Does art matter? Does culture matter? It is tempting to say that our belief in these things is a matter of faith: it is axiomatic – we assume as a first principle that art matters, and we use this assumption as a starting point for arguments about philanthropic support for the arts.
By contrast, economic rationalists would point out that most artists are economically unviable. That is true. Creative artists generally have miserable incomes from their art, and survive by teaching or waiting on tables. Performing artists do not have it much better. Depending on their speciality, they may have just as difficult a time as creative artists.
Economic rationalists would argue that pouring money into the arts is irrational unless the consumer considers the transaction to deliver a nett benefit to them.
The economic rationalist will buy the painting which delivers them the greatest pleasure for the lowest price, allowing that part of the pleasure might derive from the conspicuously famous name of the artist.
The economic rationalist will not be tempted to provide philanthropic support for the arts, because that produces no saleable return; the economic rationalist will not be tempted to commission music unless it has a good chance of generating royalties.
I want to explore briefly the assumption that Art matters, and set the argument against economic rationalism.
Vincent Van Gogh sold very few paintings, and those for very little money. Cezanne was once booted out of his lodgings and the angry landlord hurled some of his paintings out of the attic window into the courtyard below. Similar examples can be multiplied endlessly.
Would the world be poorer if Van Gogh had never painted Starry Night, or if Cezanne had not painted Les Bagneuses; or if van Gogh and Cezanne had never painted at all?
Would the world be poorer if Michelangelo had never painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or designed the Duomo in Florence; if Leonardo da Vinci had never painted; if Beethoven or Shostakovitch had never written a note of music?
Imagine a world without Shakespeare or Balzac and ask whether it is better or worse than this world.
It is no answer that paintings by Van Gogh and Cezanne now sell for tens of millions of dollars; that original scores of Beethoven are priceless, likewise the manuscripts of Balzac and Shakespeare.
We do not value these works because of their price tags: the price tags are almost entirely irrelevant to the value we see in these works. Few people would accept that a person who buys an iconic painting could withdraw it forever from public view.
No-one would accept that the purchaser of a great work of art was entitled to destroy it.
The reason this is so is that we all acknowledge that a work of art is more than simply a physical thing capable of being bought and sold.
In profoundly important ways, every work of art carries part of our shared culture and it is that fact which gives the work its true value: a value which bears very little relation to the operation of a market for unique commodities.
The destruction of the library at Byzantium in 1204 and the looting of the national museum of Baghdad in 2004 represent losses which not even the crassest economist has tried to measure in economic terms, because the calculation would be seen by everyone to miss the point completely.
In a remarkable short story by Frederic Raphael, the author speaks of a man whose father was a judge. He grows up with the unstated expectation that he will be a lawyer. In his early adolescence starts writing poetry. He is quite good a it, and keeps writing poetry when all his friends have returned to the cricket pitch. He does well at school and is accepted into a law course, but keeps writing poetry. During his university days, he meets the girl he later marries. She gently persuades him to forget about poetry and concentrate on law. He abandoned a hopeful career as a poet for the much more prosaic career of a lawyer. He prospers in his choice and is eventually appointed to the Bench. Upon his appointment, he has to vacate his chambers and this leads him to the bitter-sweet task of going through the accumulated papers of decades to decide what may be disposed of and what should be retained.
“He had quite forgotten about his adolescent poetry and was astonished to come across a batch of it at the bottom of a cupboard. He smiled – golly! – at the sight of it and took it out and started to read, for a laugh. He expected clinching evidence of the folly of youthful pretensions. His whole happy life had been founded on the assumption that he had been right to abdicate before his wife’s gentle, unmistakable judgment. He sat on the floor of his chambers, boyishly grey, and prepared to be embarrassed by those unburnt embers. Instead, the poems passed sentence on his life. At last, he closed his eyes to escape their indictment, but the unblinking eye in the centre of his forehead gazed and blazed with unique and undeniable vision. He cowered on the floor of the dusty cave and saw that the years of his life had escaped, like Odysseus’s men under the panicky sheep of the blind, deluded Polyphemus. ‘Who are you, who are you?’ he cried. And the voice of the man who had blinded himself replied ‘No-one. No-one.’”
In that short, compelling paragraph the author shows the result of comparing the valuable with the priceless.
If we suspect that the world would be poorer without Beethoven and Mozart, without van Gogh and Cezanne; without Shakespeare and Balzac, we acknowledge the value of art for its own sake.
None of those people created material wealth. None of them derived great material wealth in their lifetimes. The value of unique paintings is a quirk of the market for commodities: the true value of the works is spiritual.
If the manuscript score of all of Beethoven’s symphonies were destroyed, it would be tragic but we would still have the works themselves and our cultural heritage would remain intact.
I recently heard an enchanting story from a friend of mine called Mary who works in a large Melbourne bookshop. She told me about a middle-aged Melbourne woman who ventured shyly into the bookshop. Noticing her bewildered hesitancy, Mary approached her and asked if she was looking for a book. “Yes” she said, “I’ve never bought one before.” This startling comment turned out to be literal truth. She had never bought a book in her life, and was unsure how to go about it. My friend helped identify a book she was likely to enjoy, and the transaction was settled. A couple of weeks later she was back and bought another book. And so it went for some months and as Christmas approached she confided in Mary that she had suggested to her friends that books would be welcome Christmas presents. Mary asked her how she felt now that she had begun reading books: “It is wonderful” she said, “I no longer live in a flat in Kensington – I live in the world.”
There is great force in that comment.
There is great force in the notion that art connects us to the world, to each other, to others we can never meet or know. It affirms and reinforces our integral relationship to the rest of humanity. The wider our encounter with art, the richer that connection becomes.
So art is valuable, in and of itself.
Human language has a vocabulary adapted to accommodate our daily needs and functions: the vocabulary of any human language maps approximately to the needs and activities of our mundane lives.
But few would deny that there is another dimension of human existence which transcends the mundane: call it the soul, the spirit, that part of the human frame which responds to the call of the non-rational.
In the domain of the human spirit, other vocabularies emerge.
Painting, music, poetry, sculpture are all different languages, each with its own unique vocabulary. The vocabulary of each artform gives it access to areas of human experience which are not available to other sorts of language.
This is why works of art are considered less meritorious – at least less interesting – as they become more literal and narrative. If an idea is best expressed in words, why bother expressing it in paint or music instead?
By contrast, some ideas can only be expressed in paint or music: the vocabulary of paint and music share little of the vocabulary of spoken language. I once heard someone ask an abstract expressionist to say what one of his paintings meant. He said “No, I can’t tell you, but I will try to hum it.”
It is neither useful nor interesting to ask what Beethoven’s 5th symphony “means”, or what Carl Vine’s 4th string quartet “means”, if the questioner wants you to say in words what Beethoven or Carl Vine said in music
This is the key to understanding why Art matters. Every form of art is a unique way of seeing, and at its best each form of art says things which cannot be said, or said as compellingly, in any other way.
Deny this, and you close off part of the human spirit. As Victor Hugo said:
Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.
A history of the Weimar Republic speaks of the same things which occupied Kathe Kollwitz and George Grosz, but their work reaches out to us in a quite different way. The story of that time and place would be incomplete without their work.
Try to imagine this country if all practising artists perished overnight. Imagine this country if, for the next generation, there were no new paintings made, no new novels or poems written, no new music, no new sculpture.
Imagine looking back on that bleak and wasted generation in 50 or 100 years time. Like a layer of ash in the archaeological record it would stand as a silent marker of a period of desolation.
Culture is the accumulated record of artistic expression of a time and place. It may present an unattractive picture, or a brilliant one, but it is an essential record unless we take the nihilist view that human existence itself is irrelevant.
The nihilist would see no point in having children. If any one of us matters, then art matters and culture matters. A Society without culture leaves no children; with no past it can have no future.
I am grateful to Fortyfive Downstairs for what follows. Fortyfive Downstairs is an art gallery and performance space in Flinders Lane, Melbourne: https://www.fortyfivedownstairs.com/wp2016/
Like the artists it supports, Fortyfive Downstairs is having a hard time because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Anyway, this is from its latest newsletter:
|In the first terrible days of the pandemic, the fate of the Arts (and particularly the artists) seemed to be forgotten, and their importance to our well-being overlooked. This week their significance has been eloquently expressed in an ArtsHub article by Professor Peter O’Connor (University of Auckland Faculty of Education and Social Work):
‘Our connection to the arts sits at the heart of our shared humanity. We all know instinctively that when the world is in a mess, the arts are there for us Movies, music, online theatre and games, making art in our garages and our homes have become a key part of how we manage the fears and disruption of physical isolation.
If the arts are vital for the present, they are even more important for our future. They feed and nourish our imaginations. A better world can only be made if we first imagine that it is possible.’
Most artists make a lot out of very limited (financial) resources
This has been brought home vividly by artists who’ve used new technology to create and share wonderful events with choirs, orchestras, and music of all genres. But fantastic though this is, it’s only a substitute for the real thing – hearing and physically feeling the notes of a cello reverberate in a recital space, or sharing the pleasure of an outstanding theatre performance with a like-minded audience. This was expressed rather poignantly by The Age film reviewer, Jake Wilson, in an article last weekend:‘It’s not the total experience of the real thing’ he wrote, ‘Streaming is no substitute for the shared cinema experience’. And it’s the experiences of our audiences that we’re impatient to bring back as soon as we’re able to have a timetable to do so.
Donald Trump refers to himself as “A Very Stable Genius”. And a disturbing book about him by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig bears that as its title.
I have just been sent a send-up of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “I am the very Model of a Modern Major-General”. from Pirates of Penzance.
Unless you are a keen Trump fan, or a one-eyed G&S fan, this is very funny:
And here’s a link to the G&S original: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSGWoXDFM64
When they fall, they fall like Lucifer (Shakespeare, Henry VIII, Act 3)
Climate change is the single biggest issue facing the world today.
Perhaps the biggest issue that has ever faced the human race.
Climate change resists simple solutions. To begin tackling it, we must first begin undoing the complex web of factors that have existed for centuries and have brought us to this point.
- Global structures that have been based on fossil fuels and the exploitation of cheap energy and labour for centuries
- The inequalities and power dynamics that are the legacy of colonisation
- Giant corporations that have more power now than ever before in history and will do anything to protect their profits: The East India Company once ran India: global corporations today make the power of the East India Company look modest.
- And a new global economic system that has eroded the power of nation states to set and effectively enforce policy.
This complex web of factors makes it more difficult to solve the climate change issue: more interests are involved than, for example, in banning the use of CFCs in order to reduce the hole in the ozone layer.
For many people climate change is a relatively new issue. It was brought into public focus in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. It was reiterated by Kevin Rudd, who in 2007 called it the ‘greatest moral challenge of our time’. And he went to Copenhagen in 2009 but somehow he lost his way after that.
But scientists have known for a long time that climate change was happening.
In the 1820s, the French mathematician Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier was trying to understand the various factors that affect Earth’s temperature. But he found a problem – according to his calculations, the Earth should have been a ball of ice.
The Sun did not seem to provide enough energy to raise the temperature of Earth above freezing. Fourier’s initial ideas, that there must be additional energy coming from the Earth’s core or from the temperature of outer space, were soon dismissed. Fourier then realised that the atmosphere, which at first seemed transparent, could be playing a crucial role.
In 1861, the Irish physicist John Tyndall demonstrated that gases such as methane and carbon dioxide absorbed infrared radiation, and could trap heat within the atmosphere. He recognised the implications and said that these gases “would produce great effects on the terrestrial rays and produce corresponding changes of climate.”
He was right. But in 1861 the amount of CO2 which was being released into the atmosphere was a tiny fraction of what happens today. Although CO2 levels started to rise with the industrial revolution, when Tyndall drew attention to the subject, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was less than 300 ppm. It now peaks at something like 410 ppm.
In the 1890s the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius identified the warming influence of water vapour in the atmosphere. This was the first indication of a positive feedback loop: more CO2 meant a warmer atmosphere; a warmer atmosphere can hold more water as vapour; more water vapour in the atmosphere traps more heat, and so on.
In the 1950s the Canadian physicist Gilbert Plass confirmed that doubling the level of CO2 in the atmosphere would lead to an increase in global temperatures of 3-4 decrees Celsius.
In the 1970s, Exxon knew that burning fossil fuels was warming the planet. This was years before it became a public issue. Exxon understood what this would mean for its business, and has since spent an estimated $30 million promoting the denial of climate change and questioning the science. Gosh: that’s how the tobacco industry defended itself: deny the science, create doubt, attack your opponents.
25 years ago the first UN Climate Change conference was held in Berlin. World leaders came together to work out what to do about climate change. In 1995 there was about 358 ppm of CO2 in the air.
Now, 25 years later when the first global climate agreement is finally in place, the figure is more than 400 ppm.
That has locked the planet into 1 degree of warming even if we stop burning all fossil fuels right now.
Burning fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum, and natural gas is the leading cause of increased anthropogenic CO2; deforestation is the second major cause.
The rate of increase in the release of CO2 into the atmosphere is startling:
In the 150 years from 1751 to 1900, about 12 gigatonnes of CO2 were released from fossil fuels and cement production worldwide.
In the 112 years from 1901 to 2013 the figure was about 1,400 Gigatonnes: an average of about 12 gigatonnes of CO2 per year, but the rate has been accelerating:
In 1990: 22.5 gigatonnes of CO2
In 2010, 33.5 gigatonnes of CO2
Half of the greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere were released after 1988. If fossil fuel companies were honest about the damage fossil fuels cause, we wouldn’t be in the situation where we have a 5 year window in which to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
But, thanks to the work of Exxon and other fossil fuel companies who put their own profits above the future of the planet, we’ve suffered through 26 years of policy inaction. Even worse, their climate denialism has muddied the water so much that people now believe climate change is a conspiracy dreamed up by the Chinese or a corrupt UN that wants to take over the world meaning that effective national policies that will have the least cost impact are often difficult or impossible to achieve.
In democracies, these tactics poses a very real threat. At a time when entire nations are at risk of sinking below the seas, Donald Trump has committed to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement because quote: The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive. Here in Australia, we are no better! The Australian Government continues to block any real action on climate change and our former Prime Minister claimed that ‘coal is good for humanity’ and our current Prime Minister seems largely beholden to the far right’s agenda on the issue: more coal and gas and no national strategy to reduce emissions or plan for a transition from fossil fuels.
This is compounded by the fact that developed countries like Australia, the UK and the US – whose centuries of reliance on coal, oil and gas have caused this climate crisis – are increasingly turning into national fortresses, leaving the most vulnerable to a changing climate stranded, quite literally, at sea.
Let’s take a moment to look at what Australia is doing — or not doing — on climate change.
A report in the Guardian Australia on 30 November illustrates the problem. An expert advisory panel reported that Coal-fired Queensland, with just 7% of its power generation from renewables, could lift that to 50% by 2030 with little appreciable cost to electricity consumers. The Queensland government would subsidise renewables. The federal energy minister, Josh Frydenberg criticised the report. The Guardian article continues:
Coal companies like Rio Tinto have called on Queensland to abandon its own renewables target to simply align with the commonwealth’s 2020 goal of 20%. But Bailey says it’s clear the state’s plan was “developed in the absence of federal policy” and with doubt that even the 2020 commonwealth target will be achieved.
He says the failure of the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to put policy daylight between him and his predecessor, Tony Abbott, shows conservative politics in Australia will be dragged kicking and screaming towards energy sector reform.
Antipathy towards renewables and acting on climate change among the hard right of the Coalition stands in contrast to moves by “conservative parties in other parts of the world”, Bailey says. He cites Germany and California as advanced economies already boasting more than 30% renewable power.
“You go to Europe, this is not an issue,” he says. “It seems to be a particular LNP [Liberal National party] Australian thing but they seem extraordinarily intransigent on it and, while we see more and more extreme weather events occur, they are stopping us from dealing with some of those big issues around climate change. …”
We are a uniquely embarrassing case on the global stage, in that early on, we put in place a fairly comprehensive domestic climate policy with a carbon price by the minority Gillard Government that was then dismantled and replaced with an impotent measure that pays polluters and has seen our emissions rise every year since.
Watching Malcolm Turnbull fade into the shadow of what he could have been is like watching the slow destruction of a man the country once respected on so many of our most important issues. He has been so unwilling to lead his party, and has granted so much power to the fringe right of his party – particularly on the issue of climate change and asylum seekers – that Australia’s global reputation on climate change has gone from global leader to global threat.
As a case in point, here is a short but non exhaustive list of what the Government has done since the world signed the Paris Agreement just a years ago:
- Fast-tracked the Adani coal mine in Queensland – one of the biggest coal basins in the world that if developed would blow any chance the world has of remaining below 2 degrees of global warming. This is more than just a climate fight. It is also a fight over land rights and how the government has granted mining leases on indigenous land and repeatedly refuses to acknowledge the claim by the traditional Wangan and Jagalingou owners on this land.
- Attacked environmental groups standing up for our climate and to protect our natural environment. The Turnbull Government has launched a two pronged attack on environment groups – the first attack is by seeking to amend the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act — or the EPBC. This act allows groups and individuals to legally challenge resource projects if they are a threat to water or the environment. This is an incredibly important provision – introduced by the Howard Government – that allows for a check and balance on Government’s power. The second attack is on the tax deductible status of environmental not-for-profits. This is an attempt to silence groups like 350.org and others who are standing up against fossil fuel projects.
- Recently, investigative reporting discovered that the government censored a UN report on the extent of bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef and how much of a role climate change had to play in it. Even though the health of the reef recently got a “D” on the Australian government’s annual report card for the fifth year in a row and large-scale bleaching in the northern part of the reef threatens to see it never return to a productive state.
- The Government has launched an ideological war on renewable energy after the recent South Australian blackout. This culminated in Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg attempting to bully the states out of their ambitious renewable energy targets and pushing them instead to focus on promulgating onshore gas production. As you, probably know, gas is in fact a non-renewable fossil fuel that releases methane into the atmosphere that is 86x more potent than carbon at warming the planet.
- And then there was Tony Abbott’s asking the mining industry to “demonstrate its gratitude” to the retiring Federal Resources Minister – Ian MacFarlane – who dismantled the mining tax. The Industry duly listened, and MacFarlane broke a Parliamentary code of ethics by accepting a $500k per year job with the Queensland Resources Council — on top of his $140k Parliamentary pension — so that he can spruik for the Adani Carmichael coal mine in Queensland.
- The Australian government actively resisted and watered down restrictions on financing of coal plants by OECD export credit agencies in 2015 because the government wants more coal plants to be built so that there are new markets for Australian coal.
- The Government has slashed the budget of ARENA — Australian Renewable Energy Agency — by $500 million– after trying to kill it off entirely. ARENA provides grants to innovative new renewables projects and is essential to keeping Australia at the forefront of research and development. If Turnbull was serious about ‘innovation’, ARENA would be the flagship organisation of this push. Instead, the Government created and funnelled money into a new major national fossil fuel research program called the Oil, Gas & Energy Resources Growth centre. You couldn’t dream this stuff up!
Australia’s political donation laws are outdated and not up to the task, so it is hard to get a clear view of how much is actually donated. But between 2012 and the 2019 election the fossil fuel industry donated about $8 million to the major parties.
In return the industry had unbeatable access to the ears of our decision makers (including some of the most plum and influential roles in the country on retirement) and it received billions of dollars by way of subsidies, and priority access to any land they wanted to develop and.
Indirect donations and the revolving door of jobs — such as that of the former Minister Macfarlane — would show significantly more influence.
Brad Burke, the former Corporate Affairs Director of Santos, became Malcolm Turnbull’s senior strategist.
Senator James McGrath became a QLD Liberal Senator.
Patrick Gibbons was the corporate affairs manager of mining company Alcoa was Greg Hunt’s senior adviser as Environment Minister.
One of Josh Frydenberg’s advisers previously worked for Shell and then for Energy Australia.
That our Government is awash with former fossil fuel executives goes a long way to explaining why we are currently a global embarrassment on climate change. And as to why we are not addressing our biggest contribution to climate change: that Australia remains the world’s biggest coal exporter.
To use a crude analogy: if fossil fuels are the drug, then Australia is the pusher.
This is a nice little arrangement between the fossil fuel industry and our Government. By exporting our coal, we are exporting our emissions to other countries that we are not required to take responsibility for under our UN climate commitments. Just Australia’s domestic emissions equate to 1.5% of the world’s carbon emissions – making us16th in the world.
But, if we add emissions from our exported coal to our domestic emissions, Australia’s carbon footprint trebles in size and we become the 6th largest emitter after China, the USA, Russia, India and Indonesia – all of which have populations over 250 million.
Even worse is that if the proposed Adani coal mine and development of the Galilee Basin supported by the Qld and Federal Governments, we would be responsible for 705 million tonnes of CO2 per year. Opening up the entire Galilee Basin would see Australia become the world’s seventh largest contributor of emissions in the world!
It is a matter of note that Clive Palmer, who spent $80 million in his ostensible run for parliament in the 2019 election and was second preference to the Liberal Party in every seat in the country, also controls a company which wants to open a new coal mine in the Galilee Basin, and Palmer wants Adani to get approval so his company can share the coastal rail link with Adani.
This is at a time when reports are telling us that if there is any chance of avoiding the ‘safe’ 2 degree warming scenario that NO NEW FOSSIL FUEL PROJECTS can go ahead, and that current ones need to be scaled back.
Fundamentally, we have to do better.
Globally Australia is under extreme pressure to lift its game on climate. At the recent UN climate meeting in Marrakesh, we got more questions than any other country. Including questions from allies like the US and NZ. And from countries like China that want to know why we have no credible climate policy and what we are going to do about it.
BUT, the Morrison Government, like the Abbott and Turnbull Governments, appears to be impervious to international pressure.
So, it is therefore up to us – Australian citizens – to lead the way on climate and make the moral case for climate change leadership.
We need to emphasise that by refusing to act we are missing out on the new jobs that the transition to clean energy is creating. China, Europe and the US are investing billions into this burgeoning industry, while Australia has cut its funding to that same source of new jobs. The Palmer influence in the 2019 election shows just how short-sighted we can be.
We need to emphasise that global warming is real, and if we let it run away from us we are mortgaging the future of our children and grandchildren. The Federal Treasurer emphasises that we must avoid creating inter-generational debt. He says this in connection with the Federal budget. He needs to understand that climate change is the biggest inter-generational debt imaginable.
We need to emphasise that climate change provides the biggest existential threat to our neighbouring Pacific Islands and across Asia. At least five reef islands in the remote Solomon Islands have been lost completely to sea-level rise. The rapid changes in the Solomon Islands have already seen whole coastal communities needing to be relocated. These are communities that have in many cases lived in these areas for generations.
Historically, Australia has been looked to as a leader in the Pacific region. Our recent approach to climate policy has severely weakened this view. Responding to the scrapping of the carbon tax and the defunding of climate science research bodies, the Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony de Brum said this:
“It just does not make sense, it goes against the grain of the world.
Not only [is Australia] our big brother down south, Australia is a member of the Pacific Islands Forum and Australia is a Pacific island, a big island, but a Pacific island. It must recognise that it has a responsibility.
The problems that have befallen the smaller countries are also Australia’s problems. You cannot remove Australia from the life and blood of the Pacific.”
For our conservative politicians climate change is a ‘wedge’ issue they can use against the Labor Party and the Greens to prove to their fringe right constituencies and their cheerleaders in the Murdoch press that they have the right mettle for the job.
The recent example of Jacinda Ardern’s response to the Christchurch killings shows powerfully what political leadership looks like; and reminds us that Australia simply has no political leadership at all.
We need to emphasise that climate change provides the biggest existential threat to the identity of Australia itself. What sort of country are we? Are we really a country that would do nothing to save the planet? Are we a country willing to destroy our region and mortgage the lives of future generations so we can continue to live prosperous, self-indulgent lives.
What we need to do is consider the precautionary principle. More particularly, we need to force our politicians to consider the precautionary principle. About 97% of the world’s scientists accept that climate change is real, anthropogenic and dangerous. Deniers would point out that science is not decided by popular vote. True enough, although it is often useful to listen to people who know what they are talking about. But let’s accept it: the scientists may be wrong.
Let’s give odds of 80% against the scientists: that is, let’s assume there is an 80% chance they are wrong. But if they are right, if the 20% chance comes in, the result will be catastrophic and could have been avoided. 20% chance of a catastrophic, avoidable result is worse odds than Russian Roulette. So next time someone argues the denialist case, ask them if they are willing to play Russian Roulette with their children or grand-children.
There is another way of looking at it. Let’s just say there is only a 5% chance that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is right. Only a 5% chance of a catastrophic outcome unless we take serious steps. Well, if you were boarding a plane to Sydney and you were told there is only a 5% chance of it crashing, would you get on board?
And let’s face it: if we spend the money to avoid climate change, and if the denialists turn out to be right, the worst you can say is that we cleaned up the planet for no reason…
In my opinion we have to make sure it never gets to this. We cannot trust the lives of millions of people to the whims of inward-looking fortress nation states.
That is why the current moment in history is critical. Until recently, the fossil fuel industry had a firm grip on the levers of power. They have been able to manipulate governments around the world to ensure that they could continue to drill, dig and frack for oil, coal and gas. But the world is rapidly changing.
A powerful global movement against fossil fuels is building. It is helped by the internet and a determination to build a better world. It includes local communities, first nations people, university students, farmers, politicians, business leaders, even politicians.
This movement is forcing a reckoning on the future of fossil fuels. It was behind the success of the Paris Agreement in 2015. It is why BP walked away from drilling for oil in the Great Australian Bight. It was the cause of the ban on unconventional gas in Victoria. It is behind the states and communities announcing ambitious renewable energy targets despite every Federal Government effort to undo these targets.
The potential is huge. But its power rests with you.
2019 has been a bad year for progressive causes and particularly for climate change at a time when we can least afford it. A Liberal government was elected in 2016. Since 2016, things have got worse, but in 2019 a Liberal government was elected, in what was widely referred to as a climate Change Election: and a great deal of the Morrison government’s success was due to support for Adani in Queensland: a push which received enormous help from Clive Palmer, whose companies intend to open more coal mines in the Galilee Basin, alongside Adani.
How embarrassing are we?
But politics is like a pendulum and we need to be ready for when it swings back. Donald Trump will stumble. In Australia, the Turnbull Government lost the faith of the people just five months after the Federal election. Perhaps the same thing will happen to the new Morrison government, which shows a conspicuous lack of talent and vision.
But, as Shakespeare said, When they fall, they fall like Lucifer – never to hope again.
They will resist.
We need to be resolute.
We need to be strong.
We need to be ready.
We need a robust and diverse movement of Australians ready to prove to our politicians that climate change matters. The movement against fossil fuels doesn’t have money or vested interests on our side. But we have the science, the evidence of the impacts already happening, and the liveability of our planet, our very future, as our authority.
Now we need to use it.
Scott Morrison is now Prime Minister of Australia. Read this article in the Guardian Australia about a 7-year-old held on Nauru and remember: Scott Morrison could fix this in an instant, if he was true to his stated beliefs.
It is amazing to see how far dishonesty and hypocrisy can get you in this country.
Scott Morrison’s maiden speech in Parliament placed great emphasis on his Christian values. Among other things he said:
“So what values do I derive from my faith? My answer comes from Jeremiah, chapter 9:24:
… I am theLord who exercises loving-kindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things, declares the Lord.
From my faith I derive the values of loving-kindness, justice and righteousness, to act with compassion and kindness, acknowledging our common humanity and to consider the welfare of others; to fight for a fair go for everyone to fulfil their human potential and to remove whatever unjust obstacles stand in their way, including diminishing their personal responsibility for their own wellbeing; and to do what is right, to respect the rule of law, the sanctity of human life and the moral integrity of marriage and the family. We must recognise an unchanging and absolute standard of what is good and what is evil. Desmond Tutu put it this way:
… we expect Christians … to be those who stand up for the truth, to stand up for justice, to stand on the side of the poor and the hungry, the homeless and the naked, and when that happens, then Christians will be trustworthy believable witnesses.
These are my principles.”
If those are Scott Morrison’s principles, he is not a man of his principles. During his time as Immigration Minister, Morrison showed no trace of “loving kindness” or justice or compassion for refugees who came to Australia by boat looking for protection from persecution.
Peter Dutton claims to be Christian, but he boycotted Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations in February 2008. Like other members of Coalition governments during the past 16 years, he refers to boat people as “illegal” and he administers a system of detention which shows astonishing cruelty.
This is not the place to give details of Australia’s mistreatment of refugees: the facts are well-enough known. Equally well-known is the Coalition message that a harsh refugee policy is essential to protect refugees from the risk of drowning.
But to suggest that Morrison and other politicians are worried about refugees drowning is a lie: a fig-leaf to make immoral mistreatment look compassionate. “Worried about people drowning”! So worried that, if they don’t drown, we punish them as if they were criminals, and call them “illegal” to make their punishment look vaguely respectable. We do it, explicitly, as a deterrent so that others will not try to find safety in Australia. And these dishonest politicians, pretending to be motivated by compassion, overlook altogether that if persecuted people stand their ground and are killed by their persecutors, they are still dead: just as if they drowned; if they die in an attempt to escape to some other country, they are still dead: just as if they drowned.
For politicians like Morrison, Abbott, Turnbull and Dutton to say they are worried about boat people drowning is a lie. For them to mistreat asylum seekers in the way they do is a betrayal of the Christian values they cherish.
Our new PM, Scott Morrison, is a dishonest hypocrite, just like the PM he replaces and Dutton, who replaced him as Immigration Minister.
Recently I was invited to speak at the annual dinner of AFOPA (Australian Friends of Palestine Association) in Adelaide:
Australian Friends of Palestine Association – 4 November 2017
It sounds pathetic: I just did not know.
I did not realise what was being done to Palestinians.
I was vaguely aware of troubles in Israel, of course. I was vaguely aware of reports of Palestinian youths causing trouble, throwing stones at Israeli settlers. I was vaguely aware that Israelis who were attacked would strike back. And of course, like most people, I was aware that the State of Israel was established as a homeland for the Jews who are one of the most persecuted races in all of history.
But I did not realise how shockingly the human rights of Palestinians are being violated.
It’s 69 year since al-Nakba: when more than 800,000 Palestinians were driven out of their homes; 500 villages were destroyed; 15,000 Palestinians were killed.
It’s 100 years since the Balfour Declaration. The Balfour Declaration originated in a letter written by Lord Balfour on 2 November 1917: 2 days after the famous charge of the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade.
Back then, the Palestinians fought alongside the British. They didn’t get much gratitude: the Balfour Declaration included this paragraph:
His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
As it turned out, the rights of Palestinians have been comprehensively trashed.
And when Malcolm Turnbull went to Beersheba recently to celebrate the famous battle, no Palestinian leader was invited to attend.
The abuses of the human rights of Palestinians are getting worse. In particular, Palestinian children are grossly mistreated, despite the provisions of various international human rights conventions to which Israel is a party.
Palestinian children as young as 12 :
- Are being arrested in their homes, at night, between 10pm and 5 am
- Are being taken away, blindfolded, hooded, their hands tied
- They are often placed on the floor of the van that takes them away, and they are taken by long, slow routes, so they often spend hours on the floor in the back of the van
- They are physically abused: head-butted, kicked, tasered, dragged across the ground
- They are strip-searched and threatened
- They are interrogated without being told they are entitled to have their parents present; without being told they are entitled to have a lawyer present; without any warning that they have the right to remain silent
- Some Palestinian children have been held in solitary confinement for weeks on end.
And beyond all this, there is the Israeli Defence Force’s use of administrative detention: detention without charge, without trial; sometimes for months.
John Lyons recently published a piece in the Weekend Australian. It includes this paragraph:
“Twice a week they had children’s days when children as young as 12 faced the army judges. I caught a glimpse of four young boys, in brown prison overalls, shuffling across the courtyard. They were handcuffed and shackled at the feet. I thought: if the 1nost powerful army in the Middle East thinks it’s acceptable to treat children like this, then something has gone badly wrong…”
Israel has been warned that these things are a gross violation of international human rights norms. Its response has been to suppress information about what it is doing.
The legal rights of Palestinian children are not the same as the legal rights of Israeli children. Palestinian children are treated as legally responsible when they are 12; Israeli children are not legally responsible until they are 14. Israeli children are taken to a civil court; Palestinian children are taken to a military court. Israeli children are taken to a civil court; Palestinian children are taken to a military court. Israeli children are treated properly if they come into contact with the criminal justice system; Palestinian children are not.
Israel is making the same tragic mistake Australia makes in relation to boat people. It seems to have forgotten completely the most fundamental point: these are human beings.
Anyone who criticises Israel’s conduct can expect a fierce response. John Lyons writes about it. Anthony Loewenstein has experienced it, and so have I.
I do not wish to deflect attention from the mistreatment of Palestinians for one moment, but it is worth noticing that we have a parallel set of events in Australia.
Australian Aborigines know what it is like to have your land taken; they know what it is like to be kept out of privileged areas; they know what it is like to be given a different, and inferior, legal status; they know what it is like for their children to be taken, mistreated, turned into aliens in their own land.
As I learned what was being done to Palestinian children, I had a recurring vision of the Aboriginal children in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre.
And Australia has a terrible record for mistreatment of children whose parents brought them to Australia as boat people: they get locked up indefinitely, in what the legal system regards as…yes…”administrative detention”. No charge, no trial.
It is eminently appropriate that AFOPA was founded in South Australia. South Australia leads this country in many things, not least in its advocacy for decent treatment of boat people. And South Australia is the only State where an Aboriginal man, who was taken from his parents when he was 13 months old, was accepted by a Court to have been taken unlawfully, and to have suffered harm as a result.
South Australians seem to understand human rights. Please support the work of AFOPA: keep reminding our politicians that what is being done to Palestinians is utterly unacceptable; donate to charities which concern themselves with human rights: especially Military Court Watch, which is doing remarkable work reporting the atrocious treatment of Palestinians. And hit social media: make sure Australians learn the truth about what is happening. After all, if our political “leaders” hide from the truth, let’s use the new democracy of social media to remind them.
I am often asked “What can I do about refugee policy?”
Well here’s an idea Kate came up with: get a group of friends together and agree to meet once a week.
At those weekly meetings, agree on things you can do during the following week: helping at the local refugee support group is one possibility.
One thing you CAN do is write to Federal MPs. There’s a few pointers about how to do this effectively: click here. Key points: write letters: pen and paper (not emails, not SMS); keep it short: give them nowhere to hide.
Classic sample letter:
I am a voter (in your electorate). I have two questions:
- Do you think boat people are “illegal”?
- If so, what offence do they commit?
Yours Faithfully… “
There are lots of other possible questions here.
Write to members of both major parties. If you don’t get an answer (an answer as distinct from a non-responsive reply) write again: after all, this is supposed to be a representative democracy.
If enough people do this every week, so that all federal MPs get lots of letters, maybe they will start to get the picture.
I recently received a letter which was directed to all Federal MPs and was copied to a number of refugee organisations.
The subject line is: Taxpayer funded time spent on other people’s lives
It sets out very well how Australia is failing in its treatment of refugees. Here is the letter:
Ltr to MPs 15 Feb 2018
Earlier I wrote about a person who emails me with very odd views about Islam. Here are some of this person’s toxic ideas. He advocates:
- banning all Muslims from Australia
- supporting Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump
- putting all Australian Muslims in Concentration Camps
- strafing Muslim boat people (for the millennials, strafing means machine gunning)
And he quotes Adolf Hitler to advance some of his poisonous views.
Today, I got another email from him, in which he said that the Muslims who are facing genocide in Myanmar are simply being punished for 9/11.
That prompted me to ask him a couple of questions. My questions, and his answers, are as follows (prepare to be shocked):
Q1:How many of the thousands of Muslims being killed in Myanmar were involved, directly or indirectly, in 9/11?
A: All the Muslims receiving divine retribution in Myanmar were indirectly involved in 9/11. Anyone who believes that non-Muslims should be killed, especially if they are Jews or homosexuals and who give credence to the evil ideology of Islam are collectively guilty.
Q2: I get the clear impression that you think it is OK to kill people because of their religion, regardless whether they have done anything wrong. Or have I misunderstood?
A: I do not consider Islam to be a religion. Islam is an ideology that hides behind a cloak of religion. During WW2 the allies bombed civilians in Germany and Japan. These civilians may themselves have done nothing wrong, however they were collectively guilty. No allied aircrew were ever prosecuted for killing these people. I rest my case
This provoked me. I responded:
I understand your answers, and I disagree profoundly.
You clearly have no conception of the rule of law, or of any recognisable form of ethics. Your willingness to countenance the slaughter of countless thousands of people because of their religion (or ideology, if you prefer) is, quite frankly, appalling.
I do not know what religion or ideology you adhere to, if any. If you claim to be a Christian, it is clear that you know nothing about the teachings of Christianity.
Your answers disclose a degree of bigotry which astonishes me, despite the shocking content of some of the emails you have sent me in the past.
Your attitudes disgust me.
WikiLeaks’ publisher Julian Assange will have been arbitrarily detained by the UK at the Ecuadorian embassy in London for five years as of Monday June 19, 2017 (nearly seven years in the UK total). There are many valuable lessons in the case for the international human rights system, refugee law and diplomatic relations.
An Amicus brief has been filed in Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The essential points of the Amicus brief are these:
1. states have the right and sometimes the duty to grant asylum in areas of effective control such as embassies; a related practice is seen in UN compounds
2. the importance of this norm is increasingly seen in its actual and potential contribution to saving lives and keeping order by assessing refugees at or near their source of origin
3. the host state (the state that the embassy etc. is located in) has positive and negative duties in relation to the asylum granted
4. should the host state not facilitate enjoyment of the asylum or remove the underlying threat that gave rise to it the asylum seeker will eventually suffer indefinite detention by virtue of their ongoing confinement
5. the indefinite detention of an asylum seeker is a form of arbitrary detention creating additional obligations on the host state to restore freedom of movement to the asylum seeker
6. in practice most host states resolve the actual or threatened arbitrary detention of such asylum seekers through safe passage out of the territory or by removing the underlying threat
(the US continues its attempts to bring a prosecution against Mr. Assange for revealing human rights abuses by its military and secret services; the UK continues its attempt to arrest him for applying for asylum in the first instance as a claimed “bail violation” of his house arrest conditions; Sweden dropped its extradition warrant and closed its investigation after finally taking his statement last year–he was never charged. details: https://justice4assange.com/).
The English translation of the Amicus brief is here: Amicus_brief_English
Successive Australian governments have boasted their success at “stopping the boats” That is, they have stopped the boats arriving: we know they are still setting out, because our navy turn them back.
But are we saving any lives by stopping refugees from getting to Australia? No, we are not.
Leave aside the refugees who are killed in detention (Reza Berati) or who die of medical neglect in detention (Hamid Khazaie) or who kill themselves in despair (Omid, just the other day, and others).
What happens to people who are deterred from fleeing to escape persecution and are killed by their persecutors. Have a look. Feel uncomfortable. The main difference is that, if a boat sinks in Australian waters, we see it. If people do not flee, and they are killed by their persecutors, we do not see them die:
News from Nauru:
“Guards have raided and ransacked single women’s quarters in Nauru. Looking for phones and cameras etc. One woman was arrested, why?, who then cut her wrist and chest in police custody. Mina Taherkhani had a Heart Attack and has been sent to IHMS in Nauru.”
And here is part of a news report about detainee S99:
Bianca Hall, Legal Affairs reporter
Published: April 14, 2016 – 9:23PM
“[A] young African refugee known only as S99 was in the midst of a violent epileptic seizure when she was set upon and
raped on Nauru.
She was semi-conscious during the rape and is unable to identify her attacker. Now, she is nine weeks pregnant and
desperate to have an abortion.
Since her rape, the young woman has attempted suicide. She continues to suffer from anxiety and post-traumatic
symptoms. She can’t sleep, and she has received no ongoing psychological care.
Abortion is illegal on Nauru and the woman – who has been accepted as a refugee by the island nation – is seeking an
abortion on Australian soil, arguing it has a responsibility to provide her with the medical care she needs.
But instead of bringing her to Australia for the termination, Australian authorities last week transferred her to Papua New
Guinea where, according to the country’s criminal code, a woman who attempts to “procure her own miscarriage” faces a
maximum seven years’ imprisonment.
Clouding the situation is a PNG policy that says abortion is lawful only if the mother’s mental or physical health are at
On Wednesday last week, Australian authorities woke the woman and told her she would be immediately transferred to
PNG. She was taken to a hotel in the PNG capital of Port Moresby, told she would be taken to a medical appointment the
next day, and left alone. Then, she called her lawyer, George Newhouse. …”
News from Manus:
“Last night was tragic. me and one of my boat mates who recently arrived from *** Compound were hanging out in his room and we were sharing some clips on our phones and a Wilson guard stormed into room without knocking or anything and we both got caught with phone in hands. He send code black on radio and lots of Wilson arrived. My friend got angry and outta control, he was resisting the first Wilson guy not to come inside the room however the guy come on his blanket with shoes one where he sleep..a total mess, chaos, now my friend in Chaukka… (sad emoticons) Just a phone, nothing…have to fight with life to save it (sad emoticons) The place we sleep mean nothing to them…all came with shoes on stepping on pillows, blanket.”
“I am still waiting for friend to come back from Chaukka…last night dozens of them hold him, by twisting his arms, legs, dragging along the corridor like animal about to slaughter. So sad, so feeling bad for him….”
So this is Australian values in 2016. Brought to you by:
Mike Pezzullo https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Pezzullo, and
Peter Dutton https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Dutton and
Malcolm Turnbull https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malcolm_Turnbull .
The Refugee Council of Australia is launching a social media campaign that aims to stand up for the victims of refugee abuse by launching HushTag – the tweet that’s all-hashtag, leaving no room for freedom of speech.
Please visit http://hushtag.sh and hit “Tweet it” to show your support.
The HushTag reads:
In Australian detention centers, there have been 100 known cases of sexual assault, child abuse and even murder, under the current government. Not one single perpetrator has been brought to justice and every day they go unpunished.
In 2015, The Australian Border Force act made it illegal for Detention Center works to talk about abuse of refugees in detention onshore or offshore. The penalty is two years in prison: Mind you, if ANY health worker is prosecuted for disclosing facts which reveal the harm which is being inflicted by detention, I will arrange the best pro bono defence ever seen in this country.
HushTag uses two tweets to demonstrate the injustice of the legislation while also leaving no room for freedom of speech. The means we can re-tweet without fear of prosecution, with a goal of reaching 100,000 tweets.
Social campaigns can have monumental power to be heard, bring to light legislative injustices and place them on the political agenda. The first step is social awareness; be a part of the cause for change, tweet the HushTag and support freedom of speech. The goal is to reach 100,000 mentions by mid-May to coincide with a joint Parliamentary sitting. Your support will be commemorated by ‘The Wall of Voices’ on the hushtag.sh webpage.
As part of this social campaign, you can also push the message visually by taping an ‘X’ over your lips and posting this with the above hashtag. I can send through a sneak peak of the social influencers pack for visual if you like?
Workers from the Refugee Council of Australia can freely tweet this without fear of prosecution. By seeding the HushTag through uncensored social channels, namely Twitter and Instagram, you’re fighting the Border Force Act and simultaneously adding your voice to a Digital Petition.
You can find further information on hushtag.sh
David Isaacs has published a compelling piece in the British Medical Journal titled “Are healthcare professionals working in Australia’s
immigration detention centres condoning torture?”
You can read it here
So this is how the rest of rthe world sees us.
And don’t forget what we are doing to little children:
Chinese artist and dissident, Ai Weiwei, has an exhibition of portraits in Lego at the National Gallery of Victoria in St Kilda Rd.
It runs from 10 December 2015 to 24 April 2016 and features the images of 40 Australian human rights activists. The portraits are made from hundreds of thousands of Chinese-made plastic bricks (in the style of Lego). The portraits include Rosie Batty, Julian Assange, Archie Roach and me.
“It is about the activists or the people who speak out for human rights in Australia,” Ai said.
I am honoured to be among them. His image of me comes from this photo Barry Jones took of me one day after a memorable lunch (you can draw your own conclusions) and is included below the BJ original:
The quote he asked me for, which is across the bottom-left corner of the image reads:
“The greatest threat to Society is politicians who compromise our most basic principles in order to achieve a political advantage for themselves”
During an interview the Dalai Lama was asked what surprises him the most about humanity. His answer was profoundly insightful:
“Man surprised me most about humanity. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money.
Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”
NEWS FROM THE REFUGEE COUNCIL (from their monthly bulletin):
The review conducted by Philip Moss into the allegations relating to sexual and physical abuse of both children and adults at the Offshore Processing Centre in Nauru revealed a disturbing lack of protection for asylum seekers held in detention there. It uncovered multiple allegations of physical and sexual assault against asylum seekers (including children); noted that many asylum seekers detained on in Nauru were concerned about their personal safety and privacy; and found that there is underreporting of assaults against asylum seekers due to “family or cultural reasons”, fears that reporting assaults could negatively affect asylum claims or loss of confidence that anything would be done about their complaints. The Review also found that there was no evidence to substantiate the allegations of misconduct against the 10 Save the Children staff members who were removed from Nauru last year. In a statement, RCOA called on the Australian Government to act urgently to identify the relevant authorities and support the immediate and thorough investigation of sexual abuse and physical assault allegations on Nauru. RCOA President Phil Glendenning said that “it is not good enough for the Government to have one set of rules for how Australian institutions respond to child sexual abuse here and another set of rules for Australian-funded institutions on Nauru. A child is a child, and they deserve our greatest protection and care.” Read the full statement at http://www.refugeecouncil.org.au/?p=3220
I do not normally post other people’s writing on my blog. But this is important, and Max Costello agreed to let me publish this here. It’s worth reading:
Asylum seeker mistreatment – the criminal law perspective by Max Costello*
The Australian Human Rights Commission’s November 2014 Forgotten Children report, about Australia’s mistreatment of asylum seeker children in detention, exposed the international human rights law and “duty of care” breaches involved. The report’s focus was on breaches of civil law – that people can be sued for.
But, as this article explains, mistreatment of asylum seeker children (and adults) also involves the apparent commission of criminal law offences – that people can be prosecuted for – under Australia’s Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Cth) (“the WHS Act” or “the Act”).
The Act’s definition of a Commonwealth “workplace” (section 8) applies to each detention centre, offshore or onshore. Section 19 imposes a duty on all workplace operators to “ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable,” that not only “workers” (s.19(1)) but also “other persons” (s.19(2)) are not exposed to risks to their health and safety. At detention centres, those “other persons” are asylum seekers and their children. Section 4 defines “health” to include “psychological health”.
Comcare is the regulator that must ensure compliance with Act, including the s.19(2) duty. Non-compliance is a criminal offence, prosecutable by Comcare – with fines up to $3 million and jail for up to 5 years (sections 31–33). The Minster for Employment, Senator Eric Abetz, has responsibility for the Act and Comcare.
The systemic criminality of detention centre operation – that is, the ongoing failure to take practicable, effective risk-prevention measures to protect “other persons” – is almost self-evident from the following:
• The AHRC’s Forgotten Children report found that:–
(a) by March 2014, the children’s average time in detention was 231 days (p.20); and
(b) the longer the detention, the more harm to psychological health (pp.177, 211).
• There were 49 reported sexual assaults involving detention centre children during the two years ending 31 January 2015 – that’s almost one per fortnight. (Department of Immigration and Border Protection evidence, Senate Estimates Committee hearing, 23 February 2015: The Age, 24/2/2015.)
• The 2013–14 Annual Report of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (“the Department”) states at p.280 that 449 incidents of danger, serious illness/injury or (in 8 cases) death occurred at the Department’s workplaces Australia-wide – and, as required by the Act, Comcare was notified of all of them. Further, 374 of them (83 per cent) occurred at detention centres, but “did not directly involve workers”. In other words, they all did directly involve “other persons” – asylum seekers and their children.
• Who operates detention centres? The Commonwealth of Australia, via the Department. What sanctions has the Commonwealth faced? None.
According to Comcare’s 2012–13 Annual Report (at pp.182–3), seven detention centres were inspected but no breaches of the WHS Act were found, and so inspectors commenced no prosecutions. The 2013–14 Report likewise records (at pp.180–1) no detention centre prosecutions.
Contractors engaged by the Department provide most of the services at detention centres – but read the following sections of the Act.
10 Act binds the Commonwealth
(1) This Act binds the Commonwealth.
(2) The Commonwealth is liable for an offence against this Act.
14 Duties not transferrable
A duty cannot be transferred to another person.
272 No contracting out
A term of any agreement or contract that purports to exclude, limit or modify the operation of this Act or any duty owed under this Act or to transfer to another person any duty owed under this Act is void.
So much for the Act, and the Commonwealth’s record of systemic – and so far unpunished – criminality. Is anything changing? The most recent developments, with explanatory comments, are as follow:
• Reportedly (The Age, 21/2/2015), Philip Moss, former Commonwealth Commissioner for Law Enforcement Integrity, provided to the Department on 9 February 2015 his report on certain allegations of sexual and other assaults at Nauru in 2014.
Does the Moss report recommend that Comcare be required to do its detention centre job properly – and, if so, will the government follow through? Who knows? The report hasn’t been released, and the Department’s Minister, Peter Dutton, told the ABC’s Fran Kelly on 25 February 2015 that he hadn’t yet received it.
• According to The Age (26/2/2015) the Department referred allegations of assault, at Melbourne’s Maribyrnong detention centre, to police (but not Comcare); while the Commonwealth Ombudsman is investigating another case.
With assaults, a potentially relevant WHS Act offence is non-compliance with the duty, under section 19(3)(f), to make sure workers are given all necessary information, training, instruction and supervision, so as to ensure that the health and safety of “all persons” at a workplace is protected. So, did the Commonwealth at Maribyrnong fail to ensure effective supervision, and, if so, will either body charge the Commonwealth with a ‘breach of s.19(3)(f)’ offence? No: police won’t – they focus on individuals, not governments – and the Ombudsman can’t.
• According to the Guardian Australia (4/3/2015), “Child protection whistleblowers who alerted the AHRC to child sexual abuse, violence and self-harm on Nauru are being investigated by the Australian federal police. … [T]he AFP has been asked by the Department … to investigate … a suspected breach of section 70 of the Crimes Act, concerning ‘disclosure of information by commonwealth officers’ … ”.
How malevolent! While the current Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse treats whistleblowers with respect, the Department treats good people, who blow the whistle on the Commonwealth’s own lamentable institutional responses on Nauru, as if they (the whistleblowers) are the criminals.
In summary, in relation to asylum seekers and their children in detention centres, the Commonwealth government, led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, is at best going soft on – and at worst pro-actively protecting – its own ‘organised crime’ regime. The government should be ashamed of itself.
* Max Costello LLM is a former Victorian WorkCover Authority prosecutions solicitor and a former sessional lecturer in Employment Law at Melbourne’s RMIT University.
This letter was written after visiting an Iranian man in immigration detention. The writer has given permission for me to put it on this site. Identifying details have been masked:
“To Mr Peter Dutton and Ms Sarah Henderson,
Today my husband and I visited [AB] at [XYZ] Detention Centre. He had been moved from Manus Island just before Christmas after seeing a Melbourne neurological specialist there. The specialist said he needed to be moved to Melbourne to receive medical treatment.
[AB] is Iranian and was caught in the Feb 7th rampage where his best friend Reza was murdered. Another of his friends lost his eye, another was shot and still has a bullet in his back. [AB] himself was attacked by guards and local people. He was beaten around the head with a rod, lost several teeth and suffered acquired brain injury to the extent that he cannot remember anything about his life prior to this terrible day. He still has nightmares every night. He cannot walk properly and has poor balance and regularly falls over. His friends tell him about what happened at Manus before and on that day, and his brother in Iran tells him about his life back in Iran before he came to Manus. This is very distressing for him. He has had these problems for almost 12 months, and spent several weeks in Port Moresby Hospital after his head and face were wounded, but on Manus had NO medical treatment to speak of. And your government says Manus Island detainees are receiving all the attention they need!!!@@#$%^&?????
[AB]’s other 2 friends have been brought to the mainland for medical treatment also but all sent to different states, one in Sydney and the other in Adelaide if I remember correctly. So he cannot see them and talk to them about their plight, or to console each other.
The conditions on Manus are in his words very bad, even as compared with Maribyrnong in every way. In the intense heat there they had no air conditioning, the food, the guards, the cramped conditions where they slept, and the very low morale of all the people there. Have either of you, Sarah or Peter, been to Manus Island to see for yourself how you would like to live in these conditions for a day or a week, much less with all the emotional baggage these men have to carry with them as well. [AB] says his physical condition is not as bad his brain injury which he finds really disturbing. He cannot concentrate and sometimes cannot think of the words he wants to say. His friends tell him his English was very good before the attack, but not so now.
Any organisation that treated the people they were responsible for looking after, in this manner would be sued for negligence and lack of duty of care. I believe that the Australian government has a lot to answer for and I urge you to immediately organise an independent inquiry into conditions on Manus Island, and the medical treatment available. A major Crisis is about to happen or should I say is NOW happening, and there is not the infrastructure and medical facilities to cope even when there is not a crisis as in [AB]’s case.
We stayed and talked to [AB] for 2-3 hours. He is a very gentle and good living man, with wonderful simple values to love and care for your family and friends. He was so appreciative of our visit and didn’t want anything from us although we took him some food treats which hopefully he will be able to pick up from security tonight. He will not pronounce himself to belong to any religious body and this is a real problem for him in Iran. If you do not pronounce to be Muslim you will be shot.
It is obvious that the prolonged periods of detention, characterised by frustration, uncertainty and insecurity, are doing further damage to individuals who have fled grave human rights abuses. These people are easily tipped over the edge. You could feel it in the air in some of them today in the Visitors Centre. The detention policy has failed as a deterrent and succeeded only as punishment.
How much longer will these people be punished for seeking safety from persecution?
I urge you to think seriously about our government’s Immigration policy and act in a humane, compassionate and responsible manner. Asylum seekers are a global problem and we need to do our share. Spend some of the billions of dollars on restoring these people’s hope rather than destroying it.
Sincerely, [name and address withheld]”