to remove section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act in an attempt, in their words, to increase free speech (a position loudly backed by The Australian).

Federal Attorney George Brandis said on ABC TV’s Q&A this week, defending his administration’s proposed changes that are opposed by the Jewish community and many other ethnic groups, that the current drafting in section 18C restricts the rights of all peoples to speak and be offensive. Now that there are signs that Brandis may be back-tracking on a complete repeal of the section, it’s really only the Murdoch press that bangs on about “free speech” while denying the same rights to many of its critics.

Despite all this, I’ve argued elsewhere, in opposition to many on the Left who believe the legislation should remain unchanged, that although all speech has limits, a robust democracy should legally tolerate insults over race. But the vast bulk of “discussion” over 18C has been at a desultory level.

Take the recent Australian Jewish News article by Fergal Davis, a senior lecturer in law at the University of NSW. He backed maintaining the current 18C legislation and then wistfully argued that the Abbott government could be the champions of human rights because “we must convince Australians that human rights are not ‘left wing’; they are at the heart of the fair go.” Nice sentiments, but utterly removed from reality. Davis ignores the new government’s shocking treatment of asylum seekers and refusal to seriously condemn abuses at the UN by allies Sri Lanka, Israel and Egypt.

The real questions for the Murdoch press, Zionist establishment, Abbott ministers and other supposed defenders of open speech are as follows: will you follow the path of many politicians in the US, both Democrat and Republican, who are increasingly trying to criminalise civilian backing for BDS? How serious is your commitment to free speech? How willing are you to preach tolerance and acceptance while believing that certain issues, such as legitimate criticisms of Israel (defined by whom will always be the question?) are beyond the pale and anti-semitic?

Away from the huffing and puffing of self-described friends of Israel lies the real limits of insulating Israel from criticism. Trying to stop BDS, through the courts, laws, parliament or defamatory attacks, will change nothing on the ground for Palestinians, and countless people around the world now know it. Israel and its dwindling band of Zionist backers in Australia and worldwide are desperately hanging onto 20th century tactics to fight modern opposition to a racially based state.

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What robust journalism should look like in 2014

My weekly Guardian column is published today:

2013 was the year of Edward Snowden. The former NSA contractor, voted the Guardian’s person of the year (after Chelsea Manning the year before), unleashed a vital global debate on the extent of mass surveillance in the modern age. “Among the casualties”, writes one reporter, “is the assumption that some of the nation’s most carefully guarded secrets will stay secret.”

This is a uniformly positive development, despite the bleating from countless intelligence insidersmedia commentators, the vast bulk of the US Washington elite and a media class that has largely forgotten how to operate without being on the official drip feed. The general public does not accept patronising claims by NSA backers that its tools are used to protect us from terrorism.

A mature debate about post 9/11 spying is essential, something that’s almost impossible to offer when politicians who should know better - I’m looking at you, Australian minister for communications Malcolm Turnbull – slam journalists for doing their job.

So in 2014, reporters have a choice: to either continue being regarded as untrustworthy pariahs (a recent Gallop poll in the US confirmed this belief amongst the general population), or as investigators on power. In this spirit, here are my suggestions for reporters to regain trust – so that all of us finally remember what adversarial journalism looks like in a robust democracy.

Be deeply skeptical of anonymously-sourced stories

Too many stories appearing in the mainstream media are sourced to one, often anonymous source. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance union states in its code of ethics that a reporter should “aim to attribute information to its source. Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source’s motives and any alternative attributable source.” This is routinely breached as journalists prefer to receive sanctioned leaks from officials, government and opposition ministers and advisors and sympathetic business players. It’s lazy and counter-productive, because the story becomes little more than propaganda dressed-up with a byline. Journalists don’t need to leave their air-conditioned offices, and they rarely do.

Think of this year’s main story: Syria reportedly using chemical weapons against its own civilians (despite serious concerns about the truth of the claim and President Obama’s questionable use of intelligence, as raised in a recent article by legendary reporter Seymour Hersh that has barely raised a ripple). When the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – a one-man operation in Britain – is so routinely cited as a source of Syrian casualties in the media, it becomes problematic. The truth from inside Syria is notoriously tough to get, but editors should acknowledge that they often do not know what’s happening on the ground.

Moreover, journalists should only grant anonymity to sources if it’s absolutely essential. The New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan chastised her paper for failing to learn the lesson of history (hello, Iraq and WMDs?) and continuing to allow officials to give a clear agenda without attribution. “ One part of the solution”, she wrote, “is for reporters to push back harder against sources who request anonymity. This may not work on high-stakes national security coverage, but it certainly will in other areas.” Too often journalists will allow a source to be quoted anonymously because they’re desperate to find legitimacy to boost their stories’ credibility. The result is a yarn that will please those in power, yet strong journalism should always bring discomfort for those elected to rule us.

No more opinion pieces by sitting politicians

Our media landscape is polluted by politicians pushing a partisan line. An example: on Christmas Eve, Australia’s Liberal assistant treasurer Arthur Sinodinos wrote in The Australian that the economy was once again booming after Labor administration’s apparent mismanagement. It’s a press release that any self-respecting editor would refuse to print. Likewise, ABC TV’s Q&A should ban politicians, because they offer little more than hackneyed lines produced by overpaid PR agents.

Decent media outlets would tell politicians (and the advisors who often write the columns) that political point-scoring is tiresome. The job of a robust press isn’t to simply provide a carte blanche for our leaders to freely pontificate.

Increasing the ‘Snowden effect’

The rolling coverage of documents leaked by Snowden will continue into 2014 but the big challenge, as Dan Gillmor articulates in the Nieman Journalism Lab, is to:

“use the documents to identify and amplify an issue of such importance and scope that it doesn’t flame up and out in the manner of most stories … In 2014 and beyond, journalists should be inspired by the Snowden effect. They should focus more on critical mass – how to achieve it and how to sustain it. If journalism is to matter, we can’t just raise big topics. We have to spread them, and then sustain them.”

Wikileaks pioneered this publishing model, with countless media outlets around the world covering documents that relates directly to their country. Many others should follow this inspiring lead. It’s the opposite of parochial reporting, and it forces often reluctant competing publications to collaborate on key stories. Competition for leads, and a refusal to recognise that the internet makes such old traditions close to obsolete, hampers innovative journalism.

Cherish the importance of public broadcasters

Who can forget James Murdoch, himself involved in the British phone hacking scandal, telling the Edinburgh TV festival in 2009 that the size of the BBC was “chilling” and that it was mounting a “land grab” in a competitive media market? “The corporation is incapable of distinguishing between what is good for it”, he said, “and what is good for the country.” Such sentiments are routinely mouthed by Murdoch hacks in Australia, where innumerable editorials dare to demand the ABC prostrate themselves before the surveillance state and not damage the “national interest”.

The BBC has its issues - more scrutiny should be applied to its war coverage – but its existence is a challenge to commercial interests and a threat to market fundamentalism. In Australia the ABC, successfully bullied during the Howard years from 1996 to 2007 and intimidated from pursuing countless controversial stories, faces renewed pressures to kowtow to government whims. Constant pressure works, often through self-censorship – something I examined in my book My Israel Question over the Middle East issue. Producers, journalists and editors must resist any attempt to remove or soften stories with the potential to embarrass the powerful. The inherent dangers of taxpayer funded media in such a climate are clear.

Your thoughts

Please share below your ideas about how to bring greater strength to the media and mechanisms to hold journalism, governments and business to account. We’ll all benefit from sharing ideas rather than believing one person or group has all the answers.

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How US/Australia intelligence collusion rightly concerns Asia

My weekly Guardian column is here:

Australia has an identity crisis that has never been resolved. Are we a US client state, happy to host any number of American troops and spying assets, or a fully integrated part of Asia? Do we crave true independence, or are we happy to remain America’s ‘deputy sheriff‘ in the Pacific region?

There’s nothing stopping Canberra from having close relations with both worlds, but our regional posture over the last decades has shown a muddled understanding of how to achieve this. We usually arguably prefer to remain tethered to an arrogant Anglosphere whose influence is waning.

When we do look to Asia, it’s not solely about business ties enriching Australian corporations. We too often back the most autocratic regimes imaginable, such as Indonesia’s Soeharto (fans of former prime minister Paul Keating should recall his fondness for one of the most brutal leaders of the 20th century). Canberra’s complicity in the Indonesian occupations of East Timor and West Papua also signals a willingness to ignore human rights for the sake of political expediency.

Australia’s love of foreign conflicts are infamous; this is noticed across (particularly Islamic) Asia. We marched in unison with the US in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq – three devastating wars which we comprehensively lost. A decent nation, unlike our own, would offer an apology and compensation for having civilians pay a hefty price for our aggression, or for polluting the ground with deadly chemicals. Our brutishness is not forgotten by the millions of occupied people who experienced it first-hand; terrorism is born this way. Billions of dollars in annual foreign aid isn’t enough to buy us the forgiveness that’s required.

The current diplomatic storm between Australia and Indonesia highlights the myriad of problems with a country Tony Abbott claims is “our most important relationship.” The ability of president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) to disrupt Australian government policies on asylum seekers, the live cattle trade and intelligence sharing shows how vulnerable Canberra is in its relations with our northern neighbour.

We deserve the embarrassment and awkwardness and yet surveillance state backers, such as Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian, claim to be confused over Jakarta’s anger – but just imagine the outrage in Australia if leaks emerged showing SBY snooping on Abbott’s mobile phone (which may well be happening now). Also never forget that Jakarta already operates a brutal network of spies on its own citizens in Papua; nobody’s hands are clean.

Abbott’s response has been predictable; this is a man who sees nobility in the anglosphere, conveniently ignoring the colonial legacies of their rule. As for the Labor party, it has no credibility on the issue because the spying occurred under their watch. A Royal Commission into Australia’s out of control intelligence and security services is the least Abbott should be doing. With new revelations appearing almost daily following Snowden’s leaks, only the most loyal propagandist for unlimited state power would claim that his documents haven’t led to a vital public discussion over the excessive scope of state intrusion on privacy and liberty.

The real scandal of Canberra’s current problems with Indonesia is that we are helping the US with its dirty work. Tapping SBY’s phone and gaining its contents has interest for both the US and Australia, but SBY and his wife aren’t the only targets – in all likelihood, Indonesian civilians with no connection to terrorism or extremism are also being monitored. Snowden documents prove that close allies of the US, such as Britain, allow Washington open access to potentially millions of their own citizens. Australia could be equally supine.

The sheer scale of worldwide snooping, assisted by compliant allies such as Australia, has been exposed by Snowden’s leaks. He should be immediately granted asylum in Australia (his liberty is undeniably threatened in his homeland) for such services to local and international understanding of US behaviour (much of which is illegal, something that doesn’t seem to bother the NSA’s most passionate supporters). An adversarial media should interrogate governments and officials of all stripes and not make life comfortable for those in power.

So where to for Australia’s relationship with Asia? A mature nation treats its neighbours with respect and engagement. Trust takes more than presidential or prime ministerial visits. Speaking out against human rights abuses should also be crucial for Australia. An independent stance means having constant public discussions about the role of a former colony entering the 21st century in a region that likes the idea of declining US hegemony.

And in the meantime, let the leaks continue, and increase – for sunlight always scares the powerful who act in secrecy, too often outside the law.

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David Hicks deserves justice, an apology and compensation

My weekly Guardian column is published today:

It’s hard to think of an Australian individual since 9/11 who has experienced more humiliation and abandonment by the federal government than David Hicks. Julian Assange, who declared he felt abandoned by the Australian government, perhaps comes close. As they both found out, an Australian passport is no guarantee of protection against a superpower determined to aggressively impose its will.

Hicks is currently launching legal proceedings in the US to overturn his 2007 conviction for providing material support for terrorism – a crime he and his legal team say does not exist. A 2012 ruling in a US appeals court found that a similar conviction against Osama bin Laden’s former driver, Salim Hamdan, was invalid because US law did not recognise material support for terrorism as a war crime at the time Hamdan engaged in the activity for which he was charged. Both Hicks and Hamdan were prosecuted under a 2006 law, and the US appeals court ruled that its retroactive application was illegal. Hicks is now trying to follow Hamdan in having his conviction quashed.

Here’s what we know about Hicks. He was born in Adelaide in 1975 and worked various jobs across Australia. He converted to Islam in the 1990s, stating he wanted to be around people who “shared his desire for belonging”. Drawn to what he saw as the oppression of Muslims in foreign lands, he left for Albania to join the Kosovo Liberation Army. By late 1999, he visited Pakistan to study Islam. In early 2000, Hicks joined the radical militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), and received training to fight Indian forces in Kashmir. He wrote in a letter that “there are not many countries in the world where a tourist, according to his visa, can go to stay with the army and shoot across the border at its enemy, legally”. He was in Afghanistan in September 2001 and, though he had no knowledge or involvement in the 9/11 terror attacks, he was captured and sold to the US for $1,000 and subsequently flown to Guantánamo, where he remained without valid charge.

Hicks maintains he was interrogated, tortured and held in isolation for nearly six years in Guantánamo – including 244 days in solitary confinement in a closet-sized cell without sunlight. He says he was also experimented on by US military doctors during his incarceration (a new study by The Task Force on Preserving Medical Professionalism found that doctors tortured suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay). Amnesty International maintains that Hicks was illegally detained without fair trial for years, and that when he did have one, the military commission he appeared before never met international standards for fair trials.

This didn’t stop Australian commentators from baying for blood, however. In 2011, News Limited’s Miranda Devine dismissed any critics of Guantánamo’s detention practices as whingers. Those thinking that “suspected terrorists” being “smacked around a bit” constituted overly harsh treatment were naive, she wrote. In other words, Hicks deserved what he got. When Hicks was still in Guantánamo Bay in 2007, Devine also referred to him as “a well-trained terrorist, an al-Qaida ‘golden boy’… and the enemy traitor when Australian troops were on the ground [in Afghanistan].” For years Hicks was primarily referred to in the corporate press as a “terrorism supporter” by Murdoch columnists such as Tim Blair – fair trial be damned.

Repeat government smears against individuals deemed suspect is nothing new. During the Cold War, many reporters were happy to be spies and display their deluded patriotic duty. Australian citizen and journalist Wilfred Burchett, who dared investigate the “other side”, was denied his passport for years because he refused to play the insider game of praising the capitalist west. In the “war on terror”, we see a new generation of journalists who blindly re-hash propaganda dressed up as fact about war, illegal detention and intelligence.

There is documentary evidence suggesting that in 2007, former prime minister John Howard asked the US to manage the Hicks issue. Colonel Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor of military commissions, told US journalist Jason Leopold in 2011 that he had concerns about the Bush administration charging Hicks. There was “no doubt in my mind”, Davis added, that “this was an accommodation to help Howard by making the David Hicks case go away [in an election year].” The alleged political fix, which was always denied by Howard, bothered the vast bulk of the Australian population.

It’s perfectly legitimate, indeed crucial, to ask Hicks tough questions about his background, his belief in the Taliban and his nauseating old letters denigrating Jews and praising bin Laden. But none of this justifies long-term jailing, torture and psychological abuse. Colonel Morris Davis told the Australian in early November this year that the treatment meted out to Hicks at Guantánamo was “at least as good, if not better” than towards other detainees. It was an absurd statement – suggesting that Hicks may have been tortured, but it could have been worse.

Hicks tells me that his lack of both education and friends caused him to “make some unfortunate decisions” before 9/11. He says he now far better understands the world and reads widely. “I always wanted to help people”, he says, “but today it’s not through resistance, though the Australian government uses violence and sends troops to fight in various wars.” He condemns the vast bulk of the media for following the lies told about him for all these years. “Nobody is calling for accountability or a royal commission [about my case]. I would support this or a full judicial review.”

Although he has no contact with the other former Australian Guantánamo captive Mamdouh Habib, he rightly believes that he deserves monetary compensation, like Habib received, for his years of suffering. He’s not currently pursuing a compensation claim, but it’s something he hopes will happen one day soon.

Today, Hicks works as a panel-beater in Sydney and fears leaving the country. “I have a passport”, he says, “but with the targeting of individuals who supported Edward Snowden, including Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda in London, I’m scared of traveling. If the US can go after them, and they’re big names, they could get me in spite.”

Justice for Hicks – through a formal apology and legal readdress – is vital to restore a modicum of Australian credibility. Heads should roll. Careers should end. Dignity can only be restored if apologies and compensation are offered.

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Why BDS must be supported for justice in the Middle East

My weekly Guardian column is published today:

The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, a thriving Palestinian-led initiative that attacks institutional links to Israel’s illegal settlements, has been gaining in popularity. In Australia, the movement has been slowly growing as Israel continues to defy international law – and it now faces one of its greatest opportunities in the court of public opinion.

Shurat HaDin – Israel Law Center is an Israel-based organisation that claims to be a civil group “fighting for rights of hundreds of terror victims”. It is currently taking Jake Lynch, head of Sydney University’sCentre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS), to the Australian federal court. They assert that Lynch has allegedly breached the 1975 racial discrimination act by refusing to sponsor a fellowship application by Israeli academic Dan Avnon. Lynch and CPACS support BDS, and since Avnon works at Hebrew University – a key intellectual hub which is targeted by boycotters for allegedly being complicit in the establishment of illegal settlements – Lynch declined to be named as a reference.

The story has been largely ignored. Fairfax Media has not touched it, and ABC TV’s 7.30 only briefly addressed it last week. Instead, it is Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian which has been driving the debate on the issue, publishing countless stories that deliberately conflates antisemitism and support for the BDS movement.

Just last week, after the horrific bashing of Jewish men in Sydney, the paper featured a Holocaust survivor on its front page condemning the attack. Within the article was the rhetorical device of inserting comment about BDS – as if physically assaulting Jewish people was on the same spectrum as a peaceful, non-violent attempt to force Israel to abide by international law. Bizarrely, an op-ed published by Newscorp’s The Telegraph also said that the best response to the assaults was to support Max Brenner – the chocolate shop whose parent company, the Strauss Group, has been a target of BDS protestors for supporting the Israeli Defence Force.

Countless letters have since been published in The Australian reinforcing a correlation between antisemitism and the boycott – following this logic, Lynch and his backers are a threat to public order. This also ignores the nearly 2,000 signatories of a public petition backing Lynch (which a number of academics, including the co-founder of Independent Australian Jewish VoicesPeter Slezak, signed).

Last week, The Australian ran an editorial which implied that Lynch blocked Avnon’s academic credentials simply because he was an Israeli. Another front page story in the paper last week claimed that Hebrew University is a bastion of Jewish and Arab co-operation, yet ignored an example of the institution repressing Palestinian rights through its connections to the arms industry.

Lynch tells me that Shurat HaDin have deliberately skewed his BDS stance. He denies, despite what the group’s Australian lawyer Andrew Hamilton said on ABC TV last week, having “admitted” that he boycotted Avnon because he was Israeli. He told me:

“I have made it abundantly clear from the start that the policy is aimed at institutional links. If the Hebrew University is anything like the University of Sydney, then it probably employs academics from various backgrounds in terms of religious affiliation and country of origin. It would not make any difference to my or the CPACS’ policy if the applicant was originally from Belgium, Botswana or Bolivia – I believe the University of Sydney should revoke its part in the Sir Zelman Cowen and Technion fellowship schemes, and I reserve my right not to collaborate with them. Andrew Hamilton has clearly not paid serious attention to our policy, or to what I have actually done in pursuit of it.”

It’s worth noting that Avnon, endlessly praised in the Australian media as a humanist who believes in co-operation between Israelis and Palestinians, sits on Israeli group Metzilah’s General Assembly. This is a group that put out a report explicitly rejecting the Palestinian right of return to lands stolen by Israel, and claims that a Jewish state discriminating against equal rights for Palestinians is not problematic. It is worth noting that the Palestinian right of return is a requirement in international law.

Largely missing from the ferocious media coverage has been any information about the real agenda of Shurat HaDin. The organisation, according to Wikileaks documents, has strong links to Israeli intelligence and Mossad, just one of the many groups that now prosecutes Israel’s argument for the Jewish state. The law firm tried to sue Twitter for daring to host Hizbollah tweets, former US President Jimmy Carter for criticising Israel and Stephen Hawking for damning the Israeli occupation. Even the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, a leading Zionist lobby, refuses to endorse Shurat HaDin’s case against Lynch, pointing out that attempts to suppress the campaign through litigation are inappropriate.

Also absent from the debate is the reason BDS exists. It is growing due to a complete lack of faith in US-led peace talks. American journalist Max Blumenthal recently published a book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, which shows in forensic detail the reality of the Israeli mainstream’s embrace of blatant racism against Arabs and Africans. This isn’t what the Israel Shurat HaDin and its fellow travellers want the world to see. Indeed, Australian Israel lobby AIJAC responded to the latest BDS case against Lynch by completely ignoring illegal settlements altogether. This week Dean Sherr, a young lobbyist, wrote an entire column in The Australian about BDS without mentioning their existence.

The fear of BDS is reflected in the massive amount of money and resources Israel is spending to stop it. Instead of moving towards a democratic state for all its citizens, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to demolish Palestinian homes and build illegal colonies on Palestinian land.

Shurat HaDin’s Australian lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, told Haaretz last week that BDS “does nothing to help Palestinians and indeed harms them. It is merely an excuse for the vilest public antisemitic campaign the western world has seen since the Holocaust.” With such a statement, which essentially compares Jake Lynch to a Nazi, it’s no wonder Zionist advocates are losing the public relations battle globally.

For some of us on the left, using the racial discrimination act as a tool to silence views we find distasteful is deeply worrying – I write this as somebody who opposed the legal case against News Limited columnist Andrew Bolt in 2011. A real democracy is a place where any individual has the right to vehemently oppose colluding with an overseas university institution that disputes equal rights for Jews and Arabs.

I look forward to Australia’s leading public backers of free speech, such as Bolt, Miranda Devine and the Institute of Public Affairs, loudly backing Lynch. Somehow I think I’ll be waiting a while for these brave advocates to find their voice.

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What asylum seekers are facing on the ground and why support is desperately needed

My weekly Guardian column is published today (here’s my archive):

Blind compassion is killing the asylum seeker debate. While Tony Abbott entangles his new government in megaphone diplomacy with Indonesia,upsetting our biggest neighbour in the process, refugees are struggling to survive closer to home.

Vast swaths of the Australian public remain hostile towards asylum seekers, and the advocacy groups supporting them need to ask if the strategy they employed over the last decade is partly responsible for it. Accusing the bulk of Australians of racism and discrimination, a common catch-cry of the left, has done nothing except harden hearts and allow media and political elites to ramp up cruel policies towards the most vulnerable souls landing on our shores.

The previous Labor government instituted a harsh regime of dumping asylum seekers out of detention without work rights, and the Coalition is set to deepen the problem. As a result of these policies, asylum seekers require community support. But according to Sri Lanka-born Ramesh Fernandez, CEO and founder of NGO Rise: refugee survivors and ex-detainees, this is not happening nearly enough. I met him last week at his organisation’s office, a small, bustling space in the heart of Melbourne.

refugees centreRamesh Fernandez and Nazeem Hussain. Photograph: Antony Loewenstein

As new arrivals visit Rise for legal advice on their refugee status, mass persecution continues in Fernandez’s birth country – despite the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, claiming otherwise. The Australian ran a fawning profile of Bishop last week. In it, she stated that on a trip to Sri Lanka this year she neither saw nor heard any evidence of persecution against Tamils, although statements by human rights group around the world proves the fallacy of this allegation.

Fernandez was released from mandatory detention in 2004 after spending time on Christmas Island and at the Baxter detention centre in South Australia. He says that he’s proud of the fact that Rise is the first asylum seeker organisation to be run by ex-detainees and people of non-white background. Rise is not funded by the federal government, and routinely refuses offers by the department of immigration to apply for grants.

Fernandez is outspoken and unforgiving towards the vast bulk of asylum seeker support services. Just this week, he sent out a press release damning the Uniting Church and human rights lawyer Julian Burnside for pushing for temporary mandatory detention. “Will the Uniting Church or any other organisations or community groups ever have the courage,” he wrote, “to call for humanitarian reception centres and hostels used in the past in Australia that assist in the rehabilitation of a group of people who are fleeing from situations of extreme trauma and cruelty, rather than advocating for the detention and security industry and stop compromising the lives and wellbeing of the refugee community for the sake of PR?”

The group has released a list of the companies making a fortune from privatised detention, and also didn’t spare community groups receiving federal government money, such as Anglicare, Wesley Mission and the Salvation Army.

“All human rights groups in Australia use unhealthy emotional attachment to refugees,” Fernandez tells me. “I’m against the stereotyping of refugees with sad and crying faces. White guilt is rampant, which often causes people to act to make themselves feel better rather than empowering asylum seekers. I want refugees to have a voice in this debate. I hate how refugees are often told at refugee rallies, by asylum seeker groups, “thanks for coming”, which is patronising and crazy when it’s white people saying that to brown and black people. Australia is one of the most racist nations in the world. Australia has never accepted that it has a racist past.”

Rise hosts a food bank, hip-hop concerts by asylum seekers, English classes, legal advice, publishes art and writing by refugee survivors, has a library featuring books by primarily non-white authors and a drop-in centre for children and adults. There are now 1,060 registered refugees with the group, and the need for such services has never been higher.

One of Rise’s volunteers is Nazeem Hussain, a Muslim comedian with a Sri Lankan background who performs with the group Fear of a Brown Planet and is the star of the SBS skit-show Legally Brown. Hussain tells me, “I grew up in a community of refugees and Rise is the only group I know that has the understanding of what they’re going through. Too many people are involved in the asylum seeker movement to feel good about themselves instead of helping refugees. Australia has a huge problem with racism, affirmed by both major sides of politics. The intervention against Indigenous people in the Northern Territory is mostly ignored because the racism is accepted.”

Over in west Melbourne, I visit the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre(ASRC). Community team leader Jana Favero shows me around the three story office building. She fears the coming three to six months under the Abbott government will tighten the noose around refugee rights and reduce their ability to source legal and community care. ASRC’s funding is mostly from private donations and philanthropy, with only 5% from the Victorian government, which ensures they’re not at Canberra’s mercy.

Favero worries that the “Abbott government could put pressure on the immigration department to discontinue our mostly good relationship between us and them, helping individual refugee cases.” ASRC never has enough money for the daily assistance in food, legal advice, housing, english and children’s classes and job hunting (for refugees allowed to work). Thousands of asylum seekers remain in limbo, on visas that don’t allow them full rights and unsure when that status will change, if ever.

Every day, volunteers cook up a lunch meal for up to 150 asylum seekers with donated food. Refugees have access to a large storage room for food, soap and healthcare products thanks to a needs-based points system. Refugee families are also given assistance in cooking healthy meals. During my visit, I meet Hazara men and women, African asylum seekers and, since it was during school holidays, a few rampaging kids. ASRC becomes an unofficial child care centre at various times during the day, and its office now opens into the night a few times a week to cope with the huge demand for services.

The ASRC’s Pamela Curr worries that the new federal government will only increase the secrecy around asylum seekers, a policy ably challenged by the Australian’s Mark Day this week. “I know of government-backed contractors signing confidentiality agreements and NGOs forcing staff with poor english to sign agreements with no legal standing”, Curr says. “They claim that speaking out in the media is not the way forward, private engagement with the immigration department is better, but it’s not born out by the facts.” One year after the re-introduction of off-shore processing, she despairs as she still hears stories of young men being raped and abused on Manus Island.

Resistance to the Coalition’s policies, coupled with outlining viable alternatives, is surely the best way to reform Australia’s dysfunctional relationship with asylum seekers.

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Where to now for the Australian Left?

My following column appears in the Guardian today:

Treating voters with contempt is the perfect way for the left to guarantee itself permanent exile from the political scene.

On election night, Melbourne writer Catherine Deveny tweeted: “This is win for racists, morons, homophobes, fuckheads, jumped up bogans, misogynists, billionaires, haters, comedians.” Such sentiments might momentarily make you feel good and superior to your fellow voters, but in the end you’re merely speaking to the converted; succumbing to rage is the wrong response to an outcome you’re unhappy with. Overland editor Jeff Sparrow perfectly articulated the issues the day after Tony Abbott’s victory:

“The left can easily fall prey to bitterness, a disdain for the public who voted in such a deeply reactionary figure. That would be a terrible mistake. Denouncing ordinary Australians as fools and halfwits, as slackjawed dupes of Murdoch too dim to grasp the obvious, might make us feel better but hurling abuse at those you want to convince has never been a successful strategy, particularly in a context in which the left is all too often portrayed as a clique of self-satisfied elitists.”

So let us look forward instead, and analyse what the left should (and shouldn’t) do.

Blaming Rupert Murdoch for Labor’s loss only highlights the lack of viable media alternatives; the Australian Financial Review’s Neil Chenoweth rightly argues that News Limited’s influence is inflated by its own bluster. Finding new and original ways to cover elections is vital, including resourced, ethical and accountable independent coverage from every seat in the country via print, online and social media sources. This could be be financed through ingenuity and a desire for local news to grow (America shows us the way).

A plethora of minor parties thrived this election. One in particular, the Wikileaks party, should have been a far more effective advocate for free speech but was let down by internal mismanagement and lack of transparency (something highlighted by strong Wikileaks backer, Gary Lord, on the day of the election). It’s simply not good enough to claim that libertarianism is opposed by the left and right in Australia, which might explain why Wikileaks polled so poorly. A raft of high-profile departures during the campaign tainted the Wikileaks party’s oft-stated claims of accountability. I write this with sadness, after being a Wikileaks supporter since 2006.

By all means, let’s not ignore the consistent campaign by Murdoch’s minions dressed up as journalists and editors to destroy Labor and the Greens. The “absolutist tendencies” of the Greens, condemned by The Australian this week, is nothing more than corporate frustration over the Greens surviving and maintaining much of its parliamentary numbers; its national influence, likely reduced, will continue.

Already much has been written about the decline of the Greens vote and why this signals confusion amongst the public about the role of the party: are they left-wing agitators, permanent opponents of government, or simply paying the price for sleeping and working with a neo-liberal Labor party? I’d argue the last option. The Greens’ humane policy on asylum seekers was arguably one of the key factors lifting its falling support. NSW Greens senator Lee Rhiannon is already frankly assessing what her party needs to do under a Coalition government to clearly differentiate itself from the Labor party on key issues such as tackling rising temperatures and Denticare.

Leaving Australian politics to the two major, pro-war parties is not a rational option so a vibrant Greens, and/or alternative left-wing force, is vital. The Greens need a thorough examination of the kind of party they want to be in the 21st century after unsuccessfully joining elite Canberra politics in 2010. For a party so committed to tackling serious climate change, it’s hard to celebrate then leader Bob Brown’s “win” over a climate package that locked in notoriously corrupt international “offsets”, especially from Europe.

The future viability of a party that wants to obtain far more than 9% of the national vote requires a serious investigation into what went wrong. History records very few examples globally of a left, green party succeeding by moving closer to the centre. The German Greens arecurrently suffering this fate.

The Greens candidate for the inner Sydney seat of Grayndler, Hall Greenland, wrote this week that “without a positive and convincing model of an alternative society, voters are going to be generally conservative and defensive.” This should involve explaining why a larger and more accountable public sector, better public transport, more independent foreign policy, open borders, serious action on climate change and more regulation on energy companies must all be part of any long-term strategy.

But this isn’t the 1960s or 1970s. Lives and the world have changed, so the left must adapt to different circumstances and explain why a bigger, publicly funded safety net – unlike the increasingly privatised network of failures in Western Australia under Liberal premier Colin Barnett – is the best way to ensure long-term prosperity.

A serious left will look both inwardly and globally for answers, and they may not like what they see. Canadian journalist Naomi Klein condemns mainstream green groups for foolishly jumping into bed with corporations to reduce carbon emissions. In a clear message to the Greens and other green groups, she explains that such partnerships have been a spectacular failure. She recently told Earth Island Journal that handouts to polluting corporations – a key part of Labor policy, backed by the Greens – has shown “the way in which neo-liberal economic orthodoxy has infiltrated the scientific establishment”. The scale of the climate crisis, due to the likely ongoing burning of dirty fossil fuels, requires sober consideration.

A period of reflection, anger and despondency is expected. But calmer heads will soon realise that a strong left must do more than just resist the onslaught of cultural, economic, climate and covert wars. Whether it’s the Greens or other political forces, a palatable and popular left shouldn’t just wait until the stock market crashes before expecting a rise in support. The global financial crisis in 2008 should have been a golden age for the left, a rare opportunity to show the failures of the Wall Street corruption. The Occupy movement was a brief and glorious moment.

Never underestimate the resilience of vulture capitalism. The challenges faced by the left remain great.

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Voice of Russia interview about Australian election of Tony Abbott

I was interviewed last night by The Voice of Russia about the ascension of Tony Abbott to the Prime Ministership (my previous interview with them was in July on asylum seekers):

As Australia conservative leader Tony Abbott has won the national elections by a landslide, bringing an end to a six-year Labor rule, Antony Loewenstein, an Australian independent freelance journalist, in an interview with the Voice of Russia, shared his opinion on the election outcome and on what the country may expect from the new government which is to face many challenges, including tackling such issues as immigration policy and the carbon emission tax.

The Australian Election Commission confirmed on its website that the Liberal-National coalition had won 88 seats in the House of Representatives, and Labor 57. Australia’s newly elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has admitted defeat to Tony Abbott in the Australian election. Outgoing Prime Minister said he will not stand again for Labor leadership. Rudd had called the election after defeating Julia Gillard in a leadership challenge in June. Under Rudd, Labor initially saw its figures improve, but Tony Abbott, who enjoyed the support of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers, then widened the gap again.

Tony Abbott’s top priorities include cutting 4.1 billion dollars from Australia’s foreign aid program over four years, abolishing a highly unpopular carbon tax, and implementing Operation Sovereign Borders aimed at curbing the number of asylum-seekers arriving by boat. Abbott has also promised to scrap a controversial 30 percent profits tax imposed on major coal and iron ore mines.

The new Liberal-National Party coalition government is a strong supporter of a long-standing military alliance with the United States, and supports the rotation of US Marines through northern Australia. It also advocates closer ties with China, Australia’s top trading partner, and wants to push ahead with negotiations for a free trade deal with Beijing.

A record 1,717 candidates contested the election, including mining entrepreneur Clive Palmer, and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who is holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.

Antony Loewenstein, an Australian independent freelance journalist.

Was this result expected? What was your opinion and forecast?

It was very much expected. It’s been a Labor government in power since 2007, in the last couple of years it became very unpopular for a range of different reasons. The economy is doing remarkably well, which is quite strange because most countries have suffered the financial crisis but Australia is doing very well. So, it has been combination of factors. The asylum seekers keep coming; there is also the issue of a lot of protests by Murdoch. There was time when Murdoch had a lot of influence in Australia and the opposition – it was inevitable that they were going to win on Saturday, and here we are.

What will happen to Australia’s immigration policies? How will that change?

Unfortunately, the policy has become even crueler towards asylum seekers. For the last years, especially for the 15 years both sides of the politics in Australia found ways to harsh towards refugees, putting them in detention camps in the middle of desert, treating them very badly on the Pacific. So, unfortunately, it is already very bad. The new government is even worse. The aim is to stop people getting on boats from Indonesia to come to Australia, which may not be successful but people often forget in Australia or elsewhere that what the issue here is how we treat refugees when they come and Australia unfortunately in the last few years has chosen a path of giving harsh treatment. And I am worried that it is going to be worse not better in the coming months and years.

Can’t we say that Australia is protecting itself in that way?

That is what the government says, that Australia must protect its borders and yes, that is certainly a view that every country, including Australia must protect its borders. But the language that is used by politicians here, the true thing is, one, they regularly say that refugees are coming here illegally, which is incorrect. Any refugee has the right to come to Australia or any country and claim asylum – that’s not for the government to decide. And secondly, if you claim as the Australian government does that many asylum seekers are potentially terrorists or criminals or untrustworthy, it creates the image in the greater community that people that are coming by boat should be mistrusted and I think that is the problem where our own government figures show that a vast majority of asylum seekers that come to Australia from Iran, from Afghanistan, from Pakistan actually are legitimate refugees. So, this I think is the problem with that kind of rhetoric.

Can we say that most Australian people do support these kinds of measures?

Yes, there is no doubt that there is a sizable proportion of Australia that supports the idea of a harsher refugee policy. That is true. My view is possibly in the minority, I understand that. I would say because many people don’t know the full spectrum of refugees. The media for many years have sent a certain message that was negative towards asylum seekers, but yes, you are right, there is a great deal of support in the Australian community, as the reason many countries around the world have been treating asylum seekers very harshly and that is the challenge to try to make people look sympathetic, in my view.

What about tax changes? What changes in that sphere are you expecting?

One of the things that is quite remarkable is that besides the fact the Australian economy is doing very well, normally when the economy does well, people do not change the government. Australia is the opposite of that. So, we have the situation now when we have the new government. What the new government is talking about doing is providing far greater tax breaks for corporations to reduce regulations for those corporations and to help mining companies and energy companies to have far greater access to resources with less taxes and regulations. So, it seems that they are going to be following the path of the number of other countries and that will happen in the next 6-12 months.

What about the carbon emission tax?

We have the situation in Australia where there are 2 parts of the Parliament – the upper half and the lower half and because of the way the Parliament works quite similarly to Britain in some ways, it is unclear whether the new government will be able to put this through the Parliament. What they plan is to say that carbon tax that was put in place by the previous government should be abolished, the current government has been in power for 2 days and I think it has a very ambivalent relationship towards climate change, some members believe it exists, some do not. So, we are likely to see a loosening of regulations around energy companies and less of an issue towards pollution. I think Australia’s policy towards the carbon tax is likely to change and in some ways is following many other countries, but public support of serious actions on climate change regulations, in fact, is reducing, and it is similar to what is happening in many parts of the world at the moment as well.

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What is vulture capitalism doing to our world?

My follow article appears today in The Conversation:

The story in last weekend’s Sydney’s Daily Telegraph was stark:

“[Prime Minister] Kevin Rudd will warn people smugglers he stands ready to create an island from hell in Papua New Guinea housing 10,000 asylum seekers.”

The message, an “exclusive” by News Corp Australia journalist Samantha Maiden, was to inform refugees that Australia would not tolerate ongoing boat arrivals and that PNG was their worst nightmare. The warning was to avoid being warehoused for years in a tent city. Whoever wins the federal election on September 7 has pledged to continue this off-shore, arguably illegal, cruelty. It’s Australian-led imperialism of the crudest kind.

Too often we ignore an examination of which companies will benefit from massively expanding facilities for asylum seekers. For the last few decades, Australia has outsourced this policy to countless unaccountable multinationals, such as Britain’s G4S and Serco, who make huge profits from asylum seekers languishing in their non-care.

In my new book, Profits of Doom, I investigate the grubby deals that have enriched corporations but left countless guards and refugees suffering mental health problems. It’s the perfect storm of neo-liberal “reform”, copied from the US and UK since the 1970s, where the role of the state is reduced and essential public services are outsourced to firms with shocking human rights records.

The immigration industrial complex is a global trend that leaves vulnerable men, women and children without properly funded attention.

As part of the book’s research, a senior Serco manager leaked internal documents revealing the massive price-gouging, under-training and under-staffing occurring across its network under a contract worth more than A$1.86 billion. This individual was scathing of the culture within the corporation, desperate to avoid being fined by Canberra for contractual breaches, and willing to tell managers to ignore problems worsened by the cheapest care possible, namely long-term isolation and rampant self-harm by asylum seekers.

Apart from visiting some of Australia’s most remote centres, such as Curtin in Western Australia and Christmas Island, the aim of the book is to uncover the global trends that were outlined in Naomi Klein’s 2007 best-seller, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. The Canadian writer focused on the ways in which natural and man-made disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq conflict, were the perfect vehicles for private companies to sell their wares and make massive profits.

Profits of Doom, and an upcoming documentary of the same name, expands Klein’s thesis by arguing that war, aid, resources and detention centres are now targets for rampant outsourcing. The results for locals in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea is almost universally negative. It’s a reality largely ignored by the mainstream media, with many journalists equally committed to the same economic plan outlined by the political elites. It’s a cosy club that says plenty about the insularity of the reporter’s world where physical and psychological embedding has replaced independence.

Take Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. Australian mining company Rio Tinto ran a highly profitable mine in the province until the late 1980s. Landowners and communities gained precious little from the operation. Environmental destruction was rampant – even today, 25 years after its closure, vast tracts of land remain polluted with little prospect of a proper clean-up – and local resistance was almost inevitable. A war ensued with a guerrilla force on one side and Rio Tinto and the PNG and Australian governments on the other. Mining-backed militias caused carnage and up to 20,000 locals were killed in the years-long battle.

Today there are renewed calls by Rio Tinto, Canberra and the Bougainville government to forget the past. Many PNG ministers opposed the mine years ago but, with corporate and AusAid backing, now support large-scale mining.

But without investigations into crimes allegedly committed by Rio Tinto’s proxy forces, history is destined to repeat itself. There are alternatives to mining for a poor province, such as tourism and agriculture, but Australia’s pro-mining agenda bullies poor nations to give access to Australian corporations to profit from what lies under the ground.

This is just one example where vulture capitalism is running rampant. In Afghanistan we are told that the Western war is winding down, but an army of private contractors and militias will remain long after 2014. This is simply a rebranded occupation. There are currently around 108,000 contractors in the nation, most of whom operate under a legal code that ignores abuses.

In Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, the nation is suffering under a weight of NGOs, UN soldiers and US pressure to be used as a base for clothing sweatshops servicing Walmart and Kmart. Like so many nations, from Pakistan to PNG, Haiti craves true independence, including the ability to thrive with aid that doesn’t enrich for-profit corporations.

Challenging unaccountable companies, and the states, media and businesses that support them, is a key aim of my work. It’s inspiring to see individuals and groups across the world, who are fighting for justice and sovereignty. Empowering them and raising their voices, while pushing for an alternative economic model that doesn’t encourage unregulated capitalism, is the only way forward.

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