Nothing to apologise for, Mr Andrews?

December 22, 2010

Dr Mohammed Haneef is an innocent man. He is an Indian citizen who came to Australia to pursue his medical career – and his life as a medical registrar at Gold Coast Hospital was abruptly shattered in 2007 by a series of events that saw him incarcerated, victimised and demonised. Presiding over that whole affair was then Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews.

Three years later, Dr Haneef returned to Australia to seek compensation for loss of wages, the damage to his reputation and the personal suffering he was forced to endure. Today, he reached a settlement with government solicitors – an undisclosed amount, of course, but one with which Haneef seemed very happy.

Talking to the media afterwards, Haneef stated that he would like to visit Australia again to see friends and relatives. He also said he would consider seeking re-employment at Gold Coast Hospital. In light of what he went through, that is truly remarkable.

Inevitably, the question arose within the commentariat: should Kevin Andrews apologise for Dr Haneef’s treatment? Tim Smith, Councillor for the City of Stonnington, seemed outraged at the very idea. Kevin Andrews is an honourable man, he protested. He had some bad advice, but he did what he thought was right. There is literally nothing for which an apology is due.

Nothing to apologise for?

Let’s set the Wayback Machine for July 2, 2007, and see.

First the Federal Police arrest Dr Mohamed Haneef as he was leaving the country to return to India to visit his wife and newborn daughter.

They hold him for over 200 hours before finally charging him with giving his mobile SIM card to a cousin who allegedly blew up a car at Glasgow Airport. The card, of course, was recovered from the wreck. This is, mind you, not an intentional support of terrorism, but a ‘reckless act’ … whatever that means. It’s also, it seems, suspicious that Dr Haneef only bought a one-way ticket.

Then the Immigration Minister, Kevin Andrews, revokes Haneef’s visa on ‘character’ grounds, i.e. that he associates with known terrorists. This, of course, refers to his cousin. Never mind that the British authorities have decided, by this time, that said cousin is not only not a known terrorist, he’s not even a suspected terrorist. Such details are unimportant, apparently – and Haneef is headed for a detention centre pending deportation – mind you, booting him out of the country will come after they’ve convicted him.

As the farce grinds on, whoops! The AFP realise that the SIM Card of Doom was not found in the wreck at Glasgow Airport, but seized in evidence from Liverpool – 300 km away. They also realise that a particular piece of evidence used to make the initial allegations is, in fact, nothing of the kind. This ‘evidence’ is supposedly Haneef’s diary, which he consistently denies as being anything to do with him. In fact, the Australian police were presenting their own notes to the doctor, and insisting that he explain them. Of course, he can’t.

Enter the Director of Public Prosecutions. He steps in to check out everything, and lo and behold! – suddenly Haneef is released on July 27. Amazingly, there is no evidence to link Haneef with terrorist groups, evil SIM cards or, indeed, Osama bin Ladin (who, I’m sure, would have made an appearance eventually). That should be the end of it, but instead Haneef heads off to home detention. Because his visa’s still revoked, and Andrews isn’t budging on his ‘character’ judgment – lack of evidence notwithstanding. Apparently, an Immigration Minister is blessed with a preternatural ability to see the Evil That Men Do – or Think. Andrews also hints darkly that he has a secret dossier.

Over a year later, the AFP finally clear Haneef’s name and return his passport – but not his work visa. The good doctor decides he’s had enough. He’s been systematically victimised, had his character publicly assassinated, and has a long fight on his hands just to be allowed to stay in the very country that’s screwed him over so royally. To no one’s surprise, he gets on a plane to India and his family, where he’s welcomed with flowers and cheers.

Oh wait – one person’s surprised. Kevin ‘I Know Something You Don’t Know’ Andrews. He, apparently, thinks it’s suspicious that Haneef would want to turn his back on Australia and all those highly dubious laws that make it permissible to drag a doctor off the ward and into indefinite detention, kick him out of the country and publicly defame him – for no good reason. Andrews, apparently, still has information that will justify his outrageously draconian actions – and if we’re very good little boys and girls, he might just condescend to show us.

Even if we do get to see this damning information that even the Brits don’t have (or else they would never have released Haneef’s cousin), it’s unlikely that anything in that dossier can even begin to justify what was done to Dr Haneef in the name of ‘protecting Australia from terrorism’. Our government and law enforcement overreacted massively and came close to destroying a man’s life. Certainly, they destroyed his career, and his faith in justice.

But wait …

Kevin ‘Sees All, Knows All’ Andrews, surprise, surprise, suddenly says that it might not be possible to release the dossier after all. If he does, it might jeopardise an ‘ongoing investigation’ being undertaken by both Australian and British law enforcement.

Hang on, didn’t the Federal court establish that there was no connection between Haneef and any terrorist-related activities or groups? And didn’t the British already say they had no interest in Haneef’s cousin (remember him, the one with the cursed SIM card)?

It’s likely that the only thing releasing this ‘dossier’ would jeopardise is Mr. Andrews’ job. It would show everyone just how baseless his actions were, how flawed and prejudiced the investigation was, and how he manipulated a disgusting piece of legislative xenophobia – possibly for no other reason to satisfy his own sense of pique at being thwarted by the courts.

The Clarke Inquiry of 2008 concludes that the case against Haneef is ‘completely deficient’. It stops short of calling for Andrews’ resignation, however. In fact, it pretty much lets him off the hook altogether, stating that Andrews probably acted out of a genuine belief that Haneef had terrorist connections. There’s a faint whiff of criticism in the Inquiry’s report directed at Andrew’s failure to analyse all the information provided, but even then, Clarke is only ‘puzzled’.

So, back in 2010 …

Does Kevin Andrews need to apologise?

Why is this a question that even needs to be asked?

Andrews not only refuses to apologise, but commented publicly today that no legal action taken by Haneef would ever have succeeded had it come to court. The government, apparently, will issue an apology, which is commendable. Those who really need to front up, however – Andrews, former Attorney-General Philip Ruddock and former Prime Minister John Howard – have no intention of doing so.

This quasi-mythical dossier should be released – because what we have is a paraphrased extract of a chat room conversation between Haneef and his brother that talks about Haneef’s newborn daughter and his planned trip to India. There has never been even one piece of evidence that might suggest Haneef is a terrorist or associates with them. Yet, on the basis of a Minister’s say-so, he was treated as though his guilt was not merely likely, but already proved beyond any doubt.

Andrews, Ruddock and Howard avoided having to answer the hard questions in 2008. In 2010, they should be compelled to do so. They should also be compelled to apologise publicly to Dr Haneef and his family, and that apology should be broadcast.

Instead it seems that – yet again – the only apology that will ever come out of the Howard years is one delivered by others.


There’s more to the NBN than YouTube

December 21, 2010

The government released the business case for its National Broadband Network yesterday. In a marathon media conference, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy and NBNCo CEO Mike Quigley talked up the high points.

In a nutshell, it boils down to: the business plan was examined and found to be good. At the most conservative estimates of uptake, taxpayers would still see their investment (now set at $27.5 billion) returned with a 7% gain. Wholesale prices range from $24 per month for 12 Mbps to $150 per month for 1 Gbps. Pressed to give an idea of what a retail figure might be, Conroy favoured the questioner with a pitying look and pointed out that you don’t show your hand when you’re trying to build a competitive market.

So, for about $1.5 billion more than originally announced, the minimum expected outcome is to pay back the investment and then some. The wholesale prices are far below the hundreds of dollars that were bandied about by the Coalition during the year. The country will be thoroughly connected, and the regions won’t suffer if the demand is likely to be low. The NBN will be available in places that private companies would consider too remote (read: unprofitable) to connect.

Cue the storm of criticism. On the mild side of things was the Coalition’s predicted response of, ‘Yes, yes, that’s all very well, but where’s the cost-benefit analysis?’, which is a question deserving of an answer. You might be forgiven, however, for missing that in the hysteria that’s building now.

Perhaps sensing that the average viewer really didn’t care about the difference between a cost-benefit analysis and a business case, the Coalition reverted to more high-flown rhetoric. It’s a $50 billion white elephant! It’s monstrous! (And no one can say ‘monstrous’ in those terribly disappointed tones like Shadow Communications Spokesperson Malcolm Turnbull.)

Senator George Brandis hinted darkly that the government must be hiding something. The NBN business case was supposed to run to 400 pages, but only 160 pages were released.

There was this from the Sydney Morning Herald. The NBN will cost $24 wholesale per month? Why, that’s outrageous! We can get ADSL2+ already for about that. Why should we be forced to pay for something we don’t want?

In The Australian, there was this assertion: we ‘know’ that most people will only want 12 Mbps, so why should we pour all this public money into building something faster?

The Herald-Sun cried, ‘Won’t someone think of the networks?’ After all, it warned, the NBN will kill free-to-air and pay television, because everyone will watch the internet instead.

And my personal favourite: the questioner in yesterday’s media conference who asked, in tones of confected outrage, why the government was willing to spend all this money on the NBN while people were stuck in traffic in Western Sydney and waiting for operations in hospitals. Is it so important to allow people to upload videos of themselves at high speed? What about our schools?

That’s a lot of objections. Taken at face value, they paint a picture of a fatally-flawed plan that no one wants and that will drag the country into financial ruin.

Funny thing is, most of those criticism just don’t stand up under scrutiny.

Let’s start with the ‘$50 billion white elephant’. This figure has been a favourite of the Coalition for months now. In fact, they’ve done a reasonable job of muddying the waters with it. Unfortunately, it’s a mythical number. The amount of money allocated from public funds is $27.5 billion. That’s it. The remainder, adding up to approximately $43 billion, is to be sourced from private investment – so even the total amount is less than the Coalition claims will be ripped out of ‘taxpayers’ money’.

Where did the $50 billion figure come from, anyway? Well, it’s debate hyperbole. It’s a figure that the Coalition used during debates on the Telstra separation bill and in Question Time to scare-monger about the NBN. How do we know it will cost what the government says, they asked. Maybe it will be $50 billion … maybe 100. We just don’t know. Except we do.

Then there’s Brandis, with his deep suspicions that the government are hiding a terrible secret in the unreleased pages of the business case. Why can’t we see them? What have they got to hide? The answer, according to Conroy, is just a bit anti-climactic; they’re ‘hiding’ commercial-in-confidence data. This is absolutely no different to any other business case. It’s common sense; if you’re trying to build a project with commercial and competitive intentions, you don’t go telling the world your fall-back position or your planned tactics to get the best possible return. You just don’t.

How about the claim that people will be forced to sign up to the NBN? Frankly, I’m embarrassed for Fairfax. This story was put to bed months ago. To trot it out again now just looks like fear-mongering. It’s very clear; there is nothing in the NBN plan that will remove choice from people. Everyone is free to opt in or to stay with their current situation. The fibre will be laid; that doesn’t mean you’ll be forced at gunpoint to sign on. In this, it’s no different to a telephone line. New houses are automatically supplied with the cabling for a telephone line – but the tenants are in no way required to sign up to a Telco.

Then there’s the ‘no one wants this’ argument. The thinking runs something like this; your average household probably doesn’t ‘need’ stupidly high speed connections to the internet. We can upload our videos now, so why would we pay more for something that won’t get us anything?

This is a pretty sneaky one. It’s arguable that many households won’t want more than about 12 Mbps, at least at first. The problem is that not every user of the internet is one of these homes. If you’re running student accommodation, you’re going to want a service that doesn’t slow to a crawl the minute half of the residents log on. If you’re a small business moving data, you want something fast. If you’re big business, an educational institution or a department at any level of government, it’s a no-brainer.

(And just by the way, there are plenty of homes out there with several members all wanting to access the net at once – and if you’re stuck on ADSL2+, you know the frustration that comes with watching your bandwidth grind to a halt because just one more person needs to do their email.)

And that’s without even looking at potential future needs. Conroy pointed out over and over that the NBN was ‘future-proofed’. What that means is that yes, right now it might be a bit more than the family at 47 Generic Street need so that they can do their homework and download movies – but the applications for internet communication are growing all the time. In ten years’ time, we don’t want to be in the position of having to start all over again, just to meet the demand. It’s called forward planning.

The dire warnings that the NBN will kill television might sound familiar. That’s because they’re recycled, with very little change, from the same warnings that were sounded when pay television first came to Australia. If people have pay TV, they won’t watch free-to-air, and people won’t invest, and there will be no good programs, etc. etc. Well, in over 20 years, that hasn’t happened. There are more free-to-air channels than ever, showing first-run quality programs from both overseas and made here in Australia. New programs are still being made here.

And there’s no reason to think this won’t continue when the NBN is implemented. Internet TV – either live stream or download – already exists. It hasn’t killed television networks anywhere in the world yet, even in those places where high-speed broadband is in place. The idea that we can have one or the other, but not both, stems from a false assumption – that there’s a finite amount of viewing out there, and not everyone can have a share of the pie. In practice, the reverse seems to be true.

What Internet TV is likely to do is democratise television. Currently, there are a few community broadcasters in Australia that limp along, supported largely by donations. They often have very weak signals, and can’t be picked up by many televisions – and if you have pay TV, forget it. Your tuner won’t even acknowledge community broadcasters exist. Using the internet removes the need for massive capital outlay just to get set up – signal towers, just for a start, become irrelevant. The internet creates a space, and where a space is created, it tends to be filled very quickly. In this case, it will be filled by those who don’t have the profile or money to compete with the big television networks and production companies.

Will these new internet channels be good? Well, as with current television, I suspect we’ll see a fair amount of rubbish. But it’s hardly the End Of TV As We Know It.

And so we come to the ‘people-are-dying-in-gridlock-waiting-for-operations’ criticism. When asked this, Conroy responded with barely-contained anger – and not without cause. This argument, frankly, is rubbish.

For a start, many of the problems cited are the responsibility of the States. Last time anyone looked, the Federal government had not nationalised roads or hospitals. Schools are slightly different; they exist in a strange limbo where both governments get to look after them (and, all too often, neither do).

Then there’s the implication that, by building the NBN, the government is somehow taking away money that can be ‘better’ spent on things that people ‘really’ want and need. This is called rank populism. There’s no basis to it at all, but it sounds good. No government projects have been starved of funds to pay for the NBN.

Far nastier is the insinuation that the government just doesn’t care about the real needs of the battlers. If they did, they wouldn’t be spending our hard-earned money on a ‘video entertainment system’ (to quote George Brandis on AM Agenda this morning). Conroy’s response was scathing; he detailed a series of initiatives that were either already in place or to be implemented next year directed at schools and hospitals, and joint projects with the State governments on roads and infrastructure.

To drive the point home, Conroy listed a handful of the benefits of the NBN. For health: E-health, the ability for ageing people to stay at home and be properly monitored, and better communications between health services in metropolitan and remote areas. For education: online learning, access for those in remote areas to real-time learning environments, and whole-class access to virtual learning environments all over the world. He even had an answer to Western Sydney’s gridlock: high-speed tele-commuting.

All of that is a far cry from the accusation that the NBN is good for nothing but allowing people to take stupid videos with their mobile phones and upload them to YouTube or Facebook. (And do we detect a note of snobbery in those who deride the idea of people uploading their personal videos and displaying them to the world? Why, I believe we do.)

So what’s left? Well, it pretty much comes down to the objection that there is no cost-benefit analysis. This is a question that keeps coming up – and the answers seem a little wishy-washy. Either there’s a problem with commercial-in-confidence data, or it’s just not possible to adequately do such an analysis on future benefits as yet unknown. The Coalition, of course, is having a field day with the latter idea.

Mind you, when was the last time we saw a cost-benefit analysis for a defence material purchase? Or new medical imaging equipment for hospitals? Now, some might object that we don’t need one for things that are self-evidently ‘good’.

But we’re talking about a massive infrastructure upgrade that will touch almost every area of Australian life – from traffic lights to train switching, health monitoring to real-time consultation, online and virtual learning to tele-commuting. We’re talking about putting in place a system with capacity to expand in the future and potentially transform the way we live. Might we not then argue that very high-speed broadband, made available throughout Australia, is also self-evidently good?

When did we lose sight of the idea that not everything in life has to be about profit? When did we give up the idea that quality of life may be just as important – if not more – as how much money rolls in?

We’ve seen higher education suffer because, somewhere along the line we got the notion that universities should be places of profit rather than of learning. We’ve seen health suffer because we figure that it’s more important to have a good profit margin than extend affordable health care to everyone in the country.

Maybe we should learn from those disasters and try looking at the NBN as something that builds and enhances the nation, rather than a bunch of numbers on a balance sheet.

And if that means we see a few thousand more drunk videos turning up on YouTube – well, I’m sure the country will be able to withstand the onslaught.

After all, we’ve managed to cope with reality TV and talk shows …


Tragedy at Christmas Island

December 15, 2010

This morning a boat from Indonesia, carrying perhaps 70 or 80 asylum seekers reportedly from Iraq and Iran, crashed into the cliffs near Flying Fish Cove on Christmas Island. At the time of writing, it’s not known how many have survived. Acting Prime Minister Wayne Swan confirmed ‘some rescues’ this afternoon, but the full extent of the tragedy is still unfolding.

Footage and pictures from the are shows how the boat broke up in the heavy seas until only debris was left. Christmas Island residents, standing helplessly on the cliffs above, described how they tried to throw lifejackets to the people in the water, only to have them flung back by the high winds. One woman broke down as she told Sky News how she heard screaming, and saw babies children falling into the water. A man who went out on the rocks to try to pull people to safety said he could see people being flung against the rocks by the waves.

The pictures don’t begin to encompass the horror that took place today – and it’s not over yet. Some critically injured people were airlifted to hospitals – but how many of those who survived lost loved ones?

I can’t help but think of the SIEV X disaster, back in 2001. Around 146 children, 142 women and 65 men lost their lives when a dreadfully overcrowded boat sank in international waters. These people, like those in the current situation, were heading for Australia to seek asylum.

Unlike today’s events, though, those deaths happened far away from any cameras. In fact, it was three days before Australia learned of a ‘certain maritime incident’.

Their deaths became the subject of a Senate Select Committee enquiry. They also became political capital in a Federal election that delivered John Howard’s Coalition a decisive victory. The question inevitably arises: just how will this terrible incident be exploited?

Swan stonewalled most media questions that dealt with the wider issue of asylum seeker policy. ‘The rescue is ongoing,’ he said, over and over. ‘The priority … is the rescue.’ Gillard, who was on leave, has cut short her holiday to return to Canberra.

The Coalition’s current spokesperson on Immigration, Scott Morrison, was remarkably circumspect in his comments. He confined himself to saying only that ‘worst fears’ had been realised, in his media conference this afternoon. He also stressed repeatedly that now wasn’t the time to discuss policy. Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop was likewise very careful to avoid making political comments.

A generous interpretation of their behaviour would say that they are showing respect for the situation. A cynical one would point to how dangerous it is to politicise a tragedy before a decent interval has elapsed. For whatever reason, our politicians are currently keeping the focus firmly on the incident.

Much of the media are likewise treading carefully. Comment on asylum seeker policy has been largely restricted to fairly neutral recaps of the history of asylum seeker landings in Australia.

Would that columnists like Andrew Bolt could show a similar level of respect. This afternoon’s blog, entitled ‘Blood on their hands’ is a real piece of work. In Bolt’s mind, apparently, he was a voice crying in the wilderness for at least a year. ‘I told Julia people would die!’ is his refrain. He points his journalistic finger, trembling with indignation, at the Labor government and commands Gillard to resign. After all, these people were ‘lured to their doom by her laws’.

He also finds it necessary to point out that Gillard previously interrupted her holiday to appear with Oprah Winfrey in Melbourne. The implication is clear: she has time to deal with trivia, but it’s doubtful whether she’ll front up and take her lumps for this.

Of course, he prefaces all these remarks with a handy-dandy little graph to show everyone just how terrible Labor’s asylum seeker policy really is – helpfully adorned with a big yellow dot to mark the point when former Prime Minister John Howard instituted the Pacific Solution. Just in case his readers didn’t realise that this was all about denouncing the Labor government.

It’s disgusting. Actually, well beyond disgusting. This isn’t just politicising a tragedy – this is wallowing with morbid glee in death and trauma. Bolt’s one concession to the human beings at the centre of all this is to use the words ‘ghastly tragedy’. Everything else is schadenfreude and exploitation.

Of course, Bolt isn’t the only one quick to shove their heads in front of a camera or a computer in order to join in the political fray. Jonathan Green at The Drum chronicled some of the rush to judgment by both bloggers and commenters.

For once, our politicians are behaving better than those they represent.

Sadly, it’s pretty much guaranteed that this won’t last. All too soon we’ll see the pollies going head to head. The Opposition will probably give us a softer version of Bolt’s rhetoric – and it’s perhaps a blessing that Parliament won’t sit again until February, so we won’t get the full-blown hyperbolic rantings that usually characterise this debate. The government will defend its policies, perhaps conceding to a Senate enquiry that is likely to conclude – as with SIEV X – that there was little Australia could have done to save this latest boat. Of course, if the polls show the Opposition gaining traction, we might see new, ‘tougher’ policy – which would undoubtedly bring the Greens and the Independents into the arena.

All of that is inevitable. As much as we’d like to wish otherwise – that the debate can be sane, rational and above all compassionate – there’s little chance we’ll get more than each party’s message. If we’re very lucky, we might hear Andrew Wilkie deliver a stinging rebuke to both major parties – not that they’ll be listening.

We can shrug and say that’s the nature of politics. And in a way, it is. But it’s my hope – and, I believe, the hope of many Australians – that politicians would keep at the forefront of their minds the fact that many, many people died today in terrifying circumstances. That they listen to the stories of the survivors, and those who risked their own lives to save them. That they know the names of the dead and never forget them.

And above all, that they realise that they have no right – none – to exploit their deaths to make a political point.

Are you listening, Andrew Bolt?

I didn’t think so.


The arrest of Julian Assange – a reality check

December 8, 2010

So this is likely to be my most unpopular post to date.

I’ve been watching, with increasing incredulity, the storm that’s hit all forms of the media over Julian Assange, so-called ‘founder’ of Wikileaks*.

It’s probably not necessary, but for completeness’ sake: Wikileaks is an organisation with five paid employees and over 800 unpaid volunteers that describes itself as a ‘whistleblower’. They solicit leaked information, particularly from governments, then assess and publish it. Since 2006 they’ve published everything from Scientology documents to diplomatic cables. Assange has become the ‘face’ of Wikileaks over the years; he’s the one making announcements and answering media questions.

As I write this, Assange is being held by the British judicial system on an Interpol warrant relating to sexual assault charges in Sweden. Inevitably, there are now literally thousands of comments, blogs, tweets and articles flying around screaming, ‘Conspiracy!

Now, my personal jury is out on what Wikileaks do. On the one hand, I see real public good being served in the exposure of things like that horrendous ‘Collateral Damage’ video, which clearly shows a bunch of idiot US soldiers in a chopper egging each other on to gun down an unarmed Reuters journalist and then the good Samaritan who stopped to help him. And I think there is a real need for committed, ethical whistleblowers like Andrew Wilkie. On the other, what good was served by publishing those diplomatic cables – you know, the ones that said German Chancellor Angela Merkel was ‘teflon’, and that Kevin Rudd had told Clinton that if China wouldn’t play ball, the US might have to get tough?

And then on the third hand (yes, yes, I know), what about the fact that every one of these leaks proceeds from an act of theft, of espionage (corporate or governmental)? For that matter, what kind of discretion is used in deciding what to publish?

But leave that aside. That’s a discussion for a whole ‘nother blog post.

What’s astonishing is the extent to which all forms of media – mainstream, new, social – have automatically assumed that (a) the sexual assault charges are bogus; (b) if Assange gets extradited to Sweden he’ll be handed over to the US; and (c) this is ‘really’ about shutting down Wikileaks.

This is a representative sample of some of what’s out there – and I’m not making any of this up.

It’s a beat-up, a set-up, a honey trap! The US paid those two girls to accuse him! If he gets extradited to Sweden on sexual assault charges the US will grab him and whisk him off to Guantanamo Bay where he will be waterboarded until he reveals the identities of everyone who’s ever been involved with Wikileaks. He will have an ‘accident’ in custody. He will be ‘disappeared’.

Meanwhile people are changing their avatars to pictures of him, wondering if they can make t-shirts, tweeting ‘Free Julian Assange’, calling him a hero, a noble crusader, saying he should get an award or even be ‘President of Oz’ … and in an act of ultimate absurdity, last night The Australian published an op-ed piece he wrote. (I’ll say this for The Oz. They never let consistency get in the way of circulation.)

The hysteria is unbelievable. So I’m going to be a bit boring and talk about what’s actually happened, rather than join a wave that’s rapidly heading towards ‘UFOS CONTROL THE GOVERNMENT AND WANT TO KILL ASSANGE’ territory.

So I propose a reality check.

First – and should it even have to be stated? – Assange is not charged with any offences relating to Wikileaks. The charges are two counts of sexual molestation, one of unlawful coercion and one of rape. There are two alleged victims.

Now, Sweden has some pretty intense sexual assault laws, one of which relates to a situation in which otherwise consensual sex becomes coercive when one partner refuses to wear a condom or intimidates a partner into continuing with the act after a condom has broken and the other has said the act should cease. Much has been made of this law; it’s being held up to ridicule as ‘not really sexual assault’, ‘gosh, if I went to Sweden I’d have been charged with rape’, ‘what a beat-up’, etc. The consensus is that such a law is absurd. Well-known Twitter commentator Catherine Deveny even went so far as to urge people not to be ‘distracted’ by this, and to focus on ‘real’ sexual abuse instead.

But wait a minute – whatever people think of this specific law, look at the hypothetical situation being described. One partner has withdrawn consent for whatever reason. Most rape laws in the Western world would agree that at this point, the sex is no longer consensual.

Sounds like sexual assault in my book. With the added risk of a sexually-transmitted infection like chlamydia or HIV.

And we’re not just talking about this law, either. There are four charges, and the full details are not known. There’s a lot of speculation and embroidery going on, based on an article published in the Daily Mail and some comments published by one of the alleged victims in the past. British media now report that the charges include forcing one woman’s legs apart to have sex with her, and taking advantage of the other’s sleeping state to have sex without her consent. It’s the ‘condom law’ that gets the attention, though, and so it’s easy for people to dismiss the whole idea as ridiculous.

Once that’s accomplished, it’s a short step to say that what this is ‘really’ about is the persecution of a whistleblower. The women in the case are correspondingly demonised; either they are disgruntled ex-girlfriends manipulated by the US government (notice how it’s always the US, despite the number of countries Wikileaks has embarrassed), or they are actively involved in the Conspiracy to Destroy the Noble Hero. The net effect is that the message is shaped in such a way as to completely eclipse their case.

Assange himself is complicit in this. When these allegations first surfaced – months ago – he immediately set out to turn the story from possible criminal activity on his part to governmental vendetta aimed at shutting down Wikileaks. When governments do this, it’s called spin. When Assange does, it’s called ‘exposing the truth’.

With the message under control, every subsequent action becomes subject to the same colouration.

Assange surrendered himself to British police, in the company of his legal advisors. This was a voluntary decision on his part; the police were hardly ‘closing in on an international fugitive’. They thought he was ‘probably’ in the country – and it was an open secret among British media that Assange had been spending his time at a journalists’ club in London – but the Sweeney weren’t poised to leap into their cars and chase him down to his lair.

The police, of course, immediately arrested him and held him pending a ‘first hearing’. Of course they did. They had no choice. They had an international warrant to execute, and when you’re talking about a fugitive who has a history of country-hopping and the means to accomplish this, it’s not a matter of booking him and dropping him off at a hotel with a stern admonishment to front up to court. The police had no power to seize his passport; there was literally nothing stopping Assange from absconding.

Turning oneself in is usually regarded as a wise decision. Courts tend to look unfavourably on defendants who’ve tried everything to stay out of the clutches of the law. It’s no different in Assange’s case. Given the nature of the allegations, anything he does to show he is co-operating with the judicial system can only benefit him.

The message is still controlled, though. Assange may have delivered himself up to British police, but his legal team warned that they would fight extradition to Sweden. The reason? They believe that Sweden would simply hand him over to US authorities. In other words, it’s all a trap.

There is no evidence that this fear is well-founded. The US have not made any representations to Interpol about him. US legal authorities have already made it clear that as far as they can tell, he has not broken their laws.

Oh, but Sarah Palin and her ilk have called for Assange’s assassination. They want to torture or kill him. What the US must ‘really’ be planning, then, is extraordinary rendition – and Assange will disappear into Guantanamo Bay or a secret CIA facility where he will be waterboarded until he tells all.

This is beyond absurd.

At the first hearing, Assange was denied bail because he refused to provide a valid residential address in Britain. When asked, he countered with, ‘Why do you want it? For correspondence?’ and gave a post office box number. The court explained it had to be a place of residence, and Assange gave an address in Melbourne connected with Melbourne University (his alma mater).

No fixed address, no residence (despite the fact that he has clearly been living somewhere in Britain) – of course they denied bail. But to those devoted to the message, it was simply more proof that it was all a set-up designed to shut down Wikileaks.

His lawyers are doing their job, working hard to cast doubt on the charges. If they were ‘real’, they argue, why don’t the Swedish prosecutors come over to Britain and talk to Assange? The short answer? They’re not required to do so.

As for the idea that this is all about ‘killing’ Wikileaks – well, if that was the plan, it’s failed miserably. The organisation already put out a statement saying that their work would continue – and proved it by releasing more diplomatic cables. I find it difficult to believe that any government plotting the downfall of Wikileaks would be so stupid as to think that arresting one man would do that job.

Maybe Assange is innocent of these sexual assault charges. He’s absolutely entitled to the presumption of innocence, and Swedish courts aren’t exactly known for their corrupt show trials. The Australian government has already provided him with consular assistance – despite the howls of the conspiracy theorists who condemn Prime Minister Julia Gillard for her harsh criticism. He has a brilliant legal team, headed up by Geoffrey Robertson, QC, one of the best human rights lawyers in the world.

And maybe there is an element of vindictiveness at work here. Maybe a couple of ex-girlfriends have decided to punish him, or a government is looking to discredit him. If that’s the case, then the best possible course of action is to front the court with those lawyers and challenge them to prove the allegations.

But let’s not get carried away with conspiracy theories. Let’s not conflate international condemnation from governments directed at Wikileaks with real, specific charges against an individual that have nothing to do with that organisation. Let’s not assume that this is some kind of James Bond or Bourne Identity plot being played out in real life.

In other words, let’s take a breath for a minute. Examine the whole story, separate the man from the message, evaluate what Wikileaks does on its own terms and let Swedish justice take its course.

Above all, let’s not participate in demonising two women who are just as entitled to the presumption of innocence as Assange.

* The base organisation that became Wikileaks existed before Assange came along. When the Wikileaks website was launched in 2006, the founders described themselves as a group of ‘Chinese dissidents, journalists, mathematicians and start-up company technologists, from the US, Taiwan, Europe, Australia and South Africa’.


Nuclear power or same-sex marriage? Why choose?

December 1, 2010

If you’ll forgive the bridge metaphor, lately it seems that the government just can’t take a trick. If they stand on principle, they’re not listening to the electorate. If they talking about re-examining policy, they’re weak, deceptive or just plain fractured. Either way, it ends up all over the media – and you can practically see the Opposition rubbing its hands together with glee. They’ve got the government between a rock and hard place, and they’re going to exploit that as far as they possibly can.

It’s no wonder people increasingly feel that politicians simply don’t know or don’t care what’s really going on outside Canberra. Legitimate debate is as poisonous to a party’s image as principled stances. What’s worse, where debate on a subject is both necessary and, apparently, possible, all too often it becomes undermined by those seeking to shut it down in favour of their own agenda.

That’s what’s going on right now. Two issues, both the subject of firm Labor policy, are being challenged from within the party. Not only is this being framed as a problem, the issues have now been pitted against each other.

First it was Sports Minister Senator Mark Arbib, who challenged the party’s opposition to same-sex marriage. He called for the party to debate changing the policy at their national conference next year. Then Finance Minister Senator Penny Wong broke her long and much-criticised silence on the subject to support the idea. Their voices joined those of Human Services Minister Tanya Plibersek and Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese, whose support for the right of same-sex couples to marry was already on record.

Coming on the heels of Greens MP Adam Bandt’s successful motion in the House of Representatives calling on all members to canvass their electorates on the subject, it looked like a groundswell was in motion. Certainly Joe de Bruyn, head of the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association, thought so. He delivered a stern warning to Prime Minister Julia Gillard that his union wouldn’t stand for ‘pandering’, and recommended she get on with tackling ‘real issues that the ordinary person in the electorate cares about’.

There it is again. There’s that calculated, belittling, marginalising language. It’s not a ‘real’ issue. Hardly anybody cares about same-sex marriage, certainly not an ‘ordinary person’. It’s a despicable tactic, getting far too much unanswered airplay lately.

But it gets nastier.

Last night, Energy Resources Minister Martin Ferguson and Senator Mark Bishop recommended that Labor should also re-examine its policy against nuclear power in Australia, adding that it was ‘at least as important’ as the issue of same-sex marriage. Seems like a fair call. No matter what your personal stance on nuclear power or same-sex marriage might be, both are equally deserving of consideration.

Well, you’d think so. But New South Wales Senator Steve Hutchins had other ideas. Nuclear power was not just as important as same-sex marriage. ‘It is more important for the country’s future than gay marriage and it affects a lot more people,’ he said.

Now, there’s no denying that nuclear power would directly affect far more people. Everyone needs access to electricity; not everyone wants to formalise a same-sex relationship. That’s a no-brainer. But what Hutchins said goes well beyond this apparently obvious point. He’s added an insidious little wrinkle to the ‘it’s just not that important’ argument. To give time to a debate on same-sex marriage, by Hutchins’ logic, is just plain irresponsible – and he was happy to provide some rhetoric that goes beyond hyperbole to border on the outright ridiculous to ‘prove’ it.

Nuclear power is an urgent issue, he’s argued. If we’re going to talk about a carbon price, and alternative energy, we need to at least talk about adding nuclear to the mix. If we give time to these ‘fringe’ issues like same-sex marriage, why we could all find ourselves living like Neanderthals and burning down our houses just to stay warm!

I’m not exaggerating here. This is his direct quote: ‘I cannot see us returning to living in the cave and burning fallen timber to keep us warm’.

Apparently Senator Hutchins, de Bruyn and some conservative voices in the media, think that politicians have a limited allotment of policy debating ability – and that it has to be divided up carefully. In order to do that, one must set priorities, and it’s unacceptable to ‘squander’ that limited amount on something as unimportant as same-sex marriage.

It also tries to position supporters of a same-sex marriage debate in opposition to those who want to address our power needs. Naturally, the former will be moved to defend their right to a debate – and it’s all too easy to be drawn into the trap of belittling the nuclear issue as way of conveying the necessity of dialogue about same-sex marriage. It’s a tricky thing to avoid, especially on those issues that engage our most passionate emotions – and I have to wonder whether this is deliberate, or just a fortunate side-effect for Hutchins and his ilk.

This is, perhaps, the worst argument yet brought against same-sex marriage. (It’s not the most ridiculous – that distinction is reserved for ‘because the Marriage Act says so’.) Not only does it tacitly argue against the issue, it urges people not to even consider it. And, just in case people feel that it couldn’t do any harm to just talk, it asserts that doing so will actually cause harm – that talking about same-sex marriage might threaten our ability to meet even the most basic needs of our society.

This is pernicious. When someone tells you not to talk about something because it’s ‘trivial’, there’s always the possibility that you might disagree – or perhaps just get annoyed enough with such a high-handed attitude to do it anyway. But this – this appeals to you as a responsible citizen, as a parent, as someone who wants to provide safety and comfort for your loved ones. This argument whispers to you that if you give time to thinking about same-sex marriage – no matter how well-intentioned you are – you might hurt us all. You might even be complicit in dragging us back to the Stone Age.

And, of course, it’s UTTER RUBBISH.

We’re human beings. We’ve got pretty big brains, and – all evidence to the contrary – we are capable of thinking about multiple issues. Yes, how we generate our power is a huge priority – it’s something with the potential to affect all life on the planet. But does that mean we cannot also think about something that might only affect a relatively small number of us? Will debating same-sex marriage prevent us from investigating renewable, or even nuclear, energy?

I shouldn’t even have to ask that question.

It’s not something the government can officially argue, and they know it. In defending their opposition to same-sex marriage, they’ve clung to the indefensible ‘Marriage Act’ justification. Now it looks as though both the Left and Right factions of the Labor Party want that policy changed – or at least want it re-examined. For the first time, members of the Senior Ministry have spoken out in favour of that.

But are they being applauded? Far from it. The Opposition leaped at the chance to spin this as ‘a clear sign that the government is fracturing’ (thank you, Steve Ciobo from this morning’s AM Agenda program), that they are held hostage to the Greens and hijacked by minority interests. The mainstream media question whether this means Gillard is soon for the chop, if her Ministers are in revolt against her. Voices in queer media carp about Wong’s ‘hypocrisy’.

There aren’t a lot of people out there applauding Mark Arbib – most of them think he’s a ‘factional warlord’ who’s just salivating in anticipation of toppling another Prime Minister. Anthony Albanese has been on the receiving end of abuse. Tanya Plibersek, still away from politics with her new baby, has been spared a lot of scrutiny – and Penny Wong has copped the worst of the lot. Now, you can argue that, to a certain extent, these people deserve criticism for not speaking out earlier, or more firmly.

What’s happening, though, is that those who are now publicly calling for a change from within Labor party ranks are being pilloried by not only their opponents, but those whose cause they champion. Meanwhile, Gillard moves to quell debate with authoritative pronouncements. Worse, Steve Hutchins and Joe de Bruyn get away with poisonous arguments designed to send this issue back into the streets and the blogs – and try to enlist the fabled ‘ordinary people’ to help them do it.

These marginalising, false arguments should be challenged at every turn. It’s not a question of choosing between talking about nuclear power or talking about same-sex marriage; both are equally deserving of consideration, and equally able to be considered by the same party at the same national conference.

What if those who want to see every Australian have the same rights to marry regardless of gender or sexual orientation focused on destroying those arguments in a calm, reasoned way – by refusing to compete, or apologise, and by saying there is room at the debating table for many issues? What if there was a real effort to encourage more politicians – both government and Opposition, state and federal – to scrutinise their policies without fear of being criticised for being slow to act, or held hostage to extremists, or on the verge of fragmentation?

There might be a possibility that those ‘ordinary people’ – the ones Steve Hutchins apparently thinks can be frightened into suppressing debate on same-sex marriage – would start to listen, and discuss it themselves.

We might even find to time to talk rationally about nuclear power while we’re at it.


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