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The World

May 29, 2017

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The party ended the way these things tend to: with the police rocking up and telling everyone to go home.

Of course, the police were at the anti-G7 march in Giardini Naxos, Sicily, before the party had even begun, and it had technically ended by the time everything came to a head.

But there’s no denying that before the Communists linked arms and marched on the police line, and the first tear-gas canister was thrown, a party was what it had been: a roaming street party, punctuated by music and dancing when not by impassioned speeches against war, inequality, racism, misogyny, and all the other things that, taken together, the G7 in general, and Donald Trump in particular, seemed to the protesters to so represent.

Professor Gianni Piazza from the University of Catania studies such movements for a living. I ran into him about ten minutes before the shit was flung fan-ward.

“So far, so good,” I said, temping fate.

“We aren’t at the end yet,” Professor Piazza said. “If anything’s going to happen, it’ll happen at the end.”

Which brings us back to the beginning. Fifteen minutes before the march began, it still seemed uncertain whether it would do so at all. Buses had been getting stopped all morning, both from other parts of Sicily and from the Italian mainland, the protesters aboard subjected to lengthy searches, identification checks, and turn-backs. What had meant to start at three was suddenly pushed back to four.

I ran into Vanya, a 19-year-old German activist I had met in Palermo a few days earlier, who told me, when she finally arrived, that her own bus had been stopped twice, with the most militant-looking militants on board removed from it at once. There was a reason the gathering beneath the causeway leading into town seemed suspiciously small: the suspiciously violent had been prohibited from attending.

When I met him in Catania last week, Professor Piazza had warned me this may happen. After all, it happened in March, when thousands of protesters attempted to gather in Rome for the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which formally established the European Economic Community in 1957. Since March, it has become the go-to method: deny someone’s civil rights before they get a chance to protest your denial of them.

Indeed, when I arrived at the meeting place, halfway between Chianchitta and Giardni where the northbound highway descends into the usually quiet resort town, it was difficult to tell whether activists outnumbered media or vice versa. Peter Oliver, the Europe correspondent for Russia Today, told me the numbers seemed far lower to him than they had in Munich in 2015. An RT correspondent would say that, I thought, though that didn’t make him wrong. By hosting this year’s G7 in Taormina, up the road from the beach and up the hill from the road, the organisers seemed finally to have nailed the brief. If you build it, they will come, so best build it somewhere relatively inaccessible.

The event was marked from the outset by a number of competing messages and visions. Maoists, trade unionists, feminists, anti-fascists, and a couple of people dressed as pirates competed for interviews. Interestingly, for a decidedly left-wing protest, there were some anti-Maduro Venezuelans in attendance, too. The competing messages sometimes drowned one another out, but there was one point on which everyone present seemed to agree: US President Donald Trump.

Lorrie, 64, was live-streaming the event on Facebook for her friends back home in America. Originally from Boston, Lorrie has lived in Sicily for fifteen years. “I thought my protesting days were over,” she said proudly.

She showed off her pink pussy hat – “I thought there would be more people wearing them!” –  and smiled. “I didn’t get to attend any of the Women’s Marches in the States,” she said.

Antonio, 24, had come up from Catania for the march. He was handing out home-made “Wanted” posters with Trump’s all-too-familiar visage front and centre.

“Donald Trump represents the worst of capitalism,” Antonio said. “He’s a rich man who disrespects women, who refuses to listen to climate change scientists, and whose views are perilous to our future.”

Antonio was in town with the Unione degli Studenti, an avowedly anti-fascist students’ union. He said he was particularly opposed to the European position on migration, which, although it hardly seems possible, became ever more hard-line last week. No rescue boats were allowed to land in Sicily –  currently Ground Zero when it comes to African migration into Europe –  in the lead-up to the summit. (More than 46,000 migrants have arrived in Italy since this beginning of this year, and at least 30, including children, died last week, arguably as a result of the moratorium on debarcations. By contrast, approximately 30,500 people arrived in Australia by boat between August 2012 and January 2014.)

“The problem isn’t people moving across borders,” Antonio said. “It’s the policies that have caused them to move across borders in the first place. We ruined Africa. We ruined the Middle East by invading it in the name of a few people’s economic interests.”

“We need to fix the policies. We need more solidarity with the people in these countries.”

Eventually, the march began and the various flags were unfurled: “#nostato #noclericalismo #nocapitalismo #nomiritalismo.” “We Have a Dream: Smash Capitalism!.” “Taormina services tourists not the G7.” (Taormina’s mayor, Eligio Giardina, has described himself as the “most hated man” in town as a result of his willingness to host the summit.) There were the usual, more questionable standards: Mao’s benevolent, murderous face, huge and billowing, and at least one Hezbollah flag. The Sicilian triskelion was everywhere apparent.

As the parade turned down down onto the narrow streets near the water, it became difficult to make out the protesters for the observers. People lined the lido, tourists and locals alike, taking photos, applauding the speeches they agreed with, and occasionally even hanging their own banners – “Climate Change Exists!” – out over the balconies of their hotels and homes. And always there were the police: retreating slightly up the esplanade, keeping a respectful distance, giving the parade its head. For a long time it seemed as though nothing was going to happen. It was perhaps even a little bit boring.

But there were a thousand things to notice. The man playing jazz flute as helicopters hovered menacingly overhead. The kids in black giving said helicopters the finger and then doing it again in case their friends missed it the first time. A number of photographers ran down to the beach to photograph two girls in bikinis, who were watching the procession. The photographers were apparently unaware that many in the procession were there to protest precisely that sort of behaviour.

Vincenzo was in town from Messina with Italy’s national transport workers’ union. He lamented the presence of the police. “Between Taormina and Giardini, there are 10,000 police here,” he said. “That tells you everything you need to know about how the Italian government views its people.”

Vincenzo, 52, said he was primarily protesting on behalf of Sicily’s youth. “There are too many young people who have to leave Sicily to find work,” he said. (Sicily’s youth unemployment rate sits at a disturbingly high 57.2 per cent.) “Sicily cannot be a place without work. It cannot be a place where the only work available is with the US military.”

Vincenzo was referring to the presence of America’s Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) near Sigonella, which activists oppose on health, environmental and moral grounds. (Australia hosts a MUOS ground station at the Australian Defence Satellite Communications Station at Kojarena near Geraldton.) “We must change this,” he said.

The day was getting on and everyone’s feet and voices were growing tired. In the days prior to the march, it hadn’t been uncommon to come across someone boarding up their seafront shop or property, terrified that so-called “black bloc” protesters might come to Giardini and attempt to make a Genoa out of it. (In 2001, Genoa’s G8 meeting was marred by violent clashes that left two dead and hundreds more injured.) But there was one place open near the Parrocchia di Santa Maria Immacolata and it was doing a remarkable trade in beer, coffee and – as was soon to be more relevant than one might have hoped – bottled water.

Within moments of meeting Professor Piazza, I found myself yanking my phone charger out of the nearest outdoor power outlet and running up the street. The pilot truck had stopped in its tracks, but some of the protesters had continued on.

They marched without masks. They masked without bandanas. Arms linked and faces exposed, a group of young men in red shits – like Garibaldi and his Thousand – walked in to meet the police line head-on. (That they did so without hiding their faces was not unimportant: the police were filming them from every vantage point.) There was the usual push-and-pull of the moment, always more dramatic-looking than it seems to those in the fray, where one is mostly concerned with protecting one’s sunglasses or finding a place to tie one’s shoe. Then the tear-gas canisters came flying.

A few stayed on the sidelines to get their pictures, but most eventually fled to the beach. They splashed bottled water into their eyes: suddenly the open store made sense. They returned for the second wave, like gluttons for punishment.

But no second wave came. The boys in red came up again and sang a song of angry defiance, but declined to march on the police a second time. There were men we had marched with all day who now wore helmets and wielded batons, back where they belonged on the side of the law. And nothing happened.

Well, nearly nothing: a young woman, who had spent the march dancing with a rainbow peace flag, went up and waved it defiantly in their faces, the media horde going mad at the sight of it. It’s to be hoped that a picture of her exists that doesn’t have other photographers in it: this was the afternoon’s defining moment, a recreation of Liberty Leading the People for our times. Victoria, 22, is probably famous by now. I found her afterwards and asked why she did it.

“I haven’t been in the Red Zone,” she said, referencing Taormina’s town centre, where the summit took place under heavy security. “But I have seen what these people have done to my town.”

“I wanted to show them—to demonstrate—that they don’t have all the power.”

Of course, most of the leaders had already left Taormina by the time that any of this happened. This is the way such meetings work: the leaders speak on behalf of their populations and are long gone by the time their populations are given a say themselves.

Professor Piazza was pleased that the afternoon’s violence didn’t go any further. His comments summed up the strange symbiosis that sometimes seems to exist between protesters and police.

“It was a good day,” he said. “The police showed restraint and the protesters showed they were willing to resist.”

Victoria was by now on the back of the pilot truck, plugging in her iPhone and letting loose ‘Imagine’—what else?—for the crowd to croon along with.

“The residents of Giardini supported the demonstration,” Professor Piazza said. “I think that was because there was no evidence that ‘black block’ protesters were going to cause trouble. I think the organisers should be very happy.”

But what about those final moments? The march on the police line? The tear gas canisters?

Professor Piazza smiled and shrugged.

“It was a little bit of theatre,” he said.

Media briefs

Feb 23, 2017

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Photographers and the bureau chief of wire service Australian Associated Press will be banned from entering Parliament House for a week at the end of March for taking photographs of protesters in the House of Representatives.

Protesters interrupted question time at the end of November, with several gluing themselves to the leather seats and barriers, while others were dragged out into the public area. Speaker Tony Smith said earlier this month that the Australian Federal Police had referred some of the protesters to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions for charges to be laid, and since the protests, security has been beefed up in the public galleries of both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The protesters are not the only ones being punished, however. The serjeant-at-arms has suspended the press passes of all AAP photographers and the AAP bureau chief over the incident. An AAP photographer took photos of the protests in the public gallery and passed them onto the wire service’s photo gallery. Under rules for media in Parliament, disturbances in the galleries, or on the chamber floor, must not be photographed.

All AAP photographers will be banned from Parliament for one sitting week at the end of March, along with the bureau chief Richard Lawson. 

The serjeant-at-arms warned other journalists in the gallery that publishing images from protests in the chambers of Parliament risks encouraging others seeking publicity in the same way. — Josh Taylor

Federal

Dec 2, 2016

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We, the elected representatives of the great Australian people, wish to make clear in the very strongest terms how much we deplore and abominate the egregious injury to democracy inflicted by the more disreputable and unhygienic members of the crypto-public this week.

While we respect the right of the people to protest, there is a time and a place for such delinquency; the right to protest against elected representatives must always be balanced with the right of elected representatives to not be protested against. Had these so-called activists made their supposed statement in a respectful and dignified manner at a more appropriate location, e.g. a nearby park or McDonald’s playground, we the honourable members would have been more than happy, in the grand tradition of Australian political discourse, to ignore them. By inserting themselves in the most gauche manner into the hallowed chamber of lawmaking itself, these rabble-rousers made that impossible, and our democracy is the poorer for it.

Question time is the most sacred of parliamentary rituals and one of the most vital safeguards we have against tyranny, so to disrupt it is to disrupt freedom itself. The invasion of the House on Wednesday robbed us of a crucial half-hour of questions that might have opened up all sorts of magical possibilities for the future of this nation. But sadly those questions went unasked, further contributing to the stagnation of national progress that protesters seemingly desire. The protesters cut off Melissa Price asking the Prime Minister to update the house on the government’s achievements — who knows where this line of questioning may have led, if given the time? There could be many government achievements that we remain in the dark about, due to the selfishness of professional agitators preventing us being updated on them.

Of course, being updated on the government’s achievements is just one of the many essential functions of question time. There is also: informing the House whether the Minister knows of any potential threats to a valuable reform; informing the House of how the government is working in ordinary communities to improve opportunities for everyday Australians; and replying to questions from the Opposition, which some people consider the best bit. If question time is not allowed to proceed smoothly, the Opposition will not be able to hold the government to account via probing questions like, “Will the Prime Minister admit that he has been lying to everyone for years?” or “Does the Minister now concede that she has completely lost touch with reality?” The answers to these questions could literally determine the course of our nation for centuries to come, and the protesters somehow desire that we never hear them. To quote Barnaby Joyce from yesterday’s question time: “He does it with a swarmy smile on his face”. Thank God no protesters interrupted to prevent us hearing that — it would have been a crime against the public’s right to know.

As we said, we respect the right of Australian citizens to dispute government policy, but as members of both the government which formulated that policy, and the opposition which agrees with that policy, we must reiterate that at the heart of the right to protest is the responsibility to never use that right. As long as rights and responsibilities are balanced in this way, we have democracy. When they are out of balance, we have anarchy. While some Australians with no regard for the security of our borders might believe that the government’s asylum-seeker policy is cruel and sadistic, they lose the moral high ground when they go so far as to glue themselves to railings, which means it is us who have the moral high ground, which means we win.

This country was founded on the principle of robust debate and principled disagreement. Let’s all make sure we don’t go back to those bad old days. We call on all Australians to save question time from those who would destroy it, and join us in condemning the Maoist hordes’ abuse of that most fundamental of democratic ideals: politicians shouting “Mr Speaker” at each other.

Asia-Pacific

Nov 17, 2016

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Monash University and Curtin University have both sent emails to students at their Malaysian campuses threatening to take action against them if they participate in upcoming protests against Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, raising serious questions about the universities’ independence from Malaysian government influence.

The warnings come just days ahead of major protests calling for Razak’s resignation, planned for Saturday.

Monash University Malaysia sent an email to all students this week saying: “You are advised not to participate in any illegal gathering/related activity which contravenes Malaysian laws.”

“Any student found to be participating in such gathering/activity or who is arrested by authorities for doing so may be subjected to disciplinary proceedings,” said the email. signed by Monash University registrar Dr Susheela Nair.

Malaysian media also reported that Curtin University Sarawak Malaysia sent a similar email to students warning university action would be taken if they participated in “illegal demonstrations”.

Gavin Moodie, who has worked as a policy adviser across half a dozen major Australian tertiary institutions, including Monash, and has written about the risks associated with international campuses, says the warning to students was a first for an international university.

“Monash Malaysia’s warning its students against attending an ‘illegal gathering’ and threatening sanctions is the first I’ve seen of an international university enforcing a host country’s restrictions on freedom of speech, freedom of assembly or exercise of any other democratic right,” Moodie told Crikey.

On Thursday, Monash University Malaysia appeared to back away from its threat of action against students, issuing a statement offering an “unreserved apology for the wording” of the message:

“The communication did not properly convey the intent of the message. The intent of the message was to remind students that taking part in unlawful assembly is contrary to the laws of Malaysia, and students need to be aware of the consequences of undertaking unlawful activities.”

Monash University would not comment further,

Monash University would not comment further and Curtin Sarawak Pro Vice-Chancellor Professor Jim Mienczakowski told Crikey in a statement: “Curtin Sarawak complies with all Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) requirements to advise students on matters of their safety, and also to advise our students not to be caught up in any illegal activities.”

Monash Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur campus had 7000 students enrolled last year, and roughly 4000 students studied at Curtin University Sarawak.

Malaysia’s electoral reform organisation Bersih, meaning “clean”, has planned a demonstration for Saturday, calling for electoral reform and for Prime Minister Najib Razak to resign following a year-long corruption scandal.

The United States Justice Department, in July, made a historic seizure of more than $1 billion in assets allegedly siphoned from Malaysia’s failing 1MBD state-investment fund. Close political allies of the Prime Minister, including his stepson, were among those who had assets seized.

Previous rallies held by the Bersih organisation have been met with the use of tear-gas and water cannon’s and protesters have been arrested by police. Malaysia’s Peaceful Assembly Act requires protesters to provide the authorities with 10 days’ notice of any protest, which organisers say they have done for this weekend’s upcoming rally.

“It is more common to see public universities [in Malaysia] come under political pressure,” Eric Paulsen Executive Director of Lawyers for Liberty said, “but I was really shocked and surprised that this is something coming from a private international university”.

Paulsen told Crikey he believed the universities were responding to a directive from the Malaysian Education Department and noted international universities have previously enjoyed more leeway than local institutions to set their own curriculum and manage student affairs.

Students have previously been suspended from Malaysian public universities for participating in protests.

“Monash must explain clearly why they have come to this decision. They can’t have it both ways, they can’t teach human rights, freedom of expression and then give this directive to students,” Paulsen said.

New South Wales

Oct 3, 2016

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Just over an hour’s drive from Newcastle, the second largest city in NSW, lies the village of Bulga. Bulga is a historic village in the Hunter Valley, characterised by immense natural beauty and the fierce devotion of its residents. Yet the natural beauty of Bulga is not what the village is most renowned for.

Driving into the village requires passage through the gaping ravines of the Mt Thorley and Warkworth open-cut coal mines, operated by Rio Tinto. These mines, barely concealed by flimsy roadside foliage, are utterly incomprehensible in their scale. There is no statistic, no image, no account that can capture the experience of standing in the presence of these open-cut projects. For years, mines have encroached upon the village of Bulga, and their ongoing intrusion represents a troubling precedent for others who find themselves in the wake of large-scale resource extraction.

Things began to unravel for Bulga in 2010, when Rio Tinto first applied to expand its Mt Thorley-Warkworth operation. This expansion included the mining of the last major physical division between the village and the mine, known as Saddle Ridge. Crucially, in 2003, Saddle Ridge had been designated as a biodiversity offset for the Mt Thorley-Warkworth project, and a deed of agreement signed under the NSW Carr government had promised its long-term protection.

Nevertheless, the expansion was approved, and the community of Bulga famously challenged this decision in the Land and Environment Court in 2012, and won. Upon this decision, the NSW government and Rio Tinto appealed the Land and Environment Court ruling in the NSW Supreme Court in 2013. Remarkably, the original decision was upheld, and the NSW government and Rio Tinto lost the appeal. As many in the village of Bulga have asserted, this should have been the end of the story.

[Coal is amazing — amazingly insignificant to our economy]

Despite this immense legal victory for the community of Bulga, changes in legislation made by the NSW government undermined these rulings. The application for the project’s expansion was then resubmitted under this new legislation, and approved. While this can be explained away in a number of ways, there is a simple summation that can be made of all this: the government lost, so the government changed the rules. In the wake of these changes, the consequences for the community have been dire.

Right now, Saddle Ridge is being destroyed. As a site of significant biodiversity, the ridge has also been home to an array of sugar gliders, lizards, quolls and other unique animals. This also follows a legacy of ongoing destruction of habitat and wildlife brought about by these open-cut projects. A former wildlife aid volunteer remarked: A former wildlife aid volunteer remarked: “I do remember being called to the Warkworth admin building one day to pick up an owl. It was a Boobook, you know … It was a bit stunned, but it didn’t seem to have any blood on it or anything.  I couldn’t look after him because you have to have a special carer to look after an owl, because they’re birds of prey. I rang the lady that the owl went to later on, and she said ‘oh no, that owl, we had to put it down. It must have been in a mine blast, because it was blind’. The blast had sent it blind.”

Yet this destruction is also not the end of the story. Bulga continues to face enormous opposition, enduring compromise after compromise from both the NSW government and Rio Tinto. Just before entering the village, a vigil has stood for more than 60 days to protest the impending destruction of Wallaby Scrub Road. Part of the Great North Road, this historic road was first built by convicts on the outskirts of the village in the 1830s.

Having collected nearly 2000 signatures, community representatives will soon travel to NSW Parliament to once again make their case for the protection of their community. What may appear at first glance as a minor altercation over a small road marks just the latest instalment in a saga that should be at the forefront of our attention as a state, and perhaps as a nation.

[Dear Scott, coal’s a dud investment]

Suggestions of physically moving the village of Bulga made by the NSW Planning Assessment Commission highlight the seriousness of the impacts that are taking place here. It is one thing to talk about Bulga, but it is another altogether to physically stand in this community, to breathe the dust, to hear and feel the blasts from the mines that reverberate day and night. As one member of the Bulga Milbrodale Progress Association recently remarked: “We feel a sense of absolute worthlessness, which is horrid. A lot of us feel connected to the land, and it is something that is very strong within us”.

 There is more at stake here than the physical road itself. Saving Wallaby Scrub Road is not just a local issue. In the wake of decisions made by the NSW government over the last six years, Wallaby Scrub Road could be any road, anywhere. It is inconceivable that a community in NSW can win in the Land and Environment Court, withstand challenges in the Supreme Court, and yet, somehow, still lose.

In one of the world’s most prosperous nations, are we comfortable with the notion that people can be robbed of their communities? To lose one’s home, to lose one’s community, to lose one’s place — is this something that we can be at peace with in this nation? Bulga reminds us that this is a very real question, and one that we must face with urgency.

*This piece was prepared with invaluable guidance from the remarkable women of the Bulga Milbrodale Progress Association. I remain indebted to their generosity and support.

Comments & corrections

Mar 17, 2016

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On Marco Rubio

Robert Lamontagne writes: Re. “Rundle: Rubio’s final mercy killing” (yesterday). Guy wrote that Rubio’s father was a bartender who “[fled]” Castro. Mario and Oriales Rubio immigrated to Florida in 1956; Castro came to power in 1959. Maybe they were fleeing the Bautista kleptocracy that made a Communist revolution seem like a step up, but they were probably “just” economic migrants (like me! we’re really lovely people, trust me), and certainly not refugees from socialism.

Then again, Cuban-Americans are so deeply defined by their official status as political refugees — the only people on earth the US federal government classifies automatically as political refugees, with a green card within a year of arrival — that I reckon Rubio never even considered the possibility that his family was like most Latino, or any other group, of immigrants: just people looking to make more money and access better opportunities for them and their kids.

Anyway, the actual facts still support Guy’s argument, but this is a very old chestnut, indeed.

On political dithering

Cameron Bray writes: Re. “Chaos reigns in a government that can’t even fake decision-making” (yesterday). So ScoMo has now had the face-palm moment of  realising that “the best way to drive income tax cuts ultimately, is off growth”. And in a post-GFC economy it’s pretty clear to everyone that domestic consumption, not exports, is the real sustainable driver for growth.

So the policy answers to this problem are obvious: sustain wage growth at historic lows! Ensure even more wealth is diverted into unproductive speculation on inflated housing assets! Maintain a tax system designed to channel corporate income offshore and so transfer the tax burden onto consumers!

Pure genius. Only after the government  has destroyed the drivers for economic growth will the economy grow and so deliver tax cuts to the people impoverished by the policy settings that spur growth by destroying its foundations. I have never seen this before: government by pure cognitive dissonance.

On NSW protest laws

Jock Webb writes: Re. “Baird makes some powerful enemies with CSG protester crackdown” (yesterday). The new NSW anti-protest laws represent almost a fascist approach. No surprise from the LNP here. However in an utterly scandalous and little reported action, Baird proposes to cut the penalties for illegal, exploration and drilling from $1.1 million to $5000. Where is Crikey or anyone else on this. This ridiculous fine wouldn’t even blow a CSG exec’s credit card.

Comments & corrections

May 30, 2014

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On taking to the streets in protest

Richard Barlow writes:  Re. “Razer’s Class Warfare: you call that a protest?” (yesterday). I think Helen Razer and Annabel Crabb make the point about why real world protests work.  Anyone who deals with the media knows that they only report a story if there is crying, violence, or confronting anger. A good protest makes the evening news because it offers us all of the above. Do protests work ?  Of course, look at Egypt.  Does it always work the way you would like it to ?  I guess you would need to ask an Egyptian.

The boats have not stopped

Dr George Crisp writes: Re. “The boats have stopped” (yesterday). In their haste to denounce Bernard Keane’s article, Messrs Calderwood and Lambert have exemplified the folly of using the “end to justify the means”. By doing so they have overlooked that intervention confers responsibility. Put another way, we cannot justify reducing the danger to asylum seekers from seeking a dangerous passage without ensuring that we do not inadvertently (or otherwise) subject them to another danger. By their reasoning (or unreasoning) surgeons should be entirely exempt from liability when operations go wrong. Fortunately we are wiser than this.

Secondly, the boats clearly have not stopped. If they had, there would be no need for purchasing hundreds of new orange “lifeboats”.

Business (mostly) as usual in Thailand

Brendan Giffney writes: Re. “The unspoken but crucial role of Thailand’s royal family in Thailand’s current crisis” (Monday). I too am an expat in Thailand and I wonder where your anonymous expat in this report has been for the last few days. Sure the TV went off for a couple of days but with the masses threatening to rise up if the soapies weren’t back on air, transmission was restored. Despite what your expat says the overseas news channels, Australia Network, BBC, Fox, Channel News Asia etc were also restored shortly after and have remained on air. On Wednesday Facebook was down for a few hours before it was allowed back on.

For the visitor, or expat, nothing has really changed. The curfew has been moved from 10pm-5am to midnight-4am which has given those here for the nightlife a better chance at enjoying it. Many of the bars have been ignoring it anyway. I live in Chiang Mai, the ancestral home of the Shinawatras  (Thaksin and Yingluck) and reputedly a hot bed of the red shirts (the pro-government supporters). Apart from a few soldiers on a few of the streets you would not know Thailand was in political turmoil. This is how it is now,  but perhaps not for long as the red shirts have sworn revenge if their government was overthrown. And it has been.

Politics

Mar 20, 2014

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Total Recall

Forty years ago, thinker Robert Nozick offered one of those thought experiments so annoying it would go on to torture generations of ethics students. The “Experience Machine” is a monster from 1974 that sets out to prove that human satisfaction is not a measure of moral good — think of its intellectual goal as a bit like the Catholic Church without the incense.

In seeking to smack down the utilitarian principle that human happiness is the ultimate measure of good, Nozick asks us to consider that a team of “super-duper neuropsychologists” has formulated the absolute means to simulate any experience. We connect to this glitch-free Total Recall device and we are transported to any victory of our own devising: we can win a Nobel Prize, scale Mount Everest or enjoy a daily sponge bath from Jennifer Lawrence while we out-write Proust.

It is Nozick’s view, and that of his fans, that people of sound mind would refuse congress with such a machine. “Would you plug in?” he asks throughout a text that sets out to prove that the fulfilment of human desires is not of central importance in determining good. We would not choose, he says, to plug in, because feeling satisfied in ourselves at the expense of doing real good is something we instinctively know to be unethical.

That many do choose to plug in to the pleasure provided by the cruder “experience machines” of Johnnie Walker and Nintendo notwithstanding, there are problems with the experiment. These have, notably, been identified by Peter Singer. In short, the refusal of (some) people to plug in does not disprove that human happiness is a measure of ethical good because such a machine cannot provide happiness to all. If your happiness depended on living a complex life reliably free from delusions, for example, then the thought experiment fails as badly to deliver on its ethical checkmate as Arnold’s virtual holiday does to bring him peace in Total Recall.

Whether or not you are a utilitarian who believes that good can be measured in terms of a healthy supply of pleasure and a minimum of pain, the “experience machine” continues to be a fun thing to consider ethically. What, after all, is wrong with a benign singularity whose simulated twilight comes with a sponge bath from Jennifer Lawrence? There you are, with your brain in a super-duper formaldehyde spa, doing no one any harm and yourself much good. You can be whatever you want. You can be a fearless revolutionary.

You can imagine yourself to be hauling chunks off the Berlin Wall, lying in front of a tank at Tiananmen Square or singing in a knitted bikini with Pussy Riot at an Orthodox church. These are the sorts of things you might imagine you are doing when you attend a protest like the March in March.

These are the sorts of things some might have expected from last Sunday’s experience machine.

Instead, participants found themselves unplugged.

There was a “total disconnect between what might be termed citizen-initiated reportage on social media and mainstream coverage”, wrote my colleague John Birmingham to no little approbation. His was one of several voices in a scolding chorus that demanded better and broader coverage of these mid-sized rallies. When Crikey’s Myriam Robin offered an account of traditional media indifference — including the practical PR advice to avoid marching on a Sunday in this era where even press workers are stripped of penalty rates — she was decried by some readers as a Murdoch stooge who’d be first up against the wall when Jennifer Lawrence leads the People’s Revolution.

Just as there were many reasons people marched last Sunday, there were many reasons the press failed to cover it. Not the least of which is that trying to express a new and complex set of disagreements in an old and simple way just doesn’t make great copy.

Not that there ever has been, as can be inferred from the Birmingham comment, much great copy on protests in Australia. Even if reporters had been available and dispatched to join the protesters in the nation’s Sunday city streets, which are otherwise seen only by tourists, they would have said, as they always have, “rabble”.

The only time we see protesters depicted as brave or worthy is when they are underneath a tank, on top of the Berlin Wall or in an idealised past. It is distance that affords protesters the appearance of nobility they always crave and sometimes deserve. Sure, today’s press is a husk. But it was never so verdant that it did not fertilise itself with bullshit accounts of protest.

Protesters never see themselves depicted as they would like: brave and numerous and complex. Birmingham’s “disconnect” is not just the sound of an out-of-touch press but of the experience machine shutting down.

A junior at News.com.au worries about “ignoring the feelings of more than 100,000 Australians” when perhaps the real concern here is how to reactivate the engine of a machine that manufactures these positive and noble feelings.

There is not only nothing wrong with feeling good — the only result that the March in March can have been said to produce — but according to utilitarian argument, it’s an ethical end in itself.  So reconnect with Nozick’s experience machine whenever you like. Just don’t disconnect it, and you’ll stay convinced that you are performing a civic instead of a personal good.

Australia

Mar 18, 2014

5 comments

Over the past three days, at least 50,000 people rallied in cities across Australia in opposition to Tony Abbott’s government. At home that night and the next morning, they eagerly waited to see how they’d be covered by the mainstream press. For the most part, they got nothing. The protests made no front pages and led no bulletins, and while they were covered, they certainly weren’t covered prominently.

That’s prompted plenty of criticism, not all of it from activists.

John Birmingham, writing this morning at the Brisbane Times, said he thought basic reporting on significant events was something the mainstream media had over bloggers and citizen journalists. After watching the coverage of the march, he’s not so sure:

“These were not mass protests of the size and style of the Vietnam era. They weren’t as large and certainly not as violent and disorderly as civil rights protests in Queensland in the 1970s and ’80s. But they were large enough to be worthy of more basic news coverage than they received. They were arguably more important to community record-keeping than a bit of colour and movement on Paddy’s Day. And inarguably more important than the other ‘top’ stories which enjoyed more prominence; the ‘attack’ of a body boarder by a dolphin, the ‘Real Housewife’s Toy-boy All-Nighter’, and Lara Bingle’s insta-boob shot.”

So why didn’t the March in March protests get more significant coverage?

The protests happened mostly over the weekend in 33 cities. RMIT journalism academic Alexandra Wake, who’s worked in newspapers and for the ABC, tells Crikey she doesn’t think there are journalists working in 33 cities and towns over the weekend in Australia. Because of this, social media was crucial to the stories that did appear. Wake says once she noticed the march on Facebook, the ABC picked it up shortly after.

Another part of the problem for March in March, mentioned by everyone Crikey spoke to, was the complex number of issues that drove people onto the streets — it made simplifying the protest into a 300-word hard-news story difficult.

Margaret Simons, of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne, says she wouldn’t be too quick to condemn the coverage. She compares the March in March to the coverage of the protests prompted by the murder of Jill Meagher. “It’s easy to say x number of people marched for y,” she says.

When there’s a lot of issues prompting a march, journalists will focus on one of two things: violence, or the signs. “Those are traditional news values,” Wake said. “Most of the coverage I saw tended to be about the signs. It allows you to simplify the story for a 30-second news grab.”

Naturally, the media also suffers from biases. Simons says there’s always a level of scepticism to be overcome about whether it really was a mass protest or merely contained “the usual suspects.” And the media’s whole way of covering politics tends to ignore what happens outside of Canberra, even though this can be what most resonates with people. “Voices outside the bubble are having trouble getting heard,” she told Crikey. “This isn’t just activists, but also all sorts of people with different points of view.”

Many of these people have turned to alternative media. There’s been a proliferation of alternative news sources of varying levels of professionalism, many of which covered the rallies in far more detail. But if mainstream media attention is the goal, how can activists get covered?

Toby Ralph isn’t a man you’d normally associate with left-wing grassroots activism. A corporate spinner who’s consulted for big tobacco and the Liberal Party, he nonetheless knows plenty about how to reach and use the media. Ralph says March in March may have been a grassroots event driven by dissatisfaction with the government, but that in itself is hardly surprising.

“The fact that some always disagree with the government of the day is hardly news… The trick to getting news coverage is to be newsworthy — to either say something compelling or do something sensational. March in March failed on both counts,” he said.

When it comes to activism, gimmicks work. That’s why groups like GetUp focus on them instead of getting numbers out onto the streets. Make a point well, or in a manner that’ll get people talking, and coverage is no problem.

Andrew Butcher, a former journalist and ex-News Corp spinner now turned PR consultant, says the march’s goal was unrealistic and negative. “They probably got more balanced coverage than they deserved given the main newsworthiness was arguably the extremist views of too many of the participants,” he said.

“In order to get more coverage, the march needed a reasoned and rational focus — not just the intemperate and frankly scary hatred of Tony Abbott that was displayed on so many of the posters,” he said. And the unrealistic goal — to overturn a democratically elected government — didn’t help. For the mainstream media, Butcher says, these things hardly make great reading.

Large numbers — Melbourne’s protest reportedly attracted 30,000 people — in themselves aren’t newsworthy. Ralph says “multiples more” went to the Grand Prix, shuffled around art galleries or went for lazy drives in the country. “The protest numbers are inconsequential,” he told Crikey. “One person saying something compelling is more powerful than a million at some Festival of Mediocrity that communicates nothing of consequence.”

Ultimately, Ralph says, protests are “passe”. Instead, he says, activists would get more response if they ran for Parliament, wrote letters to the media, or found new facts and exposed scandal.

Wake says there are two ways to guarantee your protest gets covered: interesting signage, and violence. She suggests the former and discourages the latter.

Australia

Dec 19, 2013

5 comments

Once, genuinely stupid protest was the domain of the Right. Ultra-conservatives outshot their soft-centrist foes by 10 to one with demands to shut down mosques and universities lest they manufacture thought and worship. But this year, Left and Right met between the trenches to perform a synchronised Culture War Dance that might be distressing were it not quite so poorly performed.

Nowhere better was this pas de deux of Right with Wrong Liberalism seen than in our first nominee …

10. The Protest Against the Telecast of Lingerie Football

Led by Collective Shout, an organisation founded by Melinda Tankard Reist and whose stated aim is to end “sexploitation” (its covert goal is to make up silly words), this campaign began life as a petition and ended it in some of the worst op-ed of the year. “Don’t pretend this is a victory for women’s sport“, said Fairfax to its over-worked strawman.

No one was “pretending” that a game played by comely young women in brief outfits was a victory. But victory — and its close cousin “empowerment” — is the goal of the game of this kind of thinking, which fixates on meaningless battles. If we erase all evidence of sexism — and no reasonable person could argue that the league was anything but sexist — then we have “won”. Won the battle, that is, against seeing evidence of sexism as it is practised by the working class; not the war.

All we have “won” is the right already enshrined to show revulsion for bad taste; to despise the page-three girl while paying homage to her “makeup-free” sister; to cover female genitals from view except when they belong to undergraduates of Australia’s most storied university; to stop women in hotpants from playing gridiron for money on TV while applauding the hotpants of the amateur Roller Derby league.

We have won the right to continue the work of the Christian Temperance Ladies, who are, it must be noted, responsible in this nation for women’s suffrage but also our next contender.

9. The Petition for Pimp Prevention

Snoop Dogg

Another shout-out to Collective Shout for believing in Scott Morrison.

Collective Shout tweet

Working hard to prevent the objectification and enhance the Melindafication of women, the organisation has a campaign active to revoke the Australian visa of Snoop Lion, ne Dogg. In Howard’s term, Kevin Andrews told Macquarie Radio that the artist didn’t seem “like the sort of bloke we want in this country”. This tidy summary of Coalition immigration policy was upheld with a visa denial that is mentioned favourably by the ladies in their correspondence to Morrison; worth a read just for a whiff of the smelling salts needed to reproduce phrases like “suck dick” and “Break a Bitch ‘til the Day I Die”.

Our need to “quarantine” ourselves from harmful materials has a long history in Australia that begins just before Federation (with the seizure of Zola’s works from a Melbourne book vendor on the grounds that “French literary vice” could harm the minds of children) and continues to the present. Concern about video games, paintings and all of the internet abounds here as it does in no other Western liberal democracy.

Maybe it’s an itch of repression that leads us to protest. Maybe the nation’s ego battles with its superego to right the wrongs done by its own vice from 1788. Maybe we’re just so stupid that we believe entirely in the causal influence of a man in a purple hat who is viewed as a “real” “role model” by his ageing fans just as much as I believe that I am Franklin in Grand Theft Auto.

8. Lone Immunology Protest

As transplant patients will concur, organ harvesting is a medical marvel. Presumably, this car owner in the leafy Sydney suburb of Enfield has more of a problem with the unethical collection of tissue than the miraculous practice per se.

organ harveting

Whatever the case, we can say that this message — heartfelt as it may be — will be as lost on the world as it is to myself and the citizen journalist who snapped it, Dee Madigan.

An advertising creative and Gruen Transfer regular, Madigan was struck by the almost-touching impotence of the gesture. “LOL,” I replied when she passed on the image. “LOL,” she returned, by which I am positive she must have meant “awareness and its expression has become a virus”. For which the body politic will probably need a transplant.

7. Nearly Everything The Australian Christian Lobby Utters

The consciousness-raising of the liberal-Left still has a way to go before it can claim to throw crazy-shade on those who would give us over to Biblical Law. Sure, between protesting kids’ clothing in discount chain stores and unsuitable lavatories, progressives have become about as peculiar as Pentecostals. But there remains, thanks to Jim Wallace and Co, some wiggle-room.

All interest groups will misapply data to further their ends, but the ACL took the prize for statistical fallacy when it announced that smoking was healthier than same-sex marriage. The ACL lobbies to prevent access to abortion and advertising campaigns that contain the word “boobs“. It also campaigned against Channel 7’s Sunrise. But even a broken wristwatch is right twice a day.

The ACL opposes a lot, but it is definitely pro-Christian. It is currently calling for the end of the persecution of Christians in Syria. Syria is a country where everyone without a good-sized gun is being persecuted. What happened to “love one another as I have loved you”?

When the Pharisees saw the Lord Christ eateth with publicans and sinners, the disciples must have said, “Don’t worry, Jim. By 2013, everyone will have forgotten about this bit of Matthew 9:11-12”. Justice is not for all. As we find in our next awardees:

6. Liberating Brown Women From Their Oppressors

So-called “feminist” action on Afghanistan seems to have got a second wind in Australia. While it might in one reading seem perfectly reasonable to champion the rights of women and girls — as it did to academic and feist writer Jenna Price, who championed Afghan Women’s rights in her Twitter bio for a spell — in another, it just seems a bit mean.

From what we hear, Afghanistan is no picnic for anyone without the Warlord Level 5 Achievement Badge. With Afghanistan’s economy as monstrously ravaged as its souls by decades of invasion, it seems just picky to focus on the fortunes of one gender. It is true that the Taliban is not going to make Feminist Ally of the Decade any time soon. But it is also true that these are a people brought to their knees by forces who do not discriminate when it comes to slow or instant death.

Petitions to the UN and twit comments by the shadow treasurer about the plight of Afghan women serve no cause nobler than to justify the “liberation” of the Near East to Western Democracy. Shut up and fix the sanitation. We’ll talk about the patriarchy when people aren’t drinking their own poo.

5. Gay Rights Magazine Makes The Pontiff Person of the Year

Seriously. What? We’re giving out awards for people who manage not to vomit on homosexuals now? Let’s make Clive Palmer Disability Spokesmodel of the Decade because he has not yet said “The NDIS is a bag of shit” yet, shall we?

4. The Fairfax Rage Cycle

There are several excellent diagnoses of the illness that besets Fairfax. My lay assessment is Narcissistic Personality Disorder. An absorption with the self can only lead to abandonment by others. But not before you go about taking extreme and conflicting positions such as Julia Must Go to Critics of the Julia Must Go Editorial Are The Ones Who Are Really At Fault to Julia She Was Awesome Go and See Her Talk To One of Our Columnists.

Editorial consistency is vital to brand survival in a time of information affluence, but all Fairfax gives us is a poor echo of the outrage-and-protest cycle; e.g. this terrible piece by Geoffrey Barker followed less than two days later with another terrible piece on why Geoffrey Barker is terrible. Protest and extreme position might drive social media but it does not drive loyal readers to your brand.

3. This Petition on Change.org

 

catcalling

A lady of the sort inclined to use the strange term “rape culture” was innocently fighting the ravages of age when she saw Evidence of Misogyny. “Let the cat-calling commence” were the words of a junior copywriter that launched an online protest.

“All we want is lotion from a company that endorses our right to feel safe and confident in public space,” said the petition. There are 2000 people in the world who believe in a lotion that can cure the seventh sign of ageing, which is, of course, misogyny.

2. This Petition “Rejecting” the Abbott Government

Guys. Seriously. I’m all for opposing the idea that liberal democracy is not Fukuyama’s beautiful End of History, but maybe you could try voting next time.

direct democracy tweet

1. And the stupidest protest of the year goes to the Australian federal election.