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We are living in two countries — and only one can be right

(Image: Gorkie/Private Media)

There are two views of the political landscape over the next nine months. Which of them proves to be right will have large bearing not merely on the outcome of the next election — whether it’s this year or next — but the course of the pandemic in a highly vaccinated Australia.

One view is that pushed by the Morrison government, with the backing of its media supporters at News Corp and the Financial Review, which supports the business case that the economy should be reopened regardless of the amount of illness and death that results. Let’s call it the Canberra view, although more accurately it’s a view of much of the south-east of Australia.

In that world, there’s a national reopening plan that everyone signed up to, informed by optimistic Doherty Institute modelling that once certain vaccination targets are reached, there can be an end to both lockdowns and border closures and only a few hundred people will die (invariably, “tragically”), not much worse than a standard flu season.

And in that world, voters are desperate for an escape from lockdown and will cheer gratefully the moment they’re released from their imprisonment, while those who oppose freedom will be politically destroyed — including Labor, even though Anthony Albanese supports the reopening plan, but particularly Mark McGowan in WA and Annastacia Pałaszczuk in Queensland. Little mention is made of Tasmania, which is in exactly the same position as those two states, nor of South Australia. But they don’t fit that narrative because they’re led by Liberal governments.

It’s the sort of world view you’d expect from politicians, staffers and journalists who live in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne, all of which are locked down, and where what happens outside the south-eastern corner of the country is seen as provincial eccentricity at best.

The view of the political landscape is rather different outside the south-east corner, out in the “provinces”. No one’s in lockdown. There aren’t hundreds of cases a day and soaring hospitalisations and ICU admissions. And they intend to keep it that way. In particular, they don’t intend to let people from states with rampant infections enter to start infecting and killing their citizens and flooding their hospitals.

Imagine you’re Mark McGowan and you tell West Australians “I know we’re COVID-free and our economy is doing well, but I’ve agreed to a national plan developed in Canberra and I’m going to let infected people from the east fly and drive into WA and I know a lot of West Australians will get sick, and many will die as a result, but it’s for the good of the federation and because people in Sydney want to come for a holiday.”

His premiership would last about five minutes beyond any such announcement, notwithstanding any pious op-eds in support in the AFR from business leaders and economists.

How do we know? Consider the case of maladroit Attorney-General Michaelia “Chuckles” Cash this week. With the government, News Corp and the AFR, and much of the press gallery going full bore on the “stick to the national plan” Canberra view, Cash — ironically, from WA — emerged to declare that the High Court would reverse itself and find against the WA government if it kept borders closed once vaccinations reach 70% or 80%.

In doing so, she left the door open to the Commonwealth supporting any future challenges from the likes of Clive Palmer, just like her predecessor Christian Porter backed Palmer’s last, unsuccessful challenge. Like Cash, Porter had thought the High Court would find against WA.

But all Cash was doing was exposing the weakness of the government’s position. In case she hadn’t noticed — she’s in the Senate, after all — Scott Morrison once again lied to parliament this week on that very issue: he claimed the Commonwealth did not “pursue” Palmer’s challenge, when in fact Porter intervened to support it.

Morrison knows Palmer attempting to force open WA’s borders so West Australians can get infected and die is politically toxic enough that he will lie to Parliament about his support for it. But Cash, displaying characteristic misjudgment, had no such fears.

And how did that play out in the west? Liberal WA backbenchers lined up to give Cash a kicking. Former Liberal premier Colin Barnett went public to criticise her. Cash, Morrison and Josh Frydenberg were forced to rule out repeating Porter’s error of supporting another Palmer challenge. “I have repeatedly commended Premier McGowan for his handling of the pandemic in Western Australia,” Cash added pleadingly. That is, when political push comes to shove, the Canberra perspective isn’t one the government will stick with.

Imagine going to an election on a platform of forcing West Australians to get infected. Or Tasmanians. Or South Australians. Or Queenslanders.

Or, for that matter, the whole country. You might notice — though no thanks to political journalists — that Scott Morrison isn’t promising to reopen borders even after the 80% target has been reached. There’s always been a strange double standard about reporting of state border closures without mentioning Scott Morrison has a much harder border closure round the whole country. And, like Mark McGowan, he’s not promising to open it up any time soon, even once we hit 80%.

This seemed to pass most of the press gallery by as it continued to push the Canberra perspective ahead of that of outlying states. Perhaps journalists really are trapped in a Canberra bubble. Perhaps they don’t understand the very different political dynamics of lockdowns and border closures. Perhaps they’re too focused on maintaining their inside access to the government to question what they’re told. But only one view of the world can turn out to be right.

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Election primer (early version): the states and seats to watch

(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

It’s very obvious by now that Scott Morrison is in full-blown election mode. Since last week, the Coalition has doubled-down on presenting a binary choice to voters: freedom under the government v a Labor opposition committed to endless lockdowns and border closures. 

The government knows it needs a sharp, cogent message. Ever since half the country went into a lockdown that could’ve been avoided with a functional vaccine rollout, its polling numbers have been shocking. The latest Newspoll has Labor on track for a landslide. And Roy Morgan now puts the opposition up 54.5%-45.5% on a two-party preferred basis.

As we learned in 2019, there’s no such thing as a uniform national swing, and individual seat polling is far less accurate. And Morrison’s freedom message is clearly calculated to play better in locked-down states. Unfortunately for the government, Roy Morgan’s individual state swings also deliver bad news.

Let’s start with NSW, where Premier Gladys Berejiklian has wholeheartedly abandoned COVID Zero and now seems in lockstep with Morrison’s message about reaching vaccine-driven freedom as soon as possible. Before the current outbreaks, the government saw NSW as key to its reelection hopes, with 10 Labor-held marginals on its radar.

But Roy Morgan’s poll shows a 4.8% swing to Labor since the last election, enough to pick up two seats (Reid and Robertson), and put two more (Lindsay and Banks) under threat. It also pours cold water on the Coalition’s hopes of a clear election-winning gain in the premier state. The government wants to pick up “coal seats” like Hunter, Shortland and Paterson by wedging Labor on mining. But how much will that narrative resonate in an election likely fought primarily over management of the pandemic? Will aspirational voters in the Sydney mortgage belt really flock to the Coalition after an avoidable recession?

The promise of freedom should play better in Victoria, locked down more than any other state. Instead, Victoria is where the polling numbers are most catastrophic for the government. Roy Morgan has Labor leading 59.5% to 40.5%, a 6.4% swing since the last election, where it was already Labor’s best state. On that swing, Chisholm, Higgins, Casey, Deakin, La Trobe, Flinders and Kooyong are gone. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Health Minister Greg Hunt would be out of Parliament. The Coalition could lose the next election in Melbourne alone.

If not in the locked-down states, where will Morrison’s message work? The strongest ammunition for their “wedge Labor on freedom” strategy is recalcitrant Labor premiers in Queensland and Western Australia, who refuse to commit to reopening their borders when the federal government wants. But Annastacia Palaszczuk and Mark McGowan are immensely popular figures, leading states where people are living normal, COVID-free lives.

In Queensland, which delivered Morrison the 2019 election, the government is at its electoral peak. While Roy Morgan has them ahead of Labor there, they’ve still copped a 4.9% swing from the last election. That could give Labor four seats — Longman, Leichhardt, Brisbane, and Peter Dutton’s seat of Dickson. Of course, Dutton was expected to lose last time and hung on. Queensland is confoundingly unpredictable. With George Christensen and Andrew Laming quitting, Labor could be more confident about Dawson and Bowman. 

The loudest recent bickering has been with WA. Attorney-General Michaelia Cash warned the courts could force open the hard border. Emperor Premier Mark McGowan responded by accusing the government of being on a mission to bring COVID to his disease-free paradise. 

Picking a fight with WA seems weird given a) the McGowan government is immensely popular and locals are pretty happy with the way things are right now; b) an internal report from the WA Liberals called their own party a “political wasteland“, and c) the government needs to keep all its seats there.

Again, Roy Morgan has Labor ahead in Western Australia, with a 6.6% swing to the opposition since the last election. That would deliver Labor Swan, Pearce (where MP Christian Porter is already beyond embattled) and Hasluck. And every attack on McGowan’s border puts those seats further in doubt. 

Notably, the government’s sniping about closed borders isn’t directed at Liberal states like South Australia and Tasmania. But even in those states, current swings would deliver Labor three seats all up (Boothby in SA, along with Braddon and Bass in Tasmania).

This is, of course, an absolute best-case scenario for Labor. Individual seats often buck state- and nation-wide swings. Well-known ministers like Dutton, Frydenberg and Hunt could easily hang on thanks to name recognition. Labor could blow it like last time. And Morrison has the immense strategic advantage of being able to call the election at the most politically convenient time between now and May. No wonder he’s already talking about better days ahead.

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Government fights to undermine court ruling and keep national cabinet secret

Annastacia Palaszczuk, Daniel Andrews and Scott Morrison during a national cabinet meeting (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

It was only last month that it looked like the government would have to hand over all the details of every meeting held inside the national cabinet, after a Federal Court judge ruled the body was not in fact a “cabinet” and therefore not entitled to “cabinet confidentiality” under Freedom of Information rules.

Fast forward to today, and the government has taken matters into its own hands, introducing legislation that would potentially get around this troublesome ruling. 

The COAG Legislation Amendment Bill includes provisions that would “protect from disclosure the deliberations and decisions of the cabinet and its committees”. 

The provisions would apply to the “deliberations and decisions of the committee of cabinet known as the national cabinet”. 

The bill was introduced on Thursday. That was the deadline given to the government to appeal a decision made by Justice Richard White in the AAT, who ruled the national cabinet was not a cabinet (despite the prime minister’s claims) and therefore not privy to cabinet-in-confidence. 

That decision was a victory for crossbench Senator Rex Patrick who had taken the government to the tribunal after being denied the minutes of national cabinet meetings on the basis of cabinet confidentiality. 

For the love of secrecy

Cabinet confidentiality has become a favourite mantra inside the Morrison government, and this has extended to national cabinet. 

But Justice White ruled the national cabinet had none of the hallmarks of an actual cabinet — it comprises state premiers from different political parties — and therefore could not rely on the confidentiality claim. 

Labor has referred the bill to the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee, which will give the Senate an opportunity to dissect it. 

“This is a government addicted to secrecy, and hiding from the Australian public their right to know what their government is doing in their name,” shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said. 

Patrick said the PM was a “sore loser, obsessed with secrecy and allergic to transparency”. 

“This is another blatant attack on democratic accountability from a PM who absolutely hates scrutiny.”

What happens now? 

The PM’s proposed amendments still need to pass through the Senate. But if the legislation passes it would once again shroud the national cabinet in secrecy. 

This means documents tabled before the national cabinet would be exempt under freedom of information laws, shattering efforts to increase transparency over large parts of the government’s pandemic management. 

Professor Anne Twomey at the University of Sydney said the bill would override existing safeguards to release information that is in the public interest. 

“What this is really saying is, even if it is not in the public interest to keep things secret, we’re going to keep them secret anyway.”

Beyond the issue of transparency, it would also assume that the national cabinet is a cabinet, when a federal judge has ruled it is not. 

“It’s still pretending this body is something that it manifestly is not,” Twomey said.  

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As pressure grows over JobKeeper waste, a new rescue plan is needed. Let’s call it JoshKeeper

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Until yesterday, conservative loyalty to the federal government had largely protected Josh Frydenberg and Scott Morrison from attacks over excessive secrecy and largesse related to the extraordinarily wasteful $90 billion JobKeeper program.

News Corp is still yet to unleash the dogs of war, but yesterday it was Judith Sloan in The Spectator — not her weekly column for The Australian — who stepped up to the plate. And boy, she didn’t miss.

Under the headline “JobKeeper — far worse than school halls and pink batts”, the former Westfield, Santos and ABC director declared the program “the new gold standard in wasteful spending”. It warrants a royal commission, she wrote, because it was “the single most irresponsible and reckless spending program ever undertaken by a government”.

In what amounted to a sweeping attack on those who accessed the scheme, Sloan declared that: 

Josh Frydenberg implemented a program with an extremely high proportion of pointless spending, snapped up by businesses that were good at working the system rather than being hurt by COVID.

Sloan believes that at least $25 billion of the program was “completely wasted” and then went on to call for transparency by demanding that all recipients be publicly named on a register, similar to what occurred in New Zealand, the UK and the US.

Sloan is not alone in coming for JobKeeper. 60 Minutes is letting fly on Sunday night, declaring the scheme “the biggest cash grab in Australian history”.

However, as AFR Rear Window columnist Joe Aston pointed out in today’s paper, Frydenberg was not prepared to front up to Nine’s Liam Bartlett for 60 Minutes, instead sending out the hapless Simon Birmingham — who wasn’t even finance minister when Frydenberg, Morrison and former finance minister Mathias Cormann cooked up the JobKeeper scheme.

If the government won’t embrace JobKeeper transparency, there are plenty in the media prepared to assist. And when you end up relying on Pauline Hanson to head off a Senate transparency push on JobKeeper recipients, you really are skating on thin ice.

However, the Parliamentary Budget Office has helped overcome this secrecy by producing stunning analysis which has been best captured in separate pieces by 7.30‘s Dan Conifer.

For a scheme that was only meant to go to employers suffering material drops in revenue, it truly is staggering that $368 million was paid out to entities that more than tripled their revenue in the June quarter last year.

Surely these firms should be forced to give the money back. If only the ATO would awake from its slumber and start asking the hard questions.

Some of the commercial media are stuck in a quandary over JobKeeper, given that several of the larger players really tucked into the scheme. Nine chairman Peter Costello sniffed the political breeze early and elected to pay back the $2 million that the company initially claimed.

Seven West Media took the alternative course and milked $47 million out of JobKeeper, even though the company’s revenue jumped $43.6 million, up to $1.27 billion, in 2020-21, and group EBIT (earnings before interest and taxes) soared from $95 million to $229 million.

If you were Frydenberg and Morrison, what would you do to head off this growing scandal at the pass?

The first obvious choice is to embrace transparency by declaring there will be a public register, but not until closer to Christmas, once the current lockdowns have been lifted.

This would give firms enough time to establish whether they have the financial strength to repay JobKeeper to avoid being potentially named and shamed.

Given that Gerry Harvey will personally receive a $140 million fully franked dividend from Harvey Norman in the coming weeks, the company can clearly afford to repay the full $22 million in JobKeeper it claimed, rather than the $6 million so far. And if his franchisees can’t afford it, Gerry should personally gift them the money.

The Australian’s Robert Gottliebsen was barking up the wrong tree last week when he claimed that any disclosure of JobKeeper recipients with revenues above $10 million would create a hit list for cyber criminals and unions.

If that is the case, why not simply disclose every single recipient rather than shielding those with revenues below $10 million.

Many small entities are already disclosing their JobKeeper revenues and the sky hasn’t fallen in. No one has attacked the Australian Shareholders’ Association for claiming more than $200,000, or the Australian Institute of Company Directors, which wolfed down $5 million while sitting on a $45 million cash pile.

Then you’ve got the various private schools across Australia. Gottliebsen is a director of Penleigh and Essendon Grammar which, as the AFR reported last week, claimed $9.2 million of JobKeeper even though revenue only fell by 2% and it had $24 million of cash in the bank.

Unlike other not-for-profits which only required a 15% revenue drop to qualify, private schools needed to be down by more than 30%.

Private schools collectively claimed well over $1 billion but there has been no media coverage as yet on whether any of them have had second thoughts and decided to pay it back.

If a few headmasters watch 60 Minutes on Sunday night and Frydenberg embraces the public register concept, literally hundreds of millions would rapidly be returned to Australia’s strained coffers.

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Just not good enough: Australia is turning into a backward dystopia for women

A protester holds a placard during this year's Women's March4Justice in Canberra (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Just six of the 16 recommendations that could have been legislated from Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins’ landmark Re[email protected] report into workplace sexual harassment have been passed in Parliament. 

It comes less than six months after the Morrison government said it would accept all of the report’s 55 recommendations, at least in part and principle. 

Spin, lies, and absolute bullshit. The government released its response to the report in April, holding a press conference to pat itself on the back. It didn’t release its response to the report until more than an hour after the conference, meaning journalists couldn’t integrate it into questions.   

Satisfied with the positive media attention, the Morrison government then quietly walked back its support for the report last week. Instead of supporting women during a momentous era of the Me Too movement, what did our Coalition politicians do?

They said not today, not now, perhaps not ever. 

Because we can’t let women rise at the expense of men pulling their heads in now, can we? 

Onus on women

While it will now be legal for employers to fire someone for sexual harassment under the new bill (that’s right, it wasn’t before), there will still be no requirement for employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. With no preventative measures, the burden is still on women to lodge formal complaints — which can have a worse impact on the person making the complaint than the alleged perpetrator. 

Also ignored were recommendations for the Fair Work system to be reviewed to ensure sexual harassment is expressly prohibited, and that victims of sexual harassment will be protected against massive legal bills when taking actions against perpetrators.

Much of the other 39 recommendations have yet to be implemented, with extra funding for women’s centres still not allocated, though the government has said it is delivering education and training programs across a range of sectors, with tenders open for sexual harassment training in Parliament.

Over $64 million was made available in the last budget to support the government’s response to the report (to implement just 11% of the report). The bill received 23 aye votes from members of the Coalition parties, and 17 no votes — 16 from Labor and one from an independent. Of the aye votes, five were women. 

The government ignored the report for over a year, only responding to it when tens of thousands of Australians protested against the pervasive culture of sexual violence in this country. Former attorney-general Christian Porter was appointed to oversee it — a man accused of historical rape and sexual misconduct, which he vehemently denies. 

To review workplace culture, Prime Minister Scott Morrison appointed Liberal MP Celia Hammond — a conservative anti-feminist who has criticised pre-marital sex, contraception and abortion, and labelled feminism as “anti-tradition, anti-men, anti-society, anti-family”.

Missing in action

The devastating news about the recommendations comes a week before the launch of the National Summit on Women’s Safety, which has already been criticised by 2021 Australian of the Year Grace Tame as lacking focus on prevention and leaving women to deal with the issue. Tame said that of 49 people present at a roundtable discussion, just one was a man — and Tame was the only lived-experience survivor. 

In July, Australia’s participation at the United Nations Generation Equality Forum was barely noticed. No press releases were issued by either Minister for Women and Foreign Affairs Marise Payne or Australia’s ambassador for gender equality Julie-Ann Guivarra. Australia was also not represented at the forum’s invitation-only opening ceremony. 

Perhaps they didn’t want to draw attention to the fact Australia has slipped down to 50th place on the Global Gender Gap Index, well below other OECD nations. In 2006, it ranked 15th. 

It’s getting worse

Australian women don’t stand alone in this slow decline towards an even more chauvinistic society. In the US, Roe v Wade — the historic Supreme Court decision that limited government intervention on women’s right to abortion — has been undermined by Texas state legislation then upheld by the Supreme Court. 

Abortions in the state will now be banned if the foetus has developed cardiac activity — which occurs about six weeks of pregnancy and well before most women realise they’re pregnant. (Cardiac activity is not a heartbeat, as most embryos haven’t actually developed a heart at this point.)

Worse, citizens from anywhere in the United States can sue someone in Texas if they believe they helped procure abortion. This could include people helping pay for an abortion, an Uber driver who drove them somewhere, or a teacher that offered advice. The minimum reward is US$10,000.

Meanwhile in Afghanistan, women living under the new Taliban regime face being whipped for travelling without a male companion, wearing Western clothes or not covering themselves appropriately, and have been told to stay home as Taliban soldiers are “not trained to respect women”

Australia isn’t sanctioning this cruel new political order. Instead, we are hosting the Afghan cricket team in Tasmania for a test match — a visit sanctioned by the Taliban. 

Women aren’t sitting idly by. There are social media callouts to flood the Texas abortion dob-in hotline with phony tip-offs, and in Afghanistan women have protested, demanding the right to work and education, risking beatings and murder. 

Australian women aren’t silent either. We’re loud, we’re angry, we’re fed up and we’re pissed off. But yet again, our protests are falling on deaf ears. 

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Dear Leslie, are my baby-bath photos actually child exploitation?

(Image: Private Media)

Leslie Cannold has had enough of being even-handed and presenting Both Sides Now. She wants to cut to the chase: what’s the right way to go? In Everyday Dilemmas, Dr Cannold brings her ethical training to your problems. Send your questions to [email protected] with “Dear Leslie” in the subject line. She might even reply…

Note: this article discusses child exploitation material.

Dear Leslie,

So the baby — now 30 years old — from Nirvana’s Nevermind album cover is suing, claiming child exploitation. I’ve got so many photos of my toddlers swimming naked and in the bath and generally having a wonderful time, but I had no idea that this could be an issue. Should I just go ahead and delete them all? I don’t want my kids growing up with a complex — or me getting arrested.

One Time Normal Dad (you’d better withhold my location)

Dear One Time Normal,

I feel for everyone involved in this distressing situation. This includes former baby (now young man) Spencer Elder, and the 15 people — including the photographer and all surviving band members — he is suing for $150,000 each for what the lawsuit claims is “knowingly producing, possessing and advertising commercial child pornography” for profit.

You’re asking whether this case has implications for you, and the countless other parents who have digital images of their naked children frolicking in the bath or toddling without a nappy at the beach (as doctors used to recommend to resolve rashes). Did you do the wrong thing by photographing your youngsters? Are such images — or are they now pornography? — destined to cause trauma to your offspring should they see the light of day?

Let’s take ‘em in turn.

There are no legal implications from Mr Elder’s suit for parents who have innocent photos of their naked child. This is not just because the suit is US-based but also because, according to Law360, child pornography statutes “typically do not apply to more innocent photos of nude children, like an image of a child at home in the bathtub”.

This cuts to the chase regarding your second concern: that the innocent bath and sprinkler shots of your now-grown children are porn. They aren’t. Not according to US law, which says that for child nudity to be porn the genital or pubic area of the child must be “exhibited” in a way that is “graphic” or simulated to appear “lascivious.” Nor in Australian law where child porn is defined as “the production, dissemination, access and possession of material depicting abuse and/or sexual exploitation of children”.

All of which means you haven’t done anything wrong by taking the photos and run little risk of your kids being traumatised by their existence as long as you don’t post them. Not to any media channels at all, I’d suggest, but at least not to any without your child’s explicit permission.

Why? For at least five good reasons that include the long tail of digital detritus that follow people around and could shape a young person’s future prospects and relationships, the fact that it’s their image and they have the right to control it, and the ever-expanding opportunities for the bad, mad and sad to co-opt everything available online about an individual for ends that aren’t good.

But if you are desperate to sharent, then permission-seeking from children aged three to four and upwards is imperative. Why? Because kids this age are old enough to be self-conscious and express a view — often negative — about what others see about them online.

Plus, demonstrating such permission-seeking is modelling best practice, since that’s what you’ll want them do when they start posing details to their own accounts about you.

Good luck!

Send your dilemmas to [email protected] with “Dear Leslie” in the subject line and you could get a reply from Dr Cannold in this column. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity.

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Pride and prejudice and deradicalisation

Jane Austen (Image: Encyclopaedia Britannica)

This week, a judge in Lincolnshire took a novel approach to countering a budding white supremacist by sentencing him to… the magic of reading.

Ben John, a 21-year-old Nazi sympathiser long identified as a terror risk, who had been writing anti-immigrant and homophobic letters before graduating to downloading instructions on how to build a bomb, was found guilty in August of possessing material likely to be useful for preparing an act of terror. The charge carries with it a potential 15-year prison sentence.

John missed out on jail time “by the skin of his teeth”. Instead, he’s been set homework of reading the great English canon — swapping out white-supremacist literature for the work of Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens.

“An approach like this doesn’t come from any formal deradicalisation framework, except perhaps if the texts contain ideas that might change someone’s perspective,” Dr Clarke Jones of the Australian Intervention Support Hub at Australian National University told Crikey.

“So I’m in two minds — on the one hand, is there any evidence that this will be effective? On the other, hats off to the judge for looking for alternatives to prison time; once a young offender is the criminal justice system it can a be a very slippery slope.”

While there are many commonalities, there is no “one size fits all” factor that turns someone towards extremism. “There’s a number of reasons someone would join an extremist group,” Jones said. “Feeling they don’t belong, distrust of the government and police, a lack of belonging in the family — any number of things that might lead them to seek protection and identity.”

Indeed, the judge observed of John: “You are a lonely individual with few if any true friends.”

And just as surely, there is no one thing that turns people away from those same groups. Even if there were a strong evidence base for literature as a way out, John is unlikely to read the line, “I shall do one thing in this life — one thing certain — that is, love you, and long for you, and keep wanting you till I die,” blink away a tear and realise in a moment what a pathetic lie had seduced him.

“People are not in the group one day and out of the group another day,” distinguished professor of sociology Kathleen Blee told the Southern Poverty Law Centre back in 2016. “Also, people have to exit on many levels. They have to exit in the sense of breaking their ties with people, changing who they’re hanging around with. They exit in terms of leaving the lifestyle, maybe the criminal actions or the violent actions they were associated with. And they exit in terms of changing their ideas.”

Beyond the effectiveness, of course, is whether one can imagine a young Muslim man, arrested after bellowing anti-Semitism and homophobia online and downloading a bomb-making manual, sentenced to brushing up on the classics.

“I certainly haven’t seen this with young Muslim offenders — in fact, it’s been quite the reverse,” Jones said. “Harsher sentences are the norm and those leaving prison have a harder time reintegrating due to strict control order being placed on them. I’ve worked on several legal cases to try and reduce the time offenders spend on Extended Supervision Orders.”

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Infrastructure body rebukes lack of government leadership on energy

climate change denial renewables

One of the small number of genuinely independent public sector bodies in the federal government, Infrastructure Australia (IA), has released its 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan, which contains a number of implied rebukes for the Morrison government’s failure of leadership on energy and climate policy.

IA has declined to “reinvent the wheel” and make specific infrastructure recommendations around electricity networks, preferring to offer a “non-build plan of policy reforms”. But it repeatedly calls for more leadership from the government, which has dedicated its energy efforts solely to supporting its fossil fuel donors.

IA calls out a lack of leadership from the government across a wide range of infrastructure issues, repeating its previous arguments that “Australia could lead the world in developing and applying approaches to infrastructure that enhance sustainability” but needs a government willing to take a “leadership position”.

“If Australia is to enjoy the full benefits of industrialisation, there will need to be government leadership.”

But it is in energy that leadership is called for most often. “Australia needs national leadership to ensure a secure future by positioning this country for the inevitable low-emission energy transition.” “National leadership is needed to ensure Australia remains a supplier of choice for energy commodities.” “There needs to be strong national leadership and planning to coordinate efforts.” “This is a time for decisive national action that secures Australia’s future by harnessing its low-cost, low-emission energy potential.”

In particular IA rejects the narrative from the government, elements within Labor and the union movement, and fossil fuel interests, that the switch to renewables means job losses. “Every million dollars spent on renewable energy creates three times more jobs than the same spending on fossil fuels,” IA says. The energy chapter repeatedly identifies the need to address the lack of investor certainty, recommending efforts to “increase investor certainty and enable emerging industries by developing clear, outcome-focused legislation and regulation for emerging low-emission energy technology”.

It also says energy efficiency opportunities are going begging, noting that Australia’s residential sector remains as energy intensive now as it was two decades ago, while some countries have seen falls of up to 30%. Our manufacturing energy intensity has only declined by a small amount compared to countries like the US, South Korea and Japan, which have achieved energy intensity reductions of 40% and more.

Noticeably, IA fails to endorse physical reliability obligations like “CoalKeeper” being pushed by Angus Taylor in order to funnel subsidies to fossil fuel companies in the name of reliability. Instead, IA recommends Australia “maintain electricity market reliability by developing and implementing a trigger-based electricity market review mechanism that is undertaken at key policy trigger points such as announcement of accelerated retirement of thermal electricity generators.”

“The energy transition is a big opportunity for Australia,” IA says. “It has world-leading renewable resources, such as solar and wind, that can service both the economy and trading partners. Australia can remain a global energy supplier of choice by pivoting from fossil fuels to low emission supply chains.”

But not, it makes clear, with a government that refuses to lead on energy other than to reward its donors.

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‘Truth and facts matter’: the Oz pinged over campaign against a youth gender clinic doctor

(Image: AAP/James Ross)

The Australian broke media guidelines in its coverage of the head of a high-profile children’s gender clinic, publishing incorrect information, failing to ensure fairness and causing substantial distress, an Australian Press Council ruling has found. 

Royal Children’s Hospital Gender Service director Dr Michelle Telfer said that the Oz‘s coverage — which comprised 45 articles including reporting, editorials and opinion pieces — wrongly claimed that gender-affirming surgery was experimental.

The newspaper did not tell readers the “experts” cited in the pieces did not treat gender-diverse children, or that the articles referred to discredited theories. The sheer amount of coverage and its tenor was harmful to trans people, their families, and Telfer herself, she says.

The Australian pushed back, arguing that it was in the public interest to discuss these matters and that the relevant qualifications of those quoted were cited.

The press council’s adjudication upheld many of the issues raised in the complaint against the paper, finding it had breached three press guidelines. 

The Australian’s reporting that the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists had abandoned a set of guidelines for trans and gender-diverse children was wrong, the council found.

It also ruled that the articles repeatedly quoting professionals criticising Telfer without making it clear that they weren’t specialists in the relevant area meant that the publication did not take reasonable steps to ensure fairness and balance.

And while acknowledging there is public interest, the council said The Australian did not take reasonable steps to avoid causing distress or prejudice while making a large number of references to Telfer and implying the Gender Service’s treatment was “out of step with mainstream medical opinion”.

The decision also acknowledged that some of the issues raised by Telfer were unable to be resolved as there was “conflict in the research material”. 

The Royal Children’s Hospital noted the press council’s findings in a statement, reaffirming that it stood by the clinic’s work: “The continued campaign has impacted [Tefler], the Gender Service team, our patients and the transgender community. The APC adjudication confirms that media outlets have an obligation to deliver accurate, unbiased reporting on transgender issues.”

Telfer also shared the outcome of the complaint on her personal Twitter. “The truth and the facts matter. They are worth fighting for,” she wrote. 

As it has before, The Australian paired this adverse press council finding with an editorial suggesting the decision was “another example of cancel culture tactics used to stifle debate”.

“We will not shy away from uncomfortable topics that deserve attention,” the author wrote.

This promise is at the very least consistent with the paper’s past behaviour. A study from academics Alexandra García and Joshua Badge this year found that News Corp publications wrote about trans people more than any other Australian media outlet. When looking at a sample of The Australian’s coverage, the authors found more than 90% of articles framed transgender people and issues negatively. 

Badge told Crikey that the press council’s decision was a “small step in the right direction” but still considered it lacking, noting the absence of admonishment for using experts who weren’t practicing in the area, or for causing distress to gender diverse people and their families.

“There’s also very little evidence that suggests the press council advisory guidelines for reporting on LGBT people are effective. Unfortunately, transphobia is fashionable and likely profitable. The result is that news media is deliberately normalising anti-trans attitudes,” they said.

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The American Taliban have had a big win. What next in the fight for abortion rights?

People attend an abortion access rally in front of the San Pedro Playhouse in San Antonio, Texas (Image: Sipa USA/Carlos Kosienski)

Sarah Weddington is the youngest woman to win a case at the United States Supreme Court. In December 1971, the then-26-year-old UT Austin law graduate, together with fellow alumna Linda Coffee, represented plaintiff “Jane Roe” against Henry Wade, the District Attorney of Dallas County. The issue in dispute was whether federal or state governments could prohibit a pregnant woman’s right to an abortion.

Guided by precedent established by the Court in its 1965 ruling on Griswold v Connecticut, which found that married couples had a constitutionally guaranteed right to access contraception without government restriction, Weddington argued that the same protection should apply to women’s right to choose. After a further hearing in October 1972, the justices concurred on January 22, 1973.

By a 7-2 vote, they held that women had an absolute right to abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy. Beyond that governments could apply reasonable health standards in the second trimester, with more stringent regulations allowed during the third trimester.

At the time, conservatives and evangelicals were divided on the ruling. Many believed that life begins at birth and agreed that abortion should remain a private matter. In 1967, then-governor Ronald Reagan had signed California’s Therapeutic Abortion Act into law. As he later conceded, abortion was “a subject I’d never given much thought to”.

What changed?

By the late 1970s, the United States had endured massive upheaval. Its economy was strained by both high unemployment and high inflation — stagflation — exacerbated by twin oil shocks. The Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation had rocked the country. The lost Vietnam War was a psychic blow. President Carter seemingly had no solution to the Iran hostage crisis. The women’s liberation and gay rights movements were demanding equality. Through it all, the battle over enforcement of new civil rights laws and desegregation raged on.

Amidst all this, a small cadre of conservative activists spied an opportunity. They knew that overt racist appeals were no longer politically viable. So they chose to make opposition to abortion their rallying cry. Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation and American Legislative Exchange Council — both reactionary political juggernauts today — joined with Jerry Falwell, a prominent televangelist, to found the Moral Majority in 1979. This outfit became the anchor of the Christian conservative movement, and propelled the rise of political action committees dedicated to imposing far-right legislation across the land. Opposition to abortion became their clarion call.

Their growing influence in Republican circles notwithstanding, they made little headway on abortion. In 12 years under presidents Reagan and George HW Bush, neither administration pursued any legislation to repeal abortion rights.

Their opposition was never really about abortion. It was all about winning and maintaining power.

But somewhere along the way, what started as a cynical ruse became an article of faith. The fanatics who weren’t in on the con bought into the mission. They made it their crusade.

In 1992, the Supreme Court handed them an opening when it revisited abortion rights in Planned Parenthood v Casey. While the Court upheld the right to choose, it moved the goalposts in two fateful ways. First it eliminated the trimester framework in favour of the subjective concept of foetal viability. Second it replaced strict scrutiny of government regulations with an undue burden standard. Together these changes paved the way for a tug-of-war over the subsequent decades, as many states slowly constricted legal access to abortion without eliminating it outright.

That charade ended Wednesday. Texas Republicans, ever cunning in their zeal to outlaw all abortions, devised a novel tactic to achieve their aim. Instead of declaring abortion a criminal act, they made it a civil breach to aid or abet a woman to procure an abortion after foetal cardiac activity is detected, typically around six weeks of pregnancy. Most women are unaware they are pregnant at six weeks.

There is no exception for rape or incest.

Texas will not rely on state officials to enforce the law. Instead it will empower private citizens to sue in civil court. This is how they dodge Roe and Casey.

While the law does not make the pregnant woman personally liable, anyone who helps her can be sued in civil court. That means any medical personnel, counsellor or clergy, friend or relative who provides cash or other support, even an Uber driver, can be held liable. If a defendant loses in court, they must pay US$10,000 in damages plus attorney’s fees. If they win, they cannot claim their attorney’s fees from the other party. They must pay their own.

There is no limitation on the number of plaintiffs per case, so a defendant could be sued multiple times for the same action. They could be forced to pay damages to every plaintiff.

Even more outrageous, Texas has granted standing to anyone in America to bring an action. ANYONE! That person need not have any connection to the woman or her helpers. All they have to do is file suit, prove their claim, and collect their reward. The litigation will be heard in state courts, so the Texas Supreme Court, all Republican judges, will have the final word.

In a decision late Wednesday night the US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to let the Texas law stand. Their ruling has no impact on Roe or Casey. It simply bypasses both.

Now Texas women must brace for bounty hunters on the lookout for a payday. America has seen this system before. In 1850, Congress enacted the Fugitive Slave Act. It granted authority to private individuals to hunt escaped slaves, including in free states, and imposed penalties on anyone who aided an escapee. Nicknamed the “Bloodhound Bill”, it was a provocation that helped spark the Civil War.

Other states are expected to follow Texas’ blueprint posthaste. The effect will be to intimidate women out of exercising their constitutional rights. Rights that cannot be used are no rights at all.

Soon women in large tracts of America will be living their own Handmaid’s Tale nightmare. Women as incubators, forced to give birth, will be a dark reality. The men involved face no sanction.

If this constitutional end run stands, it won’t stop at abortion.  Next up will be “voter fraud” lawsuits aimed to suppress minority voters. Union organisers will be targeted. So too protesters. The First Amendment might protect free speech, but we can expect laws permitting bounty hunters to sue for property damage or traffic interference.

All this flies in the face of what American voters actually want. A clear majority supports abortion rights, including Democrats, moderate Republicans, and independents. It’s only far-right extremists who oppose them.

The American Taliban is on the march. They have shown they will stop at nothing to impose their minority, fundamentalist worldview. The Biden administration and congressional Democrats are exploring options to push back. But with only slim majorities in Congress, and a hostile Supreme Court, they need help.

It’s now up to Americans — moderate Republicans and independents in particular — to decide what comes next. Either they break with the fanatics and vote them out at the ballot box, or they let them wind back the clock.

Like millions of Texan women, Sarah Weddington will be watching.

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Kemp’s paean to Australian liberalism is a labour of love that often contradicts itself

A Liberal State: Australia 1922 – 1966. David Kemp. Miegunyah Press

In 1936, a somewhat open-minded woman arrived by boat into Circular Quay. Inevitably enough, her name was Mabel; her adventurousness had resulted in a torrid affair with a married man, a Lieutenant Dewar, on the voyage from India. The ship had made it to Australia, but Mabel didn’t make it in. She was barred entry on the grounds that her entanglement with Lieutenant Dewar had made her a person of bad character. Not wanted in our golden land was, to give her full name, Mrs Mabel Freer. 

Yes, the irony! There was nothing freer about Australia. Mabel had landed in one of the most repressive democratic nations on earth. 

David Kemp, former Howard government minister and political scientist, is honest enough to include the Freer article in A Liberal State, his account of how liberalism “won” in Australia in the years between the Bruce government and our Sir Robert’s retirement in 1966, but, wow, he has his work cut out for him, as the anecdote suggests. But this is volume four of a projected five-volume history.

It is a labour of love, of classical liberalism, and of duty — for David is the son of C.D. Kemp, founder of the Institute of Public Affairs, which was liberal within living memory (and brother to former Senator Rod, a set of spare parts for David).

The book is… well, it’s a doozy. It’s an elegantly written, vastly detailed, forcefully argued history of a half-century of politics and ideas dedicated to the proposition that Australia is a deeply liberal society which drew on its reserves of such in the difficult 1920s to 1940s, to avoid the various illiberalisms others fell into — from full socialism to fascism, or Franco-style dictatorship. Later, this great good sense defeated Labor’s renewed push for government takeover, and put it permanently beyond reach. 

That core argument gives the book a strategy to keep up a cracking pace and focus, but at the cost of departing far from the complex reality of the time it is describing. Indeed, the reader acquainted with the period might wonder how Kemp even gets going. After all, the period the volume practically begins with the defeat of the Bruce government’s attempt to abolish the arbitration system, accompanied by the setting of some of the most comprehensive and dirigiste tarriffs in the world, the election of the very leftish Scullin government, the uneasy stalemate of the UAP years, before the Curtin-Chifley extasis, and then a decade or so of another long stalemate.

There’s a trick here, and I’m sure Kemp does not know he is doing it, which is to use the widest possible definition for liberalism — including the “social” liberalism of T.H. Green and others, which lay at the root of democratic socialist parties, including Labor — and then retreating to the limited form of classical liberalism, or a strong tilt towards it, as liberalism’s true form. 

Given what Australia was really like, this soon gets Kemp into contradictions, some of them hilarious. Writing of the political revolution staged within the torpid Nationalist Party (the major ’20s non-Labor pary), by Robert Menzies and Wilfred Kent-Hughes, he then has to acknowledge the latter’s drift away from the golden ideal, instanced by Kent-Hughes publishing a four-part article series “Why I Am a Fascist”. He wasn’t really a fascist, Kemp notes — just provocative. That’s one way of talking about it. Trickeeee, and there’s a lot of that work to do in asserting liberal primacy in the period, including Menzie’s warm words for Hitler in 1938. 

The notion of a liberal victory as a key determining moment is staged by combining the social/classical switcheroo with an overvaluation of Labor’s radical left in the early 1930s, when the party adopted the socialisation plank of its platform. Kemp wholly exaggerates the power and significance of the half-dozen Labor members who believed in “full socialism” (or as Kemp, in one of his many off-brand use of common pol-sci terms, inaccurately calls them: “utopian socialists”). The campaigning groups Labor organised ahead of the expected 1932 election Kemp portrays as close to Castro’s Cuban brigades.

Though he tries his best, Kemp finds it impossible to really accept that there are useful ways of thinking about society other than through the atomised individualism of classical liberalism. He does his best, but his slip always shows:

Although Curtin had moved away from his earlier infatuation with revolutionary socialism, he still carried considerable prejudice from his earlier utopianism, including the anti-capitalist attitudes expressed through class war rhetoric….

Infatuation. Rhetoric. Aside from being bad history (Curtin was never a “utopian” in any normal use of the term), there’s the usual persnicketiness of doctrinaire classical liberals. They can’t believe it is possible to think collectively, as a genuine perception of the world. It must be a put-on. Though there are many characters ably portrayed in the book, the one missing is Australia itself, its people demanding from the ’20s to the ’40s a government that will stop the collapse of the “actually existing Commonwealth” they had achieved.

Truth is, communism or fascism were never a likely go in Australia, and constructing them as the alternatives allows Kemp to paint a heroic narrative out of more mundane steady socio-political institutional reproduction. Because, really, if Australia from the 1920s to the 1960s was a “liberal” society, does that term mean anything?

The state decided your pay, your working conditions, what goods you could bring in or buy, propped up the whole manufacturing sector, eventually imposed rural monopsony, ran utilities and transport, banned thousands and thousands of books, produced the school readers that transmitted ideology, wouldn’t let you drink in public after six or with a meal, and so on. 

And that is the restrictions on white men — the allegedly free subjects! Kemp is more honest than most liberals on matters Indigenous, but his range of theoretical influences is too small to see race relations not as aberration, but as a Schmittian “state of exception”. Applied to the Indigenous in the refusal of practically all rights and citizenship, this was neither aberration nor time lag but acted as an “other”, guaranteeing our solidarity and identity as a unified Anglo-Celtic white people. 

Truth is, we were a collectivist nation, whose citizens gained a great deal of meaning in their lives from such state and society conditions, with only a few bohos kicking up a fuss until the 1960s. If Australia then resembles any place now, it is Viktor Orban’s Hungary, the showpiece “illiberal democracy” of our era. If Australia has more than a remnant whiff of that (hilariously, Kemp as minister was part of a government which tried to ban the entry of, wait for it, Eminem, the lily-white “bad boy” of 2000s hip-hop), it’s because we are drawing on our own collectivist traditions, good and bad.

No matter how much Kemp would like to draw Australia into a grand British liberal intellectual tradition, in this useful, illuminating, pacily written and forcefully argued but ultimately delusional (and perhaps infatuatedly filial) work, one has to conclude that, like Mabel, we were a lot Freer before we got to Sydney Cove.

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Question Time: Angry truckies, forgotten inquiries and spoiled Zoom chats

(Image: Private Media)

This week has given us colourful language from political figures, a rare good milestone for the prime minister, and (oh, fun!) a new COVID-19 variant to lose our minds over.

But how closely were you paying attention? Take Crikey‘s news quiz and find out.

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