Thursday, November 30, 2006

DFAT had way too many senior moments on AWB...

One of the DFAT staff called before the Cole Commission has blown a big whistle on the "spin" put on her evidence by the report. The Age reports Genevieve Hamilton, who was First Secretary at Australia's diplomatic mission to the United Nations from 1995 to 1998, said the Cole report avoided the question of who in the Government was responsible for failing to stop AWB from rorting UN sanctions. "I think that the commissioner's report has given ministers and departments the armory that they needed to say that they were not at fault."

Ms Hamilton said her evidence was misrepresented to draw a conclusion that she disagrees with — that DFAT had no responsibility for checking contracts and detecting kickbacks.

The former diplomat complained about the misuse of her evidence after seeing a draft of the report, but her concerns were not redressed."

The Age article goes on to say that "During the inquiry, AWB managers claimed their dealings in Iraq had been approved by the Australian Government because all contracts were checked by DFAT officials. But several DFAT employees told the inquiry they never examined the contracts for probity, instead describing their role as that of a "post-box".

Part-responsibility for vetting the contracts lay with DFAT's employee at the UN mission, Bronte Moules. Ms Hamilton was asked to give evidence to the inquiry because she was Ms Moules' predecessor, working in New York until 1998 — the year before the kickbacks started.

Mr Cole's report adopts the DFAT argument that Ms Moules and others fulfilled a "postbox" function and says that Ms Hamilton's evidence was "to the same effect". But Ms Hamilton said the postbox excuse was a "total cop-out". She added: "I would never have thought like that."

She said that references in the contracts to "transport fees" paid by AWB, later revealed to be kickbacks, should have raised a red flag for DFAT staff and concerns should have been taken up at the highest levels.

Ms Hamilton told The Age that while in the job, she considered it her duty to scrutinise contracts she passed to the UN. She is confident she would have noticed the kickbacks had they occurred while she was in charge. "I would have raised hell about it," she said."

From my experience, I can confirm that senior officials would not ignore such red flags unless it was made abundently clear from on high that they should do so. It has to be remembered that DFAT had an oversight responsibility in an area of UN dealings that was super-sensitive. It is inconceivable that responsible officers would ignore warnings of this nature.

The difficulties of doing business in what have come to be known as "spoilt markets" (where competitors routinely offer mixed credits, concessional financing and kickbacks to do business) is not grounds for turning a blind eye to this type of corruption, particularly as Australia had committed defence and other assets to uphold the sanctions regime against Iraq. This goes beyond the normal argy bargy of trading in developing countries into an area that undermines our national security interests and our integrity as a trustworthy member of the international community.

In any other Westminister-style jurisdiction the responsible Minister would have resigned by now. I think the whole government should take responsibility for this scandal but I retain an idealistic notion that elected leaders are trustees of the community - when that trust is misused they forfeit the right to lead.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Why Iraq & AWB?

Some readers may be wondering why this blog has apparently gone off on a tangent. I am focussed on the Iraq war and the AWB scandal because these events typify an egregious disregard for human rights, good governance and government accountability.

This mindset led Australia to deviate from good international citizenship toward a monocultural fortress mentality fueled by fear, rampant individualism and intolerance of the different.

Our government is comfortable with bullying smaller countries that don't conform to our cultural projections and insecure posturing. Violations of refugee conventions, rule of law principles and other international machinery designed to protect human rights have become common currency and many of our citizens angrily declare our right to do so.

It is this latter phenomenon that I find most alarming. Some of the violent language and abuse being hurled around virtual spaces is frightful and reflects a fertile ground for the type of dog whistle politics on race, religion, ethnicity and so called "Australian-ness" that Howard taps into.

The 'us' and 'them' construct has worked well for Howard.

The Iraq war imbroglio and the AWB cover-up are indicators of the government's performance in the area of human rights, governance and accountability - I keep harping on these failings as I think it is important that Australians who believe Howard is acting in our best interests understand why so many of their fellow citizens are genuinely fearful of the direction this country is taking.

If this is the new Australian value system - Huston, we have a problem!

The big picture....

AWB daze...

Nicholson in The Australian

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

what we don't know can't hurt us, or, "do the AWB jig with me....."

Matt Price of The Australian has put the Cole Commission findings to punters on his blog. Matty thinks the fallout will be minimal (his ruminations are invariably soaked in the spirit of Aussie apathy, which may mean he is an accurate weather vane!). By contrast, I live in hope!

Click here to read Cole's report for yourself.

The responses to Price's blog piece suggest the apoplectic, self-righteous calls by Howard, Downer et al for apologies from Labor have gone down like a lead balloon. They will not escape opprobrium over this scandal, and neither should they. Following is a few offerings from the punters:

"Was it Harry S.Truman that said: “The buck stops here”? Well, I think that the current leaders of our country should be totally ashamed of the gross bumbling, incompetent manner in which they are supposed to run their various departments. For Mr Cole to absolve all the various department heads and other minors from any “knowledge” beggars belief, and for ministers to blandly state that they were “unaware” of any wrongdoings is akin to the ostrich sticking its head in the sand… or should that be wheat? Let me bring out that slogan from the early 1970s: “It’s time”."

"Gross incompetence; “no one told me” excuse yet again! Downer, Vaile and their senior staff should be sacked; but, as always, Howard will be too weak to do anything."

"Has Cole now validated the contemporary political version of “need to know”? In our bastardisation of the Westminster system, mandarins now exist to ensure ministers only hear good news—or bad news that plays well with the electorate.
One assumes the sub-mandarins have adopted the same ethos, and by the next decade the only reliable source of information will be the filing clerk."

"I think, Jill Courtney, the only DFAT public servant to openly admit that Alia was a name she knew, summed it up when she stated that under the Howard Government “any dissent was not tolerated”. However, under the previous Labor government, public servants were “basically encouraged to disagree and to speak their mind”. Says volumes on how this government has politicised the public service and therefore is never held accountable. Ministerial responsibility—a cornerstone of our democracy—does not exist under the Howard Government, which is to our detriment."

"How do the government ministers involved have the gall to draw their pay?

"The Government has a habit of denying any wrongdoing. That is what you get when the front bench is loaded to the hilt with lawyers.
No responsibility - “It was the fault of a staffer”.
No accountability “How much can I get away with?”

Which all leads to a Government permanently in denial and never admitting to any error nor offering any apology for any wrongdoing no matter how bleedin’ obvious. "

Nicholson in The Australian

Monday, November 27, 2006

Death penalty politics...

Christian Catalano underlines the inconsistency in the Howard Government's approach to the death penalty, and how damaging this can be in seeking leniency for Australians at risk in other jurisdictions.

This government has an ambivalent attitude toward lobbying governments on the death penalty. It seems to depend on whether proactive lobbying will suit the particular political spin being run on issues around the courts' decisions. If public sentiment is running against the convicted, such as in the case of terrorists and tyrants, the Howard govt is gung ho about the death penalty. If there is unease at home they go through a hand wringing exercise that smacks of hypocrisy. Some governments (Vietnam for example) have responded to Australia's representations and granted clemency, but the current politicised approach amounts to a horrible lottery.

Melbourne University professor of Asian law Tim Lindsey said the Government had "lost its leverage" on the issue.

"You can't have it both ways — if you support the death penalty for terrorists then you can't complain when it's applied to other offenders," he said.

Grain daze: Saddam allegedly embezzled billions by evading UN sanctions - who turned a blind eye then?

Reporting on Howard's evidence to the Cole Commission in April, Peter Hartcher had this to sat about our government:

"Howard's appearance yesterday seemed to confirm that the Government makes some of its most serious foreign policy decisions based on hunches and politics rather than objective analysis, and that Australia's national budget for intelligence, with disclosed spending of $1.1 billion a year, and all the expertise and information that it buys, is wasted on this Government.

How so?

The counsel assisting Cole, John Agius, SC, with the Prime Minister in the witness box, started probing Howard's knowledge of the rorting of the oil-for-food program that the UN had set up.

Agius reminded the Prime Minister of a speech he gave to the National Press Club in building support for the invasion of Iraq. Agius read out to Howard an extract of that speech, from March 13, 2003, in which Howard attacked Saddam Hussein:

"He has cruelly and cynically manipulated the United Nations oil-for-food program. He's rorted it to buy weapons to support his designs at the expense of the wellbeing of his people."

John Agius put it to Howard: "Clearly that statement, and a statement of such gravity, must have been based upon briefings that you received?"

Well, not really, said Howard. It was based mainly on open sources available to anyone who could read a newspaper or type "Google" - a speech by Britain's Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, a press briefing by the US State Department and other miscellaneous reports.

Howard said he had asked one of his staff, the speechwriter, to check that reports or cables from Australia's diplomatic posts "supported the open-source claims and was satisfied that they did".

So Howard had not needed the intelligence system to tell him that Saddam was cheating the sanctions system. For how long before his press club speech had Howard known this, Agius wanted to know.

"It would be well before that. It's very hard - probably a year or more that I would have had that belief, but, like a lot of these things, it would have been a mixture of bits and pieces plus a predisposition to believe the worst, I suppose, of that regime."

Agius: "Well, in that connection, did you ever have any suspicion that any Australian company, including AWB, one of the largest exporters to Iraq, might have been involved in that rorting?"

Howard: "No, I didn't."

Golly gosh....

News Alert & Alarmed: PM demands good governance from Pacific states, confirms AWB just misunderstood by his Ministers!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Bush legacy...

Weekend Australian - "Iraq a moral blunder, says war hero"

Of late The Australian has found a voice to question the dangerous mindset that got this country into the morass of Iraq. I have been amazed at how complacent mainstream journalists have been toward Howard's simple minded propaganda line on 'cut and run' and 'stay the course'. These are slogans penned in Washington by an administration that has lost all credibility as a global peace maker. History will not be kind to Bush and the sycophantic technocrats that jumped on his "lets get Saddam" bandwagon.

The shock and awe nonsense was bad enough (cheered on by Team Australia, including the ABC's 7.30 report, which ran a commentary panel on the war like a quiz show). The disastrous mismanagement of the occupation will go down in the annals of human folly.

Similarly, as I have blogged earlier, there are senior players in this town that should be held to account for their complicity in putting this country in harm's way.

Some of those with knowledge of how the Australian people have been duped are now speaking out.

Better late than never, but I continue to wonder how so many strategic analysts and advisers checked their brain at the door of the "neocon" son et lumiere show.

Monday, November 20, 2006

"Iraq is not a disaster and I'm leading on climate change..."

Every picture tells a story....remind you of anyone?

We keep making the same mistake

David Day's article in The Age put me in mind of a dinner conversation I had with one of the current heads of our intelligence agencies prior to the invasion of Iraq. He was an adviser to the PM at this stage. I made the point that the invasion would lead to a rapid deterioration of the security situation in the Middle East because jihadi groups would flock to Iraq once Saddam was removed to make jihad against the West. I was rebuffed with what was the orthodox line back then - WMD is all that matters and Saddam's capacity to use such weapons must override all other considerations.

Day writes: "So now it's official: the seismic shift in the US Congress has forced President George Bush to look for a way out of the morass into which he blundered more than three years ago. With Iraq's population now estimated to be more than half a million people fewer than it would have been had the Americans not launched their invasion, George Bush and John Howard have been worse for the Iraqis than Saddam Hussein. That should not come as a surprise. The evidence has been there on the nightly news since the invasion was launched.

The Prime Minister can't say that people didn't warn him. Although he is fond of claiming lately that everyone back then was agreed about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and his supposed weapons of mass destruction, this was far from the case. Many people were counselling caution, warning him to wait until the weapons inspectors had time to come to a definitive conclusion. Many also wanted any action, if it did proceed, to be under the auspices of the United Nations rather than under the leadership of America alone. How right they were."

Of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but many of us with some knowledge of these matters in the Foreign Affairs community could see where Bush's unilateralism was heading. The Blick strategy on Iraq's WMD was sidelined. This proved to be a stupid blunder. The projection that jihadis would fill the vacuum created by the removal of Sadaam was rejected. It has proved to be right on the money, and was fairly obvious to anyone with real understanding of the region.

A lot of people who should have known better, given their claimed expertise on such matters, got Iraq badly wrong. Were they merely in thrall to a group of ignorant politicians playing to a tune penned in Washington, or did they really believe the advice they were being scripted to provide? There are questions that need to be examined further.

News Alert & Alarmed: PM defends Iraq invasion as the only way to give the people democracy, sends troops to prop up Tongan feudal system!

The Howard & Downer show goes to Tonga...

Bill Leak in The Australian

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Malcolm Fraser - "Human Rights and Responsibilities in the Age of Terror"

I have not been a great fan of our erstwhile leader because of his underhand connivance to unseat the ALP in 1975. My generation have long memories on that subject!

However, his pronouncements on Howard's departure from the basic principles of human rights and rule of law - in pursuit of political advantage dressed up as the "war on terror" - has redeemed him in my eyes in so many ways. Critics of Howard from within conservative bastions are few and far between and they are invariably set upon by the reactionary commentariat that springs to Howard's defence whenever someone takes aim at his appalling record.

Following is an excerpt from his address of the above title delivered at the University of Melbourne, 29 November 2005:

"It is possible that the fateful and horrific events of September 11, 2001 changed our world for ever. But the change is not represented by the age of terrorism; terrorism is not new. It is not represented by the War on Terror; wars are not new. It was not even the scale or nature of the attacks themselves, terrible as they were, that brought about our changed world; we have been attacked before. But the change as I see it has been brought about by the haste with which leaders of great democratic nations around the world made the fundamentally wrong assumption that we cannot maintain liberty and the Rule of Law and defend ourselves.

In discarding these principles, Governments have created fear and practiced discrimination based on race and religion. For Australia, fear was created and deception practised in relation to the boat people and over Tampa in late 2001. There was serious discrimination against legitimate asylum seekers. This was the effective end of the liberal age and the beginning of a period of regression. As a response to the War on Terror, liberty has been seriously compromised and arbitrary powers sought by the executive."

This is an important lecture that will become a key source for historians and political scientists who will, in time, pass cogent judgement on Howard's unfortunate legacy.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

'Make Poverty History' gets a rerun, but the focus on this burning issue is all too short and infrequent

Organisers of the Make Poverty History concert in Melbourne and U2's Bono have urged members of the G20 Summit to commit to debt relief for third world countries.

As someone who worked in the world of international aid for about two decades I despair that the mindset of those that make 'official aid' policy has not evolved to address the needs of our global reality.

Official aid should not be used as a trade instrument or conduit for first world cultural projections on to economically weaker societies. To get beyond the simplistic lexicon of a political economy shaped exclusively by global market forces, world leaders need to explore more humanist solutions to the provision of basic human needs and acknowledge that failure to do so will condemn all of us to an insecure future.

The onus on developed world leaders to end 'charity' as a basis for aid provision and imposed, culturally skewed economic prescriptions is urgent. New partnerships with the developing world to share resources equitably and strengthen human capability in areas of most need should be viewed as essential investments in global security.

The first world is getting richer, whilst the poor in developing regions retreat into ever more grinding poverty. Ruling elites tread the comfortable track of well-paid jobs, serviced environs, nice houses, mod cons and domestic help. Behind this fa├žade the poor make their way, as they always have, along rough tracks out of sight of built up residential enclaves, across barrens into slums and shanty towns. Their circumstances are getting worse and their story is repeated over and over again in the post-colonial world. The spatial reality of third world urban landscapes is a symbol of a cruel dichotomy.

The vast majority of the world's poor are either underemployed or unemployed, barely eking a living in market economies that have left them behind, housed cheek by jowl in squalid conditions with little or no services or amenities. Alternatively, they are part of the legions of rural poor, living hand to mouth on marginal land or with no land at all.

In some countries the poor do not register on the human development index. They have dropped off the statisticians’ radar. They leave so little evidence of their daily struggle to exist.

We urgently need a leadership that has the vision to make bold decisions and to bridge the dangerous north-south divide in ways that reflect the principle that poverty is anathema to human rights.

We could start with a few simple policy shifts. They include fostering better understanding of third world countries in the West, developing genuine partnerships with aid recipients, and improving governance through cooperative arrangements, civil society alliances and people to people engagements.

The current score card is bleak and going backwards. A sense of superiority pervades Western attitudes toward the developing world. The hectoring of developing neighbours to conform to Western security and governance templates is becoming more strident.

Economic clout is used to bully weaker countries into accepting interference in their domestic affairs. Aid is provided to repressive regimes to shore up trade interests.

Aid has become more politicised and further compromised as a means to strengthen relations with partner countries.

Cry enough...

Friday, November 17, 2006

High Court plays to Government`s tune on refugee rights

The Age reports "The High Court has overturned a lower court decision requiring the Government to prove a country is safe before deporting an asylum seeker there.

The court upheld a decision by the Immigration Department to refuse permanent protection visas for two Afghan men, who sought to stay on the grounds that the Taliban was unlikely to re-establish itself after being ousted by the US in 2001.

The two men, Shiite Muslims of Hazara ethnicity, were granted temporary protection visas in 1999.

Their claim for permanent protection was rejected by the Refugee Review Tribunal. Last year one of the men won an appeal in the full court of the Federal Court questioning the legal basis of the department's ruling that Afghanistan was safe.

The decision put the onus on Government to prove that a country is not dangerous before deporting a previous TPV holder.

The High Court win by Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone means the department's policy decisions on whether a country is safe are binding."

As we know from the work of the Edmund Rice Centre (see Deported to Danger II) and an earlier book by David Corlett (Following Them Home), refugees have been put in harm's way regularly by the Howard Government, through a negligent disdain for duty of care principles that beggars belief. The High Court has just made it easier for these travesties of natural justice to continue.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Detention camp has it all, but no people

This piece in the SMH caught my attention. After reading this I recommend everyone rush out to see the Road to Guatanomo for a chilling insight into the mindset of regimes prepared to detain people without recourse to the rule of law and basic human rights.

Ben Cubby writes
"THE new immigration detention camp being built on Christmas Island, dubbed "Australia's Guantanamo Bay" by opponents, will have bedroom cameras, electric fences and electronically controlled doors allowing centre-wide lock-downs, plans leaked from the island show.

The level of security and surveillance, greater than at any existing detention centre, makes parts of the complex comparable to a maximum security prison.

But with the numbers arriving by boat plummeting since 2003, critics are asking why the 800-bed centre, which is thought to have cost more than $240 million, is being built at all.

The Government says the high-tech enclosure is a deterrent to smugglers and illegal entrants, and useful for contingencies.

"While the Government's policies have been successful in stemming the flow of unauthorised boat arrivals, the capacity needs to be available should unauthorised arrival numbers start increasing," the Department of Immigration said in a statement.

Asked if an influx was expected, the department said: "People movements are unpredictable."

West Papua: Canberra's Treaty 'Killing Off' Papuan Democracy

The Age reports a Papuan leader has said " AUSTRALIA was "killing off" democracy in Papua with its impending treaty with Indonesia"...

Jacob Rumbiak, foreign affairs co-ordinator for the West Papuan National Authority — which describes itself as Papua's transitional government — said yesterday that Australia would be stopping international monitoring of human rights abuses by the Indonesian military in Papua.

"It will close West Papua from the rest of the world," especially to those concerned about human rights and the environment, he said.

He also warned it would "create opportunities for international terrorists based in West Papua to create instability in the Pacific".

The treaty, to be signed on Monday, includes expansion of military and intelligence ties, recognition of Indonesian sovereignty over Papua and agreement to suppress supporters of independence.

"They wanted this treaty to stop the misunderstanding between Indonesia and the Australian Government because of the 43 who arrived in Australia," Mr Rumbiak said, referring to the Papuan asylum seekers who arrived in Australia in January and were granted protection.

"The treaty is not the solution," he said. "It cannot stop the West Papuan struggle to defend West Papuan land, peace and justice.

"The Australian Government should understand the 43 asylum seekers left West Papua because West Papua was not safe for them."

The treaty would not deter future asylum seekers, he said.

A spokesman for the Free West Papua campaign, Nick Chesterfield, said: "The agreement is neither contributing to West Papua's, Indonesia's or Australia's security because it is aligning Australia with the wishes of TNI (the Indonesian military), which is the source of all the instability problems in our region."

A former Papua resident and human rights campaigner, Anglican minister Peter Woods, questioned the implications of the agreement for "those who are legitimately supporting West Papuans' aspirations in Australia and the attitude of the Australian Government towards that".

Newspoll findings released yesterday found 64 per cent of Australians supported access to Papua for journalists and 72 per cent supported access for human rights monitors. The nationwide poll of 1200 respondents prompted calls for the treaty to guarantee access to the province.

To dispel the disinformation being spread about by Howard Government apologists, it is important to reiterate the point that support for human rights in West Papua does not equate to support for secession. Many West Papua advocates would be reassured by a properly constituted act of self-determination, which may lead to a form of autonomy. Until Indonesia ceases governing West Papua as a colonial fiefdom and acknowledges the right of West Papuans to determine their own future, activists and advocates will continue to highlight the inequities and exploitative nature of Jakarta'a rule. Australia is complicit in this repression so long as it connives with Indonesia to support the status quo and to minimise international scrutiny of the West Papuan situation.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A message from Hollywood - Bush had it coming

The SMH reports on visiting Hollywood star, Tim Robbins, musing on what can happen in a democracy when the rule of law is misused:

"People across America - both Republicans and Democrats - are fed up with the way things are going," Robbins said before the premiere last night of the South African political thriller Catch a Fire.

"We need to reverse some of the decisions we've made that I think the majority have found to be un-American."

Robbins and his partner, the actress Susan Sarandon, have frequently criticised Mr Bush over the invasion of Iraq. But there was no crowing about the election loss, just a pointed remark that Catch a Fire, directed by the Australian Phillip Noyce, had a contemporary message.

"If there's any allegory to today, it has to do with what happens when you throw out the rule of law; when you get rid of due process and you engage in torture," Robbins said.

"That can oftentimes compromise your society. It can often exacerbate the problems that you're trying to solve."

This is a strong cautionary message for Australia, but the polls would suggest a good number of voters still don't get that Howard has been responsible for taking Australia down a dangerous path.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

"A wolf in sheep's clothing": divisive, isolationist and purpose-built to win the xenophobic vote at the next election

Eva Sallis of Australians Against Racism has issued the following warning about Howard's proposed citizenship test:

"The proposed citizenship test is to be debated soon. I have read the briefing paper put out by the government, and it is a sweet tongued piece, inviting agreement through age old tricks of rhetoric. It presents an earnest and benign government working for the good of all, and proposing to help those least supported, like refugees, towards the ultimate goal: being fruitful as citizens of Australia. The paper is so disarming, it has to be read in the context of contemporary social and media debates and the current government's policy history to make any sense of it.

All the problems of the paper are covert or unstated.

Many people are responding to it in detail, from the members of many communities who feel insulted by the retrospective illegitimacy to their belonging in Australia that it implies, to those concerned with its divisiveness for new communities settling in here, and the wedge it potentially drives between communities. This test will entrench scales of worthiness among citizens. Poor English will be used by the broader community to ostracise and vilify to a greater degree than it already is, given such a sanction.

With this editorial comment, I would like to draw attention to some longer term implications. I will put them bluntly, rather than arguing point by point with what I think is a dishonest and disingenuous document.

1. Can we prevent the test being used for cultural screening? I don't think we can, as I think that is its purpose. I think we all know that the test is devised to exclude, rather than, as the paper suggests, 'help', some applicants for citizenship. We can guess from Howard and the media's dog whistle what cultures of origin would be most often excluded. The pretense that this is not about people of Middle Eastern or Muslim origin is to me and I hope to many transparent nonsense.

2. I think DIMA’s record as a reliable and responsible government department must be taken into account. DIMA or an offshoot of DIMA would devise and administer the test. Why would any of us expect DIMA employees to administer the test without taking unwritten policies into account? Given what we know of DIMA's actions in the past, why should we expect better when they are to be unscrutinised gatekeepers able to exclude precisely the people they wish to exclude, and have spent billions on excluding over the past seven years?

3. The longterm effects of screening out particular cultures, if you accept that this is a possible effect of the test, must be considered. If the refusal rate for people of Middle Eastern and or Muslim origin is high, (which I believe is the intention) the long term implications for the Middle Eastern and Muslim communities in Australia and for all Australians are terrible. Think about a growing ghetto of people with no citizenship rights, deportable at the discretion of the Minister. This is of course what the government wants: containment of all to control the imagined possible terrorists. But this is an appalling way to think about a community, and spectacularly damaging.

Think about it: Such containment would ruin the relationships between our communities. Such containment would generate fear, uncertainty and anger in the Australian Middle Eastern communities, citizen and non citizen alike. Such containment would endorse every prejudice in the broader community, peddling fear between peoples with far reaching consequences. This is a way to generate violence, and will not 'help' anybody.

Remember that the detention centres were acceptable to many ordinary people on the argument that the government wouldn't do such a thing to people if it didn't know they were dangerous: the argument that we were being 'protected' from detainees - who, it turned out, were simply very traumatised men women and children.

Far from 'helping' Australians be better citizens, this proposed test could signal the end of an Australia that is unique and precious, in which the members of our many communities have equal rights and value before the law.

Finally, I would like to remind the Australian Government that its arrogance about the English language is cause for dismay to our many communities. We are a multilingual land and the richer for it. English is not Australia's first language, and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander elders who speak their mother tongue fluently and as their primary language are true, living, national treasures."

I can confirm the Howard Government does not deserve the trust the community places in it to do the right thing in our name. It has given up any right to that presumption a long time ago. Concerned citizens need to constantly make their voices heard over the shrill hectoring of Howard apologists and hate jockeys. The US mid-term elections reveal that low rent political machines can be derailed by public scrutiny.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

SMH: "Artful dodging on treaty's more unpalatable parts"

Writing in the SMH, Mark Forbes gets to the nub of the sub-plot in the signing of the security treaty with Indonesia. As usual, the Howard government is playing to an agenda unworthy of a "good international citizen". Suppression of support for Papuan activists and assisting Indonesia's nuclear ambitions are obvious motives for both parties to the treaty, but we will be sold a line that avoids highlighting these unfortunate by-products. I can only hope that the wave of dissatisfaction crashing down on the Bush administration will lead to an ebb in the political fortunes of this bunch, before they do more damage to Australia's standing as a defender of human rights.

Following is an excerpt of the Forbes article:

"...Under the treaty to be signed on Monday, Australia will not only support Indonesian sovereignty over Papua but promise to prevent independence activists using Australia as a rallying point.

Jakarta is in no doubt that the clause is aimed at Papua, but Downer yesterday attempted to claim it was "nothing to do with asylum seekers in that sense. It's to do with not … supporting activities that are going to be … a threat to each other's countries.

"We don't want to see people, or we wouldn't want to see the Indonesian Government, supporting activities that could be a threat to our security."

Possibly, as one official joked, Canberra fears Aboriginal activists could gather in Bali to campaign for a breakaway state.

Downer also dodged on Australia's support for Indonesia's nuclear power program. "It's not about Australia establishing a nuclear power program in Indonesia - we don't have the technology," he said.

Australia is also considering developing a nuclear power capacity. More significantly, it is the most obvious source of uranium for the reactor Indonesia plans to build."

Monday, November 06, 2006

Suicide warning led to visas for Nauru refugees

Michael Gordon of The Age has kept a close watch on refugee issues and should be applauded for his diligence and commitment to reporting on the Howard government's human rights violations in this area. I am confident that the worst abuses under both the Pacific Solution and the on-shore detention facilities system will be the subject of a Royal Commission in the future. The work of journalists such as Gordon is pivotal in charting the ugly course of events as this obnoxious policy plays out. The truth needs to be told and the key players called to account.

Following is a large slice of his article:

"A WARNING from mental health experts that asylum seekers on Nauru were at extreme risk of committing suicide prompted the decision late last year to give visas to 25 men who had spent four years in offshore detention, documents obtained by The Age show.

The documents indicate that the Government acted only after the psychiatrist treating the men warned that she would not be responsible if any of them resorted to suicide.

A letter from the psychiatrist led Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone to dispatch a team of mental health experts to Nauru, who recommended that all the asylum seekers on the island be taken to Australia "as a matter of urgency".

Senator Vanstone made no mention of this advice when she announced that 25 of the 27 still on Nauru would be granted visas last October. The decision resulted from "the Government's constant review of the failed asylum seekers caseload", she said.

After four years on the tiny, sweltering island, 13 of the 25 were found to have genuine fears of being persecuted if they returned to their homeland, and were afforded refugee status. Of the rest, Senator Vanstone said decisions to grant temporary humanitarian visas were "consistent with the Government's flexible approach to managing complex caseloads".

Despite the recommendation that all 27 be moved to Australia and not placed in detention, two remained on Nauru because they had adverse security assessments from ASIO. One of these men, Mohammad Faisal, was flown to Brisbane in August at the request of the Nauruan Government after health workers said he was suicidal. He remains in a Brisbane hospital.

The Age has seen documents showing that, more than a month before the decision to approve visas for the 25 last October, the psychiatrist employed by the International Organisation for Migration on Nauru warned that they were "highly vulnerable to do self-harm".

The asylum seekers had been suffering mental health problems "for several years" and should be removed "from this kind of environment and atmosphere of consistent hopelessness" at the earliest possible opportunity, she wrote in a letter obtained by The Age under freedom of information legislation.

"IOM Medical cannot be held responsible for any events or circumstances that may arise as a result of the above situation," the psychiatrist warned.

The mental health team's report, also obtained by The Age under FoI, paints a grim picture of the consequences of indefinite detention on Nauru, even where asylum seekers are able to leave the camp during daylight hours."

Saddam's death penalty "something heroic" says Howard, while wiser voices react with unease

As you would expect, the PM came out today as a vocal member of an international cheer squad in support of the death penalty handed Saddam Hussein.

By contrast, European governments and human rights organisations reacted to the decision with deep unease, amid doubts about the fairness of the trial and fears that the sentence could trigger further sectarian bloodshed in Iraq.

CNN reports "Terry Davis, secretary general of the Council of Europe, opposed Hussein's execution, saying it would be "futile and wrong" to execute Hussein, whom he called a "ruthless dictator" who "must pay for his crimes."

"What Iraqi people need is justice not retribution. A country ravaged by violence and death does not need more violence; and especially not a state orchestrated execution. Saddam Hussein is a criminal and should not be allowed to become a martyr," said Davis.

The council, which represents 46 European countries, was formed in 1949 and promotes unity on the continent.

Amnesty International, the humanitarian watchdog group, deplored the death sentences and criticized the proceeding.

They cited political interference, poor security for lawyers and witnesses, denial of access to legal council, and various complaints by the defense team about the proceedings.

"This trial should have been a major contribution towards establishing justice and the rule of law in Iraq, and in ensuring truth and accountability for the massive human rights violations perpetrated by Saddam Hussein's rule," said Malcolm Smart, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program.

"In practice, it has been a shabby affair, marred by serious flaws that call into question the capacity of the tribunal, as currently established, to administer justice fairly, in conformity with international standards."

Bush and Howard applauding legal processes that fail to meet international standards! So what else is new? If these leaders were to suddenly start defending the universal right of everyone to a fair trial I would have to check whether I was having an 'out of body' experiece. Although Blair is equally culpable in terms of applauding Saddam's trial process, at least on this issue he has finally done the right thing, declaring his opposition to the death penalty.

Robert Fisk reminds us of the changing fortunes of a dictator once allied to the US: "So America's one-time ally has been sentenced to death for war crimes he committed when he was Washington's best friend in the Arab world. America knew all about his atrocities and even supplied the gas - along with the British, of course - yet there we were yesterday declaring it to be, in the White House's words, another "great day for Iraq". That's what Tony Blair announced when Saddam Hussein was pulled from his hole in the ground on 13 December 2003. And now we're going to string him up, and it's another great day.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Amnesty's open letter to Howard

Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International, has sent the PM an open letter asking for Australian citizen David Hicks to be brought home to Australia to face justice. It is clear that after five years, Mr Hicks's prospect of a fair trial in the US is unlikely at best. She asked Mr Howard to trust in Australian justice and bring David home to face a fair trial in Australia, and if he cannot be prosecuted, to release him. It really is that simple.

On Wednesday in front of the hundreds of Australians attending the 2006 Sydney Peace Prize Lecture, Irene Khan launched an international action calling on Prime Minister Howard to bring David Hicks home to face justice.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Flanagan novel condemns modern Australia

For anyone who missed this interview on the 7.30 report I have linked to the transcript. The right wing commentariat will doubtless continue to attack anyone who thinks Australia today is anything but a modern miracle of free market affluence full of happy campers pleased with their appreciating assets.

I agree with Richard Flanagan that "We are more frightened, we are more frightening, we are less free, we are more unjust, we are more callous, there's a greater divide of wealth and power and the truth gets ever harder to get out."

My prediction that Howard and cohort are ramping up the communal wedge to run a fear and loathing campaign targeting the Muslim community at the next election has also been spotted by Malcolm Fraser. The Age reports " The former Liberal prime minister used a speech to the NSW Law and Justice Foundation last night to criticise the Government's rhetoric on Islam.

"There are already suggestions that this next election will be a 'Muslim election', as a while ago it was the Tampa election," he said. "It would create a terrible and unnecessary divide between Islam and the rest of the community."

He said the current debate reminded him of that over Catholics' loyalty to the pope in the early 20th century."

"The groundwork has been laid for an increase in fear and concern over the followers of Islam," he said."

Oh yes, we all better believe it. The lamentable state of the nation addressed by Richard Flanagan is going to get uglier...

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

PNG tells Australia: we will stop your aid...time for a re-think!

As someone who has worked for many years on bilateral aid programs with PNG this does not surprise me at all. The use of aid to leverage recipient country compliance with Australia's political agenda in the South Pacific has troubled me for over a decade. The political rhetoric has become increasingly strident in recent years - we have become comfortable with a unilateral approach to aid strategy development, although it continues to be dressed up as 'bilateral', 'consultative' etc, the implied threat of aid withdrawal if Australia's objectives are not met has pervaded bilateral consultations.

The SMH reports: "According to senior PNG officials spoken to by the Herald, Sir Michael's Government believes Mr Howard and Mr Downer are using aid to try to influence politics in the Pacific. "There are fears John Howard and Alexander Downer are using aid to underpin their plans for potential regime change," one said.

PNG also believes Australia's actions are increasingly unilateral, and in breach of the Development Co-operation Treaty signed by the two countries when Bob Hawke was prime minister, under which both governments were required to consult each other."

My main concern has been the imposition of a ‘governance’ strategy in the South Pacific. I have set out my views in more detail in an article published in On Line Opinion this week.