The cynical exploitation of child abuse

July 22, 2011

Time for another guest post! Today’s offering is from writer and blogger Loki Carbis, who, in his own words, has ‘a lifelong addiction to pointing out that the emperor wears no clothes’. He blogs about life, popular culture and politics at The Centre Cannot Hold.


Stephen Conroy was in the news again, and as usual, the topic was internet censorship.

It seems that three of our biggest ISPs – Telstra, Optus and Primus – have decided to voluntarily filter material related to child sexual abuse. In a bit of black eye to Conroy, they’re using a list of sites provided by Interpol rather than by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, specifically citing legal issues regarding the authority of the ACMA.

Everyone involved was quick to say that this is not censorship, despite it meeting every part of the definition of the term, and Conroy tried hard to spin this as a victory for his policy, calling it an interim measure while certain issues regarding the jurisdiction of the ACMA were worked out, i.e. the fact that it doesn’t have the legal authority to do what Conroy wants it to, and that the government doesn’t want to try changing the laws when they can’t do it without the cross-benchers’ support.

The lies can be this blatant, because after all, who’s going to stand up and argue against measures aimed at preventing child abuse?

This is despite the fact that it is painfully clear that this is not the only thing the government is out to censor. This is apparent from both from two things: the leaked blacklists we’ve seen to date, and from the ACMA’s own rather generous description of its role.

One of the blacklist leaks we saw last year was a list of categories that would be censored, one of which was swimwear – although I doubt very much that this means we won’t be able to watch Olympic swimming online next year. Another was lingerie, and yet it’s unlikely that the content of new season clothing catalogues will change much either.

As for ACMA, the standard they aim for is that a website “potentially contains child abuse material” rather than actually containing it (emphasis mine). And of course, there’s no burden of proof here – accusation is apparently enough. There’s also no mechanism of notification if your site is blacklisted, and no sanctioned means of appealing that decision.

One of the arguments we’ve heard again and again in this argument is that the internet censorship provision are just one part of a concerted move against child sexual abuse. But if that’s truly the case, the question needs to be asked: why is it that this is the only part we’ve heard anything about?

Even a government as inept at framing and selling policy as the Gillard government has repeatedly shown itself to be must surely recognise that no one is going to oppose increased spending on hunting down paedophiles? You would think that even they can recognise a chance to get the media onside for once, not to mention a golden opportunity to wedge Tony Abbott good and hard – even his automatic urge to criticise any and all government spending might think twice in this case. Not to mention how well this could shore up government credentials on the right. But no, they Gillard government remains committed to its policy of never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

There is no increased funding for relevant police units, no new international agreements with other nations and trans-national bodies, no money for advertising campaigns to get the public involved, no increase in the importance of the Working with Children check, or greater stringency being applied in making the check.

Why doesn’t the government go after the producers of child abuse materials directly? After all, that’s the point in this at which the actual sexual abuse occurs – looking at pictures of child sexual abuse isn’t a good thing by any stretch of the imagination, but it no more abuses the child again than looking at a photo of a corpse kills that person again. Attacking the problem at its source, rather than dealing with a symptom, might just work.

Why, if the government is committed to fighting this fight on a number of fronts, are we only ever hearing about one of them, while the rest of the government’s plans remain as invisible to us as they’d like their blacklists to be?

It’s Rhyme Time, kids!

July 18, 2011

So, here we are in the second week of the election campaign – I mean, the second week of the Carbon Price Death-match, brought to you by Thunderdome. Prime Minister Julia Gillard is making good on her promise to ‘wear out her shoe leather’ by travelling around the country spruiking the carbon price package to all and sundry. Other Labor MPs are out haunting all the shopping centres in their electorates, and the first of the pro-carbon price television ads hit the screen over the weekend.

Meanwhile, the Opposition is no less fervent in pushing out their message that any second now the sky will fall in, and the only alternative is the immediate sacrifice of every Labor and Greens representative to whatever gods may deign to take pity on us for our hubris. Witchfinder, sorry, Senator Barnaby Joyce, in particular, cuts a fine figure up on those platforms – one can almost see him in Puritan garb and a tall black hat, holding a flaming torch. Not to be outdone, his leader, Tony Abbott, is busily handing out the pitchforks.

It’s the election campaign we get when we aren’t having an election campaign – and you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s dragged on for over a year. Because it has. Since his defeat in 2010, Abbott has never let up on the accusation that in some way, the Coalition are the rightful government, and the machinations of those dastardly Independents thwarted ‘the will of the people’. It’s not quite ‘We was robbed!’, but it’s close. To help them along, the Coalition have Labor’s proposed carbon price package – which they gleefully snapped up, twisted, bastardised and whored out to service the fears of every Australian who doesn’t quite grasp the science or the economics.

We can all chant along with the litany: prices will go up! Emissions will go up! The coal industry is dooooooooomed! You will huddle around your guttering candles in the winter because you won’t be able to afford heating, or lighting, or food, etc, etc.

And it’s not about to let up, either. Better strap in, sit back and take a travel sickness pill – it could be two years before the federal election. This is just the beginning.

But, lest we all resort to heavy drinking because of the sheer, mind-numbing tedium of hearing the same rhetoric, Abbott has a new message – one that might sound familiar to US expatriates.

In his last few appearances, Abbott waxed lyrical about the bravery of ‘a certain other country’ that stood up for itself and shouted, ‘No taxation without representation!’ That, he says, is directly related to what’s going on here the carbon price.

Yes. You read that right.

And just in case we don’t understand, Abbott’s happy to provide the ‘Aussie’ version of that slogan: ‘No tax collection without an election’.

I suppose a six word slogan is an improvement on a three word one … but not much. Still, it sounds good – until you actually take a good look at what he’s saying here.

‘No taxation without representation’ was a catch-cry used by British colonists in the 13 American colonies, taken from Irish protesters who’d been using it for around 20 years. The colonists protested that they were asked to pay taxes without gaining any form of direct representation in the English Parliament. They were ruled from afar, expected to support the Crown, but there was no one to represent their interests. In other words, they were exploited.

It’s a stirring call to arms. No one wants to feel disenfranchised or dictated to by their rulers. Certainly, it worked in the American case, leading to the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolutionary War.

But wait … is this in any way related to what’s going on in Australia right now? Let’s see. Every adult is not only able to, but required to vote. Looks like representation to me. Oh, but Abbott changed the slogan, didn’t he?

Yes, he did – to something utterly meaningless. ‘No tax collection without an election’? What does that even mean? We should have an election every year before we put in our income tax returns? Or every quarter when we lodge our BAS statements for the GST? Well, surely not; the country would rapidly grind to a halt if we had to do that.

So what’s this about? It’s simple, and sad – someone in Abbott’s camp decided that a nifty rhyming slogan would be a good idea. Rhyming slogans tend to stick in the mind; they are an apparently clever way of summing up an issue in a way that fits on bumper stickers and dodges analysis. You can almost see the thought processes at work. ‘Hey, didn’t the Americans do that once? You know, that Tea Party thing? We could do that. I mean, look at how successful the Tea Party has been in getting into Congress, yeah, we should go with that idea. Okay, so … rhymes, rhymes. Hmm, we want to push the idea of an early election, so what rhymes with election … protection … confection … erection … how about collection? Yeah, that’s it. Wow, that looks good.’

It’s memorable, all right. You can chant it. In terms of meaning, though, it’s right up there with ‘Beanz Meanz Heinz’ or ‘It’s Lean and it’s Cuisine’. And like any advertising slogan, its sole purpose is to get people to repeat it over and over, until – like Pavlov’s puppies – it’s the first thing they think of when they hear the words ‘carbon tax’.*

This is about getting people to stop thinking at all. Once you win that battle, you don’t have to worry about pesky little things like facts and figures. You can say what you like and dismiss everything that you don’t.

Climate scientists say we need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and favour a market mechanism? They don’t matter, because there are a few out there who say otherwise – let’s talk about them, because that’s ‘fair’. Economists support the carbon price package and look with disfavour on ‘Direct Action’? Pshaw, what do economists know about the economy, anyway? Detailed plans for compensation and encouraging development of renewable energies exist, complete with strong modelling showing a positive outcome? Lie through your teeth and say that it’s nothing of the kind. Oh, and don’t forget to keep saying that whole towns will vanish and the mining industry will collapse – any evidence to the contrary can be safely ignored.

Just keep chanting that slogan, because it’s all about the catchy rhyme, and nothing at all to do with the American Revolution analogy, right?

Because, surely, Abbott’s not really trying to draw a parallel between the American Revolution and the carbon price package, is he? He wouldn’t really want to promote the idea that Australians are exploited by a government that wants to act like a dictator, take their money and do what it wants with it, would he? And he definitely wouldn’t be pushing a coded message that the country’s in such dire straits that only an armed uprising could free them from their oppressors – right?

Perish the thought.

* For further edification regarding political advertising, I highly recommend The Gruen Nation.

Carbon Reds under the bed

July 11, 2011

I was going to write a serious, thoughtful piece on the carbon price/emissions trading scheme details announced by (among others) Prime Minister Julia Gillard yesterday. It would have been a close examination of the exact price impact on your ‘average’ family earning $150,000 a year. I’d done the research, crunched the numbers, done some comparison shopping to determine just which expensive brand of toilet paper would need to be sacrificed in favour of something cheaper – nay, even ‘on special’. I even worked out how many energy-efficient light bulbs would need to be turned off for a couple of hours every day, so that these poor ‘forgotten families’ wouldn’t suffer the outrageous price slug of $9.73 per week.

Oh, it would have been a glorious piece of analysis. But then I heard this from Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, and my train of thought derailed entirely:

‘The carbon tax has become just another vehicle for redistributing wealth. It’s a form of Socialism masquerading as environmentalism.’

Wait … what??

So let me get this straight, Mr. Abbott. You’re saying that what’s really going on here is that the Labor government is planning to seize the means of production economy-wide, convert Australia from a capitalist ‘production-for-profit’ basis to a socialist ‘production-for-use’ basis, and run the country as a planned economy – all by taxing carbon-dioxide emissions on the biggest polluters, encouraging the development of renewable energy, and cushioning the impact on vulnerable sectors of society?

You’re saying that the government doesn’t really want to mitigate dangerous climate change – it just wants to effect a coup against the democratic process and install itself as our new Socialist overlords? That it went through all these months of research and planning, taking hits in the polls, undergoing nearly endless criticism, in order to lull us all into a false sense of security so that we won’t suspect until it’s too late? That a price on carbon dioxide emissions is, in fact, the ‘Red under the bed’?

Mr. Abbott, have you been listening to old speeches by Robert Menzies again?

But … what if he’s right?? Even now, there could be cells of committed Socialists arming themselves right next door. Come July 1, 2012, we might find ourselves at the mercy of … of … no, I can’t bring myself to say it. Who will save us? Who will institute our House un-Australian Activities Committee? It’s all too horrible.

It’s also utterly absurd. And there’s more than a whiff of desperation about it. I mean, really. Socialism-by-stealth?

Of course, this is no more or less than the sentiment that lies behind every conservative politician’s cry that taxing the wealthy more than the poor is somehow ‘unfair’. These wealthy people worked hard for their money, how dare the government take that away from them? Why, we should give them money, just to make sure that they can stay wealthy. Yes, let’s fund their private schools far above the money allocated to public schools. Let’s give them tax break after tax break. Oh, and let’s make sure we scream loudly about the destruction of Life As We Know It any time someone suggests that social equity is more important to a functioning, sustainable society than runaway profit and economic Darwinism.

It’s just that Abbott has come out from behind his rhetorical smokescreen this time. He isn’t bothering with weasel words or half-truths. And that may be his biggest mistake. Where people might listen to something that sounds plausible, resorting to ‘The Socialists are coming, hide the women and the silver!’ just sounds … well, it sound ridiculous. The Gillard government is about as far from Socialism as it’s possible to get and still remain vaguely progressive. It’s certainly a far cry from Ben Chifley’s enthusiastic embrace of planned economy principles.

But wouldn’t it be good if we could know for sure? If we could somehow travel forward in time to July next year and see what will happen?

* * * * *

July 2, 2012

Dear Diary,

Day 2 of our oppression under the Socialist Carbon Tax Overlords. Sky not fallen. No blood in the streets. Neighbours not digging underground bunker and loading in assault weapons and food. Politicians still waffling. Media still pontificating. Washing needs to go out on the line. Cat needs feeding. Lights still on.

Huh. Looks a lot like Day 1.

The dizzying heights of absurdity

July 5, 2011

Back for the last week of sitting before Parliament’s winter recess, and the rhetoric flies thick and fast. The insults are as predictable as ever, the twisting of facts as despicable as ever … but really, we have reached the dizzying heights of absurdity.

Last night the government confirmed that it will finally release the full details of their carbon price plan on Sunday. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has air time booked on the ABC for the announcement, that will be followed up (under the ABC Charter) with response time from Opposition Leader Tony Abbott immediately following.

Coming on the heels of the announcement that fuel will be exempt from the carbon price for private individuals and small businesses, it looked like the long-promised detail would finally materialise.

But then the Opposition weighed in – and apart from the usual lines, we had this from Tony Abbott.

The fuel exemption will not last – if it happens at all. Why? Because he says so.

And how can he prove that? Well, look at what he said in the election campaign. He said – repeatedly – that ‘as night follows day’ there’d be a carbon tax, and lo and behold, he was right. Therefore, he’s right about this.

Yes, Tony Abbott has the power to predict the future. Now that’s a quality we need in a leader, right?

Honestly, it’s ridiculous. And it’s not the silliest we’ve had this week.

We had Barnaby Joyce on Sky News flatly refusing to countenance any evidence of global sea temperature rises, and rubbishing the credibility of the CSIRO while he was at it. We saw him state that ‘things go in cycles’, that there was ‘hardly any change’, and trot out the old chestnut of ‘it got cooler in the last ten years’.

We had Abbott and Hockey both implying (in several different addresses to media) that economists simply couldn’t be trusted, because they didn’t support the Coalition’s ‘Direct Action’ plan.

And then …

We had Coalition Senators this morning deliberately misrepresenting the role of carbon dioxide in pollution and climate change. At least, we should hope it’s deliberate – because otherwise it reveals a truly terrifying stupidity.

The argument went something like his. How could carbon dioxide be a pollutant? It’s not listed as a pollutant in these books we have here. Don’t plants breathe it?

And wait – 60-70% of our food is made up of carbon. Does that mean we sit down every night to a big plate of pollution?

I wish I were making this up – or even exaggerating.

And what does it all indicate? Apart from a truly astonishing lack of understanding, there are two possibilities as to what’s going on here.

Possibility 1. The Coalition are beginning to openly embrace something that they have vehemently pooh-poohed for some time now. This constant mockery and rubbishing of science points to absolute denialism. Not simply rejecting the idea that human activity has, and is affecting the global climate, mind you – this is outright refusal to acknowledge any global climate change. That’s been the stated position of people like Joyce and former Senator (and kingmaker) Nick Minchin for a long time.

Possibility 2. The Coalition may or may not accept the science, but they have decided that it simply doesn’t matter. They made the political decision to oppose the government, the Greens, and anyone else who urges action to combat climate change. They set out a strategy designed to spread misinformation and confusion, and to cause fear and outright panic in as many sectors of Australia as possible – for one reason only.

To undermine the government, demonise the Greens and ensure a Coalition election victory in 2013, if not much sooner.

I’m not sure which is worse, here – the idea that the Coalition are just cynical opportunists, or that they really believe what they’re saying. Either way … when the country’s representatives come out with absurdities like ‘carbon is good for us, it’s in our food’ as a counter-argument to reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Something’s very wrong.

Waiting for tomorrow all of my life

July 1, 2011

So, it’s been a long time between posts. Part of that is due to illness and deadlines … but let’s be honest here. Most of it is simple disenchantment.

And that’s something I thought I’d never say about politics. I’ve lived, slept and breathed political issues and events for as long as I can remember. In fact, the whole reason for starting this blog was to communicate that love (the unkind might say, obsession) to others – because political engagement is important. It’s not a matter of turning up once every few years to tick a few boxes – or worse, simply voting ‘Mickey Mouse’ and then complaining until the next time that things haven’t got any better. It’s about doing something to shape your world.

But dear God, the current state of Federal politics is as bad as I’ve ever seen it.

It’s not like the wheels are falling off. Legislation’s been passed, resolutions made, the Budget funded. On the whole, government infrastructure is barrelling along merrily – pensions paid, building projects underway, the NBN rolling out. You only have to compare Australia to the United States to see that we’re far better off – after all, we’re not calling emergency Parliamentary sessions to try to raise our credit limit just to keep functioning.

But to hear the Opposition and the pundits talk, we’re one step away from social collapse and riots in the streets. The flood levy will take food from kiddies’ mouths! The mining tax will destroy our major primary industry! The carbon tax will cause the sky to fall and civilisation as we know it will no longer exist! Plain packaging on cigarettes takes away our freedom of choice and turns us into a nanny state! And let’s not forget the oft-repeated lie that any moment now, the Greens will seize the balance of power in the Senate and we’ll all be forced to go back to horse-and-cart travel and hand-grinding our wheat for bread.

The polls show that Tony Abbott is leading Julia Gillard by one per cent! More people want Kevin Rudd to be Prime Minister than Julia Gillard! The government is failing, and we’re all going to hell in a handbasket. But wait – Abbott will bring back WorkChoices, install notorious climate change denier (and some say, troll) Lord Monckton as his official science adviser and give the richest people in the country even more money while taxing the poor right out of their homes!

The Greens! The Greens will save us! But wait, incoming Senator Lee Rhiannon wants to destroy the coal industry. Bob Brown will drag us kicking and screaming to the altar of Marx! People will get gay married! Only an early election will save us! Only a plebiscite will save us!

The hysteria goes on … and on … and on.

And there’s only so long you can battle that sort of thing. You can speak out, you can write blogs, you can contact your local member or relevant Minister, hold protest rallies, but after a while it starts to feel that no one who’s in any position of power cares. Because the loudest voices are the ones with the most money, right?

The Minerals Council mounts a campaign to tell us that mining companies will be forced to close, leaving thousands out of work and whole towns bereft of the income they need to survive – while they close yet another deal guaranteed to bring them millions in selling coal for steel manufacture to China.

Big Tobacco waves lawsuits at the government to try to frighten them into dumping the idea for plain packaging while filing record profit statements and intimidating into silence people whose loved ones are dying because of their products.

The gambling industry lies through its teeth to panic venues and patrons into opposing any form of strategy that might mitigate the harm of problem gambling that is any stronger than a sign saying, ‘Don’t gamble too much’, also while recording huge profits.

GetUp puts out statement after statement, but sinks to the same level of attack and just looks amateurish and bolshy in comparison.

Pro-carbon price ads suffer from having dared to put a known face to the campaign – and the simple argument that ‘hey, this is a good thing’ comes across as ridiculously weak against the fear-filled rhetoric it tries to counter.

And then there are the election ads. Yes, not even a year after the last election, we already have to put up with the kind of rubbish that usually only litters our viewing in the run-up to a national vote. No substance, just clever-clever lines, half-truths and catchy phrases designed to bypass critical thought and stick in the mind.

Meanwhile, one in five Australians doesn’t want either Gillard or Abbott to lead the country. No one knows what to think. No one knows who to believe. Should we blame the minority government? The Independents? Surely things wouldn’t be this bad if we had a clear majority? To the polling booths! Let’s elect a government with a mandate! That’ll fix everything!

I wrote back in September last year that:

‘We have a government. We don’t have to endure another election campaign. The Independents and Adam Bandt have secured strong Parliamentary reforms that will change the way business is done in the House. Local members will find that their voices are louder, and more likely to be heard. We’ll see election advertising closely scrutinised, and some actual information communicated to the People via both advertising and Question Time in Parliament. We have a government committed to serving out a full term, and that will have to seek consensus to pursue its legislative agenda.

Whether you’re left- or right-leaning, this can only be a cause for celebration.’

How wrong I was.

Maybe things will change when the Greens take the balance of power in the Senate. Maybe the big reforms – carbon pricing, tertiary education, mental health, water, human rights, asylum seekers – will finally happen. Maybe we’ll even see Parliament itself get the shake-up we were promised – more substantive questions, less abuse of process and less outright bullshit being flung around in the name of scoring a couple of political points and maybe getting your head on the evening news.

Yeah, maybe things will be better tomorrow – but then, I’ve been waiting for tomorrow all of my life.

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