It is sad, but probably indicative of the times, that I’m starting my first Senate Diary entry for 2018 by going back to a tired and tattered old topic that dominated the headlines (again) this time last year.

Australia Day. Invasion Day. Why January 26 is an insult to Indigenous Australians. The Greens have made a stand and their new Victorian MP, Lidia Thorpe, has called for flags to be flown at half-mast tomorrow in mourning. (I don’t agree with that, but am appalled by the rape threats to her and hope the perpetrator is arrested and charged soon).

But, on moving Australia Day: I am against it. As I said, when opposing it in the Senate last year: I am sure there are plenty of Native Americans who don’t have much to celebrate on July 4. Independence Day from the British didn’t bring them much independence from the reservations.

And if you change the date? Move it to, say, February 26 or April 14 ? Can you guarantee there wasn’t some indignity, even atrocity, afflicted on an Indigenous Australian on that day 200 years ago? I am not opposed to a Mabo Day — like the Martin Luther King Jr. day in the US.

On Australia Day 2017, as a new senator, I was honoured to be invited to a naturalisation ceremony at the Coburg Town Hall in Melbourne. (The last time I was near that town hall was on the way to the adjacent Pentridge Prison in a paddy wagon, but that’s another story).

The first person I met was an Aboriginal elder. She asked for a selfie — as we stood under an Aboriginal flag and the Australian flag — which she tweeted. We then acknowledged Indigenous people and paid tribute to their elders. And then we all celebrated Australia. The Greens have no hope of winning this one. Nor should they.

***

Over the summer break, I’m sure a lot of people played Trivial Pursuit. On my recent visit to the Solomon Islands as part of a parliamentary delegation, we traded a lot of political trivia as our wagon bounced in and out of pot-holes and ploughed through rivers.

I thought I had a doozy: What do Tony Abbott and Kristina Keneally have in common?

The answer? Both have used the word “awful” recently to describe the Turnbull government.

She used it, November 14, 2017, when launching her unsuccessful bid to replace John Alexander in Bennelong.

Keneally said: “… Stand up and say to Malcolm Turnbull: ‘Your government is awful’.”

Abbott said it to me, a month later, December 15, 2017, at a media function the day before the Bennelong byelection.

Abbott said: “This has been a pretty awful government”.

An extraordinarily indiscreet thing to say to another politician, a crossbencher, whom he advised in a phone message last year to “shut the fuck up”. Obviously, I haven’t.

***

Speaking of Keneally. I’m sure her replacing Sam Dastyari was in the Shorten package when she agreed to “ave-a-go” in Bennelong. I think she will do well. Better than some union hack whose turn, supposedly, it was.

***

“Kastom”. It’s a six-letter word I learned over the summer break — and it depressed the hell out of me. Last week, as I mentioned earlier, I went to the Solomon Islands to see what NGOs like Save the Children, World Vision and Oxfam were doing in that necklace of Pacific Islands and to see how our Australian foreign aid dollars are being spent.

One topic of discussion was so important to me that I volunteered to invite myself and pay my own way. The topic was domestic violence which, regrettably, is seared into island male-superiority culture to the extent that about 70% of Solomon Island women have experienced it. Also discussed was the corollary of sexual exploitation of young girls with 13-year-olds being married off or sent to work in logging camps, or with foreign fishermen, where cooking and cleaning duties extend to sex. And, often, unwanted teenage pregnancies.

That’s where the pidgin English “kastom” comes in. The Solomon Island national government has tightened child exploitation laws recently and a case of human trafficking is currently before the courts. But under the kastom system — which translates as “custom resolution” or “community resolution” — child rapists are being absolved by the payment of as little as $50 in Solomon Islands dollars — about $6 US. This practice is increasing because of “community by-laws” sanctioned by police.

There are 900 islands in the Solomons, about 300 of them inhabited. Many people rarely see a policeman. If a complaint is made of sexual exploitation of a child, the village chief, or village elders, negotiate between the offender and the parents. Hush money is paid. The matter is over. That’s kastom.

The victim has no say. And a violated child never gets to talk to a police officer. The case never gets to court. Justice is never done.

Add that to the endemic corruption in that country and you’ll understand why I came away feeling forlorn.

***

And thank you Crikey readers. My new book Hinch vs Canberra — based on these Crikey Senate Diary epistles — was the MUP No.1 bestseller over Christmas. But then, you read it here first. And it’s great to be back. DH

Peter Fray

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